Thursday, September 1, 2011

Liberal Catholicism: do you understand it?

John Richardson writes about Muriel Porter's critique of the Sydney Diocese (cf. my post below). His emphasis is interesting as he offers a counter-critique of Porter's liberal catholicism:

"From an English perspective, however, the threat of Sydney Anglicanism lies not in any political 'machinations', as Dr Porter alleges (I may be wrong, but her account of the 1998 Lambeth Conference seems decidedly far-fetched). Rather, it lies in the challenge Sydney presents to the prevailing liberal-catholic ethos.

In the words of the late Donald McKinnon, a man who had a great impact on Rowan Williams, theological liberals often combine "a nearly complete scepticism" with "an ecclesiological fundamentalism". In other words, they will cheerfully abandon traditional beliefs, but are fiercely defensive of the outward paraphernalia of church life.

Go into a theologically liberal church and you will typically find not radical contemporary worship (as you might expect) but candles, robes, sacraments, rites and rituals - that, and an almost fanatical devotion to the 'special' nature of the ordained 'priesthood'.

Muriel Porter accuses Sydney Anglicans of being 'fearful' when it comes to women's ordination. But in truth, the opposition to Sydney - at least on these shores in organs like the Church Times - is driven by a desperate fear that it undermines the one thing liberal Anglicanism has left to hold on to.

I recall one famously liberal English bishop (now retired) once saying he often doubted, but "never at the altar". Is it surprising that the fiercest reaction comes from liberals regarding Sydney's 'break with catholic order'?

It is Sydney's own 'principled radicalism' in this regard that is the real 'threat'. And sadly this colours Porter's own views, such that she (like others) takes an unfortunate delight in Sydney's financial difficulties or the limited progress of the diocesan mission - as if a wealthy and effective church would be a bad thing. Surely, though, it is the outward forms of nineteenth century Anglicanism which are "scarcely relevant to modern ... life"?"

John Richardson puts his finger on an aspect of modern Anglicanism that I do not profess to understand, namely that form of liberal catholicism in which abandonment of traditional belief is cherished and the outward paraphernalia of ritual is fiercely upheld to the letter of law, lore and custom.

Just before you, dear reader, get all defensive about your version of 'liberla catholicism' please understand that I recognise there is more than one form of liberal catholicism, that is, there are liberal catholic Anglicans willing to abandon tradition both in respect of ritual form and theological content, as well as catholic Anglicans who are mostly traditional in all ways, but tinged with a bit of liberalism (like some evangelical Anglicans :) ).

Or am I misunderstanding liberal catholicism and its varied hues?


liturgy said...

I am wondering, Peter, whether you are setting up a new straw man. Can you please give at least one specific example in New Zealand of someone who holds to “that form of liberal catholicism in which abandonment of traditional belief is cherished and the outward paraphernalia of ritual is fiercely upheld to the letter of law, lore and custom”. Not one person springs to my mind as I read your post.

Many would spring to mind if you were writing about people who call themselves “evangelical” and “orthodox” but abandon our Christian heritage of worship which goes back through two millennium of Christian history and into our Jewish roots.



carl jacobs said...

This post needs a good definition of what you mean by 'liberal.' When referring to religion, the word itself is best used as a noun and not an adjective. There is a distinct religious worldview that bears the moniker "liberal", and this worldview spans denominations. There are Catholic liberals, and Protestant liberals, and Unitarian Liberals, and Agnostic liberals, and even Atheist liberals (ala Spong.). The unifying doctrine of this religion is the deification and worship of the Authentic Self.

Now, I am not at all sure that this is what you meant when you used the phrase 'liberal Anglo-Catholic.' But that is precisely what I heard. The Ugley Vicar's description is consistent with the belief system of liberal religion. It discards doctrine because it does not recognize the knowability of revealed truth. In the absence of revealed truth, the doctrinal differences between religions become arbitrary. The only unifying point is man himself. The Authentic Self becomes the ultimate revelation and the different religions exist only to serve as a vehicle for its spiritual journey. Even God becomes arbitrary, which is why atheists and agnostics can co-exist with theists.

All of this leads me to say "Of course Catholic liberals discard doctrine. They are seeking to liberate the Authentic Self from the constraints that hold it back." But what remains of religion after it is emptied of Truth? There is only ritual. Otherwise, it would evaporate like the morning mist in the Sun.


Father Ron Smith said...

Carl, I find your understanding of 'Ugly Vicar's explanation of 'Liberal Catholicism' to be consistent with his description. the only problem is; it bears no relation to the reality.

Peter Carrell knows jolly well that this is how I describe my own faith journey (on 'kiwianglo')- as an Anglo-Catholic priest with a love of souls, and a feeling for the liberality of Christ in the Gospel.

This is no wishy-washy liberalism, but a faith that accepts the Love and Mercy of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ as worthy of vibrant celebration in the Church - based not on just words in the Bible, but in a radical experience of the grace our Christ in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, and His Incarnational power to redeem.

Anglican Liberal Catholics are from the traditional catholic and apostolic mainstream; who have received insights from Scripture and Tradition; but with spiritual insight into the ongoing revelation of Christ - as He frees us from prejudice and helps us to focus on the world as it is - and gives us a sacramental grace to meet it's deepest needs.

Kurt said...

Well, Peter, I think that Affirming Catholicism is a good example of a modern, liberal Catholic organization. I, for one, identify with it:

No, Carl, Bishop Spong is definitely NOT an atheist. I have my own theological disagreements with the good bishop, but anyone who has even a minimal knowledge of his written works knows that he is not an atheist. Spong would be more accurately compared to those Anglican clerics of the 17th and 18th centuries who were sympathetic to Deism.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for comments here. I tried in my post to distingushe between forms of liberal catholics, e.g. between those for whom 'liberal' means liberality of heart and those for whom 'liberal' means openness to changing doctrine from received orthodoxy to something conforming to the spirit of the age.

In my experience I have met and experienced the ministry of liberal catholics who are zealous for rites being performed correctly according to some received tradition and not zealous for doctrine.

My question is whether there is some explanation for why these liberal catholics are so keen on rite and not so keen on doctrine.

So far I have not received an answer :)

Kurt said...

I don't know if it can be "explained", Peter, any more than Evangelicals who cling to the form but miss the spirit can be "explained."

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY
(Where we are experiencing perfect summer weather!)

Peter Carrell said...

That is an answer, Kurt, though not (in my view) an adequate one.

I am not sure what firing off another question re evangelicals has to do with liberal catholicism.

carl jacobs said...


Bishop Spong is definitely NOT an atheist.

He ain't, huh? Well, then we must be operating from different definitions of atheism. Here is Spong in his own words. The first 2 Theses from his "Call for a New Reformation." I would include a link, but why? It's all over the internet.

1. Theism, as a way of defining God is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

Spong does not believe in the existence of a personal transcendent being called God. In every dictionary of the English language, that counts as atheism. Yes, he uses the word 'God' in his writings. But I'm not really interested in allowing him to co-opt the word into some abstract vehicle for the collective moral knowlegde of man, or whatever nonsensical concept he would attach to it. Spong is an atheist. And there he sits as a Bishop in TEC.

Any explanation of liberal religion has to account for its easy acceptance of Bishop Spong. What is it that unites the theists in TEC with this atheist? How do they find fellowship with one another? Revealing to say the least.


Father Ron Smith said...

The ritual you are troubled about, that you see as the preoccupation of 'liberal catholics', Peter, may perhaps be equated to the ritual of the prayer/hymn/sermon sandwich of the evangelical wing.

For catholics,of any persuasion, the Eucharist is the basic liturgical response to Our Lord's command to his disciples "Do This to re-member me".

Like any other worthwhile discipline, this requires a certain semblance of order - according to the tradition of the Church - not some human hotch-potch some people may regard as 'true worship'.

Also, the Church requires a proper dignity to be accorded to the liturgy, something sometimes overlooked by careless celebrants.
One thing that often marks out the difference between an observant catholic and a markedly protestant celebration of the Eucharist, is the tendency of the latter to make up their own 'rite' with readings from Scripture to match - without any regard to the Lectionary, which gives themal order to successive celebrations of the liturgy.

Also, there is the matter of Saints Days and the Seasons of the Church Year - these often are ignored in the efforts to pander to the taste of a particular evangelical form of ministry. For instance, when a member of the congregation wants to hear about the Wrath of God, the clergy may preach on the subject of Hell - regardless of the theme of the Day in the Liturgy - thus avoiding the perhaps more redemptive task of preaching from the appointed gospel of the day.

Howard Pilgrim said...

I followed you all the way there, Ron, until you got to "the theme of the day in the liturgy." For those of us, a majority as I understand it, who are following the three-year RCL cycle, where are those themes prescribed?

Kurt said...

Actually, Carl, I think that you misunderstand what the bishop is saying here. As other observers have pointed out, Bp. Spong is applying the word “theism” in this context as a theory concerning God’s nature, having borrowed this definition from Lutheran theologian the Rev. Dr. Paul Tillich (“The Courage to Be”), the German-American theology professor and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich was arguably one of the most influential theologians of the last century.

Dr. Tillich sought to “transcend” theism by a faith so “absolute” that both believer and object of belief precipitate out, leaving “Theism in all its forms is transcended in the experience we have called absolute faith. It is the accepting of the acceptance without somebody or something that accepts.” (Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 185).

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Father Ron Smith said...

Howard, thanks for your comment. Regarding mine about following the 'theme' of the day. What I meant was that the Gospel of the Day presents a progressive theme of the teaching of Jesus, that helps us to concentrate on the background and context of that specfdic teaching.

Sporadic attempts to provide themes at the Eucharist - outside of the 3-year cycle - usually indicate (for me) a desire to 'go it alone' on a particular hobby-horse of the preacher. This is sometimes seen as a desire to bypass the discipline of the Church.

To my mind, special courses of sermons - on subjects not related to the Lectionary - ought to be reserved for the occasional offices of the Church - like, for instance, Evensong; where the emphasis in worship is not the presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

To Carl, Kurt has a valid point about the subject of 'theism'. Paul Tillich is worth reading on the subject. Semantics are sometimes misleading.

Andrew Reid said...

Examples of liberal catholicism at work in the Australian Anglican Church
Exhibit 1: A Prayer Book for Australia (1995)
The liberal catholics number 1 issue - making sure it includes the liturgical Psalter, despite the significant extra cost. The evangelicals number 1 issue - stopping the dumbing down of the theology (especially substitutionary atonement) and opposing introduction of dubious concepts like "Mother earth".
Exhibit 2: Archbishop Keith Rayner (Melbourne, 1990-99, was orthodox on most doctrinal issues) would send evangelical ordinands to liberal catholic parishes for their curacies to teach them proper ecclesial practice. Didn't send liberal ordinands to evangelical parishes to teach them proper theology, though.
Exhibit 3: Try and do Morning Prayer or another alternative service instead of Holy Communion one Sunday in a liberal catholic parish and see how far you get. Or use spoken rather than sung responses.
PS Does anyone know why the Ugley Vicar hasn't posted this on his own blog, rather than on Virtue Online?

liturgy said...

Andrew’s comment merely illustrates the limits of categorising individuals into silos of churchmanship. The post had as a defining characteristic of “liberal catholicism” a nearly complete scepticism combined with an ecclesiological fundamentalism. Andrew’s “exhibits” either conflict with this description or are new definitions. Having a psalter in an Anglican Prayer Book appears to have some reasonable precedence, substitutionary atonement as a binding doctrine on all is being discussed elsewhere on this site, preventing “Mother earth” from being used seems a bit sad as a number 1 issue for “evangelicals”, an orthodox bishop sending ordinands with poor liturgical skills to a parish with good liturgical tradition hardly seems bad practice, and having the Lord’s people celebrate the Lord’s service on the Lord’s day hardly seems scandalous.



Father Ron Smith said...

Andrew asks why 'Ugly Vicar' posts articles on 'viruteonline' rather than on his own blog. I suspect the reason to be (at least partly) that 'virtueonline' more clearly represents the anti-TEC, pro-ACNA, stance of churchmanship - something he may not quite get away with on his own U.K. site. V.o.L. actively courts opinions for his own vitriolic views.

Unknown said...

Father Ron Smith is, as we English used to say politely, talking through his hat when he offers a view as to why my post is on VoL, not the Ugley Vicar blog.

Why bother with facts when you can always speculate?

Andrew Reid said...

Some further responses to Muriel Porter's book can be found on the ABC Religion Portal:
Michael Jensen -
Mark Thompson -
Peter Kurti -
Bruce Kaye -
Also, the Ugley Vicar has written his own review as well: