Religious discourse contains a persistent tension: between commitment to inherited beliefs and the search for truth. This post compares two debates, a current one and one from a hundred years ago.
Modern Church is planning a day conference on 11th September to celebrate the centenary of its most famous annual conference, ‘Christ and the Creeds’. Questioning the divinity of Christ was so controversial that it made front page news. Today, instead, we fall out with each other over same-sex partnerships.
In historical context the presenting issue comes and goes; what persists is that we find reasons to disagree. On one side are those who want to think things through. Their commitment is to truth through reason. On the other side are those committed to defending inherited teachings. Deviate from what the Church teaches and you shouldn’t be a bishop. Or even a priest.
Opinions have swung back and forth for a thousand years. Anselm set out to prove by logic the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity. By the time of the Reformation his successors had decided human reason was insufficient: only divine revelation could give us truth. They disagreed over how to interpret it.
The reaction was equally extreme. By the end of the eighteenth century French atheists were arguing that true knowledge can only come through the physical senses. All that exists is physical nature. Belief in God is contrary to reason and a barrier to progress.
Most western churches conceded empirical science but stressed the importance of spiritual realities beyond it. Evangelicals proclaimed the verbal inerrancy of the Bible. Catholics produced science-defying theories about the sacraments. Sceptical theologians were denounced by Pope Pius X as ‘modernists’.
The Pope’s language outlived his disapproval. A growing Modernist movement produced radically new ideas. It was best known in art and architecture; but even chess had its Modernist movement.
Those who believed Christianity had nothing to fear from science, and could adapt its teachings in the light of new insights, saw themselves as part of the Modernist movement. The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought, founded in 1898 to defend free enquiry in the Church, later changed its name to the Modern Churchmmen’s Union. (Later again gender awareness demanded a dropping of the ‘men’.) History had shown that the Church had often changed its doctrines; if some of the old ones were being refuted, it could adapt accordingly.
For a long time the driving force behind the Modern Churchmen’s Union was Henry Major. Major joined it in 1907, established its journal (Modern Churchman, now Modern Believing) in 1911 and edited it until 1956. He was also Principal of its theological college, Ripon Hall, until 1948. To Major, modernism
consists in the claim of the modern mind to determine what is true, right, and beautiful in the light of its own experience, even though its conclusions be in contradiction to those of tradition. It is this which in practice constitutes Modernism, whether in religion, ethics, or art. The intellectual task of Modernism is the criticism of tradition in the light of research and enlarging experience, with the purpose of reformulating and reinterpreting it to serve the needs of the present age.
The Modernist is
opposed to the exaltation of the ability to profess belief in dogmas into a Christian virtue of a high order.
On the contrary,
It is the setting of authority against the right to question, the making of enquiry a criminal rather than a laudable undertaking, which is the curse of the ecclesiastical dogmatic spirit.
He gave the journal two mottoes. One, attributed to Erasmus, was
By identifying the new learning with heresy you make orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance.
The other was from Edmund Burke:
A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.
This was the Modernist mood at the time of the 1921 conference, held in Girton College, Cambridge. In response to the controversy the Archbishop of Canterbury set up a Commission on Doctrine, which affirmed the legitimacy of the Modernist position – though its Report was not published until 1938.
On the other side of the debate, dogmatists appealed to the teachings they had inherited. They could argue that human reason is inadequate in matters of faith, and add that their beliefs come from divine revelation. It was strongly felt in the nineteenth century when the case for reason was so strongly associated with the case for atheism.
Perhaps their biggest weapon has always been government legislation. Legally imposed statements of belief like the Nicene Creed and the Thirty-Nine Articles have imposed orthodoxies more effectively than theological arguments can.
Yet on reading the debate about the 1921 conference, one finds that the disapprovals were not characterised by theological argument. There was no equivalent of the fourth century debates about exactly how Christ related to God the Father. What stirred up the emotions, rather, was the very idea of questioning those teachings. This, of course, is what we would expect from a culture content to accept whatever they had been taught and suspicious of open, reasoned enquiry.
The two sides are often called ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’. Neither of these terms is accurate, so for now I stick with ‘modernists’ and ‘dogmatists’. Logically, the two are irreconcilable. Either membership of the church is conditional on accepting a set of teachings, or it isn’t. Attempts at compromise end up on one side or the other.
This is well illustrated by the Church of England’s succession of documents on same-sex partnerships. The most recent, Living in Love and Faith, is widely judged the best of them, but critics have focused on two faults. One is its misinterpretation of biblical texts, as noted by Adrian Thatcher and John Barton. The other its lack of any sense of historical change, as Diarmaid MacCulloch and Helen King observe.
Those weaknesses tell a story. They show that Living in Love and Faith is skewed to the defence of the dogmatic tradition. This is because the dogmatic tradition is necessarily flawed in these two ways.
Firstly, a dogmatic system needs a supreme authority which declares its teachings consistently and clearly. That authority is the Bible. However the Bible is in fact far from consistent: its thirty-odd authors or groups of authors disagreed with each other about a great deal. In practice dogmatists develop traditions about which texts to emphasise and which to ignore.
Secondly, when a dogmatic system defends itself against challenges, it needs to present its own teachings as characteristic of the whole tradition. It therefore needs to present the current debate as a deviation from an otherwise unvarying consensus. Thus Helen King’s article describes her experience of the preparations for Living in Love and Faith: the history of the debate was presumed to have begun only in the 1960s. This too is erroneous: Christian teachings about sex, marriage and gender have often changed.
Despite that title, the Church’s continuing obsession with same-sex partnerships is not about love. There is nothing loving about the determination to police other people’s sex lives. Nor is it about faith: it is a floundering attempt to rescue an unpopular dogmatism. Living in disapproval and dogma would have fitted the agenda better.
So 2021 is performing the same actions as 1921, albeit wearing a new coat. One side defends tradition, and is easily tempted to treat it as an unchanging monolith. The other side defends reason, and is easily tempted to forget how much it owes to the past.
We need tradition. We have all been brought up to think and act in ways our tradition has taught us. Yet traditions keep changing. Every generation buries one element and adds a new one. Each of us has the potential to discover something new and exciting, and thereby contribute to the formation of the future. Christianity is not what it was a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand. As Gustav Mahler put it,
Tradition is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the fire.
4. House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England, Issues in Human Sexuality, London: Church House Publishing, 1991; House of Bishops’ Group, Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate, London: Church House Publishing, 2003; The Church of England, Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, London: Church House Publishing, 2020.