Tuesday, July 13, 2004

On Being a Liberal

The latest Affirming Catholicism newsletter has a piece in it called 'Why I am Not a Liberal'. It has me thinking about why I am a liberal!

‘Liberals’ are in danger of becoming everyone’s scapegoats. They are the one group that Evangelicals and Catholics can agree to oppose. But in so doing the variegated nature of the Church, and of the Catholic and Evangelical elements within it, can be overlooked. There are liberal Catholics and liberal Evangelicals; there are catholic Liberals and evangelical Liberals; there are even evangelical Catholics and catholic Evangelicals. Few members of the Church of England can be placed with absolute purity within one tradition and one tradition only. In this rather messy approach, which has come to seem peculiarly Anglican, there is much to enrich the church and one another. Most of us will, at various times in our Christian lives, encountered and been enlivened by a range of traditions and people belonging to them. Some of us continue to draw sustenance and strength from more than one source.

Kalistos Ware, the Orthodox bishop of Diocletia, used to say that the four most ill-used words in the Christian vocabulary were ‘orthodox’, ‘catholic’, ‘evangelical’ and ‘charismatic’. All Christians, he says, are all four. To this I would add ‘liberal’. It is badly used as a party label, and better seen as part of the heritage of all. Here are three ways in which this is the case, at least for the contemporary Church of England.

1. Liberals acknowledge the mystery of God.
Maurice Wiles once wrote that ‘liberal theology should be seen, not as a reluctant retreat in the face of modern secular knowledge, but as a way of speaking of a gracious, non-coercive God …[It is a] humbler theology that acknowledges the mysterious nature of its subject’ (Theology 103 (2000), p. 410). This is an understanding of liberal theology that places it close to contemplatation, even to a via negativa. The liberal concern to see where the Spirit of God is speaking in the contemporary world, and liberal reticence in speaking unequivocally of God are both part of an approach that has taken seriously the mystery that is God.

2. Liberals approach matters of faith critically.
The critical nature of Liberal theology flows from this mystical approach. If God is mysterious, then all speech about God (and thus all theology) must be approached critically. Liberal theology was forged in the fires of higher criticism in the 19th century, and this is now accepted throughout the church. Those who do not accept that the world was created in six days are no longer derided as ‘liberals’, nevertheless they are liberals.

There is also a sense in which Anglicanism was liberal even before this. The English Reformation, particularly in its Elizabethan forms, refused to close down arguments on the basis of authority alone, whether that was the authority of the Bible or of the Church. Paul Avis writes that ‘a theological question can only be settled by theological work, and not by appeal to authority … that would short-cut the process of truth-seeking and enquiry’ (Anglicanism and the Christian Church, p. 291). Some of this liberal wisdom is needed in the Anglican Communion at present!

3. To be Liberal is to be generous.
One of the meanings of ‘liberal’ is generosity. Theologically, this flows from the mystery of God which cannot be contained, and from the critical awareness that all human speech about God is inadequate. And from these sources flow toleration and the acceptance of opinions and actions that are different to one’s own. Perhaps the chief source of this generosity is the recognition that my own view may be wrong. St Paul’s great hymn to charity reminds us that ‘Now I know only in part’ (1 Cor. 13:12). It is because of this that we need generous love in our interactions.

It is certain that, having said all of this, Liberals fail to live up to their liberalism. A reverence based on the mystery of God all too easily becomes a refusal to say anything at all about God. A critical approach to faith slides into an uncritically dogmatic agnosticism. Generous charity ends in despising those with whom we don’t agree. But Liberals aren't alone in failing to live up to their ideals. I hope that there's enough here to demonstrate that Liberals and liberalism are sources of life for the church. Perhaps even to suggest that all Christians should be liberal!


Chris said...

Simon - 15 years ago, in my Charismatic Evangelical outlook, I was afraid of anything labeled "liberal". But I have changed - and today, your definition of liberal is something I can only hope to become more like. Thanks for this post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, which I enjoyed having found it via Maggi Dawn. I then doubly enjoyed it when I realised where you were writing from, as I was where you are as part of my training at Trinity, and experienced much of what you describe at Cotham, Resonance and St Pauls.

Say hi to Paul and anyone that remembers me.

Howard Jameson

Anonymous said...


Can you advise whether any clerics or theologians within the Christian liberal tradition today hold in favor of gay marriage but are opposed generally to abortion?


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