by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 32 - Jan 2009

The current debate about women priests and bishops has generated renewed accusations against liberals.  One of the more persistent is that liberals can be quite illiberal about their  beliefs. Is this a fair criticism? Are liberals inclined to be just as dogmatic  as their dogmatising opponents?

Certainly liberals, like everybody else, often fail to understand the logic of beliefs they do not  share. Much of the opposition to women priests and bishops has its conceptual  roots in a particular view of sacramental validity, according to which priests are only priests if they are both validly ordained and also the correct kind of  person – i.e. male. Bread and wine consecrated by a woman priest is invalidly  consecrated and is not therefore the Eucharist, but at least the faithful can  work that out by looking at the shape of the priest’s body. Women bishops, on  the other hand, raise the spectre of a male priest invalidly ordained because  the ordaining bishop was female. Unless his stole is embroidered with the words  ‘I was ordained by a woman’, the Resolution C faithful have no way to  distinguish between valid and invalid Eucharists.

Liberals often find this  argument so contrary to their understanding of reality that they find it  difficult to take it seriously. It can be argued that ‘the liberals are being  intolerant’ because once the church has women bishops, opponents can no longer  take their male priests at face value and are thereby put at a disadvantage.     

The obvious liberal reply is  that the pot seems to be calling the kettle black. Those who refuse to tolerate  women priests can hardly complain when their own views are not tolerated by  others. But this is not enough. Those who make no claim to be liberal may  trumpet their intolerance without any inconsistency; but are not liberals being  untrue to their beliefs when they are equally intolerant?     

It depends on the type of  liberalism. People often describe themselves as liberals with respect to a  particular issue; they may, for example, consider themselves liberals on the  matter of human rights but not sex before marriage, or the other way round.  Even those who hold liberal positions on a wide range of issues may do so for  reasons nothing to do with liberalism as such.     

One may expect more from  people who claim to be liberals as a matter of principle. In current religious  debate the key liberal principle is freedom to question every truth claim.  Enlightenment leaders opposed the appeals by church leaders to reason-defying  divine revelation, insisting instead that if we are to believe anything we must  have good reason for so doing. Truth is uncovered not by looking for statements  which come directly from God, but by public dialogue as people in society  examine, challenge and build on each other’s ideas. The spirit of Enlightenment  liberalism is well expressed by the words Voltaire is reputed to have said to  Rousseau: ‘I do not agree with a word you say, but I will fight to the death  for your right to say it’.     

This then is the core of  liberal truth-seeking. On the one hand everybody’s opinion is to be heard and  respected; on the other, its truth-value is to be assessed by public rational  examination. Elsewhere this principle is so well established that it is no  longer controversial. Nobody would entrust their health care to a  self-appointed doctor who had studied no medicine except for a few personally  selected ancient near eastern texts, or buy an electrical machine made by  someone who claimed to have worked out the laws of electricity from first  principles purely by listening to voices in his or her head. On the contrary  the ‘liberal’ framework for developing hypotheses and accepting knowledge  claims is accepted right across the sciences and humanities. One of the most  distinctive features of the twentieth century, the astonishing mushrooming of  knowledge, would have been impossible without it. Many features of modern  society, like democracy, depend on it. Even the postmodernists most opposed to  ‘Enlightenment liberalism’ work within its parameters.     

With one exception. In  religion, and only in religion, the legitimacy of this framework continues to  be debated. Those who make simple appeals to biblical texts and papal  statements as a way of riding roughshod over all other opinions are still  granted far more respect than they deserve. In this sense liberalism in  religion only wants religion to catch up with everything else. It is a modest  aim, and the fact that it has not been achieved perhaps shows how little modern  society cares whether its religious beliefs are actually true. Religious  leaders often enough collude, when they are more concerned to protect the  stability of their institution than to examine the truth of its doctrines.     

What we might call  ‘principled religious liberalism’ therefore has a modest aim: it is merely  affirming in religion a method which is accepted as essential everywhere else.  How then does it respond to the accusation of illiberalism?     

It does not claim that all  opinions are true, as the ‘anything goes’ theory would have it. This view, though  often described as liberalism, usually indicates the stance of people who are  not really interested in questions of religious truth at all.     

Nor does it mean that ‘you  can do whatever you like’. Political liberalism values the freedom of  individuals to do what they like provided they do not harm others as part of an  egalitarian philosophy, but the condition is significant. If an independent  church teaches that women cannot be priests or bishops, not only is it being  inegalitarian but it is at least arguable that it harms women. When a minority  lobby within a larger church does the same, intending to frustrate the  egalitarian intentions of the majority, there is even less justification in  claiming that liberals should allow them to do whatever they want.     

Liberalism does mean that we  should respect the opinions of others, however illiberal; they are children of  God with minds similar to ours, potentially part of that social network needed  to analyse and debate the controversies of the day in the search for truth.     

But it does not mean that  other people’s opinions are to be treated like brass ornaments, put on a  mantlepiece, admired, occasionally polished, and eventually bequeathed  unchanged to our grandchildren. It means the exact opposite: that other people’s  opinions, as well as our own, are to be taken to bits and examined to see how  they work and whether we can improve on them. Opponents of liberalism often do  believe that their opinions are universal and eternal revelations and ought  never to be doubted; but liberals deny that any opinion should be granted that  status.     

The illiberal therefore have  no right to be left undisturbed in their illiberalism, still less to be granted  a veto in matters of religion. On the contrary, anybody who wants their opinion  to carry weight in public decision-making should be obliged to do more than  merely cite biblical texts or church tradition. They must take part in public  debate, presenting their evidence and arguments for inspection by those who  disagree. If the opponents of women’s ministry believe God has revealed  something to them about the nature of priesthood and episcopacy, they must  convince the rest of us that it really was a revelation and that it came from  God. If they cannot, perhaps they are mistaken.     

When critics accuse liberals  of being illiberal, they are usually playing one version of liberalism against  another. Those committed to liberal principles will respect the opinions of the  illiberal and allow them to be heard; but not treat every opinion as equally  valid, let alone equally true. In religion, as in science, we achieve nothing  when we block our ears to our opponents and spend our time in coteries of the  like-minded. Truth is served when divergent voices listen respectfully to each  other, express their traditions and the reasons for them as honestly as they  can, and cooperate in the attempt to resolve disagreements. The search for  truth about God, like the search for truth about the physical universe, is best  served by the liberal method whose hallmark is honest, patient public debate.


Revd Jonathan Clatworthy is Editor of Modern Believing and a former Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest,  university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.