Feb 102008
 

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?

  2 Responses to “Affirming Liberalism Conference”

  1. I regret not having been able to attend your conference. Unfortunately my wife is recovering from a hip operation, and I needed to be with her at that time.

    May I make a few observations. It has been suggested by Mark Chapman that liberalism lacks the vitality to arouse faith in people. Well, I would say that in Africa that may well be the case – as well as many other of the Southern Hemisphere countries. Perhaps to a large extent this may also include China.

    I have always been deeply impressed by the simple, but profoundly deep faith of many of the people of Africa, with whom I have been associated for just over 57 years. I have met some whom I would describe as saints – I have discovered Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and believe it or not, even Jehova’s Witnesses and Mormons – and many other denominations that possess men and women of great faith.

    I have befriended members of the African Independent Churches; there too I have found a deep faith. I would especially mention Isaiah Shembe, of whom I have read and studied much. In Isaiah Shembe we find a remarkable man who years after his death seemed to have reached the status of a Messiah amongst his own followers. In many ways this noble Zulu revitalised a section of African society. Africa is full of remarkable men and women of faith.

    I recall an old African friend of mine, whom I could only describe as a prince amongst men. We visited him as he lay dying in Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town. He managed, with what little strength he had, to raise himself up in his bed and greeted us with great warmth. As we prepared to part company that evening we asked if we might pray with him. His reply to us was that his time was near, and would he mind if he prayed for us and the work we were involved in amongst the people of Africa. He laid his hands upon our heads and I suppose that, like that doctor who heard Bonhoeffer’s prayer before his execution I could likewise say that I have never before or since heard such a prayer from the lips of any other person. Here was a man who had been jailed for murder as a youth, and who once ruled the Cape Flats gangland. However the risen Christ seemed to have taken hold of his life and worked a remarkable miracle, which changed him for ever.

    I recall NT Wright mentioning a story of his friend, who at one time lectured seminary students in Kenya. His friend was introducing the subject of the ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’ – of how it originated in Europe, and so on. One of his students reminded him that in Africa Jesus had not been lost. . .

    The question of faith is ultimately resolved in the life of Jesus, as each one of us perceives that life to have been lived. The encounter with Him is the lifeblood of faith – and I have found that faith amongst church groups which, in the West, we would hardly approve of. I suppose that is my liberalism; I have seen the effect of Jesus’ life on a multitude of different people. I have seen how the African Independent Churches do a great work of healing amongst people who are far less educated than ourselves. Their Jesus is adequate to the task of understanding their needs just where they are.

    However, although I find it extremely difficult to comprehend that Jesus was divine in the sense of being God himself, nevertheless his life as I understand it from the Synoptics profoundly stirs me. I suppose that in some ways, as I try and make sense out of the complex issues surrounding Him, I find that the Gospel of John becomes more dear to me despite all those account which seem to contradict the synoptics. That gospel enlivens me to think a little more deeply about the questions posed in Mark and echoed in Matthew and Luke – “who is this man?” In a way, I suppose John’s gospel is his reply to that question.

    For us liberals the quest is ongoing. It is a thrilling quest and we do not yet have all the answers. I do believe that, whether in Europe or in Africa as we read about Him we are never quite the same again. Together with many who were present at your inaugural meeting I must also protest that liberalism does indeed offer me a faith which has vitality and meaning.

    Some have suggested that the future of Christian faith has to be in rethinking Christianity. I would say ‘not quite!’ I think there is room in this world for those who claim together with Karl Barth that ‘Jesus loves me, because the Bible tells me so’. At the same time there is also room for those who might find their doubts nevertheless also lead them to accept the words of that simple chorus, but perhaps it may be expressed in contemporary terms which allow for the final words expressed by Schweitzer in his book ‘The Quest for the Historical Jesus’. We each have to discover Him for ourselves, but let us not dissuade our friends in Africa or elsewhere that their Jesus is not the historical Jesus to them . . .

  2. I concur wuth Gordon. Liberalism gives vitality and meaning to my faith.