by Helen Burnett
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017

Modern Church Conference is a much-needed annual theological tonic for many liberal-minded folk and the 2017 offering was no exception. Conference was at full capacity and we were glad to welcome newcomers to High Leigh along with two very able student helpers.

The conference, chaired by Prof Linda Woodhead and Revd Prof Jane Shaw, benefitted from a vibrant double act in which discussions, often stimulated by their joint response to speakers, and the dialogue the two brought to the subject. As friends and colleagues well used to using conversation as means of teaching and exploring ideas they brought a fresh dynamic to chairing the conference.

To kick start us into active participation Linda posed the question: ‘Which of the Godheads of the Trinity do we most identify with, God, Jesus or Spirit?’ e poll returned a fair balance across all three and so we were launched into our fine spread of speakers interspersed with panels and Q&A sessions.

The subject of how we define God was variously addressed using the numbers in the conference title and our opening afternoon brought us introductions by two names familiar to Modern Church members, Jonathan Clatworthy and Adrian Thatcher – Adrian addressing the Trinity and Jonathan outlining why humans need God and are constantly seeking new ways of speaking of God.

Tuesday was our full day and brought with it a focus on liturgy, David Stancliffe and Nicola Slee giving us their perspectives on current and potential praxis. Leaping onto the podium at four o’clock, the irrepressible Rachel Muers was the perfect antidote to the mid-afternoon trough that often creates somnolence on the conference floor. She threw down the gauntlet in response to previous speakers; in particular Linda’s question to conference about God/Jesus/Spirit. She challenged elements of Adrian’s paper regarding the social trinity, ultimately turning to Julian of Norwich to pursue the idea of love as the dynamic behind opting for a unity rather than community approach to Trinity.

Early evening brought some light relief with a lively conversation between our two authors Vincent Strudwick and Lorraine Cavanagh who read from, and discussed their new titles: The Naked God (Strudwick) and Waiting on the Word (Cavanagh). After dinner, Dominic Erdozain transported us into the pages of Dr Zhivago and the theology of Uncle Kolya. Segueing seamlessly into the English revolution, Dominic examined the work of Gerrard Winstanley, the ideas behind The Levellers, and the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza, finally using this period of history as an illuminating spectrum through which we could examine contemporary revelations of God.

The final morning brought us together for the Conference Eucharist when our chaplain Lorraine Cavanagh presided and Adrian Thatcher took to the keyboard with his inimitable style and flair for a jazz interpretation.
Finally, we addressed the ‘none’ in a paper given by Linda who made a last-minute change in her title from ‘Unknowing God’ to ‘Unlearning God’.

In a sometimes deeply personal contribution, Linda spoke of anxiety as the root of much that sends us off course, and drew for a large part on Hinduism and the Hindu revelation of God as found in multiple places, things and experiences. She spoke of God as both inside us and outside of us. Turning to recurring conference themes of no religion, spirituality and Trinity, she skilfully drew together the strands of the previous day’s discussions. I sensed that for many she took us to the heart of the title in the big question encapsulated in ‘none’.

As always conference gave us solid, nourishing food and a sense that actually the discussion had only just begun. Perhaps we had ended where we might have started, which begs the question should there be a follow up conference which acknowledges the courage of the members in their desire to push the boundaries of how we speak of God and give space for the ‘none’ and ‘many’ of the conference title?