Sunday, 2 October 2011

Twenty One Years

I have a lot of sympathy for MadPriest and his ongoing agonies. He wants to be accepted by his Church, and by Church he means the one that is possessed by the nation. It is a hierarchical Church, and the hierarchs keep saying no, or suggest anonymity.

My suggestions previously are to go independent, rather in the way the folks do who join The Open Episcopal Church. I also suggest a pause: do no religion. Suggestions that are relevant include change denomination (even temporarily).

Back in 1989 I'd finished a Sociology of Religion Ph.D and had well settled on the Unitarian line. I first said no at to them interviews in 1988 but then said yes a year later in 1989. I went to the General Assembly (again) and met my future Principal in Lincoln. It was all go, and then Manchester was a shock. Chapels were quite conservative and I made a few mistakes, but the locals on committee didn't see me fitting in. When my Buddhist orientated Principal took a service in Manchester in pure liberal Christian form, when I had not (thinking it was a student only service), I realised that all the stuff about freedom of belief and no test of belief was somewhat far from the truth. The most telling report on a short (not quite) placement visit was that I was competent and all that but where would I exercise a ministry?

After dismissal I finished off a few preaching engagements where I said what I really thought, and then that was it. Religion and me was finished.

Yet at the time I said this would take ten years to sort out now, and I thought career wise about education. I flopped trying to be a Business Studies teacher, but I did all sorts in the education arena. I finally got a PGCE through Religious Studies, though I cannot be an RE teacher given the behaviour of pupils that I cannot control.

One and a half years later after UCM dismissal I went to the local C of E and took a back seat, except I was asked to take a men's service and they didn't know what had happened (it was very multifaith). The priest used that event to shift himself to a more religious humanist position in his own pulpit expressions. A look in at the Unitarian Upper Chapel didn't last long. Also I attended the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order and even wriggled into Western Buddhist Order situations. I liked them. So I was not even considering the Unitarians at this time.

Then I moved to New Holland (still with my mother) where we both went to Lincoln and Hull Unitarian churches, gradually focusing on Hull, where I realised some regarded me as the bad boy of the church and so I did not take up membership. That was useful as it got into some disputes: they could not be pinned on me. At the time I did a Theology MA and formulated a very religious humanist position. Eventually I left over how a minister was dismissed (see, distant echoes of my own past).

I made a real effort to be C of E in a friendly parish from 2004. I tried to be a postmodern liberal gentle Anglo-Catholic. I was even considering ministry when there. But it never even went to a first stage. I was asked about the "promises" I would have to make, and that one hurdle ended even talking about it. When a curate later made her promises, I stopped taking communion and so went straight down the candle. I had been on the slow decline before this; Don Cupitt had given up too; and I headed a theology group where I could see none of the arguments adding up.

I did have some links developing into Liberal Catholicism, the tradition, but in the final analyis it has never appealed. I think the essential is the congregation, and I wasn't sure I wanted to represent a more magical Catholic tradition with such notions as apostolic succession. Rather I have always preferred a market place of ideas and discussion among equals of different views gathered together.

While I was out of the Unitarians they had another minister, shrank, regathered and I joined afterwards. The situation has been theologically stable for me for quite some time (really, it has been pretty much the same since the Derbyshire C of E and Buddhists, the MA adding to my theological resources). Getting involved and being needed, to do the music, I have more or less stumbled into applying for ministry.

I mentioned it vaguely on the Hucklow Publicity Weekend. There was the Ministry Inquiry Day when I arranged just to look and go with Mhoira Lauer-Patterson. She pulled out and I went. I only told congregation people after I had been. I was unimpressed with Contextual Theology at UCM (not a Unitarian context, not my context) but HMC (in Oxford) seemed straightforward. It didn't seem practical or likely, however, until I rang up about it and it seemed right to fill in the form. If you don't fill in the form, nothing proceeds.

So it has taken not ten but twenty one years to come to this point of restoration. The form is not me in 1989. Now it has a less intense non-realism but has an MA Contemporary Theology and PGCE RE to add to the mix. So what they've got is something very academic, and this is screamingly obvious.

The movement is 2000 people fewer than 20 years back, and I think the churches have pluralised somewhat as some of the old guard have died. These churches have recruited (they would have collapsed otherwise - Hull people for example are mainly after me, even if I remain the youngest) but they haven't recruited as much as needed. Nevertheless, the question is the same: is there a place for someone like me?

If the answer is no, then it is sort of understood. If the answer is yes, it is because there will be a use for me. It is for the Church to decide, and it is on the level. Let's be clear: I would be in need of pastoral and some managerial training. There is no doubt about it. But what has gone forward, again, is someone who thinks and can leave people wondering what on earth I am on about.

There was a time when Unitarianism was a movement that had intellectual ministers, and they could preach remotely and yet have social and commun
ity status. There was a connection into a town's social and cultural life. This is not how it is now, because the ethnography is bottom up and so much theology has died. The issue is whether there is a role for someone to assist in the collegiate understanding of this approach to religion, one that rises above history, or whether now ministry is almost wholly pastoral and hardly about ideas at all. This bothers me if so; and the Unitarian Church is still a gathered Church. But sermons, after all, have become shorter and shorter, and many are historical and values based.

So my thoughts towards MadPriest are to take time out, to rest, to move away, to do something different, and see how things change before some sort of restoration can become practical. It has taken me 21 years, and the answer no makes as much sense as the answer yes this time.


Anonymous said...

You are right to say that there was a time when Unitarian ministers could preach remotely - possibly one of the reasons why so many chapels have closed in just the last 20 years ?? Have a look at Kingswood and Warwick, where a gifted pastoral minister has increased the congregation dramatically by delivering a fairly traditional Liberal Christian message and focussing on developing the chapel's community profile ;even those ,like Neville Kenyon, who have reservations about its Christian identity have had to admit to its success. I think your ministry is on this blog, Adrian - you have a much bigger congregation than you'll ever find in a chapel !

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

He does it in a clearly communal setting with neighbouring evangelical churches. Clear choice, then, and yes strong on community inside.

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