|Here are just two of the correspondences and writings I produced on the General Assembly Object. It does not matter that it was supported by a large majority; indeed it changes a movement once committed to minorities, and either confuses or makes a mockery of clauses which stress diversity and freedom from tests of belief.|
Submitted to the new editor of The Inquirer in July 2003
In the earliest days of the early Church the gospel writers were writing roughly along the lines of two natures of Jesus Christ. On the one had there is the person of divine power, not human, such as when God-like power over the sea is used, walking on it to troubled oarsmen (Mark 6:45-52). On the other hand the same given author has Jesus begging God to relieve him of his burden while in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:34-38). None of these events are historical, in that in the first he is visioned like a ghost and in the second no one was (apparantly) awake. It is more to do with drawing imagery from the Old Testament (for example, the Psalms).
Now if I introduced this as the driving point for a sermon in the Unitarian Church, would I have fulfilled the obligation of the GA Object to uphold the Liberal Christian tradition? Clearly if I had introduced a sermon on Krishna telling a reluctant Arjuna to do his duty and fight in the war within the Bhagavad Gita, I would not be fulfilling this Object. Clearly it is limited to one tradition: it privileges that tradition over and above any discussion of validity. Perhaps I can do both, so long as at sometime I come back to the Christian disucssion?
It is said that this is a General Assembly (only) Object, but a number of Unitarians say that this Object should be incorporated into worship at a congregational level. It is about definition at every level. So would I have achieved this demand?
The problem is defining the liberal Christian tradition. It came to mean producing a fully human Jesus, one that Unitarians believed was historically recoverable as a religious-moral teacher, whilst there was the moral God who made everyone "divine". Yet we are aware that such a human religious Jesus is just as much a construction as a divine religious Jesus. Historically it might be right to frame his message and actions inside the setting of the Kingdom of God coming very soon. This means, however, he is messianic and supernaturalist, and far from a human moral-religious figure. Producing a most moral Jesus is strips away the very essence and point of his teaching, and produces a most dubious result.
The Jesus I have discussed shows that the Christian Bible leads legitimately in two directions and in tension at the same time. Its literary strength leads on to the two natures Chalcedonian Definition of 451 CE, and indeed to the legitimacy of the Trinity. As early Unitarians stated, the Trinity is not in the Bible, but it is proto-trinitarian, just as early Unitarianism was not quite unitarian (Jesus had miraculous powers and was resurrected), and indeed the Presbyterians before were not unitarian.
A literary view of the Bible, a within-the-drama view, accepts the historical reference is a non-starter, but it puts the reader back into the drama. So is this a liberal Christian tradition? It is not, it is postliberal or even a renewed orthodoxy.
So it seems that the Object is saying that Unitarians should continue to uphold something that was passing and transient within its history. It commits Unitarians to continue with perhaps a theological mistake. The Object does not say take note, revere, or remember (a far more appropriate and theologically stretchable word). It says uphold.
A Unitarian Object in effect states who is fully a member and who is not inside this enterprise. After the Lady Hewley dispute of the nineteenth century, Unitarianism accepted that it was an evolving movement, and it came to see itself as individualist without limit. It accepted people where they were, and did not tell them where to go. This would be absolutely right for a liberal movement in the now postmodern setting, the one where it is just as likely to discuss the Bhagavad Gita or Buddhist sutra or Pagan ritual. But now it tells them what to do according to corporate definition. This is not simply definition, however: this is constraint. This is why this Object is a departure and a mistake. The Object as it stands should be rewritten in order to restore that once gained plural Unitarianism and leave no doubt about individual freedom of choice.
In an act of worship I would not only fail to respond to the Invocation (The Inquirer, July 28, 2001) but would go on to object most strongly to the worship leader for its use.
I have opposed this Object of the General Assembly because I could see the nature of its language. It is credal because it tells us not simply that we should (say) revere or remember the past, or even recognise that there are several ongoing traditions, but it uses the present-future word "uphold" as in the phrase: "we uphold the liberal Christian tradition". Now the GA President John Midgley proposes its use in a worship act as an Invocation.
Who is this "we" that we should be committed to do something regarding a particular tradition? What right does the Unitarian Church (denomination or any congregation) have in telling individual believers what they should and should not do or believe in upholding or affirming any faith tradition? Who says "we" come to worship God?
Many have said that this Object exercise was to satisfy the Charity Commission, who define religious charities on traditional believing lines, but now this proposal goes much further into the heart of Unitarian activity and is very divisive.
This will not cause coherence and definition, but fractional and argumentative responses in a movement already unsure about how to handle difference.
If the President John Midgeley wishes to define Unitarianism, then he should try fully promoting the space it offers for plurality of belief, in its ability historically to adapt and change, in its possibility and potential for discussion and experiment, for its breadth of meanings in its symbolism in worship. This is a vital gospel of co-operation in an age when people of difference find it so difficult to work together. I regard this Object as a loss of nerve, and the inability to articulate this other kind of uniqueness or "selling point" for Unitarianism, a better approach I suggest than cohering around a set of upholdings and affirmations regarding particular inherited beliefs.