I recently stumbled across a poster on Facebook which offered the following three propositions:
A liberal church says you are welcome here and don’t need to clean up your life.
A legalistic church says you are not welcome here until you clean up your life.
Jesus says you are welcome here and I will change your life from the inside out (John 8, 11).
Now I can’t speak for the legalistic church but maybe I can for a liberal church?
Although I would prefer to use the phrase orthodox-progressive as an identifier, meaning that I am fully signed up to the truths expressed though the creeds in a fundamentally literal sense whilst being progressive in issues relating to both gender and sexuality, others, because of the ground on which I stand, have and continue to describe me as liberal. And, that’s just fine.
But, what is not fine is the suggestion that ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ aren’t interested in helping people live better, cleaner, more Christ-like lives. In all honesty I don’t know any liberal clergy who don’t prize conversation and transformation of life highly. I don’t know of any liberal or progressive clergy who aren’t deeply committed to conversion in a real, meaningful and life-enhancing way.
I think that virtually every liberal or progressive preacher that I have heard takes growth into the likeness of Christ to be fundamental to the liberal or progressive project. Sure, just as with conservative Christianity there is a huge spectrum within liberal or progressive Christianity, but the overwhelming majority of contemporary ‘liberals’ take conversion of life, and the notion of habitas, to be characteristic of the Christian life.
The liberal or progressive Christian, isn’t overly concerned with relativism, or some form of theological libertarianism, but with coming to good, sound and virtuous decisions about how the Christian life might be well lived. For sure, this is frequently done through engagement with other disciplines. The liberal or progressive Christian takes Scripture seriously, very seriously, but is happy to reason through discourse and, by analogy. This method of Scriptural engagement isn’t new or faddy, and neither does it represent a capitulation to culture. Instead it draws deeply from the well of tradition; think of Origen and his method of biblical engagement, for instance. And, then there is Henry Major whose dialogical liberalism was entirely bound up with arriving at good decisions and the subsequent exercise of virtue, both at the individual and corporate level of analysis. The liberal or progressive prizes dialogical and analogical reasoning and relies on Scripture as the primary source. Scripture in this way is cherished and acknowledged for its revelatory potential. Progressive and liberal methods of exegesis are both traditional and sophisticated.
Liberal or progressive Christians are, it is true, happy to welcome honest doubters and, those who don’t know quite why they are in church into the community. They don’t insist on sound doctrine as a condition for membership, or even for offering gifts and blessings to the church. Pilgrimage and journeying are important concepts for many liberal-progressives. However, the hope, prayer and expectation is that en route lives will be transformed, relationships deepened, wounds healed and that Christ will be made known.
Community is important to most liberal-progressive types. Liberal or progressive Christianity is certainly not, despite some conservative critiques, an exercise in religious individualism. Many liberal-progressive churches make a virtue of the type of community, and witness, they are seeking to fashion. The biblical concept of Koinonia is as important to the liberal and progressive church as it is to the conservative church. As an orthodox-progressive priest one of my absolute pre-occupations is the shape and collective witness of the church. I am ever so slightly obsessed with Peter Selby’s 1991 question:
‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?
This is an ecclesial and eschatological question. It is a question for the whole church and, maybe in particular, the progressive wing of the church. It is also a communal and divisive question. It presupposes that faith is exercised corporately and communally. The question hints that churches can have healthy or unhealthy shapes. It is a suggestive and eschatological question in that it insists that the church here on earth (the church imperfect) is a preparation, and more importantly a living witness, to the church in heaven (the church perfect).
Liberal and progressive Christians, despite the conservative critique, do believe that transformation of life, conversion, both individually and collectively, is the rationale of an active faith. To suggest otherwise is just plain wrong. The overwhelming majority of liberal and progressive Christians would share John Stott’s sentiment that changed people change the world. In fact, paradoxically given the stable which Stott helped build, transformation is the fundamental concern of large swathes within the progressive-liberal church. It’s certainly mine!