Sunday 14 March 2010

Digging up Old Bones

My website is a kind of snail's trail of my activities over the years. Some parts still have an unfinished aspect. Regarding the actual website only one request has ever been made regarding the removal of complete pages: my time at Unitarian College. There are some edited diary entries there (in the Autobiographical area) about my early days in the college. The idea was to give an account of what it was like spending a year in a theological college.

I refused to remove the pages, but I never actually added to them. However, today, looking at the church library, I saw a book that is the account of Unitarian College Manchester up to 2004. So I thought I'd look in it and indeed located references to me. How interesting, and you can see the delicate footwork in the writing. Indeed you can, because I have reproduced the said passage on the usual academic type grounds - the relevant passage for comment.

Oh, it is surely old history and things move on. But do they entirely? Now that a few more people are coming through the door, the church I attend is updating its membership. All you have to do is sign the book. But at present, at least, I won't and I probably won't at all. I didn't when I was there from 1994 to 2004, and I was urged then to be a member as soon as I came back from Derbyshire - but I didn't because I'd had no Unitarian involvement in the Sheffield, Mansfield or Chesterfield areas when I lived equidistant from all of them. Now I'm back in Hull again I still don't want to sign for membership. It's a sort of trade off. You can have me attending more frequently than many, but I'd rather stay semi-detached.

I have not seen this book before. The account in this published book about what happened with me is feeble and a half-truth at best, about as much perhaps that might be put in a book but nevertheless it is not accurate. At that time I'd had just experience of the Hull congregation, which was broad then, plus a short stint visiting broad Sheffield under Conrad Dippel, and had been to many regional and national meetings, all of which were of a more progressive expression than local gatherings. I also had an ecumenical background - Methodist, Anglican, let's add Bahai and Buddhist too - and I thus by choice went to the northern and ecumenical college. As a minister of long-standing said about my time there, I should have done nothing but attend churches and chapels in the area to acquire more knowledge about them. Not preach but sit. It would indeed have been an eye-opener. What I didn't realise is that many of these simply operated a semi-Christianity, and all the emphasis on pluralism was so much talk.

Now you see why my website label is 'Pluralist' - it is based on an argument within Unitarianism.

It's interesting to hear that a number of these Lancashire churches are going the same way of all denominations, and that the density of these places geographically is no protection from decline. All the old structures are in trouble: the Sunday Schools, the youth meetings and the assumptions of continuation. This is why there is an ideological fluidity now that there was not even back in 1989. Even in Hull back in 1989 you would have to include the sung Lord's Prayer every week: now you hardly hear it said or sung. In fact it is starting to sound out of place. People realise that liberal churches and chapels have to present something different from the rest, something that is a Unique Selling Point. I could have told them that then.

My removal was not about pastoral matters: it was about the fact that I held an ideological position of a small minority of Unitarian churches in Britain. As one report on one pastoral stay put it: I had competence and potential, but where would I minister? In other words, my experience contradicted the very point about freedom, reason and tolerance, and the non-credal test of ministry that Unitarianism trumpeted. That's what was exposed in all the localism, not a pastoral matter. Of course, it is called pastoral because it becomes about not relating to the people in the pews: but actually it is ideological: It is not about an inability to sympathise, empathise, comfort and relate. I turned up with a Ph.D in the Sociology of Religion: the university MA sociology using theology course included the tutor telling me I was too high level for the MA and so I transferred to an adult education course, which had directly useful material for ministry. But many people (other than the Principal) couldn't see that, taking it as a lack of commitment, nor did they value a diverse and different voice.

This is why, in the Unitarian setting, I move carefully: it is why I have not yet written to The Inquirer on any denominational issue, and it is why I stay interested in matters of faith and belief and considerably less so about institutional matters. I'm interested in people gathering, and worshipping, and discussing, but that's about it. I would indeed like to direct some of that traffic in a ministerial kind of way, but that was something ruined a long time ago, and it remains the lost opportunity of a lifetime.

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