Geoffrey Kirk questions the paradoxes that lie at the heart
of liberal Christianity and its attempt to ‘reform’ the Church
With the passage of time I find myself more and more fascinated by the psychopathology of liberal Christians. What makes them tick? What motivates them to behave as they do?
On the face of it, like the remarriage of a divorcee after an acrimonious separation, liberal Christianity is a triumph of hope over experience. From the late seventeenth century onwards Christians have been striking injudicious deals with secular modernity, and every one has ended in defeat and failure. How hard Leibniz strove to outshine Spinoza at God-intoxication – only to become himself the butt of Voltaire!
It is the bi-polarity of liberal Christianity which is so fascinating. The liberal theologians are to a large extent the heirs of the philosophes of the eighteenth century. They are Humes and Diderots manqués – even to the extent of borrowing the discredited arguments of their originals. ‘Pope Joan’ and the alleged decision of the Council of Macon that women have no souls re-emerge from the Enlightenment repertory as though the old lies had never been exploded by subsequent scholarship.
And yet our contemporary liberal Christians use these absurd fabrications not to attack Christianity (which was the great project of the philosophes) but to set forward what they suppose to be a reformation of it. They audaciously claim that their sole project is the reinstatement of religion in its pristine purity and true significance. The mystery is their failing to see the arguments they marshal are not arguments for the liberal programme of radical inclusion, but arguments against Christianity itself. They entail the belief that the Church has been for almost the entirety of its existence fundamentally misguided and morally indefensible; that far from leading into all truth, the Holy Spirit has condemned century after century to oppression and human misery.
At least the cultured despisers of Christianity in a former age had the courage of their convictions. They looked to a golden future for mankind when the last king would have been strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Our modern liberal Christians, on the contrary, seek not to eliminate what they claim to be the organs of oppression, but to join them. Christian feminists seek not to eradicate priesthood, but to become priests. Episcopacy will cease to be prelatical, our liberals confidently expect, when gay men and women become bishops.
One would have thought that all this paradox was more than humankind could sustain; but there is more. What, when all is said and done, is this primal, basic, essential Christianity to which the liberal Christian claims to be calling us back? On closer examination it proves to be none other than the moral consensus of the ambient secular society.
That the concerns of contemporary Bien-pensants are the real and crucial aims of true Christianity is now so general an opinion as to be thought to be uncontroversial.
Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester, in an interview on Radio 4 not so long ago, spoke for many when he said that the church should set aside doctrinal differences and denominational antagonisms in order to get back to its core task. Many bishops, he claimed, were suffering from a ‘weariness’ about current moral and doctrinal disputes in the General Synod which were ‘stopping us from doing the real work’. Which was, of course, identical with the proclaimed objectives of every mainstream political party: ‘peace in the Middle East, global warming and addressing poverty and inequality’.
John Humphries (whose agnosticism has become his trademark) was naturally in wholehearted agreement.
The interview (not entirely coincidentally) was about the developing ‘covenant’ relationship between Anglicans and Methodists. And here history makes my point, neatly and of itself. Methodism is not what it was. Far from being the weapon of God’s righteous anger against Tillotson, Hoadley and all their works, it has proved as latitudinarian as the day is long: the natural home of all things ‘liberal’ – exegetical, dogmatic and moral. But the Methodists are not alone; now everyone is at it. It is the stock-in-trade of ‘Thought for the Day’. We wake up in the morning and hear some deracinated middle-eastern academic tell us about the feminist golden age of early Islam, before the male enemies of true religion imposed the burka.
Behind all this posturing lies the final paradox. Liberal Christians constantly assert that their programme is intended to make Christianity more attractive to others. Every major development in the course of my ministry, from the Methodist Reunion scheme and liturgical revisions of the Sixties and Seventies to the ordination of women in the Nineties and Noughties, has been sold as a way of stemming numerical decline. But despite the best efforts of the Statistical Department of Church House to massage the figures, they have continued to plummet – not as dramatically, it is true, as in Churches (like the Anglican Church of Canada) where the liberal influence has been stronger longer, but significantly enough.
Why can liberal Christians not read the signs of the times? It is so unreasonable of them! To adopt the weapons of the sworn enemies of the Faith in order to whittle it down to a vapid agreement with the consensus of the age is no way to make converts, and a sure and certain road to terminal attrition. ND