Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Idealistic Ordering: Hastings Rashdall, Post-Kantian Idealism, and Anglican Liberal Theology

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Idealistic Ordering: Hastings Rashdall, Post-Kantian Idealism, and Anglican Liberal Theology

Article excerpt

The liberal movement in British theology is like the American one in that it spoke English and it took off during the same period, the late 1890s. But the American movement was mostly Ritschlian theologically, and the Episcopal Church was a very minor player in it. In Britain the liberal theology movement was mostly Anglican and it took off during the ascendance of Hegelian idealism in British philosophy; thus, idealistic religious philosophers led the way. By the time that British Anglicanism acquired a liberal movement, which it called "modernism," the modern crisis of belief was far advanced. Late Victorian intellectuals were publishing rueful poems and memoirs about losing their faith, and British theology was overdue to legitimize biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution. In Hastings Rashdall the Modernist movement found an advocate of high intellectual power, deep spiritual conviction, and immense erudition who spoke to the crisis of belief, and who epitomized the best and worst of post-Victorian liberal idealism.

From the beginning of the liberal upsurge in Britain, liberal theology was a wider phenomenon than the group that built a party organization in the Church of England. Some important liberal thinkers were independent religious philosophers, such as Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, who distinguished Christian personal idealism from Absolute idealisms prominent in English philosophy. Some belonged to nonconforming traditions, such as Alfred E. Garvie, a liberal evangelical Congregationalist who made Ritschlian School historicism palatable to British theologians. Some were Broad Church, "modern orthodoxy" types who regretted that liberalism became a distinct party, notably William Temple, arguably the major Anglican figure of the twentieth century.

But the main vehicle of British liberal theology was a party organization, the Churchmen's Union for the Advancement of Liberal Religious Thought. Despite its name, this group usually preferred the term "Modernist" to "liberal." It had an energetic organizational leader, Henry D. A Major, and a preeminent thinker, Hastings Rashdall. It boasted many leading scholars including J. F. Bethune-Baker, F. C. Burkitt, F.J. Foakes-Jackson, Percy Gardner, W. R. Inge, Ian Ramsey, and Charles E. Raven. It flourished well into the 1940s. It still exists. And its longevity owes something to Anglican peculiarities that caused its late start.2

Liberals started to build a movement in 1898 with a weekly magazine, The Church Gazette: A Review of Liberal Religious Thought, later that year they founded the Churchmen's Union. The weekly lasted two years; in 1904 it was replaced with a quarterly, The Liberal Churchman, which lasted four years; and in 1911 Major founded a monthly, The Modern Churchman, the movement's (unofficial) flagship under Major's forty-six years of editorship. In 1919 Major opened a theological college at Oxford, Ripon College, which became the intellectual center of the Modernist movement. From the beginning the group's major thinker was Rashdall, whose success as an apologist owed much to the vogue of post-Kantian idealism that he caught on the way up and equally much to his assurance that liberal idealism was compatible with preserving the social privileges and white supremacism of British polite society.


Hastings Rashdall, the son of a London rector, was educated at Harrow and New College, Oxford. In 1889 he was elected a fellow of Hertford College, Oxford; the following year he joined the reformist Christian Social Union at its founding; in 1895 he returned to New College as a fellow and dean of divinity, and started writing books. In 1897 he got his first splash of public renown by debating his former teacher, moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick, on the right of liberal clergy to be clerics. Sidgwick, a former Broad Church liberal turned agnostic, contended that no cleric had a right to disbelieve in the New Testament miracles, especially the virginal conception of Jesus. …

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