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A future for liberal faith

10 January 2014

Liberal Christianity needs to engage even more with complexities to find its true life, argues Michael Wheeler

IN THE big tent of Anglicanism, liberalism used to be the orthodoxy, but things have changed in recent years. Your average cleric was broad of mind, warm of heart, and read the scriptures with John Robinson and his successors hovering in the background. Liberal Catholic tradition, still alive and well in the cathedrals, meets a sceptical world halfway, and is thanked for its tolerance and pragmatism. But liberalism needs to show that it is not just the soft, chewy centre of Anglicanism, and that it has a future.

The word "liberal" (lower-case "l") certainly has a past. The oldest usages relate to being "free in bestowing; bountiful, generous, open-hearted" (1387), and "free from restraint" (1490), often in a pejorative sense in the 16th and 17th centuries ("unrestrained, licentious").

The definition that brings us closer to home is much later: "Free from narrow prejudice; open-minded, candid" (1781); and by 1846 we have arrived: "Free from bigotry or unreasonable prejudice in favour of traditional opinions or established institutions; open to the reception of new ideas or proposals of reform', as in "liberal Christianity".


JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, who was to hang on in the C of E until 1845, considered the 1830s to be a decade in which a liberal "party" within the Established Church caused irreparable damage. More shocking for churchmen than Darwin's The Origin of Species was Essays and Reviews, a collection of essays published the following year (1860), in which the application of new critical tools to old doctrines and ways of reading the Bible was promoted in the light of science. At its heart lies an idea that has gone deep into the modern liberal unconscious.

"The Education of the World", an essay by Frederick Temple (a future Archbishop of Canterbury), began life as an address in the chapelof Rugby School, where he was then headmaster. Unlike people in the childhood of mankind, he argued, when ancient Israel needed the Law in the same way as a child needs rules, his contemporaries were living "in the maturity of mankind", when "the great lever which moves the world is knowledge, the great force is the intellect."

We must welcome the results; for "we are now men, governed by principles, if governed at all, and cannot rely any longer on the impulses of youth or the discipline of childhood." We must grow up, and not hang on to childish legends, or youthful sentimentalism.

In our own generation, there lies at the heart of the liberal humanist critique of religion the perception that "we" have grown up; that agnostic scepticism in matters of faith and religious commitment indicates that we have left childish things behind.

Those Christians who subject their scriptures and creeds to critical analysis also assume that theyhave grown up, in that they regard phenomena such as Charismatic expressions of faith as childish.If these liberals are Anglicans, however, they are far too nice to say so in public.


UNLIKE the United States, where "liberalism" is often considered to be a dirty word, the UK is a liberal state. The right to freedom of belief and action, with John Stuart Mill's caveat that one does not interfere with the freedom of others, is a right that we have defended in war, and that we continue to defend from attack, real or virtual, by those who disagree with us.

Ours is a "mature" position, an adult position, achieved by putting away childish things. Hilary Mantel, in her widely quoted British Museum lecture last year, questioned whether monarchy was a suitable institution for a "grown-up nation".

Liberal Anglicanism can sign up to the right to (qualified) freedom of belief and action, and to an open and critical approach to scripture and the creeds. But two challenges present themselves to the adherents of this former orthodoxy.

First, they must distinguish themselves from the liberal consensus of moderate secular materialism, and thus retain a defined position outside the social services.

Second, and more pressingly, they have to prove themselves to be truly liberal, in the sense of genuinely wanting to allow those who disagree with them to flourish. This includes interaction with conservative Evangelicals or traditionalist Catholics within the Anglican fold, each of which groups claims to defend an impregnable deposit of faith. Dispatches from both wings have not always been encouraging in this regard, although recent news from the General Synod on women bishops is more hopeful.

There also remains that unsettling statement of Jesus's that unless we become like little children we cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.


FOR many people with no attachment to the Church, religion itself is associated with fanaticism, manifested in external threats to security in the form of Islamist extremism, and internal threats to commonsensical, liberal live-and-let-live pragmatism in the form of dogmatic Christian teaching. The current hot potatoes of gay marriage and gay clergy spring to mind. A retreat into liberal humanist agnosticism or atheism seems an attractive alternative to the difficult journey of faith, as it has done for many decades.

Ironically, the way forward for liberal Anglicanism could be shaped in response to opposition, and particularly to overt hostility. Lord Runcie, as Archbishop of Canter-bury, was accused of nailing his colours to the fence, whereas in fact he was engaging with the complexity and ambiguity of our human experience. This took courage.

In today's climate, liberal Anglicanism must show a spiritually hungry world that it is only by engaging with complexity on this difficult journey of faith that we will encounter the light and the life - revealed to us in one who lived and worked both at the centre and the margins of his own world in first-century Palestine - in the teeth of opposition from extremists.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton, and a Trustee of Gladstone's Library, which has recently initiated a project, "Re:defining liberalism" (www.gladstoneslibrary.org).

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