David Boulton, editor of SOF, provided this overview of the 2000 SoF UK conference. It first appeared in SOF 43 (September 2000).

The UK Sea of Faith Network's 13th annual conference at Leicester in July had the whiff of rebellion about it. Not that the members themselves were revolting. The rebels were up there on the platform: Anglican rebel Don Cupitt, Muslim rebel Raficq Abdulla, and Buddhist rebel Stephen Batchelor. If this was "faith in the future", the future of faith had a distinctly heretical flavour. But "heresy", we are reminded, means "choice", and we were offered choice in abundance.

Don kicked off by plunging us straight into his vision of "Christianity after the Church". Vision is the right word. Religion is no longer about supernatural beliefs and the after-life. "It is our communal way of generating dreams of how we and our life and our world might be made better. We prepare ourselves for the dream, and we start to think about how we might actually start to make it all come true". And "we need religion as a dream, as a human, value-creating activity."

Raficq's rebelliousness took a different turn. Those who expected a lecture on Islamic nonrealism along the lines of the radical Iranian dissident Abdul Karim Saroush (featured in SOF 31, Winter 1997), found themselves assaulted in the heart rather than the head. Raficq talked of the 13th-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, whose sensual, erotically-charged verses are addressed to God as "the Beloved", emphasising the human message that love is all you need. "And this is Love - the vertigo of heaven / Beyond the cage of words, / Suddenly to be naked in the searchlight / of truth...". Rumi, we were told, was the most popular poet in America till Seamus Heaney stole the limelight. (But was it the mysticism or the sex which they went for?)

Stephen Batchelor lived up to his reputation as the Don Cupitt of Buddhism. In recent years he has gradually stripped Buddhism of its supernatural elements - reincarnation, karma, and all that stuff - to make possible what he calls an "existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism". What the Buddha taught was not something to believe in but something to do. Buddhism never had to take leave of God because its concept of God, in so far as it ever had one, was essentially nonrealist. The Buddha did not consider himself a god, a mystic or a saviour, but a healer, and his teachings are less a belief system than a course of action designed to instil integrity, compassion and inner peace. Small wonder that traditional Buddhists regard Stephen with the same mix of fear and anger that marks the attitude of so many traditional Christians to Don Cupitt.

What linked the three keynote talks was a convergent religious humanism: a Christian humanism, an Islamic humanism, and a rich, resonant Buddhist humanism, where three ancient religious traditions struggle to escape the pre-modern mind-set and reposition themselves in our secular, postmodern, post-magic world. This, said our rebels in their three different ways, is the faith of the future.

The final session was chaired by Noel Cheer from New Zealand SoF, who assured us that tehei, mauri ora, tena kotu, tena kotu, tena kotu, katoa. This, he claimed somewhat implausibly, was Maori for I sneeze, therefore I have life. Welcome to you, welcome to you, welcome to you, all of you. For good measure, he told us that "Maori" means "the real people", which presumably makes white New Zealanders the original non-realists.

The meat of the session was Dinah Livingstone's challenge to Don Cupitt, published in SOF 42,July 2000, where she robustly attacked what she saw as Don's "shameful" endorsement of global capitalism as the "end of history" and the coming of "the Kingdom". Don, she said, was a distinguished standard-bearer of one half of the English radical tradition: the half which had delivered us from superstition and subjection to religious authority. But he had neglected the other half, where the struggle to desupernaturalise God had gone hand in hand with the struggle for political liberation and justice. Given the poverty, misery, squalor and hopelessness of much of the world, it was "fatuous" to talk of postmodernity and "the American Dream" as "kingdom come".

Don's answer was to present us with a paradox: secular society and the humanitarian movement, by emphasising human rights, freedom of thought and speech, democracy and equality before the law, had done more to promote the ideals of the kingdom of heaven than the Church had ever done. But realization of the ideals of the kingdom was another matter. "We may be disappointed, just as Jews may be disappointed with the realization of the state of Israel and its failure to match up to their dreams and expectations." So does Don say postmodernity has delivered the kingdom, or just the prerequisites of the kingdom? Has the dream come true, or is it still no more than a dream? This argument will run!

As ever, though, the conference was much more than the big speeches and plenary sessions. The twenty-two workshops ranged through music and art, creative writing and alternative healing, to self-discovery and an exploration of "Presleyterianism" - the cult of Elvis. These, the base groups and experimental worship/celebration sessions ensured that there were opportunities for all 180 of us to participate. And no matter that the real ale failed to arrive. The nonreal stuff was there aplenty.

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