Saturday 29 August 2015

More Semi-Detached

This is a difficult blog to write, because one of my personal commitments is not to discuss local Hull Unitarian matters online. Most people know the phrase about leaving a mess at your own back door. And this is despite not being a member.

Nevertheless, I have become increasingly semi-detached lately regarding the Unitarians locally and beyond, and this is despite a new minister that is definitely more beneficial than negating. I say that because with change and actual impact comes the informal mumbles and grumbles that I hear because of my semi-detached position held that means I hear them.

Nevertheless, I can't but refer to local matters if in generality in order to try and grapple with why I am becoming more and not less semi-detached. In doing the magazine and in doing the music, there is considerably less freedom to operate, and everything is falling under a heavy managerial steering wheel.

To some extent this had to happen; this was the gamble taken and certainly I agreed and agree with it. There should be more co-ordination and direction, and any ministerial future that didn't offer such co-ordination wasn't one that was wanted. Also the present direction and basis is fortunately what might be called 'theologically compatible', which includes a strong commitment to diversity of ideas and more.

But there's a problem, and it's the English Presbyterian model, the one the enhances the trustees. It's congregationalism by committee, but the committee that becomes the trustees. It's the law too. Being told it's the congregational meeting making the decisions turned out to be incorrect. But, with strong personalities, decisions taken become the decision not of one hand on the steering wheel, but a series of swerves and gear changes, brakes applied and the accelerator pressed, all because of the different trustees' effective hands on the steering wheel. You see in decision after decision, almost as if there is either awe or fear of them. To some extent this is the methodological basis of establishing a more sure position from which to proceed - now x and y is arrived at let's back this plan, but some people are never satisfied and the same continues.

I think this is a general pattern, and not just particular to one place. But with the Unitarians it raises a further problem, and because there is no longer a theology of Church (ecclesiology). When there is no such ecclesiology, all you get is the naked jockeying of position as of any club committee.

What worries me is when these processes are being absorbed into the way of doing things. Again I have to be 'local', breaking my vow, at least to some extent.

What used to happen is that people got themselves 'jobs' and I did too, on the basis that it didn't involve me in membership and certainly not being a trustee and therefore some in sort of 'officer' role. But even with the 'officers', what used to happen is that people went off and did their own thing. They got on with it. They were criticised, and made adjustments, and after a time a sort of consensus of 'that's how it gets done' takes over. This happened with the music. I moved the music from watching people bunging CDs into a CD player and pressing buttons with delays and errors, to me going a behind the curtain with one prepared CD in tracks order (having liaised with service takers). I then focussed on building a supply library of hymn tunes as files and other music, and aiming for high quality in content and presentation. My choices and volume levels were criticised, but these things were adjusted - criticism had moved "to a higher level", as it was once stated.

I wasn't trusted as someone to do the magazine, but someone had to make it on time, with less filler and some sense of design. I was criticised intensely at first, and I had a hands-off editor above me, who said what was not on and what was on. Fair enough - I could live with that and it was even useful. I got on with the job. So I interviewed, took photos, wrote, got the software improved, arranged it, and got the thing going. There were mistakes, and I heard the positive and negative, and carried on with it making adjustments and trying new approaches.

The point is there is distance between the trustees and the operators. We operators get on with it, each doing different jobs, and unofficial chat is as much a changer of things as any official policy (policy that agrees to money to pay for printing, to purchase things for cost purposes, but even that is referred to conversationally).

But now (as expected, even welcomed) there is much less room for manoeuvre, either with the music or with the magazine. But what is annoying is the even admitted hands on the steering wheel. About which I shall say little more: except that I was hoping the ministerial hand was itself a protection from the trustees, whereas it happens that it has made them all the more present, even down to choices of photographs and where to edit articles and how.
Does this sort of thing matter? Can one accept it? Well, you can, when it is based on some sort of principle.

Now I make the point, rather repetitively, that I go to the churches I attend despite and not because of the people there. This even includes myself! Having a rather old sense of 'sin' as I do, that is regarding human behaviour, I expect politics in all sorts of places. I can even do the techniques myself, after Machiavelli, although one hopes for more awareness and better in a church. I go to the Unitarians despite and not because of the people there: not all of them and not to the same degree of course, and more about what they do than who they are. I'm sure this is mutual regarding my presence and activity.

I've heard that Unitarians, in a sort of theology-free way, are a 'loving fellowship'. Don't bet on it. I've heard, and hear, that it should be a 'safe space' for getting together. Don't bet on that either. I mean it should be all sorts of things, but that doesn't mean it is.

I go to the Unitarians because I agree with the principle of liberal religion, a kind of market place of ideas, and that these can come together in debate and discussion to form something liturgically that promotes the liberty to others and enhances their being. It intends to undermine the activity of saying one thing or appearing to but actually thinking another, although liturgy always involves compromise and blurring of the edges (people who say Unitarians worship as they choose are misleading - they don't because they compromise). I go to the Unitarians because as a 'modern' and a little 'postmodern' I want my religion to be as changeable and meaningful as my science and my social science. I don't want to have to go to a museum of thought and pretend. I am very anti Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy for example, where the bubbles of 'performance' operate ir where Platonic idealism turns into fantasy island.

This notion that one goes 'for fellowship' is because of a deeply inadequate ecclesiology, and absence of theology of Church. In some response to this I'm reading some very conservative academic books on Church - one about the Oxford movement and one that is contemporary (Roman Catholic without ever saying so - Roman Catholic seminary based and publishing, however: and addresses a whole array of theologians and stances, with a particular emphasis - anti - on feminism).  I always like to read the opposition, because I get better informed about their arguments and it allows me to think up some alternative that applies.

Beyond all that, there are Congregationalists still present, although, like the United Reformed Church, they are falling through the floor in terms of membership and relevance. Nevertheless, Congregationalists know why they assemble as they do, and it is that the local Church is the best and closest ecclesiastical expression to realise the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So when they argue, they argue out of an identifiable principle, and often state it so. Unitarians don't do that, they just argue - because no one really knows the principle...

(Some are liberal about Christianity, some are religious humanists, some are diverse and for all, some just want to build 'community' that has a religious implication, some think Unitarians should appear to be 'church' while allowing freedom of thought - the Unitarian version of postliberalism, a few just a few hold to the stance that there is no doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible but are otherwise sola-scriptural, and fewer still are English Presbyterian historicists...).

Gone is a stance regarding the formation of the Church. It was always a running argument - say the nineteenth century had its denominationalist biblicists verses the romanticist Free Christians (and semi-Anglican in ethos). But now it is not a running argument but, like a lot of Unitarianism, a dissolving. So there is subsequently no theology of ministry either: a minister may only be a non-executive member of the trustees given a pastoral role and told to take most services. That's a disaster.

I've told the local Pastor [I hate the term!] in Hull that I believe in the principle of the priesthood and that he is one. This involves more than just having a role, but implies he or she uses and deepens the person into sacramental trust (I realise these days that this is often a betrayed territory). It is, from this, that the outward co-ordination can take place - and definitely not as an expression of trustees. The Pastor, or anyone, doesn't have to agree with me, and I'd indeed say it to anyone in a serious ministry role. He or she doesn't need hands on the head to produce this presence, although I am not against outward signs.

So I am thinking about a theology of Church that matches that person, one that has principle and where there is identity and diversity. I have a lot of time for Free Catholics, although again actual practice in terms of publicity might be far less than desired. I know I am not a Liberal Catholic in terms of that theosophical-optional movement that once grew, because there is too much fantasy involved both intellectually, historically and in appearances. But something on the Hungarian model of bishops I do agree with, and then something that the original Free Catholics discovered but which, in their case, did not work out.

When I proclaim that Unitarianism has 'died' I don't just mean in numbers, but that it has lost its principles that might help build it - even if it is tiny. It needs an ecclesiology, a theology of Church, and without it is simply dissolving into no more than a space where all sorts of contemporary ideas of religion are tried out. Although that might also be the starting point - a starting point after some 350 years of dissent, and just under 200 years of accepting in trustee law the evolutionary principle of religious change. A funny time to 'start' one might think.

Thursday 27 August 2015

I Sort of Offer Support!

Gretta Vosper is a difficult one. This may need rephrasing: the issue of Gretta Vosper is a difficult one. On the one hand I agree with her, in general, more or less sharing her theological ground, but on the other hand I also think a Church has the right to define its boundaries and it may be no slur on her standing or ability to do ministry that it still thinks she is too far outside the boundary.

She could simply join the Unitarians in Canada. In the USA, a universalist Bishop Carlton Pearson joined on the basis of leaving fundamentalist Calvinism - something of a leap. People do change denominations.

On the other hand, she may retain a commitment to Christianity, like Lloyd Geering does (at the link above).
Incidentally, Don Cupitt doesn't - he says his critics were right all along. I remember at the very first Sea of Faith Conference one biblical scholar presenter saying there is a boundary somewhere beyond which what is distinctly Christian is lost. The point is, if she is clear there is no God, and that Jesus is but a man and a fallible one at that, then what is Christian about her position. Christianity loses the philosophical basis by which to focus exclusively on the Christ figure - there is no historical method by which he comes top of the religious league table. There are times when Buddha, Confucius or Gandhi are more relevant, if one wants heroes or guides. Jesus becomes a textual transfer, and no more. His very supernatural, very pre-modern outlook, but more important the premodernism of the Church he inspired, is so very different from anything the theological far left believe or, for that matter, any ordinary person going about their ordinary business.

If the Canadian Church of which she is part chucks her out, then she will have to move on. Gretta might take her congregation with her, after all in rather classic fashion of old her deconversion resulted in a loss of most of them, so those she has kept and gathered are likely to follow her along.

Unitarianism is not a simple answer as an alternative destination: I'm not sure it works, and also in the UK it is so small it is practically dead. Those of us still in it (and days like this I wonder why I am associated) are museum keepers of another kind. By this I don't mean its subculture of inheritances, but the fact that it is pretty much out of time. It's multivarious beliefs are now dissolving into wider society. It's claim of offering fellowship on the basis of free belief falls down because fellowship as such doesn't work - I maintain I attend churches despite the people there and not because of them (a variation on 'we're all sinners') so the principles have to be right. Some may think (and I may) that there ought to be some sort of sectoral identity to what a place stands for. I can't decide. Perhaps people like Greta Vosper are afraid to cut the rope, because if you do there is no safety net.

I think, incidentally, that the URC in the UK (the equivalent of her Church) has had it, and so has Methodism. They are falling like a stone. Fresh Expressions won't save the Church of England, and the cathedrals only work because people can pop in and out unnoticed for a religious concert. Christianity no longer explains anything, and it no longer has an anchor into society. But Unitarianism is simply ahead of the game again, this time at the point where it is knackered. It isn't the solution. So I wish Gretta Vosper the best, and similar folks like Sande Ramage in New Zealand. I'd recommend the Unitarians, but I can't.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Splits Ahead Politically

A few articles in the press have mentioned some main political parties splitting. The original notion was that the Liberal Democrats are too weak to split, but by membership recovery and leadership change they are going more back the liberal-left they were before the Orange Book takeover and the disastrous wooden leg prop given to the Conservatives. The Tories rewarded the Liberal Democrats for their help by destroying them and have used the transition to majority to create one of the nastiest governments around.

The effective majority is about 16, and the government is shoving through its most ideological and nasty stuff (and dropping many electoral promises) from the off, until of course the European Referendum comes along and the accusations start to fly of rubbish 'renegotiations' and presentation over substance for public consumption. David Cameron will be fully exposed for what many of us already know - he's a P R man and little else, and for all his talk about 'compassionate Conservatism' the real guts of his government is to attack the poor in particular and indeed anyone that isn't well off already.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat narrative that Labour caused the economic mess, rather than rescued us from calamity, stuck. Now we see a narrative that somehow Cameron occupies the centre ground, and yet again it seems Labour has no counter-narrative. Under Harriet Harman, it just rolls over and tells the government that Labour won't oppose for the sake of opposing.

Now, a strong Labour opposition, and indeed the SNP and even the Liberal Democrats turned around, are what keeps a governing party held together, but we know that this 16 majority (if formally 12) is in deep trouble once the nut jobs get their sham renegotiations and the government has to argue in favour of staying in the European union. The potential, post-referendum, is that only UKIP would keep the demand politically alight to get out. Such Tory MPs are bound to disbehave or even jump to UKIP.

But suddenly the unexpected is happening before all this. What was expected was that Labour had a voting system extended to public supporters as a way to get around its own sectarianism and invite in a moderate public to have a moderate leader. What they didn't expect was to encourage a whole load of increasingly disenfranchised people to warm to one candidate's socialist alternative, a socialist who even needed a leg up from opponents to get on the ballot paper. We expected Tim Farron to guide the Liberal Democrats back leftwards as Labour once again took on a position that vacated people vilified by all but the Greens and TUSC during the election for not working or not being part of a family.

Along with that has been a sea-change within the membership for something more coherent and not in the direction of Harriet Harman and her 'roll over and tickle my tummy' approach to opposition politics.

How is it then that a liberal lefty like me can support Jeremy Corbyn? Because his socialism is also democratic and libertarian. He supports those rights that Labour trampled on during the Blair years and which, crumbs, the Orange Book Liberals still upheld, along with their economic liberalism. Thus he is not a statist, and nationalisation does not mean state bureaucracy but a more participatory model. The old 'elite knows best' agenda of 1945 is not on offer this time by this choice.

I'm impressed by his manner too, especially when interviewed. In one of the more sensible questioning sessions, he didn't have to tell the reporter to calm down or ask who was feeding him the nonsense asked. It was in Wales, and Corbyn mentioned at the end having a look again at the Caerfyrddin/ Carmarthen to Aberystwyth link on the railways - that it doesn't go all the way north said Corbyn but would improve north-south travel. I don't care whether this is his interest or via a researcher: I am impressed by this attention to detail. I could suggest a line out of the heads of the valleys to near Aberhonddu/ Brecon and up to the Shrewsbury to Barmouth line. What of renewed possibilities around Llyn Celyn and to Trawsfynydd from Morfa Mawddach and Bala and linking back with Blaenau Ffestiniog? Or utilising the narrow gauge from Porthmadog (either to Blaenau Ffestiniog or Caernarfon)? These are much better suggestions for investment and in localities than the HS 2 waste of money, out of date before it is finished. But to rebuild rail links (as in the Edinburgh to Carlisle line) is a super way to add to travel infrastructure.

In response to his potential win, some in Labour are already saying about a coup, and some commentators about a split. If Labour did split, the Tories are likely to split even more with the EU referendum as the excuse. So it is worth identifying where the parties are regarding their coalitions.

The Liberal Democrats are still divided between Economic Liberals and Social Liberals/ added Social Democrats. Labour clearly now has Blue Labour, the Social Democrats and the Socialists. Blue Labour are virtually left-Conservatives. It's not clear that the Liberal Democrats would welcome them as they once welcomed the SDP - after all, the SDP had commitments to equality and social justice missing from Blue Labour. Blue Labour would be just as relevant with the Red Tories. The Social Democrats are regarded as being anti-liberal by track record: people like the deposed Ed Balls and that one who introduced Student fees and wanted identity cards, David Blunkett (and many others). Actually David Blunkett may have morphed into a  right winger. The Liberal Democrats, having overridden the Orange Bookers as destroyers of the party, might find they have more in common with the Socialists, especially if non-statist and refreshing.

It's amazing how many Tories resent David Cameron, almost as much as Labour resents Tony Blair, although Blair has blood on his hands whereas Cameron turned away from bombing Syria (except in secret) and has walked away from Libya. There are the anti-European nationalists - I call them 'nutjobs' from my bias - and then those inheritors of Thatcher and Blair for their agenda. There are still a few pro-European old-school One Nation Tories, but only a few, those who were the most comfortable with the Liberal Democrat wooden legs in government between 2010 and 2015 and till retained some sense of social conscience without punitive desires. Cameron isn't one, but he is nearby. In fact, one isn't sure about Cameron at all. The Blair-Thatcher types are trying another right wing push at present, and are Eurosceptics but not leavers.

The Tories could split three ways depending on what happens to Labour. We assume the purist nutjobs go first, in a sea of resentment. They become right wing nationalists, and will still appear to some working class types who voted UKIP from both Labour and the Tories. The Orange Book Liberals might well have to join a combination of Red Tories and Blue Labour, but one can hardly see these 'New Whigs' being very large or self-sustaining. The betting has to be that they would stay attached to the other Tories in a reshaped electoral alliance. Against them would be the Labour left, the SNP, the Liberal left and Greens, learning to co-operate.

First Past the Post was already a ridiculous voting system last time. If scrapped, it would allow the parties to be as they would be; with it we still get the Tories with the rightist top gone and bringing in a right-centrist middle. Labour would be a party of challenge with the others: if they could get people who vote less to get out and vote there could he a radical future: otherwise the Tories could reform to hold a kind of right wing inherited new centre. The Fixed Term Parliament Act is bound to be repealed for an earlier election.