The Anglican Liberal Tradition

by Paul Badham

from Signs of the Times, No. 21 - Apr 2006

From its inception Anglicanism has argued that there is no one source of Christian truth but that Scripture, Tradition and Reason must all be taken into account. One decisive step in the process which led to the break with Rome was Cranmer's advice to Henry VIII to appeal over the head of the Pope to the consensus of theological opinion within the Universities of Europe. Hence Anglicanism came into being with the insight that a true understanding of Christian sources was a matter for scholarly research.

One immediate consequence of the Reformation in Britain was a dramatic expansion of the Grammar Schools in Britain and the revival of the Universities. The Elizabethan ordinal insisted that the clergy must be 'Godly and well-learned' and the idea grew up that there must be an educated person or 'Parson' in every village; to teach the faith and to be responsible for education. In a Church that values scholarship it was and is inevitable that diversity of opinion should exist. Hence liberalism has always existed within Anglicanism wearing different labels at different times: Latitudinarian, Broad Church, Modernist, Liberal, Radical.

The greatest thinker of the 18th century was Bishop Joseph Butler. His Analogy of Religion of 1736 defended Christian belief on the basis of reasonable probability through accumulation of arguments. His Sermons Preached in the Rolls Chapel in 1726 were equally significant. Butler pointed out that because the books of the Bible necessarily reflect 'the conditions and usages of the world at the time they were written' they can only be properly understood in their original context. Furthermore because conditions of life have changed so much since biblical times 'exhortations and precepts which refer to circumstances now ceased or altered cannot be 'urged' upon us today 'in that manner and with that force which they were to the primitive Christians.'

Butler's insights have been very influential. If it was true then that the world had changed profoundly since Biblical times, it is vastly more true today. Liberal theology has accepted historical and literary criticism of the Bible and the impact of this on doctrinal and ethical thought. This showed itself in the rejection of immoral features of the Old Testament such as the Canaanite massacres or the cursing psalms. Old Testament law codes were also recognised as outmoded. Having fought a long battle against the slave trade, nineteenth century Christians were appalled by Exodus 21:21 that a man who flogs a slave girl to death shall not be punished provided she survives for a day or two after the flogging for 'the loss of his property is punishment enough'.

Rowland Williams showed that the Old Testament prophets were writing for their own day. The supposed messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7, 'Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son', referred in its original context to political events of the prophet's own day. The verse can only be read as a messianic prophecy if it is mistranslated and taken totally out of its historical setting.

Another challenge came from geological findings which showed that the earth was immeasurably older than the six thousand years presupposed by the Genesis story, and neither the fall of Adam and Eve nor the universal flood could be historical. This view was reinforced by the theory of evolution which was almost universally accepted by Christian liberals after the publication of Lux Mundi in 1889 which presented Christianity wholly within an evolutionary framework.

More serious to traditional Christianity was liberal criticism of belief in original sin, substitution atonement or hell. According to F.D. Maurice such beliefs represented 'a monstrous perversion' of Christianity for they stand in direct contradiction to the primal and quite decisive Christian doctrine of the love of God. If we start from belief that 'God is actually love', we will shrink from attributing to Him acts which would be unlovely in man'.

Maurice claimed that any doctrine of the atonement which presumes that sins cannot be forgiven unless satisfaction is first paid contradicts the teaching of Jesus about being merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful. He believed that the doctrine of hell made a mockery of Jesus' picture of the loving fatherhood of God. For if it were indeed the case that all humanity is damned except those who accept Christ as their personal saviour it would condemn 'most of the American slaves, and the whole body of Turks, Hindus, Hottentots and Jews... to hopeless destruction'.

Maurice lost his chair at King's London for such teaching but his liberal stance was to find acceptance less then twenty years later when two contributors to a book called Essays and Reviews were prosecuted for heresy. H.B. Wilson was charged with denying hell and Rowland Williams for practising biblical criticism and denying substitution atonement. Both were cleared by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1864 which concluded that there was nothing in the Anglican formularies to require such beliefs.

During the twentieth century liberalism became more controversial because it applied historical and critical research to the New Testament and questioned belief in the virgin birth and the empty tomb. Whether or not such views were acceptable within Anglicanism was tested in 1906 when William Temple offered himself for ordination while making it clear that he could only 'tentatively assent' to the doctrines of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus with a greater emphasis on 'tentativeness' than on assent. Bishop Paget of Oxford, felt unable to ordain Temple but two years later agreed not to object to Archbishop Randall Davidson ordaining him instead. In 1912 B.H. Streeter edited Foundations in which he argued that the Resurrection of Jesus should be understood as Jesus convincing the disciples of his victory over death by showing himself to them in a 'spiritual body' or possibly through 'some psychological channel akin to telepathy'. In the same volume William Temple argued that the Chalcedonian Definition of the divinity and humanity of Christ demonstrated the complete bankruptcy of Patristic theology.

Debate quickened in 1917 when Henslow Henson was consecrated Bishop of Hereford despite his questioning of the virgin birth in three books. Controversy continued at a Conference of the Modern Churchmen's Union of 1921 where Hastings Rashdall sought to explain the incarnation of God in Christ by suggesting that in Jesus the divine presence we partially sense in other holy people was present to the nth. degree.

Following this conference the Archbishops of Canterbury and York established in 1922 a Doctrine Commission to settle how much liberality in doctrine should be acceptable. The commission reported in 1938 and essentially it accepted the legitimacy of Liberal Anglicanism within the Church.

If we look through the various components of liberalism today we find an all-but universal acceptance in theory of the legitimacy of biblical criticism and a widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution. There is a greater reluctance to apply Biblical criticism to the New Testament, and belief in the virgin birth and bodily resurrection are often used as litmus tests of orthodoxy. However virtually all academic studies of the historical Jesus discount the nativity stories and virtually all discussions of the resurrection accept that however it is or is not to be interpreted, it is not a question of Jesus' corpse being restored to life.

In the world of contemporary Christology almost all contemporary scholars accept that Jesus had no consciousness of being divine but many adopt a kenotic Christology in which Christ emptied himself of all divine attributes in the process of becoming incarnate. But it is hard to see a real difference between the claim that Jesus was literally God but possessed no divine attributes and the claim that Jesus was not literally God. By contrast it can be argued that a non-literal doctrine of incarnation can make a significant claim in saying that the personality of God was fully revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus in the same way though to a different degree that the personality of God is partially revealed through the lives of other holy people.

The most widespread success of liberalism has been the near collapse of belief in hell. When disbelief in hell was pronounced as legal in 1864 almost half the clergy signed a petition to say they still believed in it. But preaching of hell fire has become very rare in contemporary Anglicanism and the doctrine was repudiated as incompatible with belief in the love of God in the Doctrine commission report The Mystery of Salvation in 1995.

On the doctrine of the atonement Bishop Stephen Sykes is right to say that 'phrases and sentences' associated with the older atonement beliefs are 'the common coin of the Church's worship', but he also rightly notes that explanations of such language are 'not obvious'. The problem is that theories of atonement in terms of a sacrifice by which God was placated, or of a bait through which the devil was deceived seem increasingly implausible.

However liberal theology offers an understanding of Jesus' death which has become increasingly popular. This is that God was present in Jesus' suffering on the cross and that this illustrates the way in which God shares in the sorrows of humanity. This understanding of the cross has been endorsed by the 1995 Church of England Doctrine Commission report on The Mystery of Salvation as the 'only ultimately satisfactory response to evil.'

One further characteristic of liberal doctrine is that liberals believe that God has nowhere left himself without witness but has created all human beings with a yearning to feel after him and find him. Hence they believe that the logos of God which found expression in Christ was also at work in other religious leaders. As Archbishop William Temple put it:

By the Word of God - that is to say by Christ - Isaiah, and Plato, and Zoroaster, and Buddha, and Confucius conceived and uttered such truths as they declared. There is only one divine light; and everyman in his measure is enlightened by it.

Liberalism was most noticeable in the 1950's and 60's in the Church of England Council for Moral Welfare which subsequently became the Board for Social Responsibility. Their reports had an enormous influence on the so-called 'permissive legislation' of the 1960's which closely followed their recommendations. Thus the Church's report on The Problem of Homosexuality of 1954 foreshadowed the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour in 1967. Their report Ought Suicide to be a Crime? of 1959 was followed by the Suicide Act of 1961. Likewise the report Abortion: an Ethical Discussion published in 1965 paved the way for the legislation of 1967, just as the report Putting Asunder of 1966 recommended a Divorce Law for contemporary society almost identical to that instantiated in the Divorce Reform Act of 1969.

Liberal Anglicans consistently supported the ordination of women to the priesthood and now support their consecration to the episcopate. In the case of homosexuals, liberals accept the empirical evidence that suggests that homosexuality is a natural state for certain people to find themselves in, and believe they should be allowed the same opportunity to find fulfilment in a stable relationship as heterosexuals enjoy.

Liberal Anglicans find it puzzling that a Church which was formerly in the van of theological and social reform and which played a key role in changing public attitudes should now find itself increasingly at odds with the beliefs and values of modern society.

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.