In our ecclesial community we have come more and more to find that the label “Liberal” no longer works for us, as increasingly we express our faith in traditional ways and have traditional ideas about how the sacraments work. We are not modernists, motivated by feminism or other radical ideologies, but men with a profound respect for the mystical, theological and liturgical traditions of Christendom. We are theologically liberal and liturgically orthodox, a combination that works for us, as it provides continuity with tradition yet seeks to be honest about God, revelation and human progress. The sciences, psychology, anthropology and academic theology, have all made great discoveries over the last few centuries; about the human mind, and the origins of Christianity and religion in general, which means that if we are both educated and honest we simply cannot stand against self-evident truth and cling stubbornly to the insights of one and a half millenia ago, however worthy, venerable and erudite.
The Evangelical, Roman and Orthodox versions of Christianity, it has to be said, do not educate their seminarians, they indoctrinate them. Yes of course they learn the bible, the liturgy and all the doctrines of the church and how to defend them in argument, but they also conveniently ignore some of the most original and progressive theologians since Feuerbach and what is worse do not even attempt to grapple with the textual criticism of the bible. If they did, they would see that Christianity (like any other religion) can only ever be a symbolic system, more or less meaningful to the individual according to his apprehension of its mysteries. It is not and cannot be based on absolute truths, not least because of the fact that its foundational documents, which for so long have been treated as factually historical, are almost certainly not entirely true in any empirical sense.
Christianity is no more and less than an amalgam of early Jewish theology and the mystery religions and philosophies of the ancient near east and as such is a veritable treasure trove of insights into man's relationship with the ground of all Being, whom we call God. It may not be empirically true in every detail and it doesn't need to be, for it contains a deeper truth for those who seek it with an open heart and adventurous spirit.
Despite the lack of credible foundations for some of its traditional claims I do not however advocate a stripped down rationalist Christianity devoid of all mystery and miracle. Heaven and earth contain more mystery - and miracles - than we could ever dream and physics itself seems these days, with quantum and chaos theories, to be meeting the mystics half way. No, what we need is a Christianity which embraces the mystery and encourages a holistic approach to the spiritual development of the individual. And where is this mysticism to be found but in the contemplative and liturgical traditions of east and west.
Alongside their regrettably conservative social teaching the Orthodox and Oriental churches have preserved a rich liturgical tradition which can transport the devotionally minded seeker to heavenly realms; a profound contemplative tradition and a mystical theology which does not reduce faith to intellectual assent in an unlikely set of propositions, but rather acknowledges that there is nothing we can know about God in his total otherness. Yet affirming simultaneously that we can know God through experience of his emanations mediated through prayer and sacraments.
The Christian West always had a less mystical and more intellectual approach to theology, nevertheless in the Benedictine monastic tradition and later mendicant orders, it also possessed and developed a profound mystical tradition of its own and much of this was of course preserved in the historic Latin Rite until the unfortunate iconoclasm of Vatican II. It has always been my contention that had the church been led by the Holy Spirit at that time it would have brought its understanding of doctrine up to date, modernised its antiquated and unjust moral theology and begun to make its contemplative and liturgical tradition more accessible through adult education. The old Mass was a vehicle of beauty in which the faithful delighted to travel to sacred space whereas the space created by the vernacular in its present pedestrian form simply does not have the power to enchant the worshipper. Of course sacred space is created wherever the Mass is celebrated validly, but can the faithful perceive it without the beauty of the traditional forms? Some can and many cannot.
Although in these uncertain days when many turn to various Christian and non-Christian fundamentalisms it may seem that liberal Christianity has no future. However, I do believe that the spiritual impulse in man is irrepressible and in time the rest of the world will follow western Europe in rejecting the dogmatic certainties of the past in favour of a more fluid and personal spirituality. In western Europe people are hungry for real spirituality but cannot, for the most part, stomach the historic churches, so here especially the need for liberal traditional faith communities is quite apparent. The traditional approach won't of course appeal to everyone and so I fully support more experimental forms of worship too. As Miss Brodie said, “For those who like that sort of thing that is the sort of thing they like”. A post-modern Christianity hopefully will affirm pluralism and find its unity in diversity, but for some, what we offer as Holy Cross Benedictines may strike a chord of authenticity. We may be few but let us work tirelessly and with the conviction that we are part of the vanguard for a future Christianity which carries forward the best of tradition in a more inclusive, honest and compassionate church.