By Jonathan Clatworthy
This article first appeared on the Modern Church blog on 14th August 2013

Modern Church claims to promote liberal theology, but what kind of theology is liberal?

Previously I have described how I see the difference between liberalism in religious discourse and liberalism as it is understood elsewhere. In religion, to be a liberal is to think for yourself without feeling obliged to assent to inherited teachings or dogmas.

The difference is there because religion is the only field of discourse where the question survives at all; elsewhere it is taken for granted that no authority is above question. So, to be a liberal in religion is to treat truth-questions in religion the same way as we treat truth-questions on all other matters.

Recently there have been intense debates between Christian ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. The issue of gay bishops has generated threats of schism across the Anglican world. Women bishops, and now same-sex marriages, are matters of heated debate in England. The characteristic narrative is that conservatives want to uphold positions inherited from the past while liberals challenge them in the name of a Christianity which ought to judge new ideas on their merits. 

In my experience Christians distinguish between liberals and conservatives in three different ways, which often get confused with each other. 

Distinction 1: Specific issues

A supporter of women bishops is a liberal, an opponent is a conservative. A supporter of gay marriages is a liberal, an opponent is a conservative. On this account a person can be a liberal on one issue and a conservative on another. 

 

John

Janet

Jackie

Abortion

conservative

liberal

liberal

Same-sex partnerships

liberal

liberal

conservative

Women priests

conservative

conservative

conservative

The terms are not satisfactory because they depend on judgements about what the tradition has taught so far. Same-sex partnerships are easy: they have been condemned for most of Christian history so condemning them now counts as conservative. But what about lending money at interest? Since it was opposed until early modern times but is now accepted, is an opponent of it a liberal or a conservative? Since Christianity had women bishops until the third century, should supporters of women bishops today count as ultra-conservatives? One begins to wonder whether being a conservative really only means believing what one was taught in one’s childhood.

Distinction 2: General approaches

All living traditions inherit teachings from the past but also question them and develop new ideas. Conservatives generally put more emphasis on inherited views, liberals on new ideas. There is a conservative-liberal spectrum, with a few people at each end while most are somewhere in the middle, happy to acknowledge the value of both tradition and development to some extent or other.

Distinction 3: Commitment to a single authority

Taking the spectrum as a model, the third distinction treats everybody as a liberal except those at the extreme conservative edge. The point here is that from a conservative point of view there should be no compromise. The supreme authority has been established, the correct way to interpret it has been established and there should therefore be no disagreement about what it tells us. Any spectrum of different beliefs reveals a liberal spirit rejecting Christian truth.

In the recent debates Distinction 3 has been a very common approach by conservative evangelicals arguing that there should be no compromise over biblical standards as they interpret them. The difference is between conservatives who accept God’s word in its entirety and liberals who doubt any part of it. 

The problems are well known. First there needs to be consensus about the supreme authority. In the case of conservative evangelicals there is: it is the Bible. Secondly there needs to be consensus about how to interpret every biblical text. This is where disagreements abound. As conservative evangelicals accuse each other of not accepting the ‘clear, plain teaching of Scripture’ they present their opponents as liberals - that is, as people who do not accept the teaching of Scripture. Thus arises a very different meaning of the word ‘liberal’: a liberal becomes any person who does not accept one’s own interpretations of the Bible. 

So to describe a fellow Christian as a liberal is, in some circles, an accusation. This use of the term is common among conservatives, evangelical and catholics alike. However it is often echoed by Christians who on my account are liberals, but do not think of themselves as such because of the negative connotations.

This is a shame. There is no better word in the English language to describe Modern Church’s tradition of resisting dogmas and excessive authority claims in the name of an open, enquiring, developing theological tradition. Many churchgoers - I guess the overwhelming majority - are on our side on this point, whether or not they agree with women bishops or same-sex marriages. Suspicion of the word ‘liberal’ has hindered collaboration between liberally-minded religious organisations.

Without that suspicion I believe we could have a much bigger impact. Many people have seen for themselves the limitations of ‘conservative’ dogmas and are looking around for more credible versions of Christianity. Becoming a liberal may sound scary. It shouldn’t be. It’s liberating.