by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019

It is a great delight for me to lead this edition with an article by a new contributor, responding to her experience of Forest Church at our Annual Conference last summer.

We need more like this! And she says that, when the article appeared in her parish magazine, she had many favourable comments; that may not translate into new members of Modern Church, but it certainly extends our influence, in this case in a parish where she feels often to be a lone ‘liberal’ voice. And so our call to the Church to open its heart and mind, and the varied responses of those who hear it, continues. As it did at Greenbelt, where our General Secretary reported to Trustees that our enhanced profile made a real impact amongst the huge numbers who attended (see also his post on our website at the end of September, Modern Church, Greenbelt and Pussy Riot).

So often we feel like a voice crying in the wilderness and forget just how much impact that particular voice has had on human history. The outcomes of the ‘numbers game’ may sometimes depress us as they do so much of the wider Church, but they are never the whole story. We are told that younger people don’t join organisations nowadays, and that the very idea of ‘membership’ is counter-cultural; and we continue wrestling with what implications this might have for the future of an organization like Modern Church.

Having said that - as far as we can see, if our work and our influence are to continue, new members are needed! To quote a common pulpit exhortation, if each of us could recruit one new member it would make quite a difference. But most of us would end up recruiting people from our own age group - and it is often argued that both the Church as a whole and Modern Church desperately need younger members who will guarantee the future. 

That call to younger generations is needed, and challenging - hence Modern Church’s presence at Greenbelt and on social media, plus our involvement of students at Annual Conference. But an excessive pursuit of youth could destroy some of the very things we have to offer. Who, of any age, would want to join a church, or any other group, where the existing older members felt their sense of community had been lost because of over-focusing on younger generations, and where alienation rather than mutual love and support had become the keynote? I am aware of one church which apparently relegated the ‘oldies’ to a once-a-month hole-in-corner service on a Sunday afternoon. When that parish went into vacancy, the advert for a new incumbent made it clear, reading between the lines, that the Diocese regarded it as a ‘failing’ church. I wonder why. 

Secular organisations have similar problems. I recently had an interesting discussion with the national CEO of The Arts Society of whose Stratford-upon-Avon Branch my partner is Chair. Once upon a time, local arts organisations of this type would have depended for their volunteers on non-working married women in early middle age. Now, that sort of person hardly exists, because they almost all work. So the core of most local societies is formed of retired people. But even they may have new pressures of inter-generational care. Recruitment of younger members to ‘guarantee the future’ has become well-nigh impossible, but even older members are not as available as they once were. The problem of recruiting people who have time and energy to make an active contribution and provide continuity, then, is a challenge to such organisations. But there is also an opportunity, because, as people age within a society which is increasingly individualistic and consumerist, they become more reflective and hungrier for meaningful community engagement to make their later years worthwhile. Does this have lessons for the Church in general and for us in particular? 

Part of our ‘call’ is of course this very newsletter. It may not be the best way to evoke a response from all, which is why so much attention has also been paid to our website and social media. But it remains important. The meeting of Trustees in October devoted some time to discussing it. We agreed that we still need a medium which would be primarily for sharing of news and ideas and mutual support between Modern Church members, but also (and very importantly) a shop-window for our convictions and work, which ought to be distributed far more widely (whether to casual church droppers-in, ordinands in theological colleges, or even the secular media). The latter, however, might have some implications about how our wares are presented, in terms both of the design of the newsletter and, to some extent, its contents.  We are taking professional advice on the design but, as to the content, we want to hear more from you, our readers. 

The Trustees have constituted a formal editorial team consisting of myself, Chris Savage, Lorraine Cavanagh and Jonathan Draper, and room for perhaps another member. We have designed a short questionnaire which we would very much like you to answer, which you will find elsewhere in this edition (see PDF download). Please return it to our General Secretary Jonathan Draper by email or post (details on the questionnaire). Thank you so much - your views really are valuable to us! 

This edition contains many riches apart from Janet Carpenter’s article. There is a challenging contribution from Jonathan Clatworthy about what we can learn from the early Church - and it is good to know that Frances Young, whom I knew as a young theologian half a century ago(!), still has much to say. In our book reviews, Tim Stead (who led the Forest Church workshop about which Janet writes) makes another appearance as the author of a new book; and there are many other books of interest, the majority of them falling under the heading of ‘theology in the public square’ - a theme also addressed in Brenda Watson’s article, and a good reminder that that is the theme of our 2019 annual conference. Is this sort of balance right? Are there other themes which you would like to see reflected, and/or on which you might like to contribute? Have your say! 

I mentioned above that we had been thinking about how to attract financial and other support from those many sympathisers who might not wish to become full members. One idea which is gaining currency amongst the Trustees is to institute a category of ‘supporters’ who for a modest donation would be able to keep in touch with us, but would not be full members with voting rights, and would not receive Modern Believing - which is an important part of our mission, not least in the academic world, but is undoubtedly expensive and (though a good read for anyone with any serious theological interest) might not be for everyone. We might think of using the sort of structure used by some other organisations - one which would offer two or three tiers of (modest) privileges for various (equally modest) levels of donation. If Trustees and Council decide to go with this idea, then in due course our website will offer the opportunity to join our ‘supporters’ club.

I have said ‘in due course’ for two reasons. First, Council in March may need to be given a further chance to consider the issues. But the second reason is sadder. Our Communications Officer, Kieran Bohan, has just stepped down due to other commitments. Kieran has done a spectacular job in improving the quality of our ‘call’ online, and we shall miss him greatly. The Trustees have moved quickly to replace him, and we meet his successor in this issue. However, it may take some time before changes to the system can be put into place.

In the meantime, an issue which has affected many in Modern Church has been the controversy surrounding Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church and one of our Vice-Presidents. It seems that his dispute with his college Governing Body has nothing to do with any strictly religious issues, and as such is not one on which Modern Church, as a charity with specific objects, can take a position. That said, it could be argued that his attempt to modernize an antiquated institution stems from his own liberal and engaged faith: ‘theology in the public square’ again? However this saga plays out, he surely has our personal support and prayers, and our assurance that we will seek to find ways to provide a continued platform for his creative thought and influence on the Church. In November, our President, Linda Woodhead, interviewed Oxford historian Professor Gillian Evans in order to throw some light on Martyn Percy’s predicament. At the time of writing, it has had more than 4000 views in three weeks. If you haven’t read it, follow the link our website homepage.

The ‘call’ embodied in this newsletter and our other communications media, and in our conferences and other activities, and in the sometimes costly stands taken by our leaders, members and supporters, is not a call to ‘salvation’, however we understand that word; but those who respond to the call may be contributing, in ways none of us can foresee, to the ‘salvation’ of others, and of the Church itself which sorely needs it! What is your response?