Viewpoint: Moving On
(Spiritual Autobiography 2006)

Adrian Worsfold

Submitted to NUF Viewpoint

I finally left the Unitarian denomination in 2004. There was the sense that everything had come to an end for me. This included the church I attended regularly, after an ever reducing active involvement. National Unitarian Fellowship correspondence is the only door left open.
My leaving was followed by infrequent attendance at a moderate Anglican church in a nearby town (not the nearest church), including during its interregnum. Its choice of new vicar in 2005 was very interesting, and I made an early email contact before he had even arrived. Infrequent attendance became regular and often, so now I might attend three services a week and a range of activities. What exists now is a moderately anglo-catholic and liberal minded church (with mixed elements). In attending the Bishop's Course (a diocesan adult education based course), I do not feel marginal as I have done, and this includes my time in Unitarianism.
I had left Unitarianism before. The previous time was after I was removed from Unitarian College (1989-90). I did not connect with the local churches around Manchester, because of my then open religious humanism and experimenting with Pagan symbolism, this under a Buddhist minded Principal and neo-Pagan worship tutor.
There was one key moment for me, that explained it all. It was as early as November 29th 1989 when students or staff took a Wednesday service in a local chapel. It was the turn of staff. I wanted to see what he did, how he did it, and what adjustments I should make because local churches all expected and demanded a liberal Christian presentation with God, Jesus, and clearly theist and Christian language worshipping hymns and prayers.
The presentation given was a pure traditional Unitarian Christian service, and it did not reflect the teaching at college. At the feedback among the students and staff I mentioned the difference. He agreed. He said, if he had done what he believed "neat" he would have been accused of not being Unitarian. At this point the whole theory of Unitarianism, repeated over and over again in Hull about freedom, honesty and not being duplicitous, was wrong. (personal records)
I may as well have stayed in the Anglican Church and worked out my theology there. Unitarianism, as a series of independent chapels, had no appreciation of radical theology or postmodernism and was even hostile. I was wanting to be open and it put me into a lot of trouble. A good comment (after I had left) was that I should have been asked to travel the denomination, watch, listen and keep quiet, rather than have carried out preaching and (in effect) filled gaps in churches' rotas. A longer pastoral placement had a report in which I was found to be fine but wondered what chapel or church I might be able to serve within the UK. I was a heretic among the heretics.
However, I did get on very well with students in other denominations, and there were a number of radicals and distinctive liberals mixing with me; a close fellow radical non-realist student, a Baptist, did finish his three years as Luther King House staff said I should have, although I know that he is not a Baptist minister now.
After this time I had one and a half years without any religious involvement. I drifted back to a Unitarian church, but soon gave it up, and began a regular involvement with Western Buddhists and the local Church of England with its (declared to me) religious humanist sympathising priest. When I changed location, and was able to return to my previous Unitarian church in 1994, I realised that I was immediately marginal, as if I had let the side down. I never took up membership.
So the Unitarian Church is not quite the freedom loving, all inclusive entity it sometimes thinks it is. Liberalism without checks and balances between different levels means authority goes somewhere, and it goes to the majority or leading group in a chapel, producing tendencies about who it will or will not invite to take services: it is unofficial doctrine or "creeds by the back door", as I used to say.
I still used to ask the question up to 2004: what is the unique potential appeal of a creedless denomination now in a wider pluralist culture in terms of a religious and social gospel? An answer was not to try and create an identity through an agreed position, but to offer a radical and postmodern view of difference to the world: to say that people of widely different views can actually come together and worship, and Unitarianism can do this. It is a social gospel vital to the times, because the flip side of postmodern society is people going into ethnic and cultural enclaves. They separate off for reassurance, security and comfort. We know this harms society and undermines social cohesion. Unitarianism could say "no" to this and say instead that it has a social gospel of bringing difference together even into the sacred space, of an active tolerance of sharing. Now it might not have been quite like this in the actual level of difference, but could and makes the claim for difference.
At the same time as I made this argument, and wrote about it, the denomination at General Assembly level decided that it would "uphold the liberal Christian tradition". (General Assembly, 2001) In other words, it was seeking identity through agreement of position. This was a creed through the front door.
"It is not a creed," they said. They said it was about recognising the inheritance from the past. So why did it not say that then, instead of using the language of a present-future intention? And if it was not binding on churches and chapels or anyone or anything else, as some said, then what was the point of it?
By the way, it is also a defensive language, stating between the lines that if something is not upheld it could fall away. So it intends upholding, to keep it going.
I had no problem personally with presenting Christianity, as I did rather a lot of it, but it was definitely a turn around for this denomination. British Unitarianism had always avoided such a definition: when the Americans did it the transcendentalists and humanists left, only to return later and generating a much more liberal and plural denomination. Times are now different: this creed was panic in decline. Institutions may now have to define themselves in a setting of postmodern plurality, but it can be done by difference itself. That would be a creed undermining creeds.
Of course it is not up to me to determine which way Unitarians want to go! I often lose arguments. It seemed to me that Unitarianism had chosen not open postmodern liberalism but a more narrowly defined postliberalism. And this might well be simpler and easier to understand.
I came to the view that the Unitarian denomination did not know what it was doing, that the addition of the "uphold" object (General Assembly, 2001) was evidence of confusion not evidence of sorting out. I'm not sure people knew what the liberal Christian tradition was: perhaps something that once all Unitarians used to do. apparently it had overwhelming support, except I was forever finding people who did not agree, did not know and did not care.
There is a hard line postliberalism and a softer version. Postliberalism has origins in an analysis about Karl Barth. Karl Bath's theology divorced God from religion with culture. God is pure one-way revelation. Because God, which is truth, has nothing to do with changable human culture and religious constructions, there is no foundation of truth in the world, culture or religion. All that can be found is an encounter of revelation into the world through the biblical narrative (Lakeland, 1997, 43, 48). This was the analysis relating to Karl Barth by Hans Frei (Frei, 1974). There is no objective basis for the biblical narrative in culture: it just has to be enacted. Lindbeck said this for doctrine (Lindbeck, 1984). Doctrine is not true in an objective sense either, it is just enacted and identifies the group. He based his identification on an ecumenical understanding of Trinity and creeds (the problem being that there is no ecumenical understanding). A far harder line is taken by Radical Orthodoxy as developed by John Milbank (Milbank, 2006), where we are back to Christendom in a postmodern bubble: it has no objective root in culture either, because culture is a distorted theology. Social science, says Milbank, is a form of secular theology, and he is only interested in Christian theology (the argument must be a nonsense: sociology is research driven and its hypotheses can only work at the level of the observational and through connected hypotheses of power and institutions; a sociology that services the divine - such as French Catholic Religious Sociology - is no more than a set of tools taken from sociology in support of a pre-arranged theological position and is therefore suspect research).
So a postliberal position is a shared identity, not because it is true, but because it is cohering a community, which then has a set of role performances to enact. It is fully postmodern, arrived at from a dogmatic route. The problem is postliberalism is not of the Unitarian tradition.
The Unitarian route surely comes from James Martineau (1862, 1890, 1891), who had his own conservative streak and did just about everything to undermine it. His view has conscience as the basis of religious and moral believing (1890). Now many a Church will say that: it must come down to conscience. Martineau really went further: he was saying that religion is based in the individual, and this is religious decision making. However, he combined it with Christian appearance, a highly symbolised and poetic use of liturgy.
His was a kind of Presbyterianism without the Puritanism, whereas the competing Unitarian denominationalists had a kind of liberal ideology Puritanism without the Presbyterianism. Martineau's was a pseudo-Anglicanism, and must have connected back to Samuel Clarke's liturgical Arianism and Theophilus Lindsey's desire for a liberal Anglicanism, which failed and became subsumed by Priestley's ideological liberalism and denominationalism. Martineau's symbolic breadth and individualism meant that language was evolving into something more and more imprecise: liturgy and its content was separating from belief. In Martineau's day the general Christian culture carried much of the content of liturgy, but this was weakening (rather similar to the losses in Calvinist meaning when the Puritan Presbyterians were going through Arminianism).
So whereas Barth developed the view that general culture and religion was meaningless and the crucial part was in the particular biblical narrative indicating revelation, Martineau was of the view that the particular biblical narrative was only one example of the crucial matter of general incarnation that is in culture and religion (1862, 1891). Martineau is the mirror image of Barth (and why Martineau is far more important for liberals than many consider).
Till we are prepared to discharge from the Christian scriptures, as the mere temporary vehicle of their higher significance, their whole inherited system of Messianic doctrine, ...the divine essence of Christianity will not be reached and its eternal truth will remain hid. (Martineau, 1891, vol. 3, 279)
Yet such a general objectivity of truth is at risk from individualist subjectivity. The subjective overwhelms the objective so comprehensively that the objective disintegrates. That dualism is ended and the subjective dies too into a pure liberal postmodernism. This, then, is postmodernism arrived at through the other route, the Martineau Unitarian route.
When culture loses its general Christian appearance and people think practically in a this-worldy fashion for their problem solving, the symbolism of liturgy evolves from the general Christian into faiths, evolution, plurality, a secular homeless mind (Berger, Berger, Kellner, 1974) and difference.
Instead of peeling a nut to a kernel, an onion is peeled to nothing at the end, and so a defensiveness takes over: a minimalist objective realism might be defended but rather it is a postliberalism as practice, a performance criteria of preserving a recognisable church.
I possess a very interesting book of Seven Services and some special services from 1917, itself derived from 1900 (Bowie, 1917). Now I do not suppose that anybody in Unitarianism could use this service book today other than for an occasional raid and rewrite. In fact collective liturgies are now very rare (McGuffie, 1982), because their nature is at odds with what is seen to be objective. It would be quite possible to write such liturgies, of built in variation and difference, but not while people are attached to objectivity and cannot see that the whole objective-subjective divide has collapsed.
Unitarians, therefore, have been attached to demythologisation: not of a biblical narrative but of a general religious truth. The general position is a God-focused Christian heritage, whereas much demythologised Christian theology landed on either the historical Jesus or the early Christian narrative about him. I have always been more attracted to the life-lived one (the drama one) rather than the philosophical one, the God one. For me, the Unitarian God-language, still offered in realist tones, was as hard to translate as Anglican symbolism.
Anglicans have handled the pile of symbolic language for a long time. Effective orthodoxy has changed, but it seems that liturgy only changes to contemporary talk and include women. There is so much ancient imagery that even the most dogmatic has to be symbolic somewhere. Liturgically this historical pile is read it so often that readers have to be somewhat measured on a line between orthopraxy (the practice realises its truths) and orthodoxy (the truth justifies the practice).
At the symbolic end what happens is not demythologisation but remythologisation. Here I want to explain my own position and suggest a strategy for Unitarians.
I have to some extent adopted a postliberal position, but that of Daniel Liechty rather than George Lindbeck. It is a more open position and involves a distancing from Karl Barth whilst rejecting the older liberalism. To some extent every individual is postliberal, because we each ought to develop our own coherent scheme. However, regarding institutions, Liechty is interested in an ethical continuum (rather than doctrinal performance) from within religious traditions (Liechty, 1990, 91) with no independent objective space to choose between them. So, on your road: draw on the tradition, develop within it, explore its symbols.
As well as being life-lived centred, my spirituality wanted to return to the more elemental: food, drink, this material world (even if transient) and the life we lead. The Jews had a remarkable insight to base so much on material spirituality, from the body to this earth, and to have many food based ceremonies.
Jesus at the last supper probably did not institute the eucharist. It was likely a standard Seder meal with all the important elements. After his death there begins an agape meal and eucharist somewhat jumbled up. The Didache of say 90 CE, which illustrates a non-sacrificial and non-resurrection eucharist, may be an agape meal. About 150 CE the eucharist is clearly in place. Paul though has a eucharist in place early on based on his "death of Christ" sacrificial theology, and he dominates the Hellenistic representation of Christianity throughout the gospels and New Testament, even if other voices are heard. Nevertheless, whichever way we look at it, the core spirituality is the meal, and made simple, referring on to body and blood.
So identification with this Christian tradition involves this core ritual; removing this core ritual is to somehow separate from that identity. There are Christian groups who do so remove it, but at a cost of over-spiritualising.
The eucharist probably came about because it was quicker than the meal (useful when under oppression), because it rationalised a meal and, I would suggest, from not a little anti-Semitism in producing a distinctive celebration among early Christians. It also fixed a sacrificial constantly understanding, likely due to the experience of persecution. It also represented at first a close-by Kingdom, coming to earth in the very near future. As that expectation started to recede, the ritual was more formalised.
The issue is how to understand it now. A symbol-exploring theology is a practice theology, and I use Marcel Mauss, the nephew of Emile Durkheim and French social anthropologist. He developed an exchange and gift theory, the gift being non-utilitarian exchanges of objects that represent a principle where through it one gives away a part of ones nature and substance to receive a spiritual essence or gift. (Mauss, 1970, 10).
This is what happens in rituals that act at the core of binding religion. You come to a ritual and carry out by words and actions some preparation (as in confessions, apologies, making peace). Then there is the heart of the ritual, which involves the senses and the earth and its produce. Then it ends with a thanks. So you come, give materially of yourself, carry out a material based ritual (bread, wine) and, in hope, receive a spiritual gift of reorientation.
Duncan McGuffie, the Unitarian minister who became an Anglican priest, calls it a sort of spiritual tonic (McGuffie, 1982, 3). It is why, he explains, the Calvinist English Presbyterians started to reduce its frequency, because these fundamentalist ancestors of liberal Unitarians focused on behaviour of godly discipline from godly ministers - so less need for a tonic eucharist. The symbolism is, of course, also wrapped up with the presence of Christ and guidance of the Holy Spirit, terms brought from an understanding of Wisdom and the Shekinah in Judaism, that did not imply Trinity doctrine. However, the eucharist is linked to the "economic Trinity" or threefold formula of baptism in the New Testament.
Around the eucharist is fitted almost another service of readings and sermon and additional prayers. And then into that is added the definition of the faith, which is the credal aspect.
I must have heard many a sermon against creeds when in the Unitarians, and I used to think I heard a caricature of what they are. They were, of course, created to define, to exclude, and were a kind of production by committee for empire religion. They are now museum pieces, in a holy cabinet and taken out to be read out quite a lot - but put back when some people think and write. They are not stand alone but for reading liturgically, and they have a symbolic communal status. They do not say how they should be understood, a problem perhaps (or a relief) when their Greek style logic is out of time. They cannot be refined, updated, made sense of, in that they are what they are and were. In tackling current Anglican problems, Archbishop Williams says there is a need for an additional new Covenant approach as creeds have gaps about culture and theological understanding (Handley, 2006).
When I was in the Unitarians I used to argue a lot for symbolism. It is amazing what can be done with the four elements based on the four winds that come to Britain - earth from the continental east, fire from the hot south, water from the Atlantic west and air from the cold, fresh north. The construct can extend to moral properties. I also argued for using Unitarian traditions as they arise, such as the European's flaming chalice and the wartime inclusive of Jews Czech flower communion.
No one objected to a flower communion when I or anyone else did them; when I did a bread and wine communion - with a liturgy as broad as possible in meaning - about half the congregation sat out. Powerful stuff.
The problem with substitutes is that they are that. The flower communion might involve smell and does involve the eye, but it really only involves touch and a little movement. The powerful thing, so to speak, involves taste, eating, drinking, and swallowing, and the actual danger of these. It involves taking in, consuming, destroying and recycling. When sharing one or two cups between yourself and others, then there is more danger, and a level of commitment is maximised in the priest who consumes the remainder at the end, every time.
The flower communion, limited as it is, could be built up with multiple meanings, but it rarely happens. Inventing tradition is a tough business, as with other possible ritual activities (e.g. doing and understanding circle dancing).
There is no doubt that in the context of Unitarian pluralism, an invented tradition needs to be built up from the bottom. Texts contantly need to be chosen or rewritten or written. It's like starting afresh every time. Or there is a decision to go back to older forms and meanings. There is constant negotiation between individuals in the same place, presenting forms and ideas that are likely to be absorbed, thought about, accepted and rejected in part, variously and by different people. Well that is the beauty of a social gospel of difference in one place, and I am still happy to advocate such remythologising. It is a big effort.
All of us to be religious symbolically have to reject Don Cupitt's latest call for autological religion (Cupitt, 2006), that is for a practical say what you mean and mean what you say approach. He has now joined his critics over non-realism, agreeing that there is no essence of a Christian message that you can be non-realist about, because they were right that it is a Greek philosophy package deal, its realist wrapping as important as any inner core. I have to say that heterological meaning - which has a round about nature to it, operating at a meaning-distance - is perhaps a necessary part of the symbolism of being religious, and, no matter whether we inherit or reinvent, we are condemned in language to ancient meanings and archaisms.
In other words, religious language is a means to an end; inherited from the past, it is put to present purpose. Invented traditions are indeed the key here, where an appeal is made to the past to add legitimacy for an action with a present day reason (Hobsbawm, Ranger, 1983). The monarchy producing pomp and circumstance to reinvent itself among the public after Victoria is one example.
Another is that in the 1830s many churchpeople were worried about the influence of the state and a secularising civil society on the State Church. So some appealed to the Middle Ages, partly historically and mainly a Merrie England. Anglo-Catholicism was born. It spread too, in what has been called Victorian Gothic and involved moving the pulpit to the side in many a Unitarian church. A number took it further such as the Unitarians and ecumenists who became Free Catholics to the 1920s (McGuffie, 1982, 10).
The other big religious example is neo-Paganism. There is the likes of Gerald Gardiner who thought what Paganism was and made it up, and Starhawk (1979) makes appeals to history that are not there. Let's not forget Iolo Morgannwg, the Unitarian fantasist who thought he was a reincarnated druid re-establishing the order (as a sort of apostolic succession) and which led to the literary order of the Gorsedd Bards.
We want roots, even now, and if they aren't there they will be completely invented. Invented traditions are postmodern, and postmodernism is that eclectic raiding of the past or making it up. It therefore must be heterological.
Thus the flower communion is one example of remythologising. Obviously, this does not carry the force of an Oxford Movement. It lacks a theology. It only shows that art and symbolism is back in a visual culture.
So I am the liberal that I was, but I have left the liberal denomination. My spirituality is now centred around the powerful eucharist, and I just cannot do this within Unitarianism. Plus Unitarianism is confused; it is the tragedy of the lost opportunity in postmodernity.
We are symbolic and linguistic animals, with a memory and library of the past and an ability to plan the future to shape it ahead of death. We move through this material world, however transient it and we are, with some regularity. So, regularly, I take the spiritual tonic, about self-giving based around the myth of service to the point of self-sacrifice and rising again: in other words a holistic overview by which to get back into the thick of life.
But some would see me as jumping a sinking boat to a bigger ship. Well once I came on board, and I knew the boat was leaking then. But it had potential: pluralism and freedom. In the end, it showed it was inadequately interested. So how to do effective religion? The argument for a postmodern symbolism through effort is replaced by an argument for postmodern symbolism through given tradition. I am no less liberal than I was, if postliberal.
I have though joined a very argumentative communion, possibly even nearing its end (Hampson, 2006). It is chaired by a once liberal theologian who is letting the bureaucratic ethos decide his words in public, in what he calls "the job", at a time when it is spinning towards schism. He is allowing prejudicial authoritarians abroad (and at home) to hold back theological convictions because they are in one communion, whereas he can tell Rome that there cannot be compromises with it because Anglicans have theological convictions! (Handley, 2006)
Incidentally, as an aside to this, but connected, Rowan Williams believes in the real presence, but not transubstantiation. Rather, it is an encounter, and not just mental, nor a memorial (as in the 39 Articles) (Daily Telegraph, 2006, 8). But how else can this be, unless symbolic and through language and symbol? I share something of Williams' narrative-story approach, but not his method of detail, back and forth, and it lacks the foundation to pronounce Real Presence - otherwise, I can too (or, rather, perhaps, "non-real presence").
If the Anglican Communion introduces a Covenant for unity, some will want a more detailed Covenant (and no doubt Nigeria and the like will motivate this) whilst others will reject a Covenant for something more contemporary in thought and inclusive: like the Episcopal Churches of the United States, Canada, Scotland and Wales. The Church of England will be more stuck than others, with parishes allying themselves with one Covenant or the other. It is actually better to keep things looser to start with, decentralised and federal.
So perhaps the big ship is in trouble too. They all are. indulges in a mathematical exercise about stemming losses and renewal (Hayward, 2006). This is all a bit theoretical, fanciful and biased, but it shows how Methodism, the URC, the Roman Catholics and Church of England are below the point of extinction by 2050.
What of the Unitarians? Its present appearance must be surely gone before then. Methodists and, less so, the URC, can draw on the residual next generation to congregate in a few urban centres, by which time anyway they may have been reabsorbed into the Church of England. Unitarianism has none of these options, and even if one could imagine a new, distinct and an acceptable liberal Episcopal Christian Covenant, Wigmore-Beddoes (1971) explains why Unitarians as a whole have never been able to go the distance to meet the English Presbyterian dream and join back with the parish churches of the land.
Unitarian losses exceed recruitment, and recruitment is almost random and often short term. Some chapels prefer the people they know and things as they are.
I suggest that Unitarianism in the future will be a series of regional gatherings (some themed), resourced with money and property, and a handful of paid ministers from those resources who would primarily educate others into ministry. This non-congregationalism would allow actual individualism to flourish and lead to a postmodern creedless diversity. Unitarians know already that regional meetings end up being more experimental, discussive and inspiring, only to then return to the cold reality of congregational life. In the future there might actually be a good connection between the denomination's publicity and what people actually do when together. This would allow a bounce back, but it will never have mass appeal. It could be symbol-experimental, thoughtful, always refreshing, quite possibly exciting.
The alternative is repetition, orthopraxy, theology derived from practice, and practice defining a group, and exploring meanings from a base point of activity. This is where I am, a freedom based on reflexivity and spiritual discipline. The Book of Common prayer, that which the English Presbyterian forebears resisted, was always really about orthopraxy, even in times of Christian culture. Nevertheless, although I am inculturated into both Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer, I see the huge cultural difference between even Common Worship's thought forms (pre-industrial, pre-critical) and contemporary society, that it must strike people as peculiar and strange.
Incidentally, charismatic evangelicalism plays fast and loose with liturgy: it uses cultural relevance to attract people in to then jump a high hurdle of belief; liberalism is a mature stage of belief which evolves to keep people in but offers them an identity through a distinct spirituality or difference from the cultural norm. Can Unitarianism attract through contemporary cultural relevance without doctrinal hurdles? If not, it may not easily attract, and only keep - but the people it keeps get old and die.
I shall always be a critical friend of Unitarianism, and understand some of its history and development. It has entered a winter of decline, but it is not alone in the religious cold. It is just that, when I sat week by week in the congregation, I suffered spiritual losses, and when wanting to serve creatively, little was available. The Anglican setting does not give me spiritual losses but a sense of gift.


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Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful