Paul Brett reports on a recent conference seeking to reconnect today’s church with today’s world
from Signs of the Times No. 64 - Jan 2017

Aware that October 2017 sees the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, a group of Modern Church members arranged a day conference in Bath to begin to explore the current state of the churches and to seek ways forward. We called it ‘Do we need a new Reformation?’

On Saturday 15th October those present were confronted with a hard-hitting keynote address from Lorraine Cavanagh, writer and former university

Calling her talk ‘Reclaiming the Church – A view from the edge’, Dr Cavanagh spoke of people feeling disconnected from God as they find him in the local church with its structures and hierarchy. We see the church, she said, ‘further distorted by modern biblicism, various kinds of fundamentalism and other idolatries, including that of management’. The church has become an ‘organisation. But the church is not an organisation. It is the body of Christ’.

If it is to have a new reformation the church will ‘need to begin with a review of its concept of authority and resulting system of governance’. It ‘appears to those on the edges of its life to have lost sight of what it is really about – bringing the love of God and the presence of the risen Christ to the world’. The church needs to become a ‘sign of truth in its work of reconciliation and bridge building, a sign of life and hope … so that it can help others to hear and later embody new revelations of truth for our times’.
‘People who come to church are looking,’ Dr Cavanagh continued, ‘for something that will resonate with their search for meaning, in other words for genuine fulfilment’, for a prophetic church, ‘one which speaks into the unspoken yearnings of the human heart for God and which also grows as it learns from those it serves’.

The afternoon session of this day conference held in one of the meeting rooms at Bath’s Manvers Street Baptist church focussed on the so-called ‘Five Marks of Mission’. These, the audience heard, were developed by the Anglican Consultative Council In 1984, endorsed by the Church of England’s General Synod in 1996,and added to more recently. They were often taken as a popular mission statement for the churches. They were, in short: proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, nurturing new believers, and responding to human need, complemented by two stronger motives: seeking to transform unjust structures of society and pursuing peace and reconciliation, and safeguarding the integrity of creation.

Three breakout groups met to consider how the church could be the carrier of the new life for the new age under each of these headings. The idea that we needed transformation rather than reformation met with some general approval.

The conference concluded with plans to set up a Modern Church south west regional group to take forward the ideas generated by this stimulating meeting.

Luther’s theses gave a boost to the Protestant Reformation which changed Western Christianity for ever. The churches today face unprecedented challenges, though they are not the same as those of half a millennium ago. As Bishop John Saxbee had said in an article in the Church Times on 30 September, today’s church had to ‘reconnect with a culture that is increasingly in need of prophetic wisdom’.

There is a widespread spiritual yearning today in this modern dangerous and confusing world. People want to know what to think and how to act. Initiatives that simply present the same old story in fresh ways, or concentrate on seeking answers in more efficient organisation, or that form little more than part of our cultural inheritance in worship and custom, will not meet this underlying need. A more profound response is called for.

The conference was reminded that we met on the day dedicated to St Teresa of Avila (1582). It was she who said,

‘Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world… Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world’.

It is up to us to find ways to make this real today.

Canon Paul Brett is a retired priest living in Bath. He was formerly director of social responsibility in the diocese of Chelmsford and a residentiary canon of Chelmsford Cathedral.