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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.