Unitarian Sermons Pre-1999

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From Service of Music, Mozart and Barth
Sheffield's Nine O'Clock Service
Two Views
Buddhist Detective
Politics and Religion
Palm Sunday
Unitarian Restrictions
Cosmos and Religion

The Sermons

From Service of Music, Mozart and Barth

Words of Hymn No. 68, 'Praise the Great and Famous' in Hymns for Living
There are six distinct periods of serious musical presently identified. These are early or medieval music upto 1400 A.D., renaissance music from 1400 to 1650, baroque music from 1650 to 1780, classical music from 1780 to 1820, romantic music from 1820 to 1920 and modern music from 1920 until the present day. Today we hear examples from early, renaissance, baroque and classical music.
Plainsong or plainchant is an example of religious early music. There are two kinds of plainsong: there is Ambrosian chant and the greater Gregorian chant. Pope Gregory all but succeeded in the selection, listing and standardisation of Western plainsong. He collected three thousand items and these are still the officially held in the Roman Catholic Church. Plainsong has two places of origin, first in Jewish practice as found in the Psalms of David and secondly from Greek culture. Jewish practice used instrumentation but the experience of large organs in Greek arenas where early Christians perished made the music reluctant to use instrumentation. For a long time the Church strictly banned instrumentation and later from time to time various Popes would stress the need for audible words at the expense of the potential of music. Nevertheless there was a limited amount of development in the music due to the demands of singers.
Musical development led to the greater complexity of polyphony which was accepted in the Catholic Church as long as the words were clear. This change certainly happened to the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey Saint Maurice and Saint Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg. But in the 19th century the Order returned to something more like its original state of practice, with considerable research finding music showing the original lines of melody. Nothing was found, however, from the time of Pope Gregory himself.
This piece is called Veni Sanctus Spiritus and the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey Saint Maurice and Saint Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg sing it here not as a performance but as part of their worship. This lasts about five minutes. ///
That was called Veni Sanctus Spiritus sung in worship by the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey Saint Maurice and Saint Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg. Next we move to polyphony and Allegri's Miserere. There is a story that after the experience of the Reformation the Roman Catholic cardinals were on the verge of banning polyphony and reinstituting plainsong, but they heard Miserere and changed their minds. This story sounds like a fable.
Gregorio Allegri was born in Rome in 1582 and died there in February 1652. He was a boy chorister and learnt composition; after his voice broke he became a tenor singer. As a beneficed priest he was a chorister and composer at the Cathedral of Fermo, but after publishing some motets and sacred concertos he returned to Rome as a singer in the chapel of Pope Urban the Eighth and becoming an important composer of church music until his death. He was buried at the papal choir burial place at Santa Maria, Vallicella.
Many of his compostions are in the archives at Vallicella, the library at Collegio Romano, the collection of the Papal Choir and in the Santini Library.
Allegri's Miserere is for nine voices in two choirs. Its text is Psalm 51 and it is sung once a year during Holy Week in the Pontifical Chapel. This recording was made in Merton Chapel, Oxford, as performed by the Tallis scholars. At the lay Leadership week in Hucklow this music was played in one of the group Vespers in the afternoon, but after only some minutes Arthur Long put his finger over the stop button. We shall hear it all, and it lasts over ten minutes. ///
The Papacy knew that the Miserere was an exceptional piece of music and increased its reputation by banning the music from leaving the Sistine Chapel where it was held. But in fact copies did circulate around Europe after one particular event. On a tour of Europe Mozart, then aged fourteen, heard a performance of the Miserere and was so inspired that that night he sat down and wrote it out from memory. Then he heard it again to check what he had written. The Pope was impressed with such an achievement, and awarded Mozart the Knight of the Golden Spur. Of course, the result was that versions of the piece were after then available. The eventual solution was to allow the music to be published.
So we come to Mozart himself, and his music, with initial commentary by Karl Barth.
Johann Chrysostomas Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born at Salzburg in 1756 and died at Vienna in 1791. Like his sister he was a child prodigy in music, but such was society that he made it and she did not. So, Mozart's father, conducter and composer at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg and teacher of harpsichord and violin, gave up his pupils and concentrated on his children. Mozart had no other teacher. When five he was composing minuets, when six he wrote his first piano concerto. With such ability the Mozart children went on tour, the first of many around Europe for the boy. Now, for when we mention Karl Barth's opinion, it is worth noting that Mozart did have failures. One was in Italy when he was seventeen: Produced in Milan in 1772, the opera Lucia Silla failed and Mozart never returned to Italy again. Mozart had great problems trying to get a court position in Munich and Paris, and the new Archbishop in Mozart's home base at Salzburg was jealous and this made difficulties for him elsewhere. So Mozart cut his links with the man, and eventually arrived at Vienna and married Constance Weber, not the first Weber girl he had been in love with. He was twenty six and she was eighteen, and there they befriended Haydn and Mozart met the young Beethoven. There he composed his greatest music, they had one son, and lived in some poverty, and in 1791 he received a commission from a wealthy nobleman called Count Walsegg for the Requiem Mass. He thought he was writing it for himself, and in fact he died that year of typhus and was put into an unmarked paupers grave.
When Mozart died only the first movement, the 'Requiem' and 'Kyrie' had been completed and Constance, his widow, afraid that the advance had to be returned, asked the court composer to complete the score but he refused. Franz Sussmayer, a pupil of Mozart, completed the piece. We'll hear the 'Benedictus' which Mozart had composed in its essentials and Sussmayer filled in the detail.
We hear now 'Benedictus' from Mozart's Requiem which lasts about five minutes or so.///
Anybody will tell you that to summarise Karl Barth's thinking is to take up an impossible task. Not only do we have to take account of what he wrote in his enormous output of theological work, particularly his The Epistle to the Romans and the unfinished 8000 pages long Church Dogmatics, but we also have to take account of his style. It took him pages and pages of penetrating analysis of contrasting statements to say what others might say within a passage, and he was controversial: in speech he took on those he saw as opponents with some venom.
Barth, not a Roman Catholic, on the basis of his later work was described by Pope Pius XII as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. He turned against the liberalism of the nineteenth century. His viewpoint provided a way of opposing the corruption of the German Church during the time of Hitler, being one of those supporting the defiant German Confessing Church.
His view was that one must distinguish between religion and theology. Religion is man's search for God, which he saw as peripheral and wrong-headed. Theology instead is God-talk, but not any old theology; theology was simply the human response to the Word of God already established. This Word was in Christ, and that is where you find the decisive act of God.
This to us is highly dogmatic (and even possibly irrelevant), but he wasn't a fundamentalist. In fact, he was a part of the liberal theological debate. He also was not a fundamentalist because he made a distinction between the words in the Bible about the Word and the Word being Christ. The Bible comes to light as an event; it is not human thoughts about God, but right divine thoughts about men. But he indeed was narrow: he said that you cannot argue about revelation; you can only proclaim it. So God had made himself known, and even when humans responded it was not their own response as such but they were working within the orbit of the divine.
Well, Unitarianism is based on a complete rejection of this viewpoint. It certainly does see religion and culture as important; and in my view this is what is distinctive about the Unitarian tradition. Unitarians and some Christian liberals, as disbelievers in one revelation and as believers in progressive revelation, or alternatively in human striving, are quite opposite to the Barthian view. We are more like one who Barth was opposed to, namely Paul Tillich, who said that what is ultimately important is our God (though perhaps that is to take Tillich too far).
I'd like to move the argument on using my own personal history. Just this last week I borrowed from the library Bishop Geoffrey Paul's A Pattern of Faith, a recently published book compiled after his death which reproduces his lectures given in Hull City Hall during Lent 1981. Now, these lectures were first recorded on tape and they formed a six week course for my Anglican confirmation at University in 1984.
The very first lecture went straight into what the bishop called 'Jesus Christ, The Way In' and then to the Resurrection event as one attempt to prove the man's uniqueness. Now I actually agree with his starting point as a starting point, as it is of the Christian faith and Church, but my disagreement is with the Resurrection as a proof of uniqueness; in fact that was my view at my confirmation which is why I was rather hesitant about going through with it.
As well as agreeing with the bishop's priority of argument I also have to confess disagreement with some Unitarians (and others) who just treat Jesus as some sort of nice figure of history concerned with human goodness and have not tackled the Resurrection claims. Now, that says more about me than about other people and it is my personal baggage. But I do think that the view of God anyone has should affect the view of the Resurrection; and the Resurrection event as understood should inform the person's view of God.
All this rather lets me appreciate the approach of Karl Barth: he goes straight to what he considers is the Word of God, and to those liberals who try to do it another way he says "no". And I also appreciate the views of theologians like Bonhoeffer for whom God was disappearing, Paul Van Buren with his The Secular Meaning of the Gospel and Harvey Cox with The Secular City, all of whom were Barthian influenced because they stressed that the God who reveals himself is today somehow more absent.
But because I find no uniqueness of Christ my post-Christian theology tells me that I do not expect to find a God. As Barth effectively says if he has not come to me then I may as well either give up or wait. I can do nothing else; if I am not in receipt of God I waste my time trying to reach him.
Now, a lot of this relates to the argument about where we find value from, particularly ethical and creative value. A strong viewpoint suggests that value must come from outside ourselves: God is the great guarantor. Those of us who have no such God, so the argument goes, swish around and are dealing with an ultimately valueless and pointless world. So many liberals who disagree with Barth still end up finding a God who gives fixed value to life, but then Barth would say that this needs revelation. Now, that makes logical sense: if value comes from outside, if theology must precede ethics, then Barth's approach has validity.
I disagree however with the value argument. Instead, value can be handled on the secular pluralist level. We can ask if what something does has a function, and if it does, then, by individual preference or consensus, if it has value. This is the level I operate at, so in fact when I talk about God I am using God-talk in a secular sense. I am using a word and nothing else: it is very subjective and I am talking about human self-pointing. So whilst I accept much of the theological argument of Barth, by not accepting the related ethical argument I find a new way to talk about value and the meanings of the word God. I also, as a post-Christian find a different way to consider the influence of Jesus, but that is another story.
So although it would certainly have been dismissed by Karl Barth out of hand, I in fact agree with the Unitarian approach which begins with the world and allows a total breadth of meaning to be given to the word God. In doing this, incidentally, I think Unitarianism precludes itself as a body from believing in revelation, a view not shared by those who call themselves Christian Unitarians and think theism is essential.
But back to Karl Barth's narrowness. Another Karl, Karl Marx, used to say that the capitalist system creates a false consciousness and stops people seeing the truth about the system. So we question how Marx himself was so able to break through and supposedly see the truth himself. He didn't of course. Similarly we may ask was Barth especially chosen to point out the narrow path of revelation whilst other theologians just flapped around in error? At this point we come to how Barth regarded Mozart: it tells us so much about how he approached theology.
You heard the reading: Mozart, though not much of a Christian, has a place in theology: his music not entertainment for the Christian but food and drink, and he knows about creation which praises its master. Barth who listened to Mozart's music night after night on record had a vision of him at a concert in 1956 and so he was stuck on Mozart. Well, in the end, John Bowden, himself a theologian, states this:
It is disturbing to find someone who loves the music of one composer as deeply as this and yet in so exclusive a way. A good deal of Mozart one might well want to live with continually - but all Mozart and nothing else? Is not the best of Haydn, for example, very much better than the least inspired of Mozart, and on Barth's argument does not he too have a message, albeit with a much more limited range? And what about all composers, from early music to the present day? Are there not voices and messages to be heard there as well? (Bowden, Karl Barth: Theologian, 1983).
Well, the answer, of course, is yes, and we see in Barth's attitude to Mozart his attitude to theology and why he so opposed other views. In fact Barth is just as subjective in his approach to theology as anyone else, and his approach to music and Mozart illustrates the point perfectly. Perhaps if we begin in the pluralist camp, and just appreciate music, we can take the broader view and then give music and life value. There are more truths to heaven and earth than meet the eye.
Well, clearly Mozart is not the be all and end all of music; just as legitimate theology is not limited to Barth's. Music is can be very good from many a source. We now go back from classical music to baroque music and a portion of the British opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell: secular music which comes up in quality to any religious music - and there is a message there.
In more modern times Vaughan Williams and Holst in trying to produce an authentic English music turned to the achievements of Purcell for inspiration. Born in 1659 and died in 1695, Purcell became organist and composer in the localities of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey and particularly he composed church music and music for plays. Dido and Aeneas was his only opera performed at Josias Priest's boarding school for young gentlewomen in Chelsea. The libretto, from a poet laureate Naham Tate, is the story of Queen Dido who falls for Aeneas. Witches plot the failure of the relationship and a sorceress disguised as the god Jupiter tells Aeneas that he must return to save ruined Troy. He reluctantly agrees, but when Queen Dido argues against this he decides to stay. However, the damage done, she spurns him and he leaves for Troy. Dido sings a farewell song and then herself dies. This song is what we hear now: Victoria De Los Angeles singing the solo with the Ambrosian singers and the English Chamber Orchestra. Act III is called The Ships, over ten minutes long, consisting mostly of the farewell song.///
That was Victoria De Los Angeles with the Ambrosian singers and the English Chamber Orchestra singing Act III of Dido and Aeneas. A concluding prayer now adapted from the eighth service of Orders of Worship.
Final prayer

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Sheffield's Nine O'Clock Service

Our creativity is what makes us human, with languages and symbols and memory, and these we ritualise in worship. At best, worship is a kind of theatre of forms and words with a function of assisting our life direction, rather like our dream world but more planned and formed.
And when many people are gathered together it also must be formed in a dialogue between the participants, to some degree at least.
The collective dialogue of symbols and forms usually gains legitimacy through a history, as, say, in the evolving Unitarian-Presbyterian continuum, or in Buddhist schools, or the Prayer Book tradition in Anglicanism, or even through an invented history such as in Anglo-Catholicism or neo-Paganism. The individual plugs into a community memory, however old or new, and this helps sort out his or her own life direction.
But now more than ever we have lost any sense of one communal religious memory. Instead, worship languages focus on sub-groups or sub-cultures of people to whom these languages have a meaning and spiritual resonance.
Some months have passed since the Church of England hit the headlines with all the controversy surrounding the Nine O'Clock service in Sheffield. I want to refer to this for the broader issues especially of interest to a liberal movement like ours.
To say that the sexual scandal was integral to the form of the so called rave service and so it should be stopped must be applied across the board. What then about the barely concealed sexual homo-eroticism of Roman and Anglo-Catholicsm, or about a frustrated sexual avoidance in non-conformity, or indeed, as seen recently, the murkiness within the Buddhist monastic system? In any case, sexual misbehaviour arises whatever the religion. The only real difference between the Sheffield scandal and most others is that the religious bureacracy invested much in the promoted leader and his creative ideas for attracting the young, and when he let them down with his behaviour they publically isolated him and blamed him; whereas usually such people get shuffled off to one side within the bureaucracy and disappear out of public view. Fortunately there are other groups developing like the Nine O'Clock service, which, though damaged, do continue on.
The other reason for the media obsession was also that here was a Church, a national institution usually associated with sedateness, garden parties, jumble sales and the upper age range in its congregations, displaying instead young people in reduced clothing, worshipping within the context of a thumping beat, lights, lasers, video and highly repetitive minimalist music, a form of music specifically referred to in the Criminal Justice Act!
Of course even the media knew about the existence of charismatic services consisting of simple repeated lyrics and a generated exuberance, but Sheffield was a world away with its planetary mass.
It was technological and rave orientated, openly sexualised as is the dance culture to which it related. The charismatics and biblical self styled purists disowned this kind of service, but not only because of some scandal, but because it has become so divergent in theology.
The new services, though born out of the charismatic movement, take mainly young and intelligent people and, on a more Catholic principle than certainly the charismatics, deal with the people where they are, using the cultural forms they know, making a spirituality out of dance music and modern media. And the Catholic principle, and the planetary concerns of the people, brought in green, secular and multi-faith theologies rolled into one.
The incarnational principle and all the theologies naturally led to questioning being part and parcel of the religious fellowship. In fact it was the inbuilt critical feminism and questioning that overcame the Sheffield leader's personal inability to handle the sexuality of what had been created. In a globally orientated approach to worship Buddhism, Hinduism, even indeed Paganism moved in.
No wonder the religious bureaucracy, constrained by conservatism, liked what they saw and still do. When decline is all around, this movement offers an unexpected broader, more tolerant future for the Church with the missing generation who usually ignore churches.
And, with a loud explosion, the new services had broken through the dominant church and chapel subculture which, I do believe, throttles so many places of worship today in terms of cutting off knowing insiders from outsiders, in terms of trapping religious expression into narrow forms. Able to start again these groups make churches look like museums, and as word gets around the young do join in, many secular in outlook for whom this worship gives meaning, which becomes precious to them, and which form them into communities.
But of course if that was all there was, it would exclude people like you and me, and this is the very point made by people pushed out of churches which go charismatic.
But I can admire the creativity these new movements have shown. I like the fact that freshness and even a new sectional appeal can be broad and tolerant. I support tolerance wherever I find it. I retain an appreciation of liberal Catholic Christianity, as I do more so with Western Buddhism. And there is a world of creativity in neo-Paganism. It does harbour a lot of nonsense and astrological silliness, but nevertheless does generate creativity.
Matthew Fox, the ex-Roman Catholic now Anglo-Catholic priest, who works with the Pagan priestess Miriam Simos, or Starhawk, and with a Buddhist input, was a big influence on the new rave services and them leaving the charismatic stable. They have also been an influence on UUA and Unitarian development. Starhawk spoke to the UUA General Assembly, and spoke of liturgy as a form of play - ritual play - which involves the imagination and our creativity. Postmodern religion in essence is about the visual and the ironic, in the discovery of meaning in the playfulness and ritual of words and movement.
I think Fox and Simos are as much a result of trends as a cause. We see a number of developments within our own small movement. I think of Flower Communions and chalice lightings. In our denomination, of course, change tends to be non-Christian in meaning because the Christian side is a traditionalist wing. But in other Churches the new forms do relate to Christianity.
I am not a Christian but I am a non-realist, and I support the creativity of art-religion. These groups may presently be a little shallow, and may have to tighten up in their philosophy, but I share in the movement to dream-like art-religion using colour, irony, meditation, action, light, music, and ritual to try to create a sense of meaning, direction and even transcendence. To me, God is a a relationship of cultural signs, and worship is a way of attaching our deepest spiritual selves to the relationships between signs, symbols, meanings and planetary direction.

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Two Views

I remember some time ago a sociology tutor at University in a staff-student seminar saying that he gets most of his sociology from the television. Well, I get most of my ideas from television too.
After Christine and David Dawson's service and David's musical presentation in April I managed to get home for two o'clock and see some theology on the television. Jonathan Miller, an atheist of no religion, was interviewing Sarah Coakley, a fairly doubtful Anglican theologian.
She made the very interesting point that many people in the Christian tradition tend to be either theocentric or christocentric. In other words they either focus on the broadness of God or the role and being of Jesus. My own history reflects her very point. I was once naturally christocentric or Christ centred whilst she was naturally theocentric or God centred.
To counter her own tendencies she attempted to become more trinitarian, to give a greater role to Christ. She believes that the trinitarian God can be experienced through prayer. Against Miller's acute questioning she admitted that she probrably could have experienced other traditions through their prayer and that it is largely an accident of geography that she receives the trinitarian tradition. But she went on that humanity is an important element and the world is of suffering, and that the Jesus element is therefore basic because this is a suffering world and it is hoped that it is redeemable. Well, Miller wondered why the world needs redeeming, and I would add that of course she perceives the trinitarian God through prayer because she wants to and is doing her prayer within the resources of Christianity!
She also includes the Holy Spirit, but I now want to look at this humanity rather than the Godly side.
As I indicated, I began with christocentrism, but I became aware that the uniqueness of Christ depended on the uniqueness of something else to support it, and that was the Resurrection. But given the not uncommon reality of post-bereavement visions - which probrably was the substance of the matter, the fog of its totality of events, and the transitory messianic culture of the time into which it then made sense, then there are insufficient grounds for claiming that it was unique and so I was bound to move to a new non-christocentric position.
I was not and I am not theocentric, but I want religion grounded in reality. Judaism as a religion and as a background to Christianity expresses the idea of the incarnate, that what might be called the food and drink of life is important. At the same time I wish to express the relative nature of knowledge, that what we readily know is only one part of reality, that at higher and lower levels, as discovered by modern physics and even in my own sociology, is a relativism more Hindu and Buddhist in conception. Like the electron beam which is either a particle stream or a wave, but cannot be both, like a sociology which can be understood from a Marxist or a Weberian perspective but cannot be both, knowledge is relative. Having got an overall relativistic perspective we can then move on, and like our most recent Essex Hall lecturer, Carol Pulley MacCormack, avoid the dualism of splitting one real concept from another and instead see our concepts as part of an overall holistic perspective. We are receivers and participators in everything large and small above and around us, and affect and are affected by it all.
So how do we fit into such a relativist and holistic world as persons? I return to television again and one edition of John Searle's current series of Voices where he opposed the idea of artificial intelligence. I refer to this because it tells us about ourselves, our self-meaning and definition.
Some people say that one day a computer will be able to think, and become conscious of itself. Searle says this is to confuse syntax, or the act of shuffling symbols (which is what computers do) with semantics, or self-understanding and being conscious of their meaning, which computers are not.
People are self-conscious but the question is how? Both the proponents and opponents of Artificial Intelligence tend to believe that our consciousness comes from our brains' structure and electrical activity. There is no actual splitting of mind from body and dualism is avoided. Of course this leaves Searle with no ultimate reason why we cannot produce a self-conscious machine, that is artificial intelligence, using materials other than that which makes our brains, particularly when he does not insist that consciousness depends on having biological material. In fact we just do not have a valid theory of consciousness yet, but there is a suggestion that holistic views may have something to teach, that the mind is a system in itself put part of a whole which is materially dependent.
Now, there is a tendency, with a rejection of the dogma that puts religion through the being of Christ, starting with the sort of flowery language in our Orders of Worship and in humanistic poetic-type services, to leave down to earth reality and go up into the clouds. But the debate about artififical intelligence, which really is about our own consciousness, shows that modern holistic views of reality are down to earth and indeed modern religious experience does not imply having to be up in the clouds. Looking at the nature of consciousness is one example of a down-to-earth and what I call "food and drink" approach to religion, because it asks who we are. Our search in religion takes account of the Judaeo-Christian down to earth food and drink rootedness, and also Hindu and Buddhist perspectives, in that it is about everyday reality and the widest search for meaning.
Which can leave the question - is it just a philosophy of life rather than religion? In my own sociology thesis I suggest that religion today even includes the watching of soap operas on television and participating in social groups which frame a meaning for ones' life - like ornithologists' groups and Civil War Societies. In the notes, I describe the message of one of Mike's past services on Religion as Experience Plus. My tutor commented that, overall, "stretched in this way the term religion can mean almost anything!" I am afraid that this is one outcome of modern, relativist, holistic, investigative, food and drink approaches to religion.

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Buddhist Detective

If you are going to write a report, or an essay, or a dissertation, or a thesis and you ask for advice on how it should be structured, the advice you usually get goes something like, "Tell 'em what you are going to tell 'em, tell 'em it and then tell em' what you told 'em. But actually, I think this is bad advice. The better advice is make it like a detective story. Don't tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, but leave a denouement, a punchline, a new finding or a twist to the tale, but of course one which is utterly consistent with everything you've been saying. it may look like a denouement you had not thought of, but then check the story. The compelling evidence leads to it. So where does the advice about telling 'em what you will tell 'em, telling 'em it and telling 'em what you told them come from? Well it is a crude way of saying be consistent, keep a logical thread all the way through.
Umberto Eco is a European philosopher and a novelist, and he says everything in life is really like a detective story. What is a detective story? It is like a whole series of expected and unexpected events which, when you put them together, lead to a denouement. And if you didn't expect it to quite turn out like that, well the detective is on hand to put all the pieces together and produce the compelling result. Elementary my dear Watson. And the villain replies, "It's a fair cop, guv." It turns out that everything had that essential logical connection which just needed uncovering. And if we think about it, a lot of life's experiences seem to string together just like that. We read back into our own lives a continuing narative of parents, childhood, upbringing, successes, failures, sex life or lack of such, relationships, friendships or lack of them, interests, etc., and we can see it as a consistent whole. Here is me, my life story: a kind of theme develops and it is our own biography. Our beliefs draw from experiences and also our beliefs guide our experiences too, both how we understand experiences and even what we go on to experience.
Of course here lies one view about the existence of God. And it certainly is a valid viewpoint. If your life has a meaning, you can talk about a calling. Ordinands look at their life experiences, the paths their life has taken and with a little leap of faith say, "I think I have been called by God." Florence Nightingale is part of the Unitarian hall of fame. A great grandfather gave up his right to Savannah in America to demonstrate his support for the American War of Independence. Her maternal father was a leading campaigner against slavery, for Catholic Emancipation and on factory workers' pay. What about her life? She was a society girl, and completely bored in her tiny domestic world and tedious demands of socialising; it made her, I think, a little neurotic, and she was desperate to know what God was calling her to do. At one stage abroad she participated very intensely in Roman Catholic Mass. Her emotional passion for women and not men meant that she never would marry, and so was able to give her whole life's work in medical supervision. So here was a life which like a good novel had a thread of meaning from beginning to end, from the tedium to the denouement where she gained great influence over the development of military medical care. It was as though her life vocation was indeed called by God as she wanted.
Whether we see our lives having a consistency about them as divinely given or not, they are like detective stories and it is we who set up the plot and see the outcome. We read back into our lives this consistency we find. There may actually be less consistency than we would like because, after all, detective stories are just too neat. But we are definitely the authors of the meaning of the story as such if, like a good imaginative author, we cannot control all the characters and situations, especially if in actual life each book is being written by many authors at once.
If I want to use the word God, then I do so in this postmodern sense, that it is about a narrative stream, and meaning chosen by us for life, and postmodernism is all about the detective stories by which we all understand and author our lives. We are talking here about grand narratives, stories, and if we are to live by some kind of ethic or life purpose then we do so around some sort of additional narrative. Large religious systems provide narratives, so do the kind of personal religions we each might develop, drawing on those systematic narratives. And if the narrative is to be any good it must have a consistent theme running right through it.
My own narrative to draw upon starts something like this. What is the central fact of life experience and therefore problem in human living. I suppose the central, awful, dilemma, with religious impact, is that nothing is permanent. The universe is not static but expanding and ultimately should contract and not a jot of conscious existence will survive it's crunch. And then there is our own lives of which we know only one fact: whether it goes on to another realm, reappears in this one, or simply decays as biodegradable dust, this life ends. Or we might have a favourite car and give it a name and, oh dear, it rusts, goes wrong, and it's good bye to our favourite car. Everything, absolutely everything, comes and goes. It is horrible, we just do not want it. We want things that are comfortable to go on being the same. This is why, I think, people do believe in God and life after death - they want comfort and to go on. It is quite natural. But I wish to suggest that the central religious task is to try - not easy - to come to terms with impermanence.
If you put your faith in material things, or mum or dad, or the car, or your job, your sexual partner and any of all the rest, then sooner or later you come a cropper. Instead you have to take refuge in something which will deliver rather than leave you to come a cropper, which comes to terms with material impermanence. And the answer is in seeking out a kind of motiveless, serene, cool happiness. You find it in an active detachment, in a playing light with the world and its detective stories which have a final page, and in acquiring a kind of mental peace which is not dependent on a material world or the world of change. And suppose you go down this road? Well it needs, really does need, active spirituality. It needs contemplation and meditation, and more than anything it needs active awareness. The reason for this is because it is not easy to remove attachment to impermanent things.
Detachment requires awareness in all things we do: "Why am I doing this particular action?" is a constant question. One is looking for a cool innocence. It does not need the innocence of a baby who can make no moral decisions, but the innocence of someone who can make active moral decisions. In other words, it needs active compassion. But if you are detached from impermanent things, if you pursue a loving kindness for its own sake, a motiveless compassion pursued to maybe an achievable limit will lead to a kind of bliss. If you achieve bliss you achieve it with attachement to nothing at all. The world is but a passing fancy. In other words, bliss is found at a point of nothingness.
What I have been describing, of course, is Buddhism, or at least a version of it. Oh, let's forget about karma and reincarnation. I recently attended a local group and it was about being reborn until karma is developed. It is an alternative explanation of the universe of reality. For example, there is no co-incidence, only where you are on the road to bliss. No one who survives in a bomb blast or a collapsed building does so coincidentally. They survive because of their state of karma. Sorry, but this whole viewpoint is very morally suspect and rather blows the order and logic of the argument.
But what I have been describing is a logical narrative, a detective story and is consistent, not beginning with a universe of reincarnation and karma, but the central problem especially of westerners today of clinging to material things, money, sex, desire, urban isolation. These are the murder events of the detective story, and then piecing together the clues in spirituality you end up with the denouement of nirvana. This is the Buddhist detective story.
It is, too, from a point of view of another author, a liberal and, dare I say, a Unitarian detective story because it promotes the Unitarian detective's techniques of reason, individualism and evolution of belief and practice and personal development. The convenant service is its own narrative structure of coming in, being of one heart and going out with thanksgiving back into the world. And there is the Unitarian's central concern with a spirituality which promotes the quality of life, just as in the covenant statement. Which is why I am here, really.

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For perhaps reasons which seem at first obvious, it is the creation stories which are most readily accepted as mythological when we look at the religions of the world. The obvious reasons are those around scientific discovery and the nature of explanation: that we have seen the remains of animal and human bones and know a process of slow species development and adaptation to environment has happened; in other words the basic Darwinian paradigm is the creation story which outexplains all the others.
The switch to the Darwinian paradigm does not mean that we now know for sure the truth of the processes of creation. There are gaps in knowledge and our knowledge must always be put into a perspective or theoretical system: and it is in understanding that we have a perspective that one day it may changed again. Witness in cosmology the move from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics: here the same facts were put into a new framework and a new story.
Now it is from the standpoint of our newer story that we see the quaintness, even the laughableness, of the Garden of Eden story. It is a story which has somewhat decayed in its power. We do not need to say that it is scientific nonsense; although that at one time had to be said.
By the nineteenth century the idea of facts as facts was very strong, and we all then knew what we meant by the word truth. Truth was real, sure, certain, a proper discovery, always there and out there. And all you had to do was discover truth: close the gaps in knowledge. And it was believed that truth was good, so as we moved on finding out all the facts the world would get better. Machines were all the age, and technology was based on science, and as machines were reliable therefore science was true. So we thought we had sure foundations on which to act and and that had to be what was good and moral. And surely good was stronger than evil. Victorians in particular believed in facts.
And it was in this world of facts that a disjuncture between truth and meaning took place. The Bible, instead of being accepted as a world of meaning, became an argument like as if it was scientific fact. And so as perceptions changed such stories as the Garden of Eden were defended by some people as facts. And thus it had to be said that it was wrong and untrue. But it is a story and there is meaning in it, and perhaps now when we realise that science also is about packages of meaning that we can let religious meaning come back again. Let us look at this.
And how lovely is the Chandogya Upanishad story of the cosmic egg. What a nice idea, that the earth started as an egg. You can just imagine the writers reflecting on all the parts of an egg and then seeing how aspects of the planet can relate to the egg. The egg is of course an item of birth, the simply but profoundly shaped container of the next generation. It is like the story of the garden: a dream that once the earth was like a beautiful garden and that one day it might be like a garden again. It must have been a garden, says the imagination, and the garden and the egg are such obvious creatures of the imaginative mind.
But what of Paul to the Romans and the groaning of the creation? Is this any more factual? Some would say it is. Well, I do not think so. Clearly we have again the observation that creation and in particular humanity (which is the prime part of creation) is not all right. And there is the hope that Jesus had of the rapid coming of the Kingdom of God which would end the groaning. Paul was waiting and his followers were waiting, and of course that parousia, the return of Christ in some glorified way, never took place.
So here we have another New Testament world view, all about the active supernatural and hope of a new reality. It is a completely different way of seeing our surroundings than we have today. It might be called rubbish, and that perhaps today might be said. But again it is a mythology.
Some, like most in the Federation at which I am training, give a sense of factual content to this material. They say that it is not just a mythology but is also with a base of truth, a revelation, real guidance: that there is a real sense in which we are on a line of history that begins in the mists of the Old Testament past and shows development to a high point of Christ by which all might be judged and all might be done.
But I say what we have here is a mythology as mythological as any other. Jesus of Nazareth understood his world from his surroundings and the environment: a belief in a supernatural God who was the ruler, but because the Romans were ruling had God also to be a ruler some time in the future: something better to come. And Jesus was one of many such individualist type prophets roaming around the place, acting as a prophet, moralist and faith healer. That is what we had and from it a charismatic experience grew that institutionalised itself. It was a rolling mythology that came, adapted and changed, that - as in so much human activity - needed a hero, found a hero and raised him high and experienced him.
We will, I think, never see a Kingdom of God, because it is a myth; creation will never stop groaning and there will never be sons of God. Jesus lived in a world of the imagination but it was also a mistake of the Victorians standing at the end of the mythology of progress to believe such might be achieved. They stood at the end of the process in that they turned the mythology into facts and the facts would not hold. And, of course, the onward and upward forever ended for sure with the First World War. Now, however, we have mythology again. But what in fact do we have?
What we do not have is the old power of mythology, the power of it that was full of the supernatural, that made stories of life and turned life into a story with a happy ending. The problem is now that we have seen mythology for what it is and in so doing it is like as if we see how the magician does his tricks. The power of the old magic trick has gone.
And so as we see mythology for what it is we see the death of the old mythology. It may be difficult to comprehend but we have both rediscovered mythology and seen it die. This is the postmodern world we live in. And there has in this sense been the death of God too because God was always contained within mythologies, but the God thus revealed is not a creator, not a being beyond us but the language of self-examination and change. No longer is it onward and upward forever but mythology now simply helps our personal struggle. In other words because we have a world full of meanings and are self-conscious that all meanings just come and go: we have to make our own.
The supposed almighty power of God was a belief of the hymn we just do not have anymore: the real responsibility comes in recognising that it is we who have the almighty power, and that it is the work of myth to channel that power to become responsible. In nature, it is we who must solve the problems of the world. Of course myth will always be ironic, in that any traditional language now no longer points to what traditional society believed. And we must add new stories too based on our environment and experience. The realism of the old mythology, of all the old supernatural world we once believed we lived under, has been broken upon its own cross, a God died into humanity, giving an awesome responsibility that really is ours.
And so it is that we must try to remake myth, meaning and morals. We, now like sand, realise that our meaning and morals will come and go. But we must say welcome to the new church, the new remythology, the old mythology that has deconstructed itself, to try and give shape and direction to ourselves. The garden and the egg are stories which we must use again knowing that the hope for recreation is in our hands.
So when we sing, as we do, such hymns as the one we are about to, we do it aware that we are only expressing deconstructed myth.

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Politics and Religion

Hull Unitarian Church, 13th April 1997

This week the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland produced a report, Unemployment and the Future of Work, on the widening gap between the haves and have nots. The report highlights huge housing areas that now survive on meagre levels of benefits and yet which cost huge social security budgets. Its recommendations inevitably are political calling for the likes of a minimum wage, the redistribution of income through taxation in order to generate jobs, and good training towards jobs. The report was released into the thick of the General Election campaign which some say is otherwise largely about seeking 70000 undecided votes in marginal constituencies.
There are three main positions connecting Christianity and the political economy. The CCBI report on unemployment draws on one Protestant perspective, commonly referred to as Christian socialism. It develops the view of incarnation as God's concern for everyone, the potential good of all creation and preparation towards the bringing in of the Kingdom of God. A key principle was in the statement once made by Ronald Preston that "the economy was made for humankind, not humankind for the economy" or, in other words, the economy exists to deliver social justice as well as wealth. This economic and political stance largely comes from broad Church, liberal mainstream and Anglo-Catholic positions and was best promoted by the great public figure Archbishop William Temple.
The other Protestant position, a mainly evangelical or fundamentalist view, believes in the individualism of the market economy which matches an individualist perspective on salvation. However, it also preaches a collective emphasis on morality, particularly sexual ethics. Of course some evangelicals do say that you cannot save souls unless people have full stomachs first.
The third main Christian position is the official and international Roman Catholic view, developed consistently from the late nineteenth century. This stance derives primarily from the teaching authority of the Church, not as such the biblical based view about preparing for the coming of the Kingdom of God. It was recently seen in this country in the report called The Common Good, which is a long standing Catholic phrase. Journalists described this as being novel support for the Labour Party, but in fact the Catholic position has consistenly called for the priority of labour over capital in the working of capitalism to be achieved by state interventions but only within the context of the subsidiarity of responsibity with families and individual conscience. Unlike Protestant Christian socialism it proclaims conservative views on sexual ethics.
Three positions: Christian socialism based on a biblical view, individualist capitalism with ethical conservatism based on a biblical view and The Common Good with ethical conservatism from the Catholic Church. So a there is a variety of politics there.
So what about the connections between Unitarian religion and the political economy?
We can start with those who set in motion this congregation in pre-Unitarian history. They were merchants and part of the system of gilds which set prices and the trading behaviour of members. We know that the first church in Bowlalley Lane from 1680 was build in the architectural style of Merchants' Halls. The nearest equivalent today of gilds would be the professions; the nearest equivalent of their beliefs today would be the Ulster Unionists, that is strict Protestant trinitarians. And while the upper classes went through the laxities of the Restoration, our spiritual ancestors combined relief for basic poverty with trying to prosecute people for anything beyond an approved Puritan lifestyle. So this is one foundational inheritance: authoritarian conservatism.
Things changed with the emerging free market but the new ever wealthier middle class, outside the Church of England, were excluded from the political process. So they took part in political agitation, and thus they gained a reputation for radicalism. The Unitarians approved of the liberal 1789 French Revolution. They wanted emancipation for Catholic, Jew and non-conformist because it would sweep away the old regime and give their class political power that matched their ever growing economic power. That was the whole point of the 1832 Reform Act and Hull had provided leading agitators for that and associated legislation.
Deism is a belief associated with Unitarians as well as others. Deism is about a God who sets up the world but makes no supernatural interventions. And if God does not intervene, but what he had done at the creation was "good", so the Bible says, then you get the rightful invisible hand of the market economy. Other Unitarians did believe in God's intervention, as in the materiality of biblical miracles. That materiality was combined with a pseudo-scientific rationality under God. So the market economy was seen as tactile and material and believed to lead to the greatest good of the greatest number. The nearest equivalent today of these market and liberal agitating Unitarians is Thatcherism. Thatcherism itself, of course, was not the old Disraeli one nation conservatism but a reinvention of Whig or Manchester liberalism.
However, this scene got complicated because Unitarianism itself developed into two movements. One side saw a further necessary radicalising of the biblical Unitarianism which believed in a sovereign God. Education, education, education is a slogan much heard today. It was important then to the biblical side. But James Martineau, the leading Unitarian theologian of the nineteenth century, sneered at these Unitarian for believing in "Educational development for the sake of happiness." Martineau said the Church's only task is to develop the holy, the metaphysical and the transcendent. He was a Tory, and often reminded detractors that a Conservative government was in power when in 1845 legislation stopped the denomination's trust funds being forced back to trinitarian chapels. We hear the same argument today: churches should keep out of the political economy.
James Martineau may have been liturgically influential but churches did still develop programmes of basic education, leisure provision and welfare. They were agents of middle class philanthropy to the poor but this declined when first the Liberal Party and then the Labour Party introduced state provision for education and welfare and, later, with more wealth leisure was found outside the churches.
Some Unitarians became very radical or socialist. Philip Henry Wicksteed tried to keep the Rev. John Trevor within Unitarianism. He failed and John Trevor set up the Labour Church. Unitarianism was too middle class, and the Labour Church even rejected Christianity.
Unitarianism had taken on, with others, a belief in an evolutionary Romantic and semi-socialist view of building the Kingdom of God on earth, a belief not helped by the First World War, the depression, the holocaust, the Second World War and Communism.
Since the 1970's collectivist views declined and pluralism in society has been paralled by the growth of religious pluralism in this denomination. Unitarian pluralist roots lie in the nineteenth century rewriting of history as to why our forbears rejected creeds. As for the oputcome today, any pluralist theology intends to promote: liberation from conformity and ignorance; human values; freedom, reason and tolerance; subsidiarity; and more than the material. So unlike our Puritan ancestors, it welcomes a wide variety of lifestyles, for example gay and lesbian equality. Process supercedes beliefs, and beliefs differ. So this religious liberalism is very close to political liberalism.
Part of this pluralism has included a rebirth of the once excluded Emerson and Thoreau's nature transcendentalism, the somewhat taboo Neo-Paganism and creation spirituality. This inevitably a close relationship with environmental politics.
Postliberalism or postmodern religion is also a development of that relativity that comes from the vast choice of pluralism. Postliberalism means the end of dogmatic ideology and the growth of pragmatism. It does not forget past traditions but uses them ironically. And we can see this postmodernism and its irony in the current election, especially in the way that the Conservative Prime Minister presents his apparent ordinary origins while New Labour bcomes pragmatic, even embraces some privatisation and seems middle class. What a funny world we live in.
Well, they say that where there are two Unitarians there are three opinions, and in the last parliament two Unitarian MPs represented three political parties: Liberal Democrat, Green and Plaid Cymru. The Welsh nationalist connection partly comes from the location of the Welsh language churches.
So, here we go! The Unitarian inheritance has embraced: middle class interests, lifestyle authoritarianism, concern for poverty, free market capitalism, socially concerned capitalism, respectability, social indifference, welfare socialism, varied lifestyles, political liberalism, ironic pragmatism, environmentalism and even nationalism. So I leave it to you and me to choose if and how our religious affiliation will influence voting on May 1st!

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Palm Sunday

From Richard Sym's The Ferris Wheel. He is an Anglican priest who, however, works in the theatre.
The Gospel accounts remains....that they can be made to come true, if man cares to do so (Syms, The Ferris Wheel, 1989, pp. 35-6)
The service theme is about a time to stay and a time to move on, and that in our journeyings of all kinds we give life shape. With my mother and I moving on the church will again lose some people, but I have no doubt we will be replaced as long as this church does not lose sight of its essential message: that we are all worthwhile potential human beings, and the fullness of humanity can only come through with liberty. Much of the Islamic world may have forgotten it or not realised it, but scientific and general progress is made in fact through a critical spirit: and that needs liberty to assess, remould, reform and produce what is relevant for the current generation. That is what this Unitarian movement is about.
Liberty was gained because in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the person and the event. Judaism interpreted events, and Christianity is about the person of Christ. The sources are varied and have been from the beginning interpretations. And Jesus was an ironic person, and irony and parable always requires us to see the point for ourselves. So, unless a synagogue or Church does the hard work for us, and acts as fixer of tradition rather than simply as institutional carrier, then we must all be the reinterpreters. So the Reformation and the Enlightenment had to come along, and humanism as well. Our denomination in this had and has its full role to play; and, have you noticed, at this time when an author of creative imaginary literature is under attack, many British Churches are re-emphasising liberty.
Liberty is essential to a true journey. A true journey is about freedom to take one road rather than another, to make good decisions, also to make mistakes. Children, I am told, grow up as much by making mistakes as by getting it right. And this process of journeying through life gives shape, gives meaning. And not only to ourselves as individuals. The three minute culture may shrink our social selves, as we each become individual zombie-like consumers of flashing images, like in the world of the cartoon Bible (which, incidentally, seeks to limit reinterpretation as much as to aid it), but in fact the nature of our selves as selves is not just individual but social. In other words, we use our individual life journeys to reinterpret not just who we are as individuals but the nature of the world around us.
Maybe it leads to a heavy sense of agnosticism about the nature of the world. Now I may present a clear view of what I believe - that's because these days presentation is everything, but behind my views is a great deal of doubt. A bit of personal history! I was attracted to the idea of ministry at Essex but there my stay was a personal failure. So I came back to Hull and initially used social Methodist contacts to begin what was to become my doctorate. As I read theological works I realised that their's was not the only interpretation of Christianity. But they did not like mine, and so I was confirmed at University in 1984 and from then I began serious thinking about ministry. I was looking for a summer vacation church but the Hull ones were fundy, but I happened to go for a walk with my neice and dog along the railway track from Sutton to Swine and by chance Roger Pickering was walking down the village road. That became my church and, as you all know, from then until now I have enjoyed a very strong friendship with both Roger and Cynthia there. So the idea of divine initiative in all this did cross my mind, slightly (!), despite my modernity, although then by chance via the Bahais I found this Unitarian church which had the potential to serve my modernity, and I slowly made it my main church and then even more slowly considered ministry within this denomination.
The Anglican priest Richard Syms, who I quoted earlier in reference to Jesus on the donkey, says this about God:
Let us be clear what we....see his revelations in more places and situations than we would have thought possible... (Syms, 1989, p. 25)
Richard Syms notes how he found himself in the right place to attend to his mother's death and later see his father live. He saw God intervening, rather than random chance, to allow him to be at these events. But I'd say that although it is credible to use this old Judaeo-Christian model we must not mix subjective desire with objective reality, and such a view of divine intervention cannot just be imported when it feels nice and looks good. Let us be agnostic about it, I say, but more so look at it another way. The value of the events of a journey is in the events themselves. My mixing with Swine and being here is by chance, but its value is that by journeying we give shape to our lives, make the next move possible, and the value is in the events themselves. It so happened that it did not rain on that day of walking to Swine; it so happened that I went to Hospital Radio and so did the Bahais, that I therefore met them, found a book they did not like and so came here in order to to ask some embarassing questions to their regional meeting. So events develop and meaning and value comes from them.
And really, I prefer what Richard Syms said about Jesus on the donkey. Here was no supernatural intervention: rather the meaning was in the event itself. Of course Jesus grounded himself in the tradition and made himself the object of the prophecies, and this was seen as in his day as supernatural. But when it came to predicting that the Kingdom of God would come in before his generation passed away, well then his external God rather let him down. No, things are meaningful not because things are plonked there by an outside force, but because we make events and both the expected and the unexpected are shaped by us. We, as Don Cupitt has said, are like artists: we shape our destinies, and the emphasis is on the continuous act of shaping.
Jesus wasn't the only one to get it wrong. Now if you independently investigate the truth about the Bahai faith, as Bahais themselves say, you can come to the same kind of conclusion about Bahai history as about Jesus waiting for the Kingdom. Back in 1845 the prophet known as the Bab believed that the hidden twelfth Imam would return to Persia at Karbala on the 10th January 1845. Crowds gathered, and - guess what? Nothing happened. So the Bab then said that he was himself who he'd said would come, and then he next said he was greater than Muhammad. So the Bab gives us no confidence in supernatural prophecy, and perhaps that and the violence of the time is why the second Bahai leader Abdul Baha declared that the Bab was beyond the Bahai faith. However, since the time that Abdul Baha's successor, Shoghi Effendi, rehabilitated the Bab, Bahais now say that their faith started in 1844 rather than simply 1863.
In 1863 the Bahai founder, Baha'u'llah, declared to some friends that he was 'He whom God shall manifest', in other words the next manifestation after the Bab, also after Mohammad, Jesus, Moses, and those they since included like Buddha, and so on. Now, the Bab had said both that in 7000 to 12000 years he would be succeeded by a manifestation but that no one could untruthfully claim to be 'He whom God shall manifest'. Well, of course, many did claim just that, but Baha'u'llah's was the most successful. But was this supernatural?
The Bab appointed a leader to look after his movement. He was Sub-i-azal. Sub-i-azal, like the Bab, was secretive, but his aristocratic half-brother, Baha'u'llah, was a keen administrator and he rebuilt the shattered Babi movement, and thus gained loyalty and became the next manifestation. Sub-i azal also claimed to be the next manifestation too, but he did not succeed. So in 1868 the two men and their followers split, full of violence too.
Now the Bahais claim supernatural infallibility for Baha'u'llah, and also the words of Abdul Baha and Shoghi Effendi cannot be questioned. But lets look at Baha'u'llah. He said that he would be succeeded by Abdul Baha and then Mohammad Ali. But he got that wrong because Muhammad Ali accused Abdul Baha of changing Baha'u'llahs teachings. He set up a fringe group called the Unitarians, and thus Abdul Baha excommunicated him and so could not be his successor. So Baha'u'llah wasn't very infallible was he? And yet the Bahais won't question the exclusion of women from the Bahais highest legislature because Baha'u'llah said so, incidentally a legislature intended to be that of future world government.
I cannot believe that Baha'u'llah ever "succeeded" Jesus. But Bahaism gave shape to its own tradition, a shape I would say is somewhat in conflict with the Western critical tradition. Our tradition allows a true journey to be free and make mistakes as well as advances, which allows for diversity and plurality. Anyway, at least the Bahais have no Ayatollah Khomeini, and they will not try to kill me: they've suffered enough from him as it is.
Now, I have been fortunate that I have been able to do a doctorate on the sociology of English Christianity. I want to use it in the context of ministry. Our denomination needs to use sociology of religion, perhaps more so than theology, to know our place in the religious world and develop it, also how we can both use and get around the three minute culture which does create a shorter time span for sermons, increases images and ritual, demands jollity, privatises religion and, yes, makes it more agnostic and this-worldly. We have to against the trend protect quality, but we must not look over-bourgois. So I throw into the Unitarian pot a post-Christian humanism based on libertarian radical missionary purposes. And I hope to work to potential. What I'll want to be doing is fleshing out our faith for the present time. I hope we will all try to be reinterpreters for our day.
I don't say I'm right, and pluralism demands real arguments, real debate, and no forced unity like the Bahais. Richard Syms reinterpreted his faith his way, and we have to reinterpret our faith too in different ways. And we have to find ways of presenting the essential, the ever relevant, the ever needed, faith of the free.

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Unitarian Restrictions

[Part sermon; about 1993, post-1989]

...I want to be a radical in religion, that is to see religion as a way of stirring people into thinking again about what they believe, what they are doing and why. I am happy to use Christian language, but when I was in the Unitarian College I found that I could not use it if I wanted to keep a radical stance. In this movement Christian language has become the language of conservatism while that of humanism or paganism is the language of the radicals. The latter group want Unitarianism to be distinctive.
I think it should be distinctive, but my argument is that although the gentle but theistic and historical nature of Unitarian language may serve existing congregations the same is alien to many outsiders. As such language fails to serve that minority group of religious seekers out there, who are looking for distinctiveness and change, congregations decline and chapels are closed.
I do not think distinctiveness has to reject all Christian language. The problem is simply that a number of Unitarian Christians feel so threatened that they are aiming to conserve theistic language, reference to Jesus as some central figure and various practices as a matter of compulsion. ... The result is that Unitarianism is neither Christian enough to satisfy the other churches that Unitarian Christians often so admire - after all, Unitarianism is excluded from the Council of Churches in Britain and Ireland - nor it is distinctive enough for those out there who reject mainstream churches.
When I have spoken to Unitarian Christians about my friend Don Cupitt, and with only a few exceptions I have got hostile responses. One ex-principal told me that someone told him that Don's writings were evidence of madness. Others have either sneered or condemned his ideas. And this from Unitarian Christians. Rather than see Don as trying to preserve and re-interpret Christianity for modern times, they dismiss him for not being theistic and maintaining a sufficient link between Jesus and a real God.
This is why now my principal religious involvement is Sea of Faith and that it functions for me in the way it does for others. It is a support network for those who defend their postmodern approach to religion against all institutions that attempt to squash it. Now I attend sympathetic Anglican services, where I also communicate to gain the full benefit of participation, as well as Unitarian ones. I find I have to be as non-realist about Unitarian belief in God and other beliefs as Anglican belief in God and its other beliefs. Indeed, from a post-Christian point of view, the Anglican trinity, where God and Jesus are equal in status, may be preferable to the Unitarian belief in God while having Jesus at, so to speak, a lower pegging. I was always disappointed on joining Unitarianism to find Jesus theologically demoted compared with God when, for my own preference, my own sense of modern humanism, I wanted God demoted in favour of Jesus.
I have my own religious phases and changes of course, and I always aim for a sense of newness and change. I think religious culture and symbolic actions are important and do help us to orientate and reorientate ourselves. I do not think that belief in doctrines or even God is important. That is my belief, you may of course differ.
Don Cupitt too changes. After he took leave of God at the end of the seventies, he moved from an individualist belief in the void to a more collective language centred approach. Lately he moved on to Jesus, not a Jesus of history as such, for that would be to misread him, but a Jesus in the texts. We can only know this highly mysterious rabbi through inherited texts. But then, recently, Don was struck down by a loss of voice and then a brain haemmorhage. He has since been recovering, but it lost him a lot of his confidence. He is now, once again, stirring up, undermining certainty and looking at things in new ways. It is indeed a part of religion to be creative with a particular tradition. The effect of his haemmorhage is to add to the subject of his thinking. Judaeo-Christianity has always been a materialist faith, concerned with body, blood, bread, wine, sacrifice, resurrection in this world, and he now is looking at Jesus the anti-traditionalist in that context: in the context of sexuality and body fluids in I think, a very fresh and stimulating way for religion.
It is here that many Unitarian liberal Christian leaders, harking after a sort of pre Edwardian Victorian heyday, a subculture of preserved Unitarian theistic language, are certainly not reinvigorating the Unitarian denomination for the future. They are fossilising it. They think they are preserving the denomination, but I think by fossilising it they will destroy it.
Beyond the chapel walls no longer is a general belief out there that is recognisably theistic and Christian. Today people have all kinds of religious views, from the most superstitious to the most secular. No longer do children get a grounding in belief from Sunday Schools. Thus, to follow Unitarian conservatives is to become as separated and sectarian from society as any fundamentalist church.
Don is asking how can Christianity be intellectually viable and challenging. I usually like what he comes up with and I try to think around such questions myself. He recognises that much in the mainstream is likely to fossilise or be fundamentalist. What I am saying here is that, whilst Unitarianism has the potential for change, and from time to time shows it has, I think on the whole things are parallel to the mainstream. This is not to say that they are the same, rather there is a lck of the potential that exists.
I do not agree with... when he wrote in a recent Inquirer, 6th March, that non-realist theology in the mainstream lacks integrity because it has to accommodate itself to the existing Christian framework. After all, the weekly diet of Unitarian churches is often just as restricted in terms of religious expression even if not as fixed as in the mainstream. It may be too that some non-realists want to use Christian language. Also, Unitarian non-realism may be post-Christian because that language has been posssessed its conservatives. But, if he is right, if non-realist Unitarians do in general adopt a post-Christian theology, I hope that they will be heard and indeed all groups promote challenging religion.
I say this as someone on the margins of both Anglican and Unitarian religious institutions. My own unfinished business is relating myself to one, both or none of these institutions after my experience with Unitarian College. ...I want Unitarianism to find its way, and I want to support a prosperous future for the denomination, whether I am inside it or outside it...

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Scientific Relativity; Religious Relativity

Most of us are familiar with the big bang theory of the creation of the universe, that from nothing came the spark and the vast and continuing expansion of the universe. Galaxies are still shifting away from galaxies, the very boundary of the universe is expanding. But, in billions of years, the energy of the expansion will finally be overcome by the gravity of the matter of the universe itself, and the universe will then begin to contract, and keep doing so until it ends up as the singularity we might imagine as the infintesimal smallness that it was as at its very beginning.
This process of expansion and contraction also happens in individual stars. When the nuclear energy of a star is burnt out, it begins to collapse, and so much does it collapse as a black hole that it becomes a singularity where all known ordinary rules of physics of time and space vanish into uncertainty.
One of the newest ideas centred around this kind of observational and mathematical paradigm of understanding the creation around us is the idea of there existing many parallel universes. Some scientists suggest that the collapse of stars into the quantum physics of the infintesimal singularity can lead not simply to new stars but new universes. After all, our universe came from such a singularity. Such may be caused not just by a collapsed universe but also, and this is the important point, a collapsed star.
We can end up, therefore, according to this view, with a large number of parallel universes, although we can only observe the one we are in. Some universes will have little energy and collapse before they get going; others will fly out of control with insufficient gravity to form matter, unable to produce galaxies, stars, planets and the chemicals that form life.
We thus reach a theory of a Darwinism of the universes, that the universe which survives the best is the fittest. Such universes are the ones that grow, form centres of matter, produce stars and more black holes and even new universes still.
What might such a theory say for religious belief? It is common for people, when confronted by the big bang theory to ask, 'Well, what happened before the big bang?' The question does not interest scientists because there is no "before" as time itself is a product of the matter and energy of an existing universe and not outside it. [Note in 2013: it does now interest scientists!] But some people say, if not before it, God is in the universe because it is so regular and has physical laws. Indeed that regularity may be called beautiful, and surely God and beauty go together.
But with this new theory, that possibility is seriously challenged. In a Darwinism of the universes, the success of this universe is simply because it works, at least for a time before it collpases, whilst others in their own internal dynamics of time, may not be so successful. Just as in Darwinian biology, this cosmos needs no God to explain its apparant success, its laws and its beauty.
It seems to me that there are two implications for this. First, theologians have often warned about believing in a God of the gaps. God retreats in the face of scientific theory and knowledge, and gap after gap is filled by science. The Darwinism of the universes even fills the God within the successful regularity of creation. As I see it, and I may only speak for myself, believers in the strand of historical faiths - faiths where time begins, God intervenes, and time ends at the Last Judgement, these being the faith of Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Muslims and, in a revised fashion, Bahais - believed and usually still believe in a God of the gaps. The problem with the God of the gaps is that the gaps get filled up.
When the creed believes that God created heaven and earth, or the Zoroastrian narrative relates creation and resurrection, the fact is that we hear statements of pre-scientific peoples of a rich interactive human created cultures. We hear a Judaism informed by Zoroastrianism, a Christianity informed by both, an Islam that desires time to be described by words and a Bahaism that attaches itself out of Islam to Western Christianity and humanism. There is nothing wrong in these, but they each give a God of an enormous gap, a gap now almost completely filled up by the scientific narrative. Of course, most churches, and most people in them, would like to believe the creed as given, but I think we must get God out of this mess because the scientific narrative is rooted in observation, testing and mathematics. It is a narrative that always wins because it sets the rules of judging between narratives.
Of course you may say this theory of many universes is junk. But beware: the same problem for religion also happens with one universe and several false starts and collapses before the one good big bang - or with a good old fashioned fluke. I believe that we must still avoid having a God of the gaps.
So the question is whither God? Here is the second implication. I think we have to stop and look at the nature of scientific language and relate it to the nature of religious language. Scientists will admit that there is a high degree of narrative and story telling in their theories. Theories are indeed theories. There are a lot of good observations and apparant facts, but such must be joined together in the narrative of the scientific story of creation. For me, religious language, including the language of God, is another kind of narrative.
For me, today, my answer is to say that to speak of God is to speak of the sum of values I choose to find and do find in dialogue with the inherited historical faith traditions. Specifically Christian values are not easy to meet: they are demanding; some of them, however, must be criticised and possibly attacked, like the patriarchy of the language and its dreadful problem with sexuality. However, it is a narrative, and to speak of a creator God is, for me, simply to be asked to think again and reorientate myself to the creation using this language. For me, a God of the narrative relates to religious ritual by which we ask ourselves who we are and how we should relate to all that is around us. We do this in relationship with other people; we do the same in relationship with all creation. What we do is use our social language to add value to the world, to believe in it, to say that it is good, to want it to go on and succeed, to build itself through its own processes of addition and decay. This is my view, at least. Amen.

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Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful