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The Need for Narrative

This past week or so I've been on-off watching the debate taking place on the Facebook group 'UK Unitarians', following the meeting of the Unitarian and Free Christian General Assembly - the central body of British Unitarianism. 

'UK Unitarians' is probably the main outlet for Unitarians in Britain, in this internet age, overtaking print publications such as The Inquirer, The Unitarian and The Herald. That said, I am not sure it fully reflects the mindset and mood within the Unitarian movement, as I know many Christian members of the Unitarian movement who simply do not engage with it (one says, 'Why bother? It's rigged...'). I also suspect that the geographical location of the regular posters on there tends to be proportionally much more based in and around London (South East and Midlands) than in Northern England, Wales and Scotland.

The recent debate on 'UK Unitarians' has taken place on two threads:

Speaking personally, my gut reaction is I am kind of tired of this debate. As I've mentioned on this blog before, way back in 2004 I was involved with a number of Unitarian Christians in trying to kickstart a Christian revival within the Unitarian movement - and I got my fingers burnt in various ways. This was not least because I was the workhorse in terms of web design and web content, putting in hours upon hours for over a year, only for various older, more influential figures to then lose heart and walk away. On reflection, they only really wanted to sound off and when it came to the more difficult questions, those that required a level of audacity and organisational 'heavy lifting', they backed off (individually, one-by-one).

Although I was kind of hurt by this experience, it was a useful learning curve - as a young man starting out on a career at the end of university. It also meant I drifted away from the Unitarians, going on to find the Buddhists and then the Quakers - which had a hugely positive impact on my sense of being. I still retain links with British Unitarianism, mainly through membership of the Unitarian Christian Association and friendship with Oldham Unitarian Chapel, and I did actively choose to get married in a Unitarian / Free Christian chapel in 2010 - but I am no longer reliant on Unitarianism as the centerpoint of my religious life and identity. 

More recently, I've been involved in the fledgling 'Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians' (FNSC) which, as I understand it, is not unlike the UUA's 'Church of the Larger Fellowship' in its (currently informal) relationship with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (NSPCI). Although, unlike the CLF, it has attracted quite a number of dissenters from the British Unitarian movement alongside Non-Subscribers living in and away from Northern Ireland - these dissenters have given the FNSC added verve but also inadvertently created a sense of threat amongst some Unitarians.

In the debates I mention above, one of the self-declared 'pluralists' of the British Unitarian movement has labelled the FNSC a 'throwback' and 'parasitical' in terms of its relationship with the NSPCI. This slur has been allowed to stand by the moderators of the 'UK Unitarians' forum - a decision I feel is not without significance given their usually rigorous enforcing of rules around 'etiquette', and is arguably a reflection of bias (conscious or unconscious). It is also simply inaccurate - the FNSC is well supported by Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers and lay people, because they know it is helping their healthy but very much locally-orientated church reach out to the wider world. I have experienced this mutual relationship personally having completed the NSPCI Lay Reader's Course, via distance learning, and having visited Northern Ireland on two occasions, one involving me leading worship at Dromore. 

The recent debate on 'UK Unitarians' appears to swirl around 'ultra-pluralism versus absolute christocentricity' (when in fact, the Unitarians and Free Christians I have encountered tend to be something in-between) - and my suspicion is that it is just another replay of a debate that has taken place a dozen times over the past 15 years, where fine speeches are made but ultimately the paralysing stand-off between competing visions continues.

However, a different take I have found on it, and probably the best comment I have seen within the debate, comes from Leeds-based Unitarian minister Jo James who puts forward the following viewpoints:
  • Saying "We believe in Good, being good, doing good not... anything supernatural..." (as one leading British Unitarian minister does in the GA's 'Next Steps' video) may seem to fit with modern mores but the concept of 'good' is too abstract and amorphous. 
  • The current focus of the British Unitarian leadership appears to be on corporate strategy and marketing devices rather than theology.
  • British Unitarians will celebrate 'nuanced theology', such as when as Muslim extremist develops a wider view, but are unwilling to engage in the same process, say with the question of God - which many now simplistically reject, caricaturing it as supernatural 'pie in the sky'.
  • British Unitarians, as a movement, are squandering their radical inheritance, that of Spinoza et al.
  • British Unitarians are trapped in a false dichotomies - 'kind deeds or theology', 'inward spirituality versus outward practice'.
  • The promotion of a Unitarian religious life has been reduced to a question of successful marketing, not the content of the product itself. British Unitarianism has taken on a consumerist mindset - we just need to sell you this 'thing' - instead of the more difficult yet potentially compelling endeavour of developing a philosophical / theological worldview, and from there a sense of collective mission and personal discipleship. 

Interestingly, within the debate, it has also been mentioned that there is a 'Unitarian Theology Conference' coming up in May, open to all Unitarians and Free Christians. This appears to be an independent initiative and will take place in Manchester. What I have noted is those who advocate a 'pluralist' position seem instinctively hostile towards it and have already suggested this is an imposition and curtailing of personal freedom - which suggests 'pluralism' is a by-word simply for unmitigated individualism, and by default, a collective vacuum.

This certainly has made me think, not just about Unitarianism, but our wider culture. It made me think also back to this article, published in The Guardian recently about white underachievement in British schools: 'The problem for poor, white kids is that a part of their culture has been destroyed'. I would say this is probably also the case for those black young people (alongside their white friends) who sometimes follow the more nihilistic side of Black American culture and those Asian young people (again, alongside some of their white friends) who find the worldview of ISIS and Al-Qaeda meets that inner sense of alienation, of being lost.

I have seen this first-hand, working as I did in Liverpool near the Croxteth and Norris Green areas, where young gangs (largely white) have taken to something not far off guerilla warfare, in what has been noted is not a traditional conflict over the drugs trade but simply 'something to do'.

We have all suffered a loss of narrative, individually and as a society. The 'Kingdom of Heaven' that we were once travelling towards - painted variously whether you were a Liberation Catholic, a Salvation Army Protestant, a Jewish Socialist, a Methodist Trade Unionist or something else - has all been eroded away. Now our only kingdom is the self, which we must manicure with ever finer goods, cosmetics and other products. We may dabble in philosophy, but this tends to be restricted to a saying etched on a prettily-painted board for our living room walls or the sharing of a meme on Facebook - glanced at and then largely forgotten.

We, this social creature we call humanity, have become atomised - at least in the The West. Much has been made of church decline, but we would do well to remember membership of associations and clubs is down across the board - reflecting, I think, the scale of this atomisation.

We see this in the EU debate where the prominent arguments always appear to come back to focus on personal bank balances rather than broader, more social, visions of our nation's future in or out. There has been some visioning from the 'Brexiteers' of a more democratic, maritime Britain whereas there has been, disappointingly, absolutely nothing from the 'Bremainers' around the original dream of Europe as a family of nations, living in peace and prosperity - a fledgling model for what the whole world may one day become.

And this is why, perhaps just perhaps, the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn - whether we agree with his actual policies or not - offers something initially perplexing yet possibly potent. Perplexing because we have been led to believe over the past twenty years that to be successful in politics, you need to be 'middle of the road' (as we saw with the Blairites). Potent because he offers us narrative, vision, principle, substance (though noticeably not on the EU) where the rest of the political elite do not.

It does feel, as I sit and reflect on this, that we in the West - living as we do in this strange mix of material luxury and spiritual-social poverty - do indeed live in strange times. I just hope that purer spark of humanity - as expressed in Jesus Christ and other figures of the world's religions, not forgetting historical figures such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King - can prevail and drive us forward once again. And not just within the Unitarian bubble, but within society as a whole. 

As William Ellery Channing preached, 'humanity has not fallen, it is yet to rise...' What we are aiming at rising towards, how we get there, and the milestones and examples we look for along the way remains the question of this age, as with ages gone by - various answers may be worked upon but for a society or a group within a society, this is ultimately not an individual pursuit.

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