One sense is technical and historical: a C19th protestant theological method whose root is identified in the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and theological movements that have followed. But even in the late C19th century theological liberalism had a broader non-technical sense. John Henry Newman wrote:
Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true.
Newman also wrote more positively of wider liberal understanding of society:
There is much in the liberalistic theory which is good and true; for example, not to say more, the precepts of justice, truthfulness, sobriety, self-command which are among its avowed principles, and the natural laws of society.But again for balance Newman also contends:
Hitherto, it has been considered that religion alone, with its supernatural sanctions, was strong enough to secure submission of the masses of our population to law and order; now the Philosophers and Politicians are bent on satisfying this problem without the aid of Christianity.To summarise Newman sees the the weakness in liberal society as its rejection of the supernatural action of God (through the church) in building and shaping society. Liberalism in religion in Newman's thought is principally a rejection of positive truth, or as I would see it truth of a supernatural origin.
Moving forward to to the mid C20th century and C.S. Lewis writes of non-technical liberalism:
It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. It may depart from Anglican Christianity in either of two ways: (1) It may be so “broad” or “liberal” or “modern” that it in fact excludes any real supernaturalism and thus ceases to be Christian at all. (2) It may, on the other hand, be Roman.I include the end of the quote because I am aware that Lewis (who was highly sacramental and held a form of purgatory) was issuing a warning to the Catholic tradition in the CofE - although today he may have said 'It may, on the other hand, be Vineyard'.
Speaking at Westcott (published as Fern Seeds and Elephants) Lewis engaged with Liberalism again:
A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia - which either denies the miraculous altogether or, more strangely, after swallowing the camel of the Resurrection strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes.There is much more that could be explored in Newman and Lewis. Both Lewis and Newman have a sense that how Christians respond to the world should be drawn from the supernatural. There are wider theological questions about the authority of the church, how the miraculous occurs today, the nature of biblical inspiration and the intentions of original authors. However the direction is from God to us through these supernatural actions. The world is then to be interpreted and shaped by theology rather than our theology interpreted and shaped by the world.
From discussions on Twitter it is clear that some who identify with the term liberal do not mean liberal in either the ways thus far discussed. Rather the term simply means 'open minded'. Is this what Prof. Woodhead means by liberal? Helpfully we have a talk delivered for Inclusive Church here.
In the presentation Prof. Woodhead identifies two forms of liberalism. In the slides 'Recovering Liberalism':
1.Ethical or political liberalism: the belief that each individual should have the right to decide how best to live his her life (JS Mill) The opposite is not conservatism but authoritarianism, illiberalism, paternalism. ‘There is a higher authority to which you should defer.’
2.Hermeneutical liberalism. The belief that the meaning of no text, including the Bible, can be accessed directly and without human interpretation, or that there is a text which does not itself involve human interpretation.It is perfectly possible – and common – for hermeneutical liberals to believe that the Bible is nevertheless the Word of God.
So for my purposes, liberal Christians are Christians who see ethical/political liberalism and hermeneutical liberalism as integral to the Christian faith. (Not as secular ‘add-ons’, but as growing out of the Christian tradition itself.)This definition is far more precise than Prof. Woodhead's more general description of those in favour of the ordination of women and committed same sex relationships as liberal. The concept of Christianity being a tradition out of which grows the rejection of a higher authority (God?) seems especially problematic. Furthermore hermeneutic liberals are not alone in recognising the human element in interpreting texts - what seems to be missing here is any suggestion of reading the text within community.This in general is the post-liberal Christian response to theological liberalism.
In the talk however Prof. Woodhead focusses on ethical rather than theological liberalism. This is defined by views in three areas, being in favour of abortion, being in favour of assisted dying and being in favour of same sex marriage. It follows then that a liberal Christian is one who supports all three.
Unhelpfully in Prof. Woodhead's statistics a liberal Anglican is described as someone scoring '3 or less' on the three questions. Three could indicate someone in favour of same sex marriage (2 points), opposed to assisted dying (0 points), and who feels the current abortion time limit should be lowered (1 point).
There seems to be a pattern here. Not only are those in favour of the ordination of women (and possibly in favour of same sex marriage) co-opted as liberals, but so are those with moderate conservative ethical views.
In the rest of the presentation Prof. Woodhead asks:
Why has the power of liberalism in the CofE declined when Anglicans and the country have been getting more and more liberal?Prof. Woodhead gives a number of answers. A number of them could be compelling if the liberal Christianity described was thriving anywhere else in the world. The most obvious answer to the question is that the described liberal Christianity does not work - even for liberals. However this does not mean that inclusive Christianity cannot work, or that inclusive Christianity requires Prof. Woodhead's liberalism.
And why has the influence of (liberal) Anglicanism in British society declined?
From a wider perspective it could be suggested that the Prof. Woodhead's whole project is endeavouring to co-opt others with inclusive views to a particular brand of discredited theological liberalism, whether they like it or not.