by Paul Badham, from Modern Believing Vol 51:1

Liberal Theology in the Contemporary World

John Saxbee, in his introduction to the conference papers, argues that by the time of the MCU centenary in 1998 almost all the key liberal causes of the 20th Century had become mainstream in the life of the Christian Churches.Yet Liberalism remains a contentious issue and we have still to argue in its defence in contemporary religious dialogue. That is what we sought to do in this summer's conference on Liberal Theology and that is the concern of this issue of Modern Believing.

However, one characteristic of a true liberal is the recognition of the need for ongoing dialogue with those who wish to defend a view of Christianity which gives priority to the sense of the 'given-ness' of Christian doctrine and is concerned that liberalism can cut one off from the sense of belonging to an historic tradition. Hence the first paper at the conference was a critique of liberalism by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell. He does this by a careful examination of the teaching of Newman on this matter. In some respects Newman is often seen as being himself on the 'liberal wing' of Catholic orthodoxy with his stress on the supremacy of conscience, his exploration of the need for doctrine to develop, his openness to new truths such as the reality of evolution, and his minimalist approach to the doctrine of papal infallibility. Yet Newman was also insistent that he had spent his life confronting liberalism!

Like Newman, Bishop Rowell argues for a lively traditionalism which looks for 'revolution by tradition' and the need for 'liberality of mind' which recognises the need for restatement of doctrinal belief in every age. Rowell also notes that Newman in his University Sermons as an Anglican and in The Grammar of Assent as a Roman Catholic championed the cause of a properly rational defence of Christian believing. It is important for liberals to recognise the need to return again and again to the sources of our tradition for often a true 'radicalism' will literally come from a return to roots. Bishop Rowell's paper is a valuable contribution to our debate and illustrates the need to avoid too easy a pigeonholing of people. After all Bishop Rowell himself is probably best known for his book  on Hell and the Victorians in which he traces the ways in which theological opinion, by returning to the heart of Jesus' teaching has shifted away from this once central doctrine of traditional Christianity.

Professor Keith Ward's paper defends liberalism as vital for both science and Christianity. It is no accident that science really got going in Christian Europe. The heart of Christianity is a belief that the universe was the creation of an eternal reason and that this reason (or logos)  also found expression in the life of Jesus. Professor Ward shows how the Reformation and the Enlightenment contributed to the modern world view and stresses the importance of liberalism to any viable contemporary understanding. He also presents a very strong argument for the congruence of a contemporary scientific understanding of reality with a liberal Christian understanding of the mind of God.

Bishop Brian Smith argues for the liberating power of being seized by an idea whose time has come. He notes that liberalism within theology has often been experienced as liberating in that sometimes a fresh reinterpretation of doctrine revitalizes belief. Apologetic liberalism makes believing possible by enabling the belief to be understood in a clearer way; Reductionist liberalism makes believing possible by encouraging the believer to discount matters which were not necessary for true believing; Pluralist liberalism makes believing possible by enabling the believer to have confidence in what they believe even when they see others believing in very different ways. However the main crux of Bishop Smith's paper is to suggest that fuller liberation can come if we focus our attention not simply on beliefs but also on values.  He argues that the present divisions within the Anglican Communion could best be addressed if we gave priority to the values that each side is seeking to attend to, recognising that in the nature of the case some values will clash and that we should not expect total agreement but rather should seek to find an acceptable level of pluralism.  Bishop Smith illustrates the inevitability of values clashing within the church by pointing out that the picture of Jesus that we have been given embodies a number of values that do not sit easily together. The prophet and the priest, the traditionalist and the innovator can all look back to Jesus and those who want a united uniform church all believing the same thing simply fail to realise the richness and variety with which we are dealing with when we meet the man Jesus.

Helen Ann Hartley says some very similar things about the way we should approach the Bible.  Those who treat it as a monolithic entity with a simple and authoritative message misunderstand the kind of literature the Bible is. Rather than constantly talking of the authority of the Bible we should encourage a conversational approach to reading the texts of the Bible; and encourage an open-minded and open-hearted approach that encourages questions without necessarily getting all the answers. The Biblical endorsement of slavery illustrates the difficulty of treating Biblical texts out of context and out of time. Instead of that kind of approach Dr. Hartley urges how vital it is that liberal theology promotes an interaction with the texts of the Bible that is thoughtful in every respect; one which encourages the asking of questions; sustains a willingness and a trust not to have all the answers; and allows for the encountering of God in the spaces in-between.

Jonathan Clatworthy as General Secretary of the Modern Churchpeople's Union defends that liberalism in theology for which the Union has campaigned since its foundation in 1898. But Jonathan shows that liberalism in theology has a far longer heritage than that. What we know of the early Fathers of the first five centuries or of the Medieval schoolmen is that they were constantly engaged in debate with each other in the search for a reasonable understanding of what the faith meant. That approach also typified classic Anglicanism. It is tragic that in our day it no longer applies and the public image of religion is shaped by fundamentalist caricatures. Yet in every other area of modern life a questioning approach is taken for granted as the right one. Liberals believe that the same applies to religion. Progress in understanding can only be made by public reflection and debate guided by reason. Claims to divine revelation cannot all be accepted. Each one needs to be assessed by the believing community, using the resources available to it. Once we accept that the way to seek truth in matters of religion is similar to the way we seek truth in all other matters, making full use of our reason in public research and debate, then we can resolve our disagreements in matters of religion in much the same way as we resolve our other disagreements.

The final paper in this issue does not come from the MCU conference on Liberal Theology but is a paper which was presented to Inclusive Church by Bishop Peter Selby on 7th October 2009. It is included in this issue because it represents the application of liberal theology to the proposed Anglican Covenant and its implications both for Lesbian and Gay Christians who feel called to the Ministry and also to the relationship between the Episcopal Church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion.  It is a paper that is deeply conscious of the agonising situation in which the Archbishop of Canterbury finds himself, as one who in earlier posts was himself an advocate of a more understanding approach to homosexuality and who is still passionately opposed to homophobia.  However, as Bishop Selby points out, we are primarily judged, not by our words, but by our behaviour. It is simply not credible  for the Archbishop to say that 'there must be no questioning of the human and civil rights of Lesbian and Gay Christians or of their membership of the Body of Christ' if in fact the church is the one organisation in our society which still openly practices discrimination against them in employment. The only reason why the Anglican Church is being torn apart on this issue is because opposition to the blessing of 'Gay Weddings' and to the Episcopal consecration of Gay clergy is still being fuelled by visceral homophobia within the churches.

The Archbishop urges that we 'become the Church God wants us to be, for the better proclaiming of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ'; but according to Bishop Selby that means 'engaging in the search for the truth together, not settling for the stalemate which is what his paper actually advocates.  What is at stake is our faith that God's truth will be discovered. That is, that we shall learn which of the faltering steps we all take in the living of holy lives with our bodies and our passions will form part of the choreography of promise, that will prepare us for the marriage supper of the Lamb, where all our human loving will be transformed and celebrated'.


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.