Editorial by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times No. 65 - Apr 2017


Many of us were brought up on the historical myth of the Dark Ages.

Around the fifth century of our era, we were taught, Roman civilisation (in the West at least) collapsed under its own weight and the onslaught of ‘barbarians’ from the east and north - weakened also, perhaps, by the doctrines of the ‘pale Galilean’[1] replacing the bracing militarism of empire. Yet it was the followers of that Galilean, especially monks, who kept culture alive in isolated enclosures, and gradually converted and civilised the barbarians, preparing the way for the flowering of the Middle Ages.

Like all myths, no doubt, this contained some truth. Certainly much of Europe became rather more chaotic than it had been at the height of the Roman imperium. And Christian monks and scholars certainly played a vital role in preserving and developing culture. But we now know that the traditional picture was over-simplified. The so-called barbarians have turned out to be rather more cultured, though hardly less violent, than previous generations had realised. Graeco-Roman culture, which in any case had its own heart of darkness, did not disappear completely, and it was not only the monks who helped preserve what was left, though they certainly built the foundations for the Christendom to come.

Perhaps we are entering a new dark age. The Russian bear rises again, and other powers, from the Middle East to China, seem likely to demonstrate frighteningly unpredictable hegemony. Europe and the USA seem to be descending into chaos, with the growth of a populist and xenophobic sensibility which we have not seen since the 1930s. Some commentators have suggested we are seeing nothing less than the death of a certain kind of liberalism: the belief in democracy as a core principle, and the hope that improvements in education would lead voters to support a broad consensus of values including anti-racism, anti-sexism and an opposition to narrow nationalism and religious/cultural imperialism.

We may wonder whether the only response is to hunker down, as those monks allegedly did, in reasonably secure enclaves (until the Vikings come as they came to Lindisfarne), in the hope and prayer that, when the storm is past, the world may again be ready to receive the values we have sought to defend. Even within the Church, some of us liberals may feel quite as beleaguered as those old monks.

Or is it all an over-simplification? Do those who are with us, perhaps in surprising places, still outnumber those who are against us? Here is one straw in the wind from a key battleground within the Church itself. A town parish in a conservative evangelical heartland, under the patronage of a church society of that tradition, recently declared itself ‘open and inclusive’ and told its patrons to get lost when they sought to influence the appointment of a new incumbent. Extraordinarily, its parish profile revealed that a number of PCC members were in same-sex relationships and expected any new incumbent to respect that fact. The outcome of this dramatic act is unknown at the time of writing; and, in any case, one swallow does not make a summer. But it should give us cause to think, especially when so dramatically followed by the defeat in General Synod of a seemingly innocuous ‘take note’ motion on the Bishops’ all too conservative report on marriage and same-sex relationships.

Counter to that, it seemed at the time, was the initial appointment to the Diocese of Sheffield of a Bishop apparently committed to non-recognition of the orders of women - who constitute around one-third of the parochial clergy there. Modern Church and partner organisations such as WATCH were much exercised by this. Then he withdrew at the eleventh hour, with a degree of integrity which we must surely respect, acknowledging the concerns of those in the Sheffield Diocese, and possibly influenced by our campaign. There was and is, in the dialogue which continues about this unhappy episode, both evidence of grace and at times something less than grace. But who knows what work of the Spirit may be going on here, as in that parish and that Synod decision?

A ‘Dark Ages’ response may nevertheless be entirely appropriate in some cases. The little platoons which make up an organisation like Modern Church must necessarily spend time nourishing their values within the darkness around. If we do feel the need at times to huddle together, and even indulge in a little nostalgia, there may be no shame in that. We are told that the Kingdom of God is like a householder bringing forth from her treasure things new and old - and some of the old values of Christian liberality seem in danger of being swept away at the moment. If parts of this edition have a slightly backward-looking flavour, with Rosalind Lund’s obituary for Joan Dorrell and Humphrey Prideaux’s anniversary sermon, I make no apology; reflection on our personal and collective pasts is no bad thing. Yet we live by hope, looking forward at least as much as backward, and Modern Church’s Council strongly reaffirmed that at its annual residential meeting in March.

Brenda Watson’s article below reminds us that attention to reason, to which we are utterly committed, is not by any means the same as rationalism, and suggests that that confusion may have hampered our mission. Lorraine Cavanagh, in her keynote address to Council as Acting General Secretary (an appointment which Council confirmed up until the AGM), gave a similar message in her call to ‘reclaim the soul of Modern Church’. Part of her address was a reminder about the danger of ‘isms’. There is such a thing as dogmatic ‘liberal-ism’ - a rather rationalist, and in the narrowest sense modernist, understanding of the Gospel which was evident in some quarters in Modern Church’s early days - which we need to go beyond if we are to respond effectively to the challenge of promoting the Gospel in a dark age. She saw true Christian liberalism as a style of doing theology and spirituality, a radical openness opposed to fundamentalism in all its forms, rather than a substantive set of dogmas (e.g. ‘the Virgin Birth did not happen’), which can creep into liberals’ thinking in our legitimate pursuit of that openness, and which feed the caricature of our position many of our interlocutors in the Church hold, from the Radical Orthodox to the Conservative Evangelicals. This message, together with her call to link the work of the intellect more closely to that of the spirit, gave us a lot to think about.

For what it is worth, I hold no brief for belief in the Virgin Birth, and consider what happened at the first Easter is an ineffable mystery going far beyond the simplistic picture of a body emerging from a tomb (David Jenkins’ ‘conjuring trick with bones’), and that the rather confused traditional ideas of life beyond death may raise more questions than they resolve. I puzzle, even, about the very concept (or concepts) of God, though I look forward to illumination on that score from this year’s Annual Conference. I suspect I am far from alone in these positions, and I believe that they open possibilities to seekers after truth which a more traditional theology (let alone a fundamentalist one) closes off. But I also believe that it would be wrong to take a dogmatic stand on such positions. And in that too, I suspect, I am far from alone. We need constantly to allow ourselves to be questioned by the tradition, to acknowledge the partial validity of the caricatures of us held by our interlocutors, and to recognise the need to go beyond them - because God, however we understand God, is always greater than our ‘little systems’. The occasional ‘cabarets’ at Annual Conferences have given us an opportunity to laugh, not least at ourselves - yes, even amidst the darkness around - and it was Harry Williams who said that laughter was one of the truest foretastes of Heaven.

‘If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who can prepare themselves for battle?’ That is the perennial cry of the fundamentalists and crypto-fundamentalists, and we must not be seduced by it into dogmatically foreclosing our continued search for truth. Yet we also need to acknowledge that it has some validity, and poses a question to us. Lorraine and others such as Martyn Percy in that marvellous 2014 Annual Conference, and Guy Elsmore in past editions of this newsletter and on our blog, have reminded us that we do have a Gospel to proclaim, and we must proclaim it. If the world ever needed it, it needs it now, in this age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’. Can we believe in a faith which involves living with questions - the faith to which David Jenkins and others of our sources of inspiration were so committed? Can we live out our beliefs, build a Church that represents those beliefs, and invite others to join us? In the words of a very recent US president, YES WE CAN!

Council asked, therefore, in the light of Lorraine’s presentation, exactly what Modern Church is for. This question is posed acutely in the context of a new initiative, involving some of our most distinguished members, to create some sort of alliance between the various Anglican groupings who wish to reclaim the centre ground of our Church which seems in danger of being lost. (The title ‘Broadchurch’ has inevitably been mooted for this, and some of us wish that we had thought of that for Modern Church, and claimed David Tennant and Olivia Colman as patrons! Well, who knows...) Some such bodies, at least, do exist to promote ‘isms’; the role of those representing open catholicism and open evangelicalism needs to be considered in these times when the ‘closed’ versions of both ‘isms’ are being promoted by so many in such damaging ways. And, yes, there may be such a thing as liberal-ism which is in our DNA and which we cannot and must not wholly disown. But we agreed we were not there to promote an ‘ism’, but, perhaps above all. to provide an intellectual and spiritual safe space in which faith can be openly explored (though ‘safe’ does not mean avoiding the obligation to challenge where necessary), which will attract younger people, the many who claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’, and those who have a background in those closed ‘isms’ who feel the need to grow beyond them. The worship at our meeting reflected this in a particularly moving way.

What then must we do? Council was clear that we have to invest more money from our (significant but not infinite) reserves in our work, including the appointment of a paid part-time officer, working with elected officers, with our other paid staff who do such magnificent work, and with the members themselves, to enable more activism than has been possible in the recent past. We identified areas such as the encouraging regional groupings and day conferences, and contact with theological education and training institutions, if we are to reach those whom we are not reaching at present. The Dark Age requires something like this, though some expressed a number of cautions about the risk of such a step-change in our organisation’s way of working and our finances. Council affirmed that our elected officers could proceed as quickly as possible, taking all the comments on board, to make a suitable appointment.

If we need to be pour more resources into action, however, that must not mean some sort of headless-chicken activity in which we neglect to learn how to ‘be’ spiritually in this new world. In fact it very much includes such spirituality, as Lorraine reminded us in her address to Council. The proposed Modern Church course, introducing the Christian faith from a liberal perspective, could be one key to this, and we should bend our efforts to its development, as well as to such other initiatives such as regional groups and day conferences. But the challenge goes further; what, Lorraine asked, would it mean for us to be seen as a community of worship and spirituality as well as thought and action?

We need to make fuller use of the talents of all our members, and the energy of the proposed new member of staff, to put ourselves out there more prominently, and address the prejudices which see our work as at best an irrelevance. Other voices in the Church, let alone in the media and elsewhere, are active and often strident, and we need to become a more respected voice in the ongoing dialogue about faith in the Dark Age.

Maybe, however, we should be careful to avoid imitating the stridency of others; I find it interesting that two of the books reviewed in this edition take up the theme of silence and the quiet influence of Quakerism, whilst a third explicitly links local activism and spirituality. If we are called to be as wise (and actively challenging) as serpents, we are also called to be as gentle and harmless as doves, and recognise (as I suggested earlier) that the Spirit may be at work in unlikely places.

A reminder finally - though members should find a flyer in this mailing - of the Annual General meeting of Modern Church at 2.15pm on Tuesday 11th July, at High Leigh Conference Centre during our Annual Conference. The AGM receives the Trustees’ report and accounts, and elects one-third, each year, of the members of Council who in turn annually elect the Trustees. Members of Modern Church are urged to attend and vote, even if they are not coming to the Conference itself. We may or may not be living in a new Dark Age, but, as will be clear from the above, we live in interesting times. And, if there is to be any safe space for both healing and challenge, this Conference will certainly help to provide it.


[1] ‘Hymn to Proserpine’ by Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1866, addressed to the goddess Proserpina, lamenting the rise of Christianity for displacing the pagan goddess and her pantheon.