Progressive Christianity – the freedom to be oneself

Published September 1, 1998

A CONFERENCE sponsored by a group calling itself the Centre for Progressive Christianity? As a citizen of a country where even conservatives call themselves progressives and we know where that got them, this did not seem an attractive prospect. On the other hand, given the movements for retrogressive Christianity both inside and outside the Anglican Church, a quick trip across the water to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, Wash., to see what progressives had to say appealed.

This was the third national forum for a group founded in 1994 by James Adams, an Episcopal priest who eventually took early retirement to devote himself to the Centre for Progressive Chrisianity, a movement aimed at “encouraging churches to care about people who find organized religion irrelevant, ineffectual, and repressive.”

As the opening speaker at the conference, Mr. Adams made the point that while fundamentalist churches have enjoyed a boom in numbers up to now, which has encouraged mainstream churches to imitate them, statistics show that there are far more people who are alienated by doctrinal rigidities and authoritarian demands. At the same time those alienated often show a real desire for spirituality in their lives.

The theme was On the Road: Honouring Those Who Search. In a nutshell this meant that even if we admit we do not know everything, the religious journey is worth undertaking. The various workshops covered themes such as reclaiming the doctrine of creation from fundamentalism, the Chartres labyrinth as a spiritual tool, discovering life and spirit among the poor, the effect of Christian history in the shaping of contemporary attitudes about homosexuality, and worship for a new century – or how to avoid Jesus jingles in contemporary worship. A folk singer, a liturgical dancer and a final agape meal were other elements.

What can one make of this group of people?

There is an official definition of Progressive Christianity. Progressive Christians proclaim Jesus as our Gate to the Realm of God (John 10.7-9); recognize the faithfulness of people who have other names for the gateway to God’s realm; understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’ name to be a representation of God’s feast for all peoples; invite all sort and conditions of people to join in worship; think the way we treat one another and other people is more important than the way we express our beliefs; find more grace in the search for meaning than in absolute certainty; see ourselves as a spiritual community in which we find the resources for work in the world; recognize that faith entails costly discipleship, renunciation of privilege, and conscientious resistance to evil.

Is this liberalism then? It depends on your definition. Liberalism can refer to non-traditional interpretations of Christian doctrine and there was no doubt that some people present at the conference had very liberal views.

Then there is a second sort of liberalism of the politically correct which is just as tyrannical in its outlook as any other authoritarian system – this was not the liberalism of the Progressive Christians. The liberalism I found was a third sort, close to the original Latin meaning of liberalis – “befitting free people,” namely a freedom in which one could be oneself without apology or explanation. Even those with conservative opinions were welcome.

My own impression was that there were some remarkable people in this group who had shown their faith not in the denunciation of those who disagreed with them but in caring for those who were in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other affliction. Obviously the organization tends to reflect particular U.S. problems, not least of all both the religious and political agenda of the religious right in that country. But Canadians might take a lesson from a group which has a more constructive agenda than simply wanting to ship out those who do not shape up.

Essentially the Centre for Progressive Christianity stands for that ongoing line of Christian tradition which takes the whole world seriously and finds God’s handiwork outside its own narrow confines. Its theme for the next national forum in June 1999 is in this more humane tradition of the church: Risking Art, Risking Faith – the connections between contemporary art and progressive Christianity.

The website provides more information for those sufficiently interested or appalled. John Sandys-Wunsch is a freelance writer and theologian in residence at St. John’s Church, Victoria, B.C.


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