A parting of the ways?

As we move away from more orthodox ideas of a paternal, interventionist God, is it inevitable that progressive Christians will set up their own churches? Harry Houldsworth makes a plea for this not to happen.

A parting of the ways?

How do you define “God” and does it matter? “Which God?” many progressive Christians may reply. “Do you mean the supernatural, interventionist God? Or do you mean God as the Ground of our Being, as advocated by Tillich and his supporters? Or do you see God simply as Love? Or is it a female or genderless version you want to define?”

The variations are very confusing. And as one lady asked at a recent meeting I attended, “Are we looking [unnecessarily] to produce a new religion?” Or at least a new orthodoxy?

It is at this point that I start to get a nervous twitch and a feeling that some progressive Christians may be losing the plot.

I appreciate that many progressive Christians have had a difficult time attempting to develop a dialogue with the mainstream churches, and that many have had to face decades of abuse and hostility. But, is this not an understandable consequence of many of us attempting to re-write the Bible? Or is it because of a lack of empathy on our part with thousands of ordinary Christians who prefer keeping to a literal interpretation of the Old and New Testaments rather than risk the uncertainties of change? They have no wish to declare theism dead. To them, theism is alive and kicking.

I have some sympathy with the problems of senior members of the clergy who believe they are under an obligation to preach ancient Christian “Truths”. What I have less sympathy with is their unwillingness to acknowledge the difficulties that increasing numbers of Western people have in accepting these Christian “Truths” at face value - the failure of Church leaders to recognise that individual members of church congregations (and members of the clergy) may have considerable reservations about elements of orthodox theology.

And yet, it seems to me that in a truly catholic Church, a literal interpretation of the Bible must be seen as having a place, given the level of support for it. Equally, the Nicene Creed needs to be acknowledged by mainstream churches for what it is: a statement of an official orthodoxy dating from three hundred years after the death of Jesus on the Cross. It too has its limitations and there is a need for continued debate.

In 2016, the Protestant Churches should accept at least that no pope, priest or pastor has a moral right to tell any person exactly what to believe. It is one thing to list the “Truths” that the “Church” accepts; it is quite another for the Church to insist that all members should have exactly the same beliefs. It should be accepted that people believe what they believe, and this may be quite different from what they articulate collectively in a church service.

Speaking personally, I attend many churches as a “plug-in Christian”. Week by week, I listen to preachers who offer advice based upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. This does not worry me. In a church, I expect to hear a traditional account of the life of Jesus. And I respect those who are sincerely content with the traditional approach. I think that this is consistent with living in a multi-cultural age that demands a respect for others who have different beliefs. This respect should extend also to those who voice unorthodox interpretations of the Christian Faith. And in this regard, the clergy should be the first to set an example.

However, it is progressive Christianity that concerns me here, and the extent to progressive Christians may be loosening links with traditional Christianity.

I believe that the home of progressive Christianity is within existing mainstream Christian Churches, not outside of them - even if it takes many more decades to persuade Church leaders to accept that a questioning approach to Christian “Truths” has to be accepted within the Church.

Progressive Christianity will never totally replace traditional orthodoxy, and it should never aspire to such an aim. Progressive Christians should advocate “Unity in Diversity”, stressing some common beliefs. Progressive Christians should also stress that having a good knowledge of the Old and New Testaments and of what early Christians believed (including their belief in miracles and the supernatural events described in the Bible) also provides the springboard for progressive Christianity.

Of course, the parallel to this is that, in the twenty-first century, the mainstream Churches should accept that many church members may see Christian “Truths” as myth, and they may prefer to focus on what Jesus taught about social and personal values and on his promotion of a non-violent gospel of love and responsible citizenship. It may upset some Church leaders that many ordinary members quietly adopt these views, but if the leaders really believe in the validity of a literal interpretation of the Bible, they may rest assured that it may be all part of God’s plan and God will sort it out eventually.

Our priority today shouldn’t be separating progressive Christians from orthodox Christians, or vice versa. We should be concentrate on selling to the wider public the idea that coming to church has life-enhancing benefits.

Many young people today struggle with anxieties, stress and they often feel alone and isolated, even if they are lucky enough to have a worthwhile job, a home and a family. I was saddened the other day when I learned that a very successful engineer (in his prime) had hanged himself. There are millions of others out there with little sense of a real purpose in their lives.

We should be persuading people that going to church, and/or getting involved with house groups, will make them feel part of a community. As part of a church community they are no longer alone; they become aware of their individual and collective identities (and in a full sense, who they are); they join with others, to rehearse positive thoughts about life values and dealing with others. In church, they are comforted, (de-stressed), by the shear enjoyment of collective worship and by singing songs of faith. And it should be understood that, in church, they will have ample opportunity to decide which bits inspire them and which bits are not for them.

This should not surprise anyone. Everybody is a “plug-in Christian” in some way. We all pick and choose which themes we like, which bits we can believe in, and which bits to ignore. And one learns when to articulate personal beliefs; in a church, may not be the best place. This is why house-groups are so important, as are any gatherings where progressive ideas can be explored and be shared.

This brings me back to the thought that started this blog: that the quest to define what we do and don’t mean by ‘God’ seems very important to some people. In my view, we progressives worry too much about what we mean by ‘God’. As a consequence, orthodox Christians may be justified in seeing progressive Christianity as totally alien to traditional Christianity and, sadly, progressive Christians may see it this way too.

I believe that progressive Christianity has got to reemphasise its connections with traditional Christianity. So, please, can we have less talk about the interventionist God being dead (along with theism) and much more about Christianity being a broad church with a place for everyone in it?

As long as there are substantial numbers of traditional Christians, theism is not dead, but the assertion (that it is) is likely to be deeply offensive to many people who should be our friends. I can only put in a plea that we need to re-think the focus in progressive Christianity and build bridges, not destroy them.

Harry Houldsworth (Nottingham, December 2016)

Parting of the ways image by Derek Harper. (from Wikimedia Commons)


1 On 11/12/2016 Richard Eddleston wrote:

Thanks for that Harry.  I attach below a piece I recently wrote when challenged by a newish Quaker to write about what Quakers believe in as God and to do it on one side of paper.  The key for it to work is that each person needs to respect where the other person is coming from, to accept that there is not one right answer,but many right answers.

Quakers and God (Draft)

You will find that Quakers have a very wide range of what they understand by God.  That is okay.  What matters is that whatever your belief in God is, that it works for you and that it enables you to change and transform and deepen in love and compassion.  Also that it enables you to be open to other people’s belief about God.  There is a stress on experience rather than belief.  All agree that you can never put God adequately into words, only experience God, and so God is always a mystery.

At one end of a continuum you will find Quakers with a very traditional Christian view of God.  Quakerism is very much rooted in Christianity.  This means a God who is some kind of being that we can relate to and who relates to us.  It is a God who listens, and a God who sometimes intervenes in the world.  It is important to discern what God is saying to us.  For some it is a God who judges.  Because Quakers believe in that of ‘God’ in everyone, people are seen in their core, or soul, as basically good.  Some Christians believe that only Christianity is the right way.

There are Quakers who experience God as being, rather than ‘a being’.  Other words they use might be Light, the inner light, ground of being, divine mystery, the creative energy, love or compassion.  They may avoid the term ‘God’ as for many people it has such negative connotations.  This is more panentheism, that God is in everything, including us, but is also more than all that.  This is clearly the same God as all the major world religions.  Therefore we can learn from the sacred texts of all religions.  They do though tend to be culturally adapted to certain regions.  It is in this way that you can have Buddhist Quakers or Hindu Quakers.

Emergent Christians as some modern Christians are called, would say that whilst religion is man-made, it reflects a deeper truth.  The best analogy seems to be that there is an extra dimension to life, the spiritual dimension.  This is a dimension that they can connect with, and when they do, it can help them to live and act in harmony with that deeper reality to life.  This is sometimes referred to as living out of the heart-centre.  One paradox is that although they understand God as being, because people are essentially social, interactive creatures, it helps them to relate to God as if she were a being, even whilst knowing that God is not a being.  Many Quakers would relate to this.  Thus God works through us in the world, but also in ways that we don’t quite understand, like Quantum Physics.

At the other extreme are Quakers that call themselves ‘non-theists’.  They are more like humanists, who believe that all religion, and God, is man-made.  What matters are their values, the testimonies for Quakers.  There is no ’other’ dimension.  Life is as they see it and experience it.  It is up to them to create a better world.

Richard Eddleston   18-11-2016

2 On 12/12/2016 Simon Cross wrote:

I agree that we need to learn to live with a broad church. Part of the issue I feel, is with the word ‘progressive’ - it posits a false dichotomy of ‘traditional’ and ‘new’. What is now traditional was once new, there is no everlasting orthodoxy in the western church in terms of views of God, Christology, ecclesiology, or understanding of scripture. To make a currently ‘traditional’ view ‘orthodox’ and a ‘progressive’ view heterodox makes problems for both. Lets accept we’re a broad church, but lets also accept that there are multiple orthodoxies, on which none of us have sole claim.

3 On 13/12/2016 Chris in Ledbury wrote:

Thanks all, for your thoughts on this:

‘So, please, can we have less talk about the interventionist God being dead (along with theism) and much more about Christianity being a broad church with a place for everyone in it?’

‘The key for it to work is that each person needs to respect where the other person is coming from, to accept that there is not one right answer, but many right answers.’

‘Let’s accept we’re a broad church, but lets also accept that there are multiple orthodoxies, on which none of us have sole claim.’

So, there’s an obvious agreement on the value of a ‘broad church’, extending into a desire for pluralism. The difficulty is that many people DO continue to define their identity through belief and history shows they are unlikely to abandon such creeds.

So, is it possible to make any progress? I think this what underlies Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Reith Lecture; can we find other ways of creating community than belief?

Interestingly enough, the news about an emergent PCN group in Brighton provides a glimmer of hope. The group’s name is ‘Beyond Belief’. This offers a plethora of interpretations and highlights that there is no required orthodoxy. In future, community groups may increasingly create identities based on shared behaviour, without even alluding to discarded creeds. Perhaps those academics seeking to characterise this New Reformation will be tempted to create yet another expression of evolving orthodoxy: ‘By fruits alone’.


4 On 15/12/2016 John from Linlithgow wrote:

It’s tempting to try and “re-invigorate the church but as your article highlights beliefs divide us because either orthodox or progressive christians feel excluded/ less valued in their local community.
I feel we are failing to address the real issue of how are we (those with a creed and those with none) to support each other in bringing more light into the world; or just as importantly it could be expressed as bringing more compassion into the lives of our communities. So few people attend church today I believe a new initiative is required where we share values which derive from Christianity but express them in the language of today. All will be welcome with commitment to the new community being the only requirement for participating.  Thing is forever and it is not survival of one solution that matters but the encouragement to live well, however, we seek to support that objective.

5 On 18/01/2017 Adrian Alker wrote:

I think it is good that Harry raises these difficult issues about the relationship between PCN and the churches. Just as churches vary considerably in their theology and approaches, so does PCN encompass a wide spectrum of understanding about matters of belief, faith and church. We do have to live with these tensions but there are for me certain important pathways and I tried to outline these in my recent book, Is A Radical Church Possible?

First I think to argue about the word progressive is a time waster, as much as it is over words such as liberal, inclusive, radical etc. My starting point in PCN is both the 8 points and the word Christianity in our title.

As a C of E priest for 38 years, I am not going to denounce or dismiss all the good work done by the churches in our communities. But nor am I willing to see a level of dishonesty in how churches and ministers approach an understanding of the Bible. This for me is key. All serious scholarship invites congregations to regard the Bible not as literal truth on every page but as a glorious mixture of man made stories, poetry, myth, symbol, history, fact etc.

Once we grow up we can put the Jesus story in a context which can speak to all people; we can share ideas and experiences of the sacred which begin to make a difference in peoples lives. We can reshape our churches if we are more honest about the Bible, about the life of Jesus and about all those doctrinal developments.

PCN is there both to encourage and to challenge church members and ministers to engage critically and honestly with the Christian faith. There is much that I cherish about my Church but equally three is much that makes me want to protest and we do need to be that disturbing voice.

If some folk decide to set up their own ‘progressive ‘church’ so be it and lets be kind and try to see how such gatherings might be party of a new stream of thought and experience. Equally I do not wish to see PCN rubbishing mainstream churches but being out there as that critical friend.

Adrian Alker

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