A Confused Prospect

An analytical review of Smith, M. (ed.) (2002), Prospects for the Unitarian Movement, Lindsey Press.

Obtainable from
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This is a survey and discussion about the contemporary Unitarian Movement with each chapter written by different authors and followed by questions and interesting biographical statements. Therefore as well as telling the outsider something of the condition of the Unitarian movement, it also can be an internal study guide for congregations. The book is not intellectual but intelligent, although it does contain some stronger and weaker chapters. The book also lacks politics, except for some nods towards environmental concern, and has no radical social tradition on display. The privatisation of religion is not just to individuals, but also to small organisations as religious specialisms.
My question is this: Does this book reduce the confusion around Unitarian identity (as well as look to the future)? Does it make it look clearer as Matthew Smith hopes the new Object achieves? (Preface, v-viii, v)
Vernon Marshall describes possible Unitarian futures (New forces shaping Unitarian thought, 1-8), and thinks an experiential future would be unusual and a new departure for the denomination over prior rationality. However, it can be argued that experience is actually part of the Unitarian tradition and beyond (into Transcendentalism and Romanticism). What is different is not creedless Unitarianism suddenly veering off into seeking out subjective experience, but the absence of a clear surrounding Christian culture which once still guided people like Martineau in the nineteenth century into safely arguing for the primacy of conscience over the book or tradition, whilst retaining the ability to continue to produce clearly Christian liturgies. This is why Marshall's analyses are no more than (inadequate and incomplete) descriptions. Traditional language is rejected (4) not through an internal shift, but because the new situation is a creedless religious community within a creedless wider religious culture. It is impossible to maintain a general traditional religious language in such a setting without prior fixed statements.
Yet this is exactly what has most recently happened to the Unitarian identity! Andrew Brown in the next chapter (Is there a future for the Unitarian Christian tradition? 9-18) can say in his biographical addition:

Since our new Object affirms that we continue to uphold the liberal Christian tradition, it seems important to offer a piece which suggested one possible interpretation of what that might mean for us today. (17)

This is the heart of the confusion of the denomination now. The GA Object, given in full in the Appendix (139), legally refers only to the General Assembly and ties no congregation or member to upholding anything, but the effect of this Object has been to throw back the denomination in terms of identity which Richard Boeke (Ugly duckling or swan? Is Unitarianism a universal religion? 19-28) and to some extent Vernon Marshall thinks the denomination is moving away from! So do most authors here. The editor Matthew Smith elsewhere has attempted to write a hymn based on the Object, and others have tried statements of commitment for worship based on the Object. And yet its primary purpose was for satisfying the Charity Commission and its narrow view of what constitutes religious doctrine! The result however is a new if minimal creed, which is the admitted impact behind what Andrew Brown writes. Yet, when asked or challenged, either in the Inquirer or email lists, the people who approve of this little creed will state that Unitarianism remains creedless even though they want a community definition. But if fails on this too, because all the little creed does is produce a heightened condition of confusion.

David Usher has one of the better chapters (Spiritual democracy and organisational prosperity, 58-65, originally a lecture in Prague) when he analyses that with spiritual democracy comes the point where no one opinion is better than any other, and he likens it to the Internet where the same applies. Echoing one consideration in Vernon Marshall's piece, he states that if all experience is valid, nothing is invalid, so that that a person who has studied for a long period of time has no more credance than someone who is not shy in coming forward with another opinion. As he says, you do not go down to the pub to ask "whomever happened to be propping up the bar" a question when instead one would consult the Encylopaedia Britannica (63).
As an increasingly occasional attender of Unitarian services, this is my experience (and it is valid!). I'm exhausted by reading theology and sociology of religion and facing up to difficulties with contemporary belief, only to find cliches down at the local pub (sorry, church). Then, if I take a service, no one understands what I say! The result is I'd rather disappear into some kind of liturgical fantasy world where everyone knows it is ancient and yet a prompt for spiritual ideas and theological work in the contemporary world. But in the modernist (which it is) Unitarian setting, people who think they know what they are talking about spout opinions in sermons which, if they did know what they were talking about, they might be reluctant to make.
David Usher fails however to move on the argument to what happens when people of a like mind, who think they know what they may not, go on to form congregational cliques and majorities. They then decide what their church is to be like, and isolate the individual dissenting voice within a congregation.
It is in this case where a congregation has a particular character that the whole theory of liberalism breaks down. Spiritual democracy, with no checks and balances from outside, is a tyranny.  Agreeing on a statement of purpose can be invigorating (Christine Hayhurst, Making vision work, 46-57, 54) but can also be the end of liberality. The new GA Object, for example, fails this invigorating test because it divides and confuses, and many a given statement at congregational level would too. A statement, really, should only define a freedom of space to be maintained, and what to do about keeping it open.
Perhaps there might be a theology of ministry to help in this problem of spiritual democracy, but this is not found in Lindy Latham's chapter (The future of ministry, 77-85), which is mainly an observation that some people are better at some skills than others and there might be better support. But in a spiritual democracy, why is there a professional ministry at all? A radical enabling educational model might have been offered against the priesthood of all believers (with ministers), seeing as Unitarians may not (or do they?) follow a set of co-ordinated beliefs. Latham mentions a shortage of professional ministers, but in practical terms the issue is affording ministers locally when they are such a drain on funds, especially if there is no obvious reason for them.
Actually there is enough money around; it is just in awkward places and the wrong places. Bob Millard (Wherever the people meet: a perspective on chapels, 114-121) sees a danger of an epitaph which says:

'millions in the bank but few open chapels' (119)

Or perhaps Lindy Latham is arguing on pragmatic grounds, but these are not suggested, that ministers are useful as paid church workers. Her radical approach to ministry seems to be one of overcoming loneliness and support to make up a likely skills or aptitudes gap in ministers. I understand this loneliness as someone who likes her services but has simply found her Lincolnshire churches to be too far away from my northern Lincolnshire home. My solution is that professional ministers would be paid centrally or regionally, work between congregations freely, and enable and train lay leaderships, so that professional ministers are more like bishops. They would also support the planting of new churches, or reviving lost churches (often when marginalised people had given up). She speaks of training to know oneself in order to know others; whereas my experience was of knowing oneself through the barren vacancy of what passed for training in my year at ministry college in 1989-90.

If these "bishops" were drenched in the tradition, and in contemporary reading, with skills that indeed they could share and exchange, then they could be a force that congregations would recognise as having authority. There is also a need for a General Assembly supported symposium of writers and thinkers who, in their disagreements, put cogent arguments that others could reflect upon. Such writings could indeed be followed by questions, but not of the kind in most of this book.
One irritation is when a church says its Unitarian congregation was founded in 1670 or some such time, when you try to point out these people were not anything like Unitarians. There are so many invented traditions that exist in Unitarianism rather than history, and this is when "history" is more popular than any theology. I become similarly irritated when I read cliches and that hoary old chestnut repeated by Richard Boeke that somehow Unitarianism is connected to the views of Servetus, or even more so that Unitarianism was a religion of Jesus whereas Christian mainstream was about Jesus (19). Servetus's Jesus was divine, and Unitarianism with its stripped down humanist ethical Jesus was just as much "about" Jesus as the differently doctrinal one. So also is Andrew Brown's Jesus where the "authentic words and deeds" (13) of Jesus are all about being mindful in community (14), itself another construction in the face of difficulties about the historical Jesus. We rarely hear in Unitarianism about the strange Jesus who was concerned with his own people in an odd inter-testaments culture of supernatural expectations and happenings that we can hardly comprehend him or them anymore, which also mean that this is about Jesus too rather than of him.
It is a big task understanding about Christianity, and different faiths, the history rather than invented traditions of Unitarianism, and appreciating modernity, postmodernity and the religious culture, and having informed debate and dialogue, with a teaching ministry too. In this requirement for quality information, liberals who are also democracts should be less worried about elitism in this, because spiritual democracy needs checks and balances, even those which are based on persuasion of argument and learning rather than physical checks within power structures (though these might be developed too, using relationships between administrative bodies). A professional ministry can be a uniting force, which is why it needs to be more fluid and bishops-like.
Cathal Courtney's chapter (Outreach: a reaching in, 66-76) is an example of how to back action with strong theory. There is the theoretical background of postmodernism (he might have referred to Mark C. Taylor, particularly mentioning the concept of Alterity given his Altarity), and choosing an approach within it (the Jewish postmodernist Levinas), and then using this as background to inform dialogue (not a simple sterile democracy) and therefore generating solidarity. He might have mentioned Richard Rorty too. Cathal Courtney's approach is an outside focussed approach yet based on getting the internal dynamics right. His is an example of a truly pluralist theology, based on informed theory, which has a spiritual impact because it intends to be open to the outsider and to the vulnerable psychology within. But this is exactly the sort of approach that should be applied to many congregations, rather than just one in Wakefield, and let's hope the book helps.
Margaret Kirk (The future of Unitarian worship, 86-93) sees the implication of dialogue and building relationships this way:

The kind of dialoguing we are doing here is not easily accommodated in large churches with fixed pews. For those already alienated by formal church services, the space is not inviting. (89)

She too advocates skilful leadership, along with liturgical change, and a fellowship ethos above a chapel ethos.

So there needs to be the process that Sarah Tinker describes (The future of religious education in the Unitarian movement, 39-45), based on progressive education theory, but, please, there needs to be content too, and skill, and leadershiPeople do not just want to sit in circles finding themselves, however useful, but finding out as well. Unitarians, unlike Quakers, use many words, and they need to be quality words.
So where does this leave the situation?
There is one form of decline, the physical, which underlies the decline into confusion. The physical is as expressed by Bob Millard:

My mists of negativity have cleared slightly... I count nine of them. They faithfully light the chalice on the third Sunday of every month. They would meet more frequently, but age, arthritis, transport problems and a shared minister limit them to a third Sunday. Last year there were twelve of them at this service, but age and infirmity have taken their toll. (115)

I am interested in the confusion, which is why I walk slowly away without having infirmity as a sufficient reason. I can still dip in and out of its online community as described by Kate Taylor (The Unitarian online community, 130-137), while publishing views on my website which I did consciously choose to be called http://www.pluralist.co.uk.

Unitarianism is now confused. It never did have an adequate definition about being "liberal" (liberal-constitutional is not the same as being liberal about something, usually Christianity) and the word Unitarian itself is often given a theological definition, which in fact was a passing phase. In a situation of chronic decline, the denomination combined its requirement to fulfil Charity Commission requirements with a perceived need to have a clear belief-definition for ordinary people outside to show it is a normal church if a free one. There was politics and jockeying, and not a little exhaustion regarding a once failed but revived process, that created a definition which satisfied one conservative faction in the always divided or stretched Unitarian family. Thus came about a very strong continuing Christian statement, which probably will still not satisfy those denominations which continue to exclude Unitarianism as a body from church councils for historical reasons. Quite right too because Unitarianism has lost its basis as Christian whilst producing this statement.
Unitarianism has to decide whether it is going to be post-liberal in an open postmodern sense, or postliberal in the more common Yale sense (Lindbeck) of having a predetermined definition which guides the processes of the community. To uphold one tradition is to do the latter, but as a collective predefinition is a major change from the individualism of Martineau and a history of evolutionary change. This is the approach which continues with formal services and even fixed pews (or at least facing the front). To apply Martineau in a postmodern age is to produce something as suggested by Cathal Courtney and Bob Millard's positive postmodern chapel space (120). It is also to agree with George D. Chryssides (Unitarians and new religious movements, 29-38) in the breadth of views and critical learning from others (though his reference to Yinger's "cult" for Unitarianism, 31, is no more than a trading of sociological terms, and there is an unworked out modernist reliance on the universality of human reason, 37). His chapter is an awkward combination of Chryssides' own interests in New Religious Movements and the very old but changing one which he supports.
This creedlessness individualism in a postmodern culture of cultures means thoroughgoing internal change. Unitarian pluralism can be defended as a space and place where dialogue and spirituality are worked out together, where sensitivity is towards the outside culture and the needs of the person who seeks a spiritual group, whilst noting individual internal vulnerability and changes of view. Kay Millard (Unitarian fellowship and the development of community, 122-129) has it right when she says:

Post-modern individuals are mobile, and their beliefs vary.

This pluralism and openness is to be contrasted with the increasingly postliberal justification for the keeping of creeds and articles and set forms in Christian churches where there is also now, in practice, considerable stretching and freedom of belief. The old Unitarian bash against creeds is itself a literalism and is pointless, and rather needs a different basis of organising and seeking spiritual goals. Yet it is important for the GA soon to remove the statement upholding one historical tradition.

Unitarians made a bad turn backwards in the General Assembly Object, which this book in part affirms and more than in part rejects, and the added confusion will add to decline rather than attempt to clear up where this movement is going, if it is going anywhere. There are some positive writings in this book that suggest it could go somewhere, but the book as a whole is a battle between inconsistent futures. Freedom needs an individualist structure, but one that is informed and with checks and balances to maintain liberalism, whereas a postliberal structure is something else of which there are plenty available elsewhere.

Mentioned authors:

Rorty, R. (1989), Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, M. C. (1987), Altarity, University of Chicago Press.

Lindbeck, G. A. (1984), The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theology in a Postliberal Age, SPCK