Affirming liberalism (and conservatism)

There’s a newish Church of England group calling itself “Affirming Liberalism” that, I gather, is kind of like Affirming Catholicism, but not tied to a particular form of churchmanship.

In any event, the webiste has some interesting articles, including this one from Keith Ward called (perhaps optimistically) “Why the Future Belongs to Liberal Faith.” Ward’s is talking specifically about holding the Christian faith in a liberal way, and he identifies seven marks of a liberal faith:

  • Christians enjoy freedom from the absolute authority of any written text, including the Bible
  • The church should include different interpretations of the Christian faith
  • People should be free to dissent from any human authority, including the church
  • The search for truth is best served by critical discussion and inquiry
  • Faith is a relation of trust in a person more than an affirmation of propositional truths
  • Religious belief may need to be re-evaluated in light of new knowledge from other areas
  • The church exists to serve the world and contribute to the flourishing of all creation, both material and spiritual
  • Now, I substantially agree with all these points, so why would I be uncomfortable describing myself as a theological liberal? I think it’s because, while I affirm the need for critical discussion, acceptance of diversity and dissent, and the possibility of revising traditional theological beliefs, I still think there is a core of orthodox Christian belief that retains, if not unchallengable authority, then at least a strong presumption in its favor.

    I don’t think Ward would necessarily disagree with this if his other writings are anything to judge by. But I think his article is nicely balanced by this passage from one by Mark Chapman at the same site:

    I want to begin with the bold claim that a certain amount of woolly liberalism is necessary for the functioning of a healthy Christianity. This is something that needs to be re-asserted in the contemporary church, particularly when there are so many who would like to confine Christianity solely to its more dogmatic and sectarian forms. And I would contend that the reason for this is extraordinarily simple and uncontentious: whatever else religion might be it is a human practice open to all the distortions of human sin which means it simply demands to be scrutinised and criticised. That is something that would be understood by the Hebrew prophets and virtually every reformer since. For the greater glory of God there is thus a responsibility to open up our practices and beliefs to critical scrutiny. This, I think, is where a dose of liberalism becomes necessary for all Christians. Liberalism is consequently far more an attitude of mind than a church party, and it can even look prophetic.

    Now, I would not want to belong to anything called a liberal party in the church. My religion is really quite traditional Anglo-Catholic, but my disposition and attitude is liberal. It doesn’t take much to reveal the ironies, hypocrisies and idolatries of Anglo-Catholicism. But at the same time the continued vitality of religion requires that it be practised, cherished and loved and approached with reverence and awe.

    The “liberal” and “conservative” dispositions, then, can be seen as complementary, and even necessary for one another’s health. A merely corrosive and critical liberalism will lack “reverence and awe.” But an uncritical conservatism will confuse religion with God, and ironically fail to revere the very God religion aims to worship.

    2 thoughts on “Affirming liberalism (and conservatism)

    1. Pingback: Dogma and prayer « A Thinking Reed

    2. The summary you give made me a little squirrly, which I finally realized was because Jesus wasn’t mentioned at all, but the talk you link to does. I think the last principle is better summed up as the natural of salvation is communal, not individual. The definition of the church in your post makes it sound like the Rotary Club.

      It’s not that I disagree with everything Ward said, but in parts I thought – what would Barth say? (See, I don’t think only about Hauerwas!)

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