Sunday, 29 May 2016

Unitarian Theology Conference

On Saturday May 21st I went to Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester for the Unitarian Theology Conference.

I only decided to go just before the Rev. Ralph Catts, Hull minister, went on his holiday. I'd already said no to going to the General Assembly. This attracted me, but I was wary. I thought it could be largely a conservative event to be prescriptive in some impossible attempt to revive theology in Unitarianism. I'd already engaged in debates on the open to the public UK Unitarian Facebook page, suggesting that theological resources all around are quite diverse whereas this Unitarian conference would be all about identity, and a rather closed (Yale) postliberal view at that (to look, recognisably, like a Church, to have supporting theology).

I learnt that Manchester had selected free city centre buses these days, and one stopped over 200 yards from the chapel. It seems I did after all get off at the nearest stop, but walked down the wrong connecting street. I arrived five minutes late and overheated. Nevertheless, I started making notes from the off, and wanted to make a positive contribution.

And it was a lot better than I had expected. Stephen Lingwood did admit to being somewhat (Yale) postliberal in his stance regarding Unitarianism, but his proposal on the immediacy and unfolding of the Spirit seemed reasonable enough to me. The critique of it was better still, in that it employed many tools and indeed did ask why be attracted on the way by systematic theology? Really Melanie Prideaux should have critiqued every paper. Jo James produced a well argued selective history of the immediacy of the Spirit in radical egalitarian groups from the left wing of the Reformation and proposed the relevance of the Spirit today - it can unite where various positions among Unitarian pluralism put people off. Trouble is, the Spirit doesn't help, of itself, co-ordinated organisation. David Steers' paper was not so much towards the twenty-first century as to go back to back to the nineteenth. It was narrow in sympathy and lamented a denomination going somewhere he'd rather not: but if the UUA isn't relevant for British Unitarianism then certainly religion from Northern Ireland isn't. And hopefully that religious culture will be changing as confidence grows about a more modern less clerical Ireland, and non-subscribers won't be able to ride its back for so long.

I tackled David Steers' paper first, because I thought it would have been first. I realise it probably would have been last anyway. So rather than everything improving afterwards, it might have left a bad taste in the mouth. Why was it the 'keynote speech' when Jo James's talk was far more intellectually robust and useful?

Hopefully, this is the first of many such conferences. This was conservative biased, but that was bound to be the case. There is suspicion about theology in Unitarianism: that it is still Christian, that it tries to say one thing and mean another as in the so-called mainstream. Theology can come from below, and that was said enough to provide at least the prospect of alternatives.

A key idea emerging from the Conference was Unitarians restoring a chain of memory, to discover, theologically, how they got from there (e.g. Martineau and Adams) to here (pluralism - classifying the positions, classifying the subjective turn in spirituality or the postmodernity of positions). It's worth the effort.

These lectures and sound files I've also done are on the Pluralist Website, in the Learning Area, the Religion section, and the ever-expanding Unitarianism part. A recent addition there, on the Unitarian 'Harmless Freedom' alternative history ties in very well with Jo James's presentation.


Kenneth Robertson said...

You've done a considerable service in downloading the files and improving in particular the sound file of Jo James' contribution.Personally I would sooner have high quality sound files and linked pdfs for these kind of events; I've said this several times to UKUTV reps but they have a dedication to providing videos of services / events that although they may be of use to some members of the movement may well give the wrong messages to inquirers ;e.g. most Unitarians are over 60 and the worship style is fairly antique. Their efforts would be much better directed to providing meditation videos and perhaps selected lectures from the Annual Meetings.

Obviously there is a long way to go to provide a Unitarian theology for the 21st century ; you obviously feel that David Steers is going backwards ( indeed there was a huge 20th century gap in his account of how we got to where we are ) I found Stephen Lingwood's contribution promised more but failed to flesh out his two points about Unitarians being committed to the intimacy and immediacy of the holiness of life and to continuous revelation through reason and conscience. As stated they might have been lifted verbatim from an Essex Hall pamphlet - an opportunity missed IMHO.At 54.37 he asks 'What is the Holy ?' ; if he had used his time to unpack this question more fully it might have been outstanding.

The problem of usch a conference is that probably there were only a handful of people present who could really engage with post- modern/post liberal /post etc points of view ; parts of the day were probably over academic - some of the questions-which never got answered-might have been the ones that most interested the intelligent lay Unitarian.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Very interesting. I think video and television takes needs and takes imagination. As a live feed it must be useful, though I can imagine mine dropping out and in again and being frustrating. I agree - radio is radio and where sound is the key this is what is to transmit. C-Span Television in the USA also has C-Span Radio, and they are identical in the channel covered. Something has to be added in expression and interaction to make TV among the talking heads.

The Jo James sound file was most challenging, because it distorts. Despite the effort involved, I went back to do it again, because levels might have been too high when I speeded it up and they could have distorted more. Possibly, but the original quality is not there to do it again and make minor improvements if possible. I await what is coming along. I cut a lot out in pauses and mispronounciations corrected and so on, sometimes by separating tracks and overlapping them with fades to stop clicks... I didn't do Stephen's except his summary and I didn't do Jim Corrigall at all. I might though. I remember Jim finding a page and other gaps that could be removed.

We need more definitions, more explanations, more options of theological positions. I see Jo James's paper as giving content to Stephen Lingwood's proposal, which he did not flesh out as you say. Perhaps I should redo Melanie Prideaux and slow her down, because she used the academic range but didn't take prisoners. She could have explained Chain of Memory and its application to Judaism, for example, and had she done so she would have shown it is often a replacement for absent spiritual experience. More could have been said about the Kendal study. In my reviews I've added grey bracketed paragraphs with extra information, such as how Kendal Unitarians were classified in contrast to other churches. But it was worthwhile as a kick-off.

Anonymous said...

You know nothing about the Ireland situation. You know nothing of the pastoral care or the community spirit or the passion of ordinary Irish people no matter what church. All you do is insult the people there as being primitive in need of (your) English enlightenment. We fought people like you not too long ago, and we won.

Alan said...

This article has been drawn to my attention along with screenshots of your comments on UK Unitarians. You seem intent on slandering the NSPCI. Have you ever visited this church and met actual people there? Is your view representative of the church you claim to be an active member - because remember these churches have a long relationship which your slander may damage.

mike said...

Someone just pointed this out to me as another example of you taking pot shots at the non subscribing presbyterians.... So Have you been to NI much or do you just like sitting on your pedestal in Humberside taking pot shots?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I have no wish to damage etc. the NSPCI, merely to suggest that it has its own integrity which is different from that of the Unitarians in Britain. The read out article made arguments against the relevance of the UUA, and even questioned the basis of its name. I think the UUA is relevant or at least more relevant than the NSPCI.