"A Christian church in the liberal tradition"--my suggestion as a way of publicly describing our church--was met with polite frowns (frowns because of genuine disagreement, polite to keep from telling me I was out of my cotton-pickin' mind). Liberal, from the comments following, has become one of those nasty words, not to be uttered in polite company. Its demise was evident in the presidential election in which one candidate accused the other of being a "liberal card-carrying member of the ACLU," and the other candidate made no response.
Off-handedly separating people into opposing camps of liberal or conservative, it seems to me, is very damaging to both public discourse and the Christian community.
Liberal means liberating--more freedom, more openness, more flexibility, more humaneness, more willingness to change. Conservative means conserving--preserving what is best and most valuable from the past, a decent respect for tradition, a reluctance to change except when change is called for. In this sense, I am proud to be a liberal call me a conservative as well.
Yet, as Lord Acton, of "power corrupts" fame, also wrote: "Every institution tends to fail by an excess of its own basic principle." Such excesses are the very reason for the denigration of liberal (and will, as time goes on, lead to a similar denigration of the word conservative).
Worse yet, the lack of a word to describe the openness of a community to varying points of view--because it has a higher calling, or its calling is to be on open community--is a thing to be mourned. What word do we have to talk about a Christian community where loyalty to the 'right' position on an interpretation of the Bible or abortion or welfare reform or the substitutionary atonement of Jesus is not the measure and test of one's Christian commitment?
On reflection, I think that "A Christian Church in the Liberal Tradition" is not the way to describe First Congregational. "A Conserving Church in the Liberal Tradition" is more accurate. An oxymoron? Not at all. It is a statement that, in the midst of our natural conserving tendencies as a religious institution, we provide space where those conserving tendencies can be challenged and changed--in the church, in society and even in our own selves. And all this is done in a community where radical commitment of discipleship to Jesus makes us able to disagree without denigrating each other, where we are raised above particular partisan politics and policies which characterize our political life to the common search-whatever our policies and politics-for a humane, participatory and just future.
Sign me up.
--Robert H. Tucker
12 January 1998