By Adrian Worsfold
We are all individuals, of course, but we gather in institutions, and we try to match ourselves to the most suitable available institutions. We also allow these institutions to form us through participation and, in some cases, formation through not knowing the alternatives.
We might describe some children as Christians or Muslims, but it might be more accurate to describe them as children of Christians and children of Muslims until they make their minds up. However, there is no doubt that to be brought up inside a church or inside a mosque is to have your mind formed in such a way that your basic assumptions seem to be difficult to alter later on. So their minds are being made up by institutional formation.
I say this as someone who has met a number of Christian priests and ministers who started life as evangelicals and went to theological college and university for training and had slow or crunch crises of belief. Yet somehow that formation keeps them going, despite what appear to be intellectual somersaults that you would not find in other areas of thought. People retain commitments. The background is something of an anchor. Some incorporate the new understanding into the foundation of their commitment, perhaps with clever and sophisticated presentations, and there are those who, once in paid ministry, revert to type and you wouldn’t know where they’ve been.
For myself, I was for my first twenty four years an agnostic with no churchgoing at all. It was not just that I did not believe in God, which I did not, but that it was not even a relevant question. Those who did raise it as something to be agreed with or observed, I found to be just imposing something superfluous.
Yet from 1980 I did engage with matters of meaning, via a social connection with a Methodist church, and then from 1982 in a chaplaincy as an agnostic, and consumed some theology as part of my sociology of religion Ph.D. Nevertheless, although I was confirmed as an Anglican via another university chaplaincy and have built a worship life, I have never been able to get inside the mentality of someone who wants to ‘follow’ someone else. I did not see it, and I do not. Nor do I see that offered explanation of the world, that there is some sort of theological history that started in the past and will work out into the future. The world is too boring for that, too chancy, too rigidly reliable in a naturalistic sense at the big sizes in which we live and move and have our being.
Inevitably, every attempt to be ‘inside’ Christianity is doomed to failure, including the postmodern version I’ve attempted since about 2004. When some believers read the Bible and see something ‘at work’ that confirms their foundation of belief, all I see is communal literary devices and cultures. The arguments don’t stick. My viewpoint is confirmed by contemporary theology rather than challenged by it, and I allow it to challenge me.
Still, religious ideas, and the stillness in worship, is part of me now, and so I gravitate back to a more clearly Unitarian stance (in the contemporary sense, not as a theology), and whilst I can worship in Anglican style I find it increasingly dogmatic and crunchy in all its repeated wordy assumptions. In Anglican terms an experiment to drop taking communion seems to be a settled position, nor do I wish to contribute to prayers if it means making statements I would not make normally.
And yet this is not the only reason for falling out. It is that the Anglicanism I deal with has become unethical. It is obsessed with sexuality and usually in a harmful fashion. I read too much what the Archbishop of Canterbury writes, and I know this is doublespeak – and doublespeak fails an ethical test of truth-seeking. I see this too often in others too, and I think it is a corruption of thinking and it is directly institutional in cause. It becomes harmful when it has victims, when it marginalises, when it alters thought in order to meet a political objective. We know politicians do this because it is the nature of compromising to get something done, but somehow religious people have a higher ethical demand. It just looks like the ethical heart is being tossed overboard in present day Anglicanism, never mind an expected failure to meet an ethical demand.
I think a fundamental problem is apostolic authority, when that authority involves making promises. What is that about? I should make promises to think or talk in a particular manner when I don’t think it? I can’t make promises like that, to some higher person, when I might change my mind. Now I am not a member of the clergy and not required to make the same level of promises, but that actually underlines my point. There is a hierarchy of the more committed, who do make such promises. At first the issue was simply that I could not make those I had heard, and now I am saying they should not be made in the first place as a behaviour. Of course, if my views were convinced about the content of the promises, I might not be so troubled.
Nor am I convinced about maintaining a presentational package, that somehow it comes complete and as a benefit when maintained as the liturgical whole. If some parts make sense, keep them, and if others don’t then drop them.
Clearly in a religious community what I think won’t be the same as what another thinks. There has to be a market place of ideas and some sort of compromise of expression. But for me this does not include maintaining a package simply because it exists, under a set of promises, on a theory of maintaining a bishop in one locality under which all else are subservient.
Still, one can still have good wishes for an Anglicanism that one tastes but cannot keep within. It would still be a shame if some of its insights, that come from its diversity – such as meeting internationally on a friendly basis and having a more organic unity – were lost in a drive for greater uniformity. The latest development is still worthy of comment: having an office for Unity, Faith and Order – a UFO very alien to Anglicanism. This drive towards uniformity of process is proving to be most corrosive, and somehow it has to be settled and rested soon – otherwise the wider institution will rot under its ethical losses and doublespeak. But my move away from its labels, my wish no longer to be known as Anglican or Christian, has more foundational roots about what it is to reason within matters of wider religion, about natural explanations available, and the right to change one’s mind and to express it.
Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.