by Jonathan Clatworthy
This article first appeared on the Modern Church blog on Jonathan Clatworthy published more on this in our quarterly newsletter, Signs of the Times, in January 2010.

Given its name, Modern Church thinks it’s modern. But what does this mean? Is it a thing of the past?

We got the word ‘modern’ from an unlikely benefactor - Pope Pius X whose 1907 encyclical condemned as ‘modernists’ those Roman Catholics who developed their own ideas instead of just accepting what the Vatican taught. Modern Church had come into existence a few years earlier with the not-very-snappy name The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought.

Many Anglican catholics responded to the Pope by proudly calling themselves modernists. By way of including them we became The Modern Churchmen’s Union in the 1920s. You can see what’s going to happen next. By the 1980s an organisation of ‘modern churchmen’ seemed anything but modern. ‘Churchmen’ became ‘Churchpeople’. However Modern Churchpeople’s Union is not a term that easily trips off the tongue, so in 2010 we chopped our name in half.

Should we have dropped the word ‘modern’? We agonised about this for a good few years. For some the word evokes the modernist movements of the 1920s and 1930s, especially in art and architecture. Others associate it with the old expectation that scientists would produce total knowledge of the universe; by the 1920s leading physicists had already undermined the idea, but it remained popular elsewhere. Even chess had a ‘modernist’ movement, expecting the game to be ‘solved’ so that experts could work out the best move at every position. They were wrong, but the popularity of the idea witnesses to the mood of the age: the 1920s were going to find the answers and solve the problems that had eluded previous ages. 

Cartoon in the Literary Digest, 25 July 1925 depicting evolution from monkeys

Modernism in theology also had its heyday at that time. The debates with fundamentalists culminated in the 1925 Scopes trial over teaching evolution in USA schools. In theology, however, modernism was on the other side of the debate. It was Pope Pius who claimed to have all the answers, as divinely revealed truths imparted by God to the Catholic Church, and condemned as ‘modernists’ the people who wanted to think for themselves and develop new ideas. The theological modernists, far from wanting to establish a new set of norms and certainties, were reacting against the old ones and demanding a proper place for open-ended development informed by new insights.

Later, along came postmodernism with its telling critiques of modern society. This movement now seems to have gone in different directions. The word ‘postmodern’ just means ‘after modern’; so some seek to build on modernism and take it to new levels while others want to repudiate it completely. The repudiating has been popular among those theologians who delightedly proclaim that miracles and divine revelation cannot after all be disproved by science. 

Despite these challenges Modern Church remains modern in the same sense as society remains modern. When politicians use the rhetoric of ‘modernising’ they can safely assume that everyone will agree on the need to modernise things. We don’t want to be out of date. We want to know about, and make good use of, the latest discoveries, the latest technologies, the latest principles for best practice.

If there is one belief that is central to Modern Church’s tradition, it is that Christianity should be like this. In 1907 when the Pope denounced ‘modernists’ for appealing to new ideas instead of defending the old, inherited revelation, he was rejecting the modern spirit that we take for granted today. We were right to argue for a more open, developing, ‘modern’ Christianity.