Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Agenda for Faith: Try Honesty

Anglican Rev. Stephen Mitchell has just republished his early 1990s Agenda for Faith as a free ebook on the Sea of Faith website. He retains his postmodern, non-realist approach to faith. There is a new preface, and it is all about strategies for people like him in the Church.

When at Unitarian College I had the right to choose a preacher for the main Luther King House service, and I chose Stephen. He did deliver his sermon, except I'd been told to go so wasn't there (in what would have been my second year). Perhaps I should have employed his strategies to stay in Unitarian ministry training, but I had a habit of telling people what I actually believed, doing so into places, then, of old fashioned Unitarianism. I was a bit of a humanist and Pagan, a bit symbolic, and committees and ideological ministers didn't like it.

So what are his strategies? Several aren't acceptable, it seems. Getting rid of stupid doctrines doesn't work unless it becomes formal, and they are still in creeds and hymns and liturgies.

Strategy two is to reinterpret, like the meaning of God, but Anthony Freeman lost his job when he did that.

So strategy three, within the book, is the change of philosophy. This is keeping all the clutter but having a postmodern attitude towards it. I know that Stephen applied this philosophy right across the board, including science, whereas I applied it mainly to religion; in fact I still apply meaning to religion as it gets applied to the arts, but I am more realist when it comes to science and social science.

The Church then, via the Doctrine Commission and Professor Thiselton sat on that one (Lesley Fellows, take note: your love of postmodernism does not come with high level approval!). So the fourth strategy is the Greek view that God is unknowable.

I had a conversation like this in Barton. I was asked whether I a Real Absence person, allowed, or a non-realist person, not allowed, for considering ministry. Er, well, really, has to be non-realist. Yes I could see the possibility of transcendence, from signals of transcendence, but to actually talk about God etc. needed non-realism. Well, I decided to pursue no further.

That's the problem with the fourth strategy. It is realist unknowable, however much it is classical Christianity.

A fifth strategy is that after Christianity only, and after aggressive missionary activity to people of other religions as isms, Christianity has now given way to Christianness (says Raimon Panikkar) - encountering Christ at the centre of one's self, a Christian consciousness and away from institutions.

Such a direction away from institutionalism gets the Church to its roots and away from doctrinal squabbles. Stephen sees that he was mutating towards this "reality at the centre of human life beyond medieval Christendom and modern Christianity".

I think this is known as subjectivity and it was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century by a certain James Martineau. But the Church never had a golden period free of doctrinal squabbles, nor a subjective period of inner faith - it had Gnostic faith, but that was squashed out by the institution.

Even Martineau was opposed by old school Unitarian biblicists, though they were to conk out under the pressure of biblical criticism. They turned into a 'keeping up the appearances' of being a Church, set against a broadening out of beliefs that subjectivity implies.

I have a further strategy. It's not a strategy at all. It is called honesty. Now any pastor has to have sensitivity towards the beliefs of the people in situ, and indeed as a preacher has a duty to represent them, but there is also a duty of honesty.

You change your view because you change your beliefs, not because you change strategy.

Why change strategy to stay in one particular institution? Why do this when that institution is ethically dubious? The suggested option is to say what you think, pay the price, and then do what others do and move to another Church (it could be tiny) or set up your own.

What is odd about Stephen Mitchell and his strategies is that they were not needed by him. Strategies are for those who want to appear to say something more acceptable than what they really want to say. Everyone knew what he thought, because he said so, as in the infamous BBC Heart of the Matter, after which he signed a paper for his bishop in order to demonstrate credal orthodoxy. Perhaps we don't know what he thinks. People change, after all. This ebook, unfortunately, is still from the early 1990s.


Anonymous said...

I like many have been burnt and felt pushed out by the church furthermore the ‘Anglican Covenant’ does not fill me with confidence that change of any sort will be easily achievable in the future.

Therefore I would suggest that Stephen Mitchell’s ‘Agenda For Faith’ is more relevant today than when first published, why? Because the strategies suggested within are more about opening up a dialogue whereas simply hiding under the duvet and ignoring a tidal wave of fundamentalism sweeping over the CofE is cowardly at best and irresponsible at worse.

Whilst I agree in part with your blog in regards to your comments questioning why someone would wish to stay in any particular institution I do feel that this all too easily dismisses the pain, stress and dislocation felt when having to leave a church – there is something to be said surly for being a cultural Anglican or even a high church agnostic.

I must be honest and say I’m no longer part of the Anglican church and decided to work with and through a smaller independent church where my SOF philosophy and leanings can sit comfortably with a re-contexulisation of creeds without fear of dismissal; I’m not sure this re-contexualisation of creeds, for Anglican priests or even laity, under the new covenant, would be achievable with any degree of sagacity; so Stephen’s strategies (pick one) are important in thought at least.

Ecumenically ‘Agenda For Faith’ should further be welcomed as in my opinion it creates a more level playing field thus allowing for more inter-denominational cooperation and possible agreement with liberal and/or radical ‘fringe’ and independent churches. Given the tight purse strings of many organisations in local authority at present, chaplaincy positions that were once the monopoly of the state church are now becoming more widely available to the independent churches where clergy have always been self-supporting.

Therefore I welcome once again Stephen Mitchell’s attempt at bringing about a conversation at least and comfort to some through his bravery in continuing to swim against the tide.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I hope you are right. The assessment is what is happening to the institution and indeed the Covenant will be an important point - and it just may be that the wheels are coming off its wagon.

In the end any Church is entitled, through its hierarchy, to set up and guard its boundaries. The Covenant is about boundaries - mainly those against social inclusion - and inevitably there are those over the edge and those far away over the edge.

Yes if one of the strategies had worked, then that would have been a great achievement, but they didn't. Now Stephen is suggesting a Martineauesque approach, not in the book itself. There is a history of Anglicans and others saying Christ and Jesus often enough and people nodding their heads. It happened when Pusey visited Germany. There is a falseness to it.

mwp said...

There was an interesting moment on Start the Week (a BBC4 program I listen to as a podcast here in Vermont) when famous atheist Sam Harris said this:

"I don't dispute for a moment that we need ritual, or at least highly value ritual, we need sacred language, we need things to say when people die or get married that are not ordinary ... there's profundity in life that has to be marked by special occasions and this is a problem that the only language we have for this at the moment is language that is redolent with untruths about the universe and we have to pretend either not to notice what these rituals actually mean or we have to endorse things that I think we can't honestly endorse." He acknowledged that "the only language we have" for dealing with these significant human events is religious language, though as I recall he held out the possibility of developing some new language in the future.

Anyhow, maybe he's right. But that would leave people who feel called to (and gifted to) address moments of significance right here and right now to either try to develop a new language or try to use the existing one, since even Sam Harris acknowledges it's the only game in town.

I'm still comfortable with the language -- it rarely asks me to endorse things I can't honestly endorse, and I can find alternatives where necessary. But if my opinions changed, I could imagine continuing to use the language because it's the only way to engage people at a level that people really do need to be engaged. There might, in the end, be more important considerations than doctrine.