The State of Progressive Christianity in England

I feel a fraud addressing you on any number of counts, but the most embarrassing is having to say that I have never read Kerouac. Somehow for those of us who grew up in the sixties in Britain, he didn’t impinge, though others of the Beat Generation did. [I did get to buy a copy yesterday in the Elliott Bay Book Company, but I haven’t yet opened it.] My teenage years were spent instead reading the novels of Virginia Woolf. In them the search for personal meaning, on the part of women especially, is a crucial central theme. And coupled with that, an awareness that it is the search which is central, however necessary some sort of fulfilment for the individual engaged in it. When her husband, Leonard, published his final volume of autobiography, he gave it the title The Journey, not the Arrival, Matters. I want to return to that at the end.

So what’s the state of progressive Christianity in Britain? Well, and for a starter, non-existent, since progressive is not a term we tend to use. The idea of progress, so dear to the Victorians, came under firm attack from historians after the first world war, and has lost credibility. We speak, rather, of liberal – or in some quarters radical – Christianity. The first term, I realise, presents problems in this country, but you must forgive me now and in conversation if I persist as a Brit in using it.

Where are we, anyway? Well, having told you when my teens were, I need to say at the outset that we are most of us well into middle-age or beyond. There are exceptions to this. My colleague in the parish where I work would call himself a sixties liberal theologically, and is just thirty. But he’s very much an exception. Last year the Sea of Faith Network (the most radical religious grouping in Britain currently), about which Jim has written in his most recent President’s Report, held its tenth annual conference. This year what is now called the Modern Churchpeople’s Union (the most abiding liberal Christian body) celebrates its centenary. But most of those who attend both bodies’ conferences would be a good deal closer to The Modern Churchpeople’s Union’s age than Sea of Faith’s. Most radical Christians in Britain were shaped by the liberal Christian explosion of the sixties. Where many of us are at has moved on a good deal. But we have not been terribly successful in bringing new people on board.

We’re also, as I’ve indicated, somewhat divided. To the Modern Churchpeople’s Union and Sea of Faith you need to add SCM Trust (which falters, but which still maintains some of the insights of the Student Christian Movement), the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, and Affirming Catholicism. All are open, to some extent at least, in their Christian understanding. But all have different agendas also, which makes any sort of united liberal front difficult. The Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, for instance, is bound to appear dangerously liberal to the gay-bashing orthodox, but doesn’t want that label stuck on it too much by association with others, since it wants to reach out to lesbians and gays in all church groupings. Affirming Catholicism in the Church of England has several people in it like myself who are in Sea of Faith, and who would see not simply religion, but God also, as in some sense a human creation. But it has others who have reacted against the straight aping of Rome by some Anglo-Catholics (official, Vatican Rome that is), and their misogyny, and their opposition to women priests, but who would deplore my theological views.

This points to another division also; that of different attitudes to doctrine (what and how we believe), and its unpacking in the life both of church and society. Alongside of evangelicalism (which is certainly far and away the biggest fish in the British Christian sea), there is a growing movement also which we might term neo-orthodoxy. People who, encouraged by certain strands of post-modernism, say that if we are going to tell the Christian story, we might as well tell it as if it were all true, but who on many issues to do with ethics or the structures of society allow in more recent thought. So you can be doctrinally ‘orthodox’ – whatever that might mean – but liberal on gay sex; pro-feminism with all that follows from that, but anti any watering down of the doctrine of the incarnation. It is very often young women and men (lay and ordained) who take such lines, leaving old liberals like me utterly bemused.

There’s a division also between theology in the church, and in the universities. Maybe there always has been. But the difference is perhaps that where in the past those imbued with new religious ideas wanted to share them with others in the church setting (whether as clergy or lay people), now very often they do not. Sea of Faith – to go back to that – has a lot of people in it who seem to me genuinely religious in a radical way, but who have nothing to do with institutional Christianity. It’s not worth the hassle. One can see how people feel like that, given the immensely conservative public face of Christianity in Britain today. But for me it is deeply disturbing. For if there aren’t open Christians within the institutions of the church, how is this strand of the tradition to be sustained. Those who leave are forgotten. (Look at the case of the Roman Catholic Charles Davis. Who? Well, Davis was a priest, distinguished theologian, seminary lecturer, author of several books and editor of the influential Clergy Review, who quit the church in a storm of publicity in December 1966. The final straw was that he believed Pope Paul VI to be lying on the issue of contraception. But he also declared the whole system rotten. The biblical and historical claims of the RC Church were unjustified. It had no concern either for truth or people. His book A Question of Conscience was an instant best-seller. He left England for this country, I believe, and was briefly feted by radical Romans here, I believe. But then utterly forgotten.) No problem to the church if its radicals leave. But if no one any longer comes on board? What then for those who stay?

This lacks, I fear, the upbeat note required of an opening address. You’re probably grateful by now that you’re progressives in the US and not the UK. I ought to hand back to Jim.

But not before saying that I do still very much think that this way of believing is precious and important. In Britain at least there are out there (as well as within many church congregations) plenty of people who know that in one sense religion is bosh; yet who still think that it matters, treasure it even, in ways orthodoxy does not reach. A friend was telling me the other day of a home communion visit to two elderly ladies. The parish he’s in is running an ALPHA course – a dreadful evangelical introduction to Christianity. Actually they alter it all, but the ladies had caught sight of the publicity and were deeply disturbed. Home communion led apparently into two hours of discussion about what they couldn’t believe (Jesus as physically the Son of God, his resurrection body, their own life beyond death) and about why they hoped they didn’t have to leave the church because of that.

Those people need supporting. And those like them who have already concluded that organised religion couldn’t be for them need reaching out to. If we are to do that, we need to stop playing the game according to the rules set by the self-styled orthodox. Too often, in the past and still today, we have criticised the conservatives for saying that they have all the answers, only to go on then to say that we have them (admittedly rather fewer answers!) ourselves. There is a liberal/progressive fundamentalism which is very widespread, in my country and in yours. We may pay lip-service to diversity, but deep down we consider ourselves the enlightened ones. We even do battle with the conservatives, presumably imagining that if only they had eyes to see, they would realise the truth they prize is really with us.

But this is a chronic waste of time and energy. The world is plural. There are countless ways of being a human person, and many ways of being a Christian also. Some, plainly, do not appeal to the likes of us. But if people want to believe that the bible is literally God’s word to humanity, or that God cares passionately about what we do or do not do in bed with our partners, they are entitled to. We are entitled to say, ‘The journey, not the arrival, matters.’. Christianity – and religious faith more generally – doesn’t have to be about certainties and goals, doctrines and eternal salvation. It doesn’t have to be true, on that old model of unitary truth which has caused humans to kill and hate one another for centuries. It can, simply, be concerned for the present, engaged in the here and now – mine, yours, and that of those around us (our foes as well as our friends) – so that there can be a future.

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