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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"