Sunday, 12 December 2010

Warming it Up a Bit

Unitarian worship has lacked warmth and coldness is its legacy.

It is so first because of the old dissent Puritan inheritance, those people who were plainer than plain in what they wanted to say and the lack of what they did in worship.

Unitarians realised such lack of warmth, and one of the clearest writers of such was William Hale White who wrote the fictional Mark Rutherford Autobiography and Deliverance connected novels.

One reason that they did not pick up 'warmth' during the period of new dissent was in their rejection of all that was happening around the Methodist revival. First of all, the Unitarians (like almost all denominations, actually) were firmly run by the middle class. The mercantilist Presbyterians had become Unitarian capitalists in terms of the money. Families of trustees who had once been suppressed and achieved the Toleration Act of 1689 went on to press for political and religious middle class inclusion, as seen in the 1832 Reform Act. The Unitarians, drawing on the sober English Presbyterians, had a ministry educated in the dissenting academies that produced intellectual styled sermons and long wordy prayers. So, when the Methodists turned from being a High Church method to becoming a preaching and class system of evangelistic style, the Unitarians were a bit sniffy about all the emotion where mainly middle class preachers went around making and attracting the respectable working class. Even later Unitarian mission vans were decidedly unemotional.

However, the gothic revival did appeal to the Unitarians, and so did broader, intellectual movements like German biblical criticism and English romanticism (the equivalent in the USA was transcendentalism). The emphasis moved away from a rational if literalistic reading of the Bible towards both Church and individual, as biblical criticism meant that the Bible became demoted.

There was a kind of Hegelian logic to Unitarianism of a higher and higher theism, and that was joined not by rationality but by feeling. There was, thus, a Presbyterian breadth without the Puritanism, and a galloping tradition of liturgies in fact started by the Arian revision to the Book of Common Prayer, thanks to the Anglican Samuel Clarke.

This became a tradition of revised liturgies. Thus while Anglican liberals had to symbolise their fixed liturgies, and maintained doctrine (some revisions in the twentieth century - mainly a modernisation of language), Unitarians revised and revised.

It can be said that such fixed liturgies in Anglicanism have promoted a postmodern approach to tradition, whereas Unitarianism retained a belief in the objectivity of language as it continued to revise the words.

A few in the 1920s went the whole hog, so to speak, and became Free Catholics, but this was largely rejected and the movement did not last. It came later than, if it paralleled, some of the reasons behind Liberal Catholicism, but it was never as magical nor did it seek out as a movement ecumenical apostolic legitimacy. Ulric Vernon Herford was a Unitarian minister of a family of ministers who made a leap into his own branch of Liberal Catholicism and today is one of those bishops often quoted as giving apostolic legitimacy to numerous 'episcopi vagantes' from the most liberal to the most Catholic and Orthodox. He was a one-off.

Unitarian churches were split into free church style and liturgical use. However, in the 1960s the Unitarian mood was for simplicity again, with adopting a rational religious expression of secularisation. This continued belief in objectivity of language meant a form of minimalism and an absence of enchantment. The use of liturgies was being dropped rapidly.

Since then a mood of different faiths rather than the plain humanistic has grown, and thus towards spiritual practices. Some of these are Eastern, some Pagan, but there is a stronger emphasis on music. Another change has been the widespread adoption of a brand symbol, and thus lighting the flaming chalice at the beginning of a service. No one seems to have grasped, however, that the postmodern emphasises image over word, and is a means to more spirituality and enchantment.

Unitarians retain plain speaking. One of the advantages and yet a problem has been the death of theology. Unitarians are often professional middle class and well educated, but they tend not to be intellectuals. Theology is now seen as a means to say something that wouldn't be said with plain speaking. Theology became a private language of Christian intellectuals who could code-speak to one another while sounding orthodox to the untrained. It is so very sophisticated, but largely a game, and not only that but is used as 'strategies' to preserve the uniqueness of Christ, when history and biology/ physics present contraditions to the narrative of the miraculous, for which Unitarians have no interest (Jesus either had useful things to say, or he didn't, just as the Bible inspires in places or it doesn't, and now this is extended to any religious person or book).

A further difficulty with the death of theology has been a replacement by history. I do this myself, but I always try to bring the history forward into a postmodern theology. But I am very alone, and in a congregational system no one has a clue what I am on about half the time.

Nevertheless, such projection of traditions forward can be a means to think through principles, and warming the services up a bit would help (liturgies are possible: they just become more science-awe reflective, about the self and communities, and more interfaith in resource). Without compromising sense, these would help to enrich, and enriching is to assist the spiritual purpose of meeting, reflecting and contemplating who we are and where we are going.

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