Let us not forget it is a fine thing to be liberal – open and generous Paul Griffin discusses the right use of the word and its connotations

We all, from our editor downwards and sideways, call those we disagree with ‘liberals’. We are, I suppose, mindful that some of the most oppressive acts of recent times have been done in the name of inclusive liberalism. We are approaching the time when any football supporters’ club will, in that name, be allowed to exist only on condition that it admits 25% of supporters of other clubs.

This use of the word, however comprehensible and even inevitable, is a pity, because to be liberal is a fine thing. Our Lord was liberal enough to say that if someone takes our coat, we should offer him other articles of apparel, and be liberal enough to take not merely one but two or more buffets round the ear. Even the normal use of the word ‘liberal’ to mean generous’ has to be stretched to cover that.

New Testament signs

As always with a difficult concept, snags were visible even in New Testament times. The comments and actions of Jesus in regard to the Pharisees and the money-changers should warn us that matters are not straightforward. We are clearly not to pride ourselves on being a soft touch. There is the same sort of balance as existed in our Lord’s attitude to the Law. He approved of it, but it must be applied in the right way, in fact liberally.

This is where elements in the Church leap in, and by wrecking the balance, give the word ‘liberal’ a bad name. Few doubt that the Church should be inclusive, but this does not mean it should never exclude. When it comes to love, kindness and social acceptance towards those with beliefs and practices unlike our own, we should be proud to say these qualities are intrinsic to our beliefs, but we do not alter the beliefs and practices themselves in order to accommodate theirs.

All great arguments are about the middle ground. It is like choosing a mattress. No one seriously wants something so rigid it forbids comfort, but equally no one wants one of those smothering feathery beds that give no support. In our time the consensus has unquestionably shifted towards the soft end, and at what point we stop and say ‘no further’ constitutes the nub of the debate.

Keeping the law

Our Lord came to fulfil a Law that started with positive commandments and went on with a several-times-repeated ‘Thou shalt not’. That Jesus realized the widespread neglect of obedience to these negatives is shown by the story of the woman taken in adultery. His attitude was kindly but firm. He, as it were, shrugged his shoulders and told the woman not to do it again. The message to the crowd was that they should look at the motes in their own eyes rather than worry about people equally immoral. There is no suggestion that Jesus condoned immorality, only that he recognized its pervasiveness. He never ceased to insist that we acknowledge and repent of our sins; not make new rules to legitimize them.

Liberalism in the pejorative sense may mean dodging the Law. It says, ‘Yes, I am a sinner like everyone else. So is every ordained priest; and I am going to acknowledge this by becoming ordained and going on living with my girl or boy friend. God, after all, is a liberal’ Yes, indeed, but not to the point of going to work on the tablets of stone with a pile driver.

Desire to pick and choose

This demonstrates also the tendency of liberalism to pick and choose the substance of faith in order to achieve what is wanted, whether it is more priests for an understaffed church or a type of equality between the sexes of a sort not envisaged from the Creation all through the Christian era.

Liberalism is like wine, a marvellous thing until carried to excess. A moderate toast to it, therefore, accompanied by the hope that one day we may find a better term for our opponents.