Saturday, 15 November 2008

MCU to Change: But to What?

When I came into the Church of England as a communicant in 1984 I soon gathered material about the Modern Churchpeople's Union (it then had the male gender name). I took it to be a moderate, middling, and particularly Anglican group. My own activity in terms of groups was with the emergence of Sea of Faith. I looked at its publications for a time, but when I drifted towards the Unitarians I lost specific interest in MCU.

The wider reputation seemed to be something on the lines that it represented liberal or modernist theology as present in Anglicanism in the 1920s and 1930s, though liberalism was then on a downturn and that kind of modernism had never recovered. It was also representative of the broad Church managerialism of the Church of England that had moderated its output over time. Now it seemed to be a publisher of articles in a reasonably broad band of Christianity, that paused before the more radical expressions were incorporated. Don Cupitt, for example, was not included - as much criticised as welcomed in almost like letting the side down.

Incidentally I was never happy about Sea of Faith and its distinction between liberals and radicals. I have always seen radicalism as part of liberalism, particularly as when Sea of Faith itself adopted no creed (and I was there).

I took a view, against some of the labelling of liberalism and modernism, that liberalism was actually quite visible and strong, that it had continually changed (as would be expected) and, whilst MCU was largely a bystander, there were various liberal expressions of Christianity having an impact at regular intervals. After all, what was Honest to God all about, and what about David Jenkins in the 1980s? On the other hand, it seemed to take less and less liberal expression to make a controversial statement. David Jenkins was hardly liberal, and if he was a cuckoo in the nest then I (for one) must be an albatross among humming birds. Since the 1980s Anglicanism and UK Christianity in general has become more sectarian.

MCU perhaps suffers from the dual role of the Broad Church party. I have a particular historical interest in radicals of the broad Church and Unitarians who co-operated in the past, with individuals who have crossed over in both directions, and it is clear that the broad Church was both a corner for radicals and a place for middling managerial theology to hold more extreme wings of the Church of England together. Incidentally, some Unitarians crossing over, like F. D. Maurice and Coleridge are those who end up being middling in impact, largely because they had to make quite a trinitarian leap to come into the Anglican community. There has to be some sort of escalation of personal theology (I did this too, for a short time). Something similar happens in the other direction too, that on-the-edge Anglicans tend to pass over quickly towards a religious humanism well beyond the hinterland of some Christian Unitarians. This is the result of no longer hanging on to what ought to have been dropped a while back, and quite a lot is dropped at once.

Apparently the MCU sees a need to overhaul itself, and this must be right. I think its labelling and outlook simply no longer reflects the situation as it stands and its development needs updating. I'm not a member, in fact I'm hardly a member of anything now, but it seems to me it ought to sharpen up its ecumenical, interfaith and radical edge. It also might consider what could be called its residual doctrinal baggage, and be a bit more fearless regarding a freer encounter with matters of religion and faith. Might I suggest consideration into the mix of something like my own Nine Theses? However, matters are not so simple as such a general wish about its stance.

I was pleased to see that my defence of liberalism within the Church of England roughly agreed with points made by Paul Badham in the MCU article on its history within the Church of England. We differ over my stronger expression of imported Socinian and Arian ideas (he does mention Samuel Clarke). My defence has been expressed at Fulcrum, after a remark by one Conservative Evangelical that whilst he could understand the place of Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals in the origins of the Church of England, he could see no founding place for liberality. This is a theme being repeated over and over again - that liberalism is illegitimate, that it is 'False Teaching'. The birth of GAFCON and its associated sympathisers (e.g. Wycliffe College, Reform) clearly targets liberalism as the enemy. Some target Open Evangelicals as the first stage of clearing the decks of evangelical weakness before taking on the real enemy, the liberals within.

Why should this be so: it is that the ordination of women, important as it is, broke the back of traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism, and continues to do so in the corners in which they still inhabit some sort of existence, and has created a more dangerous bipolar institution, with evangelicals at one end and liberals and theological radicals at the other. The Conservative Evangelicals regard Open Evangelicals as in the way, or they just ought to behave and join the Party, in order to take on the liberals. Affirming Catholicism is to the theological left, and made its decision regarding where it is to be based. Rightly or wrongly, it gets associated with the liberals, though some just think they are critical whole Catholics.

However, make women bishops too and the Conservative Evangelicals are all of a dither, as so many state that women cannot have headship. Their backs start to crack too. Interestingly, though, at GAFCON the lack of any Broad Church means that the two wings hardly have a future together. Sydney and lay presidency may help that division along quite speedily. The coming Province of North America in GAFCON begins divided. But such is the trajectory of separatists: separate and separate again.

For the time being, then, there is no Broad Church function for the liberals, in that there is a middle division position occupied by Open Evangelicals. They do not function in the old Broad Church sense: they are just a location for the knife that cuts them one way and the other.

Assuming women do become bishops, a number of evangelicals will go the GAFCON way (they won't get their own non-geographical dioceses) and the traditionalist Anglo-Catholics will form their own entities or join up with other Churches. This will leave as insignificant any remaining traditionalist Anglo-Catholics and weaken remaining Conservative Evangelicals. The remaining Church of England will therefore have narrower boundaries. There will be Open Evangelicals (who are left - both senses of the words), broad liberals and radicals. My predictive difficulty is how the broad liberals will then assume the Broad Church role again, and start to demand discipline among the radicals - radicals who will upset the Open Evangelicals. We radicals cannot behave when it comes to theology and ethics.

Is my prediction reasonable? If it is, it creates a dilemma for MCU as it reforms itself. Does it want to keep that Broad Church negotiating in the deposit account, so it can bring its role back again later? Or does it want to take on the role it is finding itself in at the moment, a defender along with all liberals and radicals of the awkward squad in a more ecumenical and interfaith-looking Christianity? I don't want to be funny but my bishop of Lincoln (so put in that I, lay Anglican, live in his diocese) is President of MCU: would he find it possible to be President of a more awkward body that had less of its doctrinal baggage on board? Well, membership should indeed include the more apparently orthodox, but what of presiding over a body that doesn't much care for upholding the doctrinal niceties? I'm a member of the Have Some Balls tendency, but these days people are a little afraid of what others think and do.

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