Radicals and the the Church

Review of Don Cupitt (1989),
Radicals and the Future of the Church,
SCM Press

At A level I used to like learning about economics as it seemed to coincide so often with common sense. One particular theory I liked was about marginal revenue: the more you have of something the less extra value each extra unit gives. But then at university economics got silly and implausible as it became lost in a sea of mathematical equations that no ordinary human being would ever actually act out in real life. I am reminded of these experiences by Don Cupitt's latest book, Radicals and the Future of the Church.

It seems to me that the sheer level of repetition between and within his books supports the marginal rate theory. Furthermore, this philosophy is so pushed to the limit that it loses common sense. When the practical side is considered there is too much self-contradiction.

So there is the re-run of all that to do with non-realism, there is some development of the conflict between inherited male religion and feminism and there's the ethics element - but on the whole I've read it before. Perhaps Cupitt misses the other great demand of the modern three minute culture: speedy change and difference. He would say he changes and moves on. He has, in that the old individualist Cupitt became, some books back, a more collectivist Cupitt. This is interesting, but it only has some mileage. He's also made his writing style faster still, but I suspect this covers up the fact that you can read it very quickly and now miss little. So what's new?

There's more in the way of addressing the practical issues of the kind of person who would attend the Sea of Faith Conference, basically the bread and butter concerns of how to carry on in the church. By 'the church' he means one full of inherited dogmas and the like, the type that survives because it is "cruel". And the others are elsewhere:

These ideas are strong, really strong, so strong indeed that the obvious retort to our argument is that there have already been plenty of weak churches, creedless denominations, liberal Christian groups without a strong power structure - and where are they now? They are not doing very well. (p. 23)

No they are not, and neither is the rest. It has little to do with cruelty, perhaps, and more to do with inherited wealth that allows some churches to keep going well beyond consumer demand. I understand that if the Church of England lost all its congregations it could still keep half of its clergy going on the investments (only in some places with Unitarianism!). As for where most consumers may soon go, it has as much to do with the pop culture of the charismatics and the easy way in than the cruelty members experience once enrolled.

In Chapter 5 Cupitt offers a list of options for those interested in what he calls "Christian survival". There is evasion, deception, organised dissent, exile, and also a "A new denomination" (pp. 121-123). In this he names the Quakers (new? who to?) and perhaps he might have thought of the Great Unnamed (no prizes!). About this latter option he says:

What we have come to recognize about the complexity of religious traditions and the endlessness of our interpretation means that we ought to be able to remake our own faith and our world by reinterpreting our own inherited vocabulary. At any rate if we can't do it by bending our own rich native language then we are certainly not going to do it in the thinner and artificial language of some new and smaller group. (p. 122)

Well, there's a language game for you! A "rich native language" versus a "thinner and artificial language". But there's nothing so artificial as the clogged up Anglican liturgy! Of course, Cupitt displays the very linguistic authoritarianism that he so criticises one minute but thinks is so bendable the next. It is also wrong: both the Quakers and the Unitarians have a long history of inherited and changing language of all kinds, and are perhaps far more able to adapt than is any bending of the fixedness of Anglican liturgy, which I agree in the ASB has no reference to "the distinctive features of modern civilisation such as democracy, industry, growing knowledge, religious pluralism, feminism and historical change." (p. 139). I wonder if Cupitt has ever seen the new Unitarian hymn book, Hymns for Living? Such is in there.

He proposes "deceivers yet true" inside the church (why ever no capital C?) (p. 125) and even gives a vision of the church of the future:

Such a church, structurally democratic, credally minimalist and consistently libertarian, will be the first genuinely radical Christian church... (p. 173)

Such a church (in which many will even continue to be theists! p. 172) will not have the Bible or the Nicene Creed in its former position, as language today will not allow it. A church will meet at noon on Sundays, or maybe at the end of the working day of Thursday in some cities. One of the deacons opens the meeting breaking some bread and here will be a pauper's meal, and after the business there's a gospel reading by a presbyter followed by talk. The blood of Christ ends the meeting. A retired person will have been at some time elected bishop and there is no career ladder.

Somehow I think I've heard of this kind of demand before! It is a hotchpotch of the desires of Unitarian predecessors in 1662 and a spot of old-time Christian Unitarianism wrenched into the present day. And all that seems not radical at all, but quite ritualistically conservative. How about some of the real winds of pluralism, and widen the meaning of all kinds of symbols as far as they may go?

I expected a challenge before I read this book. It did not challenge. What it did do was justify my reasons for switching to Unitarianism. Now I can grapple with a really pluralist body, argue for renewal to relate us in part to the three minute culture (to emphasise image beyond word) and attract that minority in our uncertain religious culture who like uncertainty. They need no longer take the fixed language of Christianity and others who float around different religious groups can be offered some institutional stability as they change their beliefs. Unitarianism now and renewed can produce something thoroughly honest, ethical and pluralist.

I see no point in trying to bend the unbendable, or in trying to recreate what already exists. Don Cupitt effectively admits that in the end a radical stance requires a liberal constitutional position. Precisely. And when the charismatics have taken over the "church" I await the radicals' entry into the liberal groups where one, through the course of conflictual and confused argument in this book, would seem to belong.

Don Cupitt is like a David Owen figure: very important in the particular field of debate, very influential and someone who towers above others. But such a person is always an individualist, a maverick, and goes his own way. He is bound to puzzle his followers sooner or later, clerical and lay, toughing it out in mainstream denominations. Surely followers will see the conflict between rejecting the weak "where are they now" creedless bodies and the offering of his just as weak "church" of the future. Why reinvent the wheel? They will know that such an internal change is unlikely ever to come about, that we are all denominations now in this pluralist world ("who believes in denominations anymore?" p. 125), and can find out that, as throughout history, the non-subscribers' door remains open to such recurring movements like the latest one he has helped spawn.

Adrian Worsfold first published in Faith and Freedom, Autumn 1989, 158-161.

Don Cupitt's reply (this was sent to him)Also connected from the Learning/ Religion Menu