Spiritual Autobiography

As posted to Surefish.co.uk
(with minor editing) early January 7th 2005

Having caught the Christianity bug during my to be Ph.D sociology of religion research from 1983 on, I consumed much theology that seemed hidden from ordinary expressions in churches. I took part in university chaplaincy activities and was confirmed in 1984 there, going through a course of bishop's tapes, and during this time I got back in touch with Essex chaplaincy where I had been active as an agnostic but knew things were "different" while there (the course did not work out).

I became propelled towards considering ordained ministry (I know, very fast: but one "evidence" was the frequency of people saying how they saw me in different places and from various sympathies). I moved out of the chaplaincy to an ordinary rural church (I lived near the boundary of an urban area) and again built strong one to one relationships. I joined the Fellowship of Vocation for that part of York Diocese and went to its events, seeing the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and all that. At the time I was absorbing the theology of Robinson, Tillich, Bonhoeffer - these have been repeated roads in for many, as well as ways to adjust belief when traditional beliefs fail to work any more. At the same time I had contact with Bahais but grew distant from them with what was a case of lack of intellectual honesty over a Ph.D thesis on them, but went to a regional Bahai meeting at the Unitarian Church (where I started asking some hush up questions about another aspect of Bahai controversy). The Unitarians had a notice that said Jesus was just human, and I thought "Is that all?"

(By the way, this is all recorded, with daily review type diaries going back to 1979).

The interesting difference with the Unitarians was that they seemed God-centred with a reduced Jesus status whereas I was Jesus centred with a reduced or metaphor shifted God - which is where much modernist and liberal theology had moved.

The problem was the need to reinterpret orthodox liturgies all the time, and the Tillichian theology seemed to me to be increasingly a one way street. It was for supernaturalist Christians to talk existentialism, but it did not work for say the existentialist to put together doctrine.

And one day, sat in the rural church during a service, it had gone. There was no more interpretation, or the increasingly frantic mind-work.

Then there entered a transition period. I went less to the rural church, but maintained connections despite disappointments (I had long discussions with the priest - at first he kept me away from congregants so not to worry them with modern ideas), and gradually too the connection with the Fellowship of Vocation dropped - but they never asked me to stop going. I went to the Unitarians more and more, and began to seek ministry there.

I became aware of difficulties in the Unitarians. One was no theology any more, but then how artificial was theology? Was it a way of saying one thing for another? Well, you have to make your own. There was no role for an intellectual approach either - yes they think, but with no theology there is no finer thought. Secondly the movement was in a very poor state of repair, though the church I was attending was relatively progressive compared with the rest of Yorkshire and had periods of growth. It also knew how to self-destruct periodically when old patterns were threatened. I also disliked the lack of checks and balances in a liberal congregationalist system, where cliques can arise. Forget no test of belief for a minister - if a congregation does not want him or her for belief reasons, they don't come or don't last.

At the first ministry interview I rejected myself, and then the next year I decided to put the doubts aside and go for it, and I was accepted. So I started, and my year at college was truly a disaster. Manchester is a traditional Unitarian area, far worse than I could have imagined and assumed, and my reputation went ahead of me. I realised how illiberal things were in practice when the Principal, who framed everything for us in Buddhist terms, took a service locally, and it was all Christianity. It was a sham and I said so. Other students could not see it - but he more or less agreed! There is a problem, he said. His main staff member for us, a Pagan, did the same in his congregation.

I had a period of time on a placement where the minister was a humanist, and yet when I said I was of this persuasion to one of his congregation member's she said, "I always wanted to meet one of these." My reputation was ahead of me, and despite a productive time at one of the progressive churches in London, at the end of the year my time in the college was over. My basic religious humanism, an interest in the Buddhism, and seeing a usefulness of the Pagan symbolism if non-realist (clashed with the tutor on this - he was sure powers were at work) was finishsed.

In Unitarian terms I was a pluralist, but the college committee was staffed locally and in the liberal system the national centre that accepted my application could not interfere with the college.

They end your time at the college like they make people redundant - quick and gone - though soon after the Principal resigned stating to me that the college could not meet its potential for the breadth of Unitarians. It was also dressed up as pastoral matters, but the first church praised me except wondered where I would fit in within the UK, except at the margins.

When I went into religious activity again I was sure that some system was needed to do the religious task and to have systematic checks and balances. I liked and still do the Western Buddhist group (in Sheffield) and I drifted to the local village Anglican Church. The priest there was, he said to me, pretty much a religious humanist, and his sermons became increasingly that way. I even took a men's service: they had never heard such a multi-faith message. But ministry was out - I was advised that you can be a theological unitarian and be a priest, but not a non-realist, Sea of faith style. I'd been active in Sea of Faith from the time the Tillichian theology collapsed, the Cupittian theology made much more sense. (Incidentally Cupitt is almost hated in some Unitarian circles, either because of the Taking Leave of God or because he is Anglican and apparently dishonest. I was aware that Cupitt theology would not work easily in Unitarian circles as Christianity in Unitarianism is a conservative and realist expression, and olde worlde.)

When I moved from Derbyshire to come within reach of the Unitarian church I'd been in, and out of reach of Western Buddhism, I became involved there again. But it was clear that I was the one who had let them down (by having to leave the college). Secondly, although the place had grown since I was there, it was about to self-destruct, and did, over new Trust Deeds. In this context a perceived threat I brought of change just added to the tension. Eventually the church self-destructed around me and I was actually one of the people still there after so many I could relate to had gone. There was no social contact: in the end I was a taxi driver for my mother, and Elena now on the scene called it "the over eighties club" (having been surprised it was nothing like the over forceful Baptists in Russia, or certainly the new careerist alternative to the Communist Party as is the Orthodox).

I became marginal in the Hull Church - I ceased doing anything beyond attending but I never found the lowest point of comfort. Eventually when shennanigans removed a new first job minister, I decided to leave. My mother also stopped, though she has since lost some mobility and would find it difficult. Some of her friends had died too.

Two things have been important back in this area. One was doing an MA theology course to 1998, which has given me an informed insight into Christian theological schools that I did not have before. Secondly has been the RE PGCE, which I valued on its own terms. It may or may not be used for its purpose. But it has given me insight into other faiths beyond the Buddhist and Bahai. And I have been increasingly reading theological material again.

I don't like the Anglican church 30 seconds walk from my door, and even after a scandal a new chap is too similar in outlook. This is despite a retired priest coming into the area who is a descendent of the great Unitarian divine James Martineau. Odd world. But I have grown to appreciate the church in Barton, 5 miles away.

I regard myself in a reconstructionist phase with Christianity. And Surefish has been important in articulating what I think, and putting it all together. I see how I relate to others - I am marginal but not completely. That marginality as well as some fierce responses caused me to go [temporarily], but I kept looking.

Some of the people here are very interesting, and I'll make comments briefly and from this perspective. * may not realise it, but he is one means of my reconstruction, if a difficult one. * is interesting because I see in him a broad and tolerant sort of Unitarian, who knows the theological scene and has come to some conclusions. * is in a period of flux and change, that "downward" path that will lead elsewhere, but if "up" then in a different way from his past. And I am reading * and * (not enough yet) too, even * is of interest in detecting a journey from a far off point. Even * has reconstructed himself with a faith to stabilise an appalling life history. I have seen so many interesting people before - Unitarian College is shared with other denominations at Luther King House, and there I met a Pagan Baptist, a non-realist Baptist, a theist but non-Jesucentred URC (none of these were asked to leave), and lots of personalities, and a fundy who said he used to think the enemy was outside the church but is now in his lecturers. He liked me though, because he knew where I was. So I am pastoral in this sense at least.

So for those who are on some sort of transition, there is a journey. It might be theistic, or non-realist, or even a grabbing at fundamentalism, or a sort of universalism or a pluralism. The journeys can go anywhere.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful