Saturday, 15 April 2017

Becoming (One) Unitarian Curator

Easter Day I provide the music again as I have done since 14th February 2010. The plan is to do one more. I want a clean break. It never became possible to 'train up' someone to stand in for me, despite an early attempt, and I have never missed even one for illness. Absences have been planned in advance, usually because of doing other Unitarian activity (e.g at Great Hucklow).

My method of music has been to use Unitarian Choir Hymns CDs, downloadable organ music of public domain hymns from the excellent Clyde McLennan, other Unitarian hymn singing put online, occasional other websites with public domain hymns, and You Tube and similar presentations. In addition I have used incidental music sources. They have been edited and saved on an external hard drive, so that every hymn in Hymns for Living is now covered, most hymns from Sing Your Faith, and a selection of 'No Book' hymns and then a number here and there appearing in other books. Now that I am stopping I have offered the external hard drive for copying to another such drive so that these hymns can be used by any others. As well as the longer term gathering, editing and storing, there is the preparation of a CD for each service and then the actual operating of the equipment so each hymn and each piece of music is delivered as required.

I was also responsible for setting up the original music delivery system so that organ music sounded like organ music filling the room from four corner speakers in good stereo. It had the power to be a loud disco, but has never been so used.

It is a matter of some sensitivity to discuss anything local, because I hope that policies go ahead for growth. For example, there will be live played music from a number of musicians: excellent. Nevertheless, one notes the statistics as ever, and we talk of growth but decline goes on nationally.

So all I am going to say here about is my own outlook. I do not describe myself as Christian because I do not believe in the incarnation of God in the person Jesus of Nazareth. I don't describe myself as liberal Christian either, partly because I don't know what it means. Nevertheless, I have an informed theological outlook at the more liberal and radical end of Christian thinking, and I combine this with a Buddhist view of focus and clarity and a humanist view of dominant working and delivering narratives of what is real.

I have an institutional view of religion: this is to say an attempt to understand historical streams, exposing and recognising the role of myth-making in them. These are invented traditions, claims of apparent historical ballast to legitimise something in the present. I would include Pagan continuity, the Unitarian Open Trust Myth, almost anything involving Iolo Morgannwg or Edward Williams (1747-1826), The 'Land of Song' myth with Welsh Methodism, Anglo-Catholicism in its attempt to claim a history that isn't, and 'Unitarian Church founded 1672' etc.. Doing history means realising that (Reformation style) Arianism had more impact in the Church of England than the Presbyterian stream that became Unitarian (Arian Samuel Clarke did influence the new Essex Church, that failed to attract Anglican defectors), and that Socinianism was never really part of the Presbyterian stream at all - when it was acceptable it had morphed into a kind of liberal, biblicist, materialist ideology. It means knowing that Bohemian Jan Huss had nothing to do with Unitarianism or similar, and reading back into that has more to do with nationalism than liberalism.

Doing such history is a continuous intellectual activity, but it is done in order to look forward. If one argues, for example, that Unitarianism and its predecessors were often binary running arguments, then this gives an understanding of where things are going. Thus the later dominant liberalism built into the Unitarian stream was collectively liturgical but individually subjective, and such a clash has distinct postmodern implications, the collective and individualist each collapsing into the other. This, however, is a very different approach than offered by the mirror opposite postliberal direction into postmodernism. For Karl Barth, faith was the Gospel witness, of revelation in the particular, out of which comes biblical narrative (even Church narrative), and therefore the institutional life creates identifiers of legitimate performance (collective and anti-experience). That is postliberalism. For James Martineau, the Gospel witness was but one example of faith, for which one had collective liturgical poetic spirituality and individual conscience (experience), and therefore a much more widespread basis of religious identity.

Some are trying to go back to the Anabaptists and radical revolutionaries and using this 'Spirit' focus to anchor a definition now. It is inadequate on a number of fronts. Too much happened in between. English Presbyterianism onwards like so much nonconformity was very middle class and mercantilist and then capitalistic in reference. It was also born from intolerant Presbyterianism both here and in its export to America (it wanted religious freedom, but did not offer it to others - not until later on). So the roots are hardly the radical Anabaptism of parts of the continent. Nor, as said, are institutional roots here particularly Socinian; after all, even Transylvanian Unitarianism was not Socinian. And the Anglo-Americans had to rediscover Transylvanian Unitarianism, with its different catechism approach, in the 1830s.

What I do dislike is the other trend seen within Unitarianism of becoming 'spiritual but not religious' - in an attempt to grab a perceived contemporary market. Now a lot of this is New Age and related, and some of it is a kind of commercialised second-rate magic or forms of spiritualised psychologism. This is the "we have moved on" argument. What is wrong with, for me, it is that we always talk collectively, and collective talk comes from traditions and understandings. Revolution is always less revolutionary: the Russian Communists ended up producing a modernist Tsarism, for example. This is because we are culture-carrying institutional types. Even the shrinkage down to handfuls gathering on Sundays does not permit 'starting again' because institutions are incredibly persistent. Memories and past inventions persist. We still deal with a Puritan shadow.

Many of those who say they are 'spiritual but not religious' are soon found to be religious. They do it in a Buddhist setting, and what they get then is some kind of Tibetan or Hinayana or Mahayana or combination presentation. Or indeed Pagans invent a continuity based on certain polytheistic principles and sell their Tarot card readings. One can see how traditions continue and change, such as the Old Catholic into Liberal Catholic morphing that happened also on the edges of Unitarianism and Congregationalism: as in the Kings Weigh House in London and the Unitarian Bishop who ordained many there. So, someone tells me that they are spiritual and not religious, and I will tell them their religious context.

And, incidentally, what is interfaith and ecumenical are indeed those: it takes time or receptive periods for crossovers to happen. It is too easy to exploit and violate the religious rituals of others. Misused and misrepresented, they usually turn out to be simplistic, misdirecting and offending. One annoyance of mine in the past was 'The Buddhist Beatitudes'. Another yuck was The Golden Treasury of the Bible. Of course there is change, and adoption with adaptation. So a little bit of Hinduism and Buddhism came into the Liberal Catholics, and of course Unitarians in their plurality have evolved Christian, humanist, Eastern and Pagan outlooks. These are not mini-versions of those religions, and nor should they be. In Unitarian terms, they are the working out of the decline of Christian sufficiency and explanation, plus the rise of romanticism and its clash with inherited reason. So reason is seen in humanism and most of the Eastern methodology, the Christian became more romantic, as is the Pagan with a bit in the Hindu tales. You can see the running argument still running.

So out of the history comes theology, and all of it follows a sociology of institutions: this means memory realised into the present.

I would admit that my personal reference is to several streams: and so one is the Unitarian outcome, Methodist, a little of the Presbyterian reborn, Anglican theology and ritual, and also Independent Sacramental (Liberal Catholic/ Free Catholic) outcomes. Add to this Western Buddhism and the unofficial Liberal Bahai.  I'm going to pursue these in conversation across cyberspace, and in my own reading and writing.

It is quite usual for some folks even near Unitarian congregations to prefer other contacts. Many join the NUF. Some have a choice of congregations with different tendencies. Not so where I live. I don't want to join any Unitarian body.

My liturgical offerings, my reading, my theologising, has a particular institutional sense to it, a reaching back as well as a reaching forward. In the end, institutions are carried in people's heads. When institutions decline, as indeed Unitarianism has now done to chronic levels, the purpose of the memorialising and translating changes.

I remember having an online conversation with an Intersex woman, who was Jewish and she could have no children. She was part of an extremely small Jewish Messianic group for which Jesus as Messiah "forefilled" (not fulfilled) the Kingdom. Rejected by all the main Jewish groups, considered not Christian enough, and definitely not part of the nasty Christian messianic movements of fundamentalists doing Jewish rituals, the movement had drifted. She had become, she said, a curator of documents and the memory that described their faith. The communal memory was that they had wriggled out of various oppressions that we say crushed Jewish Christianity - starting with the first primitive Jesus family Messianic Jews. The Nazis effectively finished her grouping off, and they have been too weak since. In their few hundreds, they are seeing the end.

This is my view regarding the Unitarians. You see the governing institutions effectively collapsing. They are confronting what the URC and Methodists must tackle soon. The recent General Assembly was well-delivered and there are yet more ideas for spreading the message. The profile is going up. But it does not translate into broad recovery, only into more decline as the age imbalance continues to rise.

When people do come along, they can be told all sorts as to what is Unitarianism. It takes a long time to absorb the religious culture. So many have gone away before they do.

So this is how I see it now. Unitarian sympathisers are curators. I'll do a website with stuff on it and write material. All Unitarian websites now ought to contain resources for understanding. When they don't, they are thin and even illusory. But this is how I view my future: Staying connected, I'm going more freelance, but I'm going to work on these memories and what we keep in our heads as we pass culture on, one to each other and each other to one.

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