Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 59 - Oct 2015
Our annual conference on ‘Seeking the Sacred’ in an interfaith context took place under the dark shadow of the late June atrocities by Islamist militants in Tunisia and elsewhere.
Even so, there was much to celebrate by way of common ground - perhaps especially with our Sikh brothers and sisters who made some notable contributions - and the worship, whilst at all times firmly based in Christian tradition, drew deeply from wells of Hinduism and Sufism. The account of the conference by Julian Wood - a new and younger participant - is especially welcome and gives an excellent flavour of proceedings.
With such issues at stake, relevant to the future of humanity across the world, it seems almost embarrassing to focus yet again on the internal debates within the Church of England which have dominated the past couple of issues of this newsletter. But those debates are important - especially at a time of General Synod elections - because our Church will only be fit to play its part in the rich tapestry of world religious traditions if it can itself achieve some greater measure of health, both spiritual and organisational. And if it is obsessed with rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, its potential contribution will be compromised.
In that still very funny novel Cold Comfort Farm, the well-named Aunt Ada Doom is constantly driven mad afresh by her memory of seeing ‘something nasty in the woodshed’. It has sometimes seemed as if our Church leadership is far better at seeing nasty things than nice ones. Yes, it is a legitimate cause for concern that active church membership continues to decline, and not least amongst younger generations. But we have been here before. At the end of the eighteenth century, the spiritual state of the Church was truly parlous, even if its social status seemed healthier than today. Famously, Thomas Arnold declared: ‘The Church, as it now stands, no human power can save’.
Looking at the extraordinary impact, in subsequent years, of the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement - and, just a little later, the liberalism from which sprang the Modern Churchmen’s Union (now known as Modern Church) - we might agree that it was indeed no human power that saved the Church. Certainly it was no centralised bureaucratic intervention. The one initiative which was promoted from the centre - the use of Ecclesiastical Commissioners and Queen Anne’s Bounty money to build new churches in urban areas - may actually have made things worse, in creating the ‘empty-church syndrome’ on which Robin Gill has written. What really saved the Church was surely the movement of the Spirit and the response of faithful individuals and groups at the grassroots. That can happen again. But it probably will not tick the boxes in archdeacons’ questionnaires, any more than it would have done in the early and mid 19th century.
Lorraine Cavanagh picks up that theme, principally as it relates to the Church in Wales. I particularly welcome her recognition that the Church needs to be energised from outside the boundaries of its active membership - and wonder whether, in the light of our conference, members of other faith communities might be amongst those who stir up the Spirit in us. But the Church in Wales, in particular, has some remarkable resources within its own history, to which we all owe a debt. And I trust that its leaders (including one of our Vice-Presidents) will never forget that they stand on the shoulders of such as R S Thomas and Jim Cotter, neither of whom would have fitted neatly into managerialist reforms.
We hear too from Jean Mayland, who in the first part of a two-part paper analyses the increasing tendency in parts of the Church to direct worship and prayer to, rather than through, Jesus. Tim Belben’s article also, written in the light of the publicity given to calls from Christian feminists to abandon the exclusive use of the masculine pronoun, reminds us how difficult it is to talk of God. Such questions may not seem to have very much to do with the theme – but I believe that there is a connection, and one which liberals would do well to ponder.
The initiatives from the centre of the C of E, however much they may claim to be above ‘party’, are driven by an ascendant charismatic/evangelical theology. They are explicitly about putting Jesus back at the centre of the nation’s life. Liberals - and not least liberals who have recently attended an interfaith conference - might want to raise questions here. Christianity is certainly centred on Jesus of Nazareth, as viewed through the traditions of faith; but how exclusive should that focus be? We spend much time worrying, as Jean does, what ideas like ‘Son of God’ might mean today. But, even if we believe (with John Robinson) that Jesus ‘brings God absolutely’, does that exhaust the mystery we call God, any more than traditional (generally masculine) God-talk itself does? Is not that even more contested doctrine, the Trinity, precisely a safeguard against the cosy and exclusive Jesus-and-me faith of some of our co-religionists, and a reminder that their God may be too small?
It is ironic that the liberals currently seem to be acting as the true conservatives – wanting to preserve and build on the breadth and richness of traditional Anglicanism rather than see it swept up in a form of sectarianism. I have wondered why this might be so. Occasionally, a nasty little evangelical voice in my head says ‘You love the Church and its traditions so much because you don’t really believe in the God of Scripture, and you are using tradition as a substitute’. My liberal self acknowledges that there may be a tiny bit of truth in this, but it is by no means the whole truth, and it most certainly does not apply to someone like Martyn Percy who led our conference on spirituality so powerfully last year (see the July 2015 edition of Modern Believing). My catholic self insists, with the authors of For The Parish, that the mysteries of God are mediated through fleshly human forms, and that, though these must never be allowed to become idols, they cannot just be thrown aside without immeasurable loss. In fact, of course, those of us who hold onto certain key elements of church tradition are precisely the ones who can afford to be more radical about such matters as new approaches to ordained ministry, on which the Reform and Renewal programme is remarkably conservative.
So, if we don’t fully buy into Reform and Renewal - if we want to criticise its underlying theology - what alternative have we to offer? We are not wholly unanimous amongst ourselves about the use of Jesus-language, or Church-language, still less sacrament- or priesthood-language, though I would argue that these are all very valuable if rightly understood. What we do agree on, surely, is that Jesus is somehow the key to ultimate Mystery (without claiming that others have no access at all to that), and that his followers are called to keep the story of Jesus alive, to ensure that (as John Austin Baker put it) the world will keep on barking its shins against that story. Some of us might go beyond that, and use expressions about the Church such as representative priesthood. As the last issue argued, not all our fellow citizens are called or chosen for such a mission. But we believe that we are and that our breadth of understanding truly embodies the best of Anglican tradition, in a way more liberating than any sectarian alternatives. And we do want to share it as widely as possible, in worship and action, across our nation, and we do want to ensure that the Church is sufficiently well run to enable that to happen. But our God - as we call the Mystery - is too big to allow us to follow the doom-sayers into repeating the gloomy prognostications of those who see our Church dying out within a generation (something that was previously predicted a generation ago). ‘Keep calm and carry on’ was not a bad slogan in wartime, and it is not a bad slogan now. Mission in panic mode is faithless mission. We liberals, actually, are the true people of faith, and hope, and love - the mission of God.
And, to conclude as I concluded my last editorial, we must acknowledge the part played in that mission by those who have helped to make Modern Church what it is today. Our Annual General Meeting - itself a fine example of keeping calm and carrying on, after the drama of recent years - was delighted to honour one of our longest-serving members and activists, Joan Dorrell, as a new Vice-President, and the Council meeting which followed it was similarly delighted to welcome a more recently influential member, Adrian Thatcher, as a Trustee.