Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 38 - Jul 2010

Rowan Williams is a very embattled man.

Jonathan Clatworthy's first article in this edition refers to the way he is handling the so-called crisis created by the US Episcopal Church's consecration of a partnered lesbian bishop (more details on our website). We may - and do - disagree with the way that he seems to have been co-opted to an illiberal cause. But he sits astride a fault-line in the Anglican Communion, and few of us would wish to be in his shoes.

Yet there is another Rowan - the poet, the critic, the visionary, who sees deeper  than most of us into the presence of the Gospel in the arts. We may pray that it is this, and not the politics of the Communion, which will be his lasting legacy to the Church.

A couple of years ago he came to the annual Shakespeare's Birthday celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon. He preached (twice) and also participated in an open forum with luminaries of Shakespeariana such as Greg Doran. It was a memorable occasion. Memorable, not least, for something which he said which would shock some of his more illiberal fellow-primates:  "You should read the Bible in the way you read Shakespeare".

I have been pondering, ever since, on that saying. Did he really mean what he said? Surely the Bible has a quite different status from the Shakespearian canon.  Huge claims are made for the Bible, some of them within the text itself ("Thus says the Lord").  It is said to be divinely inspired (and Shakespeare, presumably, isn't?). Christians are assumed to see the Bible as a definitive guide to truth and living. Shakespeare never claimed that for himself, and few if any have claimed it for him.

Yet Shakespeare has gained a unique cultural and humanistic authority,  cutting across nations, cultures and creeds. If he does implicitly make a claim for himself, it is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature" and to explore the fundamental dimensions of the human condition.

That is not a bad place to start in our reading of the Bible too. We may indeed find that there is more to it than that. The 19th-century philosopher Benjamin Jowett, one of the ancestors of the MCU, said: "Interpret the Scripture like any other book", however, he went on to say  "There are many respects in which it is unlike any other book; these will appear in the results of such interpretation". But let us start by reading Shakespeare and the Bible in much the same way, and we may find some enlightenment from both.

One of Shakespeare's dicta which probably means a lot to most of our members  is Polonius' injunction to Laertes:

This above all; to thine own self be true;
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

We in MCU seek a faith which is "true to ourselves". That is not without ambiguity. After all, Laertes was being "true to himself" when he killed Hamlet  and brought down the whole tragic pack of cards. Being true to ourselves does not simply mean doing our own thing regardless of others. And Shakespeare knew that. He is not an apostle of unbridled individualism. Elsewhere in the canon, notably in the Histories, we see a very different philosophy in which the community and its institutions, notably the institution of kingship, are exalted in a way some may find difficult today. Even in Hamlet itself, both philosophies are represented. The institutional and the communitarian, too,  is part of Shakespeare - just as many conflicting and sometimes difficult views on every aspect of life are found within the covers of Scripture. We need to wrestle with them all.

MCU has been wrestling with its identity for the twenty-first century, and some effects of that will be apparent at our AGM in mid-July when we consider changes in our name and our constitution. Here is another possibly relevant dictum, this time from Scripture:

The Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings forth  from his treasure things new and old.

We cannot know for certain whether Jesus actually spoke those words. Even quite conservative scholars would now accept that the Gospels contain a great deal of 'spin'. But as a dictum it is worthy of consideration in its own right. Whoever originated it was well aware of how the proud householder displays  not only her most recent acquisitions but also her heirlooms - and how both contribute to her sense of identity, and hence to that wholeness of being which is what the Gospels call the Kingdom of God.

The Modern Churchmen's Union, as it was originally called in 1898, was dedicated to bringing the 'new' - above all, new insights in science such as evolution,  and a new appreciation of other faiths and philosophies - alongside the 'old' of Scripture and tradition. The risk of that emphasis on newness is, of course, that the old baby  will be thrown out with the old bathwater. The Union and its members may not always  have been innocent of that. But the majority conviction has always been that our exploration of the new must be enabled by a firm basis in tradition. That is why we have always been concerned for Biblical scholarship  rather than simply jettisoning this ancient and often inconvenient set of documents. That is why some (perhaps most) of us, as we look at old doctrines such as Atonement  which are often seen as a stumbling-block to "modern people", want to find ways  of reinterpreting them rather than throwing them out. (I am not sure whether Jeyan Anketell's article on the Trinity, below, is an example of this or not! There is a lot more to be said about the Trinity.) That is why some - not all - of the worship at our annual conferences can look surprisingly traditional. And, not least, that is why the majority of us "hang on in there" when the Church of our birth and heritage drives us mad with its obscurantism, prejudice and institutionalism.

When we looked at the question of our name, there was much debate about the word 'Modern'.

For some, but not all, it was associated with a set of cultural assumptions which is highly rationalistic and individualistic as well as rather naïve in its assessment of human potential, and which therefore does, indeed, seem to have little place for such concepts as atonement and sacraments.

Other words such as 'liberal' were considered, but they too seemed open to interpretations or overtones which not all would accept. In the end, Standing Committee recommended  that we should keep 'Modern'. And here is the paradox; one of the main reasons was that it would help to keep us in touch with MCU's tradition.

As I write this, my own local church - Shakespeare's church in Stratford-upon-Avon - is in the midst of its 800th anniversary celebrations. "Things new and old" are being brought out and put on display - from the most mediaeval forms of worship to the most contemporary, and from activities that would be familiar to our ancestors (including the brewing of a church ale!) to those that are very much of the new century. To see charismatic evangelicals participating in a very traditional High Mass  for Corpus Christi, and monastic Offices in Latin, is indeed a wondrous sight - just as it is  to see both Prayer Book traditionalists and liberal catholics singing contemporary choruses alongside them, and then going off for a thoroughly open-ended discussion of the theological implications of some modern novel or film. It doesn't always work, and for all the individuals who make up our large congregation there will be times when "being true to themselves"  is difficult. And the fault-lines of Anglicanism, to which I referred at the beginning of this editorial, have not yet been openly confronted here. Yet it is this openness to "things new and old", for which we stand, which is so healing - and attractive to new members.

So may it be in the MCU. This editorial has tried to give a taste of some of the questions with which we wrestle. As far as ways of reading the Bible (and perhaps Shakespeare also) are concerned, that will be the topic of our 2011 Annual Conference.

There are many in our Church, unseen and unacknowledged, who feel as we do, and want to ask  these same questions. They could benefit from attending our conferences, and more generally from membership of MCU. If you who read this are not already a member... will you join us?

Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College  before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.