I’ve just finished reading “Christianity and Liberalism” by J Gresham Machen. It was written nearly a century ago (1923) but it’s still an excellent book. He argues throughout the book (and, to my mind, demonstrates conclusively) that Liberalism – in the sense of liberal Christianity – is actually a different religion to Christianity. Given the age of the book it’s not surprising to find that some of the liberal beliefs he criticises are less relevant to the Liberalism of today. However, I think the points he makes about Christianity are very insightful – in particular I appreciated the first chapter on doctrine. It would be well worth investing your time in the book.
So why do I write about it here? Well, reading the book got me thinking about the church today – in particular, the Church of England after the Pilling Report and the House of Bishops pastoral letter. Many people in the church who believe in same-sex marriage are questioning why they are essentially being forced to adopt a different position on this. Why is it that they are being held to a standard which they do not personally believe in?
If you’ve been watching ‘Rev’, you’ll have seen the episode a few weeks ago where Adam Smallbone (the vicar) struggles with this issue – how to deal with the church’s official position on this even though he doesn’t actually believe in it.
One thing which struck me – which I touched on last year – is that the question goes far deeper than beliefs about sexuality. The problem is fundamentally about the nature of the church. Is the church held together because it is an institution and nothing more? In other words, would it make sense for there to be Buddhists, Muslims and people of other faiths within the Church of England – simply because they were within the institution? Or, is there something doctrinally – i.e. some common beliefs – which unite the church?
I think most people would agree that it wouldn’t make sense to have people of any religion within the Church of England – because the CofE is a Christian church. It is united around the gospel, around the Bible, around the historic Christian confessions of faith. What Machen would argue, however, is that Liberalism does not fall under that: Liberalism is a different religion from Christianity.
Why is this significant regarding the CofE’s current situation? Because over the past few years the Church has basically brushed this question under the carpet. It has, to put it bluntly, ignored the question of what the Church of England actually is. This is no longer possible – the question must be confronted. Is the Church of England a Christian church in any meaningful sense? And if it is, what implications does that have?
If the Church of England is to remain a Christian church, I believe it has some serious decisions to make over the next few years: what do its historic confessions of faith actually mean, and what does it mean to be part of the church now? We cannot be inclusive at any cost. The Pilling Report, I hope, will expose these kinds of questions – difficult though they may be – and force us to make some uncomfortable decisions.