by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 49 - Apr 2013
What do we stand for?
Modern Church began in 1898 to defend a position, variously described as 'liberal', 'broad church' or 'middle ground', which remains contentious today.
Views were polarising as atheism was on the rise, and biblical scholars questioned the accuracy of biblical texts. Many church leaders repudiated modern scholarship in the name of divine revelation, and conversely leading atheists campaigned against religious belief in the name of science. We argued that Christians should feel free to take on board the insights of new scholarship, judge them on their merits and, when appropriate, change doctrines in the light of them. We have therefore aimed both to defend modern research against religious fundamentalism, and to defend religious belief against atheism.
Is it logical?
The underlying principles are that:
Christian beliefs change, and often need to in the light of new insights;
new insights can be gained through research, through learning from other people and from unexpected sources;
the discovery process is open-ended, and in principle democratic rather than dependent on a pre-established authority structure;
human rationality and creativity are not contrasted with divine revelation, but are valued as means to receiving it.
In all other fields of study principles like these are now accepted as essential to the search for truth.
Is it traditional?
Opponents of liberal theology often accuse us of rejecting traditional Christianity This is only true of specific issues. Our liberal principles have characterised Christian reflection from the outset.
However, since the Reformation protestants have been divided between those who value the human mind and those who believe the Christian's duty is to accept divine revelation without question. Modern Church's historical roots are in the Church of England which has a long tradition (since the time of Elizabeth I) of publicly debating matters of faith and ethics. Although we retain an Anglican character our approach is shared by others and we welcome opportunities to work ecumenically.
Is it up to date?
On specific issues we have usually been on the winning side in the long run - for example contraception, divorce, capital punishment and the ordination of women.
We have been actively supporting the ordination of women since the 1920s and acceptance of homosexuality since the 1960s. On other issues, like evolution, the age of the earth and biblical literalism, we won the arguments decades ago but the debate has recently been revived. Thus our liberal principles still need defending.
Is it successful?
Liberal theology naturally encourages Christians to engage with a wide variety of issues.
Our active members are usually also active in other organisations. On a practical level this puts us at a disadvantage compared with single-issue campaigners and churches which demand total loyalty. We often find ourselves ranged against organisations with far more resources at their disposal; but churches do in fact develop over time, so we usually find ourselves on the winning side in the long run. For example, in the 1960s our members were actively involved in preparing legislation to abolish capital punishment and decriminalise homosexuality in the UK; few today would wish to repeal these Acts.
How do we do it?
Characteristically we draw on the resources of theological scholarship in order to promote liberal perspectives in the churches.
In the past we had our own theological college, Ripon Hall, now part of Ripon College Cuddesdon. Currently our regular outlets are our journal Modern Believing, our conferences and our newsletter Signs of the Times. From time to time we also produce books and leaflets. In recent years our website has been increasingly used as a resource.
We like to collaborate with other organisations. We set up the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) and we helped set up Inclusive Church. Currently we are working closely with Inclusive Church, the Progressive Christianity Network, Women and the Church and the Centre for Radical Christianity. We also have close links with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and Changing Attitude. Often our members also belong to one or more of these groups.
Is it useful?
We have occasionally played a leading part in a campaign, as we did in the case of the Anglican Covenant.
More often our role is to support campaigners with theological resources. Single-issue campaigns are often characterised by media-savvy soundbites, appeals to gut instincts, and lack of communication with opponents. However, controversies rarely get settled without convincing explanations, theories that make sense to most people. It is at this level that we aim to provide theological resources, whether to pressure groups like WATCH or to Parliamentary committees.