Tuesday 18 January 2011

Not Tribal Thanks

A question was raised on my Usual Suspects entry: that if I find orthodoxy and heterodoxy uninteresting, why do I continue to write about the Church of England and Anglicanism.

Well, it is a good question. There is the notion that once you have left, you should wipe your feet to leave the dust behind and consider other matters.

I think there is an ambiguity of the liberal religious person who was in the Anglican fold as a liberal for some time but has moved out and on to a deliberate liberal religious community. First of all, you have left the tribe and that is tantamount to letting other people down as you no longer put your effort in to the argument. Indeed, you might even start to see things from a perspective you once opposed.

As in: Well if the creeds say that, why don't you obey them? Why are your fingers crossed behind your back? What about those moribund Anglican thirty-nine Articles? No one is forcing you to stay there ducking and diving, but if you do, ought you not to believe in these without all the sophistication of the various 'strategies' of representation including preaching?

Now in fact I have not gone in for this kind of argument, though many a Unitarian does. There is more to theology than sophisticated somersaults for people who don't believe in the plain meaning of things. There is, I say, a genuine liberal-postmodern and boundary free approach to theology, and I'll nurture it wherever I find it. Issues of people obeying institutions is for them.

Secondly, I have sat in a congregation while a curate made some public promises, and I said to myself I could not make these. Four times I have made an effort towards considering ordained ministry in the Church of England, with varied degrees of conversation and push. But in the end, although it is not available to someone who thinks like I do, yet I observe people who do think like I do and yet can make these promises.

It is also a matter of general history. There is a history of overlap and tension between Unitarians down the ages and Anglican liberals. There isn't now because theology has been largely given up by Unitarians when it comes to these conserving postmodern devices. But in the later nineteenth century there was still an 'objective' cultural Christian consensus and Unitarians were trying to make sense of Christian thought-forms as science, social science and history developed, and they naturally mixed with others like intelligent Anglicans.

But it is fascinating to go back, say, to the younger James Martineau and his crowd, as in Liverpool, and to see people then deliberately excluded from credal Christian communities who, with those expressions of thought, would easily fit within mainstream Christianity today. Some of the social and symbolic definitions of the Trinity today would be accepted by Unitarians of yesteryear, even if with a rapid shake of the head. These people were very ecumenically minded, and I like to think that I am as well.

Martineau wrote about Church-Life or Sect-Life fifty years before the sociologist Ernst Troeltsch came up with the distinction, and there is much in Unitarianism that is still sect-life. Martineau opened himself out to a very broad Christian-liturgical theism, highly subjective and beyond any Bible (the Bible was an example of what was important in general), whereas today's orthodox seem to trap themselves within the particularity of a bubble story without objective root (there is only what is important in the particular). As I say, contrast Unitarians eager to promote just one Christianity that they believed was true and good that with an Archbishop today who talks about stories and visions as though someone else can pick their own: why should anyone today want to be trapped within just one story?

There are even evangelicals who appear to be evangelical while living out some sort of performance-as-reality, and they baffle me the most. Most evangelicals, and most traditionalist Catholics, will answer that they are within one 'story' because it is the real history of the world, of the universe: it is the one revelation. To others looking at them it seems like they are on Fantasy Island. But I'm not talking about them. I don't agree with them, obviously. I'm talking about liberal types who know that evolution, including humankind's emergence as several and now one species, is a chaotic system; who understand at least that there is the relative and quantum reality; and that ethics stand alone and are situational and do not derive from revelations according to some previous cultural civilisations' belief patterns. I'm talking about the world of wonder, of awe, of consciousness and therefore suffering and attachments, that we understand together.

But, in the end, if even the liberal folks in the Churches are tribal, and must stick together, and defend the patch, then I am out of that.


Erika Baker said...

You know what I'm going to say:-)

Liberals are tribal to the extent that they share the belief that there is something real to believe in.

The moment you believe that religion is nothing but a human construct, I think you have parted ways with church-bound liberals.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Er, no. Not according to Rev. David Paterson, Anglican, on television recently, who along with Sea of Faith takes the view that religion is a human construct.

Conversely, this is not actually the issue: the issue is whether people in the C of E cross their fingers saying the creeds and making promises, including realist liberals.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Many indeed most Unitarians, for example, believe in the reality of the divine: what they don't wish to do is subscribe to details that they do not believe in, that when they say these it gives the impression that they do.

My position is one of the possibility of transcendence, but the usefulness of religious practice as a form of self-orientation.

Erika Baker said...

I would be interested to know whether a Sea of Faith priest has always believed like that or whether he was already a priest when his thinking changed.
But ok, I take your point. Although I personally don’t understand why someone without any belief in an external reality would want to be part of an institution 99.99% of people join precisely because they believe in it. I don’t understand what such a priest believes he can give his parish, nor what his parishioners might get out of his ministry, but as long as it works for them all, fair play to them.

As regards the creeds, I think we keep coming unstuck at the same place.
I don't believe in anything literally, but that doesn't mean that I have to cross my fingers behind my back to say the creeds.
It just means that I say them meaning something else by them than other people do.

An example would be a child calling a parent “mother”. The dictionary definition of mother might be “the woman who gave birth to that child”. But the child might be adopted and therefore not conform to the literal definition. Yet, he can say the word Mother without crossing his fingers behind his back, because that’s what the woman is to him. A second child might not even be adopted, but for some reason have ended up living with that family for years. That child, too, could call the woman Mother will integrity.

No-one lies, no-one makes anything up. People just fill the word with the meaning that makes sense to them.

I agree that there comes a point where you can no longer fill some words or concepts with meaning. Sometimes that is a phase, sometimes a genuine shift. I personally would think that you can live happily without some of the concepts. You don’t have to say them anymore, for example. My father simply doesn’t say certain parts of the creed, but he can say others with integrity.
The crunch point for the individual comes when he genuinely feels he is lying or losing his integrity by participating fully in what his faith has to offer.
He can, of course, still stay, but for his own spiritual development he might be better off going somewhere he feels much more in tune with.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

David Paterson says he assumed the non-existence of God when he was ordained: as to the contrary, nobody asked him. There are a number of such priests and ministers: I noticed a while back that Stephen Mitchell even changed parish (for that matter, so has David Paterson, but he's a lot older).

Erika Baker said...

I can see why someone like that would want to go to church and treat religious practice as a kind of means to personal development.
But why on earth would anyone with that belief want to become a priest?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Because a minister or priest gives time to counsel, advise, and do so with a worldview that involves engagement through religious ritual. There is an anthropology of the gift into which ministry with time easily sits.

Erika Baker said...

But Adrian,
how can that minister connect effectively with people who believe that God is real, that we can experience him, be guided by him, grow into him.
There's such a mismatch there.

I can only speak for myself, of course, but a minister who did not believe in what to me is the most important truth in my life, but who attempted to talk to me just by using the same words, would be completely counterproductive.

Brother David said...

David Paterson says he assumed the non-existence of God when he was ordained: as to the contrary, nobody asked him.

I am pretty sure that he lying. All ordinands are examined as part of the ordination service and he would have been publicly asked about his call by God to be a Christian minister and his personal commitment to the ministry. If he did not believe in the existence of God then he lied through the entire service and he is fraudulently drawing a salary in a sham job.