Modern Church

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 51:4 - Oct 2010

At its Annual General Meeting last July The Modern Churchpeople's Union decided to simplify its name to Modern Church. The Society was founded in 1898 as The Churchmen's Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought. Colloquially it came to be referred to as The Modern Churchmen's Union because this was the term used in its Journal, The Modern Churchman, which was founded in 1911, and in it's Annual Conference series which began in 1914. The popularly used title was made constitutional in 1931 and remained the title of the Union until 1987. However with the strong commitment of the Union to the case for the Ordination of Women it became increasingly embarrassing in the seventies and eighties to have a non-inclusive title. Accordingly the name of the Journal was changed to Modern Believing and the name of the society was amended in 1987 so that it referred to 'Churchpeople' rather than 'Churchmen'. However although members recognized the politically correct need for such a change 'Churchpeople' never seemed a natural expression to use and pressure for a new title has steadily grown.

The new title emerged out of a long process of consultation during which many alternatives were canvassed. In the end the Standing Committee reached a unanimous conclusion that Modern Church was the right title for the contemporary situation. According to General Secretary Jonathan Clatworthy 'We wanted a shorter and more direct name, without losing continuity... theologians and historians refer to us as the Modernists, and as we have a history to be proud of we want the connection with our past to be retained.'

The titles Modern Church and Modern Believing express the conviction that it is important to search for an understanding of the Christian message which welcomes the findings of historical and literary criticism of the Bible and the Christian tradition, and which works within a scientific understanding of the nature of reality. This search will not lead to uniformity of view. Liberal Christians inevitably differ on aspects of what a modern faith and a contemporary ethic will include. In this they echo the diversity of view which exists in contemporary philosophy and ethical thought. At the same time however the inclusion of the word 'Church' within its title indicates a commitment to the corporate nature of Christian believing and to the ideal that the Church should speak to the needs and values of the contemporary world.

Modern Church's Response to the Proposed Covenant

In the first paper in this issue Jonathan Clatworthy spells out why the proposed Covenant threatens the quest for a faith relevant to the contemporary world. The idea of having a Covenant is triggered by hostility to ecclesiastical acceptance of same-sex relationships. By doing this, it is identifying the Church with an understanding of human sexuality which is at variance with a growing scientific, medical and sociological consensus.

However as Clatworthy points out the issues go far wider than this, for the Covenant also commits the Church to progress at the speed of the slowest province and therefore makes it harder for the Church to adapt to the needs of a changing society. If the Covenant had been in place in the past it would have been impossible for the Church of England to have accepted the validity of Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century or the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in the twentieth. The pressures for conservatism within the Church are already very great. It would be tragic if they were further strengthened.

The role of the Episcopate in the Modern World

The second article is the Bell Lecture for 2010 in Anglican and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Talsa. It was given by Professor Marilyn McCord Adams formerly Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, and a University Representative on the General Synod. Her starting point was a concern with the unwillingness of some Bishops in July 2008 to accept the conclusions of the General Synod concerning what safeguards to allow to dissidents if women were eventually appointed as Bishops in England. Her remarks on this are the more poignant in that what happened in 2010 almost exactly re-ran what happened in 2008.

Arising from this issue Professor Adams proceeds to an historical and theological exploration of the nature of Episcopacy in which she argues for 'The Episcopacy of all Believers' against a growing trend for Episcopal or even Primatial authority effectively seeking to bypass discussion within the Church. Her lecture on Episcopacy today is highly relevant to discussions about the Covenant against which Professor Adams argued so cogently in Modern Believing in October 2008.

Why did Jesus come to be regarded as the Christ?

Professor Paul Trudinger a Senior Professor of New Testament Studies asks whether Christology rests on a fundamental mistake in acclaiming Jesus as the Messiah (or in Greek 'The Christ'). Through a careful discussion of apocalyptic expectations in the Jewish world into which Jesus came he shows that Jesus did not fulfil the requirements expected of the Messiah. Jesus did not bring history to an end and bring in the age to come. He did not liberate Palestine from Roman rule. No apocalyptically orientated Jew in Jesus' day, would have understood, at the time of Jesus' execution, that he was the Messiah. For the events which the Messiah was expected to set in motion simply had not happened. Professor Trudinger discusses the thought of a range of scholars and shows how strong a consensus there is that the historically earliest testimony concerning Jesus as Christ was that 'even after his death and so-called resurrection, Jesus was still not yet the Christ but only the Christ-elect'. Jesus was acclaimed as the Christ only on the understanding that a second coming was imminent in which he would bring history to a close in the way expected of the Messiah. Professor Trudinger's thesis is that the acclamation of Jesus as the Messiah by the early Church was a mistake and both he and the scholars he cites see this as an issue Christian theology has yet to face up to, even though theologians have been aware of the problem at least since the time of Schweitzer more than a hundred years ago.

This is a thoughtful and important paper. However what it indirectly highlights is the importance of resurrection faith to Christianity. Trudinger does not address this and his reference to Jesus' 'so-called' resurrection suggests that it plays little part in his thinking. What is historically certain is that Jesus was crucified, dead and buried. If that had been his final end then it would indeed have been unthinkable that he would have been acclaimed as Messiah. Yet it is also historically certain that Jesus was acclaimed as the Messiah and that so regularly was this title ascribed to him that within a generation the title Christ was being used as if it were Jesus' surname, and his followers were being identified as 'Christians'. Something must have brought this situation about. I cannot think of any plausible historical explanation for the identification of Jesus as the Christ other than belief that his resurrection (however understood) was objectively real and therefore convinced the disciples that he had triumphed over death.

Chaplaincy in a modern University

Ivor Moody is Chaplain of Anglia Ruskin University. His paper discusses the importance of the life and work of John Ruskin and the significance of Anglia University adding his name to its title. His paper describes the role of a Chaplain at a modern University and just how significant the opportunity of going to University is to those who are the first generation in their families to go there.

Religious Experience in Turkey today

The final article in this issue is a study of a detailed survey of religious experience in modern Turkey. It was undertaken by Professor Cafer Yaran of the Faculty of Islamic Theology in Istanbul University. Professor Yaran is author of Understanding Islam (Dunedin Academic Press) which is perhaps the most accessible account of Islam in the English language. His detailed survey which was funded by Istanbul University provides a fascinating account of the extent of religious experience in the lives of ordinary Muslims in a secular country.

He finds that 63.7% report having had a religious experience which mattered to them. Of these the most frequent are the experience of receiving God's help in response to prayer, awareness of God's presence, and awareness of God's guidance. He attributes this high level of response to the regularity of prayer in Islamic life and to the Islamic expectation that God responds to prayer. In Turkey this is strengthened by the long Sufi emphasis on a personal relationship of love and friendship with God.

Professor Yaran's article is important because it draws attention to the universality of the love of God who has nowhere left himself without witness. It is a reality which the Modern Church needs to take more fully on board.

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.