Friday, 10 December 2010

In the Interests of Balance

I admit feeling a little awkward sometimes having left the Church of England and yet continuing to comment on it, often negatively. I suppose at least I did put my head around the door on Sunday and discover why I had indeed gone for good. Nevertheless, whilst obviously I prefer the Unitarians, I thought I'd be deliberately negative about them and point out what is wrong with this home.

It can be amateur: Without a minister (someone who has undergone training, usually residential) or a lay leader (most lay preachers and lay leaders undergo some training) the variety of services can be interesting but also there is no obvious standard. Even with a minister, the menu can be disappointing. This is a genuinely equalitarian and liberal-democratic movement in the sense that there are no reserved areas for clergy, but the downside is the service where one wonders about the competence of its construction. Sometimes I hanker after something more professional and reliable.

It can all rest on the service taker: At Hull members of the congregation take services, and sometimes a service is by several contributing. But it is a paradox that a service that is more equalitarian can rest more upon the voice of the service taker. In fact, in the worst services the service taker drones on and on, and facilitates little. The answer is to vary content: more music, a silence, and have participation, and place the hymns well, but a number just do not do this, and after everything from them comes then a sermon of some 15 minutes and it is all the same. But people say that he or she is being paid, and so he or she ought to be the exclusive voice. Ministers and lay leaders ought to be facilitators.

The services are a bit thin: There was a Free Catholic tradition in the 1920s (sacraments without credalism) that was the peak outcome of the gothic revival, and the architectural and liturgical effects downwind from the Oxford Movement and Romanticism. However, the fixed liturgical tradition has all but died out. Whilst in the Church of England liberalism has been accompanied by a dressing-up theatricalism, associated with a clutter filled liturgy and ritual that few would believe in any literal sense, the Unitarian service can be very thin in contrast. You really do have to rely on what you believe: but then religion is more than belief. It ought to have more art to it. This can be done with music and poetry, and chalice lighting has grown in popularity, but the fact is that the Puritan shadow is very long. For me, diversity and difference ought to include the more theatrical and some of the insights of the Free Catholics should be revisited.

There is no credal test BUT: This is one of the most contradictory areas for Unitarianism. Although each individual is entitled to believe and express their beliefs, the fact is that some churches forget the idea of difference together and start to assume a theological identity. This means some filtering regarding who takes a service and who doesn't. In other words, the theological basis of activity moves from the individual to the congregation. It can even affect who new to the church stays and who goes elsewhere, when it should not.

Why meet at all? The problem with individualism is the question of why get together at all. The answer is we are not orang utans and because humans do, and indeed my answer is that Unitarians ought to profess a model of difference together for the benefit of society - the notion of religious and civil liberty with diversity. But how then to settle on a religious message? In the end, there is tradition, and that is an inherited language or two through which to do religion. There are also inherited spiritual resources, like books of scriptures. These are means to discuss and spiritually practise our own reflections upon life and ways forward. Nevertheless, you don't have to get together and, the reality is, most people just don't.

It's not actually that diverse: The fact is that Unitarians fit within the religious landscape. They are the ones who don't go anywhere else, who are too liberal for the compromises made inside the so-called mainstream denominations. There is also a tendency towards what I call easy-listening religion, towards what is sweet and nice rather than to be subversive and challenging. Fortunately some spiritual seekers are more interested in Eastern religious ideas or cut into humanism, and thus there is something more investigative. Sometimes, though, you do wonder regarding the vigour and rigour.

The low numbers: Historically and to the present Unitarians have endured low numbers, and so did their English Presbyterian forebears. It has never been that much of an evangelistic body. It has had denominational missions before, in times though of a clear biblical identity (relating to part of the movement). Usually the movement - that has lasted until now, after all - has been boosted by add-ons and revolutions in thought and attaching social groups. But this has not happened for a very long time, and the context of Unitarianism in terms of other Churches suffers from the comprehension of other Churches, themselves hanging on to who they have remaining. Nevertheless the numbers can be so low to be dispiriting, and you wonder about the sheer effort put into the worship given the numbers that are attracted.

The vacancies and supply contradiction: One of the bizarre situations at present is that no one who is on the GA Roll of Ministers should be unemployed. There are vacancies going unfilled, some of them even attractive vacancies. There is historic money available to pay the wages and expenses. Yet there aren't enough candidates. You would think it would be the other way around, given the 170 or so congregations, some of which don't even meet in a full time sense. You'd think that the Unitarians would have no need to train anybody, that there should be a trickle down of defectors from so-called mainstream denominations large enough in number, but there are only a few recent such transfers - despite thousands of ministers elsewhere, many in belief difficulties. The absence of choice makes selection very frustrating.

No one is in charge: Bishops are hierarchical, but at least there is the personal and pastoral in with the system of authority. Unitarians are either democratic or self-preserving trustee based. It means that, sometimes, politicking is involved, and no matter how friendly you try to be on a personal level the committee gets in the way. Either that, or some individuals (the officers) end up taking decisions and some people don't hear about them. Against this the minister is a figure of detached authority, but may also be weak given that the congregation (read trustees or committee) is the employer. It is one reason why the Ministerial Fellowship is so important, and why lay leaders often keep in touch.

Isolation: Congregations often share ministries - some ministers need plenty of petrol in the car. Where there are no ministers (and sometimes not for the want of trying) there is a sense of being an island in an ocean. The General Assembly is often like little more than a postal address, and other churches in district associations far away. The DIY sense of it all adds to the isolation - in a libertarian structure, where all is advisory, so much gravitates to the congregation. In the end it is the sharing of preachers (again, much petrol), the regional meetings and increasingly online contacts that suggests a denomination. I also think there is much value in tackling the Unitarian tradition and applying it as part of the means to reasoning. I have done this with Martineau and Newman, but so many seem not to have done this intellectual attaching. In the end, when there are 170 congregations, and a good number outside the clusters, and even the clusters thinning out, then the sense of isolation is clear. Hull has always had that sense.

Internationally Odd: There are two main traditions of Unitarianism: the Anglo-American creedless, built from English Presbyterianism and Congregationalism. Then there is the central European, that based in Romania and Hungary that follows a catechism and has been historically conserving - it has bishops and is quite biblical. The Polish Socinian tradition was destroyed by Roman Catholic power and dispersed. But there are now expansions of Unitarianism around the world, including in Africa, that seem whimsical and peculiar. There are some city congregations that are gay friendly in Africa where Anglicans are hostile, but some new developments seem to be the inventions of people who read some webpages and taken congregations with them and are not particularly gay friendly even if they do provide communal welfare. Former UUA President William Sinkford doing some charismatic dancing among some new Unitarian congregations must have been outside his comfort zone. South African congregations have been there longer (guess why) and there are scatterings in Australasia. Mumbai Unitarians have a different history from the village congregations in the north east of India, the latter of which are not Christian in the sense that the Romanians have been. Scandinavian Unitarianism seems to be undergoing a rebuild based on the Hungarian tradition, but that's individualism for you. Much Unitarian focus internationally is on the International Association for Religious Freedom, which stretches into other religions, as indeed much 'other' contact is now interfaith rather than ecumenical.

The fact is that Unitarianism involves cutting all sorts of ropes. People hang on to ropes: whether it is other people's beliefs, styles of religious performance, forms of ministerial exclusivity, cluttered up traditions and limitations around scriptures, or the nurse of large Church. Unitarianism attracts people who keep asking why, and who realise that the question has consequences; most people settle for compromises and tag along on something institutional that, if they asked why consistently, they would realise was wanting. But even Unitarians need to settle on some matters.


Anonymous said...

Anglicanism=Shinto of the English-speaking world?

Erika Baker said...

Low numbers? Well, yes, if you only want to meet with like minded people you'll end up with low numbers.
The real question is whether that's theologically right or whether it would be better for us as individuals and for society if we tried not to isolate ourselves in ever purer circles.

This is not a sneer but a genuine question because I feel right caught in the middle of it too. And, as yet, I have not found an answer for myself.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Technically, it is not 'pure' because this denomination is open to anyone, and gets agnostics, theists, Christians, Easterns and so on - but the fact that a doctrinal Christian has lots of readily available choice means that the Unitarian occupies a particular place in the religious landscape.

Erika Baker said...

It's pure in the sense that people, presumably, share Pluralism as a core value and that they don't need others to believe the same things.

I'm not so sure about doctrinal Christianity still having lots of different choices, doctrinal liberalism seems to have all but disappeared.

Suem said...

I have the same problem. I've tried non C of E churches and they don't feel right for similar reasons, services too thin, not liturgically satisfying, don't quite feel at home (although the last one is getting to be true of the C of E too!)

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

It is a real issue and I say this to my Unitarian friends and some don't see it. I've been accused of using 'clutter' when I take services.

Anonymous said...

I agree that some Unitarian services can be rather thin both in content and style depending on who is leading.What I find refreshing about them,returning to them recently after an absence of nearly thirty years is that the services I have experienced are presented in an honest and intelligent way,which is rare in many mainstream establishments.The downside is that with often a different service leader almost every week there is little continuity of presentation or format.