Report on the South West Regional Day Conference, Saturday 12th May 2018, by Jonathan Draper
from Signs of the Times No. 70 - Jul 2018

Twenty members (and friends) of Modern Church met in Bath on Saturday 12th May to hear Bob Reiss talk about his book Sceptical Christianity (reviewed in Signs of the Times January 2017), and to discuss with him and each other a wide range of issues to do with articulating a credible faith today.

Bob took us through a bit of his own story, relating his theological development from Crusaders in the early days to being influenced by John Robinson and the interesting and creative theologians he encountered in Cambridge.

This included an interesting aside about how, at one point, Cambridge seemed to lead the theological debate in the Church of England, but also how much of that debate seems to have stopped today, with the Church of England retreating into a defensive and conservative place.

Along with giving us an insight into his own theological development, Bob also engaged with a number of theologians in his lecture (Keith Ward, John Macquarrie, John Hick, Maurice Wiles, Geoffrey Lampe and others) who helped to shape his answer to the question of whether or not God is ‘real’ (with Macquarrie: God is not a ‘being’ but a way of approaching what we encounter in the universe and Being itself).

We touched on the importance of having more teaching and discussion in churches about the nature, historical accuracy and use of the Bible We touched on the usefulness of ‘incarnation’ as a category for understanding the relationship of Jesus to God, and on the small subjects of salvation and life after death. Above all, Bob spoke about the need for honesty in our discussion of all this in open and respectful ways in the churches, virtues he showed in great abundance.

Participants spent time in smaller groups talking about the points Bob raised, then regathered for about 45 minutes of general discussion. Perhaps it was a sign of the average age as a group, but we did spend quite a bit of time talking about life after death, including an interesting discussion about so-called ‘near-death experiences’.

We talked about the apparent disconnect between church and society and how this might also relate to a lack of in-depth theological education among clergy (and bishops…). We talked about incarnation, and the need to understand God as a ‘felt reality’. We also talked about the need for all Christians to be comfortable with uncertainty and not always to be seeking definitive answers to questions (which are probably not possible anyway).

We didn’t, of course, come up with definitive answers ourselves, but we asked a lot of good questions, and Bob’s lecture stimulated us to a lively and well-informed discussion, ably chaired by Paul Brett.

The South West Group’s next meeting is a full day on Saturday 13th October when Stephen Parsons will lead a discussion on cults and the churches.