Religio rediviva

Editorial by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times, No. 33 - Apr 2009

"There is probably no God". "There definitely is a God". "Oh no there isn't." "Oh yes there is." The sides of London buses are beginning to look like pantomime scripts. Whoever said that religious debate - and religion itself - was dead?

At the beginning of this year, our TV watching was enlightened and entertained by Peter Owen Jones' series Around the World in 80 Faiths. Owen Jones is an attractive figure: clearly a committed Anglican priest, but one profoundly aware of the inadequacy and incompleteness, not only of his personal faith and discipleship but of the tradition which he represents, and longing to learn from others. In this series he reminded us of the sheer diversity and frequent bizarreness of religion - and although the Anglican version of Christianity was not represented as such, I feel he would have had no hesitation in pointing out its absurdity also. So here we have some paradoxes: a clearly passionate believer in a specific faith, who is open enough to experience other faith practices which are deeply alien to him; a simultaneous demonstration of the utter absurdity of most if not all religion, and of its effective power and lasting attraction; and an anthropological travelogue on a very secular TV channel (and prime-time too) in a very secular age, which is exclusively focused on that allegedly dying breed homo religiosus.

Forty years ago, even many Christians believed that religion was dead - aided and abetted by the Barthian argument that Christianity was not about "religion" anyway.(I wonder what Barth would have made of the Owen Jones programme?) Harvey Cox's The Secular City, published in the mid-1960s, was the apogee of such thinking. Today - and even more with the current challenge to the secular market economy - it is that thinking which appears dead in the water, despite all the attempts by the thoroughgoing secularists to revive it. Hence Jonathan Clatworthy's article below - which I expect would find resonance with liberal Christianity's self-styled critics in the Radical Orthodox movement to which I referred in the last edition.

MCU has probably always looked at least two ways on the questions which are raised in this debate. Today, as we discuss what we are and where we are going, we are finding many different tendencies represented in our ranks. There is a common unease with exclusive religious truth-claims, and yet within our ranks we find many very definite believers, in some ways quite traditional, who would want to affirm rather more than simply that their faith is true for them. There are those for whom Cox's assertions of the autonomy of the secular would still ring true and indeed define their faith; others who might be more sympathetic with his later apparent attraction to New Age thinking (whose religiosity is beyond dispute); and yet others who want to call us back to key elements of the tradition, not least in matters of ritual and spirituality, whilst accompanying this with a profound questioning of old dogmas both credal and ethical. That questioning spirit, and not least the mutual acceptance which accompanies it - even alongside strong personal convictions - is surely the glue which binds MCU together.

Put another way, we at once half-repudiate, and yet half-affirm, all the following propositions:

  • Religion is a good thing in principle, and all religions may contain some truth, some spark of the Divine - seemingly Owen Jones' position and that of Hinduism and the New Age
  • Religion is a bad thing in principle, purely man-made and all too human, and all religions are more or less false - the secularists' position and in a somewhat odd sense that of Barth and the post-Barthians also
  • One religion (ours) is good and true and all the rest are bad and false - the typical position of traditional Christianity and Islam amongst others.

Here truly is paradox and the via negativa.

Whilst other articles in this edition focus yet again on the burning current issues in the Anglican Communion, it is right that we should continue to face up to these more fundamental questions. It is too easy to see the battle-lines drawn between "conservatives" and "liberals", first on specific issues like gender and sexuality, then on more basic ones like the nature of Scriptural and Church authority, and ultimately on the nature of (whatever we mean by) God and the Gospel. But who are these "conservatives" and "liberals"? Those of us who place ourselves (or are placed by others) in the latter camp can only address our own identity. The "conservatives" must wrestle for themselves, and recent ructions within Anglican Evangelicalism, and the ambiguous responses within Roman Catholicism to Pope Benedict, suggest that they are beginning to do so. For our part, we are fully engaged in the debate about what "liberal", "modern" Christianity might mean. And that is not just navel-gazing, though some of the Council's recent e-mail exchanges and web postings have felt a little like that. It is actually - as Peter Owen Jones' series was - a quite profound reflection on, ultimately, what it means to be human.

And so to the outcome of the Council's residential meeting at St Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, on 18/19 March. It is a little soon to evaluate this (as Mao said about the French Revolution) but I can report an intensive and rewarding exercise looking into our priorities and the gaps that needed filling. We are still working on the revised Constitution, which should come to the membership in final form very shortly, and on the rebranding which we feel needs to go with that. We are very conscious of the need to recruit more members, not only in England, and are hopeful of getting an initiative off the ground focusing particularly on Ireland; any member in a position to help should contact Mary Taylor. We are looking also at new ways of nurturing members, perhaps through more day/regional conferences, and possibly the preparation of resources for parishes; individuals and groups of Council members have been asked to take this further. Paul Bagshaw and Dave Marshall will be working to enhance our Web presence and would also welcome help. Christine Alker will be looking at better links with other groups with a common interest - and the short article from SCM in this edition is one example of that. These may not be the only areas on which we will focus, but they are a start. We are also very conscious of our limited resources and are looking at the possibility of fewer but longer Council meetings as a way of saving money.

There are still places left on the 2009 Annual Conference on the future of liberal theology, chaired by our President John Saxbee and with some most distinguished speakers. We hope you will join us and continue the debate, not only on where MCU is going but on the fundamental things which we are about.

Anthony Woollard taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.