Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 71 - Oct 2018
Our annual conference this year on ‘Ritual, Worship and Culture’ came close at times to being dominated by the theme of death.
That comment requires a good deal of unpacking - not least because the conference managed, at the same time, to be a thoroughly life-filled affair, characterized by the frequent and welcome participation of baby Fergus (son of Hilary Topp, national co-ordinator of the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the customary inspiration, at the other end of the age spectrum, of the indomitable Mary Roe and irrepressible Sally Barnes - from whom see more below - among others.
We began by looking at the contemporary ways in which people search for identity through culture (including ritual). There was no wish to write off today’s lifestyles as a ‘culture of death’, in spite of the grim social, economic and political context which now forms a backdrop to all that we think and do. But, as we explored what identity means to younger people today, from the huge impact of social media to those of the gig economy and ever-growing consumerism, we could not help asking just where Life was in all this - and where the Church should be.
The last edition of this newsletter carried a brief obituary for Alex Elsmore who tragically took his own life at university; and it was striking just how many conference participants had children or grandchildren struggling with mental health issues of greater or lesser severity, as they face the increasing problem today of answering the key existential questions of life. Who am I? How should I live - given that I must one day die? These questions, to which the Church once had more or less officially recognized (if not universally accepted) answers, have not gone away, and cannot be suppressed by immersion in the rituals of shopping or online interaction.
And they are being asked, and the Church is trying to answer them in many places and in many ways. One of our presentations, and all of our worship, reflected the growth of New Monasticism, which seems to provide an identity and a meaning for an extraordinary range of people. But the more everyday life of the Church also provides examples, and a highlight of the conference was Sandra Millar’s presentation of her research on the responses of non-churchgoers to christenings, weddings and funerals, which still touch a remarkable proportion of the population. We hope to feature some of her findings in future editions; they not only provide new inspiration for those who have to administer such rites, but also give food for thought and hope to the rest of us - not least in the area of funerals, which can help to sum up the meaning of an individual’s life. We need, however, to listen before we can speak or act, and (as Angela Tilby trenchantly argued) not assume that off-the-shelf models, whether of the currently fashionable charismatic-evangelical sort or even perhaps of some versions of liberalism, can provide genuinely profound answers which people can freely and joyfully accept. People might not be queueing at our doors on the average Sunday morning, but there is a thirst, often latent, for genuine, open-minded and open-hearted help - pastoral and ritual - with finding identity, living the good life and preparing for a good death.
What then of Modern Church and its own work? We were reminded at the AGM that the ambitious work of our General Secretary Jonathan Draper cannot be supported for more than a few years unless we have a new influx of people and finance. Like the Church of England itself, we could easily buy into a narrative of decline and react with ever more frenetic activity. I trust that we are not going down that road - but we are certainly on the move.
We have a few, though still not enough, new and younger members of Council. The line-up of Trustees has so far altered less, though we have warmly welcomed David Simon as our new Treasurer, while his predecessor Rosalind Lund has stepped into the post of Secretary, and I have been elected as Vice-Chair to replace Tim Stead, while Alan Race continues as our Chair.
We are energetically promoting a deeper involvement in Greenbelt. We are working on both the format and the content of future Annual Conferences, with Religion in the public square (chaired by Elaine Graham) coming up in 2019 and - an inspired change to our earlier plans - a conference on gender and sexuality in 2020 (chaired by Adrian Thatcher).
We are seeking new ways of involving those who are not natural ‘joiners’ but whose ministry (clergy or lay) and whose very Christian identity depends on our work more than they realise. We are raising our profile in the media, both online and in print - including improvements in the management of Modern Believing, to be carried forward by the new managing editor Karen O’Donnell who took a full part in the conference.
Yes, there is death, and it is not ‘nothing at all’. It comes to us all - liberals and conservatives, believers and non-believers, the ‘religious’ and the ‘spiritual but not religious’ (and those who do not think of themselves as very ‘spiritual’ either). It may well come to organisations, religious and other. It may well come to the whole human race, and perhaps sooner than we should like to think.