The Decline of the Liberal Church

A shorter version of this article appeared in The Times, March 29 2000, under the heading, Rabid Dogmas.

In 1994, shortly before the consecration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham, a fire broke out in York Minister. Many people connected the two events, claiming that the Bishop’s blasphemies had done more damage to the ancient stones than the Luftwaffe’s bombs. To them, the destruction was a clear sign of God’s displeasure at a clergyman who had publicly denied the physical Resurrection. Far from disowning a God who would intervene personally in a doctrinal dispute while ignoring the horrors in the killing-fields of Rwanda or the torture-chambers of Iraq, they saw it as proof positive that He would not be mocked.

Having recently completed a novel, Easter, which is largely set within the Church of England, I have learnt to pick my way through the various strands of mainstream Anglican belief. The old distinctions between high and low church have broken down in a plethora of new groupings: charismatic; radical orthodox (good marketing there); post-evangelical. Far beyond the social comedy to be derived from their clashes (no New and Old Labour politicians could put braver faces on colder hearts than their Synod counterparts), the theological tensions underline a debate of crucial importance: where do we find authority? In a world where the old certainties have been swept away, on what do we base our knowledge of God?

The twentieth century was the hardest for a Christian since the first. At least the slaves fed to the lions in the Coliseum could take heart from the knowledge that they were dying for their God. Ours is an age in which the death of God has been regularly broadcast in newsreels and on TV. Man’s inhumanity to man has appeared to rule out any role (and, certainly, any benign one) for his creator, while, in our technologically sophisticated society, natural disasters so-called acts of God present a double affront to our sense of justice. In the blind faith demanded of believers, the emphasis seems to lie on the adjective rather than the noun.

Churchgoers have responded to this crisis in two ways. The first is to emphasise the personal experience of faith, in the sacraments and the individual conscience. The second is to reassert the traditional teaching of the Bible. In Easter, the former position is represented by the liberal vicar of my fictitious church and the latter by an evangelical Bishop of London. The irony is that the liberal position can itself be said to be bible-based, for, if God made man in His own image, then intrinsic to that image is the power of moral discrimination. Nevertheless, and against all reason, it is the evangelical element which is gaining ground in today’s Church.

It might be supposed that the battle against biblical literalism was won in the nineteenth century, when scientific progress put paid to the mindset expressed in Bishop Ussher’s widely held calculations that God created the world on 23 October 4004 BC. The attempts by Victorian fundamentalists to explain phenomena such as fossils as God’s attempts to dupe us (thereby crediting Him with wiles worthy of the Devil) demonstrate their increasing desperation. And yet one need only attend an evangelical church today to see that the fundamentalist spirit remains very much alive, with the congregation brandishing its bibles like the Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

It is easy to laugh at such antics but the growth of evangelicalism is anything but funny. It is frightening to attend a service which makes such a blatant appeal to the irrational. It is no doubt coincidental but the visual image of people standing with hands raised and wrists bent belies the jocular nickname of Corkscrew Christians (their arms go up as they get nearer the spirit) and conjures up a Nuremberg Rally. Moreover, even when assailed by a cacophony of people speaking in tongues, the ministers remain shrewdly calculating. One of the most telling moments in my researches came at an offertory, when the pastor, appealing for cheques, instructed his flock to be sure to write ‘in English and not in tongues, because bank managers are unredeemed.’

Evangelicals accuse liberals of embracing a pic’n’mix version of faith, ignoring any doctrines or texts which are inconvenient. It is possible to have some sympathy with their position. The beliefs of the influential Sea of Faith group, focussed on the writings of Don Cupitt, which reject the existence of an objective God (throwing out the baby with the Flood-water), seem to stretch Christian tolerance to the limit. To many, the apostolic succession in which such clergy stand is not that of St Peter but St Thomas: the doubter rather than the rock.

Even so, evangelicals who profess to live by the Bible frequently adopt a double standard. They are ever ready to quote archaic moral teaching, particularly on matters of sexuality, but when was the last time that they inveighed against women wearing red or joined with St Paul in endorsing slavery? When did they enforce the Deuteronomy rule that ‘He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord’? How do such people square their obsession with family values with Christ’s ‘If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife and children… he cannot be my disciple.’

Such questions are pertinent, not for the purpose of point-scoring but because the rise of Fundamentalism is, without doubt, the greatest danger facing the contemporary world, whether it be from Moslems in Tehran, Jews in the Occupied Territories, Sikhs in Amritsar or Christians in America (the Roman Catholics who fire-bomb abortion clinics and the Protestants who picketed the funeral of gay murder-victim, Matthew Shepherd). In such company, British fundamentalism may seem very tame. It is, however, part of a bigger picture: the desire for strong guide-lines and easy solutions; the willingness to relinquish one’s own responsibility to someone else. In Easter, the vicar describes it thus: ‘Fundamentalism isn’t faith, it’s despair… it’s a flight from life, a denial of the human freedom which is the most precious gift of God. Fundamentalists leave their brains outside their churches the way that Moslems leave their shoes.’

That is why I believe that what might seem the (literally) parochial affairs of a fictional North London church have a wide import. In Easter, I define the difference between liberals and evangelicals as that between people who say ‘I believe in God’ and people who say ‘I know God’. ‘“I believe in God” can be tested; “I believe in God” can be honed; “I believe in God” allows room for growth. But “I know God” is absolute; “I know God” implies that there’s nothing more to be learnt…. “I know God”: end of story, revelation and Revelation.’ Liberalism, with a small ‘l’ remains the quintessential English virtue the philosophical equivalent of decency and fair play. More than ever it is being drowned out by the clamour of dogmatism. I hope that Easter will help it to be heard.