Sunday 31 July 2011

Sleeping and Decline

It seems that much of the active church related blogging world has gone to sleep, although since my full computer reinstall I lack some of the bookmarks I once had. A number do it less, now that they are curates, and one is having a drink of New Wine; one is on holiday where the bathing huts line up in different colours, and another is having a new broadband. But it is July and August, and August is a time when some churches become sleepy, if they have lots of elements that can be reduced down. Or perhaps that should be sleepier...

At the moment, then, there is not a lot happening, other than the most general of news events still setting the scene:

In 40 years, attendance at Church of England services has halved and, according to the latest figures, is still falling: down to 1.13 million a week, barely 2 per cent of the population. Among the young, the drop is said to be 80 per cent.

This (in the Financial Times) is far from unique. The consequence was, and is, a disappearance of Christianity as in Sunday School or even casual church connection, in the general public memory. RE lessons in schools are no substitute, even if assemblies are supposed to be Christian in general (but are mostly not even religious) and RE courses tend to be Christian and another faith each year. RE is a cinderella subject, and pupils go to RE as a pause in the day. Some do part or whole GCSEs, but it is something exotic. Nothing beats involvement in a church for mind formation.

As an adult I became involved in a movement between Anglicanism and Unitarianism. I was involved at the Anglican church in Barton while on the south side of the River Humber, but a gradual decline took place in terms of involvement for belief reasons. Actually, belief is not a reason for decline as such, as people tend to be quite plastic in beliefs and live with contradictions; most will fit in with institutions regardless.

Looking round the Minster [states Mathew Engel, the FT reporter], I wondered if the highly sophisticated and intelligent people reciting the Creed really believed everything they were saying. Everyone was in full voice; I failed to spot anyone with their fingers crossed. But the answer seemed to be: not exactly.

Reasons for decline are social, like moving away, or biological, like dying off, but the real crux of the matter is the cultural one of not being involved in the first place, even increasingly for rites of passage. A 'keep it at a distance while accepting church rites of passage' has become a longer distance and more in the way of alternative rites too, including the secular 'pretty' marriage ceremony away from a church.

The Church of England parish I live in now is the largest in population terms in the country. It had 80,000 people in it when I last checked (at least, probably more now with more surrounding housing) and five Anglican churches. One of those was mothballed. One is specifically for a village beyond the edge of the whole city. The only time I went to the main church (also of a village - this one, Sutton) it had fifteen people in attendance. OK, it was snow on the ground, but there were people there who, like me, could not be elsewhere. The lay preacher sermon was pathetic, about Noah and what he was thinking. There was not a critical thought in it, for example the water cycle and why Noah's Ark is a nonsense story in terms of actually happening. Who wants to come to hear drivel like that, even if once 'in' they do put up all kinds of nonsense? It is as if a different thought-world mentality operates within those walls. The church was in an interregnum but the previous incumbent was a band singing evangelical cleric.

Some folks I note are very involved but one describes herself as 'Agnostic or Inclusive Church'. Cultural involvement, indeed those long-developed cultural riches, are inherited and abound, but this situation reminds me of the composer John Rutter, whose modern yet tuneful Anglican music for liturgy comes from a man who doesn't actually believe in the texts of that for which he writes. He is preserving a cultural tradition rather than expressing in music a belief from within. His belief as it is relates to the wrapping paper rather than what might be inside, if anything is inside. It is what I call Museum Religion, where the contents are now on display in a lost sense, and this approach is rather significant among the declining numbers of those involved. Actually the Museum is like one with virtual interactivity, so the glass cases may have nothing inside them at all, but there are many video screens and objects for entertainment.

The Unitarian denomination has a self-memory of itself which is Museum Religion. I do it myself: I can give a good account of a past of involvement that suggests an identity for now. But does it? Isn't history a get-out for those lacking theology? The actual church I attend is also having tough times with attendances not dissimilar to the above and often less. Too many people have left, often with arguments and frustrations, and when one person drops out it matters. If it had kept all who had attended regularly, even with the deaths, it would now be well attended. I get frustrated, and I am now (as it happens) so at present I am just doing my main role and otherwise taking a step back. I'm one of the few who attends every week because I must, but again you puzzle that in a city of some 230,000 so few darken the doors.

One reason for the crushing state of things is that people do not want to be involved in running things and to give commitments. People don't join political parties or social groups: they almost immediately demand money and involvement. There is also a lack of historical imagination, like the sixth former who once asked me why a Puritan didn't "go shopping". However, when it comes to small groups of people, some people love it, even thrive on it, with the activities, and some then have power and manipulation talents (and drive others nuts sometimes).

But, the point is, most keep away. You don't trek into an unknown group. The chances of being anonymous in the small place are slim, so it is better not to show face in the first place. Some do go to cathedrals as a sort of cultural-rich reflective space, no further questions asked. Attendances have risen, but they are hardly blockbuster in numbers, and they are substitute attendances for somewhere else in terms of avoiding involvement.

Incidentally I am not a member of this Hull church: since my time at Unitarian College ended I'm not joining a congregation or any other body, and, in any case I prefer a wider definition of 'membership' in terms of principles and ideas rather than a specific local body. I do not vote in congregational meetings where formality matters though I express opinions and the music solution was mine. This way I keep out of too much involvement.

As for those 'newbies' venturing inside these places, I maintain that the Christian Eucharist service is highly excluding as well as in bizarre language for the outsider, and although Unitarianism as a known concept was surely lost to the British public memory now the World Wide Web has given it a wider potential view, so that these days almost all non-random visits are Web informed. Enquiries come not from the secular, at a bald level, but the already religious and involved somehow. Usually a change in the social situation gets combined with a personal honesty about actual belief.

But I think people who enter Unitarian churches become disappointed quite rapidly. The publicity sounds great, but what they find is a shell of Protestant religion, where everything in terms of innovation of style has come to a full stop. Content is different, but the atmospherics are old school. There is a real need to become more fluid and adventurous. I try to do this with the music, but most of the time I can't and also the effect is limited.

We are like the Last of the Mohicans: just a few, keeping an old show on the road, and wondering if something will turn up. Perhaps not, and perhaps that is it. Perhaps it is wrong to think these places should continue.

I suppose my model is that people of varied and different views should have a place where they can contemplate, reflect and discuss ideas that try to rise above the material and exchange. In so far as these people are friendly, this might be helped by some socialising. There is also the function, among such a group, of mutual care. This set up is never going to attract the masses, and there is absolutely no wish to remove from the State the functions of education and welfare, or indeed to reduce the opportunities for leisure, so as to be some way to boost the existence of the church again (many a conservative would want this reversion to the past). It is just the provision of a meeting place. However, these ideas by which to reflect have been developed in the past and currently, and these are the places to hear them, the ideas that frame and develop ethical reflections. For me, then, comes a model of people of difference coming together and sharing, which is then a 'gospel' of how the wider world can operate, hopefully an example for the wider world.

It seems to me that this is worth having, but in the end the bums on seats will decide whether it happens or not. For a long time the answer seems to be probably not, and as for Christianity the bums have been coming off the seats consistently and persistently for many decades, and now it is starting to matter because the infrastructure around these meeting places will not hold up much longer.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Barn Conversion's Bicycle

Edward Barn Conversion Writes from the Tour of Rome

I was very pleased the other year to be given the asnonymous gift of a bicycle, and I was furiously pedalling backwards as I do when I realised the bicycle was one of those that puts the brakes on when you do that.

It reminded me of my friends in Backward in Belief and indeed I rather think the bicycle came from one of them, as I notice the model several times chained up outside the meetings.

Nevertheless, I thought this is just the sort of bicycle that I could pedal backwards into the ordinariate, now that I was free at last, free at last, with the lay woman, a lovely lady in flowing frock, in the bike shop having got her spanner out and put the brakes on the front motion and the wheeling possible on the back motion. I can now pedal backwards to my heart's content.

However, I have since discovered that the wheels of the bicycle have special tyres on that are indeed very slippery on Roman roads, and it looks like I might have to give the bicycle up. I was hoping too to hitch up a trailer and put on some Anglican booty and cycle it trailer first into the ordinariate shed. However, the special foundation tyres make this impossible, though some people say it depends which way round they go on.

I suppose with the bicycle as it was we simply cannot take it or any of the booty, and indeed I only imagine I am a bishop now, as I wasn't one once when I thought I was, unless I was in a Protestant sense, and being Protestant is highly inadequate as I may as well have been consecrated by the descendents of John Wesley.

So the river widens and I wave furiously at my former Anglican friends, many of whom strangely haven't followed me and a few who did may even be going back. I want to stress that this is the only way to be Anglican and Catholic, that is to lock your bicycle in the ordinariate shed, or perhaps give it back, and get a bicycle that looks like the one we had but has more grip on the Roman roads or, as a celibate priest said, who mused that I looked quite muscular after all my reverse cycling, that the Roman roads in fact grip the bicycle.

Indeed we are rather identified with the bicycles ridden in Rome, each priest being regarded as a kind of 'bicycle' by other priests, which is particularly exciting when operating the pump and blowing in some air. Yes I know we or you Anglicans did that too, pumping furiously. I notice now around quite a few bicycles for children, though actually some of them are prevented from riding these, having gained the experience beforehand. Though I think some still do behind the bike sheds.

I remember what fun we had in the last days of Anglicanism as a Catholic in a Protestant Church. We went to that GAFF-CON or was it FoCA or was it AMiEr or Maria More? There were lots of boneshaker bicycles and Penny Farthings at that event. Asking about them, the sweaty attenders said they were once delivered from the bike shops and kept the same ever since. In the end that was just a Protestant circus, a velodrome of low life, where we were helping someone else's race. Now I understand that they are coming under the moral leadership of Big Benn and some people from Africa, which means they have a dodgy compass.

Anyway, you Protestant Anglicans, who would be better dressed; if you can make your bicycles work at all, come and park outside my ordinariate shed for a cup of wine (the real thing here, but bring your own and we'll sit outside) as I would still like to persuade a few of you to come over and have a drink.

Monday 25 July 2011

New Strange Art Installation Clergy Protests

This article was in Yr Undodaidd in the 'Across the Mainstream' section. It details the strange Church protests taking place in Wales.

In a development from the 'scissors and fire' story of Rev Sticciet ap Iors, another Welsh clergyman, Rev Morgan Maeiobswerth, has made his own protest by knocking down an external wall of his church. The reverends have adjacent parishes and attend the same Deanery Synod; indeed some say they are often the only people there. Just as Rev. ap Iors claimed that the God of the King James Bible was appalling and should be put on trial, so the Rev. Maeiobswerth said he was pointing out out the dreadful history of the Church down the ages.

The Rev Morgan Maeiobswerth said that he wants to demonstrate a much more open church. The stones and flying buttresses will soon become natural sculptures in the graveyard, for which he is seeking a faculty. Parishioners there also showed approval saying, "We want the church to me more open to the young people but it does get a bit drafty these days. Oh and the roof is making creaking noises."

There are further suggestions also that this bizarre behaviour is catching, with reports that the Rev. Nia Noeth of Pen yr Ynys is going to baptise herself with a bucket of ice cold water for ten Sundays in a row. Wearing just a simple white garment the dowsings will go towards a video art installation. The actions are to be in protest at having no women bishops in her church. "We women are near nearly naked now then," she said in a sermon after which rumours of her protest started to circulate, especially as she also said that " is time we showed and up the matter." [Translated from English into Welsh into English again, from the original Welsh] The priest in charge says that she is also fed up with receiving mail for Penis Land, the partly Anglicised name for her promontory and the reason that, now, all her sermons are delivered in Welsh.

According to her parish magazine, another colleague, the Rev. Ruth Coginio, may consider dropping the name of Jesus during her sermons and instead replacing his name with types of cheeses instead, according to what Jesus is doing. "The knowledge of Jesus is lamentable," she wrote (in English), "as no one goes to Sunday School any more and few attend church, and yet everyone watches cookery programmes on television. We may as well say cheeses as Jesus." So, she goes on to explain, "If Jesus is walking he becomes Cheddar, like someone walking through a gorge or on a lake. If he is angry, he is Edam, and if he performs a miracle like feeding the five thousand he becomes grated cheeses." Later in the article she describes her action as "theologically modalist".

As reported last month, the originator of these odd behaviours, Sticciet ap Iors had taken a pair of scissors and cut the nasty bits out of the Bible and then folded them up to make an imitation to scale Wicker Man, and then he burned the product of his labours in front of a video camera and posted on You Tube. Apparently the art work protest had the full support of the attending parishioners, although one or two mistakingly saw it as a protest against higher fuel bills.

One better informed lay person said, "The wicker man represented the transience of any life and the demand in the Old Testament for sacrifices."

His Bishop of all four ministers, the Rt. Rev. Neil Down said to me (using Welsh and English), "It could be you know that our selection conferences are not quite working, but I'm more immediately worried about the artistic merit of all these protests, isn't it, and frankly with falling attendances I'm also worried about the occupational health and wellbeing of our priests. They are starting to react violently to their difficult situations, perhaps through neglect, the Te Deum and boredom. I am suggesting opening a room in my palace bach filled with balloons, which frustrated clergy can enter and then jump up and down. I might video this and put it on You Tube myself you know."

Ghana Looks Nice

I see via Thinking Anglicans that Ghana must be a lovely place to visit - just don't wear a pink triangle (although some might be forced to wear a pink triangle if government authorities, Christians and Anglicans in particular have their way. Well I assume they need a means to identify the people they want to persecute. It must be terrible to live there should you be one of those they exclude and would wish to round up.

I was looking at some of the Facebook comments received by Colin Coward by people who can hardly string a sentence together, never mind make an argument. No, it's not just because they are Africans or have appalling textspeak spelling. It is like they live in a different logical world as if this Bible they quote had one day landed on the world's lap and set up an instant book of rules, rather than being sets of opinions at times over time. This notion that 'God made Adam and Eve', instead of thinking about evolution and why evolution is more successful when it 'carries' minorities, and also about ourselves as self-conscious, speaking, projecting and therefore empathetic (unless some bypass is created, by the worship of power, dogma, force) animals. The difficulty I have is when Colin responds to them in roughly the same premodern language (except to say the Bible makes errors - but that's to half-accept their argument, to then say it has exceptions). It just encourages them.

But something else caught my eye about this hellhole for some called Ghana, and it is the contribution they wish to make towards completing or concluding the otherwise endless indaba project (as misinterpreted in Anglican use). It is this idea of contributing the wisdom of the matriarch to deciding something. Hell no, this really is not a good idea. Matriarchs and patriarchs in congregations and on committees - who think they are indispensible and cannot stand down - do untold damage in not letting a wider group move on and change, and the only reason I can think that you might want such a source of wisdom is that you don't want ever to move on and do something different.

I have a live track of Pink Floyd called Keep Talking, featuring a voice from a machine we associate with Stephen Hawking. Good idea. I thought this was Rowan Williams's idea too, if as a centralising process to create his project; but perhaps he welcomes ideas like this from places like Ghana in the advancing of his international Anglican Church, when it stops talking where it is, something that would be an ethical nightmare for all of Anglicanism. Ah, but the Church comes first; what the Church says is ethical say some postmodernists with a premodern outlook.

Friday 22 July 2011

Gene: Trinitarians, Arians and Unitarians

Here, apparently, is another use of the Anglican Covenant: to weed out the unorthodox Anglican bishop etc. over time. Not immediately - the Covenant won't have that effect - but to raise the standard, over time. The spur to this thought is some comments of Bishop Gene Robinson of The Episcopal Church upsetting one New Zealander, when he said, as reported:

Sharing his views on gays and lesbians in the church, the role of religion in public policy and whether non-Christians can go to heaven, Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, conducted an adult faith forum Sunday at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Louisville.

"I know Jesus to be the son of God," he told a group of about 50 people, "but what a small, limited God we would have if that was the only manifestation. I think Christians should stay away from spiritual arrogance and show more love, mercy and zeal for justice."

He called on audience members to present an alternative to the activism of the religious right, saying, "I believe that there's a positive role for religion in the world, and we've already seen what not to do."


...last year [he] announced he planned to retire in 2013, citing the emotional toll the controversy had taken on him and his family.

Asked by an audience member how he'd spend his time, Robinson answered, "I'll use it to talk about the living God, get to tell more un-churched people that God is alive and well and wants a relationship with us."

I have gone for as much relevant in the report as possible, whereas Down Under Peter Carrell quotes less and is pretty sure what Gene Robinson implies by such wording - that Jesus Christ is not unique.

Later on, in response to Mark Harris, the Down Under man gets imaginative as he wants the Covenant to help deliver a new Anglican Church:

Those who do not take theology particularly seriously would be free of engaging with annoying people like me. Those like me who have been getting increasingly agitated by the lack of serious theology in the Anglican Communion would stop annoying people who want to be free to move Anglican-ly where the Spirit takes them.

Naturally the Covenant would be at the heart of this new Anglican church: it is a very good document which takes theology seriously. Incidentally, there would be no confusion as to which Anglican thing was which. The Anglican Communion which remained would be free to call itself by that name. This new church would unashamedly be known by its short title 'The Anglican Church'.

It would have a very clever and up to date magisterium: a collection of seriously theological Anglican bloggers would discuss each and every issue which arose, in a spirit of free enquiry within the scope of the Covenant. Part of the genius of this magisterium is that, across the globe, it would be at work 24/7, and it would incur no costs, being a voluntary workforce :)

Allowing for the humour and imagination, he implies that those who would see change do not take theology seriously. But the significant point is that, I suggest: that the Covenant it is that creates a new Anglican Church, and not that the Covenant preserves the Anglican Communion.

Of course there is an arrogance here that only the conserving take theology seriously. I take theology seriously and as far as I am concerned, the Greek culture interpretation of Jesus as the Christ as in the Bible is of a self-limiting God, one that enables itself to be specifically understood, revealed and specific, to be for example self-giving at a time of one man's forced death. This is quite a different approach than that of Islam and a God that does as it pleases without any boundary.

I'd be surprised if many an Anglican preacher stays within the boundaries of a one time created orthodoxy. Gene Robinson's comments were, even if he had said 'Son of God' and nothing else, compatible with a number of theological positions. After all, there was a turnover community of Christians for a few hundred years expressing a number of positions before orthodoxy was defined, many of whom had various views about Jesus's divinity and humanity, and some of whom believing in Jesus's divinity thought he was the first born of creation through whom all things were made (after Arius). That was a pretty unique job given to Jesus Christ, and the 'escalation to divinity' of early believers did not assume the Trinity at all.

These days in many an Anglican church you might hear something like this: that Jesus 'so acted' that he indicated what God should be like and is like, and his resurrection by God is the 'story' that indicates the hope that God gave to underline the definitiveness of Jesus, and the activity of God in this and with us, to underline the unity of the believing community, is that which we call the Holy Spirit.

This is also quite biblical but as a means to defend the Trinity is pretty weak. In fact it is classically Unitarian. The human Jesus is God's chosen prophet, indeed his supremely chosen prophet and the only means fully to reach God. Very Pauline! The term Holy Spirit is an interchangable wording with God - rather modal - and it is Unitarian.

Gene Robinson might have said 'God the Son' instead of "son of God" (Son of God is also consistent with rabbinical Judaism and with Unitarianism), but even if he had said 'God the Son', it still allows for natural theology and other means of confirming revelation. I still take Gene Robinson to be an Evangelical in theology. He is only socially liberal. But these days, terminology is loose from all over the shop.

For the record, of course I do not think Jesus was unique. I think he was a Jewish rabbi talking to his own folks. Paul, who would have been present in Jerusalem at the time Jesus was killed paid no attention to such events then. The later 'salvation faith' that Paul and early followers developed, changes Jesus's end of a Kingdom theology into a kind of funnel means and ends. It becomes a cross-cultural religious renewal, towards universal appeal, and is yet relative to all of that and the cultures that follow. It is difficult to 'strip away' mythological elements from an ongoing story, in that if you do so for the resurrection then you do so for Jesus's own end-time views. You end up with a sort of Jesus Seminar stripped of context Jesus of ethical sayings. Nevertheless, I do not (and nor do most folks) believe in resurrected bodies or end time nonsense (except cosmic), and do not share these carriers of beliefs. So Jesus is definitive of nothing in particular, but is just 'interesting' even if better in ethical grounding than, say, Muhammad. All these prophetic figures are 'interesting' in one way or another, and can be so taking theology just as seriously as any Evangelical Christian. We don't, these days 'follow' but make up our own minds.

I happen to think that the Transylvanian Unitarians have beliefs closer in many ways to the early Christians than do many Christians today, but I don't share the beliefs of either of these. Actually, in some ways, Jehovah's Witnesses are closer to the early Christians in that they also believe in the rapidly coming end. But I don't believe in any boundary either that marks out 'scripture' from non-scripture. I take it that the subjective revolution in religious belief and authority breaks out of all these constraints and produces a situation where there is no need to play games with any prophet's uniqueness or otherwise.

I hear those who say, "I believe in the Trinity because God is a social God and represents love between persons." What? Is that the best some (liberals) can say? Even the pre-Christian Jews oscillated between emphasising the plurality of God and the unity of God; classical Unitarians have also understood the plurality of God within the unity of God. Unitarians have known that when God acts the correct term for use is 'Holy Spirit' - God's wind, so to speak.

I can be just as critical of the looseness of some liberals as Peter Carrell, but not all liberals are so loose. Advice I once took from an Anglican priest in Derbyshire was, "You can be Unitarian in the Church of England but you can't be non-realist." This was a view later confirmed, in effect, in North Lincolnshire, when I was encouraged to try 'Real Absence' instead and realised I was, on the God thing, non-realist. To be Unitarian in the Church of England does mean to uphold the definitiveness of Jesus, as do the catechism Unitarians of central Europe. To be Arian in the Church of England (a Reformation Arianism, which is more simply the subordinate divinity of Jesus; worry not about pre-existence) has no difficulty with mentioning Jesus as 'son of God' and certainly will be the nearest 'Son' that God has because of that divinity.

The cut off point of Anglican inclusion is loose these days also because for some to jump to the Quakers or (Anglo-American) Unitarians when they want to be definitive about Jesus is to lose the culturally identifiable ability to be definitive about Jesus. If I'd wanted to stay definitive about Jesus I'd find the Unitarians to be too loose in terms of plurality. I do actually seek more plurality; if I didn't I'd still be attending the C of E and say 'I follow Jesus pure and simple'.

And 'Pure and simple' is another way to give up claiming definitiveness never mind uniqueness.

By the way, it is no accident that the main oppositional thrust against the Anglican Covenant is pro Anglican diversity. This is because these Anglicans include theologically those who say the old language doesn't add up any more in terms of clear labelling, and so included are a variety of old style trinitarians, Arians (though they are not called this any more - trinitarians in drag perhaps) and definitiveness-types.

The fact is that even if language is tightened up and people are clear, there is still space for revelation elsewhere. In my serious theology, revelation is a problematic of the subjective and postmodern: the word 'revelation' does not carry reliable directional meaning. We can't take a press report as the means of bashing Gene over the head again, as indeed you can hardly use a more refined use of terminology to bash Gene over the head again. I even think Rowan Williams wants it both ways.

On which point, I hardly think the Anglican Covenant will make much difference; it might have some filtering effect over time, but then the more detailed creeds and promises to uphold to bishops have that effect don't they, and these are not so effective after all.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

The Risk of a Minister

I appreciate comments at my last posting, and I want to repeat and add a bit to my own comment there.

The problem with professional ministry with a denomination at this advanced stage of decline (with some renewal) is that it has found itself in a double bind. On the one hand there are churches that have struggled to finance a minister and then come to a point where the money that is available may as well go into other projects. The provision of services becomes much more collaborative, involving, and with a wide variety of inputs from within and without. But at the same time, there are churches with the money who will not advertise because there are not the candidates. A reason for lacking the candidates is the lack of vacancies.

If the choice of candidates is not there, a session of interviews for selection can be frustrating. If you pick the wrong person for your setting - and if you have a history of picking the wrong person - then you can hardly afford to make the same mistake again. Ministers can have negative impacts, indeed some go around effectively closing churches down. But it doesn't reflect well on the church either: who wants to go where a church has in effect removed ministers before they have helped destroy the place? It is not helped by the minister telling the fraternity about their rough time towards the end of their office; their account of events won't be the same as the church's.

Now most ministers are a plus (crumbs, what if they were not?), and also they have knowledge of the movement and a care for its condition. So if they are moving around different congregations and facilitating those congregations with advice, surely this is to be encouraged. I would have it as more systemic. Our ministers should be more like bishops, in that sense. In the past congregations were big enough and parish-minded enough to have a minister of status in just one congregation - the co-ordination came in their own meetings and through the college system.

In other words, the academies were buzzing with new ideas and in the Presbyterian-Unitarian strain these ideas were welcomed as part of the sphere of concern of the ministers. There was some remoteness, but plenty in terms of the preaching, pastoral and developing. There were many educational and welfare functions, all since gone with the welfare state (and quite right too).

If we had an educational model for ministers - a sort of Paulo Freire model suitable for our situations - then they would travel around even if there was a base.

Here's an odd situation. We have an actual Bishop-elect coming into the Unitarian scene. You can blame me, initially. She is now functioning in Leeds, Hull, Wakefield, chatted to the York minister after attending at Hull. Now with some specific training in terms of knowledge and finding out and more on ways and means, she could end up (with other ministers) actually bishoping in an actual, never mind just titled, sense. I don't think that is a bad thing, if it comes with strategic intentions. She is of course a bishop-elect in another group, but we still have plant, equipment and people on the ground. These ministers must be collegiate (Presbyterian, after all) but surely they should facilitate the folks in the plant with the equipment to use these in a better, more co-ordinated and more faithful way.

Also in such a pattern there is less likely to be a focused disaster in one place from one 'relied upon' person who turns out to be imcompetent.

What is wrong with this?

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Religious Careers and Flexibility

I have a few online friends whom I don't know in any other sense. Lesley Crawley, as now is, is one of them. From encounters with her, I acquired the self-given label of 'terror blogger' because I say things that might not always be welcome, and do things from a completely heterodox point of view.

Lesley puts more of 'herself' online than I do, though I do display quite a bit via blog and website. I do this display on the principle of the rare bird that the bird protection agency wants to protect. All the time it keeps the bird and its location a secret, the eggs keep being stolen, but turn the bird's location into a visitor centre and the thing can breed happily. My shopkeeper friend tells me that shoplifting occurs most when the shop is relatively empty, and these days he wonders about changing the shop towards the virtual as the shopping numbers go down and down and 'the shop' as was goes into serious decline. The lines that sell these days reduce, when you follow the money, and a shop might exist better as a warehouse.

Which brings me to churches. Churches too are in serious decline. Unitarians, always being a small denomination, are first to the point of serious central collapse (the centre was reorganised to cope), and there is the phenomenon of churches either closing or bouncing. Bournemouth and Exeter are gone now. Some of these churches are quite well off. The one I attend is trying to organise to be prepared for a bounce, and can organise this with sufficient imagination.

It is why we don't have the need for development ministry any more. Every church is a development ministry. Back in 1989-90 I was a ministry student. I preached near atheism to a bunch of traditional liberal Christian Manchester churches, and they said there weren't the vacancies. Liberalism meant localism meant go, and the Principal resigned not long after.

I did a University course on psychological theories of adult education because the theology course overlapped with my degree - I was actually told to make an essay simpler and thus changed course. The course was seen as me not being serious about ministry, whereas I thought the course was far more useful for ministry than a social theology course! How do volunteer learners come together and learn? So I wasn't serious, apparently, and the idea of doing a Development Ministry - pay me and I'll start you a church from scratch - was pie in the sky.

Twenty years plus later a lot of the people in my photograph album are dead. Many of them who had 'captured' their church and were far from encouraging freedom of religion have either gone or lost capacity to rule as they did. Matriarchs and patriarchs have lost their allies and friends. The old days of lifelong Unitarians age gone, as families no longer provide. Churches either recruit or they die.

Now my online friend, Lesley, who gives us all kinds of liberal and inclusive opinions, wants to do the equivalent of Pioneer Ministry. It's not Evangelical church planting, but is growth from nothing and also among the age group that shows the least interest in organised religion. The round peg wants a round hole, but the system provides square holes. Indeed, even Anglican Evangelicals who want to plant churches bump up against the parish system, and so they have to be a bit entryist especially if they classify the system as not 'orthodox'. It is no surprise that a 'fading juggernaut' like the C of E is failing to organise or fund new growths, in that the system it provides has priority. It does this despite alarming losses from the pews, a decline towards the same inner collapse end point as the Methodists and URC. I've indicated that Unitarians are first to start to reorganise the centre and are trying to bounce churches (they do bounce - recovery, if it happens, can be surprising and swift and is always renewing).

At least the Unitarians (should) have a unique selling point. The rest of the denominations will have to start merging. Unitarians can't merge with the Quakers, because Unitarians are noisy and Quakers are quiet.

So the point has arrived where I would not seek Development Ministry (doesn't exist now) as every place is such. Some churches are even thriving with people, sometimes thanks to the very fact that the previous folks but a few have gone!

Anglicans who are really liberal make good ministers. The late Francis Simons was my 'spiritual director' (if I had one) and I spent 10 days at his church where he lived underground. Francis also had much time for my trainee colleague Andreas, the Marxist German, at Oxford, and he was kicked out after a year when I was too. The denomination didn't half waste some money between 1989-90, and the supporting funds. Francis - about himself - said how one Sunday he presided at the Eucharist, gave his sermon that obeyed the rule of upholding the gospel, and then he told his congregation that this was the end. Next day on Monday he walked into Essex Church Kensington and became its Minister, one of the religious humanist radicals of the denomination and a church less for folks like Andreas and me.

Now recently a Hull Unitarian in charge of these things said about an open pulpit as an ecumenical and/ or interfaith outreach and I said oh I know who could fill that. Mhoira of a Liberal Catholic outfit had made a connection with me since Adrian Glover had told me that the LCAC was still alive after its founders had walked off (and they've had a split since!). I'd done my own reading about Liberal Catholicism and Free Catholicism and now here was an opportunity to start making a difference, to shift some furniture about.

Mhoira is one of those who dealt with 'official religion' but ended up getting herself independently ordained, and then came back to Britain from Australia. The chance to offer a service, to therefore meet physically, not just online, turned out to be more like an interview, so I called the pulpit organiser and he joined in, and we pulled the service forward (originally the idea was wait for Mhoira to be made a bishop). But in the meantime, Mhoira has done what all independents do, which is to make her own ministry. Being liberal in outlook, she has gone to her former hometown and got herself well in there, and now is spreading herself around further - and this is among existing congregations. But, as I say, all congregations are development ones these days.

My 'met at Hucklow' and online friend Louise was not happy about the Hibbert Trust crystal ball gaze, which ended up thinking the future is clicks, bricks and a focal person. She says we should see what people need to do, what they do do and build faith communities like that. I see the point, but I'm not sure if that doesn't still end up with a focal person with a core spiritual role. I think I'd be more creative, and drop a Mhoira in every so often and have a Francis start up. It kind of distorts the expectations and freshens things up when the usual is risked.

But the Unitarian movement is at a point where flexibility ought to be forced on to it. For example, if you want to be a minister, you have to be a residential trainee, and you go through the existing well-worn pathways. There are provisions for transfers, though there are difficulties about being a minister in two places at once. I once wrote about that, but then being a Bishop of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star was hardly Unitarian in ethos at any point. Liberal Catholicism raises some liturgical issues, but they existed in the late nineteenth century and after and some of them usefully could be creative.

Now I would prefer a more 'distance learning' approach, and no doubt some C of E people will start groaning at me that the C of E increasingly does this "on the cheap" and it does not lead to the formation of the person as a minister. Believe me, my year at UCM only led to how to manage boredom, not acquiring formation. I once went to the Principal and said, "Find me something to do." The amount of actual, useful training offered could have been done in a few weeks. You may as well be in a community and do the training, and be funded to go out and about - travel. Plus, I'd have everyone gathering regularly at Hucklow and shut both colleges (quite seriously - I could even write the course).

The daft thing is that there are the vacancies. In some places there is the money and few people, and in others people enough for someone if money is difficult. The training is such that the candidates are not available, and also many a minister sticks in the church they inhabit with those wanting ministers not finding one to attract. This is the opposite situation from the Church of England's, although it may be a function of a state and stage of decline: the money still exists, the vacancies are wanted, but no one is being 'grown' into ministry. There is a sense of amateurism about service taking (I think so), although again flexibility does lead to some highlights. Some of this is about how to successfully bring in quality control when the scene is so open, where no one is prevented from doing any particular role.

So what might I do? I've often considered ministry. I was in the C of E Fellowship of Vocation that existed in Hull and East Yorkshire in the mid eighties onward (I went into this virtually straight from confirmation) and, between the denominations, I now simply could not be such a person. I often wonder if I'd carried on, say ignorant of the Unitarians, and they'd taken me on. I think I'd have had my honesty and ethical back broken by now and probably be some sort of silenced Sea of Faith type stuck in a twenty five hamlets outfit. But I am also looser about the Unitarians, in that I'm no fool now. I'm a lot less hotheaded, but can still analyse and could still do the whole thing, with experiment. So I might just go an investigate in August at the open day, but, on the other hand, I might not. If the system is rigid, then we just have to go around it - it is quite weak anyway now. Flexibility has to be the method and the 'how to be active' changes as the structures have to respond.

Anyway, best of luck to Lesley as her curacy ends: I'd guess she'll probably end up doing secular work and might be able to do some educational stuff and be a sort of campaigner, and there might be some sort of ministry; and of course I'm quite fascinated to see how Mhoira's efforts will turn out - relatively conventional, in the end, or really flexible and creative?

Monday 18 July 2011

More on Appearances

So George Pitcher is "better suited" to the world of journalism, and says this at perhaps the craft's lowest moment when there is a political scandal swirling bigger than the Profumo affair in 1963 - involving journalists, police, media corporate governance, criminals, innocent victims, celebrities and politicians seeking favours. It is like saying, 'I am better suited descending into hell.'

But, hang on, is this another sacrifice of another for the purpose of the public appearance of this Archbishop in Lambeth Palace? Pitcher had engineered a fantastic opportunity for the boss to be editor and writer of a thoughtful magazine, and it included the thoughts of Iain Duncan Smith, a government minister with a task of destabilising the poor and unoccuptied. It was hardly a one way attack on the coalition; the fear that the coalition has created among people like me is also quite real. But politics is about appearances, and Lambeth Palace seems to be about politics these days, inside and outside its Church.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Institutional Dilemma

As it happens, I have some sympathy at least for the logic of this point as expressed by the Urban Pastor:

I simply cannot see how we can think that it’s a good idea to two adjacent parishes, both belonging to the Church of England, yet teaching opposite things on this issue. Think about it for a moment. If someone who struggled with same sex attraction came to an evangelical church, I hope that they’d be reassured that the full resources of the church would be thrown behind them to help resist temptation and live a godly life for Christ. But a liberal church might simply empathise with their predicament but tell them that they are free to act on their same sex attraction and pursue a homosexual sexual relationship. One church calls them to fight sin and live in holines. The other church reassures them that what some call sin is really holiness. One church preaches forgiveness of sins through Christ’s substitutionary atonement and the transformation of life through the power of the Spirit. The other one sanctifies sin and imperils their salvation. We simply cannot co-exist. Can we?

Logically it seems unlikely, but back in the 1980s I conducted semi-structured interviews with three Christian ministers (separately) where they disagreed on just about every issue. In those days, with at least three clear schools, the areas of disagreement and agreement varied in such a way as to reinforce a balance. With now effectively two schools for the future the institution is much more unstable.

Of course I don't accept the substance of the analysis, in that for me a 'sin' involves a negative; two people coming together creates a positive of more than a sum of its parts. What the Bible says is just mythology, whether Paul says it or not, or whoever does. For some the issue is whether there is a greater biblical ethic than a detail of homosexual activity, as performed by those in Greek religious centres or whore houses or wherever, but for me the Bible is still referring to homosexual sex (and there will have been gay partnerships at that time, people staying together) and so the Bible is just wrong. When, then, the preacher is 'worried' about someone's eternal salvation I just think they ought to wonder what century they are in and what constitutes the real and the meaningful. This is sectarian twaddle, as meaningless as the verbiage from Jehovahs Witnesses and all the rest. This stuff has no purchase, and is like Puritanism without the punch.

As for tanks on Lambeth's lawn, it's more like a single gun, and the silliness is that Lambeth has not tackled the threat. There are all sorts of ways to do it. One is to blast the thing and then to let the lawn recover, but there is also the clever approach of going out at night and loosening its nuts. When it tries to fire, it is useless. Perhaps it takes other Evangelicals to come out and loosen the nuts, or the Archbishop uses the full set of tools shown to be at his disposal to loosen some crucial nuts.

Or else change denomination to one that already accepts LGBT in the ministry, that blesses unions and only has to challenge the prejudices of some congregants.

Friday 15 July 2011

Big Benn Won't Chime Loudly

Somehow I get the sense that the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) has just lost some of its effect via compromised leadership. Apparently, one of its prime movers, Bishop Wallace Benn, despite being in apparent good health, has had memory problems when it comes to giving evidence about priests in immoral standing, and the bishop did know the village-residence of the paedophile priest in question and yet allowed his ministry to continue. These stories come back to haunt when they are more fully uncovered because they deal with such important issues, including issues of leadership.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Should Rowan Williams Resign?

This is the article, as I sent it, to the Gay Times. I did not know my opponent was Lesley Crawley, but there you go.

Many Anglicans in England perhaps do not realise to what extent LGBT people are going to be marginalised within the Church of England.

Of course LGBTs are already marginalised, in that anyone outside marriage who expresses their love for one another sexually is excluded from ministry and blessings. This exclusion does not involve those who have been divorced, which should be a biblical prohibition.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is only supposed to be first among peers, and much is honorary. But, like an American President, with the power to persuade, and the use of political levers, he can create power. This Archbishop has shown remarkable skill in leadership in both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.

In 2003 he made his defining move to prevent Jeffrey John, a gay man who claimed a celibate relationship, from taking up the offer of Bishop of Reading. Years later, in 2010, he was intervening again, and this time the unwell Colin Slee kept a record of the encounters he had with the Archbishop. Made public only recently, Slee recorded how a shouting Williams made some committee members in Southwork, proposing Jeffrey John and Nicholas Holtam as their bishop candidates, cry; how a leak took place about these proposals from, apparently, Lambeth Palace; that Lambeth Palace instituted an enquiry (whose findings were made a secret in November 2010). Slee was annoyed that the Archbishop of York addressed Jeffrey John directly that it would do his friends no credit to leak his name, when Colin Slee and others had done no such thing.

If this looks like low political manoeuvring, then the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica in 2009 was where the Archbishop managed to look both ways, confuse people present, and a rejected resolution became something passed rather like it.

This refers to what will make all the difference: the Anglican Communion Covenant. Having there caused a slight revising of the punitive Section 4, he claims, against other judgment, that it is not now punitive. But what is important is that this one person can insist, and gets his way, that this section now stays with the proposed Covenant, and this is what gives it teeth.

The effect of the Covenant is this: anything of controversy to some Anglican Churches, like the viciously homophobic ones in parts of Africa, goes into a process of delay and consideration at the centre of the Communion. To be involved in the conserving outcome, the Anglican Church of any one country must stay in this Covenant. The Archbishop of Canterbury is an Instrument of the Communion, and thus needs to be on board, and he only comes from the Church of England.

So the Church of England cannot do anything that would make the position of this Instrument of Communion in any way compromised. This Church won't have the freedom even to propose changes towards inclusion. This is why the Study Guide for Lent in 2011 was a one way argument: There Is No Alternative.

The adoption of the Covenant really would be the final defeat for all liberal people, whether liberal theologically or socially, in the English Church.

Rowan Williams is a man who once included LGBT people within his theology, but since he has taken on "the job" (as he called it, once, when indicating his change of position) he has reversed the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice into the sacrifice of others to advance his bureaucracy, to create something more of an international Catholic Church where bishops and priests are preserved and hierarchical.

It is not just that he has sold his own soul, but that he seeks to impose his own ethic on every one else. He won't resign, because he is ramming this through: for the Church comes first; but he should be pushed before it is too late.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Legal Eagles Fly Away

I keep receiving notices of the strong possibility of being involved in legal action because of comments that I publish.

This is a theological, sociology of theology, and management of institutions analysis blog. The religious bodies involved can be large, small and very small. So it tries to be less about people and more about institutions - neighbours, similarities, differences: who is attracted and who is not.

If I write something that is inadequate, I try to make it adequate. I try to participate in fair comment, and this is difficult when it comes to handling individuals. What is acceptable might be judged as to what is stated far and wide in other blogs.

When someone writes a comment, that comment is in addition and does not have to be here. If someone strongly objects to a comment, then I take notice. If the comment is personal, and attacks someone's character, I am going to remove it (I allow comments to come on freely, up to a time limit).

As regards specifically on the Open Episcopal Church, I have made two postings without taking sides. I have focussed particularly on the institution: the characteristic of the Church as 'liquid Church' for example in terms of the independence of its clergy. The dispute I have noted in terms of the retreat centre: it may not be the full story, but that is not relevant - this aspect of the story is what is of interest here. It is the old question: who has authority, and it is a good question for a 'liquid Church' when there is an institutional dispute.

Personalities do clash, but whether they have or not is of less interest here.

The interest of purple power is particularly important in the Church of England. In this case there is a coming Anglican Communion Covenant and my analysis is that this will freeze the Church of England in terms of inclusion, and that it will in all effect be a final defeat for the liberals, both social and theological. That so much focusses on one man, in this case, is because this Archbishop of Canterbury is a prime mover of events, as demonstrated in the General Synod in the Bishop of Dover and the Chair of the Business Committee case. Again this is about fair comment. A connection is made to the notes of the late Colin Slee. It is about how power is exercised. I am also interested in how some people, liberal theological and liberal socially, are campaigning and are going to cope, assuming defeat - whilst I retain an interest in their success; I am also interested in those people more compatible with a more exclusive institution and yet seem to be undergoing change. It involves personalities, and I cartoon them, but I remain more interested in 'positions'.

As for the Unitarians, the issue there is whether decentralisation works and having such a low and unco-ordinated congregationalism when there is no core belief but still inherited practices. Recently the issue has been Clicks and Bricks and personalities to co-ordinate on the ground. I have also examined the relationship of liberalism in a Catholic and esoteric setting to that of this evolved low liberalism. I remain a kind of Martineau Unitarian - evolved, ecumenical, more non-denominational, which is one reason why I am not a member of any specific Unitarian institution (there are conditions of need and change by which I might change my mind).

To some extent the interactions from here and from me make things happen. It isn't just neutral observation. But observation is a large part.

Defending the White Cliffs of General Synod

Pete Broadbent was silenced recently by his boss the Bishop of London over his remarks about the royal couple. This time he is remarking about his Archbishop, after the Church of England General Synod members did not want the Bishop of Dover as the next Chair of the Business Committee, causing him to stand down. Bishop Broadbent writes in explanation:

Actually it was never intended that the 2 bishops should be considered as candidates for the post. In those days, the 2 bishops chaired the two major committees - education and ministry. We never thought that they should be candidates for chairing the business committee or the appointments committee - and they never have. With hindsight, we should have written that convention into the standing orders of Synod, but at the time it seemed so obvious that a bishop should not undertake these synodical roles that we didn't do so.

So are we to assume that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, by wanting his nearby bishop in charge was making a power grab over who runs the business? After all, there is an Anglican Communion Covenant to discuss soon. Certainly, once the Bishop of Dover stood down, up got Rowan Williams. Again, says Pete Broadbent:

The Archbishop of Canterbury attempted, in a rather manipulative way, to chastise Synod for opposing his nomination. But of course the issues aren't about the personal - though they contain the personal.

Interesting observation by the Bishop of Willsden, that, for those who have pointed to the Archbishop of Canterbury's behaviour being manipulative - as when exposed by the notes of Colin Slee.

As regards what the Bishop of Dover had just said, Rowan Williams put members on the naughty step:

I think we've been quite properly embarrassed by what we've just heard - and so we should be.

Was this him being manipulative this time? I don't think so. I think it is that Rowan Williams spoke in precisely the opposite terms of being manipulative, as a form of manipulation. Machiavelli would be proud.

If it is the view of Synod that membership of the House of Bishops precludes someone from taking an office like this then Synod needs to say so, after a proper and open discussion.

As for the suitability of a bishop chairing the bsiness Committee, the Archbishop said:

I suggest to those who think it might be the case they should perhaps read the ordinal and remind themselves what bishops should be there for.

In other words, Rowan Williams has changed the assumption, himself. Just himself. On the bishop's perspective being not right for the running of Synod or the assumption that the House of Bishops or Presidents might habitually interfere:

...then again I would like that to be said openly rather than privately.

Openly and not privately! Hah! Who was it that silenced the report about the leaking of the selection process regarding the Bishop of Southwark? Which powers that be had tried to pin the blame on friends of Jeffrey John?

And on building trust within Synod:

I don't think that we build trust very effectively by acting on the assumption of suspicion.

What tosh. Bishops huddle together and meet in secret. This matters not a jot to the Archbishop, whose perspective is coloured purple. He surely knows that the Synod is a corrective to the men in purple, to give power across the ministers of laity and clergy too. But just like the Presidential address, just like the Covenant, it's all about bureaucracy and centralisation when it comes to the man at the top. Another reason why he is no 'liberal' - he is acting with suspicion. He wanted the Bishop of Dover to run the show because there is a Covenant to shove through. Perhaps General Synod will now grow some balls and chuck it out. More detail via Thinking Anglicans.

Sunday 10 July 2011

External Justification Not Needed

The problem with Rowan Williams's General Synod speech that this Christianity is not another ideology, not just a campaig:, it's news, and that, despite the evidence, God has not abandoned us, is that this all draws on the necessity that somehow we humans are not able to organise ourselves spiritualityand that somehow it has to come from outside, from elsewhere, to justify the effort.

The evidence seems to be the absence of a real God. Yet we can still generate compassion between ourselves and reflect upon it and even build a programme of spiritual development. I don't believe the resurrection accounts are anything other than myth of the time and place, but then ideas flow through language and we meet one another with our bodies and minds. There is, again, no need for outer projection for continuing to be human, so long as humanity lasts (and humanity will come to an end).

For me there is little doubt that the Roman Catholic Church is a hefty negative on the balance sheet when it comes to ethics - increasingly so - and this is the direction that that Church of England travels (as assisted by Rowan Williams himself in terms of high policy).

The question for me regarding the survival of a church is the facility to meet, to share, to explore. I don't think it needs any more than this as justification. Look, if people really have given up on this, except for the rock music entertainment spirituality approach, then we may as well realise this and call it a day. I don't think we are there yet, and even if a few uphold a tradition that now facilitates difference coming together then we may as well keep the doors open.

I think there is a strong argument for focus in a congregational presence, and it can include professional ministry, but my own model is educational and facilitating rather than selected ordination doing the delivery. to some extent Rowan Williams was saying similar points - about facilitating, but he is still heavy on the ordained Presbyter over others. People do the delivery in a much more shared sense; the community is healthier when it does the jobs. Character formation is something for the people in the community: that is the point of the availability of spiritual practice. There is no unique character formation. Training of ministers is so that they can train others, but in the creating of other 'presences' they may not be easily identified rather than have the ordained as like semi-little bishops.

At a time when the Open Episcopal Church leadership structure has entered confusion and turmoil, the importance of diversity and sharing with decentralisation cannot be emphasised more. The Church of England is involved in deep divisions too, its size and cumbersomeness (and, frankly, the inadequacy of some of the threat makers) keeps it going, but the losses each week in terms of bums no longer on seats are quite high.

Saturday 9 July 2011


We are singing a new hymn tomorrow, and it will be played on the clavinola. However, I have transcribed it and here below is the text and you can also see my .PDF of the score (it varies from the hymn book for practical music-producing reasons), the .MID for the basic computer sound (my .OGG and .WAV result is considerably better) and the .XML for inserting into computer score-writing software (the .MID can be used that way too). It is lyrics and music copyright by Rev. Myrna Michell, Minister at York Unitarians, who takes the Hull service, so if you mess about with it you do it for private consumption.

In the morning,
When the dawn leans
Far across the land,
Take a moment
To recall those
Little things you planned.

Let your feelings fly....,
They will not be bound;
Stretch your voices high...;
Send them all around.

If the morning's and
All the world seems grey,
Don't turn over
In your bed; stand
Up and face the day.

Make the dark clouds fly...,
At your own command;
Life is standing by....;
Take it by the hand.

So I think it is 445.445.8585. but I'm a bit thick when it comes to understanding music.

Partly So...

This is part of a post from the General Synod Blog:

The URC has its ultimate origins in the expulsion from the Church of England of Nonconformist dissenters following the Act of Uniformity in 1662, and if the recommendations in the report are passed by Synod, they will result in the request that "representatives of the two churches should join together in an act of worship in 2012, that would mark both the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection of nonconforming ministers following the Act of Uniformity 1662 and the 40th anniversary of the inauguration of the United Reformed Church. The service should contain an expression of penitence for our part in perpetuating the divisions of the past, a desire for the healing of memories and an act of commitment to work more closely together in the future." That strikes me as being at least as important a thing for Synod to be doing as the various things that people this afternoon said we ought to be talking about. Apart from anything else - this thing might actually make a difference...

Presumably, Unitarians won't be invited.

The URC represents, by merger in 1972, the Independents who left the Church of England on St. Batholomew's Day 1662, but arguably they were going and gone anyway. That was the point. The Church of England had become royal, episcopal and corporate again and did not want the rag tag of ministers and hangers on, but nor could it keep other Puritans. It was the parish-minded Presbyterians who, having left, by and large over the generations became Unitarian.

The Presbyterian side of the URC was, in the main, a Scottish export into England because so many English Presbyterians were Unitarians by drift. The reason why was because they were trustee run, rented pews and did not require membership confessions, welcomed the parish, relied on the Bible alone (so interpretations changed), used the findings of the colleges they created into the pulpits, and were thoughtful.

Today, the URC to maintain itself has expanded back into Scotland, and incorporating a number of independent Protestant Churches, some of which do not believe in infant baptism and thus causing some internal divisions. This expansion masks a massive contraction in the core, as with the Methodists. The coming back to the C of E is also, therefore, about the numbers, the plant and equipment, and that some of these old issues are being forgotten. Except the URC accepts presbyters and deacons and the C of E bishops, presbyters and deacons, whereas the Methodists have absent bishops.

Unitarians will be holding their own 350th birthday parties, though usually they have their birthday parties for when their churches began as a continuous congregation. Hull kicks off at 1672 and the Indulgence that allowed it, making it up to 1689 with the change of regime.

Diversity and Expectation

A recent comment says that Anglican and Catholic churches can be as diverse as Unitarian, but people like to know what they are going to get. When Belper (and Hull) have situations where they don't know what will be read, it will only attract a few people.

First of all, I would agree that there is much more diversity in say an Anglican or Methodist congregation in terms of what people really believe than what is presented. We know that people have all sorts of different views about God and indeed about Jesus or others, and they hold these despite what preachers may say week after week. You don't need a pressure group like Sea of Faith, for example, to have those who don't believe God exists turning up at churches for religious as well as social reasons. Sea of Faith is the intellectual and pressure group end of a phenomenon that already exists.

However, for a number of people, this 'othopraxy' rather than orthodoxy gets a bit stale. There are spiritual elements, perhaps in a ritual of drinking and eating, say, but so much is so so. There are others who wish to get into a wider market place of ideas when it comes to spirituality and discussion.

Those who formed the Unitarian Christian Association are simply a defensive 'right wing for the denomination' group who want the Unitarians to remain appearing as a church. It is often about practice maintained. But the question then is how Unitarians can appeal to those who have nowhere else to go, other than to the Quakers and their silence. Unitarians like to speak and there cannot be boundaries as to what to believe, what not to believe and what to do. This must include ministers and lay people alike.

In the end, when an Anglican minister makes promises that they do not believe, even if they then keep them in practice, there is a duplicity that has to be rejected. This duplicity starts within the Christian realm - many in the Unitarian Christian Association also cannot practice this duplicity. They are not trinitarians, they do not believe in the Virgin Birth or Bodily Resurrection doctrines, and yet they are Christian to any outsider. Indeed they may be similar to Central European Unitarians of the catechism. But the Anglo-American Unitarian is an evolved view of belief and practice, and this has now expanded within rationalism into religious humanism and out of rationalism into the Pagan and Eastern (Eastern is a bit of both).

Despite the potential for variety, the Unitarian service is still more alike than unalike. We don't always say the Lord's Prayer, for example, but it is said more weeks than not (I no longer join in). The references are more usual than unusual in terms of religious language. I personally think that if Unitarians are clearer about diversity, and the message gets out, then it will attract even the relative few and it can talk about the necessity of diversity and coming together in today's world.

More on the OEC

Having received emails and messages not for publication, I need to tread carefully regarding more information on the OEC split. I have, as they say, very good sources.

The Scottish reading of OEC Canon Law and its action is that the diocese can register as a charity and this is what it has done, whereas in the OEC in England and Wales there is more of an Archbishop's Council oversight approach, that is the bishops gathering and agreeing together for the whole OEC.

David Gillham in Scotland thus chose autonomy and a division became a split and this was over matters of ministry. From the Council point of view there is the issue of clergy being able to appeal above the head of the bishop to all of them. The specific dispute was regarding the retreat centre at Luing in Scotland, which the Scottish bishop will not support as it was as, on that account, it was operating outside regulative Scottish laws, over which, in terms of support, the Archbishops Council took a different view. The Scottish removed Luing as functioning from the website once under the new regime, whereas the OEC under the Archbishop's Council have it included under what is claimed is a vancant see. The further issue is David Gillham's retirement and how his successor is to be chosen.

From this dispute and separation comes other priorities on the ground differently worked out. Inevitably such organisations begin together, and then they get wider and wider apart. It leaves the OEC (in England and Wales) without any bishops north of Wales - none in the Midlands and none in the north.

And, in the end, the model has been independent clergy, people who have considerable space around them in regards to how they operate. Personally, I think there is a clash between that independence and space, and all that to do with Nicene Creeds and formalities, which comes about through the idea of having a legitimate apostolic ministry. Another issue is how much that independence is modified by the existence of congregations that may form when there are confessional elements in text and form. How do 'Hedge priests' and 'Sea of Faith' priests perfom then? A passing traffic of rites of passage laity is not the same thing as forming communities on the ground and the understanding that generates among a group. I get the sense that there is more of this in Scotland and that a different more settled model is forming.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Scotland is Independent!

Only, however, in terms of The Open Episcopal Church. Things were going so well, but now the Scottish Bishop has departed and taken his diocese with him.

Here is the Scottish Church.
Here is the rest of the Church, with Scotland under the Archbishop's Council.

So there is now The Open Episcopal Church with a diocese in Scotland and then The Open Episcopal Church in Scotland. Both serve "in a modern and liberal way".

This isn't the first time there have been splits within this stream, as indeed its birth was difficult, but stability seems so difficult with institutions this small. Everyone knows everyone else too well, and personalities clash. I don't know the reason for the division, but I do know that Scotland had made progress on the ground in terms of ministries and it could be more decentralised. This might indicate the difference, for in Scotland:

The result is always that lay representatives outnumber clergy and so hold the balance of power over the running and administration of their own church. Only matters of faith and morals are reserved to the bishop and his clergy, within the normal constraints and understanding of Catholic Christian theology, doctrine and practice.

These groups have tended to be clergy led, and forming congregations is difficult - with a tendency then to ordain the committed through a succession of lower orders first. I thought the OEC (throughout) had tried to slow down these processes. It may well be that Scotland is going a bit 'lower' than the other OEC.

The Open Episcopal Church in Scotland is considering whether it can join the Free Churches Council...

Can a liberal way Church with an Old Catholic authentic feel join the Free Churches Council? If one grants it quotes the Nicence Creed and the Trinity, it still might ruffle a few feathers due to its inclusivity. That was the point of the OEC: independence and inclusivity.

Interestingly, the news of the split hasn't yet reached the OEC of the larger geographical area.

On a more general point regarding this split: isn't the idea of being liberal having a diversity that comes together? What claims are there to be ecumenical, if you can't be in the same institution with others where there is fundamental agreement? Unitarians have been theologically divided for a long time, though the nature of the division keeps changing: they have had to learn to keep together and then value the diversity.

Belper's Unitarianism Leaflet

I think this leaflet is quite terrific. Go to the leaflet directly or click on these images of the same as below.

It is produced by Belper Unitarians. Now to produce something like this requires a congregational exercise in prioritising what is important for a leaflet, in saying and recording what beliefs exist and what people do, in doing the photography (including of some events), in sharing the writing, and the final selection. You've got the:

  • Welcome (and recognise the building)
  • Map
  • Services
  • Activities
  • Contacts (and website)
  • Wider context (district, national)
  • History
  • What people say
  • Photographs (especially people)
  • Some punchy headlines

The leaflet is what gets put in public buildings, as well as what can be taken from the church. The focus should be on the Unique Selling Point of Unitarianism, which is its diversity and difference (in concrete terms the Christian, Humanist, Pagan and Eastern) coming together and especially the rites of passage that reach into areas other churches reject.

There is more information on a folding card leaflet than on a poster, but less than on a website. There is less grab and pull on a leaflet but the folding card leaflet does have a front page. It ought to be handy. Belper's seems to pass all the tests as far as I can see.