We had a wonderful day yesterday in Oxford at the inaugural conference of Affirming Liberalism. The sun shone brilliantly on the gorgeous setting of Trinity College Oxford; where the grounds were already lit up with the spring flowers sparkling in the grassy verges of the paths and quads.
We heard heartfelt expressions of appreciation that such a network had been convened,giving space and acknowledgement to the needs of liberal Christians in the Church of England. And we heard too some cries from the heart from people who feel marginalised and excluded by the certainties and self-imposed limitations of local churches too fearful to let their liberals and progressive friends say what they think and feel about their faith.
This sense of appreciation and need was expressed for me in the wonderful atmosphere and singing at midday worship in the college chapel, which was crowded to capacity by the 137 delegates present.
Mark Chapman’s lecture was a profound and thoughtful historical reflection on the nineteenth century roots of liberal thinking in the English Church, teasing out what liberalism might be seen as and what it might not be seen as. For Chapman liberalism is not a party of the Church separate from others but an attitude of mind which might inform catholic and evangelical Christians alike. Nonetheless it is an attitude which has to be grown as Christians mature and he sees St Paul’s call to the Corinthians to put away childish things as a key liberal text. He raised the concern that liberalism itself alone does not have the spiritual power and vitality to be the animating power of faith. Needless to say this was questioned by some! Clearly there were in the audience those who feel strongly that the future of Christian faith has to be in rethinking Christianity in a way which catches the imnagination of contemporary minds and hearts and that this will be done best and perhaps necessarily exclusively by re-presenting it in ways deeply informed by liberal freedom from attachment to the churches’ former historic expressions in liturgy, doctrine and ethic.
Keith Ward gave a free-flowing and scintillating presentation of seven key liberal values or principles and a call for the Church at all levels to embrace the inherently liberal character of genuine gospel Christianity as he sees it. Clearly for Keith there is no way that liberal Christianity lacks dynamism or spiritual vitality. I heard him saying that liberal principles in fact are the hidden and motivating spiritual power of the faith! And just as churches are not always as faithful to the gospel as we might be because we are human and fallible so also churches are not always as keen to pursue or even as ready to pursue the liberal principles partkly because they include the hard vocation of understanding difficult and complex issues and arriving at the humility to know what we don’t know and to say so. But even so his exasperation with the contemporary English Church is it unwillingness to recognise that there is a need for some people to do this harder work and to support them and appreciate them in it. Keith again is happy to recite the Creed and the liturgies of the Church as they stand whilst interpreting them metaphorically – and yet at the same time he recognises that these traditions of the Church and forms of expression are not binding on future generations. This raises the question – that being so – if they are repellent or that the very least offputtting to the rising generation of Christians then how much energy and resource should churches be putting into retaining them?