MCO Interviews

Ten years ago I had started training for the Unitarian Ministry at Unitarian College, Manchester. I switched to Unitarianism because of its claims of freedom of belief and creedlessness. Within a short period of time, however, my views and their expression meant I was increasingly unwelcome at churches in the Manchester area, seriously affecting my pastoral and preaching performance. In one case it was on paper in a reply - I was unwelcome to follow a minister because I was not a Christian and they were. And after one extended pastoral visit the report wondered where in the UK denomination, beyond a handful of churches, I would fit in. During my time at UCM I kept a diary, as indeed I have every day from 1979 to now. Ten years on I am going to reproduce transcriptions of my time at UCM. They will portray those events only in the public realm or as good as, and no confidences made will be broken even now, and names are replaced by letters and numbers. This series will build slowly, and starts with the interviews in Oxford over two days. Here is the first day.

Monday 12th December 1988

As Robin Day would say, "here we are and here we go", except I'm waiting for the train to depart. There was a queue on Chamberlain Road to Stoneferry Road so we went and left and then joined a queue at Chapman Street. For a 9:22 train traffic could have been bad, but that was the only queue. Traffic light failure meant no queue there, but we went through the town in case Ferensway was blocked. It wasn't but we weren't either. Left at 8:50 for the 9:22, arrived 9:05 time. It's a diverted train, via Selby.

I must be one of the few people who thinks main services should go via Selby, so that the benefit of the straight lines is possible, and for an operational sense as giving Selby a London service, and also getting rid of the Doncaster-York train which only serves on and off Selby people. There was very little delay on the service, though it said 8 minutes [This refers to the effect of diverting the main line from Selby around the Selby coalfield]....

On the next train I'll turn my attention to what I'm going for. But up to now and certainly some of the way to Birmingham I'll enjoy the ride.... Now we're on the bendy route to Sheffield, hardly 125. I've been photographing and saw the first electric loco in the sidings [the electrification of the LNE line], rather a boring functional design, black and white. So's the 125, I noticed, on the severe bends....

[After Birmingham] Back to Frank Wright on Pastoral Ministry [which I was reading]....

This train to Poole terminates at Southampton due to a derailment.... Coming towards Banbury a youth aimed possibly an air rifle at the train. It went 'click' but nothing seems to have come of it. There have been a lot of loud headphones to and from Birmingham, and on this train the guard left his intercom on. This latter one is full of vibrations and made me feel a little under 100%, ready for the interview. But I made notes and will do more 'revising' of sorts when I've got to my room.


[Oxford, Manchester College] Now J3 [a student] spotted me as I arrived. So I got my liquid for the night - no milk, so it is grapefruit juice - and I joined him. I mentioned the home congregation situation, like in development and if the minister had retired two years ago but I am more positive now, the Sea of Faith thing behind [supporting] me rather than the thesis. J3 has candidated at S church and thinks it is very good ~ lively, wishing to grow, full member on the Council of Churches. I said yes it is a good one. But later in discussions of high finance and purchases with a wealthier college member I said he'll be on a pittance. Yes, he's told them he wants a car - he can't afford one - and that giving £100 for the telephone and £50 for letters is not good enough. I said a motorcycle would do me.

The other chap [college member] - his mother and father are British but work in Texas. He has an American girlfriend, he's just paid £254 to go to Boston to see her. She was here, like many Americans. They don't know why they come, it's not for an Oxford address. He has three jobs, this bloke, and is doing a London degree in History. His father also supports him.

J3 was scathing about the College and TC as its Principal. He thinks this should be closed down and it is not right for it to go to Adult Education. That's needed, but it's not for Manchester College to do. The nearby college has made offers. He thinks Essex Hall could go to Manchester [city] too. I said the Baptists moved out [from London, HQ]. He says the ecumenical contacts he made he made, and the college did not help.

T is from .... He mentioned [a lay minister] trying to break up [a group of churches] that could afford a minister. Some wreckage possible in that. After him A1 came... intense, a bit nervous and seems deep/ intellectual. I'm rather laid back. Then SR came into the room (the history man had gone) and there were only chatty bits, except I was asked when I was moving. I mentioned the price paid.... I wasn't intimidated by his presence and remained laid back.... I order to revise a bit (a little bit) I said I'm going to "dress for dinner".


It was difficult to know what to make of that discussion, I'd give myself an absolute 50-50. A2, who did arrive, rightly said they homed in on me quite hard ~ more than anyone else, although T said it was just to get me to expand my views. My own personal view is that I'd feel as if I'd be happy out of it, but this time that is not the situation [under a year earlier I'd effectively decided myself not to proceed further from similar interviews]. In fact there may be grounds of HAVING to take someone (that it could raise my chances). If they choose A2 then they are nuts. He's done research in the USA on Unitarianism but he is way out of reality. He thinks Unitarianism is all about getting together fringe groups and creating a new model of society, and suddenly he said it may be hundreds of years but the best society is that of Cromwell and the English Commonwealth. Everybody laughed, but he meant it. ...he couldn't function in an English congregation for that reason [of his accent being understood] alone. And he's a dreamer. I said about our congregation there is a rank conservative. What about him? A reply was to change him. I said only inch by inch.

Now T is a very warm and rather wise bloke, very friendly with [a minister] who gave him 40-60 of being acccepted. [The minister] said that if you get to the intevrview you already have the support of SR. G applied and wasn't even invited to the interviews.


A1 is the kind who is who seems unable to switch off and find humour. He can't seem to say, like I can, "bollocks to it" and such the like. He's too intense, but he probably would think of things needed etc.. I might well pick him if a selector, but I'd pick T particularly as he seems to approach things with warmth and lightness, but hoping to reconcile people. He's been doing this with those who support lay minister ... and his Christian ways, and those who don't.

According to the gossip T has heard, the selectors go for gossip. They ask people who know us what they think of us. In my case, for example, it would be people in the Yorkshire Unitarian Union. No doubt that would get me a bad report in some quarters, good in others - if it is true that this happens. But this chap (I don't know [who]) told T that he's spoken about him, but if I understood him right this was not to any of the selectors.

So to the discussion, particularly my angle on it and of course how I remembered it. I gave my prepared piece on justifying ministry right at the beginning and it got the ball rolling, that it isn't a priesthood of all believers, that we exclude cultic functionaries, tensions between church and world focussed in on the minister as it isn't so, so it is training for the office, the interpretative function. But this had two negative effects. First of all everyone else jumped on the bandwagon of pastoral matters, it making me look as if I was over intellectual (like last year [interviews]), and secondly that I would be promoting my faith stance [in a ministry]. On the first, BJ, as I expected, started kicking by asking what of those who go for uplift. Later I said you have to know what people think, and s/he focussed in on that word, and I said I mean it broadly so s/he said s/he's talking now. Some laughed. However, s/he did the same with A2 in asking of all this community stuff: but where would he lead? It was a bit of a silly question really because it was quite clear what he was about. I hope they focus on the point that when he made a point it was extremely long winded....

They all pressed these pastoral points, and so I agreed, but later brought it back to the context of faith. Then I mentioned individual initiative, quoting [a minister] Trevor Jones that the person makes the job, not the job the person, and that I would be more academic. That would be my speciality and I reckoned it was needed.

But what interpretation? I said that there's this Sea of Faith Conference I'm in and if we are not a part of its movement then it will leave us behind. I was asked to expand on this and how it would work. So I gave my criticism that they exclude theism [note: not exactly true], but I would use language so that it took account of the theist (I mean they'd [Sea of Faith people] do that, they'd use it!). This was a blind alley I was going down, and BJ a little later brought me back to this "language" and that people want uplift. Earlier s/he implied I was non-pastorally orientated by my comments. On giving my view s/he said s/he must have misunderstood me.

But if I created this rather 'too intellectual, needs a definition' image, not unlike last year, there were some redeeming factors as time went on. One was A1 saying he's ex-Catholic and has something his rubicon (i.e. burnt his bridges) but could go back in one's lifetime - you can't say [not] for a life. Well he said it in a way that wouldn't make you think he'd up sticks mid-ministry. But it was said. Then I said that after a service I did, a chap came to my house to discuss it, but he left [for good] saying the church was "too laid back" and I told - A, with all his attract them in stuff, he's no idea - [them] how tough it is to get them in and then keep them. I made the point about a Christmas service with mentions of the Christ child and so on, that one asked just what do we believe in Christmas. I said that's the sort of question that has to be asked. T gave a redress for me by saying you have to look back into history to see rational dissent and then project it forward for today. With A2 talking about freedom (and he can go with any belief form) I said you have to, these days, have definition. You can't just accept everything - you have to be critical....

Another redeeming factor was MJ saying s/he joined the ministry when the pastoral was looked down on and instead there was the social ideal. All that we'd said was individualistic. I said, "the Kingdom?" "Yes," s/he said. I simply said that today these ideas have gone, in that for example socialism was not only in decline but if you are one you are odd. For you have to begin with where you are and move in little bits, a point I directed at A. And I asked what would he do if thre was a faction in the congregation (was I out to destroy the opposition? I think he was an easy target) and he talked in belief terms and that he is a rubber man, religion is behind it all. I said it is more likely to be a dispute over the noticeboard and radiator. That showed a little of my 'insight' or practicality. T mentioned his church and a dispute (he kept off present controversies) - that of the aims and objectives being put in the drawer so to speak because the leader of this one church reckoned no one was interested. So I got back up there. A2 [was] speaking of a part of Boston, and its long grass, blacks, filthy area and a church being a community there... [and] there were communities offering support to them. He was just wandering on.

Now I think FA introducing the idea of the struggling congregation as the norm helped me and put him [A2] in fairy tale land. And another redeeming factor was I quoted Aunt M saying a minster would be the last person she would go and see. A2 reckoned everyone needed a pastor. So I emphasised that she does not. But I went on to say she also regards ministers as spongers. There's anti-clericalism, said SL. He agreed in this point that my aunt showed what is characteristic about the peculiar English religious culture.

I think I did create ares of discussion for everyone. I said definite things, a high risk strategy and it was inded a rough road. But in the end I think I was alright. I think also I kept a snappiness of remark as well as thought, whereas sometimes A1 seemed to get lost in his speech.

The discussion was artificial, but not as bad as last year. However, contributions got longer and longer. A2 was frustrated when he didn't get in. I both sat forward to 'lead' and sat back in relaxed open posture. I also thought the quality of our contributions was higher than last year, and consequently (this was round) the limited interventions of the interviewers.

I got all my intended points in, even pastoral functions 'in the context of faith', but perhaps I could have mentioned Newcastle [the destination of some work I was doing on ministry] as evidence of my initiated minstry. I've got the two views service (note my promotion of that), 'Atheist Priest' [by Scott Cowdell on Don Cupitt], Faith and Freedom, 'Pastoral Nature of the Ministry' [Wright] (I might show that tomorrow), Newcastle stuff, ministry talk and even that Anglican graph [proportions of type of ministry emphasis].


... SL asked if I could drive or had learnt. No no, never needed to nor could afford to. Andrew Hill of Edinburgh... is anti-car and won't drive. I said when moving I'm getting a mororbike.

The food was awful. A fish with its head still on (but eyes removed) for each of us, full of bones. I swallowed the lot except head and tail, including soft bones. it's the worst it could have been, and I'd normally reject it.

Other Points

Not the best of entries, but there it is. We went to the pub where there was some chat. T said [a student now a minister] could not keep up with her academic work and dropped it. A minister he knew said [s/he] should have been kicked out... A [student elsewhere] must sort out his own situation. It seems everyone would go to UCM, except A2 knows nothing about it. A minister AL told T that MCO cannot even be sold off. The Charter demands liberal Christian students train there. But after some pints (this at Hucklow) he said a clever lawyer could get round it.

Mid point [of the interviews] - I don't know. It's better than last year but I said to interviewees afterwards that I am what I am and they take that. If tey don't think I could do it then they should reject me.

One feeling is that SL seemed to have his eye on me. I must say he seems a warm chap and certainly I'd work with this person. But it seems a bit of a cliffhanger. Despite what we were told ~ that no reasons will be given and it's final and we're not to tell each other ~ I told the folks after that [last time] I was given a reason and we did tell each other. They said (as FA effectively admitted) that it would be impossible not to tell. I said a lot depends on references.

One curious comment. GP (an Anglican Fellowship of Vocation chaplain) once reckoned I could easily end up as UCM Principal. FA in his introductionto the discussion, after we were interested in the paintings of former [MCO] Principals, said you never know, one of us could end up there.

Some time ago the ministry students stopped being in rooms together. J3 said that was a good move so that you can now bring a girl to your room without the gossip. Couldn't do it at UCM!

This shows my doubts, my competitiveness relative to others (into being judgmental) and speculation, trying to rate how I had done, in the context of previous interviews where I had effectively talked myself out of selection due to all manner of doubts, but where this time I wanted to go forward. However, I still had to be who I was, and they knew my radical views.

Tuesday 13th December 1988



I'm at that mid-point now. Confidence has grown due to the discussions. At this point (I'll have loads of time to write on the train) I'll say that the discussion with BJ was moderate, with SR much better (he did not think a local problem was a difficulty) and then with MJ and SL quite excellent. So it got very good at the end. ...T said I'm 100% yes, not even 99.9%. I certainly would disagree with the pastoral background, that is the perceived difficulty of relating to non-intellectuals. At this stage I'll say what made the discussions work was my honesty and not trying to perform, though obviously with the latter two [interviewers] covering intellectual ideas I just went like a shot. The MJ was a stuttering start as I created the starting position, but that done he ended by saying it was very good. The message of "Manchester [city - UCM] please" was heard loud and clear. I also put Newcastle [work to] on the map, stressed again national/ local ministry and because a specific pastoral point about death was put to me I was able to give concise answers.It didn't solve that [pastoral] gap. Incidentally SR said the first impression I gave was aloofness; the more he's got to know me the more it isn't true.


Now we were playing pool, T and me, and with the stick not having much rubber and doing an up and over the felt has been torn. The assumption was we wouldn't tell, but I would like to say it has been done. I'll discuss it with him first.

On Travel

I'm stuck at Birmingham New Street... We were in ten minutes after the Birmingham to Doncaster train started, why they didn't hold it I can't imagine. On the train an interviewer [travelled with] reckoned that British Rail is being ultra-careful after the crash at Clapham....


Now I was accepted. Not only me, but everyone was, confirming my view that it was a good set of candidates. I have to say that A2 shouldn't have been as he couldn't get to the point on some matters and also was often incomprehensible at key points. In fact I overheard the decision makers through the door tell him he has to get fluent in English. Yet he does have piles of idealism and on the train the interviewer reckoned that these days you need more of it to counteract what we've got. On balance I'd have given it to A1 because he's got the intellectual back-up and the church experience. My reservation would be a too self-based sense of humour and an inability to switch off. I was pleased that T was picked. He's well read, done some theology too, and yet is fully rounded. [Where they're going] Me, I'm to go to UCM for three years.

The decision taking took ages. Time dragged on so they abandoned the first revision of 15 minutes later plus 10 minutes off each (to regain time) to hope that two would be seen before dinner. Then it was abandoned so we had dinner. That stopped it being an artificial 'We said nothing to each other' experience. They'd be quick afterwards, they said. they weren't and A1 was, as I later told an inquisitive interviewer [on the train], "on a knife edge". But when he left them he said nothing and went to his room so T reckoned it didn't look good. Then when he said he was accepted and went straight home, I assumed it would be a two out of four result. So A2 was accepted and that made me wonder. They have to 'fill' the colleges, they may not be able to afford four at a time though [I was thinking]. So I could have been in for a rejection? Well I remained relaxed either way, quite peculiar really, though tension did increase. I was a bit annoyed that A2 was walking around after, he was waiting to see the MCO Principal (he'd have seen him anyway, had he been rejected he was planning to go at his own expense). In the end I told him to stop walking around; I had told him to say say no more in case he was seen telling me [his result]. It also didn't allow me to compose myself as I'd expected. I was halfway down the corridor and heard very little but "Diploma in Pastoral Theology" or similar drifted down the corridor which meant they'd accepted me. I jumped to no conclusions though. Later when A1 and A2 met me, waiting for me, I heard the A1 had passed too. I think T was told [of this]. Later an interviewer found us walking from the college and immediately said good that everyone had passed. Yes they said, but I said (as a joke), "Oh everyone passed; oh I didn't know that." Later s/he told me s/he said this was a silly instruction.


I first saw BJ.. who wondered about motivation for ministry. I told how it was sparked at Essex, then when confirmed it was an immediate consideration and has carried. It didn't seem much of an answer. I said it seems a bit supernatural despite my theology. Actually, at the decision I gave a secular equivalent which BJ didn't like - that this area of interest is that which I seem to gravitate to most. S/he instead wants me to be a more grounded person, a development of different areas [of me]. Then s/he wanted to know how I handled death. I said I think I feel distanced from it. To the question of anyone in the family, I said a grandfather, but his coffin in the middle of the church was a symbol of the factions that broke out. I said there was a sharp reaction to the death of my dog but after that no more. I emphasised that my detachment was as in professional, but s/he said you have to combine sensitivity as with the dog with detachment. She didn't like the lack of time: s/he said that later on at the coffee break.

The next one was SR who first asked which college; he mentioned the difficulties and changes there have been and wondered if I'd come to an opinion on one. Yes, UCM, and I gave my reasons. This was good, s/he thought. Though they take account of wishes they may recommend Oxford. Later my one fear was they would say this, especially with all the arguing before I went in [for the decision]. Then SR said s/he'd spoken with people last night about the difficulties with the minister which they might not have been aware of... [I said relations were dismal, arguing, status/ activity problems, *margin - more...].... *Margin - I also said that to be honest, since deciding to move to Derbyshire, I've lost interest in the Hull church. I'm not initiating anything I couldn't carry through. *Margin - SR asked me if I'd settled denominationally. I told what I said to MJ - that last year I put definition first and diversity second but now I put diversity as a necessity for a radical position [this is about that in the first interviews I was denominationally unsure, now I incorporated the pluralism as a safeguard for radicalism]. So SR said I strike people first as being aloof, probably because of my height, but as s/he's got to know me he knows that I'm not.

With MJ I had to say whether I was more interested Unitarian theology or history. I said I was more interested in theology but recently doing a history of the Hull church the histroy has come into it. I said I suppose I carry something of the Presbyterian side although we do have effectively liberal independency. S/he in fact said this too. Then he looked at religious language and my reference to the word atheist, and of course here I was in my element. I pointed out that I don't share the Cupitt view that all is language in a kind of flat land. In my approach it is rather a very thick filter in which you can occasionally touch reality. But I said then there's my atheism. I said I do this because it keeps us in touch with common sense reality. And is there no transcendence? [asked]. I said well we have human responses to situations, like the host of daffodils, but they do not all join up. I said, to his question, that the radical Christianity comes in for me because of the idea of pain - you prefer to avoid pain but sometimes, as in the myth, it is right to go through pain to a kind of resurrection on the other side. Well s/he thought this a very good conversation. *Margin - It was a rough start with MJ in that he asked what I thought of the book English Presbyterians. So I mentioned Lloyd Thomas and the Free Catholics, in the end them not working.

LS was interested in my academic background, so I described my [sociology of religion] PhD thesis and its main messages. And s/he spoke a lot which seemed a bit odd, but s/he does and you have to wait. I mentioned Newcastle, indicating possibilities there, obviously depending on them and I said that it could fill a problem on what to do on the academic side, and I suggested [needing] more on the pastoral side. S/he thought of a Diploma of Pastoral Theology etc.. Yes. *Margin - I said to SL that I don't like all this I'm a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew type talk, I want some more critical thinking.

I've been trying to think of what FA said. it sounds disastrous that I cannot remember. I know s/he said "Here we are again" [after the previous interviews]. I think I repeated the point that diversity must precede the radical approach. Also I made critical references to the Sea of Faith Conference. S/he recalled the point made about weak churches and the high average ge, but I said that publicity is grindingly hard and about the chap who came to my house after a service but found the church too laid back. I said the new people change the established people; also if s/he's right all the churches will just close, but people come to the churches for a reason and they affect and will eventually replace the regulars. It does create change in the older people too. S/he reckoned the Sea of Faith doesn't attract the ordinary lay person. I said two thirds are lay, but they are articulate I admit. I said about a social gospel and we [Unitarians] have it, but the fortunate or unfortunate fact is we aim for the articulate.


So in the discussion the stress was on pastoral training for 3 years at Unitarian College Manchester. They want that to be the main thing, and the academic & Newcastle - if at all - a minor consideration. It's year by year provisional, probationary rather, and SR will write to me to confirm it and will later.

Oxford and Train

...[Trip around oxford with SL and candidates]... But there was much ministry talk, and A2 continued in his relentless far-left ideological and intellectual talk. I stared through the window [Sheldonian Theatre] saying les and less; an odd reaction? It was to the decision, as I'd given a plain unbeaming response to their decision. ...[Telling A2 about Hull Labour Churches, he'd done work on them].... SL said he dislikes the Federation arrangement where they stress plurality of traditions but the foundation document has the statement that Unitarians must understand that Worship is Trinitarian. Where's the sensitivity (that they claim) in that? I said without it we'd have been sensitive too. He said one student is pretty conservative, but found it offensive. Another goes on about deism and is quite radical really. I said I'd wondered if UCM was getting Christian students only - obviously not. I said too of my mention of atheist - no one had batted an eyelid ut it wa a marker. ACCM [Anglicans' ministry selection system then] wouldn't have accepted it. Anyway, I told how Don Cupitt either ignores or misrepresents Unitarianism, that he answered Frank Walkeer's "What's Christian in it [Cupitt's stance]?" by saying "I'll tell you why I'm not a Unitarian" and that he's trinitarian with God came down to earth and dispersed and not God above. I said he was giving Unitarianism a doctrinal identity which he was not prepared to give to Christianity. SL said how mainstreamers fail to realise that the thought has been made before and claim it as their own.


Incidentally, that weekend I went to an Anglican church where I was well known and broke tradition by taking communion! I discussed everything with the vicar afterwards. I also received a best wishes card from a Methodist minister I knew.

Despite further positive correspondence, nothing happened regarding the work at 'Newcastle', although less than a year on a pastoral ten days later I found my unattributed ideas in that professor's book.

After a year both A2 and myself were no longer training. I had found my position too marginal in respect of the congregations around me; a pastoral scheme collapsed because they wanted a kind of Christian worship I could not give, other churches did not want me, my position in a city centre church led to immediate exclusion during a training exercise, and despite good reports one longer pastoral engagement noted my marginality in respect of the denomnation. Pastoral training proved virtually non-existent (like a lot else) beyond congregational involvement, and the University of Manchester Diploma in Pastoral Theology began by repeating my Ph.D thesis subject and I was told to make my presentation simpler, causing me to leave the MA take on an adult education course. These seemed more useful for my requirements and was accepted into my training. Power had passed to the college with its strong denominational bias and local representation. Soon after the Buddhist inclined Principal resigned too. The whole period is covered by my entries which will be selectively released over time. My involvement with Unitarianism then ended for nearly two years; in 1999 I achieved an MA in Theological Understanding of Contemporary Society from the University of Hull and spoke on the history and sociology of Hull Unitarianism and the wider movement. I no longer have an active involvement with the Hull Church and regard Unitarianism as being in the winter of its life facing effective structural collapse, and yet I would still like to be involved in the liberal religious movement.