As I approached the end of my ministry in Bellingen, I decided that for my last four messages I would say some things about the future of the church in a changing context. I wanted to be really clear - to say things that people could disagree with or agree with, but they would be absolutely clear as to what I was saying - no fudging, no having a bet each way, just telling it straight!
In this article amongst others, Theo Hobson argues that theological liberalism is made up of two streams of thought, which have often been intertwined in the past, but can and should be considered separately. The 'good' form of liberalism is "that which affirms a deep affinity between the gospel and political and cultural liberty." Whereas the 'bad' form of liberalism is "that which seeks to reform Christianity in the direction of rationalism and optimism about natural human capacities." Hobson wishes to affirm the former and reject the latter.
Unfortunately this approach seems to me to be actually gutting theological liberalism of its theology and simply affirming a kind of political liberalism with an added handwave along the lines of "...and this fits well with the gospel." My own critique of this approach is that it is doing precisely what Hobson claims to decry, by putting on a pedestal a particular set of secular, political (humanist) values and then baptising them as somehow Christian.
For myself (and in brief), I much prefer the kind of critique of liberal theology which draws from a post-modern mindset. I'd want to recognise one the one hand that in the main, the fundamental epistemological and ontological commitments of theological liberalism are a helpful evolution from the pre-modern philosophical underpinnings of some other streams of theology. But, on the the hand, liberal theology has clearly and dismally failed as a theological description, its pale "lowest common denominator" accounts of the world ("sea of faith" anyone?) losing all the power and transformative vitality of the Christian story in its specificity.
I guess in the end Hobson and I agree upon the need for a reformation or renegotiation of the liberal theological project. But my own view is that there is far more to value in liberal theology than simply its blessing of an enlightenment liberal political ecology.
A colleague recently recommended the book, The Australian Leadership Paradox. I've been enjoying reading it so far and thinking about the challenges for leadership within our culture which it presents. But one side issue that struck me while reading it was the extent to which some of the descriptions of Australian culture were precisely the kind of descriptions that we self-consciously use of ourselves in the Uniting Church.
So the book describes the Australian desire for consensus in organisational and political life. It describes Australian work life as "traditionally and inherently relational." The book described the paradox that Australians are both anti-authoritarian and authority-dependent, egalitarian and hierarchical, relational and competitive, battling adversity and living in prosperity. As I read each of those couplets I found myself instantly picturing various meetings and processes I've encountered in the Uniting Church. Indeed I jotted down a comment in the (virtual) margin asking whether the UCA was perhaps the organisational embodiment of the four paradoxes!
Clearly this is a book with much to teach us about leadership within the Uniting Church, as well as the broader Australian culture, and I'm looking forward to further reading and consideration.
But the other thought that struck me was the way in which it highlighted the (perhaps unsurprising) fact that the UCA is not just an amalgam of three long-standing traditions, but genuinely is a new church indigenous to Australia. I've heard people speaking about ideas like 'consensus' and 'relationality' as unique to the Uniting Church (and perhaps they are in denominational terms), but perhaps we ought also to be highlighting the way in which these values dear to our church are the values of our country at its best. "If you want to engage in a spirituality which picks up the values you hold as an Australian - join with us in the Uniting Church!" I know I did...