Saturday, 13 June 2009

Affirming (Sort of) Liberalism

The second Affirming Liberalism Day Conference came and went. I have only listened remotely. I listened to Martyn Percy's lecture on Why Liberal Churches are Growing. I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. Martyn Percy is Principal of the successful Ripon College Cuddesdon theological college. He doesn't talk about the book, and that might be one weakness of the talk as I see it.

Once again the liberalism tackled is qualified at Affirming Liberalism. This is the liberal element of the mainstream Church which is (was, I would say) properly a mediating element within the Church. He makes a distinction between liberal Protestantism in the past and something more orthodox in the twentieth century - well that's the very point I have been making in the local In Depth group. It's about 'proclaiming the gospel' rather than investigating the gospel and other sources that might be a bit picky about what is actually proclaimed. Martyn Percy talks then about freedom and liberalism, but it isn't because it is restrained. He does use it in a qualified way - a "generous orthodoxy". Also, in talking about churches growing, he means a broader concept of spiritual growth rather than bums on seats.

The actual book Why Liberal Churches are Growing does include the liberal by full definition: the 1% each year growth of Unitarian Universalism for example in the United States (though the same growth cannot be said of Unitarians in Britain, where the definitions that Americans have developed that are evolved are much more sclerotic in the UK). See Cooley, T. (2006), 'It's Not all about UUs: Growth in Unitarian Universalist Congregations' in Percy, M., Markham, I. (eds.) (2006), Why Liberal Churches are Growing, London: T&T Clark, 60-70. So the book extends to a range of definitions of liberalism - but not the lecture, and not this (pressure?) group.

It is mediating then not just within the Church but with culture and even other faiths - negotiating all the time. This is another definition of liberal, which has wide variety, including Evangelical and Catholic beyond it. The liberal core is such as Affirming Liberalism, Affirming Catholicism and the Modern Churchpeople's Union and that of SCM. The contemporary condition of this liberalism does include the claim that the 'Cold War' between SCM and the Christian Union is over. Well he's right that there is a flexibility in many gatherings, Stott and Spong being read and discussed, though not I would suggest in many Christian Unions.

The lecture in the end is about ecclesiastical politics. It wants the legitimacy of mediating as was the case with the Broad Church. I too put all this mediating in my Ph.D in 1989 using my concept of 'orthodox liberalism' (as opposed to those of 'heterodox liberalism'). The problem is that from being in the centre, the Affirming Liberal types are now on the end, because - despite the Cold War being over - the "North Koreas" Percy did not mention in the lecture are ever more effective; even Open Evangelicals have cut off points that exclude the likes of the 1980s Bishop of Durham warmly quoted by Martyn Percy and the 1960s John Robinson. They were orthodox liberals.

I think that Martyn Percy's tour into the past, about the 'modernities' of past centuries (especially examples from 1500s, 1600s and 1700s) was good for a laugh but not particularly relevant for now. His point mentioning them was that the Church has always been in crisis and things weren't so great in the past and you can't blame liberalism (actually you can, if liberalism is combined with Statism as did happen in Essays and Reviews of 1860).

Again the approach is Church of England centred. He draws on Grace Davie's catchphrase Believing and Belonging, though he thinks it is a form of belonging, and people who say they don't attend actually do. There is a move, he thinks, from religious assumers to religious consumers, but there is little cause for alarm.

He is not concerned with the former liberal movement of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. A more general definition of liberalism has three inputs: firstly, Christian truth and culture, and that Christ prefers truth to him because before he was Christ he was truth but follow this and you fall into his arms (Simone Weil); secondly, sympathetic and syncretic with others - revelation, text and traditions with then outer aspects (gender, liberation etc.) infused with the liberal spirit, thus about the freedom of communities along with Christianity. There must be ethical and political consequences, and it is not just pietistic. Liberals (still) tend to be optimistic about the future.

Liberalism is not a form of theological perfection. It seeks to maintain the relevance of Christian faith, if in some humility. It is anti-imperialistic. It is not a well organised party within the Church because liberals don't believe in a party or tribal gathering. This is a blessing in disguise. Martyn Percy calls this "directional plurality".

Of course the North Koreas deny that this approach maintains the Christian faith in seeking its relevance by engaging. My criticism is different: that in attempting to do the job of maintenance it compromises its theological freedom.

What happens if the free thinking is not generous orthodoxy? Free thinking goes where it will. He thinks liberals should convert non-believers to believers, not just conservatives to liberals and waiting for others to 'grow up' and catch up. But the fully liberal never waits for someone to catch up but simply talks with the other, and they go where they will.

The model he pursues is the parish one of 'the inside place for the outsider' - a vision of growth bringing in a mixture of people. A community of difference is in the New Testament model - a welcome to people who don't fit in. This must be so, but I would extend this to the ideological sphere too - a community of different beliefs and yet able to come together to worship and to seek out something better of life.

He wants a liberalism of innovation with composition: Church being public, functional, aesthetic, distinctive: a sign of God in communities, open to the world, hope, faith and charity with attentive love. It means uncovering a God that is the author of freedom and intends this. And such is another difference. I don't know that this God is the author of freedom or indeed an author of restriction. However, we humans have the right to seek our freedom, whatever a God may think or people impose upon a God. If such a God that is freedom is a projection of ourselves then so be it.

It is not just about seeking truth first (that then becomes Christ), but about understanding that truth itself can be displaced and diverse. And if truth itself is multiple, then it is also about Krishna and Buddha and Muhammad and none of these. This is where my view of liberal is breaking down his barriers too, and yet still is of a 'parish view' of a people out there who could be in here with all their differences, including beliefs.

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