Thursday, 17 March 2011

Beliefs and Settings

The problem for being liberal in a credal (list of beliefs) community is that the agenda is constantly about what you do not believe. The crux of this, however, has emerged (again) in Lesley Fellows's blog. Now she may be courageous or she may be foolish, but having made her 'promises' she then displays her apparent condition of 'unbelief' in terms of, before training and ordination, chucking evangelical clothes out of the wardrobe. Some clothes are still on the floor, some can go on a don't know pile, but it is unclear if any of the clothes put in a box made it to the charity shop.

Here is the problem for someone in this situation. It is the risk telling us this, when you are supposed to lead the troops into Christian battle. Either you put up a public front and be dishonest, or you be honest and then make yourself open to exactly this following criticism from a colleague, David Cloake:

In the last twenty-four hours you have spoken about your past atheism, your crisis of faith, and how you wish to thin out your orthodoxies. This is part of the life of a priest surely, but I am agitated by the rightness of airing this stuff publicly. Yes, you have a gathering of very loyal followers who lap this stuff up, but I wonder how much you are giving them what they want. Certainly the 'comment applause' suggests that this might be the case.

I am among your readers, and I hope a friend. But I am a priest too who believes strongly that we take our anxieties about our the religion that we represent publicly and offer them privately within our own support mechanisms.

Now we know that a Church of England minister represents a corporate and collective front, but this is surely dishonest. Of course you could use silence, but then opening a public blog and playing a hand as if you hold eights when you hold threes is going to be dishonest. You might even be good at it, until someone says, "See you." Because then the dishonest minister will have to run, and fast.

Anita, dreaming beneath the spires, said:

If we engage in the same dialectic as she does, and come out on the side of Christian orthodoxy, our faith will only be stronger for it.

Good, but what if you don't? Has she? Of course the liberal is in a no-win situation. For all the justification in available and sophisticated theology, there is a little list, and the list is under question. For those who have denied the list, there is a history of removals as well as a more or less unknown history of walkouts (though I know a few actual cases).

Recently Lesley suggested a set of taboos generated, she says, by Christianity, of homosexuality, child abuse, incest and cannibalism, that could be seen as 'healing' if going through them, so I suggested some taboos that cannot be bust. They haven't been, in these parts, except by me, because if you bust that list you should be out. Of course I am out, but I wasn't even ordained, and lay people are no longer disciplined for unbelief whatever they may say.

Andrew Furlong did bust my taboo in 2001, saying Jesus was not the Son of God, and he was removed from the Church of Ireland. In the Church of England Anthony Freeman was removed in 1994, because of what he said about God, and you can read my alternative review of his book (the link at the Sea of Faith website is broken).

When Anita suggested that Lesley had given clues regarding exciting projects that intimated she would go into other employment, Lesley corrected that saying she wished to remain as a priest. Of course it isn't entirely in her hands. She is not in an Andrew Furlong or Anthrony Freeman position, yet, or publically, but she is not far off. It is a huge matter for a Church to remove a priest, but on the other hand one of them has to employ her. No one has deposed Mad Priest, Jonathan Hagger, but no one is employing him (and his punk webblog, becoming a means towards some income, has been inactive for days).

Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s there was a move out of ministry by many who became social workers or at least took up the relative freedom of unpaid non-stipendary ministry. However, the former is to give up the core of what ministry is about for something of other professional speciality, where you definitely don't do God, and the latter is a cop-out unless there are more solid arrangements that necessitate the same, like being a chaplain, which is then just someone else paying the bill. Chaplains and the other paid of universities are usually more on a limb regarding belief. Non-stipendary ministers active in parishes aren't usually any freer, being subject to the same dynamic dance as the paid.

There are options as well of independence or semi-independence, like joining the Open Episcopal Church, the Liberal Catholic Church International (LCCI) or the Liberal Catholic Apostolic Church (LCAC). In each you remain as priest (actually, coming from the Church of England, you might be conditionally reordained). The LCCI and LCAC are both deliberately broad and eclectic, but are still into the cosmic Christ at least, and adds a certain amount of magic in some interpretations - that's at least one of the historical perspectives. The LCAC makes an additional push into liberalism, but isn't quite like the Free Catholics of old or the intentions of the Unitarian then Bishop Ulric Vernon Herford. I don't quite understand how one would be very liberal theologically and in the Open Episcopal Church, but it is the case with some - it is just socially inclusive, Nicene, independent and ecumenical.

In the Unitarians we do not talk about how little we believe, but what we believe and how. With us, and with the Quakers, it is all the other way around. We spread out regarding beliefs, and they can be, usually, religious humanist, liberal Christian, Eastern (mainly Buddhist) and Pagan (mainly natural, earth focused and ecological). There is both the reasoning rational tradition (the main one) and the non-rational (from Romanticism and Transcendentalism). Unlike Quakers, Unitarians do have ministers, and they do all that ministers do, although the focus is congregational and not parish (not a lot of difference, in many cases: plus the English Presbyterian tradition was still parish orientated). Some ministers are ordained, if from other denominations and Northern Ireland, some are even priests in background, but many full ministers are not ordained. So Bob Wightman is ordained, because he was a Congregationalist, and Tony McNeile isn't - "I don't believe in it," he said to me.

So the point is this: if you don't have the list to start with, you don't have the dilemma. I'm not troubled with what I don't believe, because what I don't believe is the known unbelieved and then the unknown unbelieved. What I believe in religion is consistent with the sociology of knowledge and my entire outlook.

For the case of a list:

I do not believe in one God, but in signals of transcendence
Any possible overall transcendence is inactive
We evolved
All life evolves
Much can be discovered
Being inventive also leads to discoveries

I do not believe in one Lord but in people and the living
There is no one Son of God
There are interesting ethical and religious prophets who make mistakes
Prophetic people are just humans like the rest of us

Salvation is something like non-attachment to things that are transient
The religious task is to come to terms with death of self and other
This can be called awareness
There is liberation in being compassionate when also aware
This connects self to community

Much knowledge depends upon research - reliable and valid
Much knowledge is artistic and imaginative
A lot of understanding is framed by making stories

We give and receive, and exchange
Exchanging with others binds us together
Some exchange can be material giving for a hoped for spiritual return

It is useful to take time out to reflect and contemplate
Sometimes it is good to strive out and take risks
We should know where we have come from up to the present
Ethically we should ask where we are going
A church is a time-out place to ask questions relating to awe, wonder, the community and the self
Various traditions can be useful to frame these questions
The questions should be open and answers tentative

We are aware of the reality of where we are and what happens
We look forward to building something better than we have
We should attempt to build it, even in the smallest encounters


Erika Baker said...

I have found especially on blogs like yours that whenever I start to have a conversation about what I do believe people immediately take it back to baseline by questioning the whole notion of faith, sometimes more respectful than others.
A proper conversation never gets off the ground.

We can only have the conversations our conversation partners are willing to enter into.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Are you being cynical? I'm only responding too. Where have you written what you do believe (or write it) and I'll respond.

Erika Baker said...

I'm not being cynical. We seem to be forever grounded in whether anyone can take what I believe about God seriously because I cannot scientifically prove it.
And when I agree that I can't prove it because it isn't meant to be proven, we start the whole thing all over again and we never get off the starting blocks.

There were a number of occasions where people like Rowan Williams have made comments about what they believe about God and you penned long posts about how we couldn't be expected to take them intellectually seriously because.... they were obviously unscientific, sleights of hand, manipulative etc.

I'm so used to you dismantling everything, it's just very very odd to see you complaining about a lack of positive engagement now.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm not complaining. My list is a positive affirmation. It tells you what I do believe.

Erika Baker said...

OK, are we talking about individual belief or about whether it's safe and necessary to express that belief?
Because you start your post by talking about the debate on Leslie's blog about how much honesty about private beliefs a priest can afford.

And there, I think, the question is not just one of honesty (which I'm all in favour of!), but of having a pastoral role in a parish in which differerent people are in different places at any given time needing different things. And the question for me would be to what extend the priest can put themselves and their personal faith in the centre and to which extent they have to be more neutral in order to allow the individual parishioners to find their footings.
Challenging gently is fine, but dropping a big bomb into a small pond is possibly destructive.

On a personal level I would love to see a church that is mature enough to cope with very liberal beliefs as well as with more doctrine grounded ones.

My own immovable core belief is that there IS a God, that he is Love, that I can experience his presence in my life and his guidance and that he is accessible to all who want to find him.
He is not a magician in the sky but he can touch the core of our souls giving us all those gifts of the Spirit: love, kindness, patience, endurance, hope, strength... but he does not turn us into superhumans:-)

God cannot be explained, he has to be lived but it is worth risking the adventure because he enriches our lives in ways I could never have foreseen.

And words don't really tell the story, which is why Jesus righty spoke in parables and his stories are one off examples of what he wanted to express.
When we try to codify and to make laws based on our faith, we invariably fail and create an appalling mess.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I'm in a church that copes with very liberal beliefs, but then you get very liberal beliefs - like in mine a chap talks about Buddha, and a woman about nature and many don't know, and another is a softened out religious humanist (with a theology MA) and there is me too. The service theme, taken by one of our members on Sunday, is the natural world.

Erika Baker said...

yes, I do read what you write about the Unitarians with interest. But I think I personally am drawn to somewhere where people share at least my core belief in the "something" because it makes all the difference. I am not so much interested in a general philosophy group. I've been in a PCN group like that and it didn't really satisy anyone because, at the core, we shared absolutely nothing at all and we found that once we got deep enough we had very little to say to each other.

Maybe it's different if people are still prepared to change their world outlook but I'm looking to deepen mine, not to alter it completely.
If I went anywhere it would be the local Quakers, as my personal prayer is purely contemplative anyway.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I was saying somewhere else that you want it both ways, Erika, but the best you might get then is LCAC or LCCI which only rarely make a congregation. See the Wakefield entry, I'm rushing.

Erika Baker said...

What both ways - intelligent AND faith in a real God?
It's possible in local groups, even out in the sticks were we are.
It just takes some searching and getting individuals together instead of waiting to join existing organisations.
I'm not complaining.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Both ways - a liberal Church and one to tell you a core belief. Unitarian churches exist primarily for worship and the predominant language of that is God. They are set out as churches. If that sort of arrangement doesn't work, then I'm not sure what would. It is not like a PCN discussion group, but nor will this Church tell you what to believe.

Erika Baker said...

No, I don't want a church to "tell" me a core belief, I want people who share mine.
And there is a surprising number of us around, so I don't feel isolated.

Murdoch Matthew said...

"My own immovable core belief is that there IS a God, that he is Love, that I can experience his presence in my life and his guidance and that he is accessible to all who want to find him."

No, a conversation about this can never get off the ground so long as you insist that your subjective experience be taken as evidence. I can concede your notion of faith, while noting that a psychological explanation seems equally likely. My observation is that "faith" leads to many different results, some of them appalling. Central direction seems to be lacking. I am glad that your belief issues in fruits that I find constructive.

What I object to is your statement that God "is accessible to all who want to find him." Really? My forty-some years of seeking religious experience, including life in a religious community, failed from my lack of wanting? Gay kids, still being told they'll be healed if they have faith, remain in their unwanted and shameful desires because they lack faith? That way lies despair and too often suicide. Hold to your faith, Erika, and be a living witness to it, but please, spare us implied promises of transcendence that mostly aren't kept.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I agree with Murdoch.

Well, Erika, you should organise those people together who agree with you, but remember to exclude from your worshipping fellowship those who don't agree with you. Surprisingly, that might be liberal in content but not liberal in constitution. In fact it is dogma: the organisation that results tells people what to believe.

Erika Baker said...

Oh, this too sweet.
I start out by saying that a conversation about what I believe in is impossible on this blog, you sound genuinely surprised, and look where we ended up - precisely with what I said in my first post.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

QED indeed. Having not signed in, I have a word to place - ingrop. Looks like an American spelling for ingroup.