Editorial by Steven Shakespeare
from Modern Believing Vol 59:2 - April 2018

A persistent concern of the liberal theological tradition has been the church’s ability to speak to - and listen to - the wider public sphere.

It is a tradition that has come under fire in some quarters, not least the ‘new traditionalism’ and radical orthodoxy of writers like Alasdair Macintyre and John Milbank. They claim that there is no neutral ground on which church and world can meet. The invention of the secular is exactly that: an invention, a false illusion of common ground which really serves the (often violent and controlling) interests of the modern state government and capital. The church must not seek dialogue, but must instead try to out-narrate its secular competitors. There are echoes here of wider critiques of liberalism familiar to us from the recent rise of populist politics.

It is therefore good to see in this issue some articles which address this question, more or less explicitly. Benjamin Wood argues, against Macintyre and Milbank, that modern liberal society provides a stimulus to Christian discipleship, freeing it from its lethargy in an authoritarian social structure. For Wood, whatever its faults, liberal individualism calls us out of our ecclesial canopy to hear the challenge of radical, individual faith.

From Wood’s ‘homeless love’, we arrive at Trevor Gerhardt’s ‘churchless liberalism’. There are distinctions of approach and method at play here, but a clear line of connection. For Gerhardt, decline in church attendance need not be met with a chorus of hand-wringing and despair, especially by liberal Christians. For Gerhardt, there is often a recovery of faith – a kind of resurrection – beyond the abandonment of the ecclesia. Those who move on, alienated by the continuing regression of many mainstream churches, may not merely be moving into the wilderness, but into a deeper spirituality of inclusion.

Ivor Moody’s contribution seems poles apart from this perspective, and yet there are important crossovers. He explores the potentially anomalous role of the parish church cathedral. In an age where many traditional church structures are feeling the pressure, cathedrals have been alive to the possibilities inherent in their very visible and public role. Moody argues that the very tension within the notion of the cathedral as parish church may itself be a kind of grace: an opportunity to witness and address the unresolved ambiguities of our common life. In a more ecclesial mode, dialogue with the contemporary public life is affirmed. And how many of the ‘churchless’ might still find themselves drawn occasionally into the ambit of our cathedrals?

Of course, one of the major issues confronting the church in a changing world is that of sexuality. Defenders of traditional understandings of sexuality and gender often accuse liberals of selling out the gospel to secular values. Such charges betray the ignorance of those who make them. There has been, for instance, a lot of biblical theological work done by those who support same sex unions as bearers of God’s grace and blessing.

In this vein, we welcome T. Derrick Witherington’s application of the liturgical theology of Chauvet to the issue of same sex marriage. Chauvet’s understanding of gradual sacramental reform, open to a real discernment of how human relationships mediate grace, offers a method which is deeply rooted in the incarnational life of the church, yet also progressive and open. Witherington takes the opportunity to push the method gently beyond anything Chauvet might be ready to accept, but remains faithful to the underlying principles of the latter’s work.

In a time of polarisation in church and society, these creative, dialogical voices are needed more than ever. You may not agree with everything our contributors say - isn’t debate part of the lifeblood of liberalism? - but I continue to be encouraged that Modern Believing can act as a platform for such well-reasoned views.