This discussion at the November 13 2007 meeting of the In Depth Group was based around the opening chapter called 'Why Bother To Think About God' in Tony Windross's book (a cut down version of which appears at called The Thoughtful Guide to Faith published in 2004 by O Books of New Arelsford, Hampshire. Tony Windross is Anglican priest and Vicar of St. Peter's, Sheringham in NorfolkA visit by mystery worshipper Hermione for Ship of Fools to Sheringham in 2002 - with a photo of the church.

This account is mine and centres around my own contributions. Others may recall the discussion quite differently. Present were a group of seven lay people, with a number of people away. The group is somewhat self-selecting and it is known about rather than having its meetings advertised (this may change soon - that all groups should be on the notice sheet, or at least put on it at points of transition, like when introducing new subjects).

God and Churchgoing: A Group Discussion

The group discussion leader first gave his account of the chapter and issues he thought it raised. We had all seen the chapter. He thought that most people do believe a simplistic view of God, and this is what Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens pins on to the Christian believer. It is a blockage to people he meets who (because of such) won't come into the church. His desire is to make progress so that people do not think that all Christians have a simplistic view. He suggests that many believers come to believe first of all in Jesus - as a concrete reality - and stick with that and a simplistic view of God. He thought God should be the primary belief, and come to discuss Jesus via this direction.
I said that the book is suggesting that God can be a blockage, offers varieties of belief in God down to the symbolic and non-realist implied (the leader thought Windross did not go as far as non-realism) and that what Windross is saying is why not put the blockage to one side, inhabit within the faith and let its concepts grow over time, including that of God. As for via Jesus, that is an issue of development, like young people handling the concrete until, into later teenage years, abstract thought can come in.
The Jesus point led one member to say he does not believe Jesus is the Son of God, and rather thought it was imposed later by religious leaders. Another disagreed with him that it was stitched up, and I said I would be more charitable. The belief started with Jesus as a returning Jewish Messiah, and that Paul turned this into a salvation religion. Those in the Greek world who tacked on to the rationality of early [Pauline] Christianity at the synagogues rather liked it, and not having to get circumcised or obey laws. So the synagogue leaders told them to go away. Paul, I said, was consistent from both sides of the fence: asking synagogue leaders to discipline those who believed in a returning Messiah as it conflicted with the Law, and later came to believe in that returning Messiah and produced a salvation religion of Grace against the Law.
One asked how do we know this - suggesting scepticism about this account of mine. I said because of the existence of groups like the Ebionites, and another said of the dispute between Paul and James. I said there were three branches: the Jewish, the Pauline proto-orthodox, and the development out of Paul's own tendencies to the Gnostic. One wondered what Christianity would have been like had it been Jewish in character, and some thought it might not have survived. Paul's own belief in a quick return of the messiah did fade, said one.
So the status of Jesus was cranked up. I said the belief transferred to being more philosophical, but that it also responded to ongoing prayer and worship. I said it could just as easily have been Arian than Trinitarian, indeed a majority position was Arian. But there are power reasons to then make the Trinity, and that if Arianism was accepted then such can slip and become something else - as indeed happened within the Reformation.
The issue of concrete to abstract led to a diversion in discussion to Religious Education and lack of Christian formation, also helped by my comment that Tony Windross is wrong to assume Christianity is the given religion. (Incidetnally I challenged that all religions have thier own exclusive view of God - no they don't, the Hindu God is not exclusive and even Islam has a God so transcendent it cannot be exclusive.) I said only assemblies in school should be broadly Christian, if they happen (in reality); it does not have to be so but each year pupils in school learn "Christianity and"... but they do do the other religions. Plus there are other approaches to RE. So as well as about religions there is the anthropological approach, and the experiential approach. So, for example, if pupils are taught the factual approach [this actually divides into phenomenological and critical], then they would treat Christianity as teaching the Trinity, but an anthropological approach say of this discussion group would find quite some scepticism about the Trinity going on what had been said so far. The experiential approach might introduce about Christianity, but it is really about personal reflections on life and its values and use of symbols. Someone said it is not the purpose of school RE to provide formation into Christianity. I said the Vale of Ancholme School in Brigg has an experiential approach to RE: I was interviewed, first assuming a more factual approach but soon changed tack; it is a lot of work but does develop abstract thinking in pupils - though the point-scoring GCSE wheen taken mitigates against this, and yet pupils are supposed to learn about religions and learn from religions, the latter of which is more experiential [there are parallels in some other subjects].
The discussion, as I read it, was not so much about God as about people not coming to church [and this is in the Windross chapter]. I said the people with apparently silly beliefs about God would still come. Another said asked whether it is that people who go to church actually may believe less than the common belief, but that they find that the search is important? I agreed with this, and they would come too. But I said there is a problem with the liturgical presentation and also with the parade of expectations that goes back and forth. The preacher assumes that the people in the church expect him or her to be orthodox. The people assume that he or she will speak this way and they should be. Yet both are probably doubtful and searching. I said also there is rule book, that if a person preaching becomes ever more evangelical then there is no consequence, but if a preacher becomes ever more liberal he or she may end up being reported to the bishop.
For me the issue is to be clear and say so that liturgy is not theology. They are related, but they do a different job. Someone said the liturgy was boring, but then changed his mind, in that he does get from it some of the reflection that some said can happen as it processes through. He first thought the short midweek sermon is something God would want to listen to as opposed to the same liturgy over and again (which, though no one said so, did imply a rather direct view of God). I said I come from a tradition where the content is varied but there was strong support for a liturgical framework, and indeed I said how it is a resource. One said you can go with the flow, and that the liturgy throws up nuggets for reflection. There was some mention of music - hymns as fillers but also the importance of music as a spiritual support.
Churchgoing in the past was a lot of social control, it was said, and now there is no means to attract in a large percentage of a local population. Evangelical churches recycle churchgoers, said one: I said how in West [of] Hull a base of rather well off people going to the church is the means of then getting people to come in from far and wide, but evangelical churches on the eastern side of Hull get nowhere.
I brought some additional theology into some of these themes. Tillich had this approach of ultimate goodness, Being, New Being and the sort of existentialism that was about people asking other questions about meaning and life. Set against this, and oddly from an original evangelical direction, came the idea of the Secular City, that people are just too busy to be asking ultimate questions, God being so high and invisible that people just get on with their lives.
If this meeting had a kind of consensus or appraoch, one at least said there should not be a competition to show doubts. A few disagreed with this; and it was said of me that my nailing my colours to the mast was of not nailing colours to the mast. Another said how this was Anglicanism at its best, where people feel they can explore [the context of this remark may be international controversies and potential national effects].


The next session will discuss Christmas, again using a chapter in the Windross book. There is no online version of this chapter. I have already read this and regard it as feeble (it discusses nothing of substance about the Christmas story). The discussion will be in January.

Here is what a secularist thought of Tony Windross - calling him 'The Postmodern Vicar'A blog from 29 July 2006 of when Tony Windross visited Leicester Secular Society with further points. The discussion further down about treating the liturgy as a mantra is relevant to something of the discussion above, though not identical.

Online at ThisisChurch.comA sort of online church, the world being its parish, but actually from Putnoe Heights and St. Mark's churches, Bedford the "Why Bother" series, from the book, covers God, prayer, the Bible, the creeds, heaven and hell, fundamentalism, miracles and Holy Communion, and there are Why Bother chapters on religion, going to church, the Bible, God, praying, saying the creed and evil within his slot at the quite extensive Radical Faith website.

Tony Windross has a good presence across various pages of the Internet, usually connected with his writings, which are intended to be accessible rather than theologically technical (even though his use of the word "ontological" did raise a quick discussion of puzzlement and meaning among some in the group.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful