Sunday, 12 July 2015

When a Tradition Dies: Defining My Position

We live in interesting times, so the saying goes, and perhaps that is something of a privilege to observe one of those interesting times. The evidence surely shows that the Unitarian tradition as a movement is on its deathbed. We are turning into curators, with so few that visit its museum.

There might be strategies for revival from within, but in the end a true revival is social and driven in part from without. The Unitarian tradition has lost its anchorage socially, and is simply dying away.

I have been reading the late John Kent's view of the Methodist revival - it wasn't a revival because it resulted in churches whereas revivals boost churches again. Yet Methodism provided a displaced population, that had lost expressive outlets of its primal religion, a means of expressing that primal religion in a newer charismatic-Arminian form, one that Wesley deliberately guided in a trinitarian and orthodox manner consistent with his fear of Arian developments among English Presbyterians and even Anglicans. So he tapped into a need, and this response made the one time high Church Eucharist-loving brothers into effective low Church evangelists, helped by Calvinist George Whitfield.

An institution that is pluralist losing its anchorage in a pluralist society might seem odd: it should be a place of spiritual practice reflecting the plurality without. The problem is that this involves no sense of difference, when all it offers is an individualism that, well, individuals can enjoy anyway. Most people have a bias in one direction or another, and can shop around consumer-like for what meets a need at any one time, if they want to shop around.

Difference never used to matter. The historical position of 'Church' was sameness, but sameness supported by widespread culture of Sunday schools and a sizeable minority of people into the core while the Church reflected ways of thinking and provided a social life, education and welfare. Sameness is no more, consumerism is the present, including the option not to buy any of them when none of them perhaps reflect plausibility structures of ordinary thought and practice today.

Even under this nasty Tory government, education and welfare as commitments are not going to return to the churches other than at the margins. Religious institutions now offer simply religion: the core is its entirety, its social life derived from the core. So there are no Churches now, no denominations even, only sects and cults, and what is a sect that denies being a sect at all?

Of course you can do it in part by comparative positioning. The Unitarian Universalists in the USA do this, as they exploit the (albeit declining) residual habit of churchgoing. I was talking to my open evangelical friend Rachel this week, and from her perspective Unitarians are well to the left theologically. Unitarians will happily accept more liberals - but of course Anglicans are very poor at leaving the Church of England and tend to grumble in corners, find somewhere Anglican that is more compatible (like the evangelicals do, but more slowly) or leave. They don't in fact tend to go religious shopping. A very few go quiet and become Quakers or Buddhists, but most just drift off. Unitarians will appeal to no one if they pursue the fiction of appealing to all.

Even accepting comparative positioning, Unitarians will not then make progress by focussing on what doesn't trouble others. The denominationalist habit is to criticise other liberals saying creeds when not believed. Credalists say, 'We believe' these days, meaning the collective, which gives the individual cover. Before I led it, I was in an Anglican discussion group when, in one session, they were concluding that we should say, 'They believe' or 'They believed'. How dismissive was that? And everyone recited the creed the following Sunday. Well, all religious language is borrowed from the past: Unitarians are constantly saying things they don't believe. Many refer to God and don't believe in God. They will tell you so, more readily, perhaps, but go on doing it. They have to, otherwise there'd never be collective worship.

Theologically, I am Unitarian on an evolution of belief definition, established in the nineteenth-century: one that follows liberal and critical theology, that now makes use of the postmodern (I'm a little bit too modernist - more Habermas than Derrida, if not quite Habermas). These theologies have developed because of how ideas have changed: I particularly value the theology of the Roman Catholic David Tracy and how the classics play into questions of who we are as a kind of ongoing reflective discussion. Yes, he is a Roman Catholic!

However, I am happier when not A Unitarian, and indeed I am not a member of any Unitarian body. I was reminded today about how a minor historical strand in the wider movement gets trashed, never mind argued against. The supposed wide umbrella does include what the common Unitarian does not understand and does not use, and those with any sacramental past.

And, yet again, in addition, this notion of 'being liberal' is pushed back far too far into Puritan times. It is so simple to say this, so tribally deceptive, and simpler still to reply that they were not liberals, not in any stretch, and indeed it turns out that the most intolerant were the Presbyterians. Parish (communal) mentality they may have had, but only because it oppressed society into their narrow views and not simply the gathered. I think the Church of England did the inevitably right thing (and let's not forget that not all Puritans left) by asserting three not two orders of ministry and a mixture of Calvinist, Lutheran and even lower c catholic theologies in its liturgy. I have no sympathy for Presbyterian Puritans and I assert that Presbyterian churches went into decline and were revived by liberal, ideological, theological Unitarians - a replacement almost.

The minor movement I am referring to - that keeps being written out or trashed - is the Free Catholic and Liberal Catholic, and the latter has several strands: from Charles Gore's Lux Mundi in Anglicanism, and Roman Catholic Modernism, to the Theosophical (Hindu and Buddhist) bending independent movement, the latter a little bit too magical for me but still very anthropological about the gift and sacrifice in ritual. I am not a fool about the 'dressing up' among Catholics, and particularly self-delusions of grandeur, or what I see as the silliness of claims behind Apostolic procession, but nevertheless they maintain a core identity through activity and then are light on dogma.

I'm under pressure because I want to at least present the history, but this is coming under the kind of criticism that brushes out even the possibility of presentation, including when the history strives to be accurate and proportionate.

But, aside from all that, and its usual story of tribalism and representation, and defining the limits of the tribe, the question here is the loss of the main movement. It is collapsing in on itself, and even its common adherents do not value it enough to make the effort to observe. Recently the Hibbert Trust has raised the issue of having a 'critical mass', after which revival is virtually impossible. I think this movement is well below that critical mass. There has to be in any movement a section of leaders and caretakers, and then in the group those who just come along because it resonates; instead Unitarians are turning into museum curators, each and every one, because we are preserving something for others when there are no 'others'.

Incidentally, Unitarians, critical of independent sacramental ministers and the like, of their egos and deceptions (and there are some, certainly), ought to be careful because the Unitarian movement is itself falling to a level at which exactly those delusory mental pressures start to kick in. There is a lot of talk in Unitarianism about a wide and active tradition when we are really talking about handfuls of people - the curators. There is a delusion in the discussion: for example, the supposed umbrella doesn't have to be that large given the number of people needing protection from the rain. Well, they don't even need protection from the rain (that's the point).

The future is open ended and culture changes, but it is not going to change readily to uphold a movement that is completely porous to culture and simply has no distinctive base. I like to think I am good at curating, being a bit of a theological and historical anorak, but I am nobody's fool. The writing isn't just on the wall, it is going into glass cases.

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