Ruth Fitter

What does liberal theology have to offer, why does it matter, why bother defending it? How can it increase its influence? Should it get more political?

These are some of the questions we discussed at Modern Church’s Council meeting on Friday and Saturday. Modern Church promotes liberal theology.

We were led by Linda Woodhead, our President. Linda is a sociologist of religion at Lancaster University. She is best known as the brains behind the Westminster Faith Debates, which has not endeared her to church leaders as the accompanying YouGov polls revealed that hardly anybody accepts their authority these days.

The surveys showed that despite the noise from more hardline religious leaders, most British people are pretty liberal in their religious views.

For most people, Linda suggested, religion has three parts: everyday practice, ritual and belief – in that order of importance. One of the most surprising results of the surveys was the liberal consensus regarding personal morality. Those surveyed did not call themselves liberals but believed it was up to people to decide how to live their lives.

HilaryToppGroups of people have projects which they struggle to embed in society. Examples are the Reformation and feminism. Liberalism is another. Linda described three waves of the liberal project over the last century. The first was about class. The second was about opposing racism. The third is current now. It is about women, gay people and children. The churches supported the first two waves, but had got entrenched at the time of the third.

Nevertheless we are a deeply rooted liberal country, and we get our liberalism very largely from our Christianity. Only 5% of the population accept Dawkins-type atheism. When the traditional churches fail to resonate, people create their own rituals – for example at funerals.

This raises the question: why do we need the Church to give us values we already have? According to the sociologist Rodney Stark, to be effective religions have to take a stand against society. Linda’s response was that religions do have to offer something distinctive, but it has to be about vision for the future, not simply critique of the present.

To my mind the emphasis on everyday life is a helpful insight. Religion should be expressed naturally, normally. It should be more like healthy skin performing its role in a healthy body, less like an itching sore constantly demanding attention, as some think it should be. At its best it is not about deciding who is in and who is out. Instead it resources us, usually quietly and unobtrusively, to see who we are and how we should respond to the matters of the day.