Tuesday 14 July 2009

MCU Imperfect Freedom

Starting today, the Modern Churchpeople's Union holds its annual Conference, entitled Perfect Freedom: Liberal Faith Today & Tomorrow, just off the A10 at High Leigh and chaired by Rt Rev John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln.

The MCU is, probably, best described as modernist as well as liberal, and personally I have never been sure about it. Just how far does it stretch with its definition of liberal, and just how much is it really an expression of Broad Church. Now it is met and overlapped by a new group called Affirming Liberalism, which is more obviously a Church body and even a political statement if pursuing itself via lectures and arguments. Speaker for Affirming Liberals Keith Ward will do his stuff at the MCU, demonstrating the overlap.

MCU wants to listen to the Bishop of Gibraltar, Geoffrey Rowell: well, OK, but it's as if we don't know what a more traditionalist view sounds like. It is important to debate, of course, but sometimes a more liberal perspective is rather hard to hear and if I was going I'd want to hear what is getting rarer and what is becoming threatened by recent developments.

I have listened to Helen-Ann Hartley via means of the Internet and, again, this is my puzzle: what is so very different from what she says in a radio broadcast (clearly affirming the Trinity and Incarnation) and bog-standard Christianity? Are things so bad that something that sounds utterly standard is now risky against the noise that is produced by mainly Evangelicals? Or perhaps she has a division of speech between sounding ordinary over the airwaves and be a bit more risky at a Conference of modernists (I don't know)? She wants to hold on to biblical fundamentals at this conference.

Same issues arise (for me) with Bishop Brian Smith, though it shows that the Scottish Episcopal Church has a clearer definition than the Church of England. One wonders if Britan Smith will go the way of his predecessor, Richard Holloway, who has become much more of a radical since retirement.

Canon Lucy Winkett of St. Paul's Cathedral does the rounds, and can spread theology into other areas of thought and reality - probably looking at economic liberalism alongside theological. Well that goes at least two ways: individualism but then there is a social liberalism that impacts both in economics and theology.

Jonathan Clatworthy became something of a political-institutional person regarding the current mainly Anglican Church situation and of course the situation of liberal theology inside the current Church is somewhat combative. It is becoming defensive and might also take up something of an attack for its defence.

The most interesting speaker for me would be Professor Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University and an Episcopal Church priest. His canvas appears to be much the broader (as American theology is - a point I shall no doubt make again tonight at the local In Depth group when I discuss John A. T. Robinson). He has written about the historical background of liberal theology in the United States, modernism, and postmodernity.

So I am suggesting that this MCU conference is potentially quite narrow and institutional, with this one exception. Is this really perfect freedom for today and tomorrow? Hardly. Where is the ecumenical input beyond Anglicanism and where is the input from outside of the box? Meanwhile, the cost of attendance is anything from £40 to £245, and that maximum is a lot for two full days and two bits. The booking form knocked £100 for concessions if the booking was early, but £145 isn't exactly access for the poor.

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