The Centenary

of 'The Modern Churchman/Modern Believing'

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 52:2 - Apr 2011

In this issue we mark the centenary of our Journal launched in 1911 by Henry Major. Appropriately the issue opens with an article devoted to Henry Major's contribution to the Journal and to The Modern Churchmen's Union (now simply known as Modern Church). The author, Professor Clive Pearson, is the principal author of Scholarship and Fierce Sincerity: Henry Major, the Face of Anglican Modernism.[1] The article shows the immense contribution made by the Journal and by the Conferences organized by Major in taking forward the idea of a Christianity compatible with the best of modern thought. The golden years for Modernism were the twenties and thirties culminating in the recognition of the validity of Modernist ideas as lying within the broad spectrum of Anglican thought in the report on Doctrine in the Church of England in 1938.[2]

Clive Pearson shows that the great service Major gave to the Modernist cause was subsequently weakened by his failure to pass on the baton to the next generation. Forty-six years is far too long for one person to edit a journal aimed at keeping the Church up to date with the best of modern thinking. The public perception of Modernism is that its greatest days were in the past. This is not altogether true. In The Contemporary Challenge of Modernist Theology which I wrote for the Centenary of the MCU in 1998 it was easy to document how many of the ideas taken for granted by Christian intellectuals today were ideas initially championed within Modernist circles. It is unfortunate that today this is not often reflected within the life of the Church itself. The struggle for a truly Modern Church which can give a lead to the world on contemporary ethical and religious issues is as much needed as ever.

The Victorian Crisis of Faith

When I began teaching theology in Lampeter in 1973 I was required to give a series of lectures on the Victorian Crisis of Faith. This looked at the ways in which Christian thought had adapted to developments in ethical, historical and scientific studies during the nineteenth century. I was concerned to discover that many students from a Church background found the course challenging to their own understanding of the faith. This was even though I was discussing issues like the acceptance of Biblical criticism and the theory of evolution which historians suppose to have been accepted by the end of the nineteenth century. Certainly such views were foundational in the birth of what has become Modern Church as well as for the Journal The Modern Churchman/Modern Believing.

Essays and Reviews

Two of the most important nineteenth century controversies are recalled in this issue. In the first, Mark Chapman looks at Essays and Reviews 150 years on. He focuses on the central issue of Biblical interpretation which was at the heart of the then controversy. Chapman recognises that though the specific issues addressed in Essays and Reviews have come to be accepted, the debate on Biblical interpretation goes on. This is a useful corrective to the more optimistic views of Owen Chadwick. Professor Chadwick described the preliminary decision of the Court of Arches in 1862 (which allowed the legitimacy of critical study of the Bible and paved the way for the even more liberal decision of the Privy Council) as 'the most momentous single judgement of that series which enabled Anglican clergymen to adjust their teaching in the light of modern knowledge'.[3] Chadwick's next section is confidently entitled 'The acceptance of Biblical Criticism by the Churches 1887-95'. Chapman's article shows how optimistic such a view is, because questions that reflect different views about the interpretation of scripture 'are as present in the Anglican Communion today as they were in the 1860s'. They are exemplified in the debates about homosexuality where Bishops still feel unable to 'adjust their teaching in the light of modern knowledge'.

The Liberal Theology of Bishop J.W. Colenso

Bishop Colenso is primarily remembered today for his critical examination of the Pentateuch[4] published in 1863. This followed Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and Essays and Reviews (1860) in raising major issues for the authority of the Bible. Colenso had been a maths teacher at Harrow School before his consecration as Bishop of Natal in South Africa. As a missionary Bishop he felt it crucial to translate the Bible into Zulu and starting at the beginning he began to do this. As he did so, his experience of setting arithmetical questions to schoolboys returned, and he asked himself a whole series of questions about the figures in the book of Numbers and elsewhere in the first five books of the Bible.

Given that the census figures in Numbers 2.32 showed that the Israelites had an army of 603,550 armed men, the overall population would have to have been at least two million and Colenso made a whole series of calculations based on this to show the utter impossibility of the Exodus narrative. The most straightforward problem was that two million people could not survive in the Sinai desert with all their sheep and cattle for forty hours, let alone forty years. For example given the average water consumption of the average sheep all the wadis in the Sinai peninsular would have been drunk dry in a couple of hours. This is simply one of dozens of statistical impossibilities in one of the most complete examples of 'overkill' any author has engaged in. Colenso's work, still available in paperback and for free down-load on both kindle and google, created a do-it-yourself ethos of Biblical criticism since anyone wishing to check Biblical statistics could do the sums for themselves.

However Gerald Parsons' article 'Released from the thraldom of mere bibliolatry': does not focus on such well worn themes but instead looks at the thorough-going theological liberalism exhibited in Colenso's Natal Sermons. Although biblical criticism - of both the Old and New Testaments - was a founding principle and a continual point of reference for Colenso what is noteworthy is how many themes of liberal theology were developed in these sermons. They were preached Sunday by Sunday to overflowing congregations in a packed Cathedral. They show how a dynamic Christianity can be presented which fully takes on board the best of scientific and historical research.

Modernism and Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus

The founding fathers of Anglican Modernism took a distinctive line on the Resurrection of Jesus. They believed that it was central to Christian faith and an historically justified belief. At the same time they doubted the truth of the empty tomb tradition, focusing instead on the Resurrection appearances of Jesus. These were seen as evidence of his 'personal immortality' as well as being the primary grounds for our own future hope. Such a view is very clearly expressed in B.H. Streeter's edited book Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought [5] which was first published ninety-nine years ago in 1912. It was also recognised as a permissible point of view within Anglicanism by the Doctrine Commission of 1938. In my article in this issue: An Historical Argument for belief in the Resurrection of Jesus I have sought to provide a contemporary defence of the Modernist position.

A Naturalistic Understanding of Near-death Experiences

The importance of belief in the Resurrection of Jesus is increased by consideration of the arguments in the final article of this issue. In recent years media discussion of life after death has focused on near-death experiences. Michael Marsh's critique of their evidential value is therefore significant. He writes as a former medical professor, who took early retirement to take an Oxford degree in Theology followed by a D.Phil. on Near-death and Out-of-Body experiences which he researched within the Faculty of Theology. His book presents the strongest case I know against thinking that either NDEs or OBEs can offer support for belief in a future life.[6]

Marsh argues that NDEs happen as the brain recovers from a life-threatening event. He notes that all attempts to 'prove' correct observation have failed. He is sceptical of accounts of 'meetings' with deceased friends and relatives or with Jesus. Marsh notes that while Anglo-American NDEs envisage paradise as like a beautiful garden, Polynesians think of a heaven equipped with all the latest technologies.

I think Marsh succeeds in showing the danger of treating NDE reports as literal descriptions of heaven or hell and he seems right to query the value of claims to have met Jesus. However a naturalistic account of NDEs is not the only option. All contemporary dualists take for granted that thoughts and feelings are related to brain and other bodily processes. Hence even if NDEs have a transcendent origin they would have to be correlated with brain processes in order to be remembered. If this process occurs as the brain recovers from unconsciousness, that would seem a timely occasion for it to happen.

Marsh is correct that attempts to prove that people can observe from an out-of-the-body situation have failed, but the experiments have not been wholly without interest. During the five years of Dr. Penny Sartori's research project no one reported seeing the symbols she had placed around the ward which were visible only from above. All she got was some reasonably accurate accounts of the resuscitation process. However Dr. Sartori found that people who were resuscitated without having had a NDE could not begin to describe the resuscitation process.[7] This provides some evidence that those who claim to have 'observed' the process of their resuscitation from outside their bodies may actually have done so.

During the first BBC documentary about NDEs (At the Hour of Death 1981), Dr. Peter Fenwick presented a wholly naturalistic explanation for NDEs and claimed to show which part of the brain was responsible for these hallucinations. However subsequent discussions with his patients convinced Dr. Fenwick that current science could not account for what had happened to them. He went on to become the world's leading advocate of the evidential importance of NDEs. The debate on this issue is not yet over. However Professor Marsh is right to point out that from a Christian perspective the resurrection of Jesus is an issue of greater importance.


[1] Clive Pearson, Allan Davidson and Peter Lineham, Scholarship and Fierce Sincerity Polygraphia 2006.

[2] Doctrine in the Church of England (1938) reprinted (SPCK, 1960).

[3] Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church Part Two (A.& C Black, 1970) p. 81.

[4] J.W.Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined: Part 1 (1863) Kessinger 2003.

[5] B.H.Streeter, Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in terms of Modern Thought Macmillan 1912.

[6] Michael Marsh, Out-of-body and Near-Death Experiences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[7] Penny Sartori, Near-Death Experiences of Hospitalized Intensive Care Patients: a Five-year Clinical Study (Edwin Mellen Press, 2008) pp.212-5.

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.