by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Modern Believing Vol 55:4 - October 2014
This editorial is much longer than usual as it provides an account of Modern Church’s foundation. We have therefore divided it into sections. To navigate, click on the headings on the right or the 'Prev / Next' buttons at the foot of each section.
This edition of Modern Believing focuses on liberal theology. From the start, promoting liberal theology was the objective of Modern Church and its journal; the bulk of this Editorial describes the ideas motivating our foundation in 1898, ideas which are very much alive today.
We have now been doing it for over a century. What people mean by the word ‘liberal’ has varied immensely, so we owe it to our readers to express from time to time the kind of liberalism we engage with.
We owe to the last editor, Adrian Thatcher, the idea of asking every member of the Editorial Board to write a short article on the subject. Apart from that we did not provide guidelines. Each author has been given a free hand to approach the topic from their own perspective. There has been no editorial cutting and pasting so the result is what you see.
We think it has worked well, and we hope you agree. As befits the topic, the variety shows that liberalism can be understood in many different ways. On the one hand a theologian may support some aspects of it while opposing others; on the other hand there are some central ideas which do not go away.
Some authors have provided an overview. To Marilyn Adams, truth is one because we are metaphysical realists. Liberals resist intellectual compartmentalisation. We accept that we are intellectually and morally fallible, and therefore politically challenged. Martyn Percy describes liberalism as individualist, egalitarian, universalist and meliorist: ‘To be a liberal theologian today is to be a brave liberator, loyal dissenter and faithful friend of the Church’. Keith Ward offers four main liberal principles: diversity of interpretation, historical reformulation, the fallibility of knowledge and the importance of personal experience and human flourishing. To Susannah Cornwall, liberal Christianity seeks to test Christian claims and hold them alongside other knowledge. There is strength in acknowledging inadequacy. We need to pay attention to context and be circumspect about certainty.
Some have provided a closer focus on specific features of liberalism. Diarmaid MacCulloch addresses authority. Roman Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and Orthodoxy are ill-adapted to deal with changes but liberal theologians can do better. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes takes a Christological, incarnational approach. Christianity was diverse from the start, inevitably, as it is contained in a person, not a book. Truth lies primarily in relationship rather than doctrine. George Newlands describes liberalism as a basis for human rights and Christian practice. Critique of the Enlightenment is itself a product of the Enlightenment’s critical rationality. ‘Liberalism has its difficulties: its absence often makes space for tolerance of the intolerable.’
On a more conceptual theme, Duncan Dormor argues that liberal theology must challenge the secular-religious divide, which can present religion as just one more social activity, like sport. Liberal theology must be prepared to unpick categories. Steven Shakespeare sees liberal theology as pluralistic and without essence. It should be partial: ‘If theology does not serve the liberation of flesh and blood human beings, it is part of the problem’. John Barton characterises liberalism in theology as a way to ‘be a Christian and also be sensible’. He draws on Richard Hooker, and before him the Jewish rabbinic tradition, in support of the idea that ‘God has shown us what is essential for our faith ... but has not given us the small print. This we have to work out for ourselves: prayerfully but also rationally’.
Some, while valuing certain aspects of liberalism, have challenged others. Tom Hughson’s overview values liberalism’s historical consciousness, its emphasis on experience and subjectivity, the welcome it gives to knowledge from other sources and its support for social justice. On the other hand liberal theology is modern, and modernity is about superiority to predecessors. Similarly James Tengatenga describes the liberalism prevalent today as hegemonic, mono-linguistic and oblivious to context. True liberalism is malleable and post-modernist, and welcomes new forms of thought. Mark Chapman believes that demythologising and rejecting the supernatural is a high risk strategy. He prefers a humble theology, seeking to approximate to what is beyond human grasp. As churchgoing declines he offers suggestions for a new approach to maintaining churches. Andrew Linzey criticises a variety of liberal theological positions, but nevertheless wants to be part of a liberal church which encourages questioning and criticism in an open-ended search for truth. We must ‘reject authoritarianism even if it defends some things we hold dear’.
Given that there was no attempt to coordinate the contributions, it is remarkable how some central themes stand out. Perhaps the disagreements are greatest regarding the conceptual, metaphysical character of liberal theology. Regarding its method, there is much stress on the need for its openness to change and willingness to learn from new sources of insight. There is also much practical concern for engagement with society, especially with respect for social justice.
These articles, of course, are about liberal theology. Liberal politics and liberal economics are another matter, though there may be points of contact. Even among theologians the word ‘liberal’ can have many connotations; as Marilyn Adams has noted, for some it is a boo word. In some church circles, especially where uniformity of belief is expected, a liberal is anyone who disagrees with oneself. In the USA, but not in the UK, liberalism characteristically demands separation of church from state. We should expect theological liberals to disagree with each other since we value the freedom to think for ourselves.
My own contributions to this theme are published elsewhere and are not reproduced here. What follows in the remainder of this Editorial is a study of the concerns which led our predecessors in 1898 to set up the organisation now known as Modern Church. We think it makes a suitable contribution to this edition; in addition, when we note how the concerns of their time resonate today, it makes quite an advertisement for Modern Church, its journal and its liberal theology.
Modern Church Then and Now
Modern Church was originally founded in 1898 under the name of The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought. Our founders described themselves as liberal, or ‘Broad Church’, or progressive.
After some correspondence in the Church Gazette, seventeen people attended a meeting on 27th July, chaired by The Rev. H. G. Rosedale. A second meeting took place on 29th September. According to the report,
the meeting was intended to be a private one for the interchange of ideas, but owing to an excess of zeal on the part of an official, reporters had been invited. On the mistake being pointed out, these gentlemen most courteously retired.
Would reporters from the press retire so meekly today, one wonders? In any case this meeting planned the Inaugural Meeting of the new Union, which took place on 31st October.
The case for the new Union was promoted by the Church Gazette. The Editor, the Rev. William Routh, appears to have had a keen eye for the theological issues. What follows is a summary of the case being made for the new Union during 1898, much of it probably written by Routh himself.
Stronger voice for liberals
Liberals felt they needed a stronger voice. Rosedale wrote:
As by far the larger proportion of learned and highly accomplished clergy and Church laity belong to this school of thought, I am sanguine enough to believe that their deliberations would not be futile.
An editorial comment remarked:
It is particularly wanted, because, so far, Liberals have been scattered, and have lost most of their influence by their inability to write.
The following week The Rev. E. N. Hoare replied:
You say that Liberals, being scattered, have lost influence. Have they not also lost heart? There may be more Liberalism in the air than there was thirty years ago; but it needs to be concentrated – condensed. We have no leaders now. In patience we have possessed our souls. We have cherished the lessons that Maurice and Robertson and Kingsley and Stanley taught us (not to speak of that “Enquiring Spirit” that long since illumined, for some of us, the old formula – “I believe in the Holy Ghost”). But these men are no longer with us; and in vain do we seek for him on whom the mantle of one of these prophets may have fallen... It may also be that many silently hold today what poor Bishop Colenso was denounced for promulgating a generation ago; but who, even now, will give frank credit to the man who compelled them to think?
In the report on the Inaugural Meeting, the two most pressing issues were described as
the defence of the Church, coupled with its reform from within, and the formation of a platform upon which both parties of extremists can meet.
The Clerical Secretary, The Rev. T. P. Brocklehurst,
emphasised that the main object of the Union, in his view, lay in the power it would possess to prevent the falling away of the educated layman from the Church, and he hoped it might go far to bring back some of those who had left it through the feeling that the Church was out of touch with the spirit of the age.
As for the general mood of the meeting,
One speaker after another dwelt on the isolation which is the lot of liberal thinkers, especially in the country, and welcomed a Union which would bring them into touch, and make them parts of a great whole. Everyone, however, agreed with the chairman in deprecating the formation of a new “party”, with all its shibboleths and trade marks, but that the Union has no intention of forming.
Resistance to dogmatism
They were concerned about a range of issues, underlying which was the need to defend freedom of thought against dogmatism. According to the Minutes the first resolution of the 27th July meeting was
that this meeting desires to express its sense of the necessity of taking steps in order to unite the body of churchmen who consider that dogma is susceptible of re-interpretation and re-statement in accordance with the clearer perception of truth by discovery and research.
To reinterpret or re-state is not to reject; perhaps the wording was influenced by those anxious not to sound too outlandish. The Church Gazette’s report was blunter:
The Church’s need of comprehensive religious thought was unanimously affirmed. The affirmation of this principle was declared to be especially called for at a time when there was a formidable reactionary movement within the Church in favour of crystallised dogmatism and ecclesiasticism...
“Anyone who thinks at all,” said one speaker, “must realise that our very perceptions of truth are undergoing a process of unfoldment. Every day, from the scientific world, truth is coming that must affect dogmatic authority. In the science of medicine, appeal is not made to the medical authorities of the Middle Ages. So with other affairs of life. Why, then, with due respect to the Councils of the Church in the past, should we be tied by these? Surely, loyalty to our faith and its underlying spirit does not require us to believe only in a God who moved in the past and not in the present. If the Church declines to pay heed to present-day revelations of truth in the domain of science, and to keep pace with the progress of enlightenment in respect of social questions, the loss will be her own. Yet, strange to say, at the very time when an intelligent, sympathetic application of Christian truth is imperatively called for, we have, within the Church, a decidedly backward movement. It has been a painful revelation to us that our church comprises a section which, under the name of ‘religious education’, would force crude and repellent dogmatism on poor little children: scholars are unable to understand it at the time, and are revolted by it and resentful of it when they are old enough to understand.”
The Editorial agrees:
The object of [the Broad Churchman’s] thought is not destructive, but ultimately constructive. If it were desired to repair or rebuild an ancient structure so as to bring it up to the requirements of the present time, it would be needful to commence by removing heavy overgrowths, however picturesque, as well as of unsound work, along with vast accumulations of rubbish. Similarly, in trying to bring the Christian edifice up to date, it is found that before adding to it in any way is possible, there must be a ruthless clearance of the overgrowths of aberglaube [superstition], as well as of the accumulations of mere ecclesiastical tradition, and that wherever walls which were thought to be sound are found, on examination, to be shaken and tottering, they must be completely demolished in order to reach a firm foundation for subsequent building upon. Thus to a Broad Churchman the destructive process is necessary, but only for the sake of replacing what is ready to fall by something grounded on a firm basis.
Declining faith was most noticeable among the more educated sections of society. The second resolution of the 27th July meeting was
that in order to prevent the falling away of the thoughtful and educated from the Church, this meeting pledges itself to support an organisation which shall unite together all such churchmen.
The Church Gazette reported:
The Church, it was regretfully acknowledged, lagged behind the intelligence of the age. Thinking men were disposed to be either contemptuous or indifferent, because they felt that they were not ingenuously treated. Even educated women were far from being satisfied with mere ceremonial emotionalism, nor were they disposed to accept the dogmatic presentation of religion. Instead of taking their opinions ready made from what claimed to be authority, they required that religious truths shall be elucidated in such a way as to afford intellectual conviction. Admitting that, at present, theological progressives were a minority among the clergy, it was confidently assumed that the overwhelming majority of the laity were on the side of progress... The laity declined to be fettered by the dead past, and required recognition for the living truths of today.
In the preparations for the July meeting Rosedale argued that a society of liberals would help towards church unity:
This much-longed-for event [church unity] will be greatly facilitated by a closer unity among the liberal-minded laity and clergy. Those who have something in common with all sections of English Christianity are most likely to prove a link to unite all.
He explained his reasoning:
For instance, it seems to me that, whilst we cannot see our way to supporting the extravagances, nor submitting to the unsubstantiated “authority” of one section, we admire and strive to imitate its zeal and activity, and, indeed, desire to carry much farther its own theory of “oneness”, by promoting a desire for unity in diversity. With regard to another extreme section of our Anglican Church, while believing that “narrowness and exclusiveness” are ever detrimental to religious progress, and whilst utterly disagreeing with those who desire to cripple investigation or limit our right to wider opinions than were current some hundred years ago, we gladly clasp hands on them over the emphasis they give to certain “fundamentals”, and most heartily agree with them that religion does not lie in “externals”; we claim, too, that depth and sincerity are of primary importance. With regard to those outside our communion, we entertain no animosity. They have their vocation, and we believe in a “unity in diversity”.
In view of these facts it seems to me that there is no body so likely to be used by God in the special work of healing the ‘unhappy divisions’ as the body of liberal-minded clergy sometimes (I think unsuitably) called the Broad Church Party...
Similarly, according to the Church Gazette those who attended the 29th September meeting
were unanimous... in insisting that nothing of truth should be given up, and that, in order to do this, it was necessary to spare no pains to discovery of truth. It was urged that the only thing that could heal the differences at present so rife and destructive was to unify the thought of the Church, and that this could only be done by really liberal thinking in religious matters. The Union would form a common platform for men of diverse views, and would emancipate the Church from the reproach so often made against it of being dominated by narrow-minded factions...
Thus diversity of belief needed to be defended:
Till now men of Broad views have weakly allowed themselves to be half ashamed of their principles before others, knowing that such principles were in a minority, and besides would be often misunderstood. They have, therefore, kept these ideas mostly to themselves, and so many are genuinely in the dark about them. We think that the time for all this is now clearly at an end. Progressives in religious thought must no longer dissemble views which, within their own souls, they hold to be truth...
With reference to any question raised, a Broad Churchman maintains his right to approach it without being in any way bound to arrive, sooner or later, at some predetermined conclusion. The position is essentially fundamental, because it is useless to think at all unless thought is free, and can take its own course irrespective of public opinion, or even of disabilities often resulting. In itself this position is simply impregnable, for, unless a man has the unhappy facility of keeping his theological thought in a watertight compartment, well sundered from the other thoughts of his life, there is no other attitude even possible. The Broad Churchman will, at any rate, have nothing to do with the compartment theory.
Yet there are drawbacks, here to be candidly confessed. For starting on the same premises, and even on the same principles of treating them, it is not found in this world that all will arrive at exactly the same conclusions. Thus, while all High Churchmen think the same, or nearly so, and all Low Churchmen seem to be quite uniform in belief, we must admit that in the progressive ranks there is plenty of variety of opinion. But, after all, perhaps these varieties are healthy and all for the best, especially among those who have a true faith in the prevalence of truth over error.
If these were the core concerns of those who founded what is now Modern Church, the Church Gazette briefly noted their relevance to a variety of other issues.
While rendering all fitting reverence to the Bible, a Broad Churchman absolutely declines to be enslaved by it, or by any other volume or document whatever; because he holds that there is no manual in existence which possesses supreme or final authority.
[The Broad Churchman] firmly holds that no one can honestly take such oaths except in their principal sense, generally regarded; but that no one can or does at that period accept any responsibility as to what he may see reason to believe in ten or twenty years’ time.
He considers that there is such a thing as Absolute Truth: but that this is known, and can be known, only to the Deity. That there is also such a thing as Relative Truth, and that this latter is the only form in which truth is knowable by man. That Relative Truth, as apprehended at any given time, must be always approximating nearer and nearer to the absolute standard which yet it never actually reaches; and, therefore, that truth, as known by man, must always be progressive, just as history shows that it always has been. He therefore refuses to be tied back to any fixed standard, either of the present age or of past ages; but regards all such standards as embodying the best conceptions of truth which were attainable in their own day.
Just as he holds with a continuous advance in knowledge of truth, so he believes there is a continuous inspiration which promotes it. He does not deny that such inspiration may have acted with special power at one particular period, or at several different periods, but he refuses to believe that it was confined to certain portions of history, or that it was finally withdrawn from the world about A.D. 90. He maintains that such influence has extended throughout the whole of time, and is as truly operative now as at any previous age, and that it exerts itself not only in influencing views directly connected with religion proper, but has its domain throughout the entire range of thought.
He is not wanting in spirituality, though rarely indulging in the cant expressions which are so often used as a mere substitute for it, and which, being employed at second-hand, have come to lose their edge. On the contrary, his contention is consistently on behalf of the supremacy of spirit over letter, and thus, without spirituality of the genuine kind, he has no locus standi at all.
Another object of the proposed Union was to deal with matters of discipline, so that if men were persecuted for the maintenance of liberal views there would be a means for them to turn for help.
Then and Now
On reading these arguments one is struck by the similarities with today, though there are differences. They sought to oppose three movements: dogmatic catholicism, dogmatic evangelicalism and atheism. The opposition to atheism is not as clearly expressed, but it would be anachronistic to imagine that they were sympathetic to unbelief; only in the 1960s was liberal theology associated with it, through the ‘God is Dead’ movement. In the 1890s the emphasis was on how they differed from dogmatic catholics and evangelicals, and one of the key differences was in the way they responded to the threat of atheism.
By calling themselves ‘liberal’ they claimed freedom of thought to judge on their merits the new ideas of the nineteenth century, such as evolution and critical scholarship of the bible; in keeping with the Enlightenment spirit, traditional doctrines were to be no more authoritative than the evidence in their favour.
The term ‘Broad Church’ referred to a faction within the Church of England with a longer history, going back at least to the Latitudinarians and arguably to Elizabeth I. This movement sought comprehensiveness of doctrine, so that one church could incorporate as many people as possible. Thus although being liberal did not mean the same as being Broad Church, the two fitted together: the Broad Church desire for comprehensiveness provided the framework for judging new ideas on their merits even when they contradicted earlier doctrines.
Now, as then, liberal Christian voices are publicly heard far less than dogmatic ones. There are many reasons: the mass media’s love of sensationalism and extremes, the anxiety of church leaders to avoid offending dogmatists, the greater tendency for extremists to be single-issue campaigners. Once again the resources available to liberal organisations like Modern Church is a drop in the ocean compared with those available to more dogmatic organisations. In the intervening years it was not always the case.
The report of ‘the isolation which is the lot of liberal thinkers, especially in the country’ is often echoed today by Modern Church members. So also is the corollary: that while it is desirable to bring liberals together to share their views and provide mutual support, there is less enthusiasm for setting up a church party of liberals to rival the catholic and evangelical parties. In any case liberals, because they think for themselves, are rarely party loyalists.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between Modern Church then and now is the resistance to dogmatism. It has been on the rise again since the 1970s and once again popular sentiment, both for and against, perceives Christianity as a dogmatic enterprise committed to its own teachings regardless of evidence to the contrary. Church leaders, even when they do not agree, permit this view to continue unchallenged. Recently, the UK has seen religious organisations successfully lobbying for exemption from equal opportunities legislation in order to continue discriminating against women and homosexuals, thus once again giving the wider society cause to judge Christianity immoral. The perception of Christianity as anti-evolutionist was widely disseminated in ‘Darwin year’, 2009, with the mass media publishing precious few pro-evolution Christian voices, but church leaders rarely rose to the challenge.
We can see from the quotations above a concern to oppose two types of dogmatism. One, usually called fundamentalism, insists that Christian dogma provides truths about reality as a whole, not just about spiritual matters. It is best known for believing that the world was made in six days and denying evolution, but there have been many variants, using particular biblical texts to refute particular scientific theories. The other type is the dualistic retreat, which limits Christian dogma to spiritual matters and allows other matters to be decided by science. This is the approach rejected above as ‘the compartment theory’. Both types are still very much part of the religious scene today.
Dogmatism as a reaction to atheism
Throughout the nineteenth century there had been a growing belief that science had disproved, or would disprove, religious belief. In reality pure science only refuted the ‘God of the gaps’ argument (that there must be a God to explain what science could not explain); more influential was positivist philosophy (that unobservables like God do not exist) and, probably most influential of all, moral revulsion at many traditional doctrines like hell. With atheism on the increase the faithful were naturally anxious. Societies often respond to anxiety by reaffirming the simple certainties of an earlier age, and this is what nineteenth century evangelical and catholic dogmatists did. Liberals rightly believed that this only made matters worse; those simple certainties contained many of the reasons for rejecting Christianity. Better to acknowledge that neither pope nor bible is infallible, and allow modern insights to inform Christian believing. To stem the atheist tide the Church should develop an educated apologetic supported by rational arguments and the best available evidence.
Today atheism is in retreat. The dogmatisms we now face are reactions against cultural change, with a greater focus on moral values. The revived interest in spiritual matters has benefited other religious traditions rather than Christianity. Once again an up to date, well informed apology is needed, but the focus should be wider: not just on arguments for believing in God but in drawing out the value of Christian ideas as compared with the ideas of other traditions.
Dogmatism and education
Rosedale’s claim that ‘by far the larger proportion of learned and highly accomplished clergy and Church laity belong to this [liberal] school of thought’ reveals his view that those with higher educational standards were more likely to accept the findings of contemporary research and therefore to be liberals in religion if they did not lose their faith altogether. Earlier in the nineteenth century the matter had not been so clear; leading scientists had defended both sides in the debate on geology and Noah’s Flood, and even the 1860s evolution debate. By the 1890s, however, it had become clear that many traditional Christian beliefs were in error; we can see in retrospect that those determined to defend them were in effect reactionaries defying modern research in general.
Their successors today rarely claim to oppose modern research in general. Anti-evolutionists, biblical literalists with their revived hostility to critical scholarship, and science-based atheists all claim to make full use of it. Nevertheless there is an overwhelming majority view – of biologists, theologians and philosophers respectively – that these movements are swimming against the tide. As in the 1890s, liberal theology fits within modern understandings of reality while dogmatic theology does not. Where we differ from their day is that the presumption against religious belief is declining rather than increasing.
Dogmatism and the Church
Brocklehurst’s desire ‘to bring back some of those who had left [the Church] through the feeling that the Church was out of touch with the spirit of the age’ is a point which we today would divide into two. In his day it was easier to imagine that everyone was either an unbeliever or a churchgoer. Today, most believers have abandoned church attendance. Many Modern Church members are among them. Often they date the lapse from the arrival of the new vicar, who expects them to believe what they cannot, and in their view discredits the faith. At the end of the nineteenth century there were many such clergy, but the laity by and large continued to attend. Perhaps attendance was made easier by the fact that the vicar’s sermon would usually have been better prepared, and his views would have been the topic of public discussion in the parish. Today the dissatisfied often find that after they have been told what to believe there is no opportunity to explore their disbelief. Although there is no Modern Church policy on the matter, I suspect most of our members would feel that prior to the laity’s duty to attend church services comes the clergy’s duty to make the services worth attending.
Diversity of belief and church unity
Rosedale’s interest in church unity draws attention to the question of uniformity: does unity require agreement of belief? In the 1890s dogmatists, catholic and protestant alike, reacted to atheism by increasing their demands: you must believe this and this if you are to be one of us. Today in the same way ‘conservative’ religion reacts against new moral attitudes – like equality for women and gay people – by reasserting the values – like male headship and the immorality of homosexuality – which they count as essential to Christianity. In both cases dogma-based unity can be supported in the short term by emphasising the points of agreement and downgrading disagreements, but this policy can never last long. The key question is whether or not a church should oblige its members to believe the same thing, or whether it should accept diversity of belief. Recently Modern Church has argued, in a number of publications, that the only way to avoid sectarian splits in the long term is to allow diversity of opinion – and if necessary oppose attempts to suppress it. Recently our arguments have focused on the case against the proposed Anglican Covenant while Rosedale’s concern was church unity, but the key position is very much the same. The Church Gazette’s proposal ‘that nothing of truth should be given up, and that, in order to do this, it was necessary to spare no pains to discovery of truth’ expresses it well. It is of course the very opposite of the dogmatic claim that all such pains should be abandoned in the interests of inherited doctrines.
Regarding the Church Gazette’s other brief points, there are two – ordination oaths and ecclesiastical discipline – in which legislation has changed the situation. Nevertheless both issues remain matters of concern. The remarks on the Bible, objective truth, progressive inspiration and spirituality express liberal positions of today so well that they need no amendment.
It seems to me, therefore, that Modern Church has stood the test of time remarkably well. It is not nearly so much in the public eye as it was in the early decades of the twentieth century, when our annual conferences would attract detailed reports in the national newspapers, but it is remarkable to observe how well the arguments they presented then stand up today. What they aimed to do then is what we are aiming to do now. I doubt whether the same can be said for any other religious organisation of this age.
We might also agree with the Church Gazette’s comments on the first annual meeting of what was then The Churchmen’s Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought, held on 6th October 1899, as it surveyed the achievements of its first year in existence:
Hitherto it is merely the extremists on all hands who have had any voice or expression in the appeals made by a variety of societies to the nation at large. These have fretted and fumed and strutted so noisily on the stage that they have nearly induced the great bulk of Englishmen to believe that they represent between them the mind of the Church of England. And if that were literally the case, Englishmen would not be far wrong in concluding that their church was in a very bad way.