Dogmatism

Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Modern Church then and now is the resistance to dogmatism. It has been on the rise again since the 1970s and once again popular sentiment, both for and against, perceives Christianity as a dogmatic enterprise committed to its own teachings regardless of evidence to the contrary. Church leaders, even when they do not agree, permit this view to continue unchallenged. Recently, the UK has seen religious organisations successfully lobbying for exemption from equal opportunities legislation in order to continue discriminating against women and homosexuals, thus once again giving the wider society cause to judge Christianity immoral. The perception of Christianity as anti-evolutionist was widely disseminated in ‘Darwin year’, 2009, with the mass media publishing precious few pro-evolution Christian voices, but church leaders rarely rose to the challenge.

We can see from the quotations above a concern to oppose two types of dogmatism. One, usually called fundamentalism, insists that Christian dogma provides truths about reality as a whole, not just about spiritual matters. It is best known for believing that the world was made in six days and denying evolution, but there have been many variants, using particular biblical texts to refute particular scientific theories. The other type is the dualistic retreat, which limits Christian dogma to spiritual matters and allows other matters to be decided by science. This is the approach rejected above as ‘the compartment theory’. Both types are still very much part of the religious scene today.

Dogmatism as a reaction to atheism

Throughout the nineteenth century there had been a growing belief that science had disproved, or would disprove, religious belief. In reality pure science only refuted the ‘God of the gaps’ argument (that there must be a God to explain what science could not explain); more influential was positivist philosophy (that unobservables like God do not exist) and, probably most influential of all, moral revulsion at many traditional doctrines like hell. With atheism on the increase the faithful were naturally anxious. Societies often respond to anxiety by reaffirming the simple certainties of an earlier age, and this is what nineteenth century evangelical and catholic dogmatists did. Liberals rightly believed that this only made matters worse; those simple certainties contained many of the reasons for rejecting Christianity. Better to acknowledge that neither pope nor bible is infallible, and allow modern insights to inform Christian believing. To stem the atheist tide the Church should develop an educated apologetic supported by rational arguments and the best available evidence.

Today atheism is in retreat. The dogmatisms we now face are reactions against cultural change, with a greater focus on moral values. The revived interest in spiritual matters has benefited other religious traditions rather than Christianity. Once again an up to date, well informed apology is needed, but the focus should be wider: not just on arguments for believing in God but in drawing out the value of Christian ideas as compared with the ideas of other traditions.

Dogmatism and education

Rosedale’s claim that ‘by far the larger proportion of learned and highly accomplished clergy and Church laity belong to this [liberal] school of thought’ reveals his view that those with higher educational standards were more likely to accept the findings of contemporary research and therefore to be liberals in religion if they did not lose their faith altogether. Earlier in the nineteenth century the matter had not been so clear; leading scientists had defended both sides in the debate on geology and Noah’s Flood, and even the 1860s evolution debate. By the 1890s, however, it had become clear that many traditional Christian beliefs were in error; we can see in retrospect that those determined to defend them were in effect reactionaries defying modern research in general.

Their successors today rarely claim to oppose modern research in general. Anti-evolutionists, biblical literalists with their revived hostility to critical scholarship, and science-based atheists all claim to make full use of it. Nevertheless there is an overwhelming majority view – of biologists, theologians and philosophers respectively – that these movements are swimming against the tide. As in the 1890s, liberal theology fits within modern understandings of reality while dogmatic theology does not. Where we differ from their day is that the presumption against religious belief is declining rather than increasing.

Dogmatism and the Church

Brocklehurst’s desire ‘to bring back some of those who had left [the Church] through the feeling that the Church was out of touch with the spirit of the age’ is a point which we today would divide into two. In his day it was easier to imagine that everyone was either an unbeliever or a churchgoer. Today, most believers have abandoned church attendance. Many Modern Church members are among them. Often they date the lapse from the arrival of the new vicar, who expects them to believe what they cannot, and in their view discredits the faith. At the end of the nineteenth century there were many such clergy, but the laity by and large continued to attend. Perhaps attendance was made easier by the fact that the vicar’s sermon would usually have been better prepared, and his views would have been the topic of public discussion in the parish. Today the dissatisfied often find that after they have been told what to believe there is no opportunity to explore their disbelief. Although there is no Modern Church policy on the matter, I suspect most of our members would feel that prior to the laity’s duty to attend church services comes the clergy’s duty to make the services worth attending.

Diversity of belief and church unity

Rosedale’s interest in church unity draws attention to the question of uniformity: does unity require agreement of belief? In the 1890s dogmatists, catholic and protestant alike, reacted to atheism by increasing their demands: you must believe this and this if you are to be one of us. Today in the same way ‘conservative’ religion reacts against new moral attitudes – like equality for women and gay people – by reasserting the values – like male headship and the immorality of homosexuality – which they count as essential to Christianity. In both cases dogma-based unity can be supported in the short term by emphasising the points of agreement and downgrading disagreements, but this policy can never last long. The key question is whether or not a church should oblige its members to believe the same thing, or whether it should accept diversity of belief. Recently Modern Church has argued, in a number of publications, that the only way to avoid sectarian splits in the long term is to allow diversity of opinion – and if necessary oppose attempts to suppress it. Recently our arguments have focused on the case against the proposed Anglican Covenant[16] while Rosedale’s concern was church unity, but the key position is very much the same. The Church Gazette’s proposal ‘that nothing of truth should be given up, and that, in order to do this, it was necessary to spare no pains to discovery of truth’ expresses it well. It is of course the very opposite of the dogmatic claim that all such pains should be abandoned in the interests of inherited doctrines.

Other issues

Regarding the Church Gazette’s other brief points, there are two – ordination oaths and ecclesiastical discipline – in which legislation has changed the situation. Nevertheless both issues remain matters of concern. The remarks on the Bible, objective truth, progressive inspiration and spirituality express liberal positions of today so well that they need no amendment.