On Saturday May 21st I went to Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester for the Unitarian Theology Conference.
I learnt that Manchester had selected free city centre buses these days, and one stopped over 200 yards from the chapel. It seems I did after all get off at the nearest stop, but walked down the wrong connecting street. I arrived five minutes late and overheated. Nevertheless, I started making notes from the off, and wanted to make a positive contribution.
And it was a lot better than I had expected. Stephen Lingwood did admit to being somewhat (Yale) postliberal in his stance regarding Unitarianism, but his proposal on the immediacy and unfolding of the Spirit seemed reasonable enough to me. The critique of it was better still, in that it employed many tools and indeed did ask why be attracted on the way by systematic theology? Really Melanie Prideaux should have critiqued every paper. Jo James produced a well argued selective history of the immediacy of the Spirit in radical egalitarian groups from the left wing of the Reformation and proposed the relevance of the Spirit today - it can unite where various positions among Unitarian pluralism put people off. Trouble is, the Spirit doesn't help, of itself, co-ordinated organisation. David Steers' paper was not so much towards the twenty-first century as to go back to back to the nineteenth. It was narrow in sympathy and lamented a denomination going somewhere he'd rather not: but if the UUA isn't relevant for British Unitarianism then certainly religion from Northern Ireland isn't. And hopefully that religious culture will be changing as confidence grows about a more modern less clerical Ireland, and non-subscribers won't be able to ride its back for so long.
I tackled David Steers' paper first, because I thought it would have been first. I realise it probably would have been last anyway. So rather than everything improving afterwards, it might have left a bad taste in the mouth. Why was it the 'keynote speech' when Jo James's talk was far more intellectually robust and useful?
Hopefully, this is the first of many such conferences. This was conservative biased, but that was bound to be the case. There is suspicion about theology in Unitarianism: that it is still Christian, that it tries to say one thing and mean another as in the so-called mainstream. Theology can come from below, and that was said enough to provide at least the prospect of alternatives.
A key idea emerging from the Conference was Unitarians restoring a chain of memory, to discover, theologically, how they got from there (e.g. Martineau and Adams) to here (pluralism - classifying the positions, classifying the subjective turn in spirituality or the postmodernity of positions). It's worth the effort.
These lectures and sound files I've also done are on the Pluralist Website, in the Learning Area, the Religion section, and the ever-expanding Unitarianism part. A recent addition there, on the Unitarian 'Harmless Freedom' alternative history ties in very well with Jo James's presentation.