arguing

It was partly a sense of a hole needing to be filled that first drew me into Modern Church.

I confess to having spent much of my youth as an enthusiastic but short-term campaigner. So many social issues grabbed my attention that I threw myself into one after another, totally committed until the next one came along.

After a few years I began to notice that they all had one weakness in common. The members of each society agreed with each other in feeling strongly that our chosen issue was very important and something ought to be done about it; but what drove us was the feeling. Our arguments, our reasons, were shallow.

The problem was most noticeable in the case of natural rights. Natural rights have a tradition of being proclaimed as ‘self-evident’. Then, as now, pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists would scream ‘A woman’s right to choose’ and ‘A baby’s right to life’, without listening to each other, let alone reflecting on what they meant by rights.

When simple appeals to rights or duties seem inadequate, popular debate most often fills the gap with statistics: percentages of people who agree with the cause, or numbers of miscarriages of justice because of a law that needs changing. Yet statistics like these prove nothing. If success can be achieved more easily by manipulating the media than by winning arguments, the cause of truth is not helped.

There is a proper place for strong feelings. Mixtures of instinct and conscience, nature and nurture, they often express moral truths. But not always. Good campaigners need the support of good thinkers, even – perhaps especially – when they do not see why.

So Modern Church sees itself as a theological society. From time to time organizations campaigning for liberal positions in church affairs have sought our support, indicating that they perceive us as a valuable ally. This is as we would wish. We were founded at the end of the nineteenth century to promote theological scholarship within the churches. At the time it was controversial. By arguing that Christians should embrace the new learning, and even when necessary change our religious beliefs in the light of it, our predecessors were promoting a view which some found too radical.

To compare Modern Church with single issue groups, then, our single issue would be liberal methods in theology. We are open to new findings, from the sciences or wherever else, and if they prove convincing we think we should be prepared to take them on board and let the Christian tradition develop accordingly. Our stance requires a provisionality about what we have inherited, an openness to the future, and a confidence in human reason as a God-given asset to be used responsibly.

What roots liberal method in ordinary church life is its implications for practical issues. The biggest controversies move on from one topic to another, but there is a common thread that keeps recurring. Over the centuries, time and time again those who wanted to preserve inherited doctrines as they were would appeal to scripture or tradition. On the other hand those who wanted change would appeal to new insights and reasoned argument.

Some issues split clearly along these lines. In the debates on women’s ministry and same-sex partnerships, the arguments against innovation are very strongly of the ‘conservative’ type, appealing to inherited traditions and the notion of Scripture as a self-interpreting authority, while opposing arguments appeal to other insights and value judgements – from psychology, biblical research and elsewhere. On other matters the arguments do not divide so neatly, but there too conservative and liberal types of argument can usually be distinguished.

So our contributions are usually theological: by applying liberal theological method to the issues of the moment, we can show the value of liberal theology while also contributing to matters that deeply affect people’s lives.

We often feel pushed towards one of two extremes. To describe Modern Church as a ‘theological’ society can mean, to some ears, that it belongs in the world of academia and is therefore disconnected from practical issues. Indeed, reactionary movements have often tried to suppress new ideas by insisting that Christians should uphold traditional doctrines regardless of their practical significance.

At the other extreme we need to resist the pressure to take sides on every issue. Usually we have been content to promote liberal theological method. Occasionally this has pushed us very much to one side of the debate – as it did with women’s ministry, for example – but more generally, we are committed to open debate, recognising that certainty is beyond us. What seems liberal to one age may seem illiberal to another.

Good liberal theology can do more than offer arguments for one side against the other. We can also provide the means for disputants to hear each other better, and thereby raise the quality of debate.