Encountering contemporary liberal theology – in its own words

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.symes A

Conservative evangelicals are often accused of not ‘listening’ to other points of view. We’re told that we only engage with each other; we only read or listen to ‘approved’ versions of our faith; we caricature the arguments of revisionists without really hearing them. So I was delighted to receive a press release from Modern Church, summarising the keynote address from the recent annual meeting of their Council, and giving a link to the substantial 12 page text of the talk itself, by Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, which can be found here. ‘Reclaiming the soul of Modern Church’ reads like a manifesto for mission for liberal Christians, and it’s worth reading with genuine enquiry, to ask whether this revisionist version of Christian faith offers a coherent and compelling vision that threatens orthodox biblical faith in any way.

After an opening illustration, Dr Kavanagh begins by defining liberalism in a Christian context. Firstly as “hospitality”: respect for one another around a “central altar” as we “encounter God in one another”. Then ‘freedom’ to encounter God “in a myriad of ways”, particularly through openness to “non-propositional truth” of the heart not just the head. It is also an intellectual freedom, a continual willingness to think in different ways. This can be seen as subversive, but provides a vital different voice against the contemporary tendency to conservatism, according to Cavanagh.

(To me it seems bizarre that the Church of England could be accused of undergoing a “shift to the extreme right” as the Acting General Secretary of Modern Church claims. I’m currently reading Justin Welby’s proposal of a radical Gospel-directed alternative to current models of capitalism, in the Lent book ‘Dethroning Mammon’. Meanwhile Bishops are publicly affirming the Archbishops’ call for “radical inclusion” in the Church, and are regularly critical of government economic and social policies).

Cavanagh sees the gift that liberals can offer is to bring the voice of “the unchurched, the de-churched and the marginalised” to the table. She takes a term of insult, “half-believers”, and turns it into a virtue – believing but with questions, understanding but not tied down to a particular version of the faith. Many liberals feel rejected by the institutional church or representatives of it, perhaps alienated from traditional views of God, but still want to be Christians and C of E. They have much to offer a church that, with clear echoes of Martyn Percy, she describes as “stifled by managerial concerns”. The Church’s inner spiritual life needs insights from “the humanist and the secular”, she continues, claiming that this is the opposite of extremism.

(This idea of ‘reverse mission’, of the Church learning from the world about some of its core principles, is a familiar feature of liberal theology and ethics. It is unintentionally ironic that liberals are attacking the C of E leadership for borrowing from secular management principles to improve efficiency, while at the same time themselves openly advocating the taking on board of other secular ideas.)

Modern Church stands for a fellowship with no “criteria for membership” which are divisive and sectarian. Cavanagh links the “recruitment” emphasis on evangelism and discipleship in the C of E’s Renewal and Reform programme with “dangerously emotive worship”, fundamentalism and the rise of Donald Trump. By contrast liberals look for something of the sacred, found in contemplation, with more “theological substance”. People returning to church after a long absence, including some evangelicals, are finding this helpful, says Cavanagh, although there is no evidence to indicate how many.

The worshipping community and the “life of the spirit” prevents the intellectual explorations into religious philosophy from “running aground”, and provides the liberal Christian alternative to the atheist Assemblies. Referring to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Cavanagh describes God’s pneuma as “a new and life-giving force at work in any number of human contexts”, insisting that understanding of God should be “non-dogmatic”, relevant to the 21st century, and not “protectionist” (which I take to mean framed by doctrinal boundaries).

A radical new vision of Christian faith based on these principles will result in transformation of the Church, Cavanagh believes. Biblical interpretation should be based on the primary hermeneutical keys of justice and love; the authority of divine revelation is found not in Scripture but in “respect for one another, including those of other faiths”. While God “is known in different ways, as part of different and still evolving stories”, there is agreement about a quality of “loving kindness”, and that the Kingdom of God is coterminous with “reconciliation and peace in the world”.

The mission of a Modern Church is to be a “bearer of hope”, voicing liberal thought in contexts of neo-conservatism, not seeking to convert, but to liberate; challenging injustice and abuse of power in the Church, and fundamentalism in religion generally. While conservative versions are “literally unbelievable”, liberalism sees concepts of God as sacred, holy, open to a process of questioning, combining the rational and the spiritual.

Cavanagh appears to recognise the problem that the account of faith that she describes, a combination of vaguely left of centre philosophical musings and spirituality free of any biblical anchor, is seen by many as “not really Christian”. Orthodox Anglicans, confident in the authority of Scripture, and of basing theology and ethics on the Bible’s coherent and thrillingly inspiring vision of God’s relationship with humanity past, present and future through Christ, would find it difficult to see anything in Modern Church’s presentation which could offer anything helpful, or be a challenge to evangelical understandings of faith and mission.

But this kind of revisionism still remains a threat. Many Bishops see their role as referees between different theological positions rather than guardians of the faith once delivered, and liberal theology still appeals to a small but influential number of those who have rejected biblical truth but want to be involved with Church leadership. Modern Church may feel that the C of E is moving in a conservative direction, but the Synod’s House of Clergy has voted against a document advocating caution in moves towards affirming same sex marriage. Revisionist ideas have got a hold in theological colleges, Diocesan training schemes, parish pulpits and Cathedrals.

In response, orthodox Anglicans need to continue to teach the truth and refute error, and resist appeals to settle for ‘good disagreement’ when it means accepting that Modern Church’s self-confessed humanistic theology is as validly Christian as robust biblical faith.

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