By Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No 53 - Apr 2014

At last the mood in the churches is changing, with increasing sympathy for liberal Christianity. Recent controversies have revealed the downside of hardline dogmatic versions of the faith, with their campaigns against one or another feature of contemporary society. People are asking: who are the liberals, and what do they stand for?

I attended my first Modern Church conference in 1984 so in July I will have been involved with it for 30 years. I  have just stepped down after 11 as General Secretary. Over the years I have  developed a feel for liberal theology, both in the academic world and in the churches.

What it means to be a liberal varies between Britain and America, and between the churches and academia. In the USA  the separation of church and state is sometimes virtually the defining feature of liberal Christianity, while in Britain liberal opinions vary. Academic theology is still heavily influenced by Karl Barth who labelled his German predecessors, from Schleiermacher to Harnack, as liberals because he  thought they put too much trust in human reason instead of submitting to the word of God.

Here I describe my experience of liberals in the churches, primarily the UK and mostly England. Every  movement is to some extent a reaction against an earlier movement. Modern Church, founded in 1898, opposed a rising dogmatism which influenced Catholics and Protestants alike. That dogmatism was itself a reaction against the rise of atheism. It seemed to many that science was disproving the existence of God. If  we take the controversy over Essays and Reviews (1860) as a starting-point, ‘liberals’ believed Christians could deny the existence of hell. And then, accept evolution. And then, accept archaeological evidence that the biblical  histories were sometimes inaccurate. Meanwhile they defended religious belief against an atheism which reduced values and morality to mere human constructs.  This kind of liberalism

  • seeks a unitary account of reality, so that science and religion are consistent with each other;
  • has an apologetic dimension, in that it expects religious beliefs to be compatible with scientific truths;
  • seeks to be engaged with the issues of society, so that religious belief matters to the questions of the day.

Let us call this ‘apologetic liberalism’.

Most church leaders moved in a different direction. Rather than trust that truth would emerge from common discourse they emphasised their own spiritual authority. The claims for the infallibility of the Pope and the Bible were at their strongest towards the end of the nineteenth century. What made them popular was that they defied modern society. Across the Catholic-Protestant spectrum, western Christianity became more dogmatic. Today this is expressed in the heavy emphasis on single issues where church leaders differ from secular society: Catholics on abortion, Protestants on homosexuality. Dogmatic Christianity thus identifies itself by  defying secular society.

It is not just a matter of theoretical disagreement: it often oppresses. Currently, women are often oppressed by dogmas of male headship, gay and lesbian people by condemnations of their relationships. In times past other issues have dominated. Countless people have been severely traumatised, perhaps by the threat of hell or the sense of being not good enough. When these beliefs are internalised in childhood the trauma may last a lifetime.

People who rebel against  these dogmas often become atheists. This is perhaps most likely when the cause of the oppression is identified as God. Others want to cling onto church life but find healthier, more tolerant versions of Christianity.

This is a more focused  liberalism. It is more rooted in church life, seeking to make it open, inclusive and tolerant. We might call it ‘permissive liberalism’. As befits  those recovering from trauma, it has a therapeutic character. This makes a difference. Characteristically, when we are ill we do not set out to change the world. For the time being we postpone our external interests and concentrate on our own condition. In the same way permissive liberalism tends not to have an apologetic dimension: the emphasis is on letting go of the burden, on permission not to believe. Permissive liberalism is therefore less inclined to resist atheism, less engaged with the public issues of the day.

Both apologetic and permissive liberalisms permit doubts and welcome debate about Christian  teaching, so both are characterised by people who like to think for themselves. As I see it, the key theological difference is about the existence of God. Apologetic liberalism defends religious belief against atheism as well as  fundamentalism. Permissive liberalism permits disbelief, without necessarily drawing the line at God.

The distinction is not  clear-cut. One complication is the philosophical debate about what it means for things to exist. 60 years ago you either believed in God or did not. Since then theologians have drawn on the concepts of non-realism, relativism and  constructivism to produce alternatives: you can believe ‘God exists’ in  different ways. One result is that people can become atheists gently, one small step at a time. It meets a need. Those busy divesting themselves of oppressive Christian dogmas may well divest themselves of God as well without feeling they ought to give up singing in the choir or helping with the Sunday School. Perhaps their church means a lot to  them. Perhaps the believing side of things was never important to them anyway and they would rather think of themselves as liberals than as atheists.  Although the logic of it baffles me, I know some Modern Church members who are much better than me at praying, meditating, producing good  liturgies and conducting services but whose beliefs about God are, to my mind, effectively atheist. I console myself with the thought that God enables us to relate to the divine in different ways.

For realists who do not buy into these complications, there are others. What is important about God to one realist (say, God as creator or judge) may be rejected by another; so you may reject the God I believe in while both of us believe in God. Nevertheless, despite all the complications, there remains a difference between those who are committed to God in some way or other and those who are not. The difference matters for some purposes, which often concern apologetic liberals.

Of the two liberalisms, apologetic liberalism is more self-sufficient. If atheism and dogmatism both collapsed, apologetic liberalism would just become normal religious believing, as arguably it has been in the past. Permissive liberalism would change character: no longer needing to react against oppression, it would lose its  emphasis on disbelief. It might perhaps become more positive about what it did believe, in which case it would become more like apologetic liberalism.

Asked to choose between the  two types, some like me would see themselves as apologetic liberals. Others would see themselves as permissive liberals. Others again, probably most, would not recognise the distinction.

Nevertheless tensions between the two do crop up.  Characteristically apologetic liberals want to affirm that their faith matters in the public realm. Permissive liberals may feel that the claims made by apologetic liberals are too dogmatic.

I think these two liberalisms are likely to move in different directions. Permissive liberalism has an  important role within church culture, and will continue to have it as long as there are oppressive versions of Christianity. Outside church culture, permissive liberals fit easily within normal secular culture. It is religious dogmas they disbelieve; as far as society’s norms are concerned they usually have nothing distinctively religious to offer. They are less likely to challenge the status quo. Outside church culture they can therefore seem pretty invisible.

Apologetic liberalism does have the tools to challenge the status quo. With its unitary account of reality it expects to play a significant part in exploring how society understands the way things are and how we ought to live. Its commitment to God is a commitment to an authority higher than national governments, an authority which knows how things work and how we ought to live, and therefore passes judgement on what governments actually do.

Dogmatic Christianity also claims to pass judgement on society. Dogmatic Christianity, however, is hampered by its own dogmas. Even when it reaches beyond its narrow list of  bêtes noires – homosexuality, evolution, abortion, etc – it feels the need to relate its concerns to biblical texts, with the result that it only speaks to  other dogmatists. Liberals by contrast can speak the language of ordinary people, and care about poverty, climate change and cancer for the same reasons that ordinary people do. What liberals add is that we see it as God’s world, and use our religious resources to explore the implications.

For the foreseeable future permissive liberalism will have an important role, if only within the churches. Apologetic liberalism seems liberal in the present ecclesiastical context, but in the longer term is just normal religious belief. Most liberals are a bit of  both. The need to choose between them does not often arise.

I suspect it will arise more often in the future. If dogmatic Christianity is now to go into long-term decline, as I believe and hope, fewer will be traumatised by its oppressions. There will be less need for permission to disbelieve. Those whose liberalism is characterised by what they don’t believe will increasingly look like ordinary unbelievers until they regain enthusiasm for what they do believe. Apologetic liberalism, on the other hand, is already in increasing demand. The traditional  orthodoxies of modern western secularism are under increasing pressure. The  emphasis on never-ending economic growth and technological innovation,  characterised as a ‘progress’ which increasing numbers experience as oppressive, is rapidly losing popularity. Increasing numbers are looking for alternative visions of progress, alternative accounts of what human life is for. Effective alternatives will need to appeal to standards higher than the secular orthodoxies of the day. It is difficult to see where else they might come from, except some coherent philosophy about the divine.

If it is to be provided by Christianity, it will have to be a Christianity with a confident, positive account of what human life is for, an account which reflects the world of, and speaks the language of, ordinary people. Dogmatic Christianity cannot do it. I  believe apologetic liberalism can.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.