Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 60 - Jan 2016

Is radicalism a good thing?  And what does it amount to anyway?

Many Modern Church members would want to espouse positions which to some worshippers would seem radical. These might include our use of language (especially inclusive language) in worship, or changes in our attitudes to authority in the Church - both these issues are addressed in this edition. But sometimes it is not clear who the real radicals are.

On one very live current issue - assisted dying - our constituency is very divided, with a social and often theological radical such as Giles Fraser taking what some would regard as a conservative view (though he himself might see it as a radical one). And when it comes to church governance, and people talk of such ideas as disestablishment (a concept which is as long as a piece of string), similar divisions may be observed.

Perhaps David Hayward, the author of the book reviewed in our last edition by Kieran Bohan, is right to say that, on the issues that really matter, ‘questions are the answer’. Yet that book itself illustrates a radical path: the pilgrimage of a pastor who has felt called to move right outside the institutional Church in order to get away from damaging authoritarianism. Most of us would not feel called to go that far, and I for one have my doubts about trying to extract the best of Christian tradition from a point outside the corporate embodiment of that tradition. But we do need to be reminded just how damaging encounters with the Church can be to some people - the strongest possible motivation for getting these things right.

A radical approach to the language we use may well be part of that. We include the second part of Jean Mayland’s article on how we address God in worship, and Lorraine Cavanagh’s challenging reply to her first part! This time Jean focuses on inclusive language. Her reminders of the history of recent discussions are enlightening, if at times depressing. The use of inclusive language in contemporary hymn books has grown considerably; official liturgies have lagged behind. This may not immediately matter greatly to many people, but it is a very real issue for others. And even those who feel that too much attention is given to ‘political correctness’ may be affected at a subconscious level more than they realise. Does it matter that we may be in thrall to an image of God, not only as male but as Father (a hugely dominant image, which not all find helpful in their own experience) - and a Victorian paterfamilias, with distinct mediaeval overtones, at that?

Will Baynes’ wry article - a little more Trollopian as one might expect from him - is also about language and names. How far does ‘the humility of the Church of England’ (come again?) facilitate an authority structure which sends out seriously misleading messages about the status and role of the parish priest as well as other dignitaries?  Will does not directly address the use of ‘Father’, but this not only raises an obvious problem where women clergy are concerned, but may also give out exactly the same wrong messages as the use of exclusive language about God may do. There is a strain within the culture of our Church, by no means restricted to Anglo-Catholics, which exalts the responsibility of the priest/minister/pastor as a mediator of precisely that authoritarian paternalism which is attributed to God. The idea of freehold and possession of a ‘living’ – once a marketable commodity – surely reinforces this, and I am hopeful of including in a future edition some thoughts by Nick Henderson on that subject. As a liberal catholic I have to ask whether it is possible to develop an ecclesiology, of the sort at which Lorraine hints, in which priestly sacramental ministry is properly honoured within the whole ministry of God’s people rather than something above and apart from it. One of the huge strengths of Modern Church is that clergy and laity mix together at every point and it is often difficult to remember which is which; each contributes according to his or her gifts.

What about a radical suggestion that a friend recently made to me, that the separate Houses in Synods should be abolished?  That might look like a logical extension of what I have said above. Some would say that the existence of Houses of Laity is a protection against complete domination of church governance by a clerical caste. Others might argue that all that it does, at national level anyway, is create a caste of ‘professional laity’, like the increasing domination of Westminster by professional politicians. What would happen, I wonder, if one or more dioceses, as an experiment, did abolish the House system, and clergy and laity had to stand for election against each other?  Would it break down the caste structure or make it worse?  A radical thought, which would need pragmatic evaluation.  And the impact of such a move on the image of the clergy, and hence the self-image of the laity, is all but impossible to evaluate.

All these are important preoccupations for Christian spirituality. But they must not be allowed to deflect us from the huge issues which face our world. Central to our book review section in this issue is a first look (to be continued we hope) at the work of Anne Davison, who has long been associated both with Modern Church and with the Church’s work on interfaith issues, on the crucial topic of radical Islam. That is another sort of radicalism, and one where questions are most certainly not seen as the answer - what, here, is the relationship between radicalism and destructive dogmatism?   If understanding ‘the other’ is difficult enough within the Christian community and has often given rise to real conflicts, that challenge is multiplied tenfold when we look at what has been happening in the Islamic world over recent decades.  This is literally a matter of life and death for individuals and for whole nations. The terrible events of Friday 13 November in Paris, whose outworking is likely to be continuing as this edition goes to press, simply underline that brutal fact.

Last but not least, however, we should remember that ‘the personal is the political’, and sometimes that which is most personal and practical may also be the most radical. This edition sees a further contribution from Richard Darlington on the experience of death and bereavement - all too topical for so many of our members, and a key arena for faith development, more important than any number of theological and ecclesiastical games. Other book reviews include one of the crop of books which have appeared on our Archbishop - already, I suppose, out of date in respect of someone who has made so many waves since his appointment, but reflecting how his personal experiences have shaped him - and one of some even more personal reflections by a cathedral poet-in-residence which will bring wry smiles to many. Then we have an introduction to our new Administrator who we hope will play a key part in our future life as Christine Alker has done in the past (more from Christine in a future edition), and we look forward to a day conference in memory of Marcus Borg.

And do not forget to book for this summer’s Annual Conference!  When the recording angel tots up influences on English spirituality over the past millennium, there is someone who has had more impact even than wave-making Archbishops or the heroes of Christian feminism, let alone the purveyors of Holy Socks in cathedral and church shops. That someone is William Shakespeare. By way of background to our theme for this year’s conference, I would venture to refer back to an editorial I wrote in this newsletter in 2010 entitled To thine own self be true (available on the Modern Church website). That editorial reports and enlarges upon some intriguing and radical questions about Shakespeare and Scripture - and ultimately about the relationship between religion and culture - which had been raised by Rowan Williams, long-time lover and interpreter of Shakespeare and our keynote speaker this coming summer. This could be a most exciting event, so, even if you are not a Shakespeare buff, or perhaps have unhappy memories of school plays, you will be missing something if you don’t come.

That underrated American process-theologian, Daniel Day Williams, was fond of asking whether we really believe that the Christian God is both Creator and Redeemer. For him, the affirmation that this was the case was a most radical statement indeed, because it meant taking the world, human culture, the ‘wisdom’ of creation, with ultimate seriousness alongside the Gospel and Scripture.

Of course Shakespeare, that great humanist, is not the sum total of human culture, nor is his complex world-view definitive or authoritative in any exclusive way. But as a case-study of what Williams was saying, of what that other Williams (Rowan) would also argue in rather different language, and of what our conference chair Alison Milbank’s beloved J R R Tolkien wrote in his famous essay On Fairy Stories in a radically different way again - Shakespeare could well take us to places where Modern Church needs to engage more deeply with culture and wisdom in general.  Join us on that possibly radical journey.