We live in strange times. Who would have thought that Modern Church – founded at the end of the 19th century (1898) – would be a champion of progressive orthodoxy in the first decades of the 21st century? I might have taken a flutter on the odds. Indeed, I said so in 1998 when the Modern Churchpeople’s Union celebrated its centenary, for what was very clear at the end of the twentieth century was this.
First, most who identified with the Union were passionate about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, but were wary of those (to quote Sidney Carter, the hymn-writer) claimed the Copyright on Christ. Second, the Union had, and continues to have, a strong record of championing social justice. Third, the Union is morally and socially progressive, whilst also being exponents of theologies that model ‘generous orthodoxy’. The Union believes that Christians have greater integrity and authenticity if they can discern the signs of the times, affirming what they should, and critiquing that which is contrary to the common good.
Those who founded the society in 1898 as the Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought sought to defend the tolerant ‘middle-ground’ within the Church of England. Back then, the respective wings of Anglo-Catholicism (anti-progressive) and Evangelicalism (anti-rational) were dominant. To some extent, they still are.
However, this new society understood itself as a mediating influence – but not between the competing wings of the church. The Union mediated between tradition and truth; religion and society; faith and reason; church and world. In that sense, the Union was always missional, seeking to explore and explain Christian faith within the modern world.
The Union was also evangelistic. From the outset, it defended the integrity of being a Bible-believing Christian and accepting evolution. Engaging critically with scripture was no longer dissent, let alone heresy. The good news of Christian faith is that it is sufficiently robust and truthful to cope with questions.
For that, of course, it was labelled ‘liberal’. Some of its explorations and writings did generate significant debate. Indeed, so much so that the Church of England even set up a Doctrine Commission to investigate it, only to produce a report in 1938 vindicating the views expressed. (It is hard to imagine this happening now).
The lazy labelling of decent progressive values as ‘liberal’ is one of those tricks that the establishment regularly pulls off with disarming ease. The Union promoted the ordination of women from the 1920s. But this was apparently some crazy liberal fad.
During the 20th century the Union was at the forefront of campaigns for contraception, remarriage after divorce, gender equality, civil rights, the abolition of capital punishment, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the consecration of women bishops. Once again, this was supposedly wacky liberals taking over. (Establishment warnings are duly issued. NB: they’ll be talking about climate change, migrants and poverty next!).
The irony for the Church of England today is that the tables have turned. Most of our Evangelical Bishops and the few remaining Anglo-Catholic Bishops left spend too much of their time defending the church through endless re-branding, strategizing, PR exercises and reputational-management. The public, of course, buy none of this stuff. They are not fooled by the latest sales and marketing patois that drips off the pages of last week’s Mission Action Plan.
In contrast, and yes, more irony, you are far more likely to find the Union being the place where the church and world are being urged to turn and face Jesus and the Kingdom of God Project Christ practised and proclaimed being ushered in. Likewise, to turn and face the world, with all its pain and precarious future. Likewise, to hear the call for the church to re-turn to being the body of Christ. To be as Jesus, the body language of God; the verb of God made flesh.
We usually think of someone or something ‘precarious’ as being in a bad position, or stuck within a situation of risk or danger; of facing daunting hazards or uncertain futures. But the word has a rather richer meaning. It is a legal term dating from the mid-17th century, meaning “to be held through the favour of another”; “depending on the good will of others”, and even an “entreaty” that might be obtained by “asking or praying”.
Looked at this way, a precarious church is no bad thing, and in virtually all respects, highly desirable. A kenotic church that empties itself of pride, status and position is precarious. Just as Christ’s birth, life and ministry were inherently precarious. His kingdom-work drew on the hospitality and kindness of others. Jesus modelled reciprocity and co-dependency. He spoke, but also listened. He gave, but also knew how to receive. He ministered, and yet was entirely open to being helped by the ministry of others.
Christ’s birth, life and ministry are inherently precarious. His kingdom-work draws on the favour, hospitality and kindness of others. His miracles and parables speak into the precarious human condition, but they don’t suggest we can escape it. God is with us wherever we are: Emmanuel. The church is on the side of the poor. It is not called to make us rich.
In the Land of Exile in which the church now lives, faith communities are not the occupied territories as some would have us believe, such that the most urgent task is to expel the alien, stranger, invader or settler, returning it into a members-only club. Rather, the church has been steadily displaced, losing its power and privilege in public life over the last three centuries.
And yet the church was always meant to be ‘occupied’. That was and is the original calling for the disciples. The church is meant to be as fully occupied with God as it can possibly be: Christ-like, and filled with the Spirit. And, like Jesus, as fully occupied with the pains, needs and concerns of the world, as Christ’s own ministry demonstrated.
Our problem as a church today is that we have become pre-occupied with size, reputation, success or survival. Yet God only asks us to look towards Christ, and then turn to the world. The church of today just looks at itself in the mirror (hoping for some signs of renewed youth, vigour and good looks). We stare in vain, for it is vanity. Our true condition is being covered up with the latest application of ecclesial cosmetics, and layer-upon-layer of missional make-up.
The church only has three tasks in the 21st century, and they are the same tasks it was given in the 1st century. The church – saving it, or even its survival – recedes as a calling, let alone being any kind of priority. We are not here to recruit more members or followers. We are here to become as much like Jesus as possible, and accept and inhabit whatever flows from that. It might be popularity, but probably won’t be (and we shouldn’t bank on it anyway). It is likely to be a poor rate of return for unrequited love and service.
Remember, ten lepers get healed. Only one turns back to say “thanks”. None, not even that grateful one, joins a church, home group or Alpha course. And nobody in the gospels becomes a Christian.
These are all obvious things to say. But somehow our church leaders can’t speak such simple truths anymore. Simone Weil had something to say about the relationship between truth and tradition, and her words are as cogent as ever:
“For it seemed to me certain, and I still think so today, that one can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms”.
Truth is what Jesus draws us to. Truth is all that matters. Truth is Jesus.
There are many good reasons for the Union to continue in its work. The truths and progressive values it espouses are not ones that members chose because they somehow suited them. Eternal values and truths have to be discovered, and once found, they hold us to account – for we must serve them.
The ‘truth-decay’ that many of our church leaders currently suffer from is a direct result of putting reputation before reality; cosmetic appearance before the crucified Christ; with growth and success elevated above our call to be a people of fearless care, enduring kindness and pastoral authenticity.
When the pursuit of our ecclesial self-image is allowed to displace incarnational integrity, we need prophets, dissenters and activists to return the church to its primary calling. It can only retrieve it identity and faithfulness by looking to Jesus, and then by turning to the world for service and love. The irony of our age is that those who were once-upon-a-time dissenters and non-conformists are now comprise much of the leadership within the establishment.
A genuinely precarious church is a precious thing. We need to earn the trust of the world; to learn to depend on the good will and favour of those who are not our followers or members, but nonetheless cherish what we can offer.
The open church is reciprocal, relational and reliable. The closed one is arrogant, self-serving and self-absorbed. In trying to secure its future and save itself, it will end up saving no-one, and securing nothing, save only its end.
Theologians never begin with a blank page, or a pure moment of revelation. All theologians have to work with and work on is mediated. This is a central tenet of Christianity is: God amongst us, taking our flesh. Jesus is Jewish, Galilean and Palestinian. He was born and raised in specific times and ministers in diverse places. Jesus is a dweller in occupied territories. He is an educated Rabbi.
As Alec Vidler noted some 65 years ago, the liberal vocation, faithfully exercised, is both humbling and reconciling. It believes that no party, school of thought or phase of orthodoxy is ever as right as its protagonists presume.
For Vidler, Christians had much more in common both in frailty and strength, and in falsehood and truth, than the makers of political systems and religious sects would usually acknowledge. For Vidler, liberals were called to be free from their own narrow prejudices, generous in judging others and open-minded – especially in the reception of new ideas or proposals for reform. For Vidler, ‘liberal’ was not the opposite of ‘conservative’, but simply contrary to being fanatical, bigoted or intransigent: generous orthodoxy.
The kind of progressive faith that the Union has modelled and stood for over the course of 125 years recognises that imperialistic or patronising approaches to the different faiths and beliefs of others have no part in an authentic liberal mind and heart. That is not because liberals believe that all beliefs are equal. They are not. Liberals are not relativists.
Like other liberal religious and political groups, progressive Christians have their reasons for renouncing racism, sexism, and antisemitism. Authentic liberalism is discriminating, but it is also characterised by a generosity founded on the incomprehensible capaciousness of God, so is pre-programmed to be open to otherness (especially those who are oppressed, and denied equality or normativity).
As such, because liberalism is rooted in awe and humility, the humble spirit does not lead to relativity, but rather to deep respect of the other, and their inherent equality and value before God. So, it can perhaps afford at once to be both confident yet circumspect, definable yet open, certain, yet on friendly terms with faithful doubt. In other words, it takes us to a place where we might more readily acknowledge the oft-quoted words from The Cloud of Unknowing: “By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought and understanding, never”.
We live in strange times. We need this Union more than ever to help keep the church open – to the world, new ideas, fresh truths, authentic change and radical reform. And free from narcissism and self-delusion. Aopen to God too, who even now, is beyond the church, beckoning us welcome the Spirit and become the body of Christ in our age, and in the ages to come.
No Christian possess the truth. The truth of Christ possesses us. The irony of our age is that the Union now stands for firm-faith-filled dissent, discerning generous orthodoxy, prescient honesty and authentic integrity. It is profoundly, prophetically and progressively pro-Jesus – and against the status quo. It always was. Long may this continue.
The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy is an Honorary Vice-President of MCU. He was Principal of Cuddesdon for ten years from 2004, and appointed Dean of Christ Church Oxford in 2014.