Thursday 10 January 2008

Theological Divide - and Liberalism

For me, if not for Craig Uffman, it is a mark of the ongoing New Reformation that Open and Conservative Evangelicals are becoming so divided.

His argument is that they are not divided substantially on doctrine, nor on their shared opposition to the inclusivity of relationship-enjoying gay people in ministry or blessing gay relationships. They are divided on whether to be open to the other, even to love the other.

He has a point but the Conservative Evangelical would also claim to love the other. They will even meet the other. Rather it is a different concept about who should be in control and with what message. They meet the other to tell them what is wrong with them, and to conform.

Though opposed to doctrinal and sexual inclusivity, the Open Evangelical nevertheless takes risks with mixing with inclusivity, and does not set up methods of control to keep the awkward out. For the Conservative Evangelical, this risks far too much the wrong people being in control. Indeed, for them, the wrong people have already gained control or over-influenced the direction of the ship.

Therefore they have had enough, and decided to act. This is the basis of GAFCON, and having made the decision to do it nothing is going to stop them. It's Monte Carlo or bust. The problem with the Open Evangelical is that there are just too many people to talk to, and too many shades of opinion, when one opinion matters. They are just too slow.

There is also a rejection of the Catholic by the Conservative Evangelical. That they mix with dogmatic Catholics now tells us of the revolutionary, Militant Tendency-like methodology of the Conservative Evangelicals, now that they have gone into battle. Friends must now fall into line or feel the consequences.

Richard Turnbull made it clear when he twisted things around from his strategy to that of others. He said that Liberals allow (so called) Liberal Evangelicals into positions so that liberals can carry on. For Militant (and I'll use its language) it means smashing the Liberal Evangelicals which Liberals use as cover, in order then to get to the enemy.

I need [?]also want to warn against the nature of liberalism within our own midst. What I mean by that is this whole idea of what it means to be evangelical being broadened so that it encompasses everybody and everything. If the liberals seek to capture the theological colleges in order to exercise strategic influence, the first step will be to encourage liberal evangelicals to capture the evangelical colleges. And I just want to draw that challenge to your attention and not overlook it and not to think all is well.

Thus Wycliffe Hall was to be cleaned up of these soft evangelicals, as indeed GAFCON will be a cleaning up operation. The days of Lambeth chat are over in terms of the coming Communion - and Open Evangelicals will have to decide whether to go with them or with the Liberals.

I must be the Conservative Evangelicals' worst nightmare, in that I am unashamedly liberal: indeed I'll use the language of my adopted parish priest and call myself "outrageously liberal", just as he called himself outrageously conservative (except my outrageousness carries more of a plain meaning). My reason for being Anglican is basically a eucharistic, liturgical one, which does alter my theology but, really, my theology hasn't altered much - its focus has, but not its reasoning. I would like to think I am theologically informed. I've just bought a number of books that came two days ago, on the old discount method, and the religious ones are:

Altizer, T. J. J. (1997), The Contemporary Jesus, London: SCM Press. It is an imaginative approach to theological method (which can sometimes feel a bit bizarre) and includes such gems as The Nihilistic Jesus and The Buddhist Jesus - much on paradox and oppositions attracting within and between.

Scott, D. (1999), An Anglo-Saxon Passion, London: SPCK. One to show a certain Anglo-Saxon nut and one that interests my liturgical side, this one has a woman's passionate spirituality attached.

Beeson, T. (1999), Rebels and Reformers, London: SCM. Many mini-biographies and a bit of a disappointment really, much is on the Internet these days.

Harbottle, S. (1997), The Reverend William Turner: Dissent and Reform in Georgian Newcastle upon Tyne, Leeds: Northern Universities Press for the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. This is an in depth study of the first wave of Unitarian ministry in northern towns, the days when it was denominationalist and politically radical, based around the impact of Joseph Priestley and ex-Anglican and Arian Theophilus Lindsey.

Balling, J. (2003, from 1996 in Danish), The Story of Christianity: From Birth to Global Presence, Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Checking out how he understood the historical Jesus, and some other hot button points, this book is a cracker. It is not all according to my views at all, but it packs a good punch even for me and has the ability to consolidate history.

There is also one book about the progress of the Welsh language - Aitcheson, J. and Carter, H. (2000), Language, Economy and Society: the Changing Fortunes of the Welsh Language in the Twentieth Century, Cardiff: University of Wales Press - and another on the sociology of networks, which seems to be incredibly solid, covering technology, culture (and religion) and loose people and greedy institutions, all well baked into sociology pie. A very high level academic book by Zijderveld, A. C. (2000), The Institutional Imperative: the Interface of Institutions and Networks, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

My outrageous liberalism includes meeting all kinds of people, an openness that is a risk to me and to them. This is why I will post of Fulcrum. Like many a liberal, I'll put up with a lot of what I don't like. I'm for unity, and against uniformity. I am also for plurality: it still does not matter to me that people don't agree, and certainly does not affect my ability to meet them or even join in with them. Recently some people were having a hack at Episcopi Vagantes. I'm in touch. I got in touch not because of that, but because it flowed from my giving a talk on why liberal groups cannot get together, given to Yorkshire Sea of Faith. Not only am I in touch, I've found a small grouping including some correspondence where I am quite sympathetic because it recognises and follows a number of the influences that matter to my reasoning.

So it Open Evangelicals want to talk to me, I'll talk to them. I'll talk to anyone. Not only do I evangelise, anyone can evangelise to me. However, I am a lay person, and just acting freely. What, though, if I put myself forward and was accepted for ordination? This is where the Conservative Evangelical would bust a gut (and probably a not few others too).

Conservative Evangelicals bust guts about liberals long before they get to the kind of liberal I am. I'm not the only liberal in the village (well I am in this one but not over the border), but I do tend to go about with some clarity. Other liberals I have met have tended to be quiet, though they pursue it well. They seem to be finding more voice. I tend to have this effect, even though I am also well behaved in a well behaving environment. For the Conservative Evangelical, there can only be one kind of Christian in the driving seat, and that is them. Only then can they get the animal moving in the direction they want. They are interested in enfranchising themselves, and disenfranchising others. Those who are like them can join in, so long as they stay in control - once they've got it. GAFCON means getting it.

The reason there is a New Reformation is not because liberals have suddenly appeared, or that they are in the driving seat like never before. If anything, liberals, around for hundreds of years, have been in institutional retreat. So it is not that. It is that Christianity is, increasingly in Western Europe, a minority religion, and has next to no impact on the wider intellectual scene, and theology today has become as widely dispersed as never before. In the United States secularisation has gone into many churches, and attendances to all of them (including evangelical) are falling. In the face of such specialisation, choices are made to agree, to accommodate, to defend, or to attack. The Churches have thus specialised, into more and more obviously distinct groupings. It is like a catharine wheel, spinning and sparking and throwing everyone towards the edges. The orthodox liberal centre failed; the death of traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism created a new bipolarity and, no, Open Evangelicalism is not the new cohering centre, because they are along the same one line. They will divide up; they won't cohere others.

The task before the Conservative Evangelical, on the attack, seems all the greater, and their desire for coherence and action means that they are now going to strike out. There is plenty of ego and hubris about, but their motives follow their beliefs and their view of authority. That they are now seen as undermining and upsetting structures, and the old balances, means that they receive a reciprocal response, and they are treated like even right wingers in the Labour Party treated the breakaway SDP in the 1980s, or indeed how Militant was eventually treated.


Unknown said...

Adrian, interesting article. If I could make just one serious comment - I don't think you are the Conservative's 'worst nightmare'. In general, Conservatives prefer 'hot or cold' to 'lukewarm', not least on the basis of 'like recognizing like'. And so, as Richard Turnbull's comments indicated, the 'worst nightmare' is the person least unlike ourselves who is still quite 'wrong'. I think this cuts both ways in the current dispute, which is why the divisions within Evangelicalism have become so bitter. By contrast, I remember how in the early 1980s I got along fine with the gay Anglo-Catholic Father in the parish next to mine. We were so far apart, it was impossible for us to find anywhere to disagree!

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

That is interesting. When I was at Unitarian College, at a time of my religious humanism that became a kind of humanist symbolic Paganism later on, I did not encounter the kind of rejection from people in other denominations at Luther King House (plenty from Unitarian chapels) because they knew who I was. I did not participate in the weekly eucharist after a few weeks, and there was a clarity about my position. Now I have shifted somewhat institutionally, I was rather reluctant to suggest the same sort of relationship, though I am still trying to develop the same sort of clarity about the liberalism I have now.