Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 63 - Oct 2016

As this year’s conference secretary, I am hardly the person to give an unbiased account of our 2016 Annual Conference, but Jonathan Clatworthy’s article in this issue gives something of its flavour.

Here indeed were shared conversations that did not fail, in which a wide range of contributors, not all of them self-identified liberals, offered the fruit of their reflections on Shakespeare and faith in a way which manifestly excited even those participants who did not see themselves as followers of the Bard. Perhaps, as Brenda Watson’s article in our last edition implied, his works are the nearest thing we in the English-speaking world have to the sort of shared ‘grand narrative’ whose absence Jonathan seems to regret. But we immediately come across a paradox.

Rowan Williams, who made a memorable contribution to the conference, only mentioned in passing his new play Shakeshafte. Few of us have been privileged to see the script of that play, let alone to watch a performance, since it has so far only seen the light of day in his native Swansea. However, the English premiere takes place in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 3rd and 5th November; for details see the church website (stratford-upon-avon.org) or contact me. Unsurprisingly, it is a play of ideas, envisaging a meeting in Lancashire between the teenage Shakespeare and the Jesuit missionary Edmund Campion, who is trying to win the young man to his own cause. Priest meets poet - and Rowan is both - and the debate centres, precisely, on the idea of a grand narrative.

Campion and his supporters are seeking to restore the ‘old religion’ in its dramatic fullness: the Mass, confession, pilgrimage, the Christian year, and not least the representation of the key Christian themes in the mystery plays. All this together constitutes the grand narrative which holds up a mirror to ourselves and tells us who we are - which thus will make sense once again of individual lives and, not least, the life of a confused and divided nation.

The youthful Shakespeare feels the pull of this, and the idea of drama as a mirror is one which finds expression in his later work. But, though no supporter of Protestantism, he sees all too clearly that - once people have realised that alternative accounts of reality are possible - the old grand narrative has lost its magical capacity to give universal meaning. So he speaks of a diversity of voices in his head, which will eventually be embodied in his plays, and the last thing he is about is any attempt at a new grand narrative!

This edition includes strong statements on the Gospel of liberalism from Alan Race and Ian Robins. They are not identical; Race’s contribution is much more systematic - in fact not far off a declaration of the ‘grand narrative’ of religious modernism. That by Robins is a cri de coeur from a liberal in a conservative diocese (embracing Hoghton Tower where Shakeshafte is set). Both express unease about ‘traditional’ understandings of Atonement, the whole paradigm of sin and salvation which lies behind these, and the liturgical language in which it is expressed. In this, they seem to parallel in a remarkable way the plans for a regional day conference in Bath this October which we have advertised recently (see modernchurch.org.uk/mc-events/new-reformation). But - as, I suspect, that conference will do! - they reflect slightly different perspectives and offer no simple agreement.

We see here the diversity of Modern Church. We have no ‘orthodoxy’, radical or otherwise, though many of us would acknowledge that the more ‘orthodox’ may have a valid witness. We struggle with the tradition, but know how to live with the provisional. Within those parameters ‘all human life is here’. As it is in Scripture itself. As it is in Shakespeare.

We certainly need to ask questions about some of our scriptural and liturgical texts, if we are to make worship and the Gospel relevant and honest. I remember the late Austen Williams of St Martin in the Fields beginning a sermon on a particular passage with some words such as ‘This is manifest rubbish’, and it might be good to hear that more often. But he still found the passage useful as a basis for his sermon. Simply to abandon the more difficult aspects of our tradition might be throwing out the baby with the sometimes rather murky bathwater. We are inheritors of a faith from people who believed in ways in which we cannot now believe, but whose ways of belief appeared relevant at the time and just might still have something to teach us.

So we have narratives, but they are not grand. Pondering on the mystery plays and on Shakeshafte, some of us may wish that we could recapture aspects of the pre-modern world view; perhaps, for all the violence and squalor, it really was a less atomised and spiritually brutal world than we inhabit today. Yet all of us know that there is no going back; Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment have happened, within Western Christendom at least, and nothing can be the same. Or is that really the case? How far do we use that trinity of ideological changes as itself a grand narrative to be idolised?

There has long been a debate within Modern Church about the relative merits and relevance of ‘modernism’ - that grand narrative, in everything from religion to architecture, about the inevitability of human progress aided by the universal application of science, to which our way of thinking has historically owed a good deal - and ‘postmodernism’ in which all grand narratives are relativised if not dissolved. Perhaps, in Rowan’s eyes, Shakespeare is a postmodernist before his time. But he acknowledges the power of Campion’s voice, even though his own vision seems to leave no place for the sort of absolutist belief for which such as Campion were ready to die. He also foreshadows one of the important mini-narratives of our day, the opening up of new approaches to gender, sex and sexuality; the play makes rather more reference to teenage sexual experimentation and its possible deeper meanings than some might expect from the pen of a former Archbishop!

One significant event at the Conference was the launch of a new book in our Forewords series by Adrian Thatcher on Gender Inclusive Language and Worship (see modernchurch.org.uk/news 7for full detail). This was in response to a request by Council for some guidance on this thorny problem. It coincides closely with the publication of Adrian’s book Redeeming Gender (OUP) of which we will certainly be hearing more in these pages and elsewhere. Issues about gender, and their expression in language, are not as simple as they look, and it was perhaps not unreasonable that the linguistic conventions at the conference should follow those of Shakespeare’s time more closely than those of our own!

On a different topic, alas, I have to report that yet more leading members of Modern Church have gone before us into what Henry Vaughan called ‘the world of light’. Clare Nicholson, until very recently on Council, died of cancer in July, and Jean Barnett has written below a particularly moving obituary of her. Her warmth, humour and wisdom will be sorely missed. And as this issue goes to press we have news that she has been joined by Paddy Lewin, of whom I hope for a remembrance in our next edition. I trust that it is not inappropriate to pray ‘May they rest in peace and rise in glory’.

And if there is a grand narrative in the mind of God, whose voice they heard in life perhaps more clearly than many of us, may they discover that in eternity.