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Liberal issues and liberal method

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

The world of Anglicanism is changing. How should we respond? How should an organization like the MCU respond? In particular, how should we relate to campaigns, and single issue groups promoting them?

Recently the way we are being perceived by these organizations has been changing. Since around the time of the Jeffrey John affair, organizations campaigning for liberal positions on a variety of issues have been seeking our support, indicating that they perceive us as a valuable ally. It would be pleasant to congratulate ourselves on increasing our profile and winning the arguments; but the main reason seems to lie in the signs that the Anglican communion is moving into a more reactionary phase, with tighter restrictions on freedom of belief and practice. What we are witnessing is an increasing sense that liberals need to work together more effectively.

The MCU was founded to promote theological scholarship within the churches, a matter which at the time was controversial. The big issues for Christians at the end of the nineteenth century were evolution and biblical scholarship, both of which were widely perceived as a threat to faith. By arguing that Christians should embrace the new learning, and even be prepared to change our religious beliefs in the light of it, the MCU were promoting a view which some found too radical.

If we want to compare the MCU with single issue groups, then, our single issue would be liberal methods in theology. We are open to new findings, from the sciences or wherever else, and if they prove convincing we think Christians should be prepared to take them on board, even if it means changing our doctrines. Our stance requires a provisionality about what we have inherited, an openness to the future, and a confidence in human reason as a God-given asset to be used responsibly.

This is characteristic of the traditional themes of Anglican theology, with its balance between Scripture, reason and tradition. Richard Hooker and his successors argued that many matters of belief and practice should be judged by reason in the light of circumstances. To this extent we in the MCU have a strong claim that we ought to be at the heart of the Anglican establishment. Nick Henderson, my predecessor as General Secretary, worked hard with considerable success to move perceptions in this direction.

What roots this liberal method in church life is its implications for practical issues. The subjects of the biggest controversies keep changing, but there is a common thread running through them: those who seek to preserve inherited doctrines appeal to tradition, while those who seek change appeal to new insights and reasoned argument. Some issues split clearly along these lines; for example, in the debates on the ordination of women and homosexuality, the arguments against innovation are very strongly of the 'conservative' type, appealing to inherited traditions and the notion of Scripture as a self-interpreting and unified supreme authority, while opposing arguments appeal to other insights and value judgements, from psychology, biblical research and elsewhere. Other issues do not divide so neatly, but there too conservative and liberal types of argument can be distinguished.

Because we take new insights and ideas seriously, and expect to find divine guidance through the experiences of our fellow humans in our own day, our theology has a practical edge. We expect our theology to engage with the issues of the day, as God does. It has therefore always been characteristic of the MCU that many of its members are also active members of organizations campaigning on specific issues.

How should the MCU itself respond? Usually our contributions are theological: by applying liberal theological method to specific issues, we can show the value of liberal theology while also contributing to questions which deeply affect people's lives. But is it unrealistic, the neat and tidy idea that a theological society makes theological contributions? Do other organizations want our theologizings?

We often feel pushed towards one of two extremes. To describe the MCU as a 'theological' society can mean, to some ears, that it belongs in the world of academia, and therefore should be disconnected from practical issues. It has even become common practice to describe a question as 'academic' when meaning that it has no practical relevance. In addition, theology has its own history of promoting an air of disengagement; reactionary movements have often tried to suppress new ideas by insisting that Christians should uphold traditional doctrines regardless of their practical significance. The MCU, of course, has opposed this view from its outset.

At the other extreme we need to resist the pressure to take sides on every issue. Usually we have been content to promote liberal theological method. Occasionally this has pushed us very much to one side of the debate - as it did with women's ministry, for example - but more generally, we are committed to open debate in a spirit that recognizes that certainty is beyond us. What seems liberal to one age may seem illiberal to another.

Between these extremes lies the option of a constructive, engaged approach which offers a theological contribution to contemporary debate, primarily concerned not to support one side against the other, but to distinguish good argument from bad, Christian claims from heretical or secular ones.

I confess to a personal interest in this. I spent much of my youth working for a variety of campaigning organizations. After a few years I began to notice that they all had one weakness in common. The members of each society agreed with each other in feeling strongly that our chosen issue was very important and something ought to be done about it; but what drove us was the feeling . Our arguments, our reasons, were shallow.

The problem was most noticeable in the case of natural rights. Natural rights have a tradition of being proclaimed as 'self-evident'. Then, as now, pro-abortionists and anti-abortionists would scream 'A woman's right to choose' and 'A baby's right to life', without listening to each other, let alone reflecting on what they meant by rights. When simple appeals to rights or duties seem inadequate, popular debate most often fills the gap with statistics: percentages of people who agree with the cause, or numbers of miscarriages of justice because of the law which needs changing. Yet statistics on their own do not prove moral obligations; they need to be placed within an ethically informed and reasoned account of what we should be trying to achieve.

Thus popular campaigns are still often strongly felt but poorly argued. If success can be achieved more easily by manipulating the media than by winning arguments, the cause of truth is not helped.

There is a proper place for those feelings. Mixtures of instinct and conscience, nature and nurture, they often express moral truths. But not always. Good campaigners need the support of good thinkers, even - perhaps especially - when they do not see why. As the crowds gather for the G8 summit at Edinburgh to protest about world poverty, their numbers and strength of feeling would be irrelevant were it not for the academic economists who have marshalled the evidence for alternative and fairer systems of international trade and development. Similarly, when the Anglican Consultative Council met at Nottingham in June, with an agenda favourable to increasing centralization and uniformity, Inclusive Church organized a gathering of Anglicans to witness to the more open and tolerant structures which we have had heretofore. That witness was a reminder of the case for a traditional Anglican ecclesiology; but the case itself needs to be made by good theology.

It looks as though Anglicanism is moving towards more closed, deductive theologies, with excessive claims to certainty and therefore ill-equipped to hear anything from outside themselves. The MCU, with its more open - and traditionally Anglican - approach, is better equipped to engage with both sides in a controversy and enable them to build on common ground. Given the nature of controversy, most requests for support come from one side or the other on a particular issue; but good theology with a liberal methodology should be able to do more than just offer arguments for one side against the other. We should be able to provide the means for disputants to hear each other better, and thereby raise the quality of debate.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.