Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Holloway's Prison

I consumed two BBC programmes fronted by Andrew Marr today. One was Start the Week by download from Radio 4 with Karen Armstrong, Jonathan Safran Foer, Helen Edmundson and Richard Holloway. The other was his fronting of a BBC 2 programme about David Hockney, a close neighbour to my friend's dad in Bridlington.

Andrew Marr showed relative ignorance and made easily corrected mistakes in both programmes, which is why increasingly these should have specialist presenters rather than generalists. At times he even looked bored alongside David Hockney. David Hockney's whole emphasis was about looking: seeing through larger space as we are within, what colour is within, and seeing through time. I appreciated Hockney better.

On a day when a high ranking policewoman claimed at the Leveson Inquiry systematic and continuous corruption at The Sun and with the police and public agents, thus making the Archbishop of York's article in The Sun on Sunday utterly ill-advised, and showing him to be an institutional apparatchik, Richard Holloway and Karen Armstrong in particular hoped for breadth for faith in settings that realise that faith and belief are not the same, and that modern times have created the notion that believing more is to be more religious. Jonathan Safran Foer stated how doing ritual itself is being religious - affirmed by both religionists present - and specifically Passover as a re-enactment ritual can be the last connection secular people have with the religious inheritance in Judaism, that keeps them connected.

Obviously as a Unitarian attender I would assert I go to one of those churches that retains breadth, where questions matter more than answers, and that answers are your own.

Of course the question of Richard Holloway is: 'Why didn't you tell us your actual religious position when you were an active bishop?' Yes, we knew he was at the liberal end of things, but he was also an institution-man, a prison against honesty, if not quite to the same extent as the two current English Archbishops and their depressing bureaucratic dealings.

Arguably he did, at least more than most, and combined being institutional with being a little careless in the role: there was a run-up of liberal Christian books and then Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics came out in 1999 and he resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh in 2000, partly thanks to comments from George Carey, that keeper of Godly morality as suits. I always assumed Richard Holloway was liberal but within the boundaries of the institution, but then one shouldn't assume. He actually thought the Church institution was slow, needing religious excuses to change.

Whatever one thinks about Don Cupitt, as a comparison, at least he 'came out' in full while still an active priest, and made his position clear, retaining his role for some time against calls to resign, though later on he stated that his critics were right all along.

Like Cupitt, on the radio Richard Holloway states that he is opposed to the supernatural. Religion was a human institution, he thought, now he thinks God is made up too. He lives with mystery. He has also given a newspaper interview making the doubts clear.

What's puzzling is that he states that he began to lose his faith in God through radical doubt five years after he was ordained as a priest. He did his self-giving parish work and climbed (or was pushed up) the ecclesiastical greasy pole.He never got over doubting and a self-arguing condition.

He settled on the usual gamble, the 'as if', otherwise called Pascal's wager. Pascal's wager, however, does not work, because the God you think you should believe in has to have characteristics, and to assume belief about God with some characteristics is to disbelieve in a God with other characteristics. You cannot simply wager on God rather than no God as a security for other worldly salvation. But he did, as many do.

His new book is Leaving Alexandria and it is a kind of spiritual autobiography (see the poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, 1911, even if Alexandria is his home town). Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire took him on as a 14 year old poor boy to form him as a future priest, which is what he became (he might have stayed at Kelham but he liked women too much).

As well as soon doubting (disbelieving) the virgin birth he doubted (disbelieved) in physical resurrection. He wanted to be as honest as possible when preaching. With this he thought about leaving the priesthood but struggled on and just buried his head into doing the practicalities, for a while.

He did think he had the gift of tongues at one point, and dabbled with the charismatics. He should look at that UUA church that I viewed on Sunday.

The doubts but the continuing performance simply indicates the duplicity encouraged by a credal approach that ticks boxes: good if you can, bad if you can't.

I'm no one in comparison, but when I attended a parish church I would think, 'People assume I agree with this stuff when I don't.' You are a visual witness to what is going on, simply by presence and by joining in. A sort of symbolic romanticism is hard to express (Richard Holloway is something of a romanticist, I would think: perhaps he can reimagine Christianity more than I could). So by presence I affirmed a kind of general acceptance and by non-participation showed where I disagreed. And thus I played less and less part in what was going on, and for quite some time. People had liked my intercessions but I stopped taking them, and once asked to do a Bible reading for a Wednesday morning I refused and made that clear, as indeed I did not participate in the Eucharist half of those services.

That's because I don't think you can do just a plain symbolic approach in Christianity. I think to affirm and take communion is to identify with the overall credal belief system (as a minimum - belief in incarnation and resurrection, whatever questions about details), and I would only take communion in future where it is explicit that there is full freedom regarding belief and disbelief. I might join in with some of Liberal Catholicism, except that they import some magical beliefs. Of course I am one of the few laypeople to have conducted a communion service with bread and wine - I did it at the Hull Unitarians in 2002, signalled in advance, and it was divisive because half the congregation refused to partake. The joke was that I was like Sydney Anglicans already. Of course the service was deliberately plural and beyond Christianity.

Another difference, now, is that Richard Holloway still affirms a following of the man of Nazareth, and acknowledges the role of the institution that can release the man to people today, whereas I have moved away from such an identification.

Richard Holloway sells books because he was a bishop. Don Cupitt sold them because he was (and emained) a priest. That's the way it works, like in man bites dog, but in the end it is good to have someone who was institutional and can preach moderation and doubt and go on to show that faith is not defined by belief.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the arguments against having clergy at all - especially paid clergy. It must be very hard to give up the money, the pension, the prestige, etc., regardless of whether or not you've lost your faith. Clergy pay is fairly low, but many clergy who enter the job in early adulthood would have few practical skills to transfer to other jobs, and once they have a family, the job security that comes with being in the ordained ministry must seem very attractive, again, regardless of their spiritual condition.

However, my impression, as an outsider, is that the CofE is relatively forgiving of various alternative interpretations given to church rituals and doctrines. It seems that some Anglicans can tolerate God-talk as symbolic, whereas Unitarians, apparently, can't. In that sense, Unitarianism seems like a more literalist sort of religion.

The practical problem might be ensuring the right fit between the lay or clergy person and the congregation. I presume that in some cases, openly atheistic Anglican clergy keep their jobs so long as their congregations approve of them. Obviously, if you're a committed atheist in an evangelical Anglican church that's not going to work.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I use God completely symbolically, and I can't think of a Unitarian who has taken a service who has implied a supernatural God. But some want to make their non-theism plain, and that they are entitled to do.

Anonymous said...

But if you're happy to use God completely symbolically, then why can't you use traditional church ritual in the same way? I'm not saying you should. I'm just curious as to why the former should be easy for you to do, while you seem to find the latter dishonest. What's the difference, from your point of view?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Because in a credal setting, participation involves a display of assent, whereas God itself is a poetic concept of 'it means what I choose it to mean' and can be used flexibly in a flexible setting.

Like today, the preacher himself made God a matter of flexibility (though obviously realist) and that makes quite a difference to participation.