Reactions to the 2011 conference

by Brenda Watson, conference photos by Joan Dorrell

from Signs of the Times, No. 43 - Oct 2011

Adrian Thatcher, Mary Roe, John Goldsmith

Conference Chair Adrian Thatcher (l) with Council member Mary Roe and conference secretary John Goldsmith

This was my third conference and once again I very much enjoyed it.

One regret however is that it didn't really address what I see as one of the main functions for Modern Church - explaining an approach to the Bible which really can help to guard against the shocking abuse of it to which Adrian Thatcher drew attention in his keynote address. In view of the horrendous struggles rocking the Anglican Church at the moment, all of which rely to some extent on an interpretation of scripture, I feel that this was a serious opportunity missed.

We need to help those whose Christianity is wrapped around a covering of "The Bible says..." to learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. And behind that is the need to help such Christians become released from the notion that faith in Jesus means absolute certainty; rather, it is part of Christian discipleship, and not a denial of it, to admit to doubts and difficulties in interpreting the Bible.

Sharing alternative perspectives on the Bible as through the arts etc therefore isn't enough. We need to try to stand where those inclined towards fundamentalist or narrow-minded interpretations stand in order to help them move forward. Pascal had a very striking comment about this: "If we would reprove with advantage, and show another his fault we must see from what side he looks at the matter, for usually the thing is true from that point of view, and we must admit this truth, but show him the side on which it is not true. That satisfies him, for he sees that he was not wrong, and that he merely failed to see all sides of the question. Now people are not vexed at failure to see everything. But they do not like to be mistaken..." (Pensees, Les Editions Brunschvig 1905 p.684).

Jonathan Clatworthy, David Edwards

David Edwards (r) with General Secretary Jonathan Clatworthy

On the day after the conference finished (July 16 '11), an article in The Times about Rabbi Louis Jacobs summarized for me what I feel is a hugely important task for Modern Church. It needs to be not just a home for the like-minded, nor just witnessing to the possibility of a more open Christian stance. I think its intellectual role is acutely needed. As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg concluded his article: "The world pressingly needs the voice of moderate, self-critical, truth-seeking, open-minded religions, both as protection against the corrosive effects of the unchecked materialism and opportunism which partially characterise the current era, and equally to counteract the religious extremism which could threaten to undermine the free, inquiring discourse of a tolerant and pluralist society".

I just felt the conference didn't do justice to this aspect of helping to make clear proper criteria for judging whether interpretations of texts are nearer or further from the truth. Yes indeed, we must acknowledge the possibility and desirability of many different approaches, and certainly too the unavoidable mystery of God - infinitely beyond all our categories of thinking. But equally we cannot claim that truth doesn't matter. People have strong opinions because they believe something is true. To disable engagement with whether they are right to believe that is to fall into the post-modernist swamp of ultimately anything goes.

So can I plead for Modern Church to become Valiant for Truth, showing the way towards empathetic and open possibilities of dialogue with those who think differently?

Anthony Woollard, Alison Milbank

Alison Milbank and Signs Editor Anthony Woollard