Editorial by Anthony Woollard
in Signs of the Times No 53 - Apr 2014

In January 2014, Jonathan Clatworthy put up two particularly important posts on the Modern Church blog

The  first was in response to the topical debate about the proposed new baptismal liturgy and its omission of the Devil. That  debate was aired at length in the Church Times and focused largely on whether the Church would be offering a false prospectus if traditional belief in the Devil was played down.  Perhaps just a simple issue of Biblical literalists versus the rest of us (though, as Jonathan demonstrated, the various Biblical images or roles of Satan or the Devil are by no means consistent.) 

But this is not really about a fallen angel with horns and a tail, but about whether there is such a thing as supra-personal Evil. Some liberals have at times seemed to suggest that evil resides entirely in human naughtiness or perhaps in social structures, and (as Pelagius argued) can be overcome by the exercise of human free will.  Others have felt that their fellow-liberals have given an over-optimistic account of how  things are, and that evil is something rather bigger than any of us, needing a more radical redemption (as Augustine argued).  Some of the testimonies of parish clergy in the Church Times columns have suggested that quite a few parents bringing their children to baptism, even if rather agnostic about the reality of any transcendent value of goodness (such as  people call God), are all too aware of that sort of evil as a possibility from which they want their children somehow protected or delivered..

In any event, it might seem that, over issues such as freewill and supra-personal evil, there may be more than one approach possible amongst those who reject fundamentalism. Which leads on to Jonathan’s second blog posting, an extended version of which appears below. Are there two kinds of liberals, and what are  the differences between them?

Jonathan  suggests a distinction between 'apologetic' and 'permissive' liberals.  The former are not, of course, 'apologetic'  in the weak popular sense: if anything, the very opposite.  They are liberal because they 'have a gospel  to proclaim' which stems from belief in cosmic value (God), and hence feel obliged to contribute to Christian apologetics; and they find that elements of traditional dogmatism get in the way of that. The latter are 'permissive' in the more negative sense that they are  seeking release from traditional dogmatic and ethical requirements which seem  to them oppressive – and (Jonathan argues) some of these would be willing, in  that search, to sacrifice if necessary any idea of God, along with the horrors of patriarchy and homophobia, the manipulative power of the confessional or whatever their bugbear may be.

Clearly this is not the same as the distinction between 'optimistic' and 'realistic'  liberals (to coin an equally inadequate distinction) to which I refer above.  Some optimistic liberals, such as the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century USA, have been  highly conscious of the apologetic challenge, and have most certainly not ruled God out – though as H R Niebuhr famously argued, it is a moot point how much continuity their God has with the God of the tradition.  Some realistic liberals, all too conscious of  the power of evil, may derive their motivation from a deep need for release from the traditional chains that bind them, and indeed see the image of God which they learned at their mother’s knee as part of the problem rather than part of the solution – yet  they too, more often than not, find in their experience some message of hope  which they want to share. Precise  understandings of 'God' will vary right across this spectrum of liberal  approaches. There will be equal variations in response to other key elements of the tradition, whether doctrinal, ethical or liturgical. 

So I am not sure whether Jonathan’s typology will quite do, and I am certainly not suggesting that mine will do any better. There are other possibly typologies; for example, Brenda Watson’s article in this edition implies that some liberals may, in their urge to demythologise, have bought too readily into a contemporary culture of  'literalism' and lost the value of metaphor, image and ritual. That may well be a more significant source of  differences amongst us.  But the point is that liberalism is not a single ideology (as some of its proponents and many of its critics have claimed) but a broad church. And that challenges all of us to decide from whence our liberalism draws its motivation and just what it implies in terms of belief and spirituality and understanding of 'the nature and destiny of Man' (Reinhold Niebuhr alas lived in pre-feminist days). It is also a  challenge to decide whether or not we have a gospel to proclaim, and, if so, precisely what it is. I go back to my comment in the last issue, drawing on John Saxbee, that sometimes our movement may have been clearer about what it was against than what it was for.

That latter theme was prominent at our residential Council meeting in March, which  was very much an exercise in 're-imagining' – our Church, and Modern Church’s role within it.  Guy Elsmore’s opening  presentation, drawing on the recent work of Linda Woodhead and others about the  future of the Church of England, challenged us to re-commit to growth, both in  our parishes and in our movement and its influence. A great range of issues was discussed, ranging from the role of our vacant post of President (and what sort of person  might fill that role), through increased use of social media, future themes and structures of our conference programme, to how we can best facilitate the development and dissemination of sources for Christian formation which are not Alpha-shaped in their content but learn appropriately from the process of that apparently successful programme. (Being Modern Church, of course, we argued for some time about what 'success' in such a context might mean!)  

The 24 hours of intense discussions need to be fully digested before the Trustees can take concrete decisions on any of these matters, and it would not be  appropriate – even if space allowed – to anticipate that process here. But it would seem that Council is once again supportive of the idea of a three-tier subscription structure which was aired  last year; with the new arrangements for membership etc, we are still a little way from the steady-state financial situation which we need in order to plan our finances effectively, but, even though our annual deficit is now manageable, it is clear that we need some increase in subscriptions in order to  grow as Guy would exhort us to. It seems also that - in response to the survey comments reported below by Christine Alker - there is support for some experimentation with the length and timing of Annual Conferences. And, last but not  least, it is evident that we need more volunteers to help run conferences both  annual and day, as well as for a number of other functions, which go well  beyond what busy Trustees and Council members can commit to. More about that at the AGM.

A year ago, it looked as though the challenges facing us, and the differences of viewpoint on how to tackle those challenges, could  sink us. We are still not free of  problems, as the tedious bedding-in of the new membership and mailing arrangements has demonstrated. Nor,  alas, are we totally free of the pain to which the events of 2013 gave rise for some. But our prayers at the Council meeting, and in particular a moving Eucharist at which Lorraine Cavanagh presided,  demonstrated a deep will for reconciliation and for finding truly creative ways forward.

Indeed – though 'Liberal Apologetics' is one theme suggested for a future Annual Conference – we have no reason to be apologetic for our liberalism, and much reason to rejoice in it.

Anthony Woollard is editor of Signs of the Times. He taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the Department of Education.