Has liberalism vanished?

Fri, 17/11/2006 - 21:46 -- James Oakley
Image Credit: Esteban Chiner

... or has it merely attempted to eclipse everything else.

Once upon a time, long long ago, the Church of England spoke of a number of “churchmanships” among its ranks. The differences are appropriately called differences of churchmanship because that is what they are – a difference in our doctrine of the church. Classically there were 3: Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and Liberal. (Footnote: The charismatic renewal of the 1970s gave rise to the question of whether “Charismatic” is a fourth churchmanship; history would suggest that the charismatic renewal movement has permeated all 3 wings of the church, so is more subtle than that – but that is a different issue).

Since then, two things have changed.

1. Terminology. We no longer speak of “churchmanship” (genuine differences in doctrine), but of “tradition” (just different ways of doing things, handed down to us – different expressions of the same thing).

2. The “Liberal” “tradition” doesn’t exist. No-one talks about it. At POT (sorry, CME), Chapter, Synod, in the church press, in discussions of theological training, in parish profiles – people are either “Anglo-Catholic” or “Evangelical”. This is a recent move. The senior selector at my first selection conference (to decide whether my bishop should train me for ordination) was proud of his liberal heritage and hurt that I didn’t adequately understand his churchmanship.

Instead we seem to have not one axis with three broad categories, but two axes. The x-axis is “high-low” or “catholic-evangelical” or “likes/dislikes candles” or “likes sermons/likes sacraments”. Horrible false disjunctions, but never mind for now. The y-axis is “tolerant/intolerant”.

Whether you are catholic or evangelical doesn’t seem to matter to the establishment. But you must be tolerant. Intolerant evangelicals and intolerant catholics get to wear the black hat and stand in the corner. (And, of course, I’m not saying that those who are intolerant should unite with one another, whether they be evangelical or anglo-catholic. These are differences in churchmanship, not merely tradition).

So it would seem that liberalism hasn’t, in fact, vanished. Instead it’s claiming to be the only valid tradition there is. The only evangelical you are allowed to be is an evangelical who would, in the old days, have been called liberal. The only catholic you are allowed to be is a catholic who would, in the old days, have been called liberal. Yet again – ironic that this is in the name of saying “you can be all you like, provided you’re tolerant” – a move for universal tolerance that sweeps two-thirds of yesterday’s Church of England out of existence.

How very chic all this is. Tony Blair’s interview today on Al Jazeera with David Frost included the hope that peace might reign in the Middle East. Amen to that. But here’s why it’s so important:

“It would send a signal to the whole of the world that this was not a battle between westerners or Christians and Muslims, but it was a battle between all those who believe in tolerance, in living together in harmony, in a non sectarian future against those who want to divide us.”

Now where have I heard that before?

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matthew's picture
Submitted by matthew on

Thanks for this James. Another way of classifying things that I've come across repeatedly is Evangelical (of various stripes), Anglo-Catholic, and Central. So, we're positioned on the extremes, and the liberals position themselves as the centre and mainstream, which of course may be sociologically true, but obviously isn't historically.


James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

Thanks Matt

Of course, the insidious thing about the form I describe is that we are being told we can be evangelical, provided we are the right sort.

Asking us to move from evangelical to "central" is more obviously an attempt to seduce us, because it asks us to change our label.

Helpful to be alerted to another set of vocabulary to watch for though

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