Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 54 - Jul 2014

The intensities of Lent, Holy Week and Easter are long past. I suspect that I am not the only member of Modern Church who finds these times a little difficult, and is relieved to enter the sunnier uplands of the post-Easter and post-Pentecost periods.

This is not just about belief – the problem of working out in what sense, if any, one can accept Atonement or Resurrection, or what one makes of the traditional paradigm of sin. All these are common preoccupations for liberal Christians. But behind them lie issues of spirituality. What, if anything, does all this mean to me at the deepest level of my being? What makes me tick, and what role does faith play in that? Ultimately – who am I?

Towards the end of Lent I came to what, in the eyes of some Christians, would be a horrific conclusion. Perhaps my real gods – the ones through whom I find access to what is called the spiritual realm – are Athene and Aphrodite.

The goddess of wisdom responds to my naturally intellectual, questioning self, and I am far more likely to experience something that feels “spiritual” in reading a book (even something as apparently banal as a re-read of Dorothy Sayers’ Nine Tailors….during Holy Week!), or in writing an editorial like this one, than in anything resembling conventional prayer.

As for the goddess of love... enough said, if you want to know where the deepest ecstasy lies.  

It is true that corporate Eucharistic worship has kept a stubborn hold on me, along with the great music of the so-called ages of faith, and much of the poetry of the Bible and the liturgy. But it is those older divinities that really seem to float my boat, insofar as anything does.

Today, reared on Freud and Jung, we tend to see the Graeco-Roman pantheon as embodiments of aspects of the human psyche. So, in “worshipping” Athene and Aphrodite, am I simply worshipping parts of myself? The Old Testament prophets knew how far idolatry was a form of projection. In which case, though I may not bow down in a temple before a statue, I am still, it seems, a hopeless idolater, condemned throughout Scripture and Christian history.

Or is it as simple as that? Where, after all, does spirituality start, other than in the depths of one’s psyche – even if this is in response to what is perceived as the initiative of Another? Are the most deeply 'Christian' Christians themselves really idol-free? Do not they, too, project onto the heavens their own image of God, even if they argue that that has been purified through attention to Scripture? Might it be the case that my spirituality – to the extent that it has been shaped and normed by Christian tradition, even if drawing on pagan-sounding wells – is actually as Christian as theirs?

For most of our contemporaries, much of the time, God and Jesus - as literally real, discrete objects of worship - are as irrelevant as Athene and Aphrodite. Of the Church, or rather the church building, the very most they might say (with Philip Larkin) is 'A serious place on serious earth it is', but no more so, and quite possibly less so, than the magnificent ruins of a classical temple.

I am reminded of a quotation from John Robinson (it’s that man again!) from when he was showing the great Russian poet Yevtushenko around King’s College Chapel. Yevtushenko waved his hand towards that wonderful vaulted ceiling and said “Me – means nothing”. From the context it was clear that he meant that the spiritual experience embodied in that building made no contact with him whatsoever. And, though I love both the architecture and the music of King’s, there are times when, faced with what is conventionally understood (whether within the Church, within New Age circles or otherwise) as spirituality or spiritual experience, I want to say “Me – means nothing”. A sentiment which so many of our contemporaries would share.

That may not mean that they are devoid of spirituality in some much broader sense. It is the bringing of it to consciousness – the naming of it – which has perhaps become harder in our allegedly secular world.

Our conference this summer is sure to touch on these themes, with notable speakers on many aspects of the debates that surround any approach to contemporary spirituality.  How 'secular' and 'disenchanted' is our world really? How many roads are there that can still lead into the depths? How do those roads relate to Christian tradition – and in what way, if at all, does that relationship matter? We will no doubt discover some of the many ways in which people get 'into the zone' of self-forgetfulness which is surely somewhere near the heart of spirituality, as the great hymn by Paul Gerhardt put it:

And man, the marvel seeing,
Forgets his selfish being
For joy of beauty not his own.

They may include anything from Buddhist meditation, or the Quaker approaches described in Michael Wright’s article below, to marathon-running – and always, between the two, the arts, where as T S Eliot put it 'You are the music/ While the music lasts'. But the relationship of all these to a truly liberal-Christian spirituality needs to be explored further, and that is what we are looking forward to this July.

A key issue, obviously, is the relationship between spirituality and the Christian idea of God. Jonathan Clatworthy’s article in the last issue on two kinds of liberalism has produced some significant reactions, here from Michael Wright and John Goodchild (the latter, I think, very much supported by the letter from Helen Oppenheimer, as it has been in so much of her writing). They appear to sit in different camps; but, given Goodchild’s reference to Sydney Carter and the latter’s links to Wright’s Quakerism, it would be interesting to see what non-realists or non-theists make of both Carter’s and Vanstone’s powerful deconstructions of the traditional paradigm of sin and atonement, which have affected many of us and seem to be predicated on a very real God. Do those visions still make sense if one sees God (like Athene and Aphrodite) as possibly just a projection – an experience of suffering Love which seems to come from Beyond but could conceivably exist only in the human heart, even if exemplified on the Cross?

Another issue which may arise is how far spirituality is gendered. One of the book reviews later in this issue reminds us that women played a more important part in the early Church than the official records (written by men) admit. Surely the consecration of women – including some of our friends – as bishops is now just around the corner. What difference might that make to our Church’s influence on spirituality? With very few exceptions (Julian of Norwich above all), the classic Christian literature on the topic has been dominated by men, and some might say that Ignatian spirituality for example, devised by a military man for a quasi-military Order, is fundamentally masculine despite its appeal to the emotions. What new things might we expect in this new era? Our second book review, of a spiritual memoir written by a woman, might suggest some answers.  

The relationship between spirituality and sexuality more generally is sure to feature. Just a week or so before our Annual Conference, its Chair, Martyn Percy, will have been chairing another conference on just that topic, organised for theological educators by our sister body CSCS – so we expect some 'news from the front'. One powerful contributor to thinking and praying on the relationship between sexuality and spirituality was the late Jim Cotter. I learned of his death, poignantly, on returning from the Good Friday Liturgy. Jim was surely one of the true spiritual masters of our time.  His Pleasure Pain and Passion along with his many books of prayer and meditation give me hope to believe that seeking the spiritual through 'mighty Aphrodite' – as the Eastern Orthodox worship through their icons - might not be quite such an impermissible style of spirituality after all.

But we must not, in our considerations of spirituality, forget Douglas Adams. Amongst many other insights in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is revealed that the answer to 'life, the universe and everything' is the number 42. Whilst we may deplore the contemporary computer-driven tendency to reduce everything to numbers, numerological spirituality has an ancient history. For Modern Church the mystic number is 31 – the number of members on Council. I hope that many will hear the call embodied in Christine Alker’s appeal for nominations later in this issue.   I can testify, from my Aphrodite-sodden depths, that active involvement in Modern Church can be a point of spiritual growth for individuals as well as for the wider Christian community.

So this summer’s conference will certainly be a time for spiritual growth. And part of that – as much, as the talks and workshops and worship – will be the fellowship we enjoy in the work of our organisation. For those who have not seen the news elsewhere, I can report one very specific piece of progress in that work; we have a new Editor for Modern Believing, Steven Shakespeare from Liverpool Hope University, who will be well known to many for such work as his friendly but critical analysis of Radical Orthodoxy and his writings on inclusivity in the Church. Given what I have said above about the role of the arts in spirituality and faith – a topic which we hope will engage us more fully in a future conference – it seems rather symbolically important that our newest intellectual leader should share a name with the Bard of Avon, even though that is not his specialist field.

Finally, there is another most important post to be filled, subject to the wishes of the membership at the AGM. The post of President of Modern Church has been vacant for over a year since John Barton had to step down due to ill-health. This role is very much one of spiritual (and academic and diplomatic) leadership, rather than being concerned with the running of the organisation which remains in the hands of the Trustees. It is thus key to our future mission in a special way.

I am pleased to report that Linda Woodhead, whose research on the current and future place of faith and the Churches in the life of our nation has been so influential recently, has accepted a nomination for this post. If the membership confirms this, we can surely expect real inspiration over the next few years.

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.