The End of the Dream?

by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times, No. 44 - Jan 2012

This edition reflects to an extraordinary extent the diversity of interests and objectives which characterises Modern Church.

At one end of the spectrum, Tim Belben and Mary Roe addressing basic issues about the nature of God and religion. Issues with which we all struggle and on which we come to diverse conclusions. Issues, perhaps, which many members of Modern Church delight to debate. And certainly issues central to our interfaith interests, of which we may well hear mere in future conferences and elsewhere.

At the other, a remarkably prescient article by Richard Truss - written long before OccupyLSX and "the St Paul's affair" began to fill our media - and with it a thought-provoking little poem from Averil Stedeford, which by pure coincidence (as it seems) also addresses the question of how we read the Bible's approach to wealth and poverty. This is a theme which Jonathan Clatworthy also takes up (with an interestingly different take on Babylon) in his article - written just as the EU began to try to get its act together on the euro, without UK participation thanks to the Cameron "veto". Wicked issues, these - political, technical, complex, scary, and (from the level of attendance at our recent conference on theology and economics) maybe not amongst our members' favourites for thought, study and debate. Yet the "St Paul's affair" really brought these two sets of issues together in a dramatic way.

Who, then, is the God to which St Paul's Cathedral bears witness? Is this the same God in whose name Jesus proclaimed liberty to the captives and the poor? The question was on the lips of believers and unbelievers alike during those remarkable few weeks in the autumn which saw our good friend Giles Fraser resigning from his canonry, to be closely followed by his Dean.

It is easy to offer simple - one might almost say fundamentalist - answers to that question. For some, the whole affair merely proved that the God of St Paul's Cathedral was the false God of the Establishment, and that the Church's "Babylonian captivity" to the idols of the City was irremediable. For these people, it would seem, the only real God is the God of the marginalised - as represented by the protest camp. Such a God can simply have no presence at all in the irredeemably sinful world of modern capitalism, least of all in the banks and the City Corporation.

For others, the only God that is real is the God of good order as represented by the "powers that be" and not least by the Baroque orderliness of this great historic cathedral. Whatever validity the protests might have (and more and more people admit that turbo-capitalism needs a good shake-up at least), they could not trump the proper function of a place that witnesses so powerfully to that God of order.

Modern Church is not, of course, a pro- or anti-capitalist campaigning organisation. But these are theological questions. Should we, then, be attempting a view?

One clue might perhaps lie in my use of that word "fundamentalist". Whatever our other differences, we in Modern Church are inherently suspicious of simple answers. One of our many unlikely mentors is Cromwell: "I beseech you, by the bowels of Christ, bethink you that ye may be mistaken".

We may agree wholeheartedly with the importance, even the centrality, of the marginalised in the Christian understanding of human society. But does that commit us to an uncritical support of those who see themselves in that way? Does it commit us to an uncritical condemnation of all that goes on in the corridors of political and economic power? At a time when bodies like the St Paul's Institute are challenging the City Establishment from within - when even the financial media and the high-profile rich are raising questions about the order of things - when potentially radical ideas like the so-called Robin Hood or Tobin tax are being seriously discussed (at least in the mainstream of the European Union from which the UK has now excluded itself) - ought we to be attributing to the world of high finance a simplistic Calvinist branding of "total depravity"? Or should Christians be trying to see where God is at work in unlikely places?

On the other hand, ought we not to recognise what Richard Truss says about the extent to which our economic systems are based on a dream - a mythology - which may now be in its death-throes? Ought we not to be very careful about any action which would seem to prop up that dream? Should not Christians be far more willing to go "outside the camp" (or, in this case, into the camp) to make common cause with those challenging the dream, and help them, if possible, to put a new dream in its place?

One thing at least is clear. It is not for us to pass judgment on our fellow-Christians dealing with these difficult issues, if they are doing so with integrity (and the subsequent resignations do imply such integrity). Had St Paul's initially taken a more courageous stance against legal and other advice, the Dean and Chapter could have been personally financially liable, without limit, for any untoward event. That is the law, and we live under law. Maybe some would say that a handful of bankrupt and barely employable clerics would be a small price to pay for an act of Christian integrity. And subsequently, it seems, some way round this was found by the Bishop of London, which might lead some people to doubt how real the problem was. But let those who are without sin - and would be similarly willing to take on unlimited liability in a fraught situation - cast the first stone.

Far more positively, the events of those weeks in the autumn have led to the social role of the Christian faith and the Church of England being talked about as rarely before - certainly not since Faith in the City, perhaps not since William Temple. If indeed the old paradigm, the economic dream, is now on the edge of collapsing or at least mutating into something new, the Church is now visibly part of that - a part which, of course, St Paul's, through its Institute and the work of people like Giles Fraser, has been quietly playing for some time.

When Modern Church focused its annual conference on economic issues a year ago, it was not well attended and might be seen as one of our more "difficult" conferences. It has nevertheless proved to be prescient. Most of us are not economists, or bankers, and simply find current financial events bewildering. Far easier to focus on the Bible and God!But "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also". Economics and the fundamental values of theology are inextricably linked. Only a fundamentalist would attempt to read directly out of Scripture a solution to the agonies of the eurozone. But Scripture, tradition and reason together point to the values which ought to govern our society's response to these complexities. Schumacher's famous book Small is Beautiful - which still has much influence in such local initiatives as Transition Towns - was subtitled "Economics as if people mattered". That offers a hypothesis on which Christians, the Occupy movement, and a remarkable number of others - even amongst the rich - can come together. Maybe an old dream really is dying and somewhere, painfully, a new dream is being born. And Jonathan Clatworthy's article suggests what some of the parameters of that new dream might be.

Meanwhile, the Church still has its own problems to sort out.

The movement towards women bishops now seems as unstoppable as that towards women priests has ever been, with all but two Dioceses voting in favour of the legislation before General Synod. The sting in the tail comes with those who have passed so-called Following Motions which try, in one way or another, to reduce the authority of women bishops within those parts of their Dioceses where male ministry has been requested. As one speaker at Coventry Diocesan Synod said, "A bishop is a bishop is a bishop" and must have the authority which goes with that status without being statutorily forced to surrender part of it to a "real" (untainted male) episcopal colleague. But of course the contention that "A bishop is a bishop..." is precisely what certain groups cannot accept. Perhaps, as with the enormous growth in ministry and acceptance of women priests, that logical conundrum can only be solved by experience, and, in some parts of the Church, will perhaps never be finally solved in the world that we know.

The Anglican Covenant is not yet quite such an encouraging story. Indeed, of the few Dioceses that have so far voted, a small majority have rejected it, as have some overseas Provinces. But it is still clearly widely perceived as a harmless, touchy-feely, motherhood and apple pie approach to solving the problems of the Anglican Communion, and is being promoted as such by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is not quite the original intention, which was to provide a means of disciplining Provinces who cause offence by innovation (whether on the gay issue or on anything else that might emerge in the future). If any readers are still in doubt about this issue, I urge them to study the material on the Modern Church and No Anglican Covenant websites and to lobby their Synod representatives.

Modern Church, as I have reminded readers above, is not a campaigning organisation, but on these two current issues we stand shoulder to shoulder with WATCH and No Anglican Covenant (and expect soon to have more to say on the latter topic). However our principal role as a learned society is study - study of the deeper theological issues which lie behind the crises in the Church and the secular world. As far as women and leadership is concerned, our next Annual Conference in July will be looking at those deeper issues. I urge readers, who have not already done so, to look at our website which gives full details of that conference, and to make a booking. As those of us involved in debates about sexuality have discovered, there are profound threads which link together homosexuality, divorce, contraception and monogamy, to name just four issues which have been separately addressed in widely differing ways by the Churches. The same is true of women and leadership, and this conference promises to widen our horizons once again, and to mine some rich and deep veins. More on that, I hope, in our next edition.

Perhaps the depth of debate on such matters as these, within our Church and far more widely, signifies the end of another dream, that of organic unity - even within Anglicanism let alone ecumenically. Perhaps an acceptance of radical pluralism is part of what it means to be "modern". The test, as I have put it to a pro-Covenant campaigner, is whether within that pluralism we can somehow still accept one another as full fellow-members of the Body of Christ; and that may get harder rather than easier. But there are practical limits to pluralism. Just as the common economic life of society has to be broadly ordered in a certain way, and the possibility of coexistence of totally different economic substructures within one polity is limited by organisational realities, so - as far as we can see - the basic structure of the Church of England is either built on an episcopate embracing both genders, or it is not. There must be in both cases a place for those who cannot fully embrace the consensus and want to challenge and if possible change it, but not for those to whom the consensus is inherently illegitimate and must be totally repudiated. You cannot organise either an economy or a Church on that basis. So we must learn to develop the least-worst polity, in both the Church and the economy, and then learn painfully to accept each other's differences within that.

The outcomes will fall short of any kind of dream. There is always a need for those who cry "Be realist - demand the impossible". Without such people I doubt whether even the inadequate progress made on climate change at Durban would have happened - let alone the ordination of women. But to me, if not to all members of Modern Church, Reinhold Niebuhr's hard-nosed rejection of all kinds of utopianism, whether political, economic or religious, in the name of the very Kingdom of God, still has a message. And so the world rolls on.

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.