Monday, 27 December 2010

A Small Community

I listened again to a transient radio station and a programme relating to religion and blogging. I happened to have kept the download from the time. It referred to a community of people encountered online, and this is an experience I share.

The online community consists, for me, of people I have never met (though I might have done: circumstances meant I turned down an offer for a group of people to travel to Leeds on one occasion). The online community formed via people visiting my blog and me visiting those of others, and then via hooking up to Facebook where my 'friends' are kept down in number and not infinitely expanded. Some of those friends are also other physical friends.

With a few exceptions, this online community is liberal minded. It has an Anglican ethos too, even though some of us are no longer Anglican. However, among many there is a pattern emerging, and I'm included, and it is that of being on the margins. Incidentally, one person's online group is not quite the same as another as they stretch off in different directions; so each person has a group like a venn diagram overlapping with that of another person but we find the same people repeating.

Some are gay and lesbian, and all are inclusive. For some it is a furious debate; it's not even an issue for me to even debate about because I assume inclusivity. They have felt marginal for some time, and the pressure seems to be increasing. Some have a professional religious interest, and they have really felt the heat. One who seems rather distanced from me by perspective can't get a job, and now one has been thrown out of the prospect of getting a ministry job. I myself had only a year at theological college before being shown the door - I think of the contribution I could have made over the last twenty years, and its their loss. It screwed me up, and so my religious involvement now is always on my terms.

We are not just theoreticians when opposing the Anglican Covenant. It actually is a cause that encapsulates what it is to marginalise and make second division; it puts the institution above people, and makes a crucial error of priorities. Religious institutions will form and reform, and that's the way it's always been, and only religious bureaucrats try to hold on to something they think is essential, but actually isn't. In the meantime they do damage to people.

My argument against it is because I am against all creeds and articles and the whole damned lot. I opposed the Unitarian General Assembly Object to 'uphold liberal Christianity' (whatever that is) on both the arguments that it is restrictive and useless and therefore does more damage than it is worth. Ditto the Anglican Communion Covenant. That makes me somewhat different from the rest, who assume creeds and make belief promises, but I think my argument about this 'extra set' of requirements is shared by those of the online community that overlaps with me. The impact of that Covenant on me is to be nil, but I oppose the principle of the thing as part of that online connection.

Now there is this person and he has done theological training to give his all, gets dismissed from a job in advance (in the usual worst possible way - that's how institutions work), and wonders about carrying on. I have been there, because of the puzzle as to what to do. The problem is that if you now leave completely it's as if you give them their argument. 'Look at him, he left so we were right to remove him.' This is rubbish: all relationships are reciprocal, and so your giving something to them involves them giving something to you. When they break that, when the mutual giving becomes a slap in the face, you have every right to get out.

You can still support the principle of what took you there, but bugger the institution that distorts it all. If you are sure they have made up inadequate and distorted reasons for removal, or that they cut across your integrity, then they should lose out and you keep yours. They lose the personnel: if they carry on like this (and they often do) then they lose their most creative people. They keep the quiet jobbers, of course, but the institution simply underlines its own conserving bureaucracy. If it goes on to die, hard luck.

It may be, of course, that having cut the rope you realise there were certain principles or beliefs you didn't actually support, but you were before doing the reciprocal bureaucratic duty - as indeed we do. But this is why, I think, that when an institution shits on you that you should clean the mess off, create a space and work out what you really think and want.

When I left Unitarian College in 1990 I said to myself this could take ten years to sort out and I am now twenty years on and all I've done is enjoyed nothing, some Western Buddhism and floated between local Anglican and Unitarian settings. I won't join the local congregation and that means I can't properly be on any committees or vote. I do things to help but a day can come when they are just dropped. I cannot remember when I last wrote a letter to The Inquirer about anything: to some extent I don't care any more about what the denomination does, nor about its structural inner decline. If it fell to pieces it would not matter. Quietly and alone, and as I please, I work out my own historical and theological connections to the past, and I articulate what the denomination has perhaps forgotten.

It doesn't follow that we have to be martyrs. I am not a member of the become a martyr club, and I also have serious questions even about the biggest martyr of them all and his situational motivations. You should avoid being a martyr. For example, it is quite clear now that the Sea of Faith Network stance is outside Anglicanism as it has become, but there are people still in ordained jobs. I don't know how they do it, but they are better carrying on if they can square the circle (or even cynically) rather than being kicked out. Of course they may, as Don Cupitt himself has done, move out progressively and effectively go elsewhere.

The Anglican and other so-called mainstream Church boundaries have moved in considerably, and what happens now is that there are institutional-political touchstones that find you out quicker than others.

What blogging does is make your opinions known, so that you do the job of an Inquisition for the institution. An institution is constantly busy maintaining its boundaries, of who is in and who is out, and blogging simply makes the job easier. This extends to others like the Methodists and even politics. I remember some years ago Rowan Williams at a General Synod saying in effect pray for people marginalised but pray especially for the Anglican Communion.

So please continue to pray for the Lambeth Conference – pray that it may find new ways forward that will restore and deepen confidence in our Communion and trust between us, and that it may help to open up reconciliation for those who have felt injured or marginalised in any setting; but pray even more that it will be a context where, by thinking and speaking together in the presence of God, all of us may be set free to be more fully the Church God calls us to be wherever we may find ourselves...

Conversely, you can blog to make sure you are within the institution, and the Inquisition will occasionally visit and note the means by which you maintain good behaviour.

Recently this online group stretched out its hand to Bishop Pete Broadbent, who isn't exactly a card carrying member, given his views in general and in particular, but he made his own institutional error and got a nasty chop for it, and whose boss has told the rest of the world to like it or lump it all wrapped up in the crap that, 'We had a conversation and we agreed...' So empathy can stretch a hand across to him too.

Institutions come in all shapes and sizes. I am pleased that I contacted a friend and in so doing put the mockers on a bunch of, on that occasion, religious bullies and fantasists, who have since gone off elsewhere and created something yet more in their own image. That put me at some distance from them. I didn't seek that, and was since refused an attempt at reconciliation. It pleases me that their leaving has refreshed what they left behind, and we are talking tiny handfuls of people here. And I bet there are no more than about twenty people in this online grouping of which I speak at present, but the point is that every single individual matters whereas the institutions are always here today and gone tomorrow, even if tomorrow is far off.


Erika Baker said...

Wonderful post, thank you. I will have to think around some aspects of it in much much more depth.

But first a fundamental question that has been occupying my mind for a long time. We may reject binding creeds and practices. But without SOME kind of framework, how would we ever have met in the first place?

It's all very well to say we develop from a centre into widely different directions and we are inclusive of everyone whereever they may be moving. But without having had something to gravitate to in the first place, this Internet community would not have met and grown as it has.

Every time I say to myself: no church! No creeds! I have to accept that I am where I am because I started out at a church with creeds.

The problem seems not to be creeds and statements of belief but churches that are increasingly fearful and feeling threatened if they don't draw tighter and tighter rings around themselves.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

An answer to your question, one that exists inside Unitarianism, is association through negative relationship. It sounds and probably is parasitical, but it is the relationship with something that is rejected.

More positively, it is not creeds and articles, but a line of historical traditions that when combined produce a language that provides theological material. This has moments of revolution, but mainly just evolves.

The includes significant persons like Jesus, Buddha and so on, but also is broad enough to avoid them if wanted - ethics can stand alone, for example, or its about how lots of people live their lives.

Constitutions can be unwritten, though this itself does not solve the tendency to draw tighter and tighter rings of who is in and who is out.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and helpful P. and E.

all the best



wersemp is a nice word generated by the word verification thingie on here -- that too gives me joy in its immediacy and random-production

Erika Baker said...

yes, but where do people meet, where do we start our journeys, if not in the established churches?
The Leeds meeting was all focused around a group of people reading the same blog and we started reading it because we were finding ourselves in the margins of our churches.
Without the churches, where would people like you and me start out these days? How would we meet?

My children will have nothing to do with the church. Where can they get that opportunity of growing spiritually in the safety of a guiding group, all be it one they will later outgrow?

It worries me deeply that they churches are making themselves so inaccessible to people with enquiring minds.
There is nothing wrong with rubbing against your spiritual group, it's how you grow. There is everything wrong with not even having a starting base.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Well obviously very many people, by far the majority, see no need for such a base.

Then there are refugees, some hanging on, some gone, some elsewhere. Churches have become an acquired taste, and are bound to become small , but the hangers on or off are marginal to them.

Erika Baker said...

I suppose that's where our gnat's kneecap's differene does matter. I value the core message of the church, I believe the faith in the core of love that haunts the Universe (my favourite Richard Holloway sentence)can be found there more easily than anywhere else.
That the vast majority isn't aware of it is neither here nor there.

I have found something incredibly deep and life-giving through the church and I wish there was a way my children could find it too. I can see why they can't, but I have no idea where else they might find it.