Wednesday 31 August 2011

Highlighting Some Events

See the Unitarian News with posters. I'd highlight:

8 October 11:30 to 16:30 Unitarian Renewal Group gathering. See the poster.

10th September 10:00 to 12:30 Michael Meacher MP speaks about the Destination of the Species (The Riddle of Human Existence), his latest book, at Oldham Unitarian Chapel, King Street, OL8 1EB Entrance is free. Contact Bob Pounder.

22nd October 18:00 The first Channing Lecture, Golders Green Unitarians, 31 Hoop Lane, London NW11 8BS. Alan Ruston speaks on 'Being a Unitarian: A Diversity of Beliefs and Personalities' for about 45 minutes and then questions. It examines an historical perspective to underline the present diverse theological spectrum. Contact Danielle Wilson.

Weekend of 4th to 6th November How to use sacred texts to develop one's own writing. Nightingale Centre, Great Hucklow, Derbyshire National Unitarian Fellowship. It's a Workshop. See the poster. Contact Tony McNeile

25th to 27th November Annual Conference 2011 of the Unitarian Association for Lay Ministry Nightingale Centre, Great Hucklow, Derbyshire SK17 8RH. Experiences discussed of Spiritual ministry Pastoral ministry Practical ministry. Plus the usual Worship Studies Course slot on the Saturday afternoon, with WSC tutors and Administrator present. Bursaries are available for those on low incomes. See the poster. Contact Sue Woolley.

Monday 26th September 19:00. After Bangor, there is another new Unitarian Fellowship - this time in Canterbury. The Friends' Meeting House, 6 The Friars, Canterbury CT1 2AS. It last met in 1903. The service is followed with discussion on when and how it should meet. Contact David Usher.

Monday 29 August 2011

Stephanie and Context

Stephanie takes services in Hull probably more often than anyone, about once a month. This time she swelled the congregation by bringing her own. She's a fast talker, full of enthusiasm, and can think fresh ideas. Since she has come to Hull she has listened to constructive criticism and acted on it, so now she has slowed down, she projects her voice better (and rightly ignores the microphone) and adds in more pauses. If I was to criticise, she ran too many spoken elements together in one part between music, how hymns and other music act as interludes as well as their own content.

Afterwards she said she thought about going to a Ministry Inquiry Day but took the view she wasn't ready, and kept having that view. Yet, of course, she is doing ministry, as we all do somehow, and she is also doing it in dialogue with at least this congregation and I am sure with others. She has simply put herself forward to do it, and people took her on, and now she is better all the time. Her previous service was good for its merger of topic and news, quite seamlessly.

I had a little objection to quite a good reflection on miracles in life, that began when her friend and her stopped off at Eyam (the plague village) before coming to the Hucklow Open Day. She was conflating different kinds of miracles. I didn't like the 'explanation' of the Feeding of the Four/ Five Thousand miracle by once someone provides other people also provided, in effect they brought along their own lunches and this explains the fact they were fed.

Given as historical speculation, it was unnecessary and not convincing either, but it it had been more made into a theological point it would have been very interesting. One good turn, miracle, encourages others to help it along. That's not in the story, but theology should be a moving target. The theological point of the actual story is early Churches ritual of the Eucharistic, or love meal, again, and a forerunner of the heavenly banquet, which is why the baskets of left overs are filled and all with operating numbers. I think she fell for the temptation to cover the field regarding miracles; reference to Derren Brown debunking and yet evidence that something can be false doesn't mean it is false just is like tying more knots.

To me it is best to focus on one thing or the other, so that one looks at a contemporary and secular meaning of miracles, like even our view of the Eyam people producing their miracle of non-contact, or a biblical criticism, or about Derren Brown and religion as spectacle.

But I think back again to the Contextual Theology point. To run that sermon and the service through orthodox Christian theology is not the proper context. The proper context was that of the secular world in which we live, of humanistic assumptions (that she did challenge).

The first local I told about going to the Ministry Inquiry Day was on friday morning in the church, and the congregation's 'matriarch' was not present then. Not hearing it from him, she asked me in the car (getting a lift home), "Were you at the college this week?"

It just shows how the jungle telegraph operates, because she didn't get it from the Internet either. Someone, presumably, was on the telephone asking if she knew that Adrian had visited UCM. But she agreed with me that the Contextual Theology is not our context, that it processes things the wrong way around. I explained this is the new competitive Higher Education world, that the Federation had run off to Chester, but would for entrants in 2012 be back at the University of Manchester (probably). No no, the University of Manchester had Unitarian founding roots, but the Unitarian College is part of the Federation, not part of the University. Thus they will get their degrees marked from whichever institution is desired.

Plus she knew that Harris Manchester College, Oxford, is getting more remote with problems as regards the denomination.

It all appears to be somewhat at a distance, and confirms my worries. So - I was asked - what am I going to do? I explained I was thinking of going, then I was going to go with Mhoira the Liberal Catholic, then she was told that from a GA perspective she's not a cat in hell's chance of being a Unitarian minister, and then I decided I'd still go and see. Having been to see, I'm no further forward from that in itself, and all that came from HMC was the paper information sent. Given that lack of mutuality, potential candidates should have been able to visit both colleges. I might then have found a moment to visit Lesley in June as well as my August detour to visit Rachel. My chat with Lesley would have been very different, much more one to one forensic. Something to still imagine.

A placement and pastorate would benefit someone like Stephanie, and so would Unitarian courses with historical information, but would the Contextual Theology? It might give some information about others' approaches, but I doubt it would be directly relevant. Once again, it is not our context.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Training a Remote Professional Ministry?

A few days on from my trip to the Ministry Inquiry Day, and having revealed my whereabouts to some church locals (proves they don't read this much), I have even more concerns about training for professional ministry.

The core of current training, at least in Luther King House, is 'contextual theology' but I'm reflecting that this needs standing on its head.

The idea is you do a placement and a pastorate, and all essays relate to these: the theology is the medium through which congregational practice is examined (as well as practical theology is predominating over purely academic considerations).

But turn this on its head. Given the wide variety of faith sources, philosophies and 'ordinary talk' that are used in church worship, in what way is processing through a particular theology itself contextual to the churches?

The assumption is a dominant tradition, a universe of meaning, through which congregations can be understood (however much they make the pure practical). But this is not the context of the Unitarian congregation. Ministers are likely to be trained into a language that is remote from the range of congregational expressions.

I'm told - and I don't know how true this is - that there is another revival down in Oxford, at Harris Manchester College, of removing the term 'Unitarian' from titles of faith. Whether this is the old anti-denominationalism again, or another 'Free Christian' push, I don't know. But the danger is an aloofness from the congregations that rely on this institution for some ministers. I'd hope it is just an expression of a more 'high' Unitarianism, although this is rather scarce on the ground. Perhaps it is just difficult to shift old cultures.

Contextual theology is also personal, because we have our own contexts. So, someone like me has a Ph.D studying the Sociology of Religion and then has done a Theology course at MA level. If I was to study a congregation through the medium of Christian theology, I'd have to bend it until it was unrecognisable. Unitarians are not 'useful' to federation tutors because we ask questions that other students won't ask, we are there for our Church purposes and where they are at present.

All this training is expensive, because it is the full formation approach of residence and absorption; I resume that long-running pastorates and placements need to be near at least the contextual college. But if the Unitarians are a congregational system, and the age of trainees is rising, then distance learning should become more appropriate.

I keep returning to my earlier idea, that students should do a range of theology, social science and education degrees or diplomas, and do so from their congregations (or, indeed, residential pastorates), and should gather frequently at Great Hucklow as a united group talking about the denomination and its needs as it is - and joining in with the societies and events also meeting there. It is more relevant, flexible and cheaper. As for ecumenical and interfaith contacts, these will come in the universities or other institutions. I see no benefit in the ecumenical gathering, as it is surely becoming more an interfaith gathering from this perspective. Theological deficiency (in terms of knowing the arguments) can come from the degrees and diplomas taken, but theology is not the be-all and end-all of our situations: educational theory and social science is just as relevant.

I write this despite the fact that the contextual theology approach will probably disappear anyway by the time applicants (before the October deadline) who are accepted start training. Fitting in with the Federation is probably going to be just as problematic in a new arrangement, without the wrong-way-around contextual approach.

Friday 26 August 2011

In the Flesh

The virtual world is a seductive world, but one of imaginings and it is much better to see the person in the flesh. A few weeks back I was travelling to Great Hucklow and thought, "I know I'll go and see Rachel," but Rachel was going to Wales. So the same thought again because I was going to Manchester.

It was a bit risky because, just as for Hucklow, I didn't get to actual sleep the night before and I was 'running on empty'. But I never quite know how sleep works. I was running at the limit though, with a journey to Manchester, a longer one than expected from Manchester to say hello, and then the one back home.

Rachel says we have known each other online for four years, and that's long that I thought. Changing virtual to real, from drawn to 3D, she's smaller than I expected and the 'Spencer nose' that I thought photographs had hidden ain't that bad after all! I bet she thought I emerged taller and fatter than she had expected. Hello to husband Henryk and daughters too, and interesting to have his take on things.

Rachel was keen to ask how my Ministry Inquiry Day had gone, and I felt I wasn't giving very good or full answers. I was sort of half in thought about it. She asked about congregations with different faith emphases in, as ours have a Buddhist-Hindu orientated chap in, who took a service at Lincoln last Sunday, I said, and there was the Iranian Muslim. Most are around liberal Christian to religious humanist. "Oh cool," she said. And I said about the pathetic level of attendance.

Rachel is evangelical and I recalled the live chat we once had as she imagined a green garage door - I'd neither a garage nor a green door, I said. "She was trying to convert me," she said, and one day a garage and green door might be significant. That was a bit of fun.

I said how long ago I coupled her with another blogger, Jody, but now see them as quite different. Rachel seems freer and more invidualistic, and she does have a charismatic background. What is more interesting is that she had a reawakened faith in 2007 and has gone like a train since, so is now a curate only four years later. In contrast I've been mainly Unitarian but Anglican at times now over a long period of time.

Now Rachel is different again. I said, "your eyes popped out" when she went to the United States, observed The Episcopal Church" and the necessary social action in the setting of no welfare state, and she'd engaged with its indaba. She wonders what the Americans will think of our less busy less active Anglican churches when they come over. To have the liberal influence she sometimes thinks, she said to me, 'Come back GAFCON, all is forgiven', but she is well on from GAFCON, having struggled and left the kind of evangelicalism that said a woman cannot be an ordained minister.

We talked about other bloggers, in some detail, and the coincidence of doing this and not getting another job. Lesley, she rather "lets it all hang out". She asked of Jonathan Hagger, "Is he the one with spiky hair?" I said, "Hey? That's a picture of John Henry Newman - he's given him a punk hairstyle. I mean, that'll offend some people." She didn't know what John Henry Newman looks like when young. And later, I said, he is a nice elderly looking gentleman. So many bloggers cannot get beyond being a curate (I don't think Rachel will have any trouble), even a hard line evangelical one. I said churches function on internal conflict, but when it comes to appearances they don't want controversy. Rachel had a run in with Erika, and I've had several, and now she and Lesley were arguing. Lesley's article in The Guardian did look very secular to the outsider, we agreed. What's online and what we know becomes its own gossip when one to one in the flesh.

We agreed that there seems to be a blogging clique (though actually Rachel's is slightly different from mine), and I said some years ago when June Butler visited then I was almost told to join the crew going to see Jack Parkes, someone who was directly told his blogging prevented him being a Lutheran minister. I said no; I hardly knew them. This time June Butler visiting brought a number of them together, and she had a secret dinner with the Bishop Alan Wilson. I had a few thoughts expressed about him, in relation to them, and he is supposed to be against the Covenant but he chooses all his words carefully.

I like Rachel because she writes all this theology stuff and she continues to race around all these writings. I said one essay was very compressed, and she said there is almost a style of essay writing that she hooked on to in order to get the marks. This was Henryk's point: all this complex language and what use is it. You can't preach it to the ordinary people. I said about the death of theology in preaching I hear. We have people in Hull from all around; the most frequent is a woman from Doncaster. She goes around as an ex-minister of Hull, who nearly closed the place, goes there. I tried to explain why I think the ministry training at Luther King House - she knows about Chester and said it has a good reputation - may not be an appropriate medium through which to express what is actually preached now.

I took some hymn books. Look, 216 in Hymns for Living is what Lesley Crawley hadn't heard. in Sing Your Faith there was hymn 90 sung at the Ministry Inquiry Day (with a recorder as accompaniment). I took some academic books, and said about a social anthropological approach to her Eucharist essay - gift and exchange, and now it is symbolism, and language is symbolism, and language is deep structure in our brains (children learn languages faster than they are taught them), and if a ritual of gift-exchange is common is that structuralist, and the criticism of structuralism. Rachel was an English teacher and may use semiotics.

She agreed with me that people pass A levels and then end up in remedial classes in Universities because of the other input-output measure everything approach of education. People had passed their English A levels but a task that depended on knowing nouns from verbs and adverbs in university couldn't be done because these English undergraduates didn't know the construction of sentences.

I think Rachel would benefit from people like Robin Gill, who combines Theology and Social Sciences, and then she did Economics at school (if not so well). She was taught by Jacqui Smith, the ex-Home Secretary, when she was a teacher. She wasn't very good. I took some books that might be useful, given the online output we see, and some of these were, she thought, worth noting down, including one of short articles including what students think of evangelical training colleges.

I like Rachel because she is someone in transition. She seems to be in permanent revolution. It shows I can talk even to those on a different wavelength. Even if she came my way she'll not end up like Lesley, I think, but she might be very flexible, with her own actual views but pluralistic. She's already 'more Anglican' as a whole. She encountered Tom Wright, and hears Steve Chalke, but is fed up with Rob Bell. I don't care for Steve Chalke, nor his role with academies, and with him and Rob Bell it's so much publicity and heard it all before.

I said she isn't stuffy like some, and she was criticised over the fashion show stuff and about appearance. She does produce very good photos. [Incidentally I took my camera but didn't take any photos; we didn't need to though actually one of us at the kitchen table might have been a good idea].

I apologised for my cartoons, but they are seen as funny. (The one here is a new one; I'm being naughty as usual). I said when she referred to being Laptopless I just could not resist, producing a Spanish bar of La Lap Topless. She said she was known in college for having her laptop everywhere, and once when I drew a friend of her's alongside her she turned the laptop to that friend in a lecture to reveal the cartoon of her. I said about a cheat technique of edge detection [or find edges] where one mass meets another in a picture. I said it gets the proportions and positions right, but doesn't look like the person. That's how we ended up with one my friend called 'Chomp Chomp', a character (I'm told) out of Hellraiser. She sort of hung around with his comments for a while at that point. I said blogging on religion I was fed up with drawing so many men; I drew many of Lesley, and then herself, and recently the daughter of the hymn writer and her singing friend, who appear together in photos in numbers.

I stayed just over three hours. I ate some food - thanks, how timely - and had two different coffees. Henryk is adapting to the new situation, with the girls to raise, and the house is a very good one indeed for the curates in the town. He once did a lot of IT work in a company, but sold his part on. It's a lifestyle change, one that moves to having people like me sat and chatting in an evening. Rachel thinks a whole group of bloggers could get together, and we could.

If I go down south sometime, I'll call on a few others. But I like Rachel and she represents, for me, difference with whom I can still talk. I bet I could talk loads with Lesley (and Alan), but it would be very different. I tend to be softer with evangelicals. I told Rachel that I did my Ph.D first, before the MA. I remember my Ph.D interviewing an Anglo-Catholic and he got stubborn, and I was forensic with the liberal (interviewing him twice, virtually cross-examining) and the evangelical just told me his beliefs. I just like to know where someone has come from and where they are going. We are all on a journey.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Broad Reflection on Ministry Inquiry Day

I've two things to blog on today, so I'll leave the most important to later and discuss here first (it comes lower down anyway) my reflection on attending the Ministry Inquiry Day. Ten of twelve expected attended plus the two presenters.

Rev. Alex Bradley is the newish Principal and was there for half of Rev. Danny Crosby's training, who is now in his first ministry. Danny was giving a student's eye view, which was all positive and constructive - the negatives were within the positives. He said that the course also got him over his resistances to the Bible, and was able to tackle it in a constructive manner.

This refers to the fact that the Contextual Theology approach to the training is Federation wide, and Unitarian students take part in the same University of Chester regulated course as everyone else. All essays are in the context of the practice. The first year involves a placement under a senior minister and the second involves a nine month pastorate.

There was also a hello from the new Baptist and Federation boss and a pushed along more general overview of ministry and what it involves - even the problem of a long term memory of a 'much loved' long term minister who retires that is followed by a series of unintended interims. Some laughter there as to whether that included anyone in the room, but not necessarily. However, it was something I recognised.

But, for me, what undermined the presentation was the news that the new Contextual Theology course started two years ago, and that changes mean a likely return to the University of Manchester and an ending of the course by the time anyone in the room (or elsewhere) starts. Alex Bradley said whatever, there cannot be academic study and then sending someone out to wreck a congregation, so it will always be practical in some sense. Apparently the University of Chester is particularly rigid on hand in dates, but this isn't the reason behind the likely coming break.

But I asked the obvious question: what happens with a religious humanist taking this course. Danny said that there have been religious humanists in the past. Yes, well, in 1989 I was a religious humanist, with an eye for symbolism, and I suited none of the chapels where I was sent. And I would imagine myself in a Contextual Theology class writing some rather imaginative theology as a means to reflect on a practice.

Alex didn't know what happens at "HMC" or "the other place" other than the papers sent through. These indicate a more parcelled and separated out course, which of course is taken by Unitarians alone among liberal arts mature students.

It is a strange reversal, perhaps, that the more ecumenical approach is in the more (historically) denominationalist college and then more Unitarian approach is in the (historically) more broad Church college. But this is because of Unitarians going in with a more obviously mainstream approach, however critical the tutors like the Unitarians to be, valuing their contributions that other denominational students might fear to contribute.

The problem is this: our services in Hull, say, from contributors far and wide, indicate the death of theology as a medium of giving ethical and worship messages. The sermons tend to be experiential and of the thought forms we use throughout ordinary life. They do not go into theology speak. They won't get into technicalities of Christ's sacrificial love, for example, or the workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of congregants. We don't think like this. But theology in context does think like this, or it becomes a reflection on the remoteness of theology itself.

I'll get to Rachel in my next blog entry, but as I was saying to her you move along intellectually across social anthropology and sociology, and look at structure and culture and so on when being intellectual. I can do theology, and I said to her about postmodernism from two different angles. I did a theology MA (and my dissertation was on Unitarian Universalism too). All I am doing then is saying to the Church, this is what I can offer - who I am - and do you want me in this role. Danny himself said, "This is congregational ministry." That's right, and perhaps I represent an older model of a minister (if I do represent any model of a minister).

I left the meeting no further forward in my own thinking about presenting myself to the denomination again. I've not discussed going with anyone locally because I wanted to approach this with the thoughts already in place. I would think it most likely that this shall just drift but one day I shall either kill it or apply to finish it. The Anglican side was concluded in this respect, simply because my kind of liberality and belief is outside its orbit, and indeed is more outside now than ever, but the issue with the Unitarians remains the role I can provide with congregations as a whole and in particular.

It is interesting how my friend Rachel, who only recognised herself due to events as a revived Christian in 2007, and is now an Anglican curate in 2011, would never have been selected for Unitarian ministry as she would not have been a member for three years [Not so - see her comment as she was on the electoral roll beforehand]. I have been, but technically I am not despite busy activity and a weekly attendance to challenge anyone's. I have no wish to be anything else, and would not be a Liberal Catholic (for example) because I'm not a Christian or Jesus centred. There is no doubt that I am Unitarian on the definition of an evolved faith around its area of liberal Christianity, religious humanism and the contribution of other faiths and philosophies, as well as on a definition of contribution. So this is a structural issue, although it becomes ideological if a congregation has a strong identity on a faith definition and isn't as 'free' as the national publicity claims.

One interesting aspect is the likely demise of Lay Pastor. It is regarded as second division, when it is not. I don't even understand the category, given the low Church nature of Unitaian ministry and the absence of ordinations. Perhaps Lay Pastors, who've done the same training as ministers after all, will get an automatic upgrade. The same issues would apply regarding Lay Pastor. The same issue might be solved if a congregation asked me to be Lay Person in Charge, because that would be a proof of being in place, but then that is the functioning of training. And there was none last time, in that I had no placement other than some visits to three churches, the place I might have gone as a placement not wanting me but another student after I said some mildly critical things about St. Paul in a first sermon. They just wanted a cheap pastor, chiefly someone to take services, and they were refused the student they did want.

So the whole point about applying is whether the Church sees me in the role, and as adding to its resource, even if I can see a role. If it can't, then that's it. But it's not as if I don't recognise the issue. No one can guarantee it, of coursen, but I wouldn't want to just take on an open ended gamble: I'd like it that selection for training indicates a recognition that, beyond disaster and the unforseen, training will lead on to the role.

So is the Oxford arrangement better and does it indicate a difference of result and role? Or is it not the same denomination? I don't think there's that much difference in ministers from one place or the other. After all, Alex Bradly, a Unitarian Christian Association man too, is a produce of "HMC" and clearly enjoys both his ministerial and college roles. What role indeed for the intellectual approach to Unitarianism these days?

Oh and I'd still have trainee ministers at different universities doing a variety of theology and education degrees and all gathering frequently at Great Hucklow, closing both colleges. But that's a different argument!

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Dodgy Dream

So Lesley has had a dodgy dream, and a number of commenters have analysed it, including me. I analyse dreams on the basis that our brains create narratives that try and ease the way ahead based on what we've been doing.

I did have a remembered dream last night.

I was driving in the car I have, with my (now deceased) mother in the passenger seat. She was more capable than in her dementia days, but she plays no significant part in the dream. We are driving in an area of narrow, straight roads, in an area partly like the roads north of Goxhill up to the Humber, and partly like going to the East Coast. There is another car driver, a chap named Roger Strachan (pron. Strawn), long deceased, who used to uphold Christianity in the Hull congregation and regard me as a trouble maker. In fact in 1994 when I returned to the church he virtually, not quite, told me to clear off.

He is driving along too, and it is obviously some sort of day out. He then overtakes and races down this narrow road, which I looked at and found reckless driving. I went much more slowly, slowing for oncoming traffic. Eventually I passed him, in his car, parked in a field, near the 'attractions' (I'll call them here); he's on his own but there are a number of people milling around. There is a visitor centre somewhere. It looks like I'm taking my mother on some holiday trip.

The attractions are, however, like some of the concrete bunkers you get at these desolate river and coastal sites, but people were milling around. There was a wooden jetty above. In one of these bunkers, with a narrow corridor, with thick concrete either side, there was a band playing and people singing. There may have been Rebecca Pashley in amongst them, one of my drawing 'victims' of recent times, along with Alison Kaan the daughter of a hymn writer. I was looking around for toilets. Incidntally, in real life Alison told someone about me who then became another Facebook friend - she is Anglican and is thinking of being more involved with the Unitarians. I'd been looking at Rebecca Pashley's singing schedule last night before I'd had enough of gazing all over the place via computer.

So what was all that about then? Well I sat on the bog and picked up my diary to write it down, as I knew instantly what it was about.

It's about me going to Unitarian College tomorrow. I'm going to a no-commitment-either-side meeting of potential ministry trainees. Of course I was selected once, and spent a year there, only to be removed on the basis of not matching the denomination - where would I go, one of my reports wondered.

So I am going slowly, this time, and there is my opposition and racing ahead, but he is isolated. I'm wandering around some clapped out places, old bunkers and the rest from the past. It is of the past, because there is also a hint of both New Holland and Withernsea about it, and this is now left behind and gone (I've not been back other than for one detour soon after leaving).

All I am doing is looking around, but look - there is my current congregational role, which is the music and the choirs. The jetty above goes to, well probably nowhere.

I've told no one locally that I am going to Unitarian College to listen and see - recent blog entries have been a test of if this blog is read by locals (answer being probably no, not regularly anyway).

What the dream demonstrates is my ambiguity about the whole thing. I'd put myself forward but I am no fool, and I was too ignorant and optimistic about the denomination when I went for training. I learnt a very sharp lesson. The fact that I am looking around old bunkers and desolate stuff might suggest what it is about - and is a visitor centre something of a idealised vision unseen?

My opposition raced to the site but then had no interest. Job done. He is - I'm hoping - of a generation of cliques that have largely gone. The people now realise that they have to push the unique selling point. I think the visitor centre is the denomination and its publicity.

So there we are. Dream on. Lesley wasn't in the dream. Nor anyone else than those mentioned. It was just someone of the past, my mother as passenger, and at least one representing music.

Other interpretations might be interesting, but I'm happy with my own.

Monday 22 August 2011

Form Filling

If you want to be a minister or lay pastor within British Unitarianism there is an application form to complete.

Of course you give your personal details, education, and work history. Voluntary activity is treated separately. Separate still is any voluntary or professional religious work (e.g. leading Sunday Schools, church administration, lay preaching etc.). Then comes details of places of worship including roles, and these can be of different denominations. Next is a set of questions about current associations: your Unitarian congregation, your contribution, involvements at District or National level, societies to which you belong and then others outside Unitarianism (that would be, say, Sea of Faith or Modern Church). There are questions about prior study, in particular reading material about Unitarianism and then reading about the contemporary religious debate and finally reading in general.

Then you are asked about your relationship status, which involve reasons for any breakdown.

Are you married or with a permanent partner? If no, have you previously been married or with a permanent partner? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, please give the following information: Nature of the Relationship (e.g. Marriage) Date Relationship Started Date Relationship Ended Reason Relationship Ended

Questions follow about household income, because that determines the extent of support needed during training. These questions are quite detailed.

You are then called to declare your freedom to move around once in ministry and any reasons for restriction of movement.

The form misspells offence when it looks at criminal convictions. That irritates me!

Then you need referees who have known you for five years or more, who are willing to testify to your personal character and your general fitness to become a Minister/ Lay Pastor in a Unitarian Congregation (also an error - it says 'Congregational'). Two of the four must be Unitarians, and one of these should be a British Minister. None can be a relative.

Then comes information if you were partly or wholly trained for another denomination, and that needs a referee.

A Unitarian congregation has to be willing to approve the application and, declaring it, you need to state how long you have been in it.

Then you can offer any other personal information or clarifications. This comes before a 1000 word maximum statement on your own basic religious/ spiritual understanding. It should include a view of the role of a Minister/Lay Pastor today and why you fit.

Finally you sign the form and pass over the right to take legal action against decisions for or against acceptance by the Ministry Commission for which there may be no explanation given.

So there is provision for people transferring across, but you do have to want to be a Unitarian Minister and join in and identify with the tradition.

I suppose I would have a peculiarity in considering this in that, although I am fully involved, particularly with the music role, I am not actually a member, and so I don't vote and have no formal office titles. I can change this with a nod of the head, but I actually value the space that it gives. There is also a difficulty regarding ministers (and I'm not unique in this) in that I would have to ask someone who only knows something about me over the years. Also I have visited district events and the holiday centre, but I've not been that involved nor recently attended a General Assembly (I went to the publicity workshops at Hucklow instead).

I can write plenty on my reading and knowledge, historically and of the present, and indeed about my religious position including a justification of ministry. I also would have to write about my marriage just drifting into a distance friendship at present.

Given my experience, filling in such a form (which I have not done; listening and thinking comes first) compares well with filling in many a job application, but a lot of my work and other voluntary activity is years ago. It remains an open question whether someone of my 'shape' is someone who fits the available holes.

Today a relatively new congregation member said he was surprised about the level of dogma behind some debate in public, and he had joined due to the national publicity being very different. Aha - he's learning! I said I was naive too, discovering around Manchester chapels that didn't want me preaching because I was not Christian enough. I said many of these cliques are probably gone now, but many not. He was also surprised about the reaction to Liberal Catholicism in some places - quite hostile - and he would have assumed more flexibility. Indeed, I would like to see more flexibility, including in the application form. All ministry, including training, is about risk, but you don't insure against risk by making it more denominationalist. There must be a place for the semi-detached individual who is well associated with Unitarians and Unitarian principles (including those about being semi-detached). Being semi-detached is also, in an important sense, an important aspect of being a minister.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Studying a Local Church

I'm very pleased to have received a copy of a dissertation (not a thesis) about the Anglican church I used to attend. It's funny, really, because whilst it attempts to disguise the church in question, describing it as at 'Water's Edge' in North Lincolnshire, it actually names the youth group and so immediately identifies the church! I remember doing my Ph.D and going to great trouble inventing Viking names for the locality and churches, realising that even a journalist with a low intelligence might actually guess where I did the research. But then there was sex in my Ph.D and the necessity to disguise was the greater.

I have to say: I don't like the methodology because of what it misses. It makes no proper description of the church.

The church is a moderate, town, liberal Anglo-Catholic church with segments of other kinds of contemporary Christian belief, from hard line right wing Evangelical to some Progressive Christianity Network types. The boss won't call himself liberal, because he adheres to the whole tradition (I think this is a correct view too - liberals are selective) but he asks more questions that tells answers, and the church contains gay friendly literature. The curate is also broad but lower down the candle and has an ecumenical base. This is my ideological assessment, not the dissertation's.

The dissertation is about, overtly, education in the church. Apparently there was a survey intended of the In Depth group that I led for many sessions, but no one answered. Well, was anyone approached? The researcher had all the papers I gave available; indeed, anyone can consult them because they are on my website. She has missed finding out that the level was described once as that of the seminary or even higher, so that might have been a point to pick up and whether such a level was appropriate and what corner of the church it served (or didn't).

I doubt that questionnaires were the right methodology, and given that it was supposed to be 'inside the church', the method ought to be ethnographic and questionnaires are barely ethnographic. Ethnography is both a social science method and a school of teaching Religious Education - the RE emphasis is based largely at Warwick. Robert Jackson there pushes the interpretive approach, which is ethnographic - what people do rather than what the religion claims.

A main focus is on the youth group but the dissertation covers the range of activities. Well less than half of parents using Toddler Time describe themselves as Christian, and a fifth say they are not. Four fifths say the child is primarily a member of the group, which is well appreciated, not the church, and none attend the regular services otherwise. Junior Church temporarily wasn't running. E1W goes from 10 to 19 years, with 18 attending on a 4 to 1 girls to boys ratio and most are not church parents. There are various happy activities including an annual trip to the Catholic shrine of Walsingham (with another church). When 7 people answer a questionnaire, all girls, of which five call themselves Christian, then, again, I think there is a need for more ethnographic methodology. Talk with them! Their own most frequent attendance at services is at least once a month, a seventh of parents attend more than once a week but the rest attend less than once a year. None of the young say grace; under three quarters pray occasionally (equal pray once a week or never), and 57% say no to God guiding their lives with 43% saying perhaps God does but uncertain.

The dissertation claims that this shows that most of the young people do not attend because of a 'mission shaped church' claim about atendance causality from Christian parents, but through friendship networks. In any case, the Christians are quite secular with a large majority for answering to 'While I believe in the Christian faith, there are more important things in my life' and 'While I am a Christian, I do not let my faith influence my daily life' receiving a high minority figure. Whilst the actual figures are from such a small response, it is interesting that a high minority can identify with 'While I am a Christian, I do not let my faith influence my daily life' and although 'I value my religious doubts and questions' gets over half for yes and also 'For me, doubting is an important part of what it means to be a Christian gets a high minority, nevertheless 'Questions are more important to my Christian faith than are the answers' only gets a seventh in the affirmative. 'I am constantly questioning my religious beliefs' received towards three quarters affirmation.

When I did my participant observation (ethnographic method - I also did semi-structured interviewing) of an Evangelical church, the young people were pretty much being forced down an Evangelical interpretation of Christianity. Nevertheless, their connections, and their concerns afterwards when going to the pub, were very secular and based around their own group. The church was important, but they were more important. Plus they did not like the idea that other young people did not have to put up with Evangelical teaching. These young people did have church parents, but a lot of it was about respectability. The same pattern is in this North Lincolnshire church but without the Evangelical party (dis)stress.

The dissertation argues that there is a sense of detachment from the young people towards the rest of the church. This isn't necessarily justified by the figures: 'This group is a full part of the Church, not an addition to it' received over half agreement and with no one directly disagreeing, even if the church is a somewhat traditional or remote in feel. There is, though, importantly, a huge age difference between them and the rest of the attenders, and there is no continuity from youth group to general attendance. Attenders at services do pretty much start in their fifties and get older, and certainly no adult respondents were under 50. The figures for attendance in age ranges aren't actually correct (I should know; I was there - not all at 09:30 Wednesdays were 80 years or over).

I must quote this sentence from the dissertation - it is about members of the prayer group:

People from the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Unitarian Church as well as people who rarely attend church, are members in addition to those who are members of the Church of England.

It is possible that the Unitarian is not me, though I think it is. We do have a chap in the Hull Unitarians who attends at times and comes from over the river, but he said he had never been in the Anglican church. The emphasis, still, is on locals attending, not on people in agreement choosing this church instead of others. Some do go to a village church that is Evangelical, but few crossed boundaries (I did). Six sevenths of attenders have been Christians for over 40 years. The style of worship is a chief attractor but the dissertation writer has made too much of this: it is an answer from insiders choosing between services. In general, this remains a community church and yet one only of a small minority of the town. Indeed the dissertation states:

...belonging is more important to them than teaching and inspiration.

One of the oddities is the lack of other faiths in the town but most of 15 respondents thought Christians should engage in multi-faith dialogue.

Well, this is a dissertation for a higher degree, and it is what it is. I'm not its tutor!

I see no mention of the choir, its place with younger people and of an older communal model of churches where choirs processed many young people through a church? The choir is all about learning. The choir can double attendance in evening services. Is there a hint of the cathedral in this local church? There certainly is. The importance of quality in performance in worship is emphasised.

What about the Minster model of the church and the now satellite parishes? What about the concentration of leadership in one place, and the family connections that add to the clerical mass (pun slightly intended)?

If I was doing a study it would be qualitative in method not quantitative. Surely a higher degree can include conversations? I could write a dissertation of that very place; and would have a rich description of the church, and interviews in depth as well as good recall of all the goings on that don't break confidences. Aspects of this church such as the under-breath party and managerial tensions are important because they shape its direction: and there is a tension with it as a 'town' church (a moderating factor that might be weakening). A researcher ought to know the gossip that gives character to a church. Frankly I have to criticise a conclusion that includes:

I think Archbishop Rowan Williams can be confident in his belief that Christianity is not in terminal decline, as I think it will be able to appeal to those who are indifferent to religion, with the right marketing and in the right form.

There is no justification for this statement. On what basis is such an appeal made? A strategy for recruitment (and some of us discussed this) is not based on indifference but on interest: people who walk through church doors for religious participation are usually already interested. Growing a casual visitor into a participant takes a long time (unless rapid ideological bullying takes place).

The church is a community church on an older model, and its age range suggests it is not a renewable model. It is fortunate that young people are present, but they are there on their own justification, and they are its present and not the future. Take a look at a magazine in the 1970s - there were bus loads of children. I would not speculate about the Builder Generation or the Boomer Generation but discuss churches and specialisation, as set against leisure, welfare and education.

Then there is the random element. A person who walks through the door and stays can attract in a network of people over time. One simply can never know. The researcher should always consider what is not of a pattern but yet might affect it.


Wednesday 17 August 2011

Listening to Hear about Unitarian Ministry


Notice: due to vast numbers of nasty comments relating to a supposed Liberal Catholic ordination posting some months ago I put on the need to moderate comments after three days. This has now been extended to 6 days. Before this period, comments made will appear directly with just a human being check.


Within the Unitarian denomination, ministers are made by training and not by selection. I wrote recently in a number of places about Liberal Catholicism (that with origins its in 1916) where the emphasis is on selection and ordination. People with all sorts of haphazard religious education, or none, might find themselves ordained into minor orders and later on major orders (deacons, priests, bishops). Unitarians, however, no longer ordain professional ministers. So although a personality might be selected, the real deal is in the training.

There is an ambiguity in a (claiming to be) Catholic Church, in that rules may be followed regarding selection processes and training, but any bishop who so wants can just ordain as wishes, to sprinkle some of the magic dust about ontological difference. Such ambiguity is reduced the lower down one goes in a theology of ministry. It might be inconsisent and impractical for a group of ministers to just select new ordained ministers in a meeting of a Presbytery, but when you don't actually ordain, it becomes impossible just to select and make a minister - or, rather, for the denomination/ Church to select.

Yet Unitarians have a Lay Person in Charge as well as having a Minister. This means there is some distinction. What's the difference? Well, the level of recommended pay is one difference, but such is a difference of training. There is recognition by the General Assembly, but a congregation can ignore the General Assembly in who it selects (which, therefore, is a selection process that can still function - and of course a minister can find other ordained ministers to do an ordination!).

Now I found it interesting that in the Church of England training has become more flexible. After selection, an older candidate might stay at home and in a home church, meet at weekends and other times for collective activities, but otherwise do the required essays and tasks at home. They become unpaid Non-Stipendary Ministers and might be limited to local base. The younger people, those for stipendary ministry, go to theological college and undergo 'formation' until the point comes that they are tapped on the head or waved over and acquire the Deacon and then priest orders.

There isn't this distinction in the Unitarians. If you are a minister, you should be paid. If you train, you do it within the college system, and almost everyone goes through a stronger sense of 'formation'.

Except (there always is!) you have ministers of other Churches who transfer. They are recognised as selected ministers, and tend to do more in the way of distance education (but with the colleges) for courses that teach about Unitarianism (but they ought to know about it already: like why they want to transfer, what are they letting themselves in for?).

Now I shall discover if any locals in my Unitarian congregation read this blog, because what is here I have discussed with no one. And in making a revelation here, I shall also introduce a comparative and potentially bizarre situation.

I was going to share a lift to Manchester for a Ministry Inquiry Day, for either people to apply quickly or just thinking about it, with my bishop-elect friend of a Liberal Catholic Church. She also hoped to be a Unitarian Minister. The General Assembly doesn't accept ministers who would also be ministers outside in another body, and anyway she meets none of the requirements listed (I meet them all, but some only technically - for example, I attend my church more regularly than perhaps anyone and I do all about the music but I am not a member and I am not a Music Officer! I was a member for long enough in the past, and as a 'desirable' I have been a Publicity Officer twice when a member).

So, revelation, I'm going on my own. Some people are going simply to enquire to be a lay leader and the like, but I'm going to find out about the full thing. And of course I did once intend to be the full thing when over twenty years younger and living residentially in college when they concluded after a year that I might only suit a corner of British Unitarianism.

Since I was at Unitarian College, I have acquired a Contemporary Theology MA and a PGCE in Religious Education. This matters because when I did a Social Theology degree alongside my ministry training, aspects of that overlapped with my Sociology of Religion PhD. I was actually told to write a less complicated essay - the result of which I left the course and did a psychology of adult education course instead (and very useful too - directly useful for church meetings and discussions!). People saw that as a form of disloyalty and of intention to do another kind of job.

I spent a lot of college time doing sod all, even to the point of asking for something to do. My main crime was to go to what was called a student service, address students with the most radical of theology, and find members of the public walk in. I did this whilst the Buddhist orientated principal at the time later on went to the same gathering and gave them a straight down the line Lord's Prayer God fearing hymn sandwich. I pointed out the lack of so called 'freedom of belief' in his duplicity of voice. Also a chapel which wanted a pastor on the cheap didn't want me with my absence of liberal Christianity at that time and the Principal then refused to let them have my more supposedly flexible colleague.

We also had a 'Pagan' tutor, who encouraged the idea of religious dress. Indeed I had one made, with various faith symbols on it, and I think I frightened some Protestants to shiver behind their long pews.

Others have said I should have gone to Oxford and that college, to have done some writing as well. But my Marxist mate Andreas was chucked out from there (pictured with me before our ejections). We both had friendly connections with the Minister at Kensington, himself a transferee from Anglo-Catholicism (he did his final Eucharist one Sunday, and Monday began as a Unitarian Minister) and he thought it a disaster all round that both of us, being of the radical end, were removed. Andreas went on to do a radical social/ political theology course at Sheffield.

Now that I also have a theology MA, I am very wary of repetition. I am looking for flexibility, and I am not sure the 'contextual theology' approach since adopted in Manchester is necessarily right. It is likely to be heavily Christian in assumptions, and I would want to translate that towards religious pluralism at the very least, contextual too.

I'd hope that many of the Unitarian chapels are less stuffy, and many people have died in the twenty plus years since. A lot of cliques in committees have vanished. I sniff more plurality about, but I have to say that my time in Manchester was an eye-opener because I had thought everyone in Unitarianism accepted a basic position of freedom of belief without test for minister or member.

Since the time I was at UCM I have enjoyed being a Western Buddhist for a time (but that organisation went belly-up) and tried to be a non-realist Anglican, but it didn't work.

The Unitarian movement is smaller still, but hasn't crashed out of existence, and has a USP, and strangely there is not a lack of jobs for ministers but a lack of candidates. I personally know more about the tradition now than I ever have, and some of its connections outward. I bet I compete with many a minister in terms of knowing about its tradition, but I also know about many others and make connections. I've taken services and now understand more than before about its hymnody and its liturgical changes (I've not just read the booklet by Duncan McGuffie - who transferred and became an Anglican priest, now retired and not far away - but I've actually followed it up in my own liturgical writings). I also have fresh and new ideas and strategies about the future. I wrote about ministry, not as a priesthood of all believers (we don't have 'believers') but as facilitators in an educative sense, in which ministers should be 'bishops' in the overseeing tasks.

But I'm going to listen, and participate and I am not rushing. I think I cannot see the flexibility needed for the training to work, and, as before, there might not be a role for someone like an intellectual, as it became obvious in 1989-90 that there was not then in a congregationalist system where the intellectual side has pretty much died out (a Church of many school teachers, for example, mainly retired, does not constitute towards having an intellectual Church - the myth of Unitarianism as a thinkers' Church is misleading!).

The point about suggesting to my bishop-elect friend that she attended was because of the need to encourage and use flexibility, in a non-denominational Unitarianism that is a legitimate Unitarian tradition. It is (or should be) about difference coming together. Without flexibility, things stop functioning when the environment shifts. Where resources exist they should be used, and ways and means found to use them.

Saturday 13 August 2011

The British, Riots and the Future

One thing that the British have done down the ages is riot. Keep going back in time, and the same behaviour repeats. For all the criminality, opportunism, taking advantage, and the focus on the individual, there are social facts behind behaviour as well.

There have been distinctive political riots, where targets have been particular - usually political and the heights of the economy. A minority breaks away from an otherwise peaceful rally and yet again causes damage. There is usually no benefit from this: peaceful rallies of sufficient number are far more effective. The marching against going into war in Iraq did not stop the government, but the Labour Party and its leadership realised the cost of its ignoring public opinion.

Other riots have just been more material, and despite the well paid anarchist and opportunist, are fuelled by an actual sense of being cut off from the material culture. In the 1980s there was a shift from having a working class that was culturally rich and demanding its rights to a dissolving of industry, of routes to improvement and either a middle class or an underclass. People on generations of meagre benefits somehow try to keep up with changing technology and material offerings, but when a spark lights some of these take advantage and target shops of technology and fashion.

London is a place of extremes, but its poor are trapped in vast estates away from high streets. Many ordinary streets have been gentrified. Benefit levels are standard across the whole country, and yet London is considerably more expensive as a place to live. Recent talk has been to attack benefits (in which, shamefully, Liberal Democrat politicians have participated) and move people out of some areas due to a cap on benefit levels.

Part of the material culture was police standing back, watching the smashing of property on the basis that insurance would pay, and then arresting the people later. Only afterwards with public assent and consent was there a shift to more aggressive actions. This is despite the ever continuing uneven stop and searching in large urban areas.

Gangs are not just parent-substitutes but also alternative economies for the dispossessed. They involve parts of cities in spirals of self-destruction. If people are more socially connected, more communal, gangs start to disappear.

People go on about the decline of the family, but families are variable and have always been under stress. What underpins a family is the ability to plan ahead, with some economic security. Men run from children especially if there is no prospect of supporting them. The notion that because you can't hit a child they end up ferrel is another myth: we set examples of non-violence to encourage non-violence. The days of regular fights between men in the slums is gone. Gangland is stylised violence; violence tends to erupt. Middle class families where no child has ever been struck still produce balanced children, and they grow up to not hit their own. It is an ethic worth having.

Well, I am actually part of the underclass. I am one of a small but actual group which is well educated but under experienced and gets in a trap. No matter how many interviews I attend, someone with more specific or more recent experience get the job, and employing people don't like people stashed with degrees doing jobs below them relating to the more limited experience. We who are like this get caught in years of unemployment and time ticks away as we also enter the older years in our 50s. Now I don't riot, in fact I'd not hurt a fly if I can help it, and there are reasons of education, culture and joining groups that make me accountable. It doesn't stop the anger or worry.

So, being unemployed, I travel through the various schemes the government employs. One under Blair-Brown involved a compulsory 13 weeks of doing work on only £10 a week extra with limited opportunities to extend. I did 17 weeks, later to learn that my productive scheme (that I had to take to them because they couldn't find anything to suit me) should never have been approved. Under Gordon Brown, the next scheme had 4 weeks toil only, and my suggestions were all rejected and in the end I was 'excused' because A4e could find me nothing. Now we have a new government, and they have introduced 'The Work Programme' and it lasts two years. Right, so how much work experience is involved in this programme? Nil. Nothing is in prospect for anyone. Only if you fail to attend fortnightly interviews - either seeing an individual or looking for jobs, would compulsory activity be mentioned (and, first of all, loss of two years of benefits). So the Orwellian Blairspeak we were used to under Labour is being perfected under this government. The Work Programme consists of no work at all. People face the prospect of going from school to benefits to their State pensions, with tiny amounts of paid work in their productive years.

I think the only way to tackle major social problems is to create varieties of tasks (take accound of health issues and education levels) and have, in effect, the government as employer of last resort with supporting child care (after a year of looking for work). Ex-MP James Purnell has understood this as similar in effect to the NHS. It costs a lot, but it allows other benefits to be reduced, removed and reassigned. But what it would do is give a leg up, produce ways to put effort in, and tire people out. Tired people are less likely to go out rioting.

I know this creates problems: charities doing some of the government's tasks and, inevitably, large firms using free labour to avoid employing some they should, in a ring-around of personnel. But there are problems in every approach, even that of the old days when nationalised industries over-employed numbers of people and made losses.

People look to the United States and its flexible market economy as a better alternative. There are simply too many losers, extensive poverty, people without a stake in society, gangs as alternative economies and a prison population so huge it reduces the unemployment statistics. The best societies are the Scandinavian for inclusion.

People refer in current talk to communities. I smile because a lot of this is about absence of communities, or the gang that becomes the alternative community in the vacuum. Of course there is a role for pre-school groups, youth clubs, faith groups, community arts, leisure and adult education bodies - many of which are, however, being closed down because of the government taking on the debts that the banks should have faced.

Under Purnell's Protection State, those in work would fear unemployment less. They might well have a tough time for a year, but there would be a way back. The State would demand, but you would be part of State and Society.

Also, given the flat nature of money curves (we are back in a Keynesian equilibrium) working, investing and consumer spending at the lower end would boost economic activity. At this stage all the money printing can go ahead to get things moving (and then care is needed).

British society needs fresh thinking. There is a lot of talk about individuals and punishment, and a throughput of people to expand rapidly the prison population. It won't change a thing. The Liberal Democrats as wooden legs for the Tories have been an utter disappointment (they should be developing social liberalism) What causes change is a social contract. Social contracts are both small - with local groups, and large - with the State. If we don't restore social contracts then there are going to be opportunistic riots over and over again.

When Margaret Thatcher started ripping down agents of social contracts and introduced more of a pure market economy, she knew what to do with the police. She funded them more. So there is one road, and the Cameron-Clegg government displays its utter publicity-based ignorance. The cuts are like more marketisation, and the whole thing as needed is upside down. The economy is there to serve the people, not people the economy. So where is the fresh thinking, other than from one ex-Labour MP?

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Guest Posting, See Previous

I asked that a comment too large to be a comment and emailed to me become a blog entry. This is from Gary, assisted by Murdoch:

Adrian reminds me of an anthropologist at NYU who told a younger, postmodern anthropologist, when he criticized her use of the word "sexuality" as regards the Trobrianders, "I have to use something."

Those of us in literary theory were amused by their encounter and most literary people sided with the challenger. I remember another time the older anthropologist looked at the English professor who was criticizing her theory and she said, "But my dear, I deal with real people and you deal with texts." That did not make her popular with people from other disciplines, for sure.

I agree with Adrian that you have to get back to the issue at hand. But part of the issue is that it can't be extricated from language.

It reminds me of translation, which is necessary and impossible. One always gets stuck on words. Welcome to Judaism 101. The desire to get back to the issue sounds Christian to me. Of course, I can't escape my culture either and am probably Christian in other assumptions I am making.

The difference I am talking about is that between hermeneutics and reading. Hermeneutics assumes there is meaning from the start in its infamous hermeneutic circle, while reading stays with the mess.

Staying stuck on words is good.

The more I think of it I am not sure that a ritual as such can fail. Wittgenstein viewed ritual as a grand gesture. A person kisses the photo of a dead beloved and an anthropologist might step in and come up with a theory about how one is communicating or attempting to communicate with the dead. Not necessarily.

A ritual such as communion offers nothing. There is nothing that happens subsequently that would falsify it.

One may tire of the ritual, find it symbolizes a world one no longer wants to support.

A ritual is like a promise, which cannot be falsified, because the period in question may be very long, such as a wedding. Till death us do part is promising for a moment one cannot even foresee.

A ritual can break down in the institutional sense that the person who says the words has no authority or the context in which it is said is inappropriate.

That's quite a challenge. A ritual is religious, is within the arts; you can study it, why they do it, and what people say it does and how they behave immediately afterwards. Anything said about it is contingent and limited and one should both say it and criticise it straight away.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

The Perspective

Perhaps I ought to explain what this blog is about, in general. It is not about debunking anything, in particular, but is about surveying the theological left: the liberal-Christian and religious humanist and religious pluralist scenes and producing some theology about this neck of the woods. Thus it has looked at Free and Liberal Catholicism too.

It is that point where theology really is consistent with general narratives we live by today - not just intellectually but practically in terms of everyday thought. How do people think about when it rains, or how things get done, and who's in charge and why. So, from time to time it looks at economics and politics.

When it comes to history, science and social science, I'm a critical realist. These disciplines produce answers you don't want as well as answers you do. Paradigms are limited and changable, and come under difficulties of language, but they explain, and the discoveries they explain are discoveries. We might lack many discoveries, and some paradigms weaken.

This is different from the arts, where what we do we create, and different from religion, which is mythology and yet is distinct in terms of effect.

For example, the Kula ring of the Trobriand Islands is an exchange system that involves material effort and loss but also spiritual gain, and part of that gain is identifying with the other person. This is a lot of boat travel to do it, but it is religious ritual like other religious ritual. People do religious ritual for reflection, contemplation, oversight and binding. I do this. Religion, seen this way, may involve all manner of traditions and gods and the like, but religions contain combinations of the practical and the impossible to evidence supernatural. Even superstitions start with practical reasoning. The supernatural is often refined magic, magic just a built up superstition.

There are theologies remaining Christian that deal with the secular. Bonhoeffer had a go, with the busy secular Christian and an invisible God. There are theologies that ask questions, though Tillich had systematic answers. There are (non-realist?) postmodern theologies - some originating in Barth and Hans Frei with a conserving Evangelical flavour, some in Radical Orthodoxy with an Anglican Catholic flavour (living in a Church-first bubble that nonsensically calls Sociology secular theology) and some liberal in flavour (despite being anti liberal in some tone) with Mark C. Taylor, Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering. They all recognise the different nature of ordinary reality by which people live. In effect I'm doing a postmodern theology that starts with the subjective individualism of James Martineau. It is a Unitarian approach on the anti-denominationalist side and takes seriously some liturgical conservation with an individualism, and taking these you end up with no objectivity and no subjectivity but a postmodern use of language towards doing ritual, even simple ritual.

This is my position. It is not a broad Church Christianity or some sort of moderate trade-off liberalism about Christianity. It is about what makes religion religion, and according to how we think and live today.

Saturday 6 August 2011

The Unoriginal Dutch

The recent news that the 'Dutch rethink Christianity' isn't news at all about the rethinking of Christianity. Unitarians and Sea of Faith arrived at this point some time ago. A pastor Klaas Hendrikse puts, basically, the intellectual and sceptical line about the historicity of much of the New Testament that is well known and widely understood. He has written a book, Believing in a Non-Existent God. Sounds not unlike Taking Leave of God by Don Cupitt. The BBC correspondent, Robert Pigott, asks by summarising (rather well, actually) the evangelical interpretation of the New Testament, what Klaas Hendrikse calls the misinterpretation of Paul (doesn't take into account all of Paul, for sure). Robert Pigott forgets that there are ministers of religion in mainstream, Unitarian and Liberal/ Old Catholic Churches in Britain who think just like Pastor Hendrikse.

What is different is the response of the PKN Church, as a 'mainstream' Church. They are not pursuing this pastor or anyone else because to do so would be to single someone out. Too many people already believe in this manner.

A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.

As Unitarians of old found, all you have to do is read the gospel accounts and then more of the New Testament to come to views different from orthodoxy. Then add critical academic study that became more thorough in the nineteenth century and you can arrive at quite a sceptical position. There is still the narrative, but there isn't the direct history. Where there is the history, its about the Christian community already underway and justifying its leadership and rituals, under conditions of rapid change. When you try to do history of the particular prophet and his community, it becomes very Jewish, last days and strange. We don't share his worldview and indeed we don't share the last days and tradition making worldview of Paul either. Not in ordinary practical life and not in academic life either.

Something else isn't new within the BBC report either, which is this:

They want the Netherlands to be a laboratory for Christianity, experimenting with radical new ways of understanding the faith.

Let's do some history. When in 1660 the Jesuits retook Poland the Unitarians of the Minor Reformed Church were pauperised and forced to leave the country. Many went to Transylvania and the surviving (though frozen) Unitarian Church there, but many went to the comparative liberty of The Netherlands. The reason there is no Unitarian Church in The Netherlands is because it has always had a place for liberal views within its religious system, as it has within its civic system. The Poles ejected added to that liberality. There was also more liberty to act within the Netherlands, so that Puritans at the other end of the spectrum had also found places in The Netherlands, sometimes as places to pause before retrying England. Another John Robinson was such a person.

So there is nothing new in this. Nothing new in the location, nothing new in the theology, nothing new in the content. But it may be that with institutional backing, the more radical theology that exists in corners of the British Churches or outside the 'mainstream' gets to advance a bit further.

Except, I doubt it, because the 'progress' of the Churches in the British Isles is towards an Evangelical versus liberal battle, with Catholicism and High Church weakened. The mainstream stretches too wide, and just as Evangelicals may lose the Conservatives, should they walk off, the Broad Church of old to be 'in' with Evangelicals may well have to ditch the more radical brethren. If so then the denominations will become more and more plural, though none of them expect to be well populated. In some sense, the advance of the more radical theology is a parallel development with the decline of Churches - as they become more sectarian, a few want to retain a connection of 'Christianity' with wider culture, and do it via individualist, questioning, theologies.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Now I'll be Serious and Theological

I'll try to be a bit serious for a change. I happened upon the Archbishop's CEFACS Lecture at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies, Birmingham on Wednesday 3rd November 2004.

In it, Rowan Williams is claiming that being involved in theological education is to participate and to proclaim in something that has taken place and been transfomative. It is odd to do musical education that does not involve singing or playing an instrument, and so it should be so with theology - you use it and carry it through practically.

It reminds me that some see the point of Sociology to not just analyse the world but to transform it - transform it once you understand it. Of course the ideologues think this the most, whereas some are busy still trying to understand it.

Rowan Williams says we have been reminded in the 20th century that:

God is not simply an area of study that we can easily demarcate, we depend in theology on people who have some skills in living and knowing in God's presence.

Now there is a having it both ways in Williams's justification for Christian theology as such, for, at first he says:

Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation.

These are revelations, starting with Abraham and getting to the Covenant people glorifying God and communicating him:

Out of that comes that further phase of theological understanding driven by the event, the change that we call the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Right, but later, in advising that one inhabits the biblical narrative - "We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative." - he states:

And so a theological education that is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible; that I think has to be an education which looks very very carefully and patiently at the contours of these stories. It does not immediately rush off to the historical critical question – what really happened?

I'm sorry, but it seems to me that what really happened is a crucial question if you are going to claim that there have been events of transformation!

Otherwise one gets lost in a premodern narrative that has no more root than a good novel, or a postmodern space for a premodern tale.

It matters to me that the account of the resurrection reads to me like mythology. It is not to say it is 'false', but it is to say that we are talking about human beings and culture. Culture is not 'false' either, but it can get its explanations all misdirected.

As with the Bible, the same is with doctrine (in this article):

I would like to think of doctrine, as with scripture itself, as the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy.

Vulnerable? He means inadequate as explanation.

It also means that, within the realm of mystery, different explanations responding to the mythical texts are going to be equally valid.

"A history of discarded solutions" is for me discarding nonsenses like the Trinity, like a body that is dead living again in some transformed manner that is actual, or a woman who gives birth without sexual intercourse. And that's only the beginning of the objections.

Because, unless these are mythology, even myths that in some cultures gave rise to transformations, they do indeed produce pseudo-science and pseudo-history.

The Eastern Orthodox might be subtle - that you can't say this, and you can't say that - but there is plenty they do say and they say it liturgically.

Now I don't have too much problem with conserved liturgy, so long as we know what it is doing. It is a means of using forms of language for human effect: of the spiritual-raising, it can be said. It is about moving off to the side, and using a non-common form of language in order to do some overall reflecting, and to engage a ritual that involves some binding together.

Rowan Williams thinks there is a problem of interpretation between the 4th and 5th centuries - a "tightrope walk". The problem I see is between the centuries up to the later eighteenth and then since.

If I understand Bishop David Jenkins, now in retirement around Ripon and Leeds, correctly, the problem for him is that God revealed himself clearly within the biblical narrative, including via the resurrection of Christ, but he has left our times without a language to appreciate and participate what went on then, and he cannot believe that God would so abandon us in particular.

This is why Bonhoeffer and Barth (mentioned by Williams as being orthodox not revisionist) mattered to David Jenkins, as each giving a means of bridging to reach our times - one via a disappearing God of one-way revelation and another by some sort of an unworked-out secular Christianity (that puzzles me) of busy peopel. Rather different from the Tillich approach of people pausing with questions leading to Tillich's systematic answers.

But I am suggesting that our writers and thinkers have got something right, and that we understand mythology better, and therefore we do have the right and duty to treat those texts of those times as an anthropologist would, and that we can and should apply critical historiographical methods to those times.

Say: Stephen Hawking is speculating that there is 'loss of information' in black holes, because the material and energy into them will be lost as the black hole is non-permanent. He then decides, against his scientific critics, who demand conservation of information, but agreeing with them in general, that there may indeed be no information loss because in a multiverse there may be a universe without black holes and thus no information loss.

Now this looks like modern day mythology, and probably is, but it comes with a difference: that similar visual insights (after Roger Penrose) and then mathematics have created and shown that there are black holes, and a big bang, and observers have now discovered actual black holes, and the background static we hear is about three degrees of uncooled activity from the big bang.

Now these explanations can shift, and shift in terms of paradigms, but based on discovery of details and mathematics, these are very powerful narratives. In contrast, the Christian narratives are weak. They are based on a cusp of supernaturalist cultures of a particularist end-time prophet made universal in a charismatic fast changing set of communities all looking for relief from daily agonies.

None of these texts inherited have been subjected at the time to critical historical techniques in the sense we have them today. There are historians of today who examine 'what happened' stretching back and most of it is about the early Jews and Christians in response, starting some twenty years after the death of Jesus. Looking at that is like looking at a fog of contradictions and assertions, if despite plenty happening - among those affected -but it is all supernaturalist and a slippage from end time thinking.

The biologist will say virgins do not give birth to ordinary boys and when you die the brain rots fast, so even if consciousness is a mystery there isn't the same one sending around some transformed body through walls and contradicting space and time. And this science matters, not some pseudo-science. All the narratives in the world do not get around this; the 'transformation' then is something else, as much subjective in the followers as any objective point of source. The early Jews and Christians (indeed Middle Ages Jews and Christians) had a 'way of talking' and that's it there too.

So if I am a theologian, I am one who says there was no incarnation in a particular person, because I am not prepared to be history-like and pseudo-scientific by burying myself in a lot of ancient texts and then emerge and understand the rest of reality differently. I'm not prepared to ditch scientific discovery, which, like social science, produces answers you do NOT want, and absorb myself into some kind of postmodern fantasy world of the premodern for answers that you DO want.

I can say that those texts are contextually interesting and challenging within themselves, but really we are talking about ethics.

And maybe this disappearance into Church history is why the Church has been so unethical in its time. Even now, this Archbishop would sacrifice the participation and blessings of gay and lesbian people in order that the Church comes first. When you have Bible as psuedo-history and pseudo-science, and myth as doctrine, and loss of the self into narratives, then you end up getting things the wrong way around - ethics become second to the resulting institution. It seems that the 'Body of Christ' has different grades of participants: indeed the whole 'Bishops and the ordinal' suggests a different grade of participant. Lay people behave!

Here is how theology might be done instead. All scriptures are mythologies, and of their time. We might see, in a relative way, what was going on. The Qur'an can be read for someone trying to build a united community based on reconciliation and internal equality (and failing on occasions). The Qur'an contains texts to allow war in cases of defence, but is mainly about spiritual war. Useful? Probably. The Bhagavad Gita is actually set in a civil war of two armies facing each other. Arjuna says he does not want to fight and Krishna says do your duty. Useful? Maybe, and there's more in it. Jesus employs a reverse ethic, Paul universalises. Useful? Probably.

That's it, really. The religious body can be the place that uses these and other texts for reflection and asking what's next. Church is not about doctrines or funny things that take place when people drink wine and eat bread discs. Ah: people do things to bind together, but that's the point. You can theologise presences and absences all you like, but in the end people do what people do.

And it matters that fewer people are doing it. The old thought forms don't work any more. When I took a service for the other folks in the almshouses recently, I completely demythologised the religious content that I stated and talked in a local way about human journeying while we are alive. It was appreciated. It was theology, but it was ex the supernatural.

God may be in this or not. I don't care, and I don't find the God language very meaningful. There was no one revelation in the past, nor several: just a series of cultural shifts and different understandings. We have ours. If theology cannot work within our culture, then it has no place in the university. It still might be in a sect's seminary, but it is socially dead.

The difference with music is that the instruments still work. They do work. Science does work. The academic disciplines work. But the old theological language does not work, except in some sects. Rowan Williams might inhabit the fantasy, but I will stay outside, thanks.

Near the end of his lecture he states:

I would say that if our Anglican Communion is to discover itself as something which exemplifies the body of Christ rather than just a set of national groups opting to be more or less friendly to each other – usually less these days – we need a theological education like this.

Oh dear oh dear.Well, I really would like Unitarianism to continue as a free space for religious difference to come together. But it just may not go on. One has to be realistic. He is still building castles in the air.

Another Archbishop Joke


The Archbishop is in Scotland as part of his ecumenical contacts, going off to meet fellow bishops on the Island of Mull. There is increased security and a dockside official is looking at the man's face and seeing a lot of beard and hair.
"I think you may find that I am no one, indeed nothing other, than Rowan, well, humm, they call me by my titles too but I like to be friendly and go by Rowan."
"Och aye," said the official. "Follow me a reasonable minute."
"Well I wouldn't do differently," said the Archbishop, going along the jetty to a lower point.
The man pointed to a small wooden boat with a bench across and offered the Archbishop a couple of oars, duly taken. "Enjoy your trip," he said.