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.
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