Free to Believe

by Martin Camroux

from Signs of the Times, No. 22 - Jul 2006

It's good to celebrate successful church growth in the URC! 10 years ago Donald Hilton and I decided to organise a conference at Windermere to positively affirm the liberal heritage of the URC. We called it 'Free to Believe - taking our liberal past into the future'. We had no idea whether anyone would come but in fact Windermere was full and those who came wanted more. Another conference followed on liberal evangelism and in order to accommodate more people we found ourselves having to leave Windermere and move on to larger venues. Without meaning to we had created a liberal network within the URC.

Now 10 years on Free to Believe has a mailing list of 348 people (roughly double what it was 4 years ago). From a time when we were pleased to get 30 for a conference we normally get 60-100. There is now also a quite serious annual theological reading party and a number of local groups. A 20 page briefing goes out 3 times a years and there is an ever expanding series of booklets analysing contemporary theological issues from a progressive viewpoint (currently 11 are in print). Recent publications include Homosexuality: A New Basis for Discussion by Colin Thompson and a typically powerful personal testimony to the meaning of a liberal faith by Donald Hilton. There is a Free to Believe Web-site

No-one should get this out of proportion. We are nothing like Group for Evangelism and Renewal in size. We are explicitly not an organised caucus - we have no statement of belief and make no attempt to influence General Assembly or synods. We are simply a small network which aims to stimulate progressive thinking and to offer support to liberally minded members of the URC. Still we are not only (to my great surprise) now celebrating 10 years of Free to Believe but currently we are growing fast. I am often touched by the letters that come in when the Briefing goes out - like the one I received this week calling Free to Believe 'a real spark of hope in the URC!'

We cover a wide range of theological positions - from those for whom the joy of a liberal theology is that it helps us to believe credibly in a personal God to others who are closer to Sea of Faith and identify with Don Cupitt or Richard Holloway. Quite a few identify with Bishop Spong who wants be committed to the reality of God but seeks to separate this from the traditional way God has been understood and to find a new way to talk about the transcendent dimension in our world. Our last national conference on 'Liberating Sex', led by Susan Durber, Colin Thompson and Elizabeth Stuart, revealed quite significant tensions as to what loving relationships mean in terms of commitment and exclusiveness. Personally I find it a pleasure to be in a Christian group where we wrestle with the real dilemmas that face Christian faith in a turbulent time rather than enduring endless, dreary discussions as the relationship of synod and district council!

Behind the range of belief there are certain shared assumptions:

Free to Believe is for those who believe:

  • that thinking seriously and critically strengthens rather than weakens faith - We believe that Christ came to take away our sins, not our minds!
  • that any religion which imagines it has a monopoly of truth is dangerous - fundamentalism is unbiblical and dangerous.
  • that the ministry of Jesus sets an inclusive agenda for the Church - male and female, black and white, straight and gay.
  • that the Gospel is that God so loved the world, not that God so loved the Church. We have to stop retreating from the giant social issues of the day into the pygmy world of private piety.

I think Free to Believe is one small piece of evidence that something significant and hopeful is going on in religion. There was a time in the 1960s when it looked as if we were heading for a secular society. John Robinson wrote articles with titles like 'Can a truly Contemporary Person not be an Atheist?' In fact we are very clearly still in a society where spirituality is widespread. Academic research reveals that something like two thirds of people have religious experiences. People are often deeply sceptical of traditional Christian belief - and frequently profoundly ignorant about it. But the search for the holy and the sacred goes on. And it takes amazingly varied forms. Rather than truly cotemporary people being atheists we have Madonna, the convert to Kabbalah, defending Tom Cruise's commitment to Scientology on the grounds that: 'If it makes Tom Cruise happy, I don't care if he prays to turtles and I don't think anybody else should.' The spiritual quest continues.

And that quest is taking more and more varied forms. As far as Christian faith goes there was a time in the 1970/80s when it looked as if the whole church was going fundamentalist or charismatic. This was the time of Dean Kelly's study, 'Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.' The assumption was that the only vital religion was conservative religion. This turned out to be totally mistaken. The Alpha course may thrive but others will flock to hear Bishop Spong. Contemporary musical taste may be choruses but it may also be Iona or Taize or Marty Haugen. Michael Hopkins has demonstrated that growing churches in the URC come from all ends of the theological spectrum. The liberal hope that increasing education would mean an end to fundamentalism turned out to be total illusion but the liberal fear that the way things were going there would be no-one left in the church but fundamentalists turned out to be equally illusory. There are still very many people around who are on a spiritual quest but suspicious of dogma. Those on that kind of search find a natural home in liberal religion and Free to Believe.

I detect a new confidence among liberal Christians that was not there a few years ago. The liberal tradition offers amazing resources for the religious journey. It offers the understanding that God is bigger than any concept we can have. It offers the willingness to accept truth wherever it comes from. It demands the honesty to take critical questions seriously. It rejoices in the recognition that our theologies are never final but only provisional attempts to make sense of the religious experience in the light of current knowledge and experience. As Fosdick used to say 'astronomies change but the stars remain'. It offers an open way into the mysterium tremendum , the holy so that people in their integrity without having to park their brains at the church door can relate the world they know and God we meet within. As such it can speak to many who will never be reached by the conservative church.

None of us can read the future. My own guess is that there are some who will yearn for the safeties of fundamentalism, some to whom Tarot cards will seem irresistible, but many who will respond to an open liberal faith. There are people who do not want to be in churches with all male leaderships or infected by homophobia. There are people to whom it is absurd to suggest the world was created in the late Stone Age. And yet something in them cries out to God. And Jesus of Nazareth still offers them a key to the divine mystery more profound than any healing crystals or divine turtle.

Free to Believe is a hopeful sign of vitality and growth in the United Reformed Church. While all eyes are on church decline a new way of being liberal and Christian is emerging.

Semper Reformanda!

Martin Camroux is Minister of Trinity Sutton United Reformed Church and Methodist Church and Chair of the Free To Believe committee.