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Finish This Sentence

In today’s church, the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ . . . get thrown around way too much.

By Michael Webster

Is there anyone out there who wants to see more squabbling and posturing between the parties of the left and the right in Parliament? Neither do I. 

In the same way, I suspect, most of us would also like to see church leaders spend less energy expounding on their differences and put more effort into working together on the stuff we can agree on. 

I’m a bona fide liberal. I used to think I was a radical, but then I went to theological college 

and discovered a whole world out there to the left of me that I hadn’t even imagined. Turns out I’m not even close to radical. 

To paraphrase a famous quote often (if erroneously) attributed to Winston Churchill, “Every 20-year-old with a heart is a socialist; every 60-year-old with a brain is a conservative.” I like to think I have a brain, and I’m not a conservative, but I’m old enough to understand what the quote is getting at.

Maybe it’s my advancing years, but lately I’ve come to think that liberals need conservatives as much as the other way around. We need conservatives to give some definition to liberal ideas, which are prone to being fuzzy. And as much as liberals like to remind conservatives that keeping a healthy bank account is not the purpose of a church, we need conservatives to provide an occasional fiscal reality check.

When it comes to matters of the spirit, liberals tend to quote from the prophets while conservatives sing Psalms. We need worship and works, praxis and prayer. Our faith is not just about liberal ideals of justice and jubilee — it’s also about salvation and sanctification. While conservatives sing with admirable assurance about that old-time religion (“makes me love everybody”), liberals struggle to explain cutting-edge theology. As much as I relish trying to make our ancient faith relevant to a modern world, I try to remember that not everyone who stands to my right is a self-righteous fundamentalist.

At our worst, liberals are as changeable as the weather, apt to go drifting on every wind like a hot-air balloon that’s been cut loose. At their worst, conservatives are as predictable as a cake mix and slower to change than continental drift. At our best, liberals and conservatives are, respectively, hopeful explorers and faithful homebodies. We need both. By toning down the rhetoric and seeing the person instead of the label — individuals seldom match a generalization — we can help each other do well spiritually and do good socially. Together, we can have outreach and the Spirit’s indwelling.

As a church, for example, we should excel at providing programs and supports for young families. Instead, we stink at it — evangelicals are absolutely kicking our butts in this department. Conservatives, who care deeply about marriage and family, can turn that around. 

And although conservatives tend to focus on benefits to the individual and liberals on benefits to the community, surely we can agree that families are good for both. The decision to include same-sex couples and non-traditional groupings in the definition of family has already been made, both by society and our denomination.

It’s time to stop being a church of divisions and start being a church that builds bridges. I don’t imagine that conservatives and liberals will agree on everything; indeed, I value the breadth of our church. But too often we are the untied church instead of the United Church. Let’s put our hands together, left and right, in prayer and in unity.

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