by Nicholas Henderson
from Signs of the Times No 51 - Oct 2013

I fancy that when Jonathan took over as General Secretary from me just under twelve years ago, it was fortuitously a case of ‘Cometh the hour – cometh the man’ – ladies please forgive the unreformed language.

It’s a strange saying without true provenance although John 4:23 has ‘But the hour cometh, and now is’ and a William Yancey, said about Jefferson Davis, President-elect of the Confederacy in 1861: ‘The man and the hour have met’. Alas, neither of those analogies are suitable to Jonathan, the first he would modestly dismiss as he would consider himself unworthy of such a comparison and the second came from an avid defender of slavery before the American Civil War – which certainly would not represent the Jonathan who has spent so much time and energy defending the rights of minorities (and, in the case of women in the Church, suppressed majorities).

Nevertheless, Jonathan arrived as Secretary to the Union (the Constitution allows no grander title than that it should ‘appoint a Secretary’) at the right moment. Coming at a period when much administrative reorganisation had taken place, now desperately needed was some substantial theological underpinning. Into that breach he stepped, almost as a bespoke General Secretary to take us through the first decade of the new century.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Jonathan’s diagnosis of ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) at least partially freed him to take on the role. Certainly Modern Church has benefitted at least indirectly from his health travails and an enforced sedentary lifestyle in what has been a quite extraordinary period.

In his time he has fostered good organisation but most especially, as a prolific writer, he has shrewdly steered Modern Church (the name change from the cumbersome former Modern Churchpeople’s Union was largely his doing), blending theological weight with all the tools of modern communication – a potent combination.

Take for example the ill-fated and unfortunate Anglican Communion flirtation with a ‘Covenant’, which must rank as one of the most divisive and desperate ecclesiastical initiatives of our time. It was the voice of Modern Church, largely though not exclusively from the keyboard of our General Secretary, that ensured that the exercise foundered on the rocks of the English synodical process. There is still some zombie-like life in the Covenant, which is technically still lumbering its way around the Anglican provinces, but it is effectively dead and it is Jonathan who helped to sharpen the stake to go through its heart.

I have waxed poetical and self-indulgent in my language here, nevertheless I am describing a reality that is ongoing over the tricky issue of same-sex marriage as well as the seemingly interminable journey towards Church of England women bishops. Rarely before have Modern Church’s predecessors found the Union regularly featured on important and influential websites such as Thinking Anglicans with serious contributions to the debates of the day.

There has long been a tendency in the wider Church to associate Modernists such as us with the lunatic fringe. Certainly there are a good number of members who have suffered for their beliefs, which as Paul Badham has often pointed out have later become mainstream Church practice and doctrine. I don’t think it has been until fairly recently that that particular incubus has been exorcised, as it has to be if Modern Church is to speak with an authentic and heeded voice. We have to become the ‘traditional’ voice of the Church, to recapture that territory if we believe that the denomination we are largely part of is characteristically and historically open, accepting and progressive. Despite strong counter currents we essentially believe that is the gift that Anglicanism can bring to Christianity and even beyond. This is an heroic and noble aspiration under the banner of theological liberalism, rescuing the term from the clutches of those (largely across the Atlantic) who would demonise it.

Although he would naturally shy away from any such accolade, I want to suggest that Jonathan has made a significant contribution to the voice of Modern Church in the very cause of liberal theology that I have described. Now he has stood down from the role of General Secretary and we have an exciting new team of new officers in place. They and we will nevertheless still be able to benefit from Jonathan’s experience, wisdom and indeed his theological writings as fortunately he’s not going away to Timbuktu or even intending to vanish into deepest Liverpool, he’ll still be with us writing and editing Modern Believing.

Finally, no organisation works without its officers who complement its enthusiasts. Frankly, in Societies such as ours the most important is the repository of information, centre of communication and mouthpiece and principal spokesperson – usually described as the General Secretary. This means that we the membership need to have confidence and trust in his or her acumen and ability to do things on our behalf. Such a role is usually thankless and hard work, involving long hours, much frustration and frequent setbacks. These Jonathan has gladly suffered, although that does not mean that he does the same for every shipload of fools, he’s more canny than that and has something of the politician in him – another essential requirement in the job description.

The Divine imperative is about as loose a term as most Modern Churchers can universally accept, although many like me would go further and say with confidence about Jonathan and his work and time as Secretary - Deo Gratias!

Revd Dr Nicholas Henderson was Modern Church General Secretary from 1991-2002 and is now a Modern Church Vice-president.