Thursday 31 October 2013

Noises and No Change

Here's a funny thing. I comment less on the Church of England and Anglicanism these days and it's a lot less relevant too. I don't know whether I am leading the way, or I am just part of a trend and there's nothing original here. I fell out of it, really, because I didn't believe what it believed, but before moving I stayed visible locally while the greater body generated a sense of 'disgust' by which I wanted less and less association. I haven't been inside an Anglican church now for over two years for any reason at all.

I couldn't give an ess aich one cup of tea about GAFCON and all that, and didn't fancy even responding to it. But there has been yet another declaration of war and this time in a sort of continuum from GAFCON in Nairobi recently to the expected contents of the Pilling report through which the Church of England might at last notice couples of the same sex forming.

So here's what I think, if it is worth the effort. Justin Welby made a mistake by going and giving GAFCON the nod, because it's a mouth that is determined to bite his hand. He's a reconciler by trade, but the danger is he gives the impression of being clueless about which way the ship is sailing. He's also giving progessive types like Changing Attitude a sense that he's in favour of change. He hasn't suggested change for the future at all, only surprise about rapid change happening all around him. He's made it clear that he will continue to uphold the source of the Bible for his restrictive attitudes, and that there will be no change. He just isn't going to enforce anything in any direction, perhaps unless it's forced on him and he must then resist.

He is different from Rowan Williams because Williams had written pro-equality theology and then, when in office, stood on his head, and used a certain gravitas from his past to stand on his head while continuing with good and clever interfaith and multiculturalism speeches. But he further acted to enforce what he now stated was (narrowly) biblical, and acted to create hierarchical structures that would enforce the narrow. He was as disciplinarian one way with his own Anglicans as he was generous with outside faith and social communities. Eventually the Anglicans in England saw through the Covenant and killed it dead here, and he retired early. The new chap is rather more like Tony Blair in that one confuses him making a speech with action, and trying the big tent approach of nothing actually done. Tony Blair's only real action was to hide behind a mad bloated United States president and do his bidding here, but GAFCON isn't the power that will find Justin Welby having to bend. He just wants them 'in' rather than 'out', but then that ignores the tactics of entryism.

But this big tent gloss is all it is, because nothing will change. As blogged, I've just written a letter to The Inquirer, that it is a mistake for Unitarians to target Anglican liberals in its publicity and faith stance. Anglican liberals just don't budge in any numbers. Odd individuals leave, but that's all. They are suckers for punishment, and dissatisfaction, and the authorities know it. Rowan Williams, with his high Catholic ecclesiology and social inclusive theology, knew it, which is why he betrayed his friends and others to try to secure the institution ("Read the Ordinal" he once told the General Synod). Justin Welby is the evangelical who can afford to make nice noises, but he will revert to base. He will always revert to base, the spiritual poverty of the Alpha Course marketeers.

Evangelicals with their centres of congregational gathering will rise up "if the Church of England blesses sin", and homosexual acts are listed as sin, and blessings of gay couplings just like that cannot be assumed to be non-sexual. The authorities found it necessary to suggest the Church of England will not have a liturgy for blessing gay unions.

(I can imagine it might, however, with the ridiculous lines, "And will you promise to hold your union in friendship and free from deliberate sin as consistent with the biblical witness?" Each individual in turn responds, "I will.")

Conservative Evangelicals are already going to be doing diversionary tactics if and when bishops are 'gender free' and they find one in charge. They'll be more activist than the Anglo-Catholic retreat into tiny corners and receive their stipends while imagining they can 'flourish', rather than join the Ordinariate made available by Rowan Williams's friend.

Of course, if the Catholics and part of Evangelicals still block the road to gender free bishops, Justin Welby will be left in one hell of a mess and have to focus on intentions to try, try and try again, to chase society that is likely to blow a raspberry at the Church of England and perhaps move towards a proper, secular and multi-faith State where the Archbishop does not do the royal christenings (what a laugh that was).

Whatever, the reality is that whilst the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is a tiny schism in England of an alternative Primates Council, the dodging around of Evangelicals with the anti progressive aspect in Fulcrum and similar and the dispersed Anglican Communion means no change on the blessings front.

And no doubt the liberals will continue to moan, complain, campaign even and, basically, carry on as before.

Monday 28 October 2013

Sunday Assembly: Launching Not Sustaining

Unitarians, struggling in the UK with dwindling congregations, cannot understand how thirty or so congregations Sunday Assembly can come from nowhere and steal the thunder (or steal the drizzle) from the hard effort that makes a Unitarian congregation just tick along.

Sunday Assembly is the atheist answer to church, but it doesn't discuss God. It has uplifting pop songs providing singalongs, and uplifting readings. God isn't involved, not even discussed in the negative.

First of all, the Sunday Assembly is in take off mode.Take off is not sustainability. It's what happens when something is novel, different, a cost to set up but all go at launch. The fact is that there used to be Ethical Churches and they all died except Conway Hall in London, and that ceased to be a church of any kind. The Ethical Churches contained liturgies that were humanist in assumption, like Liverpool's strange Book of Common Prayer type material that celebrated life and effort and realised not all that happened was celebratory. I still use and adapt the material I borrowed.

I could provide a service where we all sing along to pop songs instead of hymns. But I'd want to make reference to spirituality and to traditions of insight that are religious and spiritual, even though I think God is a human construction, even with the possibility (only) of transcendence. These traditions give insight. I don't want to ignore them.

On their own, most of these narratives are pretty dead, I'll accept. I don't believe in an alternative history of the world in the sense of a fall from which we need saving. We don't need saving, nor does the world need redeeming. Saviours do not visit, guide or have messages from God. We are what we are, and it is what it is, and it will die when the sun is too big. But beyond the alternative cosmologies, there are reflections, and these traditions can contribute. These are not just museum outings either, but artefacts that are artistic today.

And I say that whilst being more of a realist than I was, about science, social science, and research. If someone discovers the Buddha wasn't like the tradition, or that there is no archaeology behind the supposed origins of Islam (until it has 'arrived' at the Middle East), then that matters and is NOT 'just another story' as the more dedicated postmoderns would insist. But religion is like art, and its researches tend to be from other disciplines, and is closer to stories and fictions. There isn't a historical or scientific method into resurrection or virgin births (and plenty against). Mythology is mythology no matter where it comes from, but myth isn't value-free and value-useless. The truth of the world includes its art.

I don't think Sunday Assembly can stay where it is. If it does these things to also have people support one another in congregations, then inevitably they as congregations will have to discuss human values and human failings. There'll have to be some explicit philosophising or even humanistic theologising. The joke that 'West Coast Unitarians [of the USA] gather to discuss their tax returns' has a comparative truth to it but isn't true.

Here's another, practical, problem. Music used and played within divine worship is not subject to copyright regarding performance. So all the music I put to CD and use, and store in the church for potential use and as a record of use, is copyright free. Nothing is ever sold, either. I'm not sure if the Sunday Assembly can claim equal divine use, that is something it specifically denies. The law is an ass on this, as no one can identify what is divine, and it ought to be congregational and reflective. But Unitarians can claim it and they, presumably, cannot.

Sunday Assembly may work. Personally, I doubt it; in the UK, Unitarianism barely works - it is about freedom of difference worshipping together, and is about the mixing of the liberal Christian, the westernised East, the religious humanist, and the romantic with the rational. Some understand its individualism, but more ask 'what's the point?' and the British don't like joining clubs. If Sunday Assembly works, then good for it, and if it doesn't then one or two may come to the Unitarians. The effect on Unitarianism by copying or taking in folk might be a touch of the charismatic and a further push towards common narratives. It wouldn't do it any harm.

Thursday 24 October 2013

Why Anglicans Stay

This is the letter composed today only to discover that the editor of The Inquirer will only pick up emails on 29 October. The letter is responding to a 12 October edition letter. I can't wait that long. Here it is; my response:

Jim Corrigall's letter arguing for the primacy of practising a recognisable Christianity for recruitment purposes (Inquirer, 10 October) wouldn't work in places where the net must be cast as widely as possible. That he refers to the General Assembly Object privileging Christianity only reminds me of the argument I made that it is retrograde and is, today, even more misleading.

He wants to appeal to discontent among liberal Anglicans. This involves a fundamental misunderstanding of association. Liberal Anglicans put up with every irritation going, some vocally, but they very rarely leave. You would think that by now they might have found an ethical tipping point, causing many to tumble away, only to find they still very largely remain. Despite sectarian trends, apparently, liberals still out number evangelicals by ten to one.

Ideologically, if anything, liberals are more likely to be Anglican.  Look at the argument often given now about the Social Trinity - the Trinity by which God has internal difference and diversity, loving relationship, perfect tolerance within, and is both other and one. This well out-liberals the straightjacket of simple unitarian theology!

But the real friction is not ideological. As the work of Dan Sperber shows, symbolism is a mood-music that does not convert when one ideologically converts. You might lose your beliefs, or change them, but you carry the symbolic actions you practised to the next place. And this leaves Anglicans cold when elsewhere. Indeed, they stay for the mood-music no matter what they believe.

The churches with rising attendances today are cathedrals. The reason is that the mood-music is intensified and enriched but the ideology is freed by anonymity. Why would an Anglican not have that?

What might attract an Anglican is a sense of disgust - that is ethical disgust with the stance of the Church as a whole. Here's the tipping point, if more than simply ideological. This is where the issue of equality and religion comes in. Yet the ethical campaigners still think that in the long run they will succeed, and that's enough to keep them too. They wobble, and then stay.

But let's be clear. People outside of that symbolic autobiography of the mood-music who empathise with the tipping point are dropping the label Christian altogether. If they are spiritual, then we might attract a minority of them, but certainly not on the basis of maintaining the label 'Christian'. The General Assembly Object should stop privileging one faith as something that ought to be upheld. It is too associated with beliefs and ethics from which many now want to distance themselves.

Sperber, D. (1975), Morton, A. L. (trans.), Rethinking Symbolism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monday 14 October 2013

Busy Typing Elsewhere

I'm aware, of course, that there has been little added here for some time. That's because there has been little to say, and I'd rather state nothing than try and make something from nothing.

However, another reason little has been added here is because I've been working on an experimental novel that has now been added to and edited down to near its end, and hopefully works again as a whole after several changes of intent. It is currently well over 96,000 words. It is religious in some themes and characters, but it's also a mixture of ideas and also is for adults only. Written in the first person, as if by a female, there are several interconnected stories at once if limited to her experiences. One is a group of one time sixth formers who get back together again after twenty years - one secular, one independent, one liberal, one evangelical. Another is thus a story about Christianity and people playing fast and loose with truth, set against a company that measures things in transport to be truly measured. In this there is the old one (from education) of qualitative-evaluation versus quantitative-assessment. Then there is the story of secrets behind the facades, and personalities that manipulate and exploit. There is an ongoing straighforward religious discussion at the very liberal end of things including magic (both religious magic and illusion magic). Then there is a simple, entertaining, romp, the sort of reading to do at bedtime. There is also a small town/ villages atmosphere and a relationship with a bigger location for business (yes, even some economics and business studies included!). There is also a discussion around theology and history (annales, narrative, postliberal, liberal). The story may work, based in a corner of a dysfunctional diocese called Foss and a woman of an idealist naturist family background already ordained as deacon and who gets ordained as a priest in the story, and later leaves for pastures independent. It may work or it may fall in between incompatible stools - too intellectual for a romp, not quite a whodunnit, too explicit for religious readership, and questions of a first person female who can remember precise conversations and whether we actually like her very much. I've spent recent editing time introducing two friends whose main function is to criticise her, except for a dramatic intervention, which makes the lead character less sympathetic.

The story is located on my website but I'm not encouraraging people to read it. If you do the story will 'run out' because the ending isn't done yet and I'm about to add another plot twist into the end narrative that exists presently only as a scaffold. You can find it simply by looking through the menus and it gets updated as a .PDF from a text only typewriter program (a blank screen and even typing noises) although soon I shall start to word process it either in Kingsoft Writer or Open Office Writer.

Meanwhile my recent service is available: harvest festival with a touch of Sukkot for Hull's liberal Jewish inclined member.