Interpretive Reflection 02 of the
Unitarian Theology Conference 2016

Recovering Theology and the Chain of Memory:
the Rev. Stephen Lingwood
and Dr. Melanie Prideaux.

Some ninety people at Cross Street chapel, Manchester, were meeting on the 21st May 2016 for a Unitarian Theology Conference.

Really, it was not David Steers but the Rev. Stephen Lingwood and later the Rev. Jo James who were considering Unitarian Theology towards the twenty-first century (although we are in it now). Being less of a lament, or a wake, these two lectures had something to propose. Dr. Melanie Prideaux was there to comment on Stephen Lingwood's alone. I don't know why she did not provide comment upon all of them. I will intermingle these two a little but it is Melanie Prideaux who came up with the most interesting material to be considered at some length. Again I suggest hearing these: I produced an edited sound file from the video with Stephen Lingwood summarising and then Melanie Prideaux commenting.

Rev. Stephen Lingwood asked us to consider turning a Unitarian church into a night club, raising numbers from (an optimistic) 25 to 500 and a considerably better income. What would be lost? In this relatively open part I decided to comment that the one-time Sheffield Nine O'Clock Service was rather a combination of church AND night club in how it ran its services. His point was (and mine wasn't) that by such it would lose something of its essence, and this essence is what the theology is about. Then he jumped to Paul Tillich and the ultimate concern that this is all about. Well, Dr. Melanie Prideaux picked this up: that he was using a systematic theologian.

(Listening, I recalled myself the late Bishop of Southwark John Robinson using Tillich and yet hating systematic theology - such as Thomism - and that this is yet another misunderstanding of Tillich. Arguably Robinson 'misunderstood' Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer to produce something creatively fresh and communicative. Why not, for example, choose a more personalist theology, as John Robinson preferred?)

A theologian, said Stephen Lingwood, is involved and not detached like a philosopher. He could have chosen the distinction often made between a theologian and a practioner of Religious Studies - although Melanie Prideaux considered that the inside-outside distinction is not so obvious. Neither he nor she said anything about theology as 'concept-cracking' as another way of seeing its activity. What is it, for example, to 'concept-crack' Unitarian views and activities?

His best analogy was with architecture, where there is art of form, a style of art, a commitment to buildings by the architect, and a demand for consistency, but there is also the objective physics of gravity. So theology is like that, or music history with practice, but not Religious Education! Often ignored by academics is that theology must find expression in a liturgical community.

I rather agree that this is where it fulfills and is connected, but the academic should do what the academic does. There is still a difference between the seminary and the university. And there was nothing on the British contribution these days towards a more 'exciting' theology where due to institutional changes theology has been mixing it with Religious Studies and the humanities/ social sciences (including Sociology of Religion), being different from the denominational theology of Germany and the secular recognition and divide of theology in the United States.

There are a number of liberal religion failures, said Stephen Lingwood. One is not staying in touch with the varieties of theology. This must be true: Unitarianism certainly is not at any cutting edge in this regard. Think only of the creative and even disturbing Mark C. Taylor and Julia Kristeva... Another is developing principles over theology and not keeping them - such as a commitment to equality and then singing Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

(When I mentioned this to Hull folk the day after the conference, that is the six attending plus me, there was laughter - as if you can't sing the odd traditional hymn when you have sets of principles. They were saying "lighten up" and live with the contradictions.)

Another failure is that liberal religion ends up being wordy and fails the test of beauty. Is this so, I wonder? The seven of us making a service that Sunday 22nd heard one constructed so to have an internal beauty in parts. I know the service taker could have paused a bit instead of the usual "Amen let us now sing hymn number..." but a lot of attention went into form as well as content.

Stephen Lingwood thought that the term 'Unitarian' itself needed defining (and as a way in to do theology). Martineau had proposed it as a personal term and not institutional: Stephen Lingwood was obviously proposing otherwise. He said a word gets its meaning from its history of use and not its etymology. It is not just about the unipersonality of God but a set of theological commitments. On the other hand it could mean anything and therefore nothing. Like in a night club.

Then it would not be a faith, or (perhaps more appropriately, "we have faith"). Faith matters, and, after Tillich, faith is about that ultimate or it is a preliminary and faith in preliminaries is idolatry. The institution is a preliminary. This reminded me of Karl Barth, and I don't know why we did not hear more from him. I certainly mentioned him in my later question. Sometimes these theolgians are useful even in the mirror. So, he said, people don't want you to convert to Christianity, but Jesus or the Gospel, nor to Buddhism, but the Dharma, and Unitarians should be the same.

I am not sure I agree here. If you convert to the correct vehicle, you travel on the correct road. But the problem he was highlighting is if people then consider Unitarianism as a blank space to fill with your own little bit of diversity. This is becoming a new orthodoxy, and where principles are public while faith is personal. And this would never do... Such atomistic personal faith is not, then, capable of being liturgical or carrying shared stories. Sermons then might discuss principles but cannot transform.

No, in that diversity is capable of inhabiting a space for individuals to tell stories, to others: of listening, and collecting them as becoming liturgical. The best sermons are those with the personal testimony by which others cannot disagree. They can still transform, through active listening, because they draw in the listener (as a form of participation). There was a bad theology of the sermon there. The good sermon participates the listener, and makes narrative connections.

The fallacy, he said, is when specificity is declared immoral, when in fact (and in contrast) we all do speak a language. You cannot have a universalist stance even for morality; with a pre-echo of David Steers he said that you cannot do interfaith from a universalist stance.

Or rather, Universalism (understood this contemporary way - not the David Steers way that Universalism meant salvation for all within Christianity), becomes another stance. John Hick's plural universalism that tries to encompass all within the Real becomes yet one more variety within the postmodern pot. Every specificity is already its own universalism, so an attempt at universalism becomes another specificity, as the other specificities reject it. Why was John Hick ignored, incidentally? I suggest that what Unitarians are trying to do is take general plausibility structures and seeing if we can make religion of them. This is where the Unitarian specificity is made.

So he had two connected theological proposals to make, by which Unitarians can be identified with a specificity. These were the immediacy with the intimacy of the holy and secondly the unfolding of the holy. You see the intimate immediate holy back with the proto-Unitarian Servetus, the Transcendentalists and something of Martineau.

(Interesting choice: the Transcendentalists were not considered by many as Unitarian loyalists in their launch period; the Romantics in Britain had real problems with the Puritan shadow in congregations, and Martineau as declared saw the word Unitarian as having a personal meaning.)

Such a holy is close to the Quakers and even Pentecostals, It can be interpreted as pantheistic or naturalistic, or panentheistic. The second principle means being creedless, and isn't anti-theology but is the outworking of theology. By proposing these two principles (?) he had opened doors but had not gone through them.

Later on in the day the Rev. Jo James would go through them, fairly successfully I have thought more so since.

Dr. Melanie Prideaux spoke quickly and like an academic, so she wasn't always clear. She sometimes laughed at her own situational riddles derived from her material. How many got the point? I 'kept up' with her I think only because I had encountered same or similar issues in studying Religious Education (PGCE), different religions (experience and PGCE), Contemporary Theology (MA) and the Sociology of Religion (Ph.D). I also apply these to Unitarianism. I've also led a theology group among Anglicans. When I did the sound files I speeded Jo James up by 20%, but I should have thought about slowing Melanie Prideaux down. People can always rewind, or the equivalent.

She'd read his paper in advance. She agreed with him about the holy but wasn't sure God would be the right word (and neither was he for that matter). She thought he was grounded and logical and yet could have put people's backs up: well, good job she wasn't responding to David Steers' piece then because he gave me a few slipped discs.

She suggested that you can see other faith communities doing theology but perhaps being creedless does throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the other hand, everyone does theology and not just the [apparent?] experts. But rightly she asked why choose systematic Tillich, as mentioned above.

Other kinds of theologies she mentioned (which her students use) are public, political and practical. We are not so radical. There is what is called 'ordinary theology' and Unitarians could do this. It's what people do in the churches themselves. I'd call it the anthropological approach, and it was promoted for Religious Education (in schools) at the University of Warwick. She said it is what we do and what we therefore call church and it does not have to be Christian - partly because Unitarians do not fit there easily. She made the point that neither Christian theology, Islamic jurisprudence nor Buddhist philosophy stay the same, moving in time and context, but they all use points of authority in individuals and texts.

Which, surely, is observational, as is the anthropological approach.

What of authority? Quakers can justify their decision taking theologically; they've done the research and use 'Threshing' [which is a meeting specifically not for a decision that therefore allows everyone to say what they think without the need there to make a decision, and perhaps change minds, all prior to session for a consensus or at least a 'sense of the meeting': is the transcendent involved or only personal opinion?]. Unitarians with only implicit theology for decision taking leave processes open for abuse. When they have a contentious decision they might pass it and then ignore it. There might be an impressive oratory that leads to a bad decision. Individual conscience ('ignore it') frustrates decision taking.

But is it not theological according to a liberal version: that it is the supremacy of the conscience, even organised into the congregation (Ann Peart's question of organising)? So, for example, the General Assembly has an Object to uphold the Liberal Christian tradition, and many individuals and congregations go on to ignore it. There is a rationale even if it makes decision making always provisional.

It was interesting that Melanie Prideaux brought in secularisation as having had an impact on Unitarianism - more a contribution of her own and less a critique. Identity has a complex relationship with the secular and religion. Could we become Sunday Assembly with buildings? They are the secular-sacred, the secular that includes religion, and the outworking of Universalism (as now understood). The secular is part of Unitarian religious identity and this is different from simply "catch a falling Christian".

Here is all that about privatisation of religion: Unitarianism is the apogee of thinking related to this Protestant individualism. Yet the secular is also in the West "a failure in the chain of memory": the secular causing a dislocation among the communities of belief. Unitarians might have a failure of a chain of memory via limited theological continuity: referring back to Martineau and James Luther Adams (I have been reminded that references to "Luther Adams" are incorrect: Luther is his middle name), without seeing the links in between there and here, a consequence of the absence of theological discussion. She wondered: was this ever intended? How did it happen? Individuals have few tools to let us establish the links in that chain of memory. We lack our own resources to link the past to the present and going into the future. We are instead now like magpies pinching from all over the religious world; nor do we articulate reasoning behind this trend in the denomination's resourcing. This lack of articulating (at least) stands behind what has been the breaking of the chain of memory. There is no framing of this activity, so communal identity gets reinvented with regularity (she says every generation: it could be more than this) with varying levels of theological coherence (or incoherence). Thus what if some decide we become as Sunday Assembly with our own buildings? The lack of this memory chain, this theological stream, does not protect Unitarians from such a change, and does not make us more attractive in high-modern or postmodern times. She thinks it rather heightens the threat of secularisation. We could instead be speaking more effectively to the present condition of religion in the West based on our history and more importantly (anthropologically) drawing on our experience of messy, creedless religion - and in that we are doing theology all the time.

Yes and no: the principle of change every generation was established as part of the Unitarian transition in Parliament in 1845 asnd is itself a chain of memory. Also see below as I tackle the concept further.

Privatisation also affects us by saying faith is private and individual and it separates belief from collective decision taking. We end up with a perverse organisation decision-making system (in a Church) that could be such institutionally when not considering itself religious. It's back to anything goes and its impact. Thus we must grapple with the secular not as external only but part of our religious identity, to use Religious Studies and make it more positive and fruitful - presumably in decision-taking but also other areas. Think of what we do (anthropology again) and articulate these actions, and this rather than an over-reliance on strange notions of "liberalism" in the more formal theological sense. Articulating would offer more depth and a greater sense of belonging.

Stephen Lingwood's method, she thinks, while it causes us to stop and think, cannot be achieved any time soon. His work outlined needs doing, but needs more engagement with the greater complexity involved. If we don't do the theology of finding out who we are, and perhaps developing a shared sense of authority, asking difficult questions and challenging accepted forms, then we won't live up to the immediacy of the holy and the unfolding nature of truth. She would be surprised if anyone disagrees with those theological traits.

Before I describe and comment on my own question, I want to tackle what she was saying particularly about this really interesting concept of chain of memory. Religion as a Chain of Memory (2000) comes from Danièle Hervieu-Léger, in how history is used (creatively?) to construct a contemporary religious position. Indeed collective memory is how societies remember, and it is an ever ongoing reconstruction. (It is central to the European Union referendum, for example.). The stance goes back to Maurice Halbwachs’s 1925 study, Social Frameworks of Memory.

The idea is at some contrast to Stephen Lingwood's and also Jo James's position, and here is how: it is based on an absence of the experience of the holy as immediate and intimate! We don't have these experiences much (or validated) these days, but when we can (instead) have a successful chain of memory then we can have religion. It is also potentially problematic for the anthropological approach in terms of viewing direct experience, but not in any 'thick research' that aims to uncover from people speaking how they recreate the past.

For example, a Hull banner has the words, Hull Unitarians, Founded 1672. The fact is that it is misleading, but it constantly creates a chain of memory. Some of us keep reminding ourselves that this is not so, that two different groups with polar different views from ours in a different setting were formed about that time. This telling of 'what happened, when it changed, how it changed' matters in creating that more accurate chain of memory. In 2016 half a dozen of us attended a meeting to show the strong importance of Polish Brethren ideas in circulating Socinianism around a network intending to be non-threatening but the authorities found threatening involving the technology of printing (Richard Moone etc.). This was clearly additional to the standard narrative and revising the view of congregational change with Presbyterians becoming Arminian and even circling around much of the Arian phrase. So it cannot be just like that: the sociology of knowledge of the time related to printing shows that ideas matter. We also learnt that the Puritan Presbyterians sought liberty for themselves and not others: Unitarians have taken on board a false ideological 'Whig history' that idealises these Presbyterians.

But of course the bigger problem is more recent: how did we get from Martineau to now; how is it that James Luther Adams became more conservative and less useful? (And anyway isn't Adams a form of American liberal institutionalism that had proved useless in Germany and was no adequate embodiment or resistor of evil?)

This activity then does go on in congregations: we turn into historians. But do we turn into theologians? There is this apparent break in the chain of memories. Well, we know why we are fairly secular, and that's because the supernatural and magic do not actually explain anything any more. People who claim causality for astrology, for example, must be away with the fairies... But it is still possible to theologise plurality, and do so with the tools of sociology of religion (even develop our own religious sociology - that's theologised sociology) along with the anthropological research method.

So the chain of memory means we rely more and more upon the story, and less and less on spiritual experience, if we have it at all. This actually pleases me, somewhat, because I regard myself as "religious but not spiritual" and that a lot of spiritual experience is phoney. I don't even care for these attempts at congregational meditation by process. I'd rather sit in silence than have someone babble on as if my brain is being redirected. Yes, I'm not very Buddhist these days when it comes to practice, but Unitarianism is becoming increasingly Buddhist.

The chain of memory, then, is a form of validation: it is the collective side that informs and identifies any spiritual experience. There ought to be a balance of religious and spiritual (against my bias). It's a bit like why the Messianic Jews identified some experiences bodily resurrection whereas others might have seen the same experience (if we can call it that - e.g. a similar phenomena in India) as purely spiritual. The chain - the tradition - is powerful enough to name and frame, and guides even times of charismatic change (as in earliest Messianic Christianity). But it is the religious bit, the chain.

Chain of memory employs the sociology of interactionism, that of the small and qualitative. It is about how we acquire, or fail to acquire, meaning. It is collective, but does not ignore the individual.

Fundamentalism is surely a failure of the chain of memory: it is a kind of detached scientism misapplied to religious myths and stories. Such (especially with the charismatic) is often a surrogate memory, a misinformed popping up of emotionalism. It is arguable that religion as terrorism involves a break in the chain of memory by reversion to distortion. I would also argue that the chain of memory crumbles regarding Anglican liturgy. People simply cannot see how feudal and agricultural it is in all its forms. It goes on and on, through revisions, despite being clapped out in its root. No one knows what it is about any more in culture, and becomes a kind of dogma by mantra and process of theatrics. Folk religion, a diffusion of religion especially into minor and disconnected superstitions, also involves a broken chain of memory more generally. So it isn't just Unitarianism that goes missing. After all, who now is a Calvinist rather than an Arminian? Very sectarian that, among a few - and exactly the problem with David Steers's presentation: that he would tie us to eras soon dead and gone. Yet, even then, the fact is that part of my individual identity and his is tied up with an English Presbyterian identity. I can't do much about it, and the individual is part of the collective stream. I am also secular, European, even Hull, pluralist, postmodern/ high modern, intellectualist, confused, wasted...

We need to be careful here, because of the sociology of the invented tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983), which is a way by which the past is reinvented and used in order to generate authority. It can indeed be a way of re-establishing a chain of memory, but it is usually fake in part or whole. The Pagan religion has done this, reinventing ritual and imagining the past, but so did Anglo-Catholics in the Victorian era: a perceived old tradition recooked for contemporary purposes - in that case to produce resistance to the State. Unitarians did this as well when they secured the money up to 1845: the Open Trust Myth is an invented tradition. Let's forget about Welsh Unitarians, the Eisteddfod bards (hello Anglican Dr. Rowan Williams) and connections to druids by the persuasive fantasist Iolo Morgannwg!

The question I asked had a couple of preliminaries: theology and religious studies are connected, in that theology is a subset of religious education and there is the anthropological. (Unstated, the other subsets beyond anthropological (observational) are phenomenological (key essential descriptions), humanistic (perspective from the secular world), and experiential (learning from doing).)

I tried to suggest the two connect via a reconstructed 'chain of meaning': I was thinking if not on my feet then on my backside and changed memory into meaning. But I had thought it (chain of memory) can be reconstructed and said that on the one hand we can start with Martineau inserting the subjective into the objective - while he was liturgically conservative - and undermining the objective and arriving at a liberal postmodernism. So I mean that a collective liturgical consensus where the biblical narrative is an example is undermined by individualism, so that the consensus collapses, and you end up with a postmodernism of a span from the rational to the romantic, and varieties of Christian, Buddhist (Hindu), humanist and Pagan forms within that span in an almost Baudrillian simulcra of liturgies. The other route is in a fixed revelatory system, so that you start with Karl Barth and his unanchored in culture very high and dry one-direction theism, where the biblical narrative is the only example of encounter, which then comes via Frei and Lindbeck as a method into a postliberalism as definition and role of identity performance - again, no objective anchoring but you appear as 'Church' and doing the right and expected things. One is fluid with culture, and one has frozen culture (doesn't negate it - nothing can ignore culture despite Barth's protestations).

Much as there was a liberal - radical split, the Sea of Faith Network has always been an example of liberal postmodernism: one that worked with humanism, selected Buddhism and fragments of Christianity. Yale postliberalism was always conservative and suited some academic evangelicals: the kerygma and all that. Radical Orthodoxy is another fixed route, the Platonist pure Church to take on secular theology; a variation of that is Rowan Williams's non-foundational use of the richness of the tradition, from texts, of its dialogue, of being history-like in its details, and not having the final answers when doing the difficult questions, but never leaving the doctrinal resources of the tradition (unlike with Unitarian minimalism). Rowan Williams thinks John Spong is too thin, and if he was as thin as Spong's theology he would not be a bishop, priest or even Anglican. Do Unitarians need a good meal?

We had to frame comments into a question, so after my preliminaries I asked Stephen Lingwood if he was more postliberal or liberal postmodern. And he was honest enough to say he might be liberal in an Anglican setting but is postliberal in a Unitarian setting. This is exactly my objection: that this is indeed prescriptive; it is the method in so-called mainstream Christianity, where one performs according to expectations of what appears to be 'Church'. It is a matter of degree more relaxed and sensitive than David Steers' approach to the stock display in the museum. Melanie Prideaux had some agreement with Stephen Lingwood's postliberal position here, except that she later said this division between objective and subjective is problematic. Well it is from our more postmodern perspective. They always were relational, that is true, but at one time there was a clearer collective position, upheld by the wider religious environment. We were more dualistic then.

It could be that liberal postmodernism is too scary for some, too diverse, too seemingly new and unconnected; but definition includes being diverse and being a spread of "theological commitments" as Stephen had said (perhaps differently in content). Becoming postliberal is like being frightened, hanging on to the old rope, and no longer seeking truth out there and unfolding, but maintaining old appearances and definitions.

See, if truth really is unfolding (and I don't mind this, whereas 'progressive revelation' is not a term from below and not postmodern), then thought and practice can be going in new directions, without agreements (but with debates and dialogue) and setting out ahead with some principles retold. There is still a chain of memory, but the sociology of knowledge (via secularisation and pluralism) has radically altered.

Strange isn't it. Perhaps via restoring the chain of memory we are not about the immediacy of the holy and not about it unfolding, but are becoming postliberal and conservative as we respond to a shrunken Unitarianism facing winter storms. Well, some are but I'm not.


Further Reflection

As I think through these review webpages, I am coming to the view more that Stephen Lingwood's tentative proposal of the immedate and unfolding holy, and Jo James's historical overview to the present regarding the Spirit (and especially via John Caputo's rejection of Being and its stability in favour of something at a "don't know" subatomic level), will not create religion and is more like 'spiritual not religious' in potential. As such it stands in contrast to the Chain of Memory, which is about the 'religious not spiritual' and is about reconstruction precisely because of the difficulty of generating understood spiritual experience in the secular age. There are concepts here then that are in contradiction with each other - and they need sorting out. This and that they were all talking about identity and prescription and that future theology conferences ought to introduce diverse theologies that may or may not be useful for the future.

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Hervieu-Leger, Daniele (2000, first published in French in 1993), Religion as a Chain of Memory, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hobsbawm, E., Ranger, T. (Eds.) (1983), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hobsbawm, E. (1959), Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries, Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful