Report of the 12th Annual Conference

Leicester, UK, 27-29 July 1999, by John Klopacz

The Twelfth Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network was held at the Halls of Residence, Leicester University, UK., Tuesday to Thursday, 27th-29th July. Most attendees were glad to be back in Leicestershire where, after all, the Network began and all Conferences but one have been held. The grounds of the Hall of Residence were once again available for walks, trips to the botanical gardens, or just sitting on the lawns for a good discussion. Tea and coffee were served under a marquee, and the food was excellent as usual.

The topic addressed at Conference, "What Is Religion For?", as Network Chairman, Stephen Mitchell noted, "is one that is often put to those of us who speak of religious faith as a human creation." I thought the topic was a good follow-up to last year's, "What on Earth Is Spirituality?" As Patti Whaley had noted about last year's speakers "none of the three really pointed to the necessity for either formal/communal religion or any type of what I would call spiritual discipline." For myself, I hoped to learn a few rejoinders to the often heard "I'm very spiritual, but I'm not into religion." While the workshops and other activities in some fashion addressed the Conference theme, the presentations by the three speakers: Alison Webster, Chakravarthi Ram Prasad and Don Cupitt were not as clearly connected as I would have liked.

Opening welcome and introductions soon gave way to a memorial tribute to Pamela Donohue. Pam, who died suddenly in May, had been secretary for several Conferences. Sea of Faith has many strong and vital "heads," but Pam was in many ways the "heart" and "hands" of our Network, and she will be missed whenever we gather. Her husband Keith has published a booklet of her poetry, "Multi-dimensional," which was distributed to all attendees.

As in past years, we were assigned to small base groups with a facilitator. The base groups met following the welcoming session to express hopes and goals for Conference and after lunch on Wednesday to check in on the progress of Conference. Base groups did not appear to play as crucial a role in Conference proceedings as in past years. There was, however, more free time to chat, browse the bookstall or have a drink in the pub. Members of the e-mail group were able "to chat f to f." I was delighted to discover that they are a nice group of folks, the sort of people who read their children's Harry Potter books while commuting to work. "Fringe" activities included the popular circle dancing on the lawn and a showing of "Inherit the Wind," just days before the Kansas Board of Education's recent pronouncement.

Twenty workshops were conducted in two rounds on Wednesday. I had a hard time making my choices, but finally decided upon Philip Knight's lecture "The Theologies of William James" and David Hart's virtual reality tour and presentation "Building a Multi-Faith Centre." Philip, who has done considerable work on our American philosophers, James, Dewey and Rorty noted that "the claim of religious non-realists that religious belief is a human creation may often be read by religious people as a violent re-description of what they actually believe." In his paper he argued that "the various theological ideas expressed in the work of William James provide resources that may allow religious non-realists to claim that religious belief is a human creation while mitigating the violence which this claim might inflict." I was much impressed by the articulate and well informed discussion that followed Philip's lecture. David's presentation of the process by which Derby University is building the first multi-faith centre on the central site of a British university provided us with at least one answer to the Conference question: the promotion of dialogue, understanding and world peace. As an American I must admit that our British friends are far ahead of us in some aspects of inter-religious existence.

I regret that I had to miss other workshops. Lloyd Geering provided a "taster" of his new book "The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future". One participant in this workshop commented that Geering's vision "offers a very encouraging, if broad, glimpse of a possible way forward for humankind. It seems to me also to be particularly well 'earthed' in that it starts from where we are and doesn't deny or rubbish the past." Janet Taylor's short talk on gnosticism stimulated much post-workshop discussion. Mel Crossley presented "Spirituality and the Teletubbies: A look at spirituality and the under 5's." Mel's daughter Naomi was joined this year by our youngest attendee, Amanda Baker's son James.

A wide range of collective acts of "worthship" at the start and end of the day were available. Periods of meditation, Qi Gong and circle dancing were among the spiritual practices on offer. For those nostalgic for their school days there was a "School Assembly," presented by representatives of the Religious Education Commission. Penny Mawdsley and David Hart, having "themselves experienced something of the agony and joy of 'coming out' in their different ways," invited us to "The Outing." According to their own description: "The Outing is a journey out, which is also a journey in. We will make a pilgrimage, discovering some of the joys of Leicester University's excellent botanical gardens but also meeting with one another and discovering, hopefully in early-morning sunshine, something about ourselves." The sun did indeed shine and "The Outing" was well attended, although not all participants were happy with the "realist" language of the liturgy composed by Jim Cotter. As recent discussions among e-mail group members indicate, there is little agreement on what a "Sea of Faith prayer" might be like.

David Boulton, Editor of the UK Sea of Faith Magazine, has informed us that the September 1999 issue contains the full text of Don Cupitt's address and also the full text of Alison Webster's story, "Miracle." I have no word on the availability of the text of Ram Prasad's lecture. Overseas subscriptions to the magazine are 10 pounds sterling. If you'd like to subscribe, e-mail David direct at

Alison Webster, who currently works for the Church of England on social, political and community issues, delivered the keynote address at the start of Conference. Her story, "Miracle," as David Boulton noted, "delighted some and puzzled others." Alison began her presentation by distributing postcards of Kitty North's painting "Proximity," asking us to write a one sentence story on the back and inviting us to discuss our stories with a partner. Then, stating that she was interested in the "texture of the question" at hand told us the story inspired by a visit to the cafe at Victoria Station before a "private and confidential sex session with the Archbishop of Canterbury." (This "private" session, a meeting of the Archbishop and a number of gay and lesbian Christians, was eventually made public as an attempt by the Anglican hierarchy to heal some of the wounds opened by last year's Lambeth Conference.) This first person story was inspired by seeing the badge of a waitress called "Miracle." It is not possible to summarize this story, so I hope you will have an opportunity to read it for yourself. Alison's narrative provoked much discussion throughout Conference and was the topic of several questions for the Plenary Panel.

Dr. Ram Prasad was born in Madras and studied in India before doing doctoral work in philosophy at Oxford. Next academic year he will be a lecturer in religious studies at Lancaster University. He has been exploring what non-realism and similar issues mean in his own Hindu culture. Ram wanted to make, in his own words, "three dry and dusty distinctions." These distinctions were those between non-realism and anti-realism, the transcendent and the non-transcendent, and the personal and the impersonal. He related these distinctions to his own "philosophical reconstruction of the Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta." Stating that "non-realism holds that there is no philosophical space left for rational commitment to a real God; so we cannot do without non-realism," he proceeded to ask "What do you do with it?" He challenged us to consider whether non-realism or anti-realism can sustain a real religious life of participation in religious community.

Don Cupitt, an Anglican priest and Senior Fellow of Emmanuel College, now speaks in public only at Sea of Faith events. His address this year, "The Radical Christian World-View" was the twelfth he has presented to Conferences and a summary of his present religious position. The body of Don's address was a short statement of his current outlook prompted by a series of questions from David Hart and Dan Cohn-Sherbok. He discussed in turn his conception of God, religion as a means of human liberation, the problem of evil, the afterlife and his relation to the mainstream tradition. The responses from Don and representatives of other religious traditions will appear in the forthcoming "Radical Theologians in Conversation". In his prefatory remarks, however, Don did not hesitate to answer the question, "What is religion for?" "Religion," he answered, " should make our life seem to us to be intelligible and valuable. In religion we seek a picture of the world and of ourselves with which we can be content. We want to know what we are, how we fit into the overall scheme of things, how we should live and how we can be happy. Religion should give us a world-picture and a way of life that are attractive and that make sense."

In the concluding Plenary each speaker was asked the question "What is religion for?" one last time. Their answers were short and quotable. According to Alison Webster, religion is for "making sense of life". Don Cupitt sees it as giving life "value and meaning." Ram Prasad says religion helps us "to detect worth beyond the immediate experience." These three were by no means the only answers on offer. The North West Sea of Faith Group collected a number of quotations on the subject of religion and posted them throughout the campus. "Die RELIGION ... ist das opium des volkes," was up to be sure. My own favourite comes from Gerrard Winstanley, "True RELIGION, and undefiled, is this: To make restitution of the Earth, which hath been taken and held from the common people by power of conquests, and so set the oppressed free."

The reports given at Annual General Meeting indicated that as an organization the Sea of Faith Network is financially sound and is taking steps to promote its growth. Contributions to the Bursary Fund of over 1,000 pounds sterling enabled a number of students and people with low incomes to attend Conference. Recent ads in the "Guardian" have increased subscriptions to the Magazine. Michael Elliott has been appointed as "educational and development worker." Membership numbers have, however, stayed constant for the past several years.

The current status of the Network reminds me of the Unitarian Universalist church of which I am a member: a dedicated core that seems to do much of the work, a group of long-term members and another group for whom the church is a way station on their spiritual journey. Successful voluntary associations somehow find the ways to prevent burnout among the core members, maintain the interest of long term members and honour the experience of those who may stay for a short time. The Sea of Faith Network continues, as British Unitarian minister Frank Walker has written, "to rescue people from isolation, to offer support and encouragement, to provoke thinking and renewal." I hope the Network will find the resources for growth as a religious and intellectual community.

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