I’m constantly stumbling across two opinions which while seeming poles apart, and voiced by people who wouldn’t invite each other to tea are remarkably similar. The first is argued by people who rely on often disjointed biblical quotations, taken out of context, but believed to be applicable to this or that contemporary problem. Such a view brings an odd assortment of people together; Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moslem extremists, Christian Fundamentalists to mention a few. They cull their scriptures until a hey presto moment provides them with an answer. Very often that answer was their starting position, for which they seek scriptural affirmation.


And then there are those who make the astounding claim that religious truth is discovered in the findings of secular society. For them the voice of the people is the voice of God, or perhaps the voice of ‘enlightened ‘, ‘thinking people’, that is to say people who think like me. Their sacred texts are public opinion polls, scientific surveys, political ideology, trending enthusiasms. Of course if a biblical text may be discovered to prop up or give a religious veneer to the enthusiasms of popular society, so much the better.


Both of these sets of people tend to have a dim view of the church, except as a convenient organization to propagate their assertions. Both are heirs of the old Broad Church tradition, which denied any supernatural and sacramental dimension of the church. Both entertain puritanical distaste for any form of church which denies them personal autonomy. The first are heirs to the 17th Century sectarians and the second heirs of the 18th Century Latitudinarians, the second connected to the first through the thoughts of people Like John Locke. Their modern appeal is that both speak to a desire for personal autonomy of thought.


The ideal of the Church articulated by St Paul, enfleshed by the Fathers, and practiced in community, an interconnected society of persons called to serve God, enlivened by common faith and worship seems stagnant and oppressive to such people. In practice however, something very different is true. The Fundamentalist and the Progressive are trapped in a moment in time, in its struggles, causes, movements and popular opinions. There is no past, no living tradition, and the only future acceptable is one crowned by hoped-for success. In the meantime, comfort may be gained by huddling together in like-minded groups, from which missiles may be fired against those who are wrong.


A recent example of this may be discovered in reading reactions to a conference held in Coventry, England by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The dismissive rhetoric articulated by people of widely different positions, mutually exclusive confronted with a call for Christians to practice reconciliation points to a primitive impulse to ‘smite down my enemies hip and thigh’ simply because it is claimed, to speak peace to those with whom one disagrees is compromise with unbelievers. So sad.

2 Responses

  1. Fr Tony, I’ve been reading a bit about +Lesslie Newbigin recently with an eye toward investing in something written by himself. It seems he was on a similar track as you, arguing that fundamentalists and liberals bear striking similarities with regard to their disdain for the established order, the selective way they embrace or evade apostolic teaching, etc. Does that sound fair? And would you recommend Newbigin as having something of value to say to our present predicament in the West?

  2. Indeed Ian.

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