Editorial by Anthony Woollard
from Signs of the Times No. 69 - Apr 2018

It is always a delight, in this second issue of the year, to focus on reporting from the annual residential meeting of the Council of Modern Church at the beginning of March.

Not only is Hinsley Hall, the Roman Catholic centre of the Diocese of Leeds, a most pleasant venue, but the fellowship at Council is always a renewing experience, even when we have contentious issues to discuss, as we have often had in recent years.

But, however rewarding for those who take part, it is no ‘jolly’; Council members not only have to work hard, but are asked to contribute to the cost of overnight accommodation! All the more gratifying that most of the thirty or so members of Council - the highly representative body which, itself elected by the full membership of Modern Church, elects the Trustees and advises them in their work - normally give up the best part of two days to the event, joined by some of our distinguished Vice-Presidents. More so still that, on this occasion, a dozen of us risked severe weather to travel to Leeds, and many others fed into discussions via e-mail.

With our new General Secretary, Jonathan Draper, having already served half a year, this was an opportunity to share ideas with him and listen to his reporting back from his activities. Alas, due to the weather he could not be with us physically, but we had a couple of extended Skype sessions with him, and he gave those present (and other Council members by e-mail) much material to discuss. His work on our communications strategy is bearing fruit, and his presentation to Council was warmly welcomed. A version may be made more widely available, revised in the light of discussion. A more dramatic new logo is on the way; and there are many ideas for closer work with other liberal Christian groups, and for developing local groups and meetings, such as the South-West group whose recent day conference is reviewed in this edition.

Following a written proposal from our book reviews editor, Chris Savage, we began to consider ideas to make Signs of the Times a more attractive shop-window for all we do, as well as an effective means of communication with members alongside our regular e-newsletters. The fruits of this will become apparent in later issues, and we hope members will find it worthwhile to ask for additional copies to share with friends, and in their churches and elsewhere. These can be printed off from the PDF download on our website, but if you would like extra printed copies, please email our administrator Diane: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. We also hope more readers, particularly Council members, will contribute ‘liberally’ (in more than one sense) by way of one-off or regular articles, photos and so on, and that one or two might agree to work with me on an editorial board. Finally, we wondered about the title. Perhaps the current phrase we use from the Gospels has a lesser significance now. ‘Modern Church Matters’ has been suggested - deliberately and usefully ambiguous, but too inward-looking? Or ‘Faith in the world’, the new strapline for the logo, which also has a useful ambiguity, and is based on an old strapline in use until last year: ‘Liberal faith in a changing world’. What do you, our readers, think?

We are also working on a strategy for Modern Believing, to strengthen the editorial team (our editor Steven Shakespeare is standing down for personal health and family reasons) and ensure that the preoccupations of Modern Church members and the wider Church, as well as those (perhaps increasingly different) of the many academic readers, are more fully reflected in the pages of our flagship journal, that it puts across a crystal-clear message of the relevance of liberal theology, and that deadlines are met and the journal more often published on time! A new, stronger editorial board will certainly be formed, and the Trustees enabled to make a greater contribution to the planning of individual issues and a strategy for the journal over time.

In parallel, we will continue to improve our widely-read and impactful website, and there will be further development of our communication via social media.

Then there are plans for making a bigger impact at the Greenbelt Festival, particularly through sponsoring dialogues with major speakers. The results of that will become apparent as publicity for this year’s festival emerges. We have already signed a contract as a sponsor of the festival for one year, subject to review. This is a major investment which may bear fruit among younger generations, a serious enterprise which, emboldened by recent legacies, the Trustees have considered worthwhile.

Alongside the Greenbelt initiative, Council and Trustees are giving thought to possible new models of associate or affiliate membership which might be more attractive to younger people (and others) who may not be naturally drawn to commit to the full membership package but wish to support and keep in touch with Modern Church. We know that our membership - rather like that of the Church of England itself - is now small and ageing, even though our influence at its best can be out of all proportion to that modest base, and we need to find ways to expand and deepen the involvement of a wider demographic (and increase our baseline income) if that influence is to continue. Some organisations similar to ourselves have eschewed the formal membership model and rely entirely on donations or other sources of funding, but we have significant ongoing staff and other costs to pay, and a more flexible membership model still seems right to us. However, we also benefit from legacies, which enable us to venture into new territory, and we need more! And there may be a case for attracting donations specifically for some of those new projects too.
So we are certainly on the move. All this activity is vitally important, not only to nourish existing members and attract new ones, but because of the need to demonstrate our ‘public benefit’ to the Charity Commission. New charities applying for registration are facing more stringent requirements here. These do not apply immediately to existing charities such as ours, but we may need increasingly to show that our work in ‘education’ and ‘the advancement of religion’ is truly accessible to all the public and not just a few enthusiastic members, or academics with particular interests.

Meanwhile, the articles below continue the dialogue on the Trinity which began at last year’s Annual Conference - which I believe is very much for public benefit, given the low level of theological knowledge in our Church, and the undoubted problems of developing a relevant preaching and evangelism from this apparently arcane aspect of our Christian tradition. I detect in these articles a slight tendency towards odium theologicum (the rancour of theological debate), which may reflect just how much the central concept of absolute monotheism can come to mean to some, rationally, emotionally and spiritually, and how much the concept of relationality at the heart of Mystery may mean to others. It may well be, as so often, that each is right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. Some may think all this is intellectual game-playing, and that is a common enough reason for opposition to Trinity-talk and the formulations of the early church Fathers. But those who feel this way might do well to remember that for a great many people any concept of God whatsoever is deeply problematic, for a lot of seemingly good reasons. The age-long wrestling to understand the Mystery and (in Milton’s words) ‘justify the ways of God to man’ therefore makes it needful that (in the words of T.S. Eliot) ‘we shall not cease from exploration’. So I particularly hope that readers will continue this debate in future editions, and perhaps relate it to other aspects of Christian faith and experience.

Then we have something really different - a very personal and very theological review of a musical! Frances Eccleston is a former member of Council who was in the thick of ‘the Philip North affair’ in the Diocese of Sheffield but has many other interests and gifts apart from her dedication to women’s ministry, and it is particularly good to hear from her. This is followed by the usual (but unusually diverse) crop of book reviews. As we went to press, our Archbishop’s new book on social ethics, Reimagining Britain, was heralded in the secular and religious press as a potentially important statement - it would be good to have a variety of responses in a future edition.

There is something for everyone here, from basic theology to spirituality and culture. Share it widely!