by Jonathan Clatworthy
First published on the Modern Church blog on 23rd April 2013

A few days ago I suggested that perhaps the tide is turning and the supremacy of hardline ‘conservatives’ in the leadership of the Church of England will now start declining. The main evidence is that they have so effectively discredited themselves. 

But what will replace them? Will it be the turn of the ‘liberals’, who have been so persistently despised by establishment figures? Conservatives often accuse liberals of having a weaker faith. Here I argue that the reverse is true.

Who counts as liberal, or conservative, is a question in its own right. For now I’m using Men and Women in Marriage as an illustration: ‘conservatives’ feel committed to upholding what they think the Church has taught until now, while ‘liberals’ think there are times when it is right for the Church to change. 

The case against liberals has a characteristic form. If we simplify into three categories, we might say that at one extreme conservatives hold a lot of religious beliefs strongly, and at the other atheists hold no religious beliefs. Liberals would be in between, holding a few beliefs and not so strongly. Whether we are talking about women bishops or Sunday trading or abortion or whatever, we are often told that conservatives are firm in their Christian belief and commitment, upholding what Christianity teaches in the face of secularism, while liberals on the other hand compromise with secular society and accept secular society’s beliefs and moral standards. What’s wrong with this mental picture? 

 Conservative - Liberal - Atheist 
Firstly, it is propositional. The assumption is that being a Christian is defined by believing a collection of statements. Perhaps this makes sense if you think getting to heaven after you die depends on whether you believe the right things; but many Christians, probably most, do not.

Secondly, it treats these propositions as unchanging. The assumption is that we inherit the truths of faith from the past and hand them on to our descendants without alteration. This is not how we treat anything else. If you are a student of biology, for example, learning the facts as unchanging truths may be how you are taught in your early teens but if you are going to retain an interest in it for the rest of your life you will want to know about new developments and how some of the things people believed 30 years ago have been refuted. It’s the same for religion: historians tell us that what Christians believe has varied immensely through the ages.

Thirdly, it is counter-cultural. It assumes that Christian truth is quite separate from modern society and has nothing to learn from it. It expects every question to be judged not according to society’s criteria, but according to a completely separate set of Christian criteria. This produces absurd results. To take one example, in the early 1990s global warming was high on the public agenda. A lot of Christians from conservative backgrounds were bothered about it, even though they had been taught that Christians reject secular standards and stick to the Bible’s teaching. So they wrote books explaining that Christians should care for the environment not because of the scientific evidence, but because the Bible tells us to. If that was the reason, why didn’t anybody notice those environmental texts in the Bible before the scientific evidence came along? Those books invented an artificial separation between Christians and non-Christians. The real reason for their sudden conversion to environmental concern was of course the same as everyone else’s, the scientific evidence. 

That mental picture, in which liberal Christians are halfway between conservatives and unbelievers, is unrealistic. It only seems right if you already have a very particular dogmatic understanding of Christianity.

So let’s swap things round. At one extreme are the liberals, with a confident and informed faith, at the other are the people who don’t believe anything, and in between are the opponents of liberalism, with a brittle, insecure faith, a faith which clings to the exact words it has inherited because it is afraid to change anything.

 Liberal - Conservative - Atheist 
Liberals expect their understanding to grow and develop. New events make us think of things in new ways. When our faith is both well informed and confident, we can respond to new challenges by using our Christian tradition, adding to it and perhaps changing it. Perhaps the leaders of Christianity were wrong about women priests for all those centuries, just as they were wrong about slavery. For liberals to take these possibilities seriously, far from showing that our Christianity is weaker, shows on the contrary that it is stronger, able to respond creatively to new challenges and thereby strengthen the tradition we have inherited.

Opponents may complain that as soon as you take out a brick the whole wall will collapse, but we reply that if the wall is that fragile it ought to be knocked down before it does any more damage, and replaced with something more reliable.