Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 62 - Jul 2016

One aspect of the church growth movement, to which Guy Elsmore refers in his current series of articles, is the promotion of the ‘eight essential qualities’ of Natural Church Development (ncd-uk.com).

These have captivated my own Diocese of Coventry, and some others, to an extent which can border on the idolatrous. But in themselves they can be useful tools for analysis, provided we remember they are not quite as neutral between different Christian traditions as they claim. They originally came out of a US Protestant tradition which tends to the conservative and the charismatic. For the rest of us, they require some translation.

Some, such as ‘inspiring worship’ and ‘loving relationships’, are blindingly obvious (or are they?)  The most controversial in my locality has been ‘passionate spirituality’. Does ‘passionate’ necessarily imply, for example, developing the feelings that lead some to wave their arms in the air during worship?  In that case, some would feel deeply uneasy, and have said so at Diocesan Synod and elsewhere.

We British (or at least we white Anglo-Saxons) are not keen on what Yeats called ‘passionate intensity’ of any kind, except perhaps on the football field or at pop concerts. Unease with any kind of charismatic, emotional approach to faith goes back a long way.

Thus, famously, Dr Johnson on John Wesley:

‘Sir, the pretending to special gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing’.

Yet Johnson’s own spirituality, classically Calvinist, was pretty intense in its own way. And there is a whole tradition of ‘passionate’ mediaeval and post-mediaeval Catholic spirituality, from the devotio moderna through the Counter-Reformation, perhaps culminating in Bernini’s notorious sculpture of St Teresa of Avila pierced by the spear: not just passionate but positively erotic. Classical Protestantism, not to be outdone, focused on the emotions stirred by music, and gave us the St Matthew Passion. Closer to our own time, poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and R S Thomas have exerted influences on spirituality which are by no means devoid of passion.

In the first of his articles, in the last issue, Guy suggested that one of the gifts liberals have for the Church of England might be our general ‘laid-back-ness’, at a time when anxiety about the future is running so high and the powers that be are behaving like headless chickens. On the whole (he implies) we Modern Church folk don’t do passionate - we are hyper-rational, and therefore useful antidotes to the intensity of others. I identify with a lot of that. Perhaps many of the 2000-plus readers who accessed that article on our blog do so too.

But there are dangers in our sometimes very cerebral, objective and laid-back approach. We can fail to connect with many other people, and Linda Woodhead challenged Council last year to appreciate that, for some, the intellect might not be the principal point of encounter with Truth. We can also fail to connect with aspects of ourselves, and that in turn makes more difficult the sort of outreach to which Guy calls us.

During Lent this year, as I often do, I re-read portions of the works of Harry Williams, that theological icon for so many of us in the 1960s. I was struck afresh by how ‘religious’ this allegedly godless heretic actually was. God was an intense reality to him, initially as a sadistic idol but later as a true mystery of infinite and life-changing depth. Passionate spirituality?  I should say so. He makes me feel like the shallowest of agnostics by comparison. Of course, through his engagement with psychoanalysis, he dug far below the depths of the conscious and rational at which most of us operate most of the time. I wonder how many of us are able, or dare, to operate at that level?

Guy himself, and before him Martyn Percy (at our 2014 annual conference), have made it clear that we as liberals simply cannot allow passionate spirituality to be the preserve of others. We do have a Gospel to proclaim, and Guy’s second article below – also making waves on our blog - reflects a passion for church growth, with integrity, that might surprise some non-liberals. As he recognises, some of his views will raise important theological issues for many Modern Church members – do please give us your responses in future articles or letters!  His recent and very welcome appointment as Archdeacon of Buckingham, taking him that little bit closer to the heart of the C of E establishment and offering new possibilities for the influence of Modern Church on that establishment, makes his arguments all the more important, and we need to engage with them.

Yet many of us are uneasy about the current shibboleths of church growth. We belong to Modern Church precisely because we have intensely questioning minds, about the precise nature of the church’s mission and much else, even to the point of an innate scepticism. We may believe that scepticism is itself a gift from God, one which is not listed in 1 Corinthians 12 but is still a valid contribution to the Body of Christ. (I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Before God and with God we live without God’.) But how do we translate that into a passionate spirituality for ourselves, let alone something communicable to others?

Our Vice-Chair Tim Stead is something of an apostle of mindfulness, which some would say is an old spirituality (both Christian and non-Christian, not least Buddhist) now converted into a secular methodology of wellbeing. His book, reviewed below, makes a case for seeing mindfulness and Christian spirituality as being not identical but on a continuum. Is a spirituality that builds on mindfulness, then, one possible answer?  Not all of us will engage with particular meditation techniques, but perhaps more of us can learn other ways of living in the present moment, and relating that to the Christian message and tradition (I recommend dog-walking).

What we cannot promise, to ourselves or to others, is some sort of blinding revelation, the ‘blessed assurance’ of the hymn, or even the sort of trust-enabling knowledge of which Peter Enns writes (see book review in our last edition) and which is profoundly reflected in John Hall-Matthews’ review of Tim’s book. I have encountered many people to whom, it seems, such experiences are simply not accessible. Like the Russian poet Yevtushenko in King’s College Chapel, quoted by John Robinson, they point at the architectural or other evidences of spiritual exaltation and say ‘Me – means nothing’. Furthermore, those who do lay claim to experiences of personal relationship with the Divine, and proclaim them as being at the heart of the Gospel, rarely acknowledge the extent to which those experiences are processed through our own personalities, so that the God/Jesus/Spirit whom they claim to know so intimately may be, in some measure at least, an idol of their own subconscious construction - just like Harry Williams’ initial perception of God.

Now, all that is a pity, because in a consumer age, notwithstanding our British phlegm, it is the dramatic ‘personal’ knowledge of Jesus (and maybe even the arms-in-the-air response) which might seem to be most saleable, if any form of spirituality is. The quiet ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action’ commended by T S Eliot, unpassionate as it may seem, may be very meaningful to some of us, and not least Martyn Percy in his constant commendation of classical Anglicanism; but the immediate attraction sought by so many, especially younger, modern consumers simply is not there. The research Guy quotes suggests distinctiveness is a major ‘selling point’ for churches, and, whilst there are certainly distinctive liberal and catholic churches which are growing, it seems to be those in the broadly charismatic/evangelical tradition who ‘have the best tunes’ (literally so, if you are a Matt Redman enthusiast). Many mainstream churches lack that ‘unique selling point’, and may find it hard to develop a different one, perhaps especially in rural areas where they simply have to be all things to all people.

I recently encountered a case study on this very topic. As the co-ordinator in my Deanery for Parish Share matters, I went with my Area Dean to discuss such issues with a group of very rural parishes which are in some trouble in terms of finance and numbers. It had become clear that most of the trouble arose from the appointment to these rather traditional parishes of an incumbent who had a somewhat charismatic background and a great dedication to Natural Church Development. That incumbent has now, rather suddenly, moved on. The resulting release of energy amongst those we talked to was breathtakingly palpable. To be sure, the incumbent may have served as ‘grit in the oyster’ and stimulated some innovation which opened up long-term potential in new areas – but the grit had left the oyster very sore indeed, and in serious numerical and financial decline. Freed at last from that grit, the people were now prepared to take their time to exercise more local leadership and consider quite new patterns of ministry – which may well be undramatic, and too ‘conventionally Anglican’ for some of our growth enthusiasts, but could well result in growth nevertheless: growth with integrity in their situation.

Or perhaps not – or not yet. As was hinted in the Church Times during the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ week of national prayer before Pentecost, we may need to bite the bullet and accept that in the current climate our ‘product’ really is hard to ‘sell’ – that the Church may simply not experience significant growth in our time, and possibly ought not even to try too hard, if it risks losing its own soul in the process, as those rural parishes had, perhaps, very nearly done.

Do we, then, as part of our service to the wider community, need to help develop a passionate spirituality for the unspiritual (or at least firmly unchurched)? If so, we should surely begin by questioning any assumption that those who cannot access conventional religious experience (prayer, meditation and the like, church-based or otherwise) are thereby ‘unspiritual’. I have given some instances from the arts, from architecture through music to poetry, which may resonate deeply with those who would not see themselves as religious. And the message in Brenda Watson’s article below seems to confirm that Shakespeare, in particular, might be able to channel a spirituality which may not fit any conventional Christian categories but is, somehow, Christian at its deepest level.

There is in this, as (if we are honest) in much of what Modern Church does, a certain danger of cultural elitism. Names such as Manley Hopkins do not trip off everybody’s tongue, and it is precisely the difficulty of his poetry which communicates its riches. Likewise the divine music of Bach is ‘caviar to the general’, and even sixteenth-century fan vaulting is not to everyone’s taste. Nor, indeed, is Shakespeare, despite the exposure he has received in this 400th anniversary year. Yet I am struck constantly by the popularity of arts programmes on TV; we should not assume that only we over-educated types are cultured!  For that matter, the growth of ‘prayer and painting’ retreats, and other religious events which make use of the arts in spirituality, appears to be successful and popular also, even if so far to a more limited clientele. So, is this an area where we should somehow do more?  If so, how?          

Some of us may be no better at painting than we are at praying, but we may (as I suggested above) respond most powerfully to other arts – music being perhaps the most emotionally and spiritually potent, but also poetry, literature, or drama. Who knows whether, out of this year’s conference on Shakespeare and faith, something new may emerge. And, just as in the last issue I foreshadowed our 2017 conference on the nature of God, so now I foreshadow the plans for the 2018 conference on liturgy, religious and secular – which may also open up new paths for knowledge and celebration of a less individualistic or cerebral kind. Perhaps at some stage, too, we could take a tip (pun intended) from Bernini and focus more on the erotic dimension of spirituality as well?  Harry Williams did that in various ways – and, by crooked paths, it not only brought him to life abundant, but through his writings must have brought many others as well.

And while I think about those who have inspired others, directly or indirectly, I must here pay tribute to Alan Wolfe, who has for quite a few years acted as book reviews editor for this newsletter, and has brought to our attention many publications that are at least interesting and often inspiring. He now feels the need to step down. Whilst I will be seeking to recruit a replacement for him through other means, perhaps some reader may feel moved to offer?  A passionate intensity about the best kind of liberal religious writing (there is more of it about than we sometimes imagine), such as Alan himself has demonstrated, is the first qualification, though it helps also to have some knowledge of those in our membership (or indeed others) who are best equipped to review such writing. I look forward to hearing from volunteers!

That is by no means the only post in Modern Church to be filled. If you receive this before the AGM, please consider whether you could stand for Council this year; we always welcome new blood. Council members serve for three years, in order to provide continuity; they have one annual residential meeting, an invariably rewarding affair at which key issues of Modern Church strategy are discussed, plus a short meeting after each AGM at which Trustees for the coming year (who have rather more to do!) are elected. It is generally from Council members that key activists are drawn, from Annual Conference secretaries - whose role includes the practical and also the creative tasks of putting together this flagship event -  to contributors to the exciting ‘Modern Church course’ (aka ‘alternative to Alpha’) which Guy and others are developing, and which could be a crucial means of taking forward some of the ideas which I have set out above.

 And please also read Rosalind Lund’s appeal at the end of this edition. The tasks of treasurers may seem a world apart from passionate (let alone erotic) spirituality, but as a PCC treasurer myself I would argue that such roles are not just necessary backroom jobs to keep the show on the road – though they certainly are that – but responsibilities with real theological and spiritual challenge.

Where are you being called?