Saturday 30 October 2010

A Biographical Response

I have both empathy and sympathy regarding Colin Coward's entry on Thursday to the Changing Attitude blog.

There is another kind of 'coming out' there, one that many of his colleagues could make but do not. It is a reference back to the days of 'South Bank' religion, and the days of the Christian agnostic who nevertheless felt called to ordained ministry, either in one go or step by step.

I felt it more or less in one go, unlike Colin, but like him I wasn't well able to explain it. I sort of explained it in terms of we often have vocations that seem to 'fit', like someone might be a nurse or a teacher. I thought of myself as some sort of chaplain in combining the intellectual and pastoral, and I'd seen how it was done before I had 'belief' but becoming interested. At Essex for a few months I was a sort of agnostic hanger-on.

At the same time, I needed some sort of way in, and that published South Bank religion was a first step. Trouble is, I fell out with it and what it used, including Paul Tillich's Christian answers that seemed to parallel but not be existentialism. Tillich wasn't providing questions, but systematic answers and I didn't share them. I fell in with the Sea of Faith mob and much of Don Cupitt's approach.

When I found the Unitarians, and tried ministry training there, I didn't fit in with the small time chapel culture that still existed, particularly in the north. That generation is dying away, but then so is a lot of what they have throttled. There are signs of improvement here and there.

The Anglicans arguably have a greater range of spiritual resources, but in having another go at them I soon was headbanging against the dogma, the doctrinal promises and doublespeak. Yes, as a lay person I could be as rubbery and vague as the next person, but that is an insufficient test. I also found the wider institution morally dubious to say the least. It is highlighted by the treatment of minorities; the present Archbishop of Canterbury epitomises the priority of bureaucracy and doublespeak over people, and he will willingly sacrifice other people in order to introduce an ethically distorted worldwide Anglican bureaucracy. That's why, from the moment the Covenant was mentioned, I was against it, even if anyway I oppose all sorts of doctrinal restrictions.

Like Colin, the Thirty-nine Articles are archaic, and I have never bothered with any of them. I do little more with the creeds: how can anyone say, 'He was born of a virgin,' for example? The Bible is something I take or leave, as it has to be read critically. I simply cannot make it normative and won't and never did. I don't want its cultures imposed on mine: let's be critical about both ends - then and now. In any case, there are no boundaries about scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita can be as inspiring, as in what would you do when in a condition of civil war and there are ethical decisions to make. It is open to criticism too. So it the Qur'an, in construction and content. And how the Buddha's messages were passed on, if we have them securely.

In the early days I was fairly Jesucentric, in terms of a lived life and human model. But now I apply history to him as to anyone, and a lot of it is actually about a community and a reflection even imposition of viewpoints, into texts, all framed with expectations and beliefs that are simply outside our sociology of knowledge. It only comes down to ethics again, and we don't know enough about his moral condition through his life. His decisions are as ambiguous as ours, if we know them.

I take the view that religious words are hand-me-downs, mainly for spiritual effect. So liturgies are bound to say things with past words you don't actually believe. Instead of trying to reinterpret live, I just let them pass by. But in the end they became less like water and more like sand. The content is so dogmatic it shouts out the poetic. More and more Common Worship hymns became objectionable.

If anything, I give slightly more to transcendence, that something in the silence, or that relates to great art, or just reflection. It must in some way be related to our consciousness, about which there is depth and mystery, but about which we do seem to be brain dependent.

So much actual life is drudge and grasping: I have more time for Buddhist samsara than Christian sin. Our bodies are imperfect and decay. For me, death is a release but we ought to live out what we have got, what we can experience. I do think the world is real and learning is important. But we see everything in dementia, that reduces the inner sphere of the world, and kills before death.

Of course for someone like Colin, sexuality is a clash with his institutional religion. For me, sexuality is more a frustration and just a hard luck story. I managed to achieve a relationship, and it fell apart into a kind of distant friendliness thanks to events, and there is as much value in friendship probably but a relationship would be rewarding. But if you're crap at something, or you don't have money in your wallet, things like relationships don't happen - for a lot of relationships are also conveniences and imbalances that change.

For me, the LGBT people issue is a simple one of a categorised people being a scapegoat for maintaining a religious bureaucracy, and that there is nothing for it but the simple human approach of including and not excluding, regardless of what the Bible or any other document might say in what context or other. Such people get categorised, but all people can love, do love and express love, and we all seek relationships and places where we express them. Sex is an exchange as well as a means to procreate, so people in love exchange. Big deal and grow up. Again, on this the Archbishop is a disgrace.

A constant criticism of Unitarianism is that it is thin religion. And indeed it is. It is very difficult - though I have a go - at pumping some symbolism into it and making a means to spirituality. In the end, you have to make of it what you can. But I see such artificiality in liberal Anglo-Catholicism that I'm less bothered about thinness than I used to be. If an Anglo-Catholic is a contemporary person but not a liberal, in the sense of avoiding picking and choosing, then the package deal often looks very cracked and pinned together. They cannot escape the lack of fit, and the need for intense illusion to hold it together. The question always returns to a simple one as the ex-Anglo Catholic and late Unitarian Rev. Francis Simons said - "Why?" Why generate the edifice?

In the end, as the Western Buddhists have it, religion has to be fundamentally 'cool' - cool as in clear, thin, transparent. It needs to clean the mirror. Of course some Buddhists have wonderful constructions and some get very dogmatic about rebirth. But that's not the point. It is about shaking off the samsara, over time, if you can, and many of us cannot. So we also learn to live with it, as part of losing its grip.

The Anglican Church asks few people, clerical or lay, to leave. One bishop did with Anthony Freeman, because Freeman reinterpreted God in a liberal-postmodern manner, and a chap (whose name I forget) was forced out of Anglicanism in Ireland because he no longer gave a central place to Jesus.

In my own case, I realised I simply didn't tick the boxes, and in the end you do have to tick the boxes. Despite a tolerant local church one parish from where I used to live, I also know that present day Anglicanism requires more and more boxes to be ticked. It is becoming more sectarian as its 'successful' centres become more and more removed from ordinary realities.

I could have been an Anglican boundary stretcher, but it is just a losing wicket - and playing rounders while others play cricket doesn't work. Even if you join in, the rules are stacked against, and after all I am saying that I have a liberal-postmodern view of God and I do not give primacy to Jesus. Crumbs, I deny the very basis of the gathering group - I play rounders and they play cricket.

I now have a Unitarian narrative again, a sort of Martineau and F. W. Newman approach, of individualism and tipping over into postmodernity, and of all that the nineteenth century liberals discovered, so it is a kind of historical theology. Perhaps all theology is historical and biographical. Modern day conservative postmodernism that gives primacy to some given text or platonic institution on its own terms is just a form of freezing the water - and again why? Just to preserve something that is intellectually done for? Is it just (as Colin Coward understands) a form of tribalism, which is indeed a very powerful motivator. We are motivated by being in group and excluding the out of the group, by a sort of sociobiology, and it is why I dislike and still dislike the denominationalist Unitarian approach, that rejected by both Martineau and Newman.

I understand what Colin Coward means by his expression:

the God who encounters me and who I encounter in Jesus of Nazareth

But it is a language I have never been able to use, even at a stretch. I don't believe in phrases like 'What is God trying to say' or 'It is God's little joke'. If God represents something, it can only be said tentatively at the very most, and (as explained) I don't encounter myself in another except in the others I actually do relate with - actual, not imagined, reciprocity. God is our construction, although (as I admit) I allow for the possibility of transcendence, but only a transcendence that will go away in a puff of smoke - again more Buddhist than anything. It is more a way, a demand, a set up.

In the end, the religious crisis can be the religious life, forever opening up and unsettled. It isn't religion as comfort but it never was in my case.

My own advice to Anglicans (and anyone else) who face crisis in their beliefs in relationship to the institution is to stay where they are. The reason is that the crisis might be temporary, and they may never adapt to something so different from what they have experienced. Liberals rarely leave Anglicanism. Colin Coward would give up much in his campaigning connections and impact if he moved out of Anglicanism, though I have to say that his personal statements are going to undermine his campaign's reach: the actuality or pretence of full blooded orthodoxy helps a pro-gay campaign if it is about the behaviour of members of the Anglican Communion worldwide. And if you go, go if you have to go, but if you go somewhere else, go to wherever knowing something about it and positively.

Francis Simons was a gay man, who was ordained in St. Paul's Cathedral. He was an Anglo-Catholic, and "married to the Church" who went to his bed alone and frustrated. London was his village. How do I know this? I stayed with him for ten days and he told me. As an Anglican he did his investigations and was particularly hopeful via understanding west coast American Unitarianism, but he obeyed the Anglican rules. One weekend he took his Sunday service, presided at the Eucharist, preached the Gospel, and then told his congregation that this was his last. He moved directly into Essex Church, at Kensington/ Notting Hill Gate (its accommodation is under the church), perhaps the most progressive Unitarian congregation in England, and next Sunday preached at that church as its minister. He still used a few symbols and lit candles when many a church did not (many have now adopted the flaming chalice at least).

So he had organised and prepared himself: he broke no rules, and just did what he had promised to do and stated beliefs he had to state. But then he moved, and was able to say what he thought and practised his changing spirituality. He was no fool about the state of Unitarianism and its contradictions, but he had found his place and kept it until he had his fatal heart attack. Both of the people for whom he was a spiritual mentor - a German chap and me in each college - were removed after just a year: the German chap because he was a sort of Marxist-Protestant and Free Church intellectual (he then went on and studied at Sheffield among Christian social radicals) and me because I was experimental and did not fit in with the local chapel culture from the beginning. They say I'd have done better at Oxford, but my trainee colleague and Francis's student assistant didn't.

None of this is forgotten and cannot be forgotten, because it is the institutional issue in another setting. But there we are. Some of us are round pegs among square holes.

No comments: