by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Modern Believing Vol 55:4 - October 2014

This editorial is much longer than usual as it provides an account of Modern Church’s foundation. We have therefore divided it into sections. To navigate, click on the headings on the right or the 'Prev / Next' buttons at the foot of each section.


Liberal Theology

This edition of Modern Believing focuses on liberal theology. From the start, promoting liberal theology was the objective of Modern Church and its journal; the bulk of this Editorial describes the ideas motivating our foundation in 1898, ideas which are very much alive today.

We have now been doing it for over a century. What people mean by the word ‘liberal’ has varied immensely, so we owe it to our readers to express from time to time the kind of liberalism we engage with.

We owe to the last editor, Adrian Thatcher, the idea of asking every member of the Editorial Board to write a short article on the subject. Apart from that we did not provide guidelines. Each author has been given a free hand to approach the topic from their own perspective. There has been no editorial cutting and pasting so the result is what you see.

We think it has worked well, and we hope you agree. As befits the topic, the variety shows that liberalism can be understood in many different ways. On the one hand a theologian may support some aspects of it while opposing others; on the other hand there are some central ideas which do not go away.

Some authors have provided an overview. To Marilyn Adams, truth is one because we are metaphysical realists. Liberals resist intellectual compartmentalisation. We accept that we are intellectually and morally fallible, and therefore politically challenged. Martyn Percy describes liberalism as individualist, egalitarian, universalist and meliorist: ‘To be a liberal theologian today is to be a brave liberator, loyal dissenter and faithful friend of the Church’. Keith Ward offers four main liberal principles: diversity of interpretation, historical reformulation, the fallibility of knowledge and the importance of personal experience and human flourishing. To Susannah Cornwall, liberal Christianity seeks to test Christian claims and hold them alongside other knowledge. There is strength in acknowledging inadequacy. We need to pay attention to context and be circumspect about certainty.

Some have provided a closer focus on specific features of liberalism. Diarmaid MacCulloch addresses authority. Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and Orthodoxy are ill-adapted to deal with changes but liberal theologians can do better. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes takes a Christological, incarnational approach. Christianity was diverse from the start, inevitably, as it is contained in a person, not a book. Truth lies primarily in relationship rather than doctrine. George Newlands describes liberalism as a basis for human rights and Christian practice. Critique of the Enlightenment is itself a product of the Enlightenment’s critical rationality. ‘Liberalism has its difficulties: its absence often makes space for tolerance of the intolerable.’

On a more conceptual theme, Duncan Dormor argues that liberal theology must challenge the secular-religious divide, which can present religion as just one more social activity, like sport. Liberal theology must be prepared to unpick categories. Steven Shakespeare sees liberal theology as pluralistic and without essence. It should be partial: ‘If theology does not serve the liberation of flesh and blood human beings, it is part of the problem’. John Barton characterises liberalism in theology as a way to ‘be a Christian and also be sensible’. He draws on Richard Hooker, and before him the Jewish rabbinic tradition, in support of the idea that ‘God has shown us what is essential for our faith ... but has not given us the small print. This we have to work out for ourselves: prayerfully but also rationally’.

Some, while valuing certain aspects of liberalism, have challenged others. Tom Hughson’s overview values liberalism’s historical consciousness, its emphasis on experience and subjectivity, the welcome it gives to knowledge from other sources and its support for social justice. On the other hand liberal theology is modern, and modernity is about superiority to predecessors. Similarly James Tengatenga describes the liberalism prevalent today as hegemonic, mono-linguistic and oblivious to context. True liberalism is malleable and post-modernist, and welcomes new forms of thought. Mark Chapman believes that demythologising and rejecting the supernatural is a high risk strategy. He prefers a humble theology, seeking to approximate to what is beyond human grasp. As churchgoing declines he offers suggestions for a new approach to maintaining churches. Andrew Linzey criticises a variety of liberal theological positions, but nevertheless wants to be part of a liberal church which encourages questioning and criticism in an open-ended search for truth. We must ‘reject authoritarianism even if it defends some things we hold dear’.

Given that there was no attempt to coordinate the contributions, it is remarkable how some central themes stand out. Perhaps the disagreements are greatest regarding the conceptual, metaphysical character of liberal theology. Regarding its method, there is much stress on the need for its openness to change and willingness to learn from new sources of insight. There is also much practical concern for engagement with society, especially with respect for social justice.

These articles, of course, are about liberal theology. Liberal politics and liberal economics are another matter, though there may be points of contact. Even among theologians the word ‘liberal’ can have many connotations; as Marilyn Adams has noted, for some it is a boo word. In some church circles, especially where uniformity of belief is expected, a liberal is anyone who disagrees with oneself. In the USA, but not in the UK, liberalism characteristically demands separation of church from state. We should expect theological liberals to disagree with each other since we value the freedom to think for ourselves.

My own contributions to this theme are published elsewhere and are not reproduced here. What follows in the remainder of this Editorial is a study of the concerns which led our predecessors in 1898 to set up the organisation now known as Modern Church. We think it makes a suitable contribution to this edition; in addition, when we note how the concerns of their time resonate today, it makes quite an advertisement for Modern Church, its journal and its liberal theology.