by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 49 - Apr 2013

The most dramatic development in the world-wide Church since our last edition has surely been the resignation of the Pope.

The election of his successor gives some hope for a different style of leadership which may help to address some of the Church's immediate issues about sex, money and power; but no-one has suggested any likelihood of a major move towards a more liberal Church on anything like  the scale of the Second Vatican Council. In due course of time, Rome will surely be forced back  to something like the aggiornamento which characterised that Council and whose next stage is already nibbling at that Church's grass roots. But probably not yet.

This is relevant to Modern Church for two reasons. First, and most obviously, because whether we like it or not (and often we may not) we are set within the context  of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, which itself exists in the context of Christianity as a whole, within which Roman Catholicism remains a dominant force. What Rome does, or fails to do, matters in terms of our mission.

Second, and less obviously, we are faced with our own much smaller challenges of leadership and reorganisation.  As almost thirty members of our Council gathered at Hinsley Hall in Leeds at the beginning of March,  the first issue confronting them was the sad news that our President, John Barton, has had to step aside  through ill-health. John has made a considerable impact, and shown great commitment, during his short time  in office; and his loss as President is a real blow, though we hope he will still contribute in various ways.  Added to that, both our Chair John Plant and our Treasurer Richard Hall have indicated their wish to step down  at this year's AGM. Neither will be easy to replace, but the post of Treasurer is of particular importance  at this time. As I have mentioned before, the work is not arduous (certainly not compared to that of those  in charge of the finances of a large parish church), and Richard has indicated that he will be fully available  to support a successor - but such a successor, or conceivably two people acting jointly, needs to be found  by the time of the AGM. Once again, therefore, I ask whether there is anyone out there who might be interested  in finding out what the job entails? If so, please contact Richard (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) as soon as possible.

Financial issues, which are not simply for the Treasurer but very much a joint responsibility of the Trustees, were also to the fore at Council. As adumbrated in the last issue, it has proved necessary to plan for a substantial increase in subscriptions. The structure is being further reviewed by the Trustees following the Council's discussion, but it is likely to be based on a 'headline' subscription of £48 a year, still with some concession for those students, unwaged or retired members who genuinely need it, but possibly also an option and encouragement to pay a slightly higher 'donor' rate for those who are better off.  There will probably in the future be no concession for not taking Modern Believing - reflecting  the Council's conviction that the journal is central to our mission and not just an optional perk of membership.

Even with these changes, it is not possible to balance our books and still push forward our objectives. In particular it appears that the costly process of publishing Modern Believing cannot indefinitely continue in precisely its present form, nor are the Trustees yet sure how we could afford the loss of revenue (from institutional subscriptions and licenses for online access) which would result from handing it over to a commercial publisher, even though such a step might improve our academic credibility and hence perhaps indirectly our credibility to the wider Church.

In the longer term it may be necessary to look at the possibility of an online-only journal.  In the short term, Council considered an offer from Sage Publishing to publish and market the journal, and advised that it should be accepted; the Trustees narrowly decided otherwise. This is one of the most difficult and complex decisions which Modern Church has had to take in many years,  and a statement from the Trustees, below, explains the situation more fully. Modern Church is a body with many stakeholders: its officers, its academic members, its parochial clergy and lay members,  potential members both within and on (or possibly beyond) the fringes of the Church, and all both within  and without Academy and Church who are or ought to be concerned with liberal theology. These do not by any means necessarily represent conflicting interests, but short-term differences in perspective may arise.  Such differences have been reflected in the intensive discussions at and before the Leeds meeting, and those discussions will go on. But all who are involved in them are committed to the objectives of Modern Church, and all are concerned about the growing challenges of meeting those objectives,  and to the organisation's survival and growth to the extent that that is needful for those objectives to be met.

All these developments may sound as depressing as anything coming out of the Vatican. I am glad to report, however, that Council were by no means downcast. There is evidence that our website is proving a more potent source of information and influence than we have ever achieved in the past, and we know that there is yet more that we can do online. Our recruitment of new and in some cases younger members continues, albeit more slowly than we would like or need. Ideas for future and more clearly themed editions of Modern Believing - irrespective of the modalities of its publication or the personality of its editor (since Adrian Thatcher too, alas, has resigned) - were given a very positive welcome by Council. Not least, we are working on an exciting conference programme for the rest of the decade, including not only our Annual Conferences, but also shorter events, which may often be organised jointly with such cognate bodies as the Progressive Christianity Network; a number of these, planned for later in the year, are publicised towards the end of this issue. And other plans will be developed to try to increase membership and influence.

We have work to do. Jonathan Clatworthy's article below was one of the introductory papers to the Council meeting, and may serve as a useful reminder of what we are here for. Whilst we would not want our Church to be anything other than broad, or to exclude those whose perspectives differ from our own, we face serious challenges from some of those same perspectives, just as our ancestors did in 1898. The influence of more conservative theological approaches, particularly of an evangelical variety,  has increased again over the past two or three decades, is seemingly still increasing, and - we are obliged to argue - ought to be diminished. The continued saga of women bishops, which the wider world  rightly sees as a silly sideshow, illustrates the problem all too well, and I would strongly encourage readers  to look another recent article by Jonathan "Where next for the Bishops?" on our website. We continue,  not least via the website and Jonathan's and others' contributions to it, to refute the underlying assumptions  of those who are trying to turn the tide of aggiornamento.

That is not the same as pushing a policy of our own. It was observed at Council that we appear  to make most impact (and recruit most members) when we do evolve a stance and campaign on it. There is a place for that, but our main task is more subtle, and hence far harder than those  of the single-issue or "party" campaigning bodies. We are not all of exactly one mind theologically  on all issues, and God forbid that we should try to be. For all I know, there may be Modern Church members  who have reservations about women bishops. More likely, there are those who differ about the means to the end.  Some members of Modern Church might even want to put at least a gloss on Jonathan's answers, below,  to such basic questions as what "liberal theology" is and what we exist for. We are not dogmatists  or "liberal fundamentalists"; we are explorers, and we seek space for exploration, for all those  who are searching for a faith which is honest to God.

This is well illustrated in our book series Making Sense Of... Two more books will be launched  at the Annual Conference this summer, and one of them, by Paul Badham, is about life beyond death.  Paul, one of our Vice-Presidents and a former editor of Modern Believing, has his own take  on this sensitive issue which some of our members may find too conservative and others  perhaps not conservative enough. In due course that book will be reviewed in these pages,  and this is not the time to anticipate that. What we recognise, as a learned society devoted to  the promotion of liberal theology, is that the so-called orthodox Christian belief on life beyond death,  as reflected in Scripture and tradition, is very complex, full of paradoxes and perhaps contradictions,  and that there is scope for much debate about how it sits with our knowledge about life and death  from other sources. So we do not try to present "the Modern Church view" or even a Modern Church view,  but seek to promote the most open debate possible. If you have not read any of the books in this series,  I urge you to do so - and you may find that here is material which you can give to enquiring friends,  wholly positive, free alike of negative scepticism and crushing dogmatism of any kind.

Mary Roe's article below is another, very different example. It does not push a "liberal line"  on anti-Semitism or anything else, but rather asks some awkward questions about the human condition  which are germane to these and many other current issues - and then, on the best of Gospel precedents,  invites us to judge for ourselves.

That is what our Church, and the Church as a whole (including the Vatican), needs, whether they recognise it  or not. That - and the apparatus of Modern Church which lies behind it and makes it possible -  is what your increased subscription will be paying for.

This moment may or may not be a new beginning for Rome. As I suggested earlier, the signs are not unambiguously hopeful. But could it be a new beginning for Modern Church? We have a growing wealth of wisdom  and commitment. There is a new Treasurer out there (and it could be you) as well as a new Chair, a new President and a new editor of Modern Believing. There is potential new blood for our board  of Trustees, and for work in many areas where we need to develop - including the website/social media, and links with the media more generally.

There are new and growing challenges, but also new and growing opportunities. This is the time to rise to them.

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.