Open believing

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 40 - Jan 2011

A lot has changed at Modern Church over the last six months. Our Annual General Meeting brought to an end two processes which had used up an immense amount of time on internal matters, by agreeing to a new constitution and a new name.

At last, it seemed, an opportunity to look outwards again. Where next? In the event there was no time to wonder. We had already booked our first ever stall at Greenbelt, so we duly went; but we had not anticipated the huge amount of interest in us, nearly all supportive. This did not immediately produce lots of new members, and we did not expect it to; but we were strongly affirmed in our view that a great many people are looking for the kind of spiritual guidance and insight that we aim to offer. Large numbers of people, especially among the young, have been brought up without any significant contact either with churches or with committed atheism. The desire for a spiritual dimension to their lives comes naturally to many of them, but the reactionary antics of the mainstream Christian churches put many off.

And so to those reactionary antics. Given our tradition we were never going to be happy with the proposed Anglican Covenant. General Synod voted on it on 24th November, and with that in mind we arranged for our advertisement to appear in the church on 29th October. The expense was considerable and we are grateful to Inclusive Church for sharing the cost and responsibility. WATCH also contributed; their commitment is to the ministry of women and it did not take much reflection to see that if the Covenant had already been in force it would have been much harder to introduce women priests and bishops.

The impact of the advertisement on the Covenant debate was considerable. We were accused of not having read it, exaggerating its powers, and being 'little Englanders', all of which perhaps shows that our arguments were hitting home. Perhaps it also showed that the Covenant's proponents were working with a high level of anxiety.

Come 24th November, the General Synod debate produced an overwhelming majority in favour of sending the Covenant to the dioceses for discussion. We were disappointed by the voting, but the speeches were a different matter; a large proportion considered the text too punitive. Afterwards we heard that some Synod members (we do not know how many) voted for this motion only because they thought it right for the dioceses to discuss the Covenant, and did not intend to support implementation.

To add to the complications, while the debate was in progress the Oxford Statement was released to the press, listing ten primates who would boycott the forthcoming Primates' Meeting and would not sign the Covenant because it was not punitive enough for them. Assuming they meant what they said, there is no longer any possibility of the Covenant keeping the Anglican Communion united; all it can do is affect the way it gets divided up. We at Modern Church continue to believe that genuine differences of opinion should be resolved by open debate on each subject-matter, not by giving central committees power to decree official Anglican teaching. I cannot help feeling that the future of Christianity was revealed by Greenbelt, not by the Anglican Communion leadership's attempt to control dissent.

Modern western culture has over the last generation or two emerged from about two centuries of religious pessimism, in which many believed that religious faith had been, or would be, disproved by science. During those two centuries the main Christian denominations became defensive and counter-cultural, and developed reactionary doctrines. Instead of judging new theories on their merits they exulted in culture-defying older beliefs and turned them into essential dogmas. They thus established the tradition of insisting that in order to count as a Christian, or as a member of a particular church, you have to believe certain things which nobody else believes. Whether it was the virgin birth, or Jesus walking on water, or a six-day creation, or the immorality of remarriage after divorce or homosexuality, a variety of doctrines were refashioned into defiant symbols of Christian loyalty over against the big bad world.

That stance still motivates a great many churches today. Today, however, far from defending Christianity against its greatest threat, it has itself become the greatest threat. To treat the biblical miracles, or the six-day creation, or whatever, as central symbols of Christian believing only makes sense to those who were brought up to acknowledge them as such. To those who do not have a churchgoing background, or who never took those beliefs seriously, to insist on them now is to tell enquirers that they are not welcome unless they are prepared to engage with our past traditions of petty in-fighting.

The Anglican Communion's attempts to establish an Anglican Covenant, like the English General Synod's recent negotiations over women bishops, are responses to in-fighting caused by the inner conflicts of a retreating institution. What I think we need is to do the exact opposite: to reduce the power of archbishops and centralised committees, to welcome the uncertain without putting hurdles in their way, to encourage believers to explore their beliefs in their own ways - without passing judgement as to whether they count as true Christians - and to allow the better beliefs to triumph through open and honest dialogue.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.