At the annual meeting of the Modern Church Council in March, Prof Elaine Graham, Grosvenor Research Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester and Canon Theologian at Chester Cathedral, led a stimulating session on the changing face of faith in the public sphere.

The paper she presented, entitled Between a rock and a hard place: Negotiating religious voices in public places, drew on three case studies to examine what happens when religion erupts into public life and onto our streets, public buildings and our news media:

  1. (Not) Coming to a Cinema near you - the Church of England #JustPray advert banned from screening in cinemas before the latest Star Wars film in November 2015.
  2. Charlie, qui est-il? The public displays of solidarity with the victims of the shootings at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015, notably the social media hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and the defence of free speech used to justify the provocative publication, and to oppose any show of religious allegiance in public, including the wear­ing of religious clothing or symbolism.
  3. Sunday Assembly - the rise of so-called ‘godless congregations’ such as the Sunday Assembly, started in early 2013 by two British comedians, which has now become a global movement, illustrated in this Guardian podcast ‘The godless church and the atheists taking the US by storm'. The Sunday Assembly describes itself as 'a secular congregation that celebrates life'.

Professor Graham argues that:

The rise of militant Islamism, the growth of non-affiliated spiritualities and so-called ‘godless congregations’, together with the marked discomfort towards expressions of religion in public, all reveal significant aspects of the shifting and convoluted fault-lines between religion and secularism.

Her case studies both illustrate these tensions and reveal continuing interest in spirituality and the sacred, accompanied by a growing religious illiteracy which leaves people unable to judge between what is ‘good’ religion and what is ‘bad’.

We find ourselves 'between a rock and a hard place' – between the re-emergence of religion on the one hand and continuing resistance to its presence in public. This unprecedented co-existence of the sacred and the secular is why I don’t think of our current situation as merely a religious revival but as something quite novel and distinct. It is clear that against many expectations, religion has not vanished from Western culture. If anything, it exercises a greater fascination than ever before.

She concludes by calling for a new practice of Christian apologetics, 'a creative and proactive engagement with our culture' as a form of public theology. Drawing on examples from the New Testament of how effective preaching involves:

beginning from the world-view of one’s dialogue partner, with an ability to be almost ‘bilingual’ in terms of speaking about the Gospel but in terms accessible and comprehensible to one’s audience, which may change according to context.

This is more than the understanding in contemporary theology of apologetics, which has fallen from favour, and has become

the exclusive province of mainly North American Protestant Evangelical theologians, referring to rational propositional argument that is intended to lead to conversion.

She argues:

Christians today need an entirely different paradigm for their apologetics... our contemporary age seems to carry particular challenges, in which religion is both a clear and present reality in the world and yet proves troublesome and alien to many people.

This approach, she continues, is

embedded in the very DNA of liberal Christianity – in a determination to read ‘the signs of the times’ in secular culture as well as Christian tradition, and of seeking new ways of building the bridges between contemporary world-views and the heritage of faith.

It calls for 'a public vocation that is more interested in the well-being of the human family than winning an argument.'

It respects our common places of pluralism and encounter. It is an attempt to find common cause in practices of accountability that don’t seek to privilege or defend Christian supremacy, but are a means of participating in God’s mission in deed and word. This is apologetics not as a weapon of conversion, but a gesture of solidarity and reconciliation.

It will require Church leaders to put renewed energy into basic Christian catechesis and adult formation 'so that ordinary Christians are better equipped to exercise that task of "speaking Christian" with confidence' - brushing up on their own theological literacy by equippinng them with knowledge and teaching, the ability to put them into language non-Christian people can understand, and the ability to see their practical relevance.

Prof Graham defines this new apologetics as

the testimony – in word and deed – to the presence of God in the world, addressed to the world. That’s always a public theology: one that is open to public scrutiny – bilingual, rooted in but not confined to, a particular heritage of faith.

Through a series of questions, Prof Graham asked what kind of response the Church, and groups such as Modern Church, should be making, including:

  • What kinds of Christian education and formation will be fit for purpose for ‘learning to speak Christian’?
  • Where are the common cultural and political spaces in which these kinds of conversations can take place?
  • How can groups like Modern Church cultivate an inclusive and civil space in which concerns about religion in public life can be debated?
  • What might the praxis of apologetic presence in society – public engagement – look like?