by David James
from Signs of the Times No. 64 - Jan 2017

At the John Robinson Commemoration Day in Bristol in September 2013, we were reminded that Honest to God was rooted in Robinson’s ministry at St. Saviour’s and St Matthew's Moorfield, a severely deprived part of Bristol.

Some local people who came could remember Robinson and appreciated his ability to communicate faith in ways they could understand. Robinson became celebrated not only as an academic, but as pastor and teacher.

He wrote a further paperback called The New Reformation? If Honest to God explored and challenged long held perceptions of God, The New Reformation? addressed more practical matters of Church practice. Looking forward, the 500th anniversary of Luther's theses in 2017 offered an opportunity for a local conference where questions of concern arising from church life today could be discussed.

Three of us, David Driscoll, Paul Brett and David James had been meeting in various coffee shops in Bath to reflect on our own ministries. Our collective experience included years spent in social responsibility, innovative educational ministry and as a parish priest in urban areas. It was not surprising that our concerns were primarily about the church engaging the lives of ordinary people and their communities. Our conclusions were not optimistic and have been well rehearsed elsewhere. They resonated with much of what had been voiced at Modern Church Council.

There was a sense of alarm at an increasing remoteness in the ‘corridors of power’ and that this had happened so quickly. There was anecdotal evidence in abundance that people found it less easy to 'come in and out and find pasture', and that the Church bore responsibility for this more often than it should. A greater wish for control by 'the Centre', coupled with the management culture implicit in Renewal and Reform seemed to exacerbate this rather than alleviate it, and resulted in an even deeper sense of malaise. We did not have to look far to see 'vacancies in all departments'. 'Do we need a new Reformation?'

We had to be careful. Whenever older clergy get together there is a sense of 'Things ain't what they used to be'. Between us we could develop a fair head of steam on this one, but our concerns were more substantial. As things evolved 'Do we need a new Reformation?' became the title of the Conference held in Bath in October. It honoured Robinson, was sufficiently Modern Church, and bridged the gap nicely between the Commemoration Day and Luther's 2017 anniversary.

At this stage practicalities took over of necessity. More meaty fare was required. We moved from coffee houses to a pasty shop. There are many in Bath, but this one seemed to supply the authentic variety, as well as touristy novelties such as 'Chicken Balti' or 'Cheese and Onion'. We met amongst ordinary folk going about their regular daily business. It felt as if the conference was growing organically, evolving rather than being subject to a plan or a process.

Modern Church was never far away. We valued its life and support and appreciated recent enthusiastic Conferences and Councils, in particular Linda Woodhead's concern that the voice of liberal Christianity should be heard at the heart of the Church - with some urgency. Modern Church, we felt, could be an important forum in a 'post-Evangelical' church as early certainties became challenged when exposed to realities in modern living - and modern believing. There has to be more than a regular magazine, however erudite, and an Annual Conference, however stimulating. The need for a local group became more obvious.

In the course of long ministries, each of us had experience of being marginalised, so we agreed that, even if the Conference did not live up to expectation, we would continue to meet. We reflected on the stories of others who felt abandoned, or simply unable to connect with the more strident Church of our times. Ministry development initiatives such as the Edward King Institute Scheme have been supplanted by diocesan initiatives which are more performance based. This has been more recently highlighted in David Hoyle’s book, The Patterns of our Calling.

Pasties and tea became almost sacramental for us, sandwiched as they were between chaplaincy duties in Bath Abbey, the 3.30 at Lansdown racecourse and the anticipation of a much needed hip replacement. It was good to meet in a setting amongst ordinary people with much deeper concerns than ours, even if it did mean that we had to wait for a table, or move to another meeting place. From time to time we needed to be 'called to order' and address the question 'Do we need a new Reformation?'. Who was going to lead us as we explored that question?

We are not far from Wales in these parts. Its culture, natural beauty, language and rugby are easily accessible. As was Lorraine Cavanagh, who readily agreed to become our keynote speaker, and quickly picked up the organic way in which this conference had come about. We found another ally in Dr Mary Travis, a Bristol-based psychotherapist and Modern Church member who agreed to chair the Conference. She not only kept us to task but also ensured the Modern Church spirit was alive and well on the day.

The venue had obvious appeal. A visit to Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath suggested it might be a suitable. Bath is well known as a World Heritage site with a wide appeal because of its history, cultural attractions and social life. The city is also home to a fair proportion of folk who live on the margins of society through homelessness or addiction of one kind or another. Manvers Street was convenient because it is near the train and coach and because it has an extended ministry amongst this group of people. It provides a welcome and inclusive place for food, warmth and company and was more than happy to accommodate us reasonably. It was good that on the day, the 30 or so conference participants were not segregated off into a special are but accommodated in the main cafe alongside some regulars with quite acute special needs.

These are crucial times for liberals in the Church of England. The need for a strong voice at national level is matched by vacancies in all areas in more local forums. Most of all there is a pressing need to maintain the historic relationship between churches and the communities they serve. A Church which relies on a management culture, a simplistic interpretation of the Gospel and a shallow ecclesiology is ill-equipped to meet the complexities which arise from those communities and challenge its ministers.

A wise man once taught me that everything is a process. Preparing for the Bath conference modelled a way of organic growth, provided mutual support, sat lightly to formal church structures and offered a way for the future. Can this be a way of growing Modern Church? It can begin in a pasty shop near you.