This is a difficult blog to write, because one of my personal commitments is not to discuss local Hull Unitarian matters online. Most people know the phrase about leaving a mess at your own back door. And this is despite not being a member.
Nevertheless, I can't but refer to local matters if in generality in order to try and grapple with why I am becoming more and not less semi-detached. In doing the magazine and in doing the music, there is considerably less freedom to operate, and everything is falling under a heavy managerial steering wheel.
To some extent this had to happen; this was the gamble taken and certainly I agreed and agree with it. There should be more co-ordination and direction, and any ministerial future that didn't offer such co-ordination wasn't one that was wanted. Also the present direction and basis is fortunately what might be called 'theologically compatible', which includes a strong commitment to diversity of ideas and more.
But there's a problem, and it's the English Presbyterian model, the one the enhances the trustees. It's congregationalism by committee, but the committee that becomes the trustees. It's the law too. Being told it's the congregational meeting making the decisions turned out to be incorrect. But, with strong personalities, decisions taken become the decision not of one hand on the steering wheel, but a series of swerves and gear changes, brakes applied and the accelerator pressed, all because of the different trustees' effective hands on the steering wheel. You see in decision after decision, almost as if there is either awe or fear of them. To some extent this is the methodological basis of establishing a more sure position from which to proceed - now x and y is arrived at let's back this plan, but some people are never satisfied and the same continues.
I think this is a general pattern, and not just particular to one place. But with the Unitarians it raises a further problem, and because there is no longer a theology of Church (ecclesiology). When there is no such ecclesiology, all you get is the naked jockeying of position as of any club committee.
What worries me is when these processes are being absorbed into the way of doing things. Again I have to be 'local', breaking my vow, at least to some extent.
What used to happen is that people got themselves 'jobs' and I did too, on the basis that it didn't involve me in membership and certainly not being a trustee and therefore some in sort of 'officer' role. But even with the 'officers', what used to happen is that people went off and did their own thing. They got on with it. They were criticised, and made adjustments, and after a time a sort of consensus of 'that's how it gets done' takes over. This happened with the music. I moved the music from watching people bunging CDs into a CD player and pressing buttons with delays and errors, to me going a behind the curtain with one prepared CD in tracks order (having liaised with service takers). I then focussed on building a supply library of hymn tunes as files and other music, and aiming for high quality in content and presentation. My choices and volume levels were criticised, but these things were adjusted - criticism had moved "to a higher level", as it was once stated.
I wasn't trusted as someone to do the magazine, but someone had to make it on time, with less filler and some sense of design. I was criticised intensely at first, and I had a hands-off editor above me, who said what was not on and what was on. Fair enough - I could live with that and it was even useful. I got on with the job. So I interviewed, took photos, wrote, got the software improved, arranged it, and got the thing going. There were mistakes, and I heard the positive and negative, and carried on with it making adjustments and trying new approaches.
The point is there is distance between the trustees and the operators. We operators get on with it, each doing different jobs, and unofficial chat is as much a changer of things as any official policy (policy that agrees to money to pay for printing, to purchase things for cost purposes, but even that is referred to conversationally).
But now (as expected, even welcomed) there is much less room for manoeuvre, either with the music or with the magazine. But what is annoying is the even admitted hands on the steering wheel. About which I shall say little more: except that I was hoping the ministerial hand was itself a protection from the trustees, whereas it happens that it has made them all the more present, even down to choices of photographs and where to edit articles and how.
Does this sort of thing matter? Can one accept it? Well, you can, when it is based on some sort of principle.
Now I make the point, rather repetitively, that I go to the churches I attend despite and not because of the people there. This even includes myself! Having a rather old sense of 'sin' as I do, that is regarding human behaviour, I expect politics in all sorts of places. I can even do the techniques myself, after Machiavelli, although one hopes for more awareness and better in a church. I go to the Unitarians despite and not because of the people there: not all of them and not to the same degree of course, and more about what they do than who they are. I'm sure this is mutual regarding my presence and activity.
I've heard that Unitarians, in a sort of theology-free way, are a 'loving fellowship'. Don't bet on it. I've heard, and hear, that it should be a 'safe space' for getting together. Don't bet on that either. I mean it should be all sorts of things, but that doesn't mean it is.
I go to the Unitarians because I agree with the principle of liberal religion, a kind of market place of ideas, and that these can come together in debate and discussion to form something liturgically that promotes the liberty to others and enhances their being. It intends to undermine the activity of saying one thing or appearing to but actually thinking another, although liturgy always involves compromise and blurring of the edges (people who say Unitarians worship as they choose are misleading - they don't because they compromise). I go to the Unitarians because as a 'modern' and a little 'postmodern' I want my religion to be as changeable and meaningful as my science and my social science. I don't want to have to go to a museum of thought and pretend. I am very anti Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy for example, where the bubbles of 'performance' operate ir where Platonic idealism turns into fantasy island.
This notion that one goes 'for fellowship' is because of a deeply inadequate ecclesiology, and absence of theology of Church. In some response to this I'm reading some very conservative academic books on Church - one about the Oxford movement and one that is contemporary (Roman Catholic without ever saying so - Roman Catholic seminary based and publishing, however: and addresses a whole array of theologians and stances, with a particular emphasis - anti - on feminism). I always like to read the opposition, because I get better informed about their arguments and it allows me to think up some alternative that applies.
Beyond all that, there are Congregationalists still present, although, like the United Reformed Church, they are falling through the floor in terms of membership and relevance. Nevertheless, Congregationalists know why they assemble as they do, and it is that the local Church is the best and closest ecclesiastical expression to realise the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So when they argue, they argue out of an identifiable principle, and often state it so. Unitarians don't do that, they just argue - because no one really knows the principle...
(Some are liberal about Christianity, some are religious humanists, some are diverse and for all, some just want to build 'community' that has a religious implication, some think Unitarians should appear to be 'church' while allowing freedom of thought - the Unitarian version of postliberalism, a few just a few hold to the stance that there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible but are otherwise sola-scriptural, and fewer still are English Presbyterian historicists...).
Gone is a stance regarding the formation of the Church. It was always a running argument - say the nineteenth century had its denominationalist biblicists verses the romanticist Free Christians (and semi-Anglican in ethos). But now it is not a running argument but, like a lot of Unitarianism, a dissolving. So there is subsequently no theology of ministry either: a minister may only be a non-executive member of the trustees given a pastoral role and told to take most services. That's a disaster.
I've told the local Pastor [I hate the term!] in Hull that I believe in the principle of the priesthood and that he is one. This involves more than just having a role, but implies he or she uses and deepens the person into sacramental trust (I realise these days that this is often a betrayed territory). It is, from this, that the outward co-ordination can take place - and definitely not as an expression of trustees. The Pastor, or anyone, doesn't have to agree with me, and I'd indeed say it to anyone in a serious ministry role. He or she doesn't need hands on the head to produce this presence, although I am not against outward signs.
So I am thinking about a theology of Church that matches that person, one that has principle and where there is identity and diversity. I have a lot of time for Free Catholics, although again actual practice in terms of publicity might be far less than desired. I know I am not a Liberal Catholic in terms of that theosophical-optional movement that once grew, because there is too much fantasy involved both intellectually, historically and in appearances. But something on the Hungarian model of bishops I do agree with, and then something that the original Free Catholics discovered but which, in their case, did not work out.
When I proclaim that Unitarianism has 'died' I don't just mean in numbers, but that it has lost its principles that might help build it - even if it is tiny. It needs an ecclesiology, a theology of Church, and without it is simply dissolving into no more than a space where all sorts of contemporary ideas of religion are tried out. Although that might also be the starting point - a starting point after some 350 years of dissent, and just under 200 years of accepting in trustee law the evolutionary principle of religious change. A funny time to 'start' one might think.