Monday, 18 April 2011

Answers to Those Twenty Questions

Robert Brenchley of Birmingham decided to answer my twenty questions like this:

1. Can you give a brief outline of your understanding the main points of the history of Unitarianism/ your Church [by 'Church' is meant denomination]?

Methodism began in the mid-18th Century, as a religious society within the C of E. Grassroots movements were springing up everywhere, as the social upheavals associated with agricultural reform and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution created a new underclass, and left many of them beyond the reach of the Established Church. John Wesley brought many of these together, and provided them with a new theology. At the same time, he was something of a dictator, and left a top-down organisation which fell apart in short order, over petty controversies about holding camp meetings, installing an organ in a church, and the like. Separation with the Anglicans came shortly after his death - made inevitable by his ordination of minsters to send to America - and one denomination soon became a dozen. Over time, most of them have either disappeared or united into the Methodist Church we have in Britain today.

2. What is your own biography relevant to intersecting with the Church?

My mother was brought up as a Presbyterian, but went to an Anglican church in Oxford. I was sent to the Sunday School there when I was four, got bullied, couldn't get anyone to do anything about it, and after a couple of years I got out of it by announcing that I didn't believe in God. I remained an atheist for about twenty years, but eventually drifted into belief of a sort; traditional religion has never worked for me, possibly because I avoided being brainwashed in Sunday School. It bored me from what I remember; I was told lots of stories about some fellow called Jesus doing things that even at that age I knew didn't really happen.

I joined the Methodist church in the village, as there was no other, and I wasn't going to the next village to go to church. Once I was in the church I wanted to get involved, but it was cliquey, dominated by a bunch of old ladies who had to have things their way, the way it was when they were young. After a lot of hesitations I trained as a Local Preacher. That gave me a little basic theological education, which I wanted to take further. There wasn't much opportunity for that in Cornwall, so I moved to Birmingham and studied here, and in Sheffield.

I got married, to an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone. People sometimes get quite worried because she's a devout Muslim, but it's one of the things we've never had a row over. It's all the same God, so why would we fall out over it? We threw the rulebook out of the window, had a church wedding, and I carried on studying. After a couple of years of jumping through hoops, we got Namissa's status sorted, and clearance to bring the girls. Ten days later they were caught up in the fighting after a coup, which had been organised by someone we knew, who lived round the corner in Birmingham while he was in exile.

Kumbi, then aged 11, arrived a couple of days later, having been evacuated by the US navy; she was badly traumatised, but she's recovered enough to be training as a mental health nurse. Mina, aged five, arrived three months later, after being taken over the border to Conakry and flown out from there. She's now doing a psychology degree. Namissa is now a Mental Health Social Worker.

I've now been a Local Preacher for almost twenty-five years, I'm a Church Steward, Property Steward and Circuit Steward, so I do far too much.

3. How would you describe its theological spread now?

Incoherently Arminian, with everything from fundamentalists to extreme liberals.

4. Where do you fit regarding its theological spread now?

At the liberal end, though I'm more of a Universalist than an Arminian these days.

5. How does the church you attend fit in with the span of belief of your Church?

We're a mixed bag, with members from three continents. We've got evangelicals and liberals, but we don't quarrel about it.

6. Would a different church relate better to you as an individual?

Probably not.

7. How do you benefit socially from being involved with the Church?

It was the only contact I had when I arrived in Birmingham. I've got some very good friends there.

8. What is your Church's 'gospel', do you think?

That God cares about people, and all their needs. Our main outreach is a charity shop which is run by some of the ladies.

9. How would you describe 'faith' and 'salvation'?

I think faith is about having confidence in God to sort things out and rescue us from the mess we've got into. Salvation is a process which starts from where we are, and makes us more like God. It begins with forgiveness, but that's only the first step.

10. How does the Church in its structures and congregations relate to diversity and equality?

Most congregations these days mirror the ethnic makeup of their areas; black people tend to be comfortable with white, but some white people will avoid a church with a lot of black people, especially if they're running things. Some long-established white people still expect to have the last word, and this causes problems at times. My church is 80% black, and we've only got the odd couple of people who haven't really understood that the 'difference' is just a bit of pigment.

11. What can be done to halt decline and develop growth, either structurally or by individual actions?

I've known a lot of people who've left churches, and it always seems to boil down to our failures as a community. Either churches are openly exclusive, and people are pushed out for not toeing the party line in some way, or they're run by cliques who ignore or disrespect others. If we can find ways to be genuinely inclusive and democratic, I think we can turn things round. Trouble is, nobody's addressing the problem. Methodism's been losing members since the mid 19th Century, and there's never been any real enquiry into the reasons that I can discover.

12. How does Unitarianism/ the faith affect daily decision making?

Not consciously, but I think I've internalised it. If I've got ethical objections to something - which tend to be faith-based - I feel extremely uncomfortable in I go and do it. I'm not at all traditional in what I object to though.

13. What sorts of things do Unitarians/ people of the Church say or assume that you disagree with particularly?

That 'Every word of the bible is literally true', or endless subtler variations. They really believe they believe it too, even when they're manipulating texts to make them say something very different from what's there in black and white!

14. How do you regard any of these: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Passover, Diwali, Buddha's Enlightenment, Ramadan/ Eid, Samain? Do any other celebrations impact?

Christmas is a much needed break during the long winter; Jesus probably wasn't born then, but I don't think it's coincidence that it falls on Dies Natalis Invictus, the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun. Constantine I, the fellow who definitively legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, was a sun worshipper who ordered people not to work on 'the venerable day of the Sun', and continued to mint coins by the million celebrating Sol Invictus as his 'companion' for years after his supposed conversion.

Easter is more meaningful; at least there's a good chance Jesus really was crucified then. You've really got to celebrate the Resurrection. I don't mark Passover, but Easter is effectively a Christian reworking of it. Ramadan's significant since my wife is rather strict about observing it. We don't do much for either of the Eids.

15. What connections have you had/ do you have with people of different religions? What would you like?

I married one.

16. Are there any customs or beliefs you particularly dislike and reject?

Not customs. There are longstanding practices I deplore, particularly 'nominating' a person to office. Effectively, it's a single-candidate rubber-stamp 'election'. Office holders get to select the appointee, leading to networks of self-perpetuating power cliques which are rarely challenged.

17. Is this approach to faith too easy or too difficult to follow (or something of both)?

Like most churches, we do have a tendency towards cheap grace. We need to change the culture, and make the church a lot more participatory.

18. Does your approach to faith clash with science and/ or social science?

Not in the least. I'm qualified in both Geology and Theology, and worked in mental health for many years. I've never found any serious clash.

19. Is there any sense in which the Church's approach to faith is counter-cultural and subversive, or is it just culturally subservient?

It tends strongly towards the subservient, to the point where it's hard to find trends within the church which don't mirror some aspect of the wider culture.

20. What might cause you to leave the Church (and either move to another, or stop religious practice altogether) and, at present, is this at all likely to happen?

It's highly unlikely to happen. I'd leave a strongly evangelical church, but that's not our style, and even then, I wouldn't leave the church altogether.


Louise said...

Hi Adrian, good questions and really got me thinking. Have written some stuff myself but might use it for another purpose. So will sit with it for a while and see. Briefly popped into the Annual Meetings this weekend - a good atmosphere and just next to the lovely Swansea Bay. xx

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I went to Hucklow instead of going to Swansea. I do like Swansea - you are a little nearer though.

Good, if the questions generate other activity.

Best wishes Louise.