by Jonathan Draper
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017

Anthony Woollard, editor of Signs of the Times. asked that I should let readers of Signs of the Times know a little bit about me and something of the vision I have for Modern Church as I begin my work as our General Secretary.

I have been in the ordained ministry of the Church of England for the best part of 35 years, serving in a variety of capacities (parish priest, theological educator, cathedrals) in a wide variety of places. This always seems surprising to me since I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and am really a Baptist boy from New Jersey, brought up as a very conservative evangelical.

But that was all a long time ago, as I arrived in the UK after my first degree to undertake post-graduate study at Durham University in 1976. I have lived and worked here ever since. My wife, Maggie, and I met at Durham. It was there (through conversations with Michael Ramsey) that I began to think about ordination. The journey from my fundamentalist days to being a proper liberal has been an interesting one…

In 1981 (when the PhD was mostly done) I started my training for ordination at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. There followed ordination and a brief but wonderful curacy in Manchester. In 1985 I went back to Cuddesdon to teach (doctrine) and stayed for seven happy years. During this time I was also a member of the Theology Faculty in Oxford University. From Cuddesdon I went to be Vicar of Putney in Southwark Diocese, where we stayed for eight years. A phone call from the Archbishop of York tempted us north again, and I served as Canon Theologian at York Minster for 12 years before moving in 2012 to Exeter to take up the post of Dean.

I have some ‘previous’, as they say, with Modern Church. In the early days of my ordained ministry, especially while in Manchester, Tony Dyson tempted me into going to conferences and setting up stalls trying to encourage people to join. I was quite active at the time, and even managed a few book reviews and an article. It was therefore the most serendipitous timing when the post of General Secretary came up when it did. While I have been a proper liberal throughout my ministry, not least in teaching roles in parishes or cathedrals or with the newly ordained, the chance to make a contribution to the wider church as General Secretary proved irresistible, and I am grateful for the opportunity (and trust) given me by the Trustees to work with you to do that.

When my wife and I were in Wittenberg a couple of months ago, we saw a wonderful, imaginative exhibition in Luther’s house. Part of that was a really surprising range of 95 people – everything was in 95s – influenced in one way or another by Luther’s thought, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Steve Jobs. Among them was the 19th century Danish educator and religious reformer NFS Grundvig. He wrestled (as all subsequent Lutherans do) with Luther’s legacy, and concluded that

‘I am not of the opinion that we should stick with what Martin Luther did 300 years ago, because only death remains fixed. Life is always in motion.’

Ours is a time when the motion of life is frantic and the swirling currents of human thought, belief, politics and culture are difficult to navigate. It is into those difficult waters that the navigation aids of critical thinking, honest exploration and open dialogue need to be brought, and Modern Church has an important part to play in that and is well placed to do it.
At its broadest, I have a vision for Modern Church as a major player in a coalition of progressive groups which is ecumenical, interfaith, international, and embraces the broad centre of all church traditions. I see Modern Church working with this coalition to promote an open and thoughtful faith: the kind of work for which Modern Church is rightly known. I also see Modern Church providing theological weight and substance in this coalition, and also opening the doors to a wide range of participation.

As part of its evolution, I see Modern Church widening its reach and deepening its impact through an active and engaging online presence and through really creative partnerships: stimulating thought, perhaps even pushing, dare I say even campaigning, to promote its positive and constructive contribution. Alongside Modern Church’s quality academic work, I believe we need to encourage new expressions of thoughtful faith through a strategic use of social media to engage new audiences and to enable new voices to be heard by a new generation.

Without losing the academic substance, Modern Church can add a dimension of engagement that doesn’t depend on papers and conferences alone: it can help build community – a community with its own life and momentum; a community fed by a coalition of thoughtful voices from around the world; a community that can help liberate people into taking responsibility for their own faith, something of which Martin Luther himself would have approved. I am thoroughly excited by the idea of working you and with others to help Modern Church do that.