Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 47 - Oct 2012
A few days before this year's Annual Conference, a friend and fellow-worshipper died and I discovered that the funeral was to be in the middle of the Conference.
It was with a double sadness, therefore, that I had to leave early - and to leave to David Storey (below) the reporting of it. Naturally I got much sympathy, for many Modern Church members are all too used to attending their friends' funerals. However, at the AGM, it was a great joy to see some newer and younger members, many of them already achieving distinction in the life of the Church and/or the academic world, elected to Council and Standing Committee.
Ageing as many of us are, we remain principally concerned with issues whose resolution we may not see in our lifetimes. With the continuing delay in a decision on women bishops, this year's Conference sometimes felt like that; how long, O Lord, how long? How wonderful it was, though, to see Sally Barnes amongst us again, lively and combative as ever; Donald may not himself have seen the fullness of the promised land, but his work goes on - life in the midst of death.
For the 2013 Conference, Standing Committee agreed to focus on environmental issues - where again we might wonder what the human race will have the will to do within the lifetimes of most of us. Some - noting the apocalyptic dimension of climate change - argued that the environmental challenge should be considered within a wider eschatological context. In the event we will be led by Margaret Barker, best known for her use of Temple Theology as a Biblical hermeneutic, whose theological attention to the environment has been outstanding. So next year's Conference will again be something to look forward to, for all members irrespective of age or of interests within theology and spirituality.
Spirituality will itself be the focus of the 2014 Conference. All I can say at this early stage is 'Watch this space'. It is a crucial issue for MC members - of all ages, but perhaps most imperatively for those of us who are older. Our Conference a few years ago on 'The God experience - who has it and why?' went somewhere near the heart of the matter, but there is more work to be done.
It is a commonplace today in much of the Church - within a tradition which certainly goes back to Coleridge and the Romantics but would be recognisable to mediaeval mystics and indeed St Paul - that it is the overwhelming experience of God alone which convinces people to have faith, including faith in the 'undiscovered country' of life beyond death. I suspect that many of us Modern Church members are innate sceptics; we look at some of those who claim such experiences, and prefer to rest on John 20:29 and on reasoned argument. Yet sometimes we may slightly envy alleged experiential assurance, at the same time as we feel called to question its temptation to idolatry and obscurantism. Do we not desperately need to find spiritualities which are 'honest to God' and to our own experience alike?
Mention of 'honesty to God' reminds me that 2013 is also the 50th anniversary of John Robinson's seminal book on that theme, and there will be events to commemorate that, in which Modern Church will be taking part. Robinson had and has his critics, and not just amongst conservatives. But his iconoclasm, which influenced so many of us in our youth, still has its place, as does his positive insistence on worldly holiness, not to speak of his insights into Biblical criticism, ecclesiology and liturgy. 'He being dead yet speaketh.'
Perhaps, before I write again, other leading members of Modern Church will have followed Donald Barnes to the undiscovered country. Perhaps the opening of the episcopate to women will be yet further delayed. Perhaps the promised land will turn out to be nothing more than the final frizzling of our planet, rendering all else irrelevant. Yet still - and more than usual in this year's AGM - the newness of youth rises up to challenge and refresh the weariness of age. In the midst of death we find ourselves, after all, in life.
As always, therefore, this issue contains much that belies any tendency to gloom. There is an article by an Anglican Catholic of some note, not a member of MC, which exposes some of the dubious ecclesiological processes within Anglicanism which have led up to the travails of recent years. I heard recently, too, of a young Forward In Faith priest whose sister was being ordained, and who found himself drawn to stand amongst those who laid hands on her. The Spirit is still at work.
The book reviews too, particularly those of our own recent publications, show us that there is still a freshness in theological thinking which belies the tired efforts of the conservatives of all persuasions. And our correspondence columns, with both Graham and Merryn Hellier weighing in on matters of current controversy, continue to be equally lively.