Article Index

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.[5]

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.[6]