Adopting the role of umpire and letting the role of player go . . .

A cricket umpire signals a dismissal (Source)

You can hear a recorded podcast of the following piece by clicking this link

In this final episode of Series One, I’d like to draw your attention to a tension that has long existed between, on the one hand, me as an individual person committed to a certain kind of open-ended, philosophical/religious way of being in (or moving through) the world and, on the other hand, me in my public role as a minister of a very small, liberal-religious community in Cambridge, UK.  

During this podcast series, necessitated solely by the COVID-19 pandemic which has closed the church for face-to-face meeting for over a year, I have taken the opportunity to try to sum up some of the main ideas and themes in my own thinking over the past twenty years. Given that they have been written very much in isolation — and certainly in a situation detached from the former weekly life of my local community — it should not be surprising that they have represented me very much in my role as a “player” for a religious and philosophical position that I have variously called Christian atheist, religious naturalist, ecstatic humanist and new-materialist. These podcasts have been, if you like, examples of me going out to bat explicitly for this team. 

During this pandemic crisis — one which, I might add, is far from being over — I’m aware that many of you have had little choice but to do something similar with your own philosophy of life as you have sought to find a way through these uncertain, and deeply unsettling times.  And now, as the chances of being able to return to face-to-face meetings improve and people begin to think once again about how to do things together in the future, this need carefully to think through, better articulate and firm-up our own personal philosophies and understandings of religion has only served to make more visible than ever before the hyper-plural nature of my own local liberal-religious community. The old nineteenth and early twentieth-century idea that such a community could (or would) more or less completely share the philosophy or religion that happened to be held by the current minister, is now completely dead and gone. To deny this reality would be to engage in the equivalent of railing against the rising or the setting of the sun. 

Contemplating this reality over the past few months has persuaded me that, from now on, when I am acting in my role as a minister, I must simply stop being a “player” and that another way of proceeding ministerially must urgently be adopted. What I think that way is, or might be, I’ll come to in a second.  

But, firstly, I need to be clear that there is no way I can actually stop being a “player” because my own personal philosophical and religious wagers really do count for me; this is especially true for someone like me who has been significantly shaped by philosophies and religions that are, broadly speaking, existentialist in outlook. However, as will be clear from my foregoing remarks, what I find I must simply do as a “player” is never going to be precisely the same as what each individual member of my own local, liberal-religious community thinks they must simply be doing as a “player.” This has, of course, always been true but on a number of occasions during the pandemic, this disjunction has become unhelpfully foregrounded and I confess that I have too often allowed myself to be drawn into philosophical and theological competition rather than facilitating genuine, open-ended conversation. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. My misstep here — far easier to make on Zoom meetings than when meeting face-to-face — have helped me see more clearly than before that from now on, when it comes to articulating my own philosophical and religious wagers, i.e. actually going out to bat for them, this is something I need to do independently of the local liberal-religious community where I am minister. To this end, I will continue my personal blog and record a podcast now and then but, henceforth, they will stand as purely personal expressions of my current thinking and not as necessarily saying anything relevant to, for, or on behalf of my local community. If you are reading or listening to this piece you clearly know where to find my blog and podcast and, should you wish at any time in the future to take a peek at, or listen to what I’m currently thinking about and doing, then you know how to do that. However, as of today, I will no longer be distributing direct links to them via church communications.    

Given this decision, what is it that I think I might now usefully do when I’m acting in my role as a minister? Well, to help me suggest an answer I’m now going to draw heavily on some ideas found in Michael Oakeshott’s influential 1962 book, ‘Rationalism in politics and other essays’ (‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, rev. ed. 1991), 

It seems to me, to use Oakeshott’s terms, I must cease to be a “player” and become instead, quite explicitly, an “umpire”.  

As many of you will know, over the past twenty years, I have tried to put open-ended, Socratic-like conversation at the heart of what a liberal-religious community should be doing together and, for a couple of years now, I’ve been struck, more and more, how what this has actually come to look like on the ground in Cambridge is very close to the kind of conversation valued and encouraged by Oakeshott. He thought that in such open-ended conversations 

‘the participants . . . are not engaged in an inquiry or debate; there is no “truth” to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought. They are not concerned to inform, to persuade, or to refute one another, and therefore the cogency of their utterances does not depend upon their all speaking in the same idiom; they may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument. . . . In conversation, “facts” appear only to be resolved once more into the possibilities from which they were made; “certainties” are shown to be combustible, not by being brought in contact with other “certainties” or with doubt, but by being kindled by the presence of ideas of another order; approximations are revealed between notions normally remote from one another. Thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions. Nobody asks where they have come from or on what authority they are present; nobody cares what will become of them when they have played their part. There is no symposiarch or arbiter; not even a doorkeeper to examine credentials. Every entrant is taken at its face-value and everything is permitted which can get itself accepted into the flow of speculation. And voices which speak in conversation do not compose a hierarchy. Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of a diversity of voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another (‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 489-490).

Now, with this kind of conversation in mind, as I try to lay out for you what I think, as an “umpire”, I need to be doing, you will hear Oakeshott (‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 433-434) gently paraphrased, and sometimes silently quoted, again and again.

I realise that one of my key ministerial roles — especially in the increasingly fraught, nationalistic, culture war in which we all currently find ourselves — is not to inflame religious passion and give it new objects to feed upon but, instead, to inject into the activities of already too passionate men and women an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. I can see ever more clearly how important it is to make it clear that, although I do not believe myself to be an agent of a supernatural God or some other benign providence, nor a custodian of a moral law or an emblem of a divine order, I am still able to alert people (both inside and outside my local community) to the existence of something shared which they might still be able to recognize as being valuable in the ordinary course of their own religious and, for that matter, political, lives.

I also recognise that I need to ensure that within my own local, liberal religious community the aforementioned restraint upon passionate religious belief is not imposed upon its members by my own inappropriate suggestion or cajolery, or by any other means than by, if not legally binding laws (as in the case in the nation-state), them at least by the congregation’s own shared and collectively agreed upon local by-laws and patterns of (broadly speaking) liberal-Christian, humanist and radical Enlightenment-inspired behaviour. I can see that into the heat of our engagements, into the passionate clash of our personal beliefs, into our individual or shared enthusiasm for saving the souls of our neighbours or of all humankind, week by week, it is important for me, as an “umpire”, constantly to bring into play the scepticism which most people neither have the time nor the inclination to do for themselves. In more poetic terms, I have come to see that my job as a minister is now, therefore, primarily to provide people with something like the cool touch of the mountain that one feels in the plain even on the hottest summer day. Or, to leave that metaphor behind, to be like the ‘governor’ which, by controlling the speed at which its parts move, keeps an engine from racketing itself to pieces. Additionally, I have recognised that my role as minister must include finding ways to strengthen already existing, but occasionally forgotten, congregational structures which ensure no single person is ever given (or is allowed to take) too much power or opportunity for advancing their own favourite religious or political projects. 

In short, I can more and more see the value of maintaining a liberal-religious congregation whose (lowercase ‘c’) conservatism imposes upon all its members an orderliness without unduly directing the enterprise of any individual member’s own free-thinking and seeking and which, at the same time, concentrates all our duties to our tradition’s rules/by-laws in such a fashion that in our conversations together there is still plenty of room left for genuine delight and discovery. The hope is, and remains, that everyone who becomes a member is prepared to accept such an ecclesiastical order (polity), not because they believe it to represent some unassailable religious truth, but merely because it helps restrain any indecent competition from breaking out between our different substantive religious wagers and which, as Hume once said, also helps to moderate ‘the plague of a too diligent clergy.’

Now, in order to bring this piece to a satisfactory enough — though necessarily  provisional — close, I need to return to the player/umpire distinction and note that Oakeshott also said:

‘An “umpire” who at the same time is one of the players is no umpire; “rules” about which we are not disposed to be conservative are not rules but incitements to disorder; the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny’ (‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 433-434)

I hope this short passage helps clarifies why, as a ministerI must cease to be a “player” and only now act as an “umpire” whose primary concern is not for my own religious/philosophical dreams and wagers but, instead, for the well-being and maintenance of the arrangements, rules and by-laws governing the kind of conversation I have outlined above. Conversations  in which “thoughts of different species take wing and play round one another, responding to each other’s movements and provoking one another to fresh exertions.”

Kowing this, were I now to continue to act as a “player” within my own local liberal-religious community I would dangerously be conjoining dreaming and ruling, something which could only serve to make my own deeply held religious/philosophical dreams and wagers incitements to disorder and that, my friends, can only lead to tyranny, something I completely and absolutely abhor.

So, I hope you will understand why, henceforth, when I am in my role of minister, I shall do my level best to leave my own bat behind in the pavilion and only don the white coat and Panama hat of an umpire. I trust this significant change of emphasis will help to ensure that there will still be plenty of room left for genuine delight and discovery in the coming years.

The next series of Wednesday Evening Conversations (with an explicitly Oakeshottian flavour about them!) connected with the church will probably start sometime in mid-May. 

Keep an eye on the church newsletter page for news about that . . .  


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