Reflections from a Train

by David Marshall

from Signs of the Times, No. 29 - Apr 2008

When I started the membership administration job in January I was invited to attend a Standing Committee and a Council meeting. It's been good to meet everyone involved but I think it's in the nature of such events that they focus mainly on the practical, on what needs doing next. Reflecting on the Council meeting on the train home, I found myself thinking about the theology that led me to join MCU and back into identifying with Church in general over the last two or three years.

On the general question, I blame the serious discussion board on the Ship of Fools website. After slowly losing patience with church as I got older, here I found an online community that was at least willing to engage with just about any God or faith related question. Here I was able to piece together a way of thinking about God and Church that made sense again, that reconnected the dots of my Christian and life experience. In essence I think I was only constructing meanings for words that did not require faith I did not have. But in the process I discovered the foundations for a world view that could include God as a reality without the need for supernaturally revealed truth.

MCU with its liberal ethos offered a way to re-engage with the Church of England from where I now found myself theologically. Where that is continues to be a work in progress. But my journey so far makes me think that positions MCU is taking, for example over the Anglican Covenant, are not needed merely to redress a balance of traditions within Anglicanism. If the Church as a whole continues to present itself as a creed-based, salvation-offering institution, all the good in what it is and does looks likely to be lost, condemned to irrelevance and terminal decline by thoughtful, rational people.

The politics of the kind of change I think is needed will inevitably be difficult (an understatement, I suspect) but my feeling is that raising the profile of certain theological questions might clarify the issues. For example, what exactly do we mean by 'God'? The definition underlying most classical uses seems to be Anselm of Canterbury's, 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'. This has philosophical elegance but a fundamental flaw. By this definition, God has no necessary connection with reality as we experience it. In other words, theology that uses this definition may be internally consistent, it may make perfect logical and philosophical sense, but it doesn't follow from anything we can be sure of. There is no good reason to believe it reflects any ultimate reality or to rely on it as a basis for faith.

This kind of thinking obviously does not meet with universal agreement, especially from orthodox catholic and evangelical Christians. But another question, what do we mean by 'Church', makes it hard to dismiss out of hand. If our understanding of what Church is includes a commitment to God and to truth, how can we justify not carefully defining our terms and debugging our theology?

I don't want to say only what I don't believe, so I'll note in passing that I currently think of God as the eternal creative nature that is the cause of the universe. It's a role based in how reality seems to be from a human point of view, so unlike Anselm's definition it is grounded in what we can know. For Church, I take the universal catholic meaning to refer to those people in all times and places who are drawn to the values of eternity, and an institutional or local church a community expression of that universal Church in a particular time and place.

I didn't get far with my thinking on the train. A long day, unfamiliar places and new people, work messages to deal with. I still find the thought of Sunday services uninspiring, the noises surrounding Lambeth bewildering, and the challenges facing the Church daunting. But picking up those thoughts here I don't feel discouraged. That must mean MCU is doing something right.

Dave Marshall is a software developer and former youth worker. He looks after membership administration and the website.