Voyages on the Sea of Faith

Frank Walker is organizer of the Cambridge area Sea of Faith Group. He is a Unitarian minister. This article appeared earlier in 'Sea of Faith Network: Five Years of Making Waves'

At Batsford Park in the Cotswolds I found these words inscribed on a memorial tablet to an eighteenth-century vicar: "The Reverend Thomas Burton, Doctor in Divinity, a lover of Hospitality, and a cheerful promoter of every Social, every Liberal Affection. Justice, Humanity, Benevolence and Charity marked the character of this excellent man, whose life was so uniformly good that Death, though sudden, found him not unprepared."

They don't write epitaphs like that nowadays. We don't live in such an age of apparently untroubled assurance (if indeed people ever did). We are here as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. Those words at least of Arnold's Dover Beach ring true. (I will not endorse everything in that poem. The sea of faith in the sense of one world-encompassing religious ideology unquestioningly accepted by all, was never at the full. Matthew Arnold was a frightful snob unnerved at the prospect of the established church losing its power).

How different today's clergy seem from Thomas Burton: in turmoil in fact, just like the religious situation generally. Novelists, it has been said, are like dogs sniffing the air before earthquakes, alert for the first signs of movements that will erupt in the future. Current seismic perturbations in the religious world are interestingly revealed in the clergy who so often feature in Iris Murdoch's novels. I call them "the fantastic vicars". They do not believe in God or the divinity of Christ but continue, usually, to exercise their priestly functions. In The Time of the Angels the demented Carel Fisher says, "You cannot imagine how often I have been tempted to announce from the pulpit that there is no God. It would be the most religious statement that could be conceived of." Fr. Bernard Jacoby in The Philosopher's Pupil in his exile on a Greek island declares, "Nothing else but true religion can save mankind from a lightless and irredeemable materialism, from a technocratic nightmare where determinism becomes true for all... can religion survive and not, with us, utterly perish? This has been revealed to me as the essential and only question of our age. What is necessary is the absolute denial of God. Even the word, the name must go. What then remains? Everything, and Christ too, but entirely changed and broken down into the most final and absolutely naked simplicity." The nun Anne Cavidge ceases to believe in God and leaves the convent. "Perhaps people don't all that often just lose their faith. I want to make a new kind of faith privately for myself." Iris Murdoch has sniffed out the existence of such people—but where are they to be found in the flesh?

In 1988 they could be found at the first Sea of Faith Conference in Loughborough. Here was a group of people who no longer saw religion as a divinely revealed body of doctrine and practice guaranteed for all eternity, but as an all too human creation, a way of expressing and reinforcing human values, constantly changing, but not the worse for that. It was rarely possible to tell from outward appearance a person's denomination or profession. After someone had expressed the most radical views, it was an agreeable surprise when he admitted to being a vicar: lo, the C of E enlarged in one's view. One vicar looked upon his church as the place where all could come and express the religion that was in them. He encouraged them to compose their own services for the welcome and blessing of children, for weddings and funerals. He allowed other religious groups such as Sikhs and Hindus to use his church building for their own services. It seemed to me he had stolen the Unitarians' clothes, but good luck to him. The Sea of Faith Conference bears witness to the fact that there is often a gulf between what is proclaimed in official documents and what actually happens on the ground amongst the grassroots. At Sea of Faith Conferences denominational labels or the lack of them do not matter at all. This is refreshing.

This poses a problem, though, for those, the majority, in religious groups that stress orthodoxy. Official Christianity declares its origin in a once-and-for-all divine revelation, supernaturally guaranteeing a sacred organisation and promising a divine consummation in a future life. Sea of Faith members believe none of this, but many remain in organisations that consider such supernatural claims to be their basic raison d'etre.

This provides tension and conflict. Don Cupitt has reminded us that conflict is an essential ingredient in the stuff of life. (Randy Mice-Davies pipes up, "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?"). He is but echoing a Victorian Unitarian, J.J. Tayler, who said, very memorably,

Conflict under some form or other seems an indispensable condition of social progress. The repose and uniformity so ardently desired by some theorists, are the unequivocal signs, wherever they occur, of a stationary or a declining civilisation. Exemption from opposition and questioning relaxes the motives to exertion and brings a torpor over all the faculties. This is especially true of the intellectual and spiritual life of man. Without antagonism—mental health, practical wisdom and the constant development of fresh truth are impossible—(A Retrospect of the Religious Life of England, 1876. p.1)

Radicals have departed so far from conventional views of what religion in general and Christianity in particular are about that many experience grave existential conflict. Should they stay in the churches or not? Should they set up on their own? Mr. Cupitt himself has said we cannot invent a new religion. We must start where we are and make the best of what we have. The American Lutheran Loyal Rue agreed. We must not leave the churches to the fundamentalists. Radicals are as much a part of the tradition; they have a right to be there and make their voice heard. Mr. Cupitt, in at least one of his 'personae', is a very Establishment figure and well understands the virtues of great historic international societies that confer status and prestige and wield vast power. Blessed are the powerful, for they shall be able to do something. Many of Sea of Faith feel that their own radical religious humanism should be accepted as one valid option within the great ecclesiastical organisations. At the moment radicals are merely uneasily tolerated because the hierarchy doesn't know what to do and hopes they will just die or go away. The greatest challenge to Establishment-minded radicals lies in their relationship to the Roman Catholic Church. Are they going to be accepted there? The condemnation of so moderate a figure as Fr. Hans Kung is not encouraging. The great churches will never accept the radicals because to do so would undermine the basis of their own claims to authority and power. Radicals must put up with a shifty existence using for survival what many see as morally dubious strategies—Mr. Cupitt regrettably endorsed "deception" as one of them remaining where they are under a cloak of borrowed respectability.

In the USA religious humanism achieved institutional expression in the 1930s by taking over a majority of Unitarian congregations. It still maintains a vigorous existence within the half-million strong Unitarian-Universalist Association. So Sea of Faith-type movements are nothing new. In 1933 a group of American Unitarian ministers produced the Humanist Manifesto setting forth a consistently nonsupernaturalist view of religion. It is still worth reading today. "Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life. Their end has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world-view), and the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult) established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion.... But through all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life." In Britain today religious humanism finds an openly accepted place with the Society of Friends, as well as amongst the Unitarians.

In the great churches it is different. Fr. Anthony Freeman has been dismissed for publishing a book expressing Sea of Faith ideas. His sacking has been applauded by Michael Goulder, ex-priest and atheist Professor of Biblical Studies at Birmingham. When the church fails to root out non-believing clerics it is simply showing itself to be moribund, he claims. The church is a club with very definite rules. If you don't like the rules, get out and start your own club. Do not indulge in meaningless double-talk. Professor Goulder, who brings to atheism the CICCU enthusiasm of his youth, considers religious humanism a contradiction in terms, absurd, weak, wishy-washy. A splendid reincarnation of Malcolm Muggeridge, he certainly deserves his own TV show. He must surely be invited to perform a Nietzschean function at a Sea of Faith Conference if the members can summon up enough courage for an attack on their convictions.

Other atheist critics of Sea of Faith include Kingsley Amis. He has no belief in the existence of God. Faith is a gift he does not have, but he admits that people "without faith are the poorer for it in every part of their lives." A world without religion in it, he says, "would be as sad and dreadful a place as a world in which art as we have known it might become impossible to create...." Sir Kingsley admires hierarchy and likes clerics who are experts and have the guts to tell others what they ought to believe. He ridicules talk of "values" where "Jack's view is as good as his master's, and all can agree that compassion and peace, for instance, are what to believe in. More popular than the Trinity, and much more fun...." He hates a Church that tries to keep up with the times. No; let it "preach the Christian religion, at whatever price in incomprehension, indifference and hostility, and wait for the times to return to it if they will." An eloquent defence of nostalgia and prejudice indeed: not for nothing was Sir Kingsley a Fellow of Peterhouse.

From the heart of the Anglican Establishment, from a sermon by Professor Ernest Gellner in King's College Chapel, has come another attack on the Sea of Faith. Himself an atheist, Professor Gellner nevertheless admires the fundamentalists for their sense of responsibility to truth. They are serious. People who are obsessed by contemporary French literary theorists have lost their seriousness. For them, anything goes. Those who claim to see no difference between fact and fiction might try telling that to Elie Wiesel and the survivors of Auschwitz.

These intellectual attacks on the Sea of Faith are still waiting for answers, as is the question posed at the first conference: In what sense can those who hold Sea of Faith views still consider themselves Christian, and why is it important to be Christian?

Mr. Cupitt himself has wisely repudiated the position of heresiarch that some wished to give him, though willy-nilly he cannot avoid the role of guru. In his Guardian-writing persona, he seems more inclined to entertain the possibility of creating a new religion. At least, he has said that if we were now to set about creating a religion for ourselves we should certainly not take on board much of what we already have.

One useful role for the Sea of Faith is to explore the implications of such an observation. One valuable development has been the growth at the conference of workshops of all kinds where people can bring their own ideas out into the open and see what response they provoke, as well as all kinds of activities involving art and meditation. The devising of various forms of "worship" is another immensely difficult task that has only just begun.

Those unable to express radical views through Christian forms have turned to other historic religions. Both Iris Murdoch and Don Cupitt have looked to a new form of Christianity influenced by Buddhism. It may be that Sea of Faith may provide a setting where this interaction may take place. Increasingly, Buddhist voyages may be made on the Sea of Faith.

Outsiders see Sea of Faith as a chaotic confusion, insiders as a creative ferment. Despite the minimum degree of organisation that it has recently taken on, it remains an anarchic, free-flowing non-hierarchical network. Hierarchs of all kinds would like to squash it. All the more reason for it to continue to rescue people from isolation, to offer support and encouragement, provoke thinking and renewal. Its life may be limited. That does not matter. Something is not worthless because it does not last for ever. If it ceases, something different but on the same wavelength will inevitably take its place. If Sea of Faith had not existed it would have been necessary to invent it—which is why it was invented.

About religious humanism our new Malcolm Muggeridge has missed the point. It is in fact immensely ancient and strong. It is so strong that it doesn't depend on institutions, for it will always re-express itself one way or another. "The religious life does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal; nor does the religious life depend on the dogma that the world is not eternal....there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing." There speaks the voice of religious humanism, very much, I believe, on the Sea of Faith wavelength.

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