Come Back ‘Liberal’ – All Is Forgiven

It’s over forty years since I was first accused of being ‘a woolly liberal’.  I remember it well – it was in the Common Room at the Bernard Gilpin Society in Durham.

I was one of three dozen ordinands there who needed their minds ‘stretched’ before going to theological college.   In my case, I had left school at sixteen and worked in banking and industry for six years without doing any serious study.  So the old grey-matter needed stretching.

We were a mixed bunch – some good Anglo-Catholics bound for the theological college at Chichester (now closed) or St Stephen’s House in Oxford, and some ardent evangelicals headed for Oak Hill or Clifton (now Trinity) in Bristol.  I was to go on to Lincoln (also now closed) and this clearly marked me out as ‘liberal’.

I was a fairly recent arrival in the C of E.  I was brought up Methodist, grandson of a minister, and had got part-way through training as a local preacher – the first step towards the Methodist Ministry.  But this was the sixties.  The Anglican/Methodist conversations were going well, so I made the move to the C of E.  I was confirmed and within a few months was off to selection conference for Anglican ordination.

Once I got to Durham for my year’s ‘pre-theological’ course, I was face to face for the first time with the ‘breadth’ of the C of E.   In spite of being regarded as a ‘woolly liberal’ I came to value that breadth.  I came to see it as one of the great strengths of this strange organisation in which I have now been an ordained priest for almost forty years.

Happily I am able to say that my faith has never been stronger.   I still see myself as ‘liberal’ – but maybe less woolly than in those early years. But there are probably less things that I would ‘go to the stake for today.   I have grown to see the ‘liberal’ approach to Christian belief and practice as a very honourable one and as complementary to the other traditions within the C of E.

So why do I feel that I – and many like me – are being regularly ‘demonised’ by some of our fellow Christians?  It is almost as though ‘liberal’ is a dirty word – and not just in church circles.  Think of the way in which the so-called ‘liberal elite’ in this country has been castigated by more conservative politicians and newspapers in recent years.

In his book ‘The Collage of God’, Mark Oakley laments the fact that the word ‘liberal’ has become almost unusable in the contemporary Church.  ‘”The word is shadowed” he says “by the image of clapped-out, angst-ridden clergy in cardigans who ‘don’t believe much’ any more.  It is also soiled by what might be called illiberal liberals, who are unable to tolerate those who do not share their more radical views.”

“In contrast to both these images” Oakley continues “I see the need for a renewed spirit of liberality in the Church, a spirit concerned to ensure that the Church keeps a breadth of mind, a general courtesy in its communal life, a desire to defend another’s right of speech and interpretation of shared texts, and maintains a greater concern to check its own prejudices than preserve its so-called ‘purity’.”

Like Mark Oakley, I want to rehabilitate the word ‘liberal’.   If I look it up in my battered copy of   ‘The Concise  English  Dictionary’, I find such meanings as ‘generous, open-handed, ample, abundant; not rigorous or literal; open-minded, candid, unprejudiced.’   A ‘liberal education’ is defined as ‘directed to general enlargement of mind’.  The Latin root is, of course, ‘liber’ – ‘free’.

All that seems perfectly acceptable to me.  Why, then, has ‘liberal’ become such a reviled word in so many circles?  I recently heard it described as a ‘boo’ word in the sense that it is, for example, spoken at a conference of ‘conservative’ Christians and they automatically respond by booing.   The villain has appeared on stage during the pantomime.

If we turn to the pages of the New Testament, I think we can find strong support for the rehabilitation of ‘liberal’ and its connotations.   I know that the word itself is rarely used in its present form, but there are plenty of references to freedom.  I think, especially, of John 8:32 ff.  Jesus is talking to a Jewish audience who cannot believe that they are in bondage.  But he makes it clear that even they are slaves to sin.  True freedom is to be found in the relationship with God that only God himself can create.  ‘ – – you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ (RSV).

I sometimes fear that, in rejecting anything to do with the word ‘liberal’, some of our fellow Christians have created a religion based on ‘law’ and ‘the book’ every bit as suffocating and enslaving as that of the establishment of Christ’s day.  Freedom is actually sacrificed to obedience to a man-made code of belief and practice.

I can already hear the boos in the distance,  the accusations of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ and – yes – ‘woolly liberal’!

It is quite true that I – like many others in the Church – am a child of the sixties.  I was stimulated and excited by books like ‘Honest to God’.  My time at theological college opened up the Bible, Theology and Church History in ways I could not have imagined in my teens.  My years in parish work and the media have honed that, earthed my faith, and helped me to understand the gap that has opened up between the churches and most of our neighbours.

That gap is real.  The statistics of church membership and attendance – though not as bad as some would have us believe – are a warning to us that we must not simply retreat into the ghetto and hope that, if we go on in the same old way as the righteous remnant, the people will return.  Nor will the people return by means of big evangelistic events, Alpha courses or even ‘Common Worship’.

We need to be more ‘open-handed, open minded, generous, candid, unprejudiced’ – in other words – more ‘liberal’ in our theology and in our ecclesiology.  ‘Liberal’ is not God – but liberal is good, and a valuable way forward.

Some theologians of the twentieth century merely wanted to demythologise everything.  They  helped us  a  few steps forward on our journey – helping us  to see the real context of the Bible and especially the New Testament.  But it wasn’t enough.  What we need now is ‘a passionate restatement of Christian truth in new and forceful, heart-and-mind-delighting terms.’   Not my words, but prophetic words from a very unorthodox Christian – Philip Toynbee, writing in his journal published as ‘End of a Journey’  (Bloomsbury 1988).

‘A passionate restatement’ – not saying what we don’t believe, but what we do believe, and saying it in ways that are appropriate for the third Christian millennium rather then the first or the second.   We cannot ignore or consign to the rubbish bin the huge accumulation of writings, the saintly lives and everything else that makes up the treasured heritage of the Christian faith.   We must, however, be honest enough to admit that much of that heritage may have been right for its time, but is so no longer.

The I entry quoted from Philip Toynbee’s journal goes on to talk about ‘a great work of reconstruction; and arduous co-operation between thinking Christians in an effort to re-create their faith in a way that what has become (a) offensive, (b) incredible, and (c) superfluous shall be discarded without depleting the faith that remains.’ (Toynbee’s italics).

Then, reflecting on the gap between people in the pew and the wider community he says this: ‘People who might sit in pews would be helped to do so by the admission that every attempt to express the inexpressible reality of God in words is useful only for a certain time; that the creeds which are still repeated in nearly all Christian churches are words which are no longer useful for most of us;  and that we must find other words to express as best we can our enduring faith in the reality of God’s love for us.’

I have to say ‘Amen’ to that.  Again the sound of booing and ‘woolly liberal’ echoes in my head.  But I am unrepentant.

A final quote from Philip Toynbee: ‘What awful frivolity there is in the widespread feeling among Christian intellectuals that ‘Liberal Theology’ is old-hat; unsmart; absurd.  True liberality is the true way forward.  To combine openness of mind with humbleness of heart.’

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2 Responses to “Come Back ‘Liberal’ – All Is Forgiven”

  1. 1 josie November 8, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Another amen from another liberal.

  2. 2 Anna September 4, 2013 at 6:59 am

    Thankfully I can read your blogs (such as this one) and choose other pilgrimages.

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