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franciscan - May 1999

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

The Soul of a Liberal Christian

by Leslie Houlden

In 1949, when we were both National Service soldiers in Germany, I met someone who subsequently joined SSF and in due course became a friend. He was an officer in an ordinary working army unit and I was a sergeant on the staff of an army church house in the Lower Saxony countryside, where soldiers came (compulsorily, of course) for short courses of Christian education. You could almost say that, for a year, I lived the stable and secluded life of a monk, with daily Eucharist and Offices as my duties – by military order!

I recall our first conversation. My companion preached the virtues of conversion, surrendering your life to Christ by a deliberate act, crucial and probably dateable. My background was as a life-long Anglican, rather bored by it and full of questions, but renewed by my life of quasi-monastic obedience – by army order. He was for crisis, I for a longer-term and gentler perspective. No doubt both of us have changed over the years (it is to be hoped so) but, for me at least, there is the same essential disposition. I remember feeling a sense of discomfort, guilt and impatience in the face of the other’s decisiveness and singleness of mind, but I also felt his way of seeing things could not be the whole truth, and, anyway, I could not help being what I was. As usual, I suppose it was a matter of temperament, personal history and education, making me what I was and am. Since then, my life has involved teaching, writing and pastoral work, in both college and parish contexts.

I do not find that labels do much justice to people (unless they have turned into robots for some cause or other) but if I were compelled by nasty persons with truncheons to give myself a niche, I would have to say ‘liberal catholic, please sir’. Archbishop Michael Ramsey said he was the last of the breed, which he thought started with Charles Gore. He was wrong, for here I still am – and I know quite a few others.

Partly, of course, we are by nature not a very noisy lot, but I suspect the Church is still full of ‘liberals’, of one sort or another: people who like to ask questions; to know whys and wherefores; to face obvious difficulties and distrust quick answers; to read and ponder, as well as to pray, and to feel tensions between those aspects of themselves. The diocesan and college courses in theology that now proliferate as never before are full of such people, ‘liberal’ almost by definition, at least to a degree, by virtue of being there. Yet, often they (we) have quite a bit of a conscience: read the New Testament, consider the figure of Jesus, and it all seems to be about a stark Either/Or, ‘following’ or wallowing (in sin, darkness and futility). Being liberal seems to be about never quite coming down, always postponing, perhaps shilly-shallying on this question or that, this moral issue or that. And, though liberal used to be a sunny word, meaning open, free, aware, enterprising (all surely good things to be), it has come in recent years (I think by infiltration from American Republican political slurs on opponents) to be a ‘bad’ word, implying sloppiness, feebleness, indecision, coldness of mind and soul.

But put aside the urge we have to guy those who are different from ourselves (and religious people are worse than most – they can feel deep down that God shares their views) and recognise that coldness of soul and unpleasantness of character are found in all groups. What is the liberal mind and soul likely to be like – at its best and in its aspirations? I list a few features and instincts you may find there.

First, a sense of the utter transcendence of God: that means that all our attempts to speak of him are hopelessly inadequate, always provisional, and bound by our personal and cultural limitations. But has not God revealed truth about himself – to enlighten and save us? O yes, but always and inevitably through limited human minds and hearts – so that we see but also fail to see, we grasp but not perfectly, we hope but never finally realise; for we are limited beings, no doubt in different ways from our ancestors, but no less.

Second, a sense of the Church as an ongoing, long-term community of wisdom, wherein the art and skill of the Christian perception and the Christian life can be nourished and communicated – and adapted as new truth is available and new circumstances arise. But the Church is no privileged island of truth; it is within the created order as a whole, all of which points us to God and is a place of constant discovery and wonder, and indeed of conflict and challenging disarray.

Third, this kind of attitude involves a certain detachment as one observes and learns. If you are utterly absorbed in and give absolute loyalty to what you have so far seen, you never learn, never see more. We stand back in a kind of scepticism in order to see with greater clarity and grasp more truly. It is easy to see why ‘study’ in religion often seems cold and lacking in devotion (for the time being holding God, as it were, on one’s hands rather than being held in his); and it is a tragedy that in our country the division between church and academy is almost total. There is no space here to go into the reasons for that, but – leaving aside the force of secularism – there is, of course, a long history of churches and religious people suppressing enquiry, persecuting innovators, whose ideas have often come later to be common currency, among Christians as among others. Such suppression arises in part out of fear and faithlessness – and a failure to share the convictions expressed above. The legacy is not good.

Fourth, these convictions are likely to foster a spirituality that is nourished by the objectivity of prayer and sacrament and that does not dwell too much on the changing winds of mood. It will hope to be open to those of other outlooks and to the movements of society and culture; and to see these things as the duties of Christian life and ministry. It will be used to charges of being boring or shallow or even faithless, but will not be daunted because it will feel them to be unjust.

In the person and work of Jesus, our faith undoubtedly began in an atmosphere of urgency and crisis. Yet, however revolutionary it was, it sprang from an age-old tradition of response to God and gave rise to a process indescribably rich and pluriform. Our proper business is to love, learn, reflect and pray in our place within the process – of course inside commitment to God as focused in Jesus; but always on our guard for the devils of arrogance and idle satisfaction with what we have so far seen, as if it were the final gift. A tutor of mine once surprised me (and perhaps himself) by saying, ‘Of course, a Christian must always be on the side of the revolution.’ Make of that what you will – it won’t do any harm! §

Revd’ Canon Leslie Houlden is Emeritus Professor of Theology at King’s College, London


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