"Liberal Catholicism - Ancient & Modern"
by the Rt Revd Dom Alistair Bate OSBA
The label “Liberal”, must of course be understood in the spirit it was intended by the founders and, as far as possible, bearing in mind the mentality of well bred gentlemen of 100 years ago. This “liberal” is about as far away as it is possible to be from most of those who proudly wear the label “liberal” in our midst today, for whom other appellations might be more appropriate, such as; radical, feminist, cultural relativist, globalist, borderless, individualist etc. The “Liberal” understanding of the Liberal Catholic founders, on the contrary, is one of moderation, intellectual sophistication, balance, consideration and free enquiry. It is the via media between dogmatic conservatism on the one hand and iconoclastic modernism on the other.
Our Liberal Catholic fathers-in-faith did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever utilise the diagram known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” as a means of explaining the inspiration of their Liberal Catholic vision, but the cultural milieu in which they worked was profoundly influenced by this sort of theology. This diagram, ascribed to Methodist founder John Wesley, shows us four ways in which God makes himself known. Whilst the Methodists undoubtedly prioritised Scripture, the Liberal Catholics prioritised Experience, yet there is a commonality between them, and for us today in the Holy Celtic Church International, all four sources of revelation are important.
Just as it is easy for some to make an idol out of Scripture, it is an equal, if not greater, temptation to make an idol out of Tradition, especially as the validity of our whole sacramental system depends on faithful transmission of this current. In the HCCI we aim to be faithful stewards of the beautiful and powerful system bequeathed to us and we will continue to denounce those in our movement who misuse and deface the system until it is devoid of all sacramental power, yet we must always remember that the sacraments are a means to an end - knowing God and union with him - and never an end in themselves.
Over the last half century, the use of “Reason" is where most Liberal Protestants have come unstuck. This is for two reasons I believe. Firstly, they began to “do theology” using the insights gained from other, non-theological, disciplines such as psychology and sociology. This is natural and fine, to an extent, provided that in the process of theological revision genuine sources of sacramental power are not lost, as has unfortunately been the case. Secondly, as a source of revelation, “Reason" is limited to the extent of human scientific knowledge at the time of enquiry, for example, it is pretty obvious that there is no empirical basis for belief in the miracles of the New Testament, therefore most liberal Protestants have discarded them completely because they fall outside their limited experience. These people are then left with what might be called “religious humanism”, and easily fall pray to the shallow social gospel of the trendy left. The Liberal Catholic, on the other hand, having a wider frame of reference, knows that the miracles described in the gospels, even the resurrection, are not impossible and are actually not unique to Jesus, but have been practiced by other high adepts and siddhis throughout history.
Reason and Experience are different sides of the same coin. Whilst Reason engages the critical faculties Experience encourages personal experimentation, and whilst Reasoning had led many into unbelief, to put too much emphasis on Experience can lead many into delusion. The unfortunate direction taken by the Liberal Catholic Church in the 1920’s when many were led to believe that Krishnamurti, protege of Bishop Leadbeater, was some kind of 2nd coming of Christ, is a good example of collective delusion precipitated by one man’s personal locutions. Reason must always be applied to visions, prophecies and other personal revelations, for as St Paul says, “Test the spirits whether they be of God”, in other words, what may be a subjective truth for one individual may not necessarily be true for all.
I . "We place our trust in God, the holy and all-glorious Trinity, who dwelleth in the Spirit of man."
The first thing to notice is the creedal “We believe” is replaced by “We place our trust”. This avoids the problem of defining belief. If one understands “belief” according to the root of the word in English, to be and to live, then fair enough, but most people think that “belief” entails giving intellectual assent to an unlikely set of propositions, rather than making certain mysteries part of our life story. To “place our trust” in God is altogether less taxing on the brain, as well as more practical.
The second thing to notice is that the All Glorious Trinity is said to reside in the Spirit of man, which to an average Christian may seem a little shocking! We are all used to the lip service paid to the “indwelling Spirit”, but to suggest that the Father and Son also live within the Spirit of man would seem strange to many. We would do well to consider that the persons of the Trinity are an inseparable Unity and it is impossible for one person of the Trinity to be present and the others absent, so yes the All Glorious Trinity does dwell within each of us, through the sacraments, but also through his image, created in every man. We might also consider that the Father indwells our transcendent Spirit which is always one with him; the Son indwells, through the Incarnation, our human condition, whilst the Holy Spirit, working away within us, enables us to “Self-Realise", eventually, our essential Unity with him.
II. "We place our trust in Christ, the Lord of love and wisdom, first among many brethren, who leadeth us to the glory of the Father, and is Himself the Way, the Truth and the Life."
Much could be said of this second sentence, but the essence I believe is this: Our purpose in eternal life is to become a Christ, to realise our Christhood. This is quite clear in St Paul’s writings and I believe it was quite clear to most of the early Christians, but somewhere along the way it seems to have been mislaid by many.
Undoubtedly, it is good to practice a religion about Christ, which is what Christianity is to most of its members, but it is even better to practice the religion OF Christ, whose only purpose was to show us the Way to the Father, to Unity with Himself.
III. "We place our trust in the Law of Good which rules the world; we strive towards the ancient narrow Path that leads to life eternal; we know that we serve our Master best when best we serve our fellow man. So shall His power rest upon us and ✠ peace for evermore. Amen."
The first thing that strikes many of us in this third point, is what appears to be a blatant untruth, that the “Law of Good rules the world”. Obviously it does not. The world is full of evil and injustice, ……. unless of course one believes in an alterable natural law of cause and effect. Jesus teaches us that “what a man sows, that he shall also reap”, so we hope that no good is wasted and we have faith that God turns all suffering to our eventual benefit. For many people, unfortunately, good is not returned for good in this life, but in the next, or at a further stage of our progression. One may object that this involves blind faith, but to the Liberal Catholic whose faith is often informed by the proofs presented by Spiritualism or the teachings of the East, it is a faith based on some personal evidence.
The first Liberal Catholic Act of Faith concludes with the words “so shall his blessing rest on us and peace forever more”, but in this second Act of Faith there is one significant word change. A blessing is beautiful, worthwhile and good, but our second Act of Faith concludes with the words “so shall His POWER rest on us and peace for ever more.”, which, I suspect, for 21st century people, sounds a lot more practical! Personal empowerment IS a blessing. Used for the glory of God and the good of souls it can mean co-creation with God, a natural expression of our life of union with Him. This is why we do what we do.