Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No 52 - Jan 2014

Our former (still very much with us) General Secretary has often commented on 'signs of the times' which suggested that liberal Christianity might, despite gloomy indications to the contrary, be heading for something of a revival. Whilst we live in a dark world, and all is not well in the Church either, those signs now seem to be multiplying.

We now have both a Pope and an Archbishop who, without compromising on traditional beliefs, are making liberal noises on issues ranging from economics to sexuality. Pope Francis, in his demonstrable bias to the poor, 'walking the talk' in ways that so very few of his predecessors have done, seems to be living up to his chosen papal name – and transforming his Church. Justin Welby is the first Archbishop of Canterbury since William Temple who has really engaged with economic injustice. And both of them appear to be on a positive learning curve when it comes to gender and sexuality.

Perhaps, like the 1960s in Schlesinger’s book of that title, this is once again 'the liberal hour'? The past half-century has seen swings of the pendulum in secular society, from Left to Right and perhaps now back again. In social terms, the changes of the 1960s seem to have become more or less embedded, though not without struggles (we are still daily seeing, to give just one example, evidence of resistance to feminism in the workplace, the media and elsewhere). In economic terms, the Butskellism of mid-century has been replaced by so-called neo-liberalism, which is far from liberal to the less advantaged, and whose results we are seeing in a crusade against the Welfare State – conceivably a necessary pendulum swing, but not one about which the Churches can be relaxed, and not one which is sustainable in the long term if we wish to see a broadly just and indeed efficient economy. It is perhaps too soon to say whether the death of Nelson Mandela, surely one of the most significant international events of the last few months, will cause anything more than a temporary earth-tremor in any of the prevailing ideologies, but its effect could yet be more profound than that.

This, then, is the time when the liberal, questioning spirit – such as Modern Church represents in theology – can come back into its own, and hopefully achieve gains which will be permanent before the pendulum swings again.

Our Trustees’ meeting in October was thoroughly upbeat. We believe we have found solutions to most of the organisational problems, notably those around the publication of Modern Believing, which dogged us earlier in the year. The success of our series of short conferences on the legacy of Honest to God leads us to believe that there is real scope for expansion of our conference programme in between the main annual conferences. And as to the latter, our plans for the future are taking shape fast. Bookings are coming in rapidly for our 2014 conference on spirituality under Martyn Percy (on which see Tim Stead’s article below). Alan Race has plans for the 2015 conference on interfaith issues well in hand. Ideas are gestating for a 2016 conference on faith and the arts, with particular reference to Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. And further possibilities are emerging for a 2017 conference on creeds and articles of faith. There is the feeling of a clearer sense of direction than we have had for a long time.

None of this is due simply to the change in personalities 'at the top'. Certainly our new Chair and General Secretary, and others, are making their mark; but so are those who are still around. The changed atmosphere seems to have at least as much to do with a shift in the prevailing wind. The wind of the Spirit perhaps?

Apologies that we nevertheless got blown a little off-course when our (then) printers despatched the wrong edition of this newsletter in October – and again with the subscription invoices sent out in November/December. As members will know, all our publishing, printing and distribution, and some of our administration, is moving to Liverpool University Press, with whom we are building an exceedingly businesslike relationship. But it is almost inevitable that there will be a few transitional problems, and we ask members to bear with us. This is the real world.

So we enter another liberal hour. But we enter it as Christians – people of faith. What difference, I wonder, should that actually make?

I was recently sent a book1 by a very liberal US rabbi, intended to rehabilitate the book of Leviticus from its reputation for 'savage texts', homophobic and otherwise. It is always interesting to see how liberals of other faiths deal with the awkward bits of their scriptures, and this was no exception. Whilst it perhaps does not merit a full review, its underlying message may be relevant here. Using that familiar hermeneutical principle, 'If it meant that to them then, what does it mean to us now?', Rabbi Harris emphasises the underlying message 'You shall be holy, for I am holy', and suggests that even in areas like sex and animal sacrifice, where the Levitical laws seem to us so gruesome, there may be hints as to what 'holiness' means today. And of course, in the year of Honest to God, I thought of what John Robinson said about 'worldly holiness', much of which Rabbi Harris would endorse.

But we immediately run into a problem. Is 'holiness' itself a useful concept any more? It is a commonplace in much Modern Church thinking that the disenchantment of the world has resulted in the final breakdown of any distinction between sacred and profane, thus fulfilling a project begun in the Gospels themselves. Yet Robinson and Harris alike seek to rehabilitate the concept, albeit in a more 'worldly' or everyday sense than the writers of Leviticus assumed. Both see people of faith as being in some sense 'set apart', above all in their attitude to very worldly things such as social justice and our responsibilities to all our fellow-creatures and our environment.2 At the heart of that set-apartness, for both authors in their different religious traditions, is something which can be described as spirituality. Robinson, in his exposition of Bonhoeffer, is well aware that the author of Letters and Papers from Prison is also the author of such books as Life Together and the celebrant of the 'arcane discipline' of Christian worship. Harris likewise goes back - rather further, to Maimonides - in a search for an evolving Jewish spirituality.

Something like this, surely, is what makes the difference. There is much in the 'mystery' of our faith which needs to be constantly challenged, as Graham Hellier does below. The concept of Incarnation has in fact been the inspiration for much this-worldly engagement, and refusal to retreat into a realm of pure spirituality, amongst Anglicans in particular; but that does not privilege it against debate, nor entitle Christians to excommunicate each other for 'incorrect' interpretations. In struggling with the mystery, the story, the myths if you will, there have been all too many political accommodations and compromises, all too many questionable interpretations (I have suggested before on these pages that conservative evangelicals may be natural monophysites!) But story, myth and mystery, embodied in liturgical praxis and spirituality, remain distinctive features of Christian liberalism. Which is precisely why our next Annual Conference on spirituality is so important, as Tim Stead reminds us below.

My own parish, robustly traditional in its emphasis on sacramental worship and the heritage of church music, has set up, in a new housing area, a 'fresh expression' of a distinctively charismatic-lite and in conventional terms non-sacramental ethos, which is proving remarkably appealing to some. One of the issues with which the new incumbent of Stratford-upon-Avon will have to struggle is how to ensure that these very different expressions of faith retain a common integrity to the 'mystery'. This is perhaps one of those cases, referred to by John Saxbee in his excellent address to one of our Honest to God conferences, where the relationship between 'base camp' and 'pioneers' comes to the fore. Liberals are in certain respects naturally drawn to the 'pioneering' role, at least on an intellectual theological level; but that does not mean that 'base camp'' ceases to matter. In fact, it may be rather too easy to think that we can leave base camp to look after itself, letting a thousand flowers bloom and being unconcerned if the older ones rot away. That has not, historically, been the Modern Church way. Tradition matters to us. Indeed, as Jonathan Clatworthy has regularly argued, it is we, not the hardliners of any variety, who are the true 'traditional Anglicans', following in the footsteps of Hooker and other great Anglican divines. It is surely we who are the true proponents of 'holding together' within Anglicanism, though the Bishop of Coventry’s book of that title3 has precious little to say about the liberal contribution Reform of the Church as a whole, not setting up alternative and fissiparous new groupings, is our modus operandi.

The question, of course, is How. Margaret Thatcher famously said that no-one ever got elected by saying 'I stand for consensus.' I am not sure that that statement was wholly true; there have been elements in the platforms of a number of successful leaders, including Barack Obama and of course the late Nelson Mandela, which have appealed heavily to unity and reconciliation. But it has normally been unity in the service of a vision. What is our vision? John Saxbee again, in a book review in the October 2013 edition of Modern Believing, reminds us that liberal Christians have often been more successful in saying what they are against than what they are for. He notes in particular that, on his watch as President of Modern Church, our apparent lack of a clear positive message contributed to our failure to get off the ground such initiatives as an alternative to Alpha courses. It remains to be seen whether the new Pilgrim courses now being promoted by the Church centrally will fill the very large gap left by an Alpha-dominated process of Christian formation, but there is surely still work for us to do here, whether through generating course material (and Biblical commentaries and other resources) of our own, or by more actively promoting the resurgence of liberalism in the academy and the parish, and more effective infiltration of both. But we do, actually, have a lot to be positive about. Not Pollyannaish, but not simply sceptical either, even in times that seem dark. There are still the seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to any of the Baals of different varieties of fundamentalism and idolatry.

We are reminded by the strident final communiqué of the GAFCON meeting a few months ago - on which, see among other sources the Modern Church blog for October/November - that in many parts of the world, and of the Anglican Communion, 'the liberal hour' is still some distance away. Likewise the Pilling Report on the Church’s attitude to gay marriage, though it demonstrates a move towards a more liberal theological methodology, makes it all too clear - particularly in the Bishop of Birkenhead’s lengthy dissenting note - that contrary forces are still alive and well. But this ideological chiaroscuro is to be expected. We were never promised easy answers, and we don’t go for them. 'Honesty to God' demands that we keep our noses, and those of others, to the grindstone of the really hard questions.

This is illustrated by David Copestake’s article below on the psychopathic picture of God as presented by the covert creationism of much of our liturgy; where the arguments may be all too familiar to many members of Modern Church (and its precursors such as Tennyson in In Memoriam) but need a fresh airing from time to time. Jonathan Clatworthy’s comments on Pilling, similarly, address another area - human sexuality – where much traditional teaching appears to portray God as a psychopath who creates sexually diverse human beings (or tolerates the fact that such beings have evolved) and then tries to force them into a Procrustean bed of 'heterosexual marriage or nothing.' In neither case will it do to fall back (no pun intended) on ideas about sin and the Fall - presumably in the case of life-forms the primordial fall of Lucifer – to explain things which to some believers seem dark or 'against (a particular a priori understanding of) nature'. At least Pilling does recognise that there is a continuing need to try to understand sexual diversity, even if its solution is a mere two-year programme of 'facilitated conversations' (I thought we had already had a 'listening process'?) And as regards destructive life-forms – and perhaps even destructive forms of theology – I am reminded of John Robinson’s famous soundbite: 'God is in the cancer as he is in the sunset, and to be met and responded to in each.'

In the light of that all-too-poignant credo – which is perhaps somewhere near the heart of the 'vision' which Saxbee challenged Modern Church to develop - it is not surprising that the need to face the hard questions was also well illustrated in our residential Honest to God conference in November, jointly with the Progressive Christianity Network, on which we provide much feedback below. Not the least of the signs of hope here was the very strong attendance from both our two somewhat different organisations, and across the spectrum of 'liberalisms' which Jonathan hopes to explore in a future article. But that is just a beginning.

There are indications of interest in more conferences, over and above our Annual Conference, in different places, at different times of year and on different topics. Surely this is part of what we need to re-energise theological liberalism and generate more worldly holiness for a liberal hour. Watch this space!

  1. Leviticus: You Have No Idea by Maurice D Harris: Cascade Books, Oregon, 2013: ISBN 978-1-62032-367-0.
  2. Our annual conference in 2013, The Earth is the Lord’s, demonstrated inter alia how the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with its own characteristic take on 'holiness' and very little place for post-Enlightenment liberalism, has in the person of Patriarch Bartholomew taken something of a lead on Christian involvement in environmental issues. There may be food for thought here.
  3. Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit - the essentials of Christian indentity by Christopher Cocksworth, Canterbury Press 2008,  ISBN 978-1-85311-839-5.  Like many open evangelicals (and affirming catholics for that matter), he largely takes for granted the gains made by liberalism within the Church of England; I am sure that he is no creationist, for example. Perhaps being taken for granted is flattering, but it may also be dangerous.

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 Department of Education.