Unitarian Theology Conference 2016

On the 21st May 2016 upward of ninety including me attended the Unitarian Theology Conference at Cross Street Chapel. I was both reluctant and tempted to go, and what tipped it was engagement in debate beforehand, and that the Hull minister would have gone except it happened during his holiday away.

When I reported back next day more positively than I might to a small gathered congregation, my points were met negatively. "This is not where we are now." Their responses were like my initial fear. That is: the conference is trying to be prescriptive with a tool - theology - that has become inappropriate for a diverse gathering that rather prefers some basic principles.

After the conference I spent the next week creating four web page reviews in depth about the presentations. I also created a blog entry. I set about using amplification, noise reduction, stereo, reverb and multitracking to create four sound files of parts of most interest in the conference based on the given video files from UK Unitarian TV. Apparently improved sound media will be available, and so will the actual papers. My web pages were based on my continuous notes, but then checked against the sound files, and to produce my own interpretations. Theology is like that: we each have to take what we hear and make it our own, and then talk about it with others again.

Go to http://www.pluralist.co.uk and the Learning Area, Religion Section, the Unitarian part and scroll down for the Conference pages.

I have no idea why David Steers' paper was the keynote speech. It was billed as 'towards the twenty-first century' but to my ears it was nothing but a proposal back to the nineteenth. It was a lament towards what had been lost, apparently, and I would say even a smear against the Unitarian Universalist Association and its influences. But, even taking that more neutrally, if the UUA is inappropriate for British Unitarianism then so is the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian approach to Christianity. Hopefully the intense religious culture of Northern Ireland in particular will start to relax as confidence grows across the island, and the culture still upholding such a Christianity will go leading the Irish to a more pluralist future too. Because this is the explanation for the difference: that which once held up Priestley and later even Martineau in any liturgical coherence in Britain has gone.

Stephen Lingwood was more modest in his proposals, but he still admitted to my question that he was postliberal within Unitarianism. Yale postliberalism is a strand of theology that has become popular among some moderate intellectual evangelicals: coming from Karl Barth as pure revelation, it has no rooting of objectivity in culture. Hans Frei thought he knew the biblical narrative it employed - the narrative as disclosing on its own terms. We would call it drama. The Protestant Church version was described as 'role performance' or recognition by George Lindbeck. It is anti-individualist, anti-experience, and for collective description as deliberately recognisably Christian. It freezes culture from a religious-friendly time. This is important because it is the mirror opposite of Martineau and a route to the liberal postmodern by his collapse of the objective by subjective authority, the two relativising each other into diverse conversations, and his assertion of individualism and experience; plus, whereas for Barth and Frei the biblical narrative is THE narrative of God acting, for Martineau and successors the biblical narrative is only a narrative of God acting among others. So for me Unitarianism is evolving and plural and legitimately ours: however, both Stephen Lingwood and critic Melanie Prideaux answered favourably towards being more postliberal. This means being prescriptive: by its own definition it means being more prescriptive and could even be 'anti-Unitarian'.

Melanie Prideaux was fast talking and her academic level expressed took no prisoners. She employed more tools for the job than anyone else. Her principle objection seemed to be that Stephen was calling upon systematic theology and terminology when he could be observing church life and deriving theology from that. I call it (from Religious Education) Anthropological: it is what people do - an inductive theology. She also introduced the French sociological concept Chain of Memory from Danièle Hervieu-Léger. This is a chain cut or damaged sometimes by absorbing the secular, Melanie was suggesting, but anyway we have forgotten how we have got from Martineau and James Luther Adams to the situation now. But it is interesting that, when Lingwood and James promoted the holy and spiritual experience, the concept Chain of Memory relates to using narrative as making religion in the light of a lack of present day spiritual experience. It is particularly relevant for Judaism and its maintenance through story telling, the story telling that reminds of past spiritual events. The Chain of Memory is when you are 'religious not spiritual' as opposed to today's trend of being 'spiritual not religious'. Which begs the question whether Stephen's immediacy of the holy and its unfolding can bring about religion, and indeed Melanie did not see it as establishing a system of decision making. The Quakers have their 'Threshing' to give difficult decisions theological underpinning, whereas Unitarian decision making could be any organisation - and people ignore contentious decisions anyway.

Incidentally, Chain of Memory can be coupled with the equally sociologically grounded Invention of Tradition, so that we remake tradition as it suits present needs to give a narrative historical significance. Unitarians have done this several times: e.g. the 'Open Turst Myth'. Jo James was also in danger of potentially doing just this with his selection, or it would be if his explanation became stylised and commonplace among us.

Jo James linked the importance of the Spirit with radical groups that formed the left wing of the Reformation. His was an historical survey, then, but selective because the standard nineteenth century liberal and historicist movement of theology in Germany was rather spare regarding the Spirit (Hegel strongly excepted). But his piece did relate to the necessary even corrective history of the Socinians spreading their ideas among English and Dutch printers. And today, whereas Christian forms and Earth-Centred forms of liturgical address can alienate, reference to 'Spirit of Life' can be sufficient to unite.

So the emphasis was on uniting and defining. This was a conference from the 'right' of the tiny UK Unitarian and related movement. It did not tackle what could have been the diversity of theological resources available or relate them to the categories of believing within British Unitarianism. There was the valid point that Unitarians are not 'cutting edge' theologically. Well, no, and not from this, but then this was a good start. There's always a next time.

Plus we were able, thanks to Lewis Connolly's interest, to refer to non-realism as having an awkward place in Unitarianism, when we change the words and shift about uses, when we are not behaving like a religious museum and hanging on to artefacts.

'The Spirit' is one of those catch-all terms that at once seems to have meaning and then seems to be empty of meaning. No wonder it is "acceptable". It usually implies God acting in the world, God motivating, the communication from and facilitating back to God. Radical groups used Spirit because of this contact, this immediacy. Now it is more naturalistic in a passive sense. We think of cosmic and quantum physics and evolution as active instead. Indeed, Jo James took his dissertation title use of 'spectral hermeneutics' from John Caputo, who has produced a kind of sub-atomic theology rejecting the basis of Being as stable. Perhaps Lingwood and James did not realise it, but their proposals were in part anti-religious, and that the Chain of Memory to be recovered was, in some way, to account for the lack of the spiritual, although one seeks balance between explanatory narrative and spiritual experience.

Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful