Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 68 - Jan 2018

‘It’s all just theology’, we are told - and ‘theology’ by definition has little or no relevance to everyday life.

Theologians, it is said, are people who argue about how many angels can fit on the point of a pin. It was courageous, therefore, for our General Secretary Jonathan Draper to argue in our last edition that Modern Church’s role is first and foremost as a theological resource.

The theories and belief systems that lie behind everyday practical issues do matter. Consider Brexit. It is not just the complex technicalities but the principles behind them - the theology if you like - which seem irrevocably to divide the UK and the EU negotiators. We were told, at the time of the referendum, that ‘the British people’ were sick of government by ‘experts’. Well, we are a pragmatic nation, with a suspicion of grand theories and principles, notably unlike the alleged approach of French intellectuals (‘I see it works in practice, but does it work in theory?’)  Unfortunately, in a more and more complex world, expertise backed by theory and genuine fact is direly needed, and seems in some areas to be in short supply.

The issues here are not restricted to the Brexit debate. Both in our wider society and in the Church, there is a deepening worry about the divide between elites of all kinds and ‘ordinary people’. The category of ‘the working class’ is again rearing its head as the polar opposite of what former US Vice-President Spiro Agnew called ‘the pointy-headed intellectuals’, a classification into which, I suspect, most Modern Church members would fit.

St Paul, in his great passage in 1 Corinthians 12 about the Body of Christ, makes it clear that in a Kingdom-shaped society it will be the non-elites, the non-privileged, who are given the most honour, and that is a lesson for us all. But he does not suggest that those who have gifts should beat themselves up as a compensation for them - and certainly not that they should avoid using them.  There is currently some self-laceration in parts of the Church of England about the fact that we are so overwhelmingly middle-class (and have historically put such a premium on education, not least theological education for the clergy, if rather less for the laity). Again, certain verses in 1 Corinthians (1:18-25) can be quoted to suggest that it is the ‘simple believers’ who inherit the Kingdom, whilst the pointy-headed intellectuals are simply following ‘the wisdom of this world’. A challenge, certainly, but not one which should simply send us all off on a guilt-trip, or justify dumbing-down as an evangelistic strategy. It is a reminder that those who have been given certain gifts of wisdom should use them in service, and not as an excuse for looking down upon or excluding those whose gifts lie in different areas.

To preach the Christian faith relevantly, in a world so different from that of St Paul, requires a lot of thinking and argument. Our neighbours - including some who might be characterised as ‘working class’ (a very fluid concept now) but have far more access to education and culture than even their parents - have reasons in plenty to reject the message. Perhaps Modern Church has been gifted precisely for this hour - not to offer a new set of dogmas for the old, but to help people to live with questions. Not always perhaps with a single voice, but to share an assurance that an intellectual (as well as moral and spiritual) quest based on our Christian past but looking to the present and the future is a quest worth undertaking.

Questions about angels and pin-points may not matter very much - though, like the koans of Zen Buddhism, they may deepen awareness of eternal mysteries (and it is remarkable how many people claim to have evidence of the reality of angels).  Questions about the relationship between worship/spirituality and music - those raised by the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) church plant at St Sepulchre Without Newgate, on which Modern Church had something to say (see the news section of our website) - may matter rather more, though even there we will hear the voice of the tone-deaf who will regard the issues as ‘just so much theology’. Questions about gender and sexuality, as in the Mawer Report on the Philip North affair and the debate over the Nashville Statement (see Jonathan Draper’s blog posts on our website), are more obviously relevant to more people, which is why it is so desperately important for the Church’s thinking in that area to evolve from past negativities.

Indeed, one of the biggest reasons why spiritual searchers do not look to the Church is surely just this failure to come to terms with the complex issues around gender and sexuality. Another, however, is the shortage of pure visionary thinking about God and the world. One rare and excellent example of the latter is in Mark Oakley’s recent Donald Barnes Memorial Lecture on ‘reclaiming the mystery of faith’, which we felt deserved a far wider audience. There is a summary, and a link to the whole text, in the news section on our website, and I urge everyone to read it.

Perhaps not only our Church, faced with divisions and gloomy prognostications about its future leading to panic reactions, but even more our society with the huge issues facing it - from climate change to Brexit and the growth of populism - are balanced on the point of a pin. But perhaps we are in better company than we sometimes realise - particularly in this organisation. As Elijah discovered, and as we so often discover, those who are in some sense for us are more than those who are against us - and that is without counting the angels (as if one could...)

That, however, is not an excuse for complacency.  Modern Church members will know we are conducting a fundamental review of what we do and how we do it, beginning with communications. A great deal of effort and money goes into our paper publications (this one, but, far more, Modern Believing); is this the best investment of our limited resources - especially given recent delays in publication (for which the Trustees apologise)?

We are already seeing increasing impact through other traditional media such as the Church Times, and, even more, through online media (notably our own blog). Are these where our future priorities should lie? Or does a dependence on new media, and media controlled by others, lead to a danger than our theological contributions might too often be limited to 280 characters on Twitter? If so, how do we get across more substantial arguments which will endure longer than a reader’s attention span on a screen?

The account below of a day conference organised by our very active South West group illustrates another way forward. We need far more of such events. But, even without Storm Brian getting in the way, day conferences will never be accessible to all, and it is important that their findings should be widely reported. One way of doing that would be to distribute this newsletter more widely in our churches and other places. We know that the online version is widely read, but old-fashioned paper may still have its place, particularly for someone picking up a newsletter by chance at the back of a church. Our Council in March will discuss ways in which it might be made more attractive to such people.

There are many possible ways forward - our Trustees and Council will explore them all. Watch this space! Perhaps the pinhead can be more like a living tree-stump, sprouting new shoots in many directions.