Saturday, January 12, 2013

"Respectability" is overrated

This follows on from my last two posts, in a similar, but slightly different tact.

As well as moving away from a language about "values" and "diversity" I think what the Unitarian community really needs to do is move away from the pursuit of "respectability."

Now we don't talk a lot about "respectability" but I think it nevertheless remains a strong undercurrent in our culture.

Again these thoughts are emerging partly out of my study of Unitarian history in Britain. Even since the Great Ejection of 1662 we have been, for the most part "reluctant dissenters." Unlike more radical groups like Baptists and Quakers who took a more principled non-conformist stand, English Presbyterians had a deep desire to remain part of the mainstream, to be an alternative parish church and to work hard to be as respectable and mainstream as the Anglicans.

For a while in the early days of Unitarianism there was a more deliberately radical, sectarian and strident approach. The obvious example is Joseph Priestley, an open radical who supported the American and French revolutions and had his house and church burnt down by a conservative mob in Birmingham.

But the undercurrent of Presbyterian respectability remained strong. Unitarian theology made us marginal, but we were hardly at the margins of society in terms of class, wealth or influence, for the most part. Unitarians campaigned for civil rights, but it was for the right to press ourselves further into the respectable centre of society that we truly wanted. We wanted to be councillors, members of Parliament, we wanted to go to Oxford and Cambridge. The push was not to deconstruct Anglican privilege, but to get in on it.

Do you know where I think we went wrong? I think it was the Dissenters' Chapel Act of 1844. You see there was a lot of legal wrangling over property. Unitarians were in chapels that were originally Presbyterian, and someone asked the question of whether we were legally entitled to them any more. The Dissenters' Chapel Act confirmed that we were, and so we remained.

I think this was the worst thing that could have happened to us. We remained in our old Presbyterian chapels and kept on the path of comfort and respectability. But what if we hadn't? What if there had been a Second Great Ejection in the 1840s when all Unitarians had to leave their churches?

I think such a traumatic experience would have cemented our identity as radical non-conformists. I think we would have embraced the name "Unitarian" with stubborn pride. I think we would have realised that faith and integrity is costly. I think we would have had to dig in our pockets to pay to build new churches.

In short we would have injected into Unitarianism: identity, generosity, radicalism, and a shared experience and story. In short, everything that we need, but don't have in our culture.

But that didn't happen. We continued into Victorian respectability with people like James Martineau pushing us there (I have a lot of time for Martineau on some things, and not on others).

But is this history still relevant? I believe it is, and shows up in a number of ways.

One is ecumenism. When you look at why Unitarians want to be involved in Christian ecumenical bodies I believe it is rarely because of a deep belief in wanting to work with other brothers and sisters in Christ. It is usually because we want to be "respectable" and "mainstream." We wanted to prove we're more respectable than Jehovah's Witnesses. We're not a weird cult, we're a proper church.

It also comes out with things like wearing clerical dog-collars. I know I am in disagreement with lots of colleagues on this one. But I believe wearing (Anglican/Catholic) clerical wear, even at things like Pride parades, in an expression of wanting to appear "mainstream" and "respectable" to the general populace.

Also in issues like faith schools. In some circumstances we have been happy to go along with a system that discriminates against others as long as it accepts us as Christians.

It also shows up when we seem so happy to get a Unitarian representative at Remembrance at the Cenotaph. Or when one goes to a tea party at Buckingham Palace.

It also shows up in the "claiming" of historical figures to be Unitarian. "These people were Unitarian!" we say: Isaac Newton (no); Thomas Jefferson (not really); Charles Dickens (briefly, at best); Charles Darwin (in childhood at best); Florence Nightingale (no). Do we claim these people because they contributed to our faith and theology? No. We claim them because we're saying "If four US Presidents were Unitarians, we must be OK, right?"

Even our posters say "Eminent Unitarians." Eminent? Eminent? Is that what matters to us, eminence?

So what is wrong with respectability anyway? My answer is shaped, primarily, by my commitment to the way of Jesus. Jesus' teaching and ministry is always pushing to the margins: marginal people, marginal places. The one time we went to the capital city they killed him. Jesus understood that if you truly follow the way of God, the way of truth and integrity, you're likely to come against opposition because the structures of our society are shaped by the sins of sexism, racism, elitism and greed.

When we pursue respectability, when our eyes are fixed on the centre and elite of society, we become subtly manipulated by those structures. Why was it two respectable religious figures walked past the bleeding man on the side of the road? Because their respectability blinded them to the suffering. Why did a Samaritan help the bleeding man? Because his ethnic and religious marginal status, helped him to open his eyes and his heart to the suffering of another.

Embracing marginality increases our capacity for compassion. It also increases our ability for prophetic challenge to the powers that be.

It also increases the effectiveness of our ministry. Our impact is likely to be increased by having a distinct identity that goes against the flow of mainstream society.

It also shapes the nature of our mission. Instead of desperately bending over backwards to prove our acceptability to the world, our witness is shaped by living provocatively, controversially even. Yet our (pro)vocation is for the purpose of offering hope to the world, especially to those on the margins.

If we accept that we are a weird, distinct, marginal minority that offers a distinct religious path and hope to the hopeless, then we have a chance of making a difference in this world.

But if we push ourselves to the mainstream, I think eventually we'll just dissipate into an ineffective blandness that does nothing to challenge the injustices of our world.


Blogger Kenneth Robertson said...

A provocative thesis, Stephen ; you describe the Baptists and Quakers as originally more radical than Unitarians - now they are as mainstream as the C of E in many ways.All the long established faith communities are essentially mainstream institutions, despite the fact that there is only a small minority who play an active part in them.The census shows a majority claiming 'Christian' identity as a badge of respectability rather than as a declaration of faith.There are a number of small radical groups truly 'outside the mainstream' often centred around a charismatic leader as there always have been but usually well away from the liberal tendencies of Unitarianism.

11:00 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

"Or when one goes to a tea party at Buckingham Palace."

Oh you naughty, naughty, boy Stephen. ;-)

Excellent insightful post.

Keep up the good prophetic work!

12:31 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

"The one time we (sic) went to the capital city they killed him."

Well that *might* be because Jesus caused a bit of a ruckus at the Temple. . .


12:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And there is no harm in raising a ruckus at the temple, is there Stephen? I do believe Mr. Avenger has a point there. By all means lets head for the margins of society.There is a lot of work to be done there.Again, I enjoy your blog

7:18 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

Perhaps it is time for Rev. Stephen to resurrect The Church Of The Lager Fellowship. . . ;-)

6:46 pm  

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