To Unitarian and Free Christian Churches...
After much time of consideration I have have decided to write to you in order to put myself forward as a potential candidate for the Unitarian ministry. At this stage I simply wish my name to be known and for you to make any initial investigations that you see fit to make.
I have been associated with the *** Unitarian Church for about three years. Before and during some of this time I was an Anglican and member of their Fellowship of Vocation group for the *** area. In this initial letter I tell you my full spiritual autobiography for the record so that you might have something to understand me by.
My first initial religious contact was from 1980 with a teenage and leaders group in a local Methodist church as an agnostic. Although I did not share their beliefs I found religious talk interesting. I was in this group because of friends but I then absorbed it into my M.Phil (now Ph.D) sociology of religion research. In 1984 I was reading some 1960's modern theology for my work and as a result Christian belief began to make some sense. However, despite welcoming an intention to move towards membership, the minister disapproved of my theology, and in an attempt to reform the group (there had been problems amongst the young people) he not only told me that I no longer could attend but that I could not even talk to the young people about religion anymore. Of course I eventually left. From these events, however, I acquired the friendship and guidance of a local liberal Methodist minister who is still very influential today. Incidentally it so happens that he moves soon next door to a Unitarian church!
Back in 1982/ 1983 I had been at the University of *** [different university] for an aborted M.A. course and had become friendly with a liberal Anglican priest. I had been involved with the chaplaincy and even been on a retreat to a convent which was an excellent weekend. The later reading of John Robinson and others for my thesis made me wonder if he was of this thinking. I got back in touch and he was. I visited him at *** [different university] and whilst there I told him about my peculiar thoughts about myself in the ordained ministry. These go back even into the Methodist agnostic days with an incident in a simulation game when spontaneously people thought I would be a minister. But also this friendship while I was at *** [different university] assisted this ministerial urge.
I moved over to the university where I expected my theology would be better accepted, which indeed it was. In 1984 I was confirmed at the University of *** into the Anglican Church, chosen mainly because the Anglicans operated at university rather than outside, and I joined their Ministry Group. Also Anglicans have had greater resources in developing theology than others and that became important.
After confirmation and in the summer vacation of 1984 I began attending a rural church at *** [village] then twenty minutes from my house. I did not go to the local Anglican church because I did not like its Rector's style or the team ministry's alternative of extreme fundamentalism. I liked the rural church and it seemed more local and real than the student atmosphere of university. It also has a very friendly priest and his wife and I still visit there today. It became my local church and gradually my involvement with the chaplaincy declined.
Everyone I knew encouraged my investigating ordination. In October 1984 I visited the ecumenical The Queen's College, Birmingham for four days. But this was a bad experience. I found that I related to the staff but not to the students. In an interview I explained to the principal that I had come into Christianity through theology and in many ways I was almost an atheist. He replied that I was a radical rather than a liberal and that there was a need for me, although he'd like to see if I would get through ACCM. But on the last day I actually stopped going to the chapel because clearly I was outside the boundary that even the liberal elements were within. It seemed to me that anyway liberal theology was a way for Christians to understand the secular world and not the other way around as I had approached it. But I had also experienced the present conservative swing in ordinand recruitment. Next I visited Colchester again and there a priest told me that in the 1960's he waited for the acceptance of Honest to God but today the atmosphere had changed.
My theology was very Christocentric but not very theistic. Due to contact with Baha'is (whose writings had initially influenced my approach to Christian beliefs) I had come in contact with the Unitarian's building. I read on the wall a statement of faith saying Jesus was a man and I remember thinking, "Is that all?" It wasn't that I disagreed, it was that it seemed to be reductionist of his impact (theology has this double-speak effect!). Nevertheless I investigated.
I got some information from the Reference Library about American Unitarians and I liked it. In 1984/ 1985 I went to Unitarian services for a seven week period but realised I was too Christocentric. With the investigation over I went back to the rural church. Despite my radicalism joined the Fellowship of Vocation for intending priests (this is separate from the Ministry Group at university).
Back at *** [village], as part of my idea for developing the church, I had begun an interfaith group which initially was to begin with my BÐha'i and Unitarian friends. It was a contrast that whilst the theist priest was closer to the BÐha'i side (incidentally what they say about their history is radically at odds with the findings of the Ph.D theses which I have read about them) I was closest to the Unitarians. At this time my theology went into a state of collapse and the worship became no longer translatable into consistent but less supernatural terms.
In July 1985 I wrote to *** (Unitarian minister) because I was told he was an Anglican priest who became a Unitarian minister. In that month he came to meet me "half way" (in Lincoln). After talking with him I realised that I too could no longer fit within the Anglican glove and I went back to the Unitarians. At this time the *** chaplain wrote me a damning letter which he later explained was "light hearted".
Much theology is a one way street, and you can see my reaction to one example of it in my review of Alistair Kee's (1985, 1971) The Way of Transcendence, in Faith and Freedom (Spring 1986) Vol. 39, Part 1, Number 115. My own christocentric theology fell apart because it needed an active God to hold it together in which I did not believe. I also became tired of the arguments such as Kee's which make black look white.
Another article to mention is In Understanding Be Men, in the Vocation Bulletin, Diocese of Durham No. 19, Diocese of York No. 2, (March/ April 1986), pp. 27-28, which achieved introductions by the Rev. ***, pp. 2-3 and the Rev. ***, p. 27. I have enclosed a copy of this because it is essential to understanding my ministry seeking.
I wrote it at the end of 1985 but after it came out I had my third and final attempt at Anglican Church membership. This, still with the breakdown of my theology, was an attempt to use the style of mild Anglo-Catholicism and a Cupitt like theology. Now I was once told the idea of theology was to change the wrapping paper whilst keeping the goodies inside, but here I was attempting to have the wrapping paper when the goodies had long gone. It did not work and the proof of the pudding was that I maintained attendance on Sunday mornings at the Unitarians. My Anglicanism was mainly in the evenings.
There were three problems with the Unitarians. One was that I felt the Anglican theology and style had not been replaced by anything. I even went to a Buddhist group which apparantly offered an identifiable religious path without realist dogma: it seemed to equate with relativist philosophy. But this was not true because, as I discovered, reincarnation as a reality was central to the Mahayana group. I did not identify with what *** had to tell me about her leaving the Anglican Church for Buddhism.
The second problem was that I began a free newspaper column which aimed to promote the Unitarian church but it came into fierce criticism. After an article about, in fact, some prominent Anglican bishops but not their churches being liberal, a number of our members were upset about how some of their university Anglican associates might react. They demanded that the name Unitarian Church be removed from the column. The point that they made was that my views were my own and an individually written column could not be labelled with the denomination's name. So it seemed to me that it was better to have a Church with some identity like the Anglican Church which then could be related to in a radical way and I hoped to do that. On top of this the message from the church was that the mainstream was somehow uniformly dogmatic and to me it only sounded like a device of making others look black in order to turn Unitarianism white. I see a world full of greys and I am also scared of sectarianism.
The third problem was the the decline of the Unitarian denomination given the importance I attached to seeking ministry. I was not sure that it was realistically wise to commit oneself to it especially given that there did not seem to be a route to arrest the decline as little could be said in public about the Church.
But I just could not do a Don Cupitt in the Anglican Church. He (and lately John Kent in the Methodist Church) offer viewpoints which are extremely marginal to their Churches and do not equate with worship practice. Also I had the problem that we had moved and I could not go to the rural church at *** [village] so easily. As a result I had to try the more extreme urban churches and that got nowhere. Now, having moved again, I am closer to *** [village] and go there occasionally but that I am outside the mainstream boundary remains obvious. I cannot for example do the reinterpretation that my Methodist friend is capable of doing as he does fall within the Christin boundary and I do not. For a short time I gave up the idea of it being practical for me to seek the ministry in any place but now I think that I should continue to investigate and find ways to tackle and overcome my three objections.
Back fully within the Unitarian fellowship I have more quietly played my role along with everyone else. Progress is painfully slow and difficult when a church has a varied membership. I think however that it is better when finally people do things together (although the pushing has to come from somewhere).
My current Church theology applied from the Unitarian base is similar to Cupitt's and Kent's and is perhaps best described within Unitarianism and our Relativist Culture, in The Inquirer, No. 7147 (3 January 1987), p. 2. which *** asked for as a humanist alternative to the Unitarian-Christian argument. It isn't that (although it includes a warning about the problem of a basic Christian rule). I haven't too much time for the supposed Christian-Humanist division because it seems to me that a body as small as ours really should not spend too much time on internal arguing. If I have a Unitarian position it is one that stresses that denominationalism is not very important (which I understand is in line with the Martineau strand of thinking). What is important is that there should be a place where people who are naturally broad can go and be able to be religious in such a free setting. The point is that one must find personal integration between one's gut feelings, personal theology and the practice of services. This is not always possible within even the broadest of mainstream churches where doctrine precedes translation, and where translation should somehow preserve the factual historical truth of an Incarnation of one man. It is beyond this in our corner of the religious world where we can have our appeal, next door to but not part of the greater Church.
Instability is no advert for those seeking a place in the ministry. I am suprised that the Anglicans bothered with me for so long (and still, certainly, have not pushed me away). So I am sending this autobiography just as an initial contact. If you wish to seek out references now or at a later date I will obtain permission from Anglican, Methodist and Unitarian people and send you their addresses. I will send copies of this letter to a number of these people and *** (minister) has his own copy.
With this letter and Vocation Bulletin article a I enclose a copy of my service given on the 15th Februry this year. As well as showing you my current theology this should also give a quick idea of my Ph.D work and a survey I have been helping with. I presented the service in wordprocessed form as you see it so that I did not have to fiddle with any books, thus allowing for smoother presentation.
I do not want to write as often as this, nevertheless I thought I should transmit to you a summary of recent career conversations.
First of all *** (at the Lay Preachers meeting in Birmingham) advised that I consider either ministry or higher education because to combine both leads to a greater chance of non-acceptance in each. He advised instead that with ministry I could then do something like Workers Educational Association lecturing, which would also supplement income. I found this most helpful.
Recently for curiosity reasons I wandered in to a hotel based "Computeach" seminar about training in computer work. But they did not give the training fee, only that it was small, and it is not in their literature which even advises that afterwards the student should take the City and Guilds anyway. I sit in these sessions and ask what is really going on and I find that the career I seek is one which has a sense of creative value.
On the 24th I had a careers talk at university which was very useful. I told the counsellor that my ministry doubts are practical, that I look 30 years ahead and wonder if the congregational system will pay ministers when so many are now on extra support.
I told her that in radical religion there is a lot of new thinking going on and that I want to bring it into the denomination. The opportunities in the past with the Anglicans were much greater and more flexible because of resources but, even though I have the ability, now everything seems do-it-yourself and is so herculean. In the colleges you have individual courses (it's often a question of what can be afforded), you then have to create your own sense of ministry, and on top of this I am thinking of creating my own way to put in educational input.
Her main point was that there is a need not for more academic qualifications but practical training. Although I suggested my "plan" was some kind of flexible research which I could use in the church situation, she suggested instead that I consider training for further education. This was a good idea, although I said I do not ideally want to split thinking (to teach adults) in one area of life and doing church ministry in another.
She did ask about getting in this year to the ministry, so I mentioned our misunderstood conversation at Lancaster when I gave the impression that October was the last time for beginning when I was saying that it was the last time for an application.
But there is a problem, and unhappily I am being limited to MCO. I said that the colleges are specialising in their students: that one interviewer (***) told me that with my views I would go to Oxford. I added that he will be the new Principal at Manchester. Students at UCM felt isolated, and I could become isolated even within the small Unitarian sector.
You had told me, and *** (minister) has emphasised, that the situation at MCO in the next year is not good. Ernest says it will do no more than be ticking over, leaving students uncertain about the future of their courses. I feel quite angry that I have been brushed aside from UCM on account of my views, which with an Anglican and Methodist background is absurd. It has the proper integrated training but in comments since the January interviews I have been left to concentrate hopes on MCO. After then an Anglican chaplain wrote to me to say "the Unitarians need you more than they think, but we need you too." He thinks I was a fool to give up what I did. Stable, supportative ministry seeking has been given up for chaos and amateurism.
I make the point, which is my opinion, that when effectively only one college is any good the Principal of it should be of a viewpoint that does not put off students from going there. Also, whilst it was right that I was deferred at the last interview, no one should have been accepted, and events since have given cause for a loss of confidence in the interviewing system.
I also told the counsellor that one student went on the dole for a period after training and another said that if I did not do extra work like a degree then I would feel unfulfilled (the person in fact said there would be no need to take my wordprocessor because there is not enough to do).
So I will at least write to the four colleges which train adult teachers with a wordprocessed letter to obtain a prospectus from each. She suggested doing the teaching training first. I said yes, except that with my mother moving away the need has been to decide on ministry training now. I said if at a January 1989 interview I was rejected the likelihood is that I would just get a job because both further education entry and ministry would be in October 1989. She did not see me as a salesman or in a bank etc.!
So this is the situation now. My thesis is being printed. I am looking for a creative career, and yet my doubts in January, college advice (plus he being the UCM Principal) and amateurism have run ministry seeking into a mess.
I'm thinking of going in July to that Loughborough conference of Christian radicals, some of whom are talking about a continuing radical Church. I look back to when Anglican and my early ideas about what Unitarianism would be and later its promise, but I could not suggest they come to this!
*** at Whitby last Saturday told me that *** is now not taking up his appointment at UCM. Thus I may well re-apply at the end of this year as our clash of fundamental views and aims will not take place within the small college. UCM still remains really the only college worth considering after your's and ***'s (minister) comments about MCO.
I should say that four times I have asked *** (minister) to discuss ministry matters with me recently but I have only had a few words after a meeting. I will ask again as I do not want it like last year when I asked but had to meet the application deadline, and then he complained we had not talked.
So it is that I discuss ministry with others of experience and, except for the General Assembly and other meetings, that means with those outside the denomination. Yesterday (Sunday) this happened with ***, the priest at my old church, who gave a reference before.
Also the local Anglican Fellowship of Vocation has never taken me off the mailing list and I keep being invited to their events. In the recent gloom and the way things were going, I agreed to go to *** Prison and see how the chaplain works, replying that I realise I am benefitting from something that I would not get with the Unitarians. I outlined to the Vocations Chaplain, ***, how things had run into the ground and that I was now looking towards Further Education. At the prison I may ask if he will be a referee (this discussed on Sunday): he could give objective information from the file! Incidentally, one of the FOV potential ordinands comes to the Unitarian discussion group and also wrote and presented half of one of my services.
My current thinking on Further Education is that it is a viable workable alternative. I have obtained prospectuses and application forms and I suppose my advantages in this area include that I can teach a wide range of subjects like economics, politics, sociology, geography and religion. On the other hand these are a little limited in Further Education given the greater stress on vocational skills today. I think this option might be useful as a back-up. My fear of the funds drying up somewhere in my thirty years of ministry is helped by the possibilities of Further Education. I should now fight hard to get myself into the ministry because - for all the grinding difficulties - it is something I want to do. For example it can be a base to approach the radical movement in the mainstream. I am going to their first conference this month (which asks if a continuing Church is needed) where I will consider what this denomination has to offer. I'll send a report to The Inquirer
I may provide new referees. One might be the chaplain at *** University, ***, who encourages me to go towards ministry. On Sunday I was told that the once *** Unitarian and later *** University theologian, and then *** to the Archbishop of York, ***, is now to be resident theologian at *** Cathedral which helps to fund the *** University Theology Centre. He will be working with the *** Chaplain (I'm wondering if I can develop any work connctions there...). *** (Unitarian minister) has agreed to write a reference and there is *** (lay Unitarian) locally who has not wanted me to give up. *** (minister) perhaps would give his views outside the set references. These are my initial ideas.
The situation in the *** church remains depressing: the last Church meeting was inquorate and then the ordinary Sunday Service I went to was dropped when too few turned up. I enclose the set of ideas I am presenting to turn things around which in parts have the general support of some people. We need discussion and action. The *** church does have the people to turn it around. In the background to my ministry seeking is the fact that it for one will not afford another minister for at least a long time.
Would you please send me an application form for Unitarian ministry which I will return to you completed in October or early November.
After a very great deal of consideration I am now ready to re-apply. Since January I have gone through a sea change of attitudes: why I had expressed doubts at the last January interviews, and with the events at the colleges. These problems have much lessened now in my view, with changes and good opinions about the UCM tutor and the MCO Principal.
I told a number of people about the Interview Subcommitee decision last January, including the local Anglican FOV chaplain. He thus maintained contact with me, although I did not go to anything until a visit to the *** Prison Chaplaincy as an interested bystander. I told him then of the chaos at the colleges and that I was looking forward to going to the Sea of Faith Conference. He said he wanted to see me. So I used the Conference to just see if if there was a viability of radical non-realist theology in the mainstream, this being my theology. I decided that they could not do it and when home I rang the chaplain to cancel his visit to see me. However, he turned the conversation to continue to come and see me. He did so and proposed that academic thinking is in advance of the churches on the ground. But I said non-realism is stretching the language too far. I told him I was applying for Unitarian ministry and he agreed to give a reference (even though Anglicans are bothered that they are not getting enough theologically competent candidates). He can offer expertise and knowledge of me, and give an ecumenical angle. My friend *** (the Anglican who provided a reference last time) agreed it was a good idea to ask *** (Anglican FOV).
Now, I contrast this eagerness to meet me with the fact that I have asked *** (minister) several times to see me and he has not. Some months ago I told him that I had asked four times and that if he did not see me I would not put him in the references. He said he would. Later he suddenly said he would see me after the end of the Sea of Faith Conference. He has not done so. I am quite annoyed by this carry on. Last year I asked him to talk and he did not, and I had to send the form off without him speaking to me. I am not hanging around for him this year. If he does not talk I will say on the application form why he is not a referee but I will still happily agree to the Interview Subcommittee contacting him if worthwhile.
Look out for The Inquirer article on the display I have set up in the Central Library on Unitarian local history and moving to todays beliefs. With my thesis in for examination, I am producing a book on institutional sociology of theology from a radical theological and Unitarian viewpoint - I believe that whereas you cannot say there is a Unitarian theology the fact that it is a separate non-creedal body has implications on the lines of sociology of theology. If it all works out - it won't take too long because it uses thesis material already on computer - I hope I will find a publisher. What about that own publisher idea suggested at the last General Assembly? I think it is important that Unitarianism does research on its past (I'm very pleased *** is doing research at UCM, what good news) but there is a need for some hard edged future looking academic material.