Sunday, August 16, 2009


I thought I might as well continue in my reviewing of the words I've used to describe this blog, having covered radical and Unitarian I now want to cover "emergent."

I have to admit I was thinking a lot more about the emergent church and alternative worship 4 years ago when I labelled this blog than I have been since. During my life as I've been writing this blog over the last 4 years I've spent a lot less time thinking about the emergent church. Partly this is because I've been going through the motions to become a Unitarian minister. I've needed to spend a lot of time learning about the Unitarian community, learning about the way things work, learning about the way things are done in traditional church. And that's been important.

But now I feel the need to begin to think about new forms of spiritual community and new ways of worship.

What is the emergent church? Browsing YouTube I came across this video from an US American Evangelical persective.

Although clearly speaking from his own perspective this seems a pretty fair summary.

Clearly using Driscoll's category I would want to be closest to the Emergent Liberals. One difference would be that the emergent stuff is not coming out of Evangelicalism but mainline denominations in the UK. In the UK a good deal of emergent stuff is Church-of-England-liberal.

But actually I would want to go further than emergent liberals. For example Brian McLaren seems to refuse to answer one way or another about gay inclusion in the Christian community. This video shows some rather stuffy looking old guys criticising McLaren for refusing to answer the question about gay inclusion and I kind of agree with them. I don't want the kind of liberalism that refuses to takes sides. I want a much stronger liberalism, or radicalism.

So I think it's right that I describe this blog as radical emergent. What do I mean by this? What I mean is that the church needs to develop in new ways to become missionally relevant to British culture in the twenty-first century. This includes a questioning of both practices and theology. Typically liberalism is more comfortable questioning theology and conservativism is more comfortable questioning practices. The radical emergent approach I'm advocating questions both. What I consider more foundational is an ethical commitment (it's a bit deeper than the word "ethical" but I can't think of a better word at the moment). In other words, all that Sermon on the Mount stuff.

The church needs to break out of a culturally-bound ways of working. It needs to change from institution-maintainance mode to missionary mode. The mission becomes primary. Not as a way to attract people to church, but rather as its rasion-d'etre. The classic way of saying this is that the church does not have a mission, but the mission has a church.

What this means in practice is an open question but I'm going to be thinking about this a lot more in my ministry from now on, and blogging about it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


When I started this blog nearly 4 years and nearly 300 posts ago one of the labels I used for it/me was "radical." Perhaps I used it a little unreflectively. Recently I've been pondering what radical means.

A couple of things have made me think of this. Firstly this blog series from my friend Jeremy, which explores a distinction between "radical progressives" and "rational progressives."

There is also this definition of radical, liberal and conservative from Terry Eagleton quoted at Young Anabaptist Radicals:

“Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but they could feasibly be much improved. Conservatives believe that things are pretty bad, but that’s just the way the human animal is. And liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in all of us.”

What interests me is finding a way to express the tension I feel sometimes between myself and the wider Unitarian movement. One way to express this is to say I tend towards radicalism and the Unitarianism movement tends towards liberalism, but I'm not entirely sure what I mean when I say that so I'm thinking out loud writing this at the moment.

Unitarianism has always described itself as liberal, but what does this mean? It's got something to do with being open to new ideas, believing in progress, tolerating diversity with an incremental agenda for bringing about a better world. And perhaps your assessment of liberalism will depend on what you think about the nature of the world, how reformable it is.

The problem with liberalism can be seen as it's tolerance of opposition. For example there were plenty of Unitarians fighting against slavery (and we rush to celebrate them today) but there were plenty of Unitarian slave-holders, and we never insisted they cease their involvement in the slave trade. We tolerated a diversity of opinions on slavery, because that's more liberals do. This also relates to the econominic position of liberals, who tend to be middle-class.

Or another example: radicals tend to be pacifists while liberals tend to be just war theorists (I'm still working out where I fit with this one). Radicals see war as something so horrific it must be completely renounced, where liberals see war as a possibly necessary evil that must be worked against slowly, possibility fighting a war to prevent war. Liberals see some good where radicals see only bad.

Radicals have a strong agenda for action where liberals want to be open to changing their agenda in the light of new knowledge.

I hope I'm not speaking in stereotypes and generalisations too much.

I'm aware that in many ways Unitarianism can fall into the worse traps of liberalism: well intentioned but unable to build enough consensus on anything to say or do anything very important. We can also in an attempt to be inclusive try to deny our own particularity, history and context, not realising this is ultimately impossible. Andrew Brown has plenty to say about this kind of thing in his own rather philosophically-dense way in places like here.

I'm also strongly influenced by James Luther Adams who (although he also spoke of himself as a religious liberal) emphasised the need for conversion which seems characteristic of radicalism.

So I suppose what I mean by radical is that people and institutions (not least the institutions of Unitarianism) stand in need of conversion (radical change). I am optimistic and hopeful that that change is possible, but not without the death of some things. That change is brought about by understanding our roots and the original dynamism of early movements in both Christianity and Unitarianism.