Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 61 - Apr 2016

A Modern Church supporter within my congregation is a great enthusiast for the poetry of Walt Whitman. I have never really got on with Whitman myself, but one stanza of his has resonance with me:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
I contain multitudes.

This can be read as an extremely pompous and self-satisfied statement, or as an expression of the Boston mysticism which Whitman shared with such as Emily Dickinson. It is probably both, but I prefer to focus on the latter interpretation.

In the climate of thought which gave rise to theosophy, Whitman was aware that the boundaries between human beings are permeable, and that there may be no such thing as a fixed or final separate ‘I’. All of us, in a sense, contain multitudes – parts of all those people, and perhaps even non-human entities, with which we have related in any way.

If that is true of us, it is most certainly true of that ultimate reality which we call God.

Susie Stead, below, argues that Tim Belben (in an article in this journal six months ago) was right to recognise that the constant use of the masculine pronoun limits God, but wrong to look for a gender-neutral alternative. God is He and She and It – and, I would argue, most certainly also They. The doctrine of the Trinity may be a stumbling-block for some readers, but perhaps it can at least be taken as a recognition of a sort of plurality in the Divine which mitigates some of the problems and narrowness of strict monotheism. Even in the Old Testament, the use of the plural Elohim for God suggests an awareness that this One God also, somehow, is more than one – contains multitudes, in fact.

Susie notes the way that the early Church took over the festival of Saturnalia and of the goddess Eostre. All this, too, is surely part of the multitudes that God contains. Christian belief should certainly not be constrained by the metaphysics of Greco-Roman, Celtic, or Hindu mythology, but would do well to learn from them all.

Of course that has many implications for Modern Church. Not only in terms of the understanding of the Divine, but in terms of practical theology.

On New Year’s Day, in her Church Times column, Angela Tilby said outright something which many are feeling but seem until recently to have been reluctant to say openly. Our Church has become too dominated by Evangelicals, who give a special authority to the picture of God, and the demands of personal faith, which they see as contained in Scripture – though their beliefs on those points are usually procrustean rationalisations of diverse and difficult concepts. They find it hard to accommodate the considerable multitudes who cannot accept such a credo, and they logically regard ‘multitudinism’ as a dirty word. We as Modern Church, on the other hand, stand for the breadth of Anglicanism. Our church - the English Anglican part of the Body of Christ, or whatever other branch individual members may represent - most certainly contains multitudes, and none are excluded.

Many of them (of us), like Christopher Hallpike who features in another article below, feel obliged to question the authoritarian, deontological approach to ethics which such a Biblicism seems to imply. Even whilst taking scripture and tradition seriously, we wrestle with questions such as the source of authority in ethics and spirituality. Similarly, colleagues such as our Australian correspondent John Bunyan feel able to question exactly the Trinitarian belief which, I have implied, is adumbrated in this idea of ‘containing multitudes’. And Robert Baldwin insists on the essential compatibility and interrelationship of Christian faith and evolution in a way which, even now and even in the UK, would not be comfortable for all those wearing an evangelical label.

Others in the churches – not all of them evangelicals – feel uncomfortable with all this questioning, this apparent inability to accept the authority of the Truth given to us. We have to try to understand their convictions. But this cuts both ways. St Paul faced very similar issues in the churches of Rome and Corinth, and – whilst from time to time feeling obliged to draw his own lines in the sand – generally wanted people on both sides of such arguments to be included and to hold together in charity. So far as lies in us, we surely seek that also, and want to see a Church which provides a safe framework for godly disagreement. Whilst Angela, and those who think like her, might not necessarily feel able to endorse everything in this editorial, or everything that Modern Church stands for, I am sure they would be at one with us in this.

We therefore particularly welcome and celebrate those of our fellow human beings (not just Christians) who most manifestly and successfully ‘contain multitudes’. One supreme example is Shakespeare - if you have not yet signed up for our Annual Conference on that theme for this year, I urge you now to do so. But we are also now looking towards our 2017 conference, which will more directly address our understanding of the Divine including such issues as unity and plurality. In this we will be led by our President, Linda Woodhead, whose own understanding of practical theology, informed by her outstanding work on the sociology of religion, gives her a unique insight into such questions.

Modern Church itself, of course, contains multitudes – though not as many as we should like, and only a small proportion of those who ‘think what we’re thinking’. At our recent Council meeting, we discussed initiatives for increasing membership.

One was an update of our charitable objectives. This is not a simple matter, because such objectives have to be in a form approved by the Charity Commission, which might or might not be effective in communicating to potential supporters and others. We made remarkable progress, and some new and simpler objectives may be in place before the AGM.

Another is outreach to students. We have already decided upon, and publicised, a reduced subscription rate of £10 for those in full-time education, be they sixth-formers or doctoral students. Students prepared to assist at our conferences already get to attend free, and we are hopeful that we can soon 
offer concessions to groups of students attending together. Furthermore, we are beginning to consider a joint outreach programme with our partner organisation SCM, which may also involve a promotion within higher education institutions of the ‘alternative to Alpha’ course for parishes, on which another group is working. None of this effort will automatically or quickly translate into new and younger members. Like the Church at large, we have a minority of such members, and we need to treasure them, because they are the future - and it may well be they, primarily, who recruit their peers. But we need to be more open to them. There is room for concern about the tendency, in some parts of the Church, to be obsessional about recruitment of ‘yoof’ at pretty much any price, and Guy Elsmore’s article below about church growth is relevant. Such an obsession is not likely to appear in Modern Church, but we certainly need to listen to the younger generation about their needs and expectations.

Part of that is the role of social media. Around the turn of the year, our website featured articles by Martyn Percy in preparation for the Primates’ Meeting (whose outcome disappointed so many, but was perhaps not quite as negative as it might have been). More recently, he has written on the Reform and Renewal programme within the Church of England – an article which again picks up Guy’s theme. The impact of these articles, widely publicised through Facebook and Twitter, has been astonishing, with website hits and downloads running into four figures in each case. Whether any of that has affected or will affect the debates on these matters can never be known, but it is an object-lesson in extending our reach. We most certainly do not want to abandon our more traditional activities of publications and conferences; indeed there may still be room to extend them. But newer media need to be taken seriously.

Council also, however, took an interest in conventional media. Shortly before the Council meeting, the Church Times published a number of supplements on ‘Theology today’. The various contributions, at least in the earlier supplements, were for the most part monochrome and rather boring. There was little or no representation of the liberal tradition in theology, nor of any of the new theological strands such as black, queer, liberationist or even feminist. Linda Woodhead and Elaine Graham organised a protest letter about the absence of such voices, attracting a quite remarkable range of signatures. Not all of us agreed about the style of that intervention, but it just may have opened up a space for dialogue between Modern Church and other traditions, not least Radical Orthodoxy. Such a dialogue may well need both more courage and more humility than has been shown in recent interactions. But it is surely central to the project which Guy’s article addresses, and hence to the very being of Modern Church.

They drew a circle that shut us out –
Heretic, Rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that brought them in!

So shall the Church contain multitudes.