by the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Do you describe yourself as a Liberal? I don’t mean in the party political sense, but as a ‘Liberal Christian’, or perhaps a plain ‘Liberal’ as in someone broadly progressive in outlook. Yes, the definitions I’m implying here are pretty loose or vague, but then Liberalism is notoriously difficult to define.
Yet, as a term Liberalism now attracts extraordinary hostility. Conservative critics of change in the churches speak of a ‘Liberal establishment’ or a ‘Liberal takeover’. Arguments are dismissed with a simple swipe at their ‘Liberalism’. Some – by no means all – leftist positions are equally anti-Liberal. In the university world in which I work, Liberalism is under attack from those who think that the free expression of divergent views is a concession to covert forms of prejudice, promoting ‘micro-aggressions’ in the form of seemingly minor or harmless statements of view that collude with more sinister forms of oppression. As a reaction, some students demand a ‘safe space’ – a place where opposed views will not be heard, where no platform will be offered to speakers with controversial, and potentially offensive, views.
And I don’t mind saying I’m not always quick to call myself a ‘Liberal’. I’m a Christian first, a Catholic Christian second, and an Anglican third. In that mix, to my mind there isn’t usually much space for some sort of ideological Liberalism. I’m wary about the systematizing rationalism implied in some versions of Liberalism, and about the common assumption that Liberalism expresses the modernistic, materialist tendency of the Enlightenment (note: I’m not claiming that that actually characterizes the Enlightenment). I’m also averse to versions of Liberalism that are themselves a kind of secular eschatology, erasing seemingly incompatible ethical and metaphysical worldviews.
And yet an awful lot of the people I know who are skeptical about Liberalism, or even hostile to the term, are quite content to enjoy the fruits of Liberalism. If Liberalism implies – as it often did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the dethroning of confessional autocracies, then probably most of us are Liberal, content with the de facto separation of Church and State typical (even in England) of Western society. We don’t want religious hierarchs deciding what we should or shouldn’t read, and whether we ought to be free or not to attend religious worship. Those most loudly decrying the ‘Liberal establishment’ want freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of political and religious association just as much as anyone else. The ironies mount up in the case of those in the churches who launch, from a post-modern or critical theoretical perspective, an assault on the methodology and epistemology of Liberalism, yet who espouse a range of causes associated with theological Liberalism – the ordination of women, and acceptance of same-sex relations, for example. I can think of very few modern theologians across most of the mainstream Christian traditions, at least in the West, who positively reject not just certain specific conclusions of critical Biblical interpretation, but the very idea of it. And that means that most theologians have had to accommodate elements of the theological Liberalism of the modern era. Yes, it is easy to be critical of Liberalism, but actually very difficult to step aside from it altogether.
It remains true that Liberalism is a very plastic term. What one person means by Liberalism is not necessarily recognizable to another. Stephen Sykes once said that Liberalism is an essentially parasitic term: you can’t really be simply a ‘Liberal’, because ‘Liberal’ is a qualifier, as in a ‘Liberal Anglican’, a ‘Liberal Catholic’, and so on. This is pretty close to the late-nineteenth century Anglican theologian Charles Gore’s use of the term: as a ‘Liberal Catholic’ he preferred not to think of himself as someone who added a sacramental tinge to a fundamentally rationalistic theology, but rather as a Catholic Anglican who thought an orthodox doctrinal position was compatible with a commitment to free enquiry. But this was simply to claim that the two things could be held together, not to demonstrate how they could be. And as Sykes was quick to point out in a number of his works, claiming to support free enquiry and a liberality of spirit did not necessarily prevent churchmen (yes, he probably did mean men) of apparently ‘Liberal’ persuasions from abusing their power and authority sometimes.
So pointing out the difficulties of a flat rejection of Liberalism doesn’t get us over the difficulties often inherent in the idea itself. And yet something really important to my mind is at risk here in all the current assaults on Liberalism, and not least in the idea of ‘safe spaces’. I don’t believe in the myth of inevitable, one-way progress. But people of various cultures, groups and identities do change at different speeds. So, no matter how strongly we may suspect an element of fear or willful ignorance in the views of those opposed, for example, to same-sex marriage, we ought to allow them space to express their views. Only then – only by the critical interrogation of views strongly opposed – can we hope to expose the difficulties inherent in their position. Of course, they will think the same thing of us. But arguments are won, in the end, not simply by imposition, control or the implicit violence of ‘banning’, but by contest and exposure.
To my mind the Church needs to model good argument, and the ebb and flow of controversy. It needs to allow people to air their views, and to invite critical interrogation of them. Universities must be allowed to do the same too. That doesn’t mean embracing a doctrinaire Liberalism, just allowing for space to argue, interrogate, and conflict.