This Is My Story

Richard Jones reviewed 'This Is My Story' in the Methodist Recorder, 19 November 1998.

The Sea of Faith movement began in the 1980s as a meeting place for those who were helped by Don Cupitt's prolific and learned writings, and then by the famous TV programme which made them better known. He spoke to great numbers of Christians and others who were struggling with what seemed to them the obscurities, confusions and downright idiocies which they found the Church teaching.

These were people who found the Church deeply suspicious of thorough questioning, afraid of modern thought, defensive against the most innocent comment. They often found themselves marginalised or pushed out. When a venerable Cambridge scholar suggested radically new ways of reflecting upon Christian practice and doctrine it was for them a breath of fresh air. And then, when they discovered him to be a warm and kindly man, it was balm to their souls.

Sixteen members of the "Network", as it is called, have supplied brief accounts of their faith stories. These are now published in a nicely produced book entitled This is My Story, edited by Teresa Wallace.

These stories are fascinating in their honesty, diversity, and zeal to sort out the meaning of life. One might expect that, since many had had crass experience of the Church, they would be caustic and antagonistic. Not so.

One might also have expected much adulation of the guru figure of Don Cupitt. Not so, with some saying they found him very difficult to understand, while others never mention him. As one might expect, there are some ex-priests here and ex-clergymen but they usually write appreciatively of their backgrounds. One of the unifying threads seems to be their deep need to be able to think freely, in imaginative ways untrammelled by dogma, and to be listened to respectfully. For anyone feeling that need, this book is something of a must.

On reflection, the most intriguing feature of the book is that the writers seem to sit fairly lightly to the avowed presuppositions of the Network. It maintains that "all forms of religious faith are human creations", which is a singularly dogmatic position in itself. It represents, of course, the supreme confidence in human reason and is the kindliest form of atheism around. But one would not sense this when reading here, for there is no desire to say to the reader "now believe as I do", but only a somewhat winsome desire that the reader should understand why faith is so awkward today and why glib Christianity is so hurtful.

A final wry comment. The movement takes its title from the famous poem by Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach", in which he sees the sea of faith ebbing away like the dropping tide. It is an image much used when commenting on the plight of Christian faith in Western Europe today. But nobody seems to have noticed that while tides go out inexorably, they also come back in again inexorably.

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