Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 73 - April 2019


In our last edition, I made reference to the proposals for upgrading and updating this newsletter.  By the time you read this, they should have been further confirmed by our residential Council meeting in Leeds, which this year was unfortunately too late for a report in the April edition (something to look forward to in July!)  But this may be an opportunity for looking back as well as forwards.

The Church of England and other denominations, and Modern Church itself, have seen some momentous developments over the past few years, both in their own lives and, with some particular dramas (I need only mention Trump and Brexit), in the wider life of society.  Signs of the Times has sought to reflect these, but - as first responses to our questionnaire in the last issue are confirming - we need more contributors on such topical matters who will help us to think on their implications for Christians and others.  However, the big issue for Modern Church - the fault-line between a liberal faith and its more conservative manifestations - has not gone away, and these pages have mainly been a series of reflections on that.

Looking back at recent editions, I was particularly struck by the title of a book reviewed in our October 2018 edition:  God, Improv, and the Art of Living.  The term “improv” is of course familiar to all fans of jazz and stand-up comedy (and indeed quite a lot of theatrical and other performance).  A significant influence on my own thought was reading W H Vanstone’s seminal Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, in which he describes the process of creation, divine and human alike, as itself a sort of “improv” rather than the working out of a rigidly fixed plan.  I remember also that Richard Holloway somewhere refers to improvised jazz as an analogy for creation, co-creation and re-creation.

Of course, one can find passages in Scripture which speak of “God’s plan” as something fixed for all eternity. In outline, no doubt; but in detail?  Perhaps this is one of the points where the fault-line mentioned earlier is clearest. Those Christians who see a detailed and invariable plan in Scripture are those who are most likely to take a legalistic approach to faith and human behaviour, not least in the area of sexuality, and to deny fellowship to those who do not buy into such a vision (the deviants, presumably, being predestined to their fate). As we know, such approaches exist within the Anglican Communion and within the Church of England itself.  And it is at this point that Modern Church must remind such people of a truth to which Scripture itself bears witness (in the words after the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, and less clearly in some of Paul’s writings). Whilst there is a clear narrative thread in Christian tradition, from which we can hardly depart whilst still calling ourselves Christians, that does not mean that all the details of what we call revelation are fixed or final. As the Pilgrim Fathers recognised, there is “yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy Word”, and sometimes that may lead to apparent conflicts between the letter and the spirit, and challenges which some of our co-religionists cannot yet bear.

We are about to enter that period in the Church’s year when such differences of approach can be tested to the uttermost: our understandings of the Cross and the Resurrection. 

Some understandings of the Cross, if pushed to their literal conclusion, are pretty monstrous, picturing a God who demands punishment for sin, and if he can’t have it from us will have it from Jesus instead.  But that is not the only possible approach which is true to the Biblical imagery of “sacrifice” and “ransom”.  The work of Rene Girard and James Alison has taken to a new level our understanding of Jesus as the Scapegoat, carrying the brokenness of the world on behalf of all victims everywhere.  And, since all of us are to some extent both perpetrators and victims, there is – as I recently heard suggested in a powerful sermon – a sense in which it is to us, the human race (and perhaps all creation), that the ransom is paid, rather than to God or the Devil.  How well that fits in with Sydney Carter’s wonderful song Friday Morning: “It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me”.

I wonder how all that reads across to Lorraine Cavanagh’s article below on forgiveness?  However we understand the Cross, the concept of forgiveness would seem to be basic to the Gospel – and perhaps, as she suggests, especially relevant in the context of Brexit. Comments on this article would be particularly welcome.

The Resurrection poses a different set of issues, though James Alison in particular demonstrates to great effect how Cross and Resurrection must hang together. For some members of Modern Church, and many believers and half-believers, this is where another quote from Carter (followed by John Robinson) comes in: “But that I can’t believe!”  If we try to define in literal, quasi-scientific terms what happened on that first Easter morning, as post-Enlightenment fundamentalism tries to do, we get into serious trouble.  Surely we must say that something did happen, something which made an eternity of difference – but what it was, or rather is, must be beyond our comprehension.  And even the New Testament presents the story in a variety of registers, veering from an insistence at times on an almost crudely physical phenomenon to a very different and more mystical portrayal at others. This is one of those points at which, as Brenda Watson has been arguing in her series of articles, a purely scientific, materialistic approach to knowledge lets us down.   

This, then, is where the mission of Modern Church lies.  To respect the facts of reason and science a good deal more than our forebears have sometimes done, and to call out the purveyors of “alternative facts”, but also to keep open that area of knowledge/Wisdom which will not fit into the neat categories of literal description and over-definition.  This is an area where believers, individually and collectively, may be free to “improvise” within the bounds of a belief tradition which is generous enough to allow for that.  Who knows – in doing so, they may be imitators of God. 

That is, of course, if God is “real”.  Two articles in this edition relate to that question: David Simon’s article below, and, less directly, Adrian Alker’s invitation to an upcoming PCN conference.  I hope that others will want to respond to David; the “non-realist” approach has a place within Christian liberalism, but raises all sorts of questions – to which of course the PCN conference, with its remarkable line-up of speakers, may offer answers or at least clues.  I urge readers to join the debate!