Back to Basics

Editorial by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times, No. 32 - Jan 2009

It is perhaps easy to forget, in the heat of current debates, that MCU is not first and foremost about matters such as women bishops and gay clergy.  Other organisations focus primarily on such issues, and one of them is Inclusive Church, on whose executive our Chair and other members sit, and with which MCU hopes to work increasingly in the future.  We have a contribution to make to those debates of course, and it is well reflected in Jonathan Clatworthy’s article later in this issue. But our mission, as that article demonstrates, is bigger: to develop the theology which undergirds, not just inclusiveness within the Church, but proper openness to the world.

I say “proper openness”, because there is genuine room for debate about what that means.  I remember a very conservative Archdeacon who was fond of saying at his Diocesan Synod that such and such a speaker “appeared to have such an open mind that you could drive a coach and horses through it”.  Today, that is not a fault widely found in the Church.  If Allan Bloom could write about The Closing of the American Mind, GAFCON and others provide all too much evidence of the closing (in a very different direction) of the Anglican mind.  But where, GAFCON supporters and others - including outsiders - may ask, is the distinctiveness of (Anglican) Christian faith if minds are kept completely open?

Back in the 1960s it was fashionable for certain theologians to say that “the world should set the agenda”, and in my slightly more conservative younger days my reply to that was:  If the world sets the agenda, the meeting will dissolve in chaos.  Looking at “the world” today in all its variety, and trying to transcend our own rather tidier internal constructs of “the world”, is there not still some truth in what I wrote then?

For sure, liberalism itself (whether in its philosophical, theological, cultural or socio-economic dimensions) represents distinctive values, which many of us would see as Gospel values.  It has often, though not always, embodied these in a distinctive vision of society and a costly commitment to make that vision real.  “The world” has all too often been ahead of “the Church” in this process, which should not surprise us if we believe in Christ as the Wisdom of creation and the Church as semper reformanda.  But at what point, if any, should we as liberal Christians contend that we are not just embodying the best secular liberal or radical traditions but stand for something that goes beyond them, something by which they can in some way be judged?

The extreme and noisy conservatives, whether catholic or evangelical, are not the only ones asking such questions.  The theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy is one in which, I suggest, we ought to be taking more interest.  Its principal thesis, as I understand it, is precisely that there is indeed such a thing as a distinctive Christian world-view, which draws on a variety of human traditions and experiences, but which  has radical questions to ask about secular post-Enlightenment philosophy, religion and social thinking.  Conclusions so far from this project appear to lead, as far as theological identifiers go, in a “liberal catholic” direction but perhaps with more emphasis on the second of those two words.

The difference between the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy and many of us in MCU is, I suspect, rather less than would appear, and may even be semantic.  Any theology that moves away from a naïve Biblicism – as Radical Orthodoxy most certainly has done – must come to terms with secular thought.  (As Karen Armstrong and others have shown, even fundamentalism is far more a product of the Enlightenment than its proponents realise.)  The question may be which secular thought, and here we get into issues about the compatibility of modernism and post-modernism with Christian faith.

One of the problems which we have found in debating the future of MCU is that little word “modern” in our name.  Does it mean an inevitable alliance with philosophical and cultural modernism, however that is conceived?  For some of our founding parents it probably did.  But to lock ourselves into one “secular” world-view would surely be failing in our mission.  For the world has moved on.  However you define post-modernism (of making many books there is no end), it is the climate in which we now live.  And it is certainly the climate within which the Radical Orthodox project has been developed.

If there is a danger in Radical Orthodoxy, it may be that which F D Maurice identified in the Oxford Movement.  Did the latter, as he argued, simply confront the spirit of the age with the spirit of a former age, rather than the Spirit of the ever-living God?  At times, perhaps, yes; and perhaps, at times, its heirs still do – not least on gender issues.  But you can’t make bricks without straw.  It may be entirely legitimate (provided that, in a post-modern way, you know what you are doing) to use something from former ages to challenge the present – be it a particular version of Platonism or an idealised mediaeval culture. After all, presumably the Spirit of God does not restrict Her presence to the contemporary (nominalist, atomised, post-post-Enlightenment) world view.  And is not all theology in some sense drawing on a tradition?

All that is a preface to some comments I wish to make on this and future issues.  We do need to address theology seriously here in MCU – all the time, and at all levels.  No doubt the pages of Modern Believing are the right place for more rigorous discussions, but this newsletter gives ordinary members an opportunity to wrestle in less scholarly ways with fundamental issues.

For this reason I am delighted that the article by Tim Belben takes us right back to such fundamental issues, about what we mean by revelation and God’s action in the world.  We may not all agree with his easy assumption that all liberal thinkers accept free will “just like that”, and might feel that a more subtle analysis is needed.  But these pages give a perfect opportunity for such discussion; and Tim has raised a few hares which I very much hope others will pursue.

And although Adrian Alker’s article, and our President’s maiden speech in the House of Lords,  may seem much more praxis-oriented, many of us know the theological work which Adrian has done at his centre at St Mark’s, Broomhill in Sheffield, and John Saxbee’s contribution to MCU’s own deliberations, in which that praxis is grounded.  Again, there are surely points here for debate.  I have spoken above of the radical social implications which liberalism may draw from the Gospel, but are proponents of that (such as Adrian) ever a little too certain about their conclusions? And even John’s “non-controversial” maiden speech, balancing as it does so delicately the claims of socio-economic analysis and those of “simple humanity”, might not be non-controversial to Frank Field.  And in both cases key theological concepts may well underlie the differences.

We need much more debate about all this.  And I would particularly hope that those who might want to ask questions about the alleged and self-styled “modernism” of the MCU – such as the followers of Radical Orthodoxy – will enter into dialogue with us, about the fundamentals of theology, in ways which our ordinary members can understand and which have manifest relevance to our personal, church or socio-cultural lives.

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.