O My God!

by David L Edwards

from Signs of the Times, No. 20 - Jan 2006

I was fascinated by the Annual Conference of the MCU last summer because it was about the relationship between religion and science. No subject is more important if the statistical and emotional depression of the churches in Britain and most of the rest of Europe during my fifty years as a priest is to be reversed or even stabilised. Atheism is still the conviction of no more than a minority but most people seem to lack the assurance that would enable them to pray "O my God!" relying on God being there and being willing to take notice and action. This secularisation has many causes but prominent - and as I think, foremost - among them is the very widespread feeling that the teaching of the Church as reflected in its worship is often out of touch with reality as now known. And what is known? Many emotional and social realities, no doubt, but also the dependence of modern life on technology which in its turn depends on science, a form of knowledge which does not explicitly include divine activity.

In polls of public opinion this feeling is expressed in doubt or denial about God being 'personal' or 'interfering' as a lively person can be expected to be. And in 2005 the question or rejection could be spoken in circumstances very different from summer days in the peacefully rural setting of the High Leigh Conference Centre. It was a year of natural disasters plunging millions into death or misery, and also for some (as for me) a year of more personal tragedies. A year for crying out "O my God!" without intending to pray.

It might be thought that this basic challenge to the churches would be the subject of many discussions in ecclesiastical or other contexts. But no! The media may refer to the topic when forced by an emergency but usually they keep clear, assuming that believers would be offended and unbelievers bored. As winter began the General Synod of the Church of England assembled with a newly elected membership and had a foretaste of the need to deliberate, and quite often legislate, in response to many new questions in church life. Should women be bishops or homosexuals priests? Should parishes be reorganised? Should 'fresh expressions' be encouraged in the shape of new styles of conversation, and if possible worship, in places other than the sacred buildings? The agenda seemed very full. It did not include any question about God, although in general terms the Archbishop of Canterbury wisely advised the Synod to get out of God's way.

In defence of the Synod (and of other authorities in the churches) it can be pointed out that church leaders and members are already active in concern for the welfare of humanity and for the defence of nature - in other words, they care about God's creation. But the newly authorised Common Worship of the Church of England includes no festival specifically thanking the Creator for making the universe, this planet and us. Recently the Ecumenical Patriarch urged the Orthodox to observe 1 September as a day of reflection about the creation but that day, normally a weekday, is dedicated in the Anglican calendar to the optional commemoration of a medieval hermit. It does not seem excessive to say that the religion of the churches can seem to be a religion about Christ (and the Spirit?), and about the Church itself, not about the Father and his reign on earth, as is envisaged in the Lord's Prayer.

But how does God reign? The presentation of scientific knowledge at the MCU's conference reminded me very powerfully how inadequate it is to say that the origin of the cosmos is in a 'person' (the Father or the Son) in the ordinary sense of that term. And the source is also not to be found in communion between three 'persons' if these are understood to be people. I conclude that popular doubts or denials about the ultimate reality being 'personal' are on the right track if the faces of these so-called heretics are turned towards a mystery so great that any image is inadequate. A faith which is tough enough for practical purposes can be compatible with much uncertainty or ignorance if someone feels the full force of the wonder that in this universe human life has evolved - the aweful wonder which is increased by all scientific discoveries.

Yet while it seems reasonable to believe that the whole story of the creation includes a mysterious input which is more than a series of accidents, there is in this story told by science so much that seems to be chaos, chance or freedom that the evidence provided by research - and by personal experience - cries out against the idea that God is always in control. This needs to be admitted with an honest clarity although often traditional Christianity has spread that briefly comfortable illusion, in defiance of the clear teaching of Jesus, that the Kingdom of God has not yet come.

So what salvation can Christianity offer? Not the belief that the Almighty always works miracles if asked properly, or saves only those who believe and trust in Christ before death, or is justly wrathful towards those who do not so believe. Not the claim that either the Bible or the Church is infallible. Once we look at the real world as revealed now by science and truth-telling history, all such nonsense fades away. We see a world in which God works and suffers, and can seem to forsake us.

The foundation of a credible Christianity is the faith that the One God loves all the creation, and in particular humankind which can share 'his' own eternal life. This love 'he' has expressed uniquely as it was, and is, embodied in Jesus, a man, and as it has been, and is, poured out in the Spirit inspiring all love, beauty and truth. The Jesus whose death was a sacrifice by - not to - God the supreme lover and therefore sufferer has communicated the power of that unexpected victory by life-changing visions, and the Spirit which then exploded as wind and fire has performed spiritual miracles inside the Church and far beyond it. That, it seems to me, is the best of all possible news.

As a priest retired for almost a dozen years I can do very little to spread that news but what I felt I could do, after the MCU's conference, was to rewrite quite a large part of a book which is to be published by Darton, Longman and Todd in May, Yes: A Positive Faith. That book will not echo exactly what was said then, but it will show in a small way how a faith which tries to be entirely realistic can be stimulated when there is Christian talk about God which takes account of science. And it is a plea that there should be much more of such talk, improving on what I have managed to gather. Theology of this kind is bound to be controversial, but that does not matter if it is also constructive in the churches' crisis.

The Very Revd Dr David Edwards is former Dean of Norwich and Provost of Southwark.