Sunday 17 February 2008

In More Than One Camp

This is somewhat autobiographical with comment about the present day situation: it is an example of how a bigger picture ties in with the personal journey.

I've always been a person with one foot in one camp and one foot in another. I have always known my main loyalty, and kept it until I have declared to myself something otherwise. In 1989-90 I was a student in Unitarian College. Whilst I was at that time pretty much a religious humanist and had experimentations with neo-Paganism, and was very ecumenical with students of other denominations at Luther King House, there was no question about my loyalty to the path I was on. Unfortunately I don't always give out these signals, and when the MA university course I was on told me to make my answers less complex, when I had tackled these issues in my just completed Ph.D, and so I moved to a psychology adult education course instead, I was regarded by some of my local opposition as suspect. This opposition was the ideological one of local traditional Unitarian Christianity; I was not on board with something I regarded as much as a construction as trinitarian Christianity. There had been a lot of theology under the bridge since the Unitarian Christianity so many wanted to hear, and I did not speak.

Prior to this my feet were usually in Anglican and Unitarian settings, with additional ventures beyond. Originally - 1980 - I was an agnostic in a Methodist setting with friends. In 1982 a short-lived venture to Essex for some months and the Anglican Chaplain there lit some sort of candle, and research kicked off about 1982 into these Methodists and evangelical Anglicans for comparison that became a Ph.D basically into the sociology of theology as practised in academia and on the ground such as in these two churches.

When I was confirmed at University I invited Bahais over (they didn't come) and I later fell out with them when I discovered a grip on archives and doctored self-deceptions about their own history, and inconsistencies between claims and practices. They had a meeting in the Unitarian church in Hull (on the link the map and the photo were done by me) where I went to ask some embarrassing questions (they took me outside, I was so embarrassing) and I noticed the Unitarian statements on the wall. Despite even (incredibly) thoughts of Anglican ordained ministry, I gave the Unitarians a try for seven weeks until saying thanks very much but I'm Anglican - only for my Anglican Tillichian-like liturgical translating to collapse and therefore I returned to the Unitarians while still going to Anglican services in a non-communicating way.

After Unitarian College was ended in contradiction - even the Principal left - I spent one and a half years with no religious involvement. The Unitarian revisit in Sheffield did not last more than a few visits, but I did appreciate and gain much from the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I only stopped going to their meetings because they are not in the area to where I moved (New Holland in 1994). I also got on very well with the Anglican rector in Clowne and even took a service to a men's group, who were sort of sat there open-jawed from what I said but this gave the rector some space for his own public searchings.

In 1994 I reconnected with the Hull Unitarians and they were doing well, but I was regarded with suspicion because I had let the side down in Unitarian College. Ideas about a theology group cum men's group were resisted, particularly by the women there, and then around me came a storm over trust deeds that basically caused many to leave. In effect I was the last to go years later - I finally left in 2004 over the treatment of a minister, once again asking the most awkward of questions and being described in reply as a "non-member" which was true but a final statement of my increasing marginality. It has afforded a full time minister since via rejigged historical funds, but I gather it keeps struggling with a handful of people. Such is the way with tiny churches - it could revive in the future and may take hitting an absolute crisis at the end of this generation to do so. I don't know.

From 2004 I made occasional if regular visits to Anglican evensongs and the like, and was making all sorts of theological adjustments; my year of sixth form teaching did adversely affect attendance, as did turning up on some evenings at 6 pm to find that this was the week they had met at 4 pm. So when I thought about going I sometimes decided not to do so. The most local church was simply too evangelical for any kind of spirituality to take hold. When the sixth form work finished, and when a new priest-in-charge was put in place, I decided to make a serious attempt at involvement, and build human relationships in that community (if slowly).

The one thing always lacking in the Unitarian setting was the depth of spirituality, and this has been the driver of shifting towards the idea of the pathway and the Marcel Mauss (etc.) social anthropology of a coming in and a going out, ritual gift and exchange, and binding community. The Christianity prevented by Unitarian conservatism has been possible within the Anglican setting - a sort of radical-liberal, apophatic, non-realist but possible transcendence, spirituality, which is extreme (both dark and point bright-light), and a real engagement with the tradition on a moderate Catholic tilt. So this has been quite a changing and developing period, with revived thoughts of ordained ministry that more often than not go nowhere. My view on this is to pursue it, and I do, but equally it keeps hitting too many walls and is not in the position that it was back in 1984 and 1985, and then properly pursued in 1989-90 in the wrong setting. My Unitarian adventure I regard as an unforseen and misinformed mistake - a proof that even a liberal grouping can be sectarian, especially so when devolving everything means no checks and balances.

The problem now is not the local Anglican setting. I appreciate it very much, and also the mixture of different loyalties within the one place. It is with the bigger institution. It is becoming horrible. It could be that it is experiencing strong pains at a point before structures are shifted around (violently, possibly) that can do some sorting out.

The run up to the Lambeth Conference 2008 is part of this pain. Schismatic Anglicans of African biblical literalism and ex-pagan signs and wonders spirituality are trying to impose their understanding on everyone else on the argument that others are imposing upon them, and doing it via a tiny minority of modern day Puritans in the West who have turned into a Trotskyite-like bunch of schemers. More tragically, in the wake of their challenge, a former liberal-ish but Catholic Archbishop has bought their ideology and placed it into the run up to Lambeth 2008. This is a poison, as seen at the machinations of Lambeth 1998, that has been turned into a holy writ and a solution of centralisation and clericalism via this Archbishop. The poison is thus spreading all around, and, though there are the usual lapdogs of compliance (for example, Fulcrum), others are trying to be terribly nice about their opposition, and yet are being railroaded bit by bit into something that at once might happen and yet cannot work.

The Anglican institution is basically a sick patient but the diagnosis seems to be to inject more poison. It won't work because the Americans, Canadians, Irish, Welsh, Scots, New Zealanders, most Australians and even (legally - the railroading going on here is bizarre) the English won't have it. It is like a car that has a screaming engine, coming towards a solid wall, where the recommendation is to push the accelerator harder. Bishops may only go to Lambeth on the basis of agreement with the Covenant, to do it on the basis of the Advent Letter, with a Windsor Continuation Group to keep the car on the track, and at the same time the schismatics have set their own show in motion. Why the Eastern Catholic model is not more appealing I do not know; it would be more consistent with dispersed Anglicanism.

As for me, well the longer view is that this institution will crash and then there is likely to be some sort of fractured, frustrated, institution, where things go on but there are all sorts of rotten leadership matters swirling around. My own view is that half the inability to make sensible local decisions and plans is because of what happens at the upper echelons where chaos reigns and the crash is taking place.

Yes I have a foot in another camp. It happened last year. Someone asked me to give a talk on why liberal groups cannot get together. So I said yes, and looked into it, and discovered more about fragments I'd only noticed without much consideration. This is the Liberal Catholic tradition, the one that took a peculiar turn with the Old Catholic tradition at that time into Theosophy (1910s). It also took a turn into the esoteric - the magical.

Then something reconnected with my past. During difficult Unitarian College days I used to receive some pastoral support from the more sensible and liberal end of Manchester area Unitarianism. I raised then the matter of the Free Catholics, who rose in the 1920s to produce a sort of Oxford Movement affected Unitarianism. I received shakes of the head about such a movement - it had gone outside what was acceptable. My neo-Paganism really was a form of this - a creedless symbolism, a kind of open pathway.

Now via the talk I discovered the Oxford based Ulric Vernon Herford and his earlier Free Catholicism along with that of Lloyd Thomas, and then a group that related to these as well as to the central Liberal Catholic esoteric tradition. I also discovered that, as a result of the Old Catholic Arnold Harris Mathew reordaining hundreds of Anglo-Catholic priests, the Anglican Church has a historic animosity to this Liberal Catholic tradition.

There is nothing like an historic animosity to get my bloodhound nose on the trail. I don't take these animosities at face value. I regard a wall in the way as something to reduce or even knock down. When a few in the know locally I'd approached even made fun of episcopi vagantes, I decided to find out. I don't agree. The episcopi vagantes are a very diverse bunch, but I have found those I have related to and spoken with to be solid and knowing full well their tradition and basis of operation. They have a distinctiveness from Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, but there is much in common - and what is in common matters more.

It has become a clerical tradition, and it was that from the point where Arnold Harris Mathew was told by Old Catholics that there were lay people congregated waiting for him and there were not. But these clerics do minister and often do so in valuable ways, to those who simply do not fit existing systems, and this includes rites of passage ministries. My interest is in the liberal end of these many varieties, whilst a curious outcome is people like Arnold Harris Mathew and Ulric Vernon Herford give rise to the very orthodox specialities down espiscopal lines too.

An example still at the liberal esoteric end is the Ancient Catholic Church where there is now a holding the name and history of a group that once had a very active life in part of London and could be developed again. Under H. P. Nicholson it was a Catholic and, incorporated into that, a Spiritualist Church that grew to around three congregations and about 5000 people. Revd. Deaconess Pam Schroder drew on a an agreement to use Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd in Clapham that expired with her death in January. Her colleagues, as in The Liberal Rite, took over effective management, and drew in another now independent bishop who had been a priest in the Liberal Catholic Church International. Another group of interest is the Open Episcopal Church, which is trying to look more "standard" through its ecumenical efforts and, I think, could trade off some of its liberalism. It relates to Arnold Mathew Harris more directly than the LCCI. The complexity then of Liberal Catholicism is how it is tied up in the inheritance, however passive, of Theosophy, of the esoteric, and also of (elsewhere) the Unitarian.

Now the esoteric does not attract me. I'm too much of a rationalist, perhaps. However, the Anglo-Catholic argument "against magic" is tainted. Anglo-Catholics believe that priests have episcopal derived orders with power that make real presence at the altar table possible. That power may be in conjunction with the supernatural - the active Holy Spirit, but it is a power they believe is invested in the person and that the person as a priest has a life changing ontological deposit. They are not simply a people used, and they cannot have it both ways. So the argument against magic does not quite work, but even if they reject power (as against grace - but who said power disqualifies grace?) then magic can still work as a service, power turned in on itself as should be kingship. I just don't buy the argument against magic from this perspective.

My view about ritual is more social anthropological, and is entirely non-magical. Perhaps this makes me more (Reformed) Anglican and less Liberal Catholic. However, the Free Catholic and Liberal Catholic is non-credal, though the Liberal Catholic has varying degrees of expectation regarding belief in real presence. For me, real presence is an issue of semiotics: not presence, nor magic, nor power from the Holy Spirit (etc.), nor indeed Christ being present whilst the contents remain accidentally the same. Just as Marcel Mauss and such social anthropology relates to structures of linguistics (and on to poststructuralism of linguistics), so does real presence.

For me, Theosophy is just one historical accident and does not trouble me. I am myself still pro-Buddhist (it tells a lot about pathways and personal salvation) and I have sympathy with aspects of modernist Hinduism. I would though focus upon the non-esoteric and the non-theosophical, even if I can be accused of having bits of those in my make-up. My interest then is more purely radical Catholic.

If it was for me to decide, I would want a combination. I would also want to incorporate the liberal Anglican, but really liberal Anglican in the sense of liturgical practices and no doctrinal demands - whilst containing the sense of what you believe relates to but is not identical with what you pray.

Mad Priest has been stating on his own blog that the schismatics, Fulcrum, the Archbishop, the Covenant, is not going to take Mad Priest's basic credal Anglicanism, to which he is committed. He will oppose additional impositions and fight. He speaks with a fresh voice. The Anglican project is just so ugly at present. I too want this policy of imposition to collapse: the idea put to me that this Archbishop of Canterbury is someone else and only presenting a biblicist imposition as a way to get more to attend and produce a better more tolerant outcome I simply no longer accept. It is the same argument made about Tony Blair - yes, he presents this right wing image but you'll get a little bit of socialism. What we got was what he presented - he became that self-illusory person. I give the Archbishop the integrity that his personal changes made with "the job" are real. Thus he ought to go and his rotten policies tied up with him.

As for me, I'm just a nobody finding a way through tangles that most people do not even consider. I cannot tell where it will go now, but like most people reading this I am monitoring the outcome of Lambeth 2008 with a keen interest. The connection is that nothing can happen to me until after it, other than pursuing a non-conclusive path.

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