Dons and Ducklings
in Liberal and Radical Religion

As published in Faith and Freedom (1990), vol. 43, Part 1 and 2, No.s 127 and 128, Spring and Summer 1990, 51-54 with additions in indented Times New Roman/ Serif script.

In 1671 the threat of war with Holland and thus the King's need for money led to a survey of the strength and opinions of Presbyterians ejected from the Church of England nearly ten years earlier. Sir Joseph Williamson, Clerk to the Council, found two parties which he named the Dons and the Ducklings. He may not have realised it but some interesting sociological categories were produced for analysing liberal and radical religion to the present day.

Historical Overview

Three parties competed for influence in the turbulent reformation Church and State after the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant: the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Independents (many with parishes). The Independents irritated the Presbyterians by taking the select and because these churches could choose ministers without consulting other ministers. The bishops were criticised because their power through courts was distant to the parish and reduced social discipline. When bishops were strong the maypoles came out!

The Presbyterians, with some Episcopalian support, proposed to reduce bishops to something like permanent moderators as in the ancient Church. But this never came about. At the Restoration returning Episcopalian Royalist clergy took parishes from Puritans and eventually the Cavalier Parliament left most no choice but ejection. They could not stomach having to assent and consent to all the Prayer Book, agree that the Solemn League and Covenant was an unlawful oath, and lose the function of discipline over the population to bishops and their courts.

After the Great Ejection the Presbyterians split into Dons (so called because they liked to lord it over everyone) and Ducklings (because they splashed into the water and got on with independency). The Dons wanted to return to the National Church but the King in 1672 could only grant a Declaration of Indulgence (toleration) and not undo the work of Parliament (which would have allowed comprehension). The Ducklings, closer to the Independents and more thoroughly Calvinist, thought they had better make the best of it outside the National Church, and were better able to adapt.

These divisions existed after the Heads of Agreement (Unions of funds and some ministry oversight) between the Dissenters, but strains over ordination caused each denomination to support its own. This reduced the Dons and Ducklings argument and it was ended when the Tories, who had only granted the Act of Toleration when weak, finished hopes of comprehension. In that climate all Dissenters had to respect one another. So Presbyterians went on to accept independency and desires for comprehension turned into a greater willingness to accept the heretic within the Church. Then, after 'Advices' meetings about doctrine at Salters Hall in 1719, Presbyterians became scriptural non-subscribers and Independents maintained trinitarian doctrine. Some churches split and many ministers crossed denominations on these lines.

The Academies produced liberal ministers, and the non-subscribing churches moved towards Arminianism. For a period some Arians conformed to the Church of England but all liberal positions overlapped between the two.

The bipolar tendency returned with a division of new arguments...

The Dons and Ducklings tendencies were still there. Ex-Anglicans, especially from Cambridge (after failure to reform Anglicanism), aided the Dons side, but the Ducklings became dominant beginning with Priestley's influence and then, after the movement was weakened by attacks at the time of the French Revolution, by missions and incoming radical Baptists and Methodists.

After orthodox dissenters' attacks on Unitarian funds (leading to the legal acceptance of doctrinal development), high romanticism superseded rationalism and recreated the old Presbyterian centre ground. From the 1870's anti-supernaturalism and non-Christianity grew in earnest. Then the Ducklings rose in response to Liberal political revival from 1905 and although the two sides merged their organisations in 1928 the tendencies remained.

At times the Ducklings' agenda has proved vital for adaptation and expansion (once with the working class). But the Dons were also relevant by bridge building with liberal Anglicans when dissenters were hostile, bringing in ex-Anglicans (and losing Unitarians) and attracting new middle class members.

Of course no middle class denomination, least of all the Unitarian one, was ever successful with working class involvement. It would be better to see the Ducklings as more fully involved in the urban, industrial setting with some reaching out into working class areas rather than adaptation.

The general conclusion can be extracted into sociological typologies to analyse how liberalism, rational dissent and radicalism are operating at any time. The Dons are those of broad theology and ecclesiology who prefer reconciliation and compromise, perhaps in one large all-embracing Church or Christian arrangement, whereas the Ducklings are denominational, competitive, pluralist and prefering diversity of institutions to compromise.

Present Day Heterodox Liberals and Radicals

Readers may have seen my review-article The Nature of the Mainstream Church, summarising my thesis (1). There are traditionalists of each denomination of traditional authority, conversionists of charismatic authority and then the orthodox liberals of bureaucratic authority who keep the Incarnation and Resurrection. Mainstream heterodox liberals who lose these minimum positions of orthodoxy have defiant self-delegated systemic authority as opposed to those liberals outside the mainstream with voluntary human relations authority. Both heterodox authority types contain Dons and Ducklings.

See the 2004 revision, the Revised Mainstream Triangle and the articles on business and organisation that draw on Burns and Stalker's work from which comes Systemic authority and Mayo's work from which comes Human Relations Authority.

Sir Joseph Williamson might today identify two such named Unitarian groups. The Dons have sympathy with broad Christianity and see themselves as part of the wider Church. They are liberal, but in terms of Unitarianism might be seen as relatively conservative. They have a theology still similar to Free Christianity in the nineteenth century now close to standard liberalised trinitarian theology in the mainstream. The Ducklings are more likely to speak of Unitarian faith, emphasising the uniqueness of a denomination with freedom of belief, and are less concerned about representation in Councils of Churches and the like. They are unconcerned if, as a result of individuals freely thinking, the denomination ceased to look remotely Christian. In fact many want religious humanism or a marketplace of faith insights. This is pluralism, identity and choice rather than the Dons' Church-broadness.

Dons and Ducklings react to the religious cultural environment in different ways. Today it is vaguely Christian and does not support churchgoing. The Dons response is to link Unitarianism with the wider Church so that Unitarian element is recognisable and 'straight'; the Ducklings reaction is to provide a distinct alternative for those who today find Christianity insufficient or incredible. But individual churches, on the old independent Presbyterian principle of comprehension, often cater for both kinds of Unitarian at once.

We now see this variation most markedly in the adoption of the GA Object with its assertion of upholding the liberal Christian tradition, whatever this means. Yet there must be a revision here. The Dons' desire for church-like identity which was a political success at the GA level has worked on the Duckings' desire itself for identity, and in a time of increasing meltdown of numbers and an impoding central General Assembly structure, any identity will do. The argument here then is that the crisis is becoming so deep that divisions are themselves melting in a need for any recognisable identity.

In the mainstream the Dons and Ducklings are represented by something in the way of the differences between the Modern Churchpeople's Union and the Sea of Faith Conference (2) respectively. The basic agenda of MCU, containing those from orthodox to heterodox liberalism, is the improvement of the mainline Christian tradition. It certainly relates to the resources and pastoral outreach of the mainstream, particularly of the Anglican Church. The Sea of Faith Conference, in contrast, is more distinct. Its agenda is religious humanism and naturalism out of the Christian tradition. It is more directed and dedicated against supernaturalism. Being predominantly of a mainstream agenda it works closely with trinitarianism, but only to oppose its supernaturalism and radicalise its language. Here pastoral outreach is desired but involves the difficulty that the 'advertised' faith of the mainstream and the radicals' faith are very different. What do ministers say to ordinary people? Is diversity through denominational identity the answer?

The Ducklings of the Sea of Faith Conference may think their road is new, but in fact many Unitarian Ducklings reached it long ago! However, if non-supernatural Christianity is possible, then the Sea of Faith approach can show Unitarian Ducklings that Christianity and radicalism will go together and that the inseparability of Christianity and conservatism is a straw man.

The question is whether Unitarian Ducklings can live with the Object as it now stands.

The Future

If mainstream liberalism becomes strong then Unitarian Dons will be weakened (as has been Unitarianism). The Ducklings agenda would then have to gain the ascendancy. Human relations authority gives no ability to the Dons to stop such a development, not that they would attempt this.

But such may not happen. Times are rough for the mainstream Dons' desire for acceptability. So I see no major crisis for Unitarian Dons who can provide support for beleaguered liberals elsewhere. There is no comparison between the Presbyterians ejected from the Church of England (who were orthodox and disciplined) and the liberals and radicals within today's mainstream. But a future of strong conversionist (once mainstream) denominations may lead to leakages and ejections. This will demand co-operation between all liberals and radicals and there may be grounds for another historic re-alliance, even mergers. The Ducklings of the Sea of Faith group strain systemic authority to the limit like a Militant Tendency but it is not yet really clear whether non-supernatural Christianity can exist except attached to the mainstream. If the rope was cut it could just become a religious humanism and perhaps these Ducklings depend too much on the one 'Don' (Cupitt!) for their ideas. Either way there is much potential co-operation between both Sea of Faith and Unitarian Ducklings, and the new impetus of the Sea of Faith Conference may show such Unitarians that they can still use something of the Christian past, suitably modernised, in a free thinking universalist humanistic package.

The interesting point over more than ten years is that the mainstream churches are becoming more defined and dogmatic, and more sectarian. Sea of Faith people (in 2004 the latest was Ian Stubbs of Stalybridge) pop up to show varieties of belief. There hav been a few radical ministers losing their positions, and the Church of England pushed by the Bishop of Chester Peter Forster is considering tightening up belief boundaries. It affects clergy whereas lay people can just carry on (rather like the constraints regarding homosexuality). A compromise of sorts is still expected. Yet in the same time Unitarianism has become so weak and contradictory (is it broadly Christian or pluralist?) that it seemingly cannot benefit and any compromise in the main Church and other denominations will reduce any benefit.

  1. Worsfold, A.J., 'The Nature of the Mainstream Church' in Faith and Freedom, Autumn 1987. My unpublished Ph.D thesis has been retitled New Denominationalism: Tendencies Towards a New Reformation of English Christianity.
  2. See the Faith and Freedom report on the first Sea of Faith Conference in the Autumn 1988 issue.

Bolam, C. G., et al. (1968), The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism, London: George Allen and Unwin.

Wigmore-Beddoes, D. G. (1971), Yesterdays Radicals: A Study of the Affinity between Unitarianism and Broad Church Anglicanism in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: James Clark and Company.

Readers unfamiliar with Unitarianism who would like to know some of the ideas in its Canadian, Australian American and British churches might read Hewett, P. (1985) The Unitarian Way, Toronto: Canadian Unitarian Council.