Institutional religion is not very compatible with liberalism . . . It is addicted to some degree of authoritarianism, legalism.

Just a quick blog to direct you to an interesting article by Theo Hobson in today's Guardian Newspaper. (I find that he is always worth reading even when I disagree with him). I was born and raised an Anglican and, therefore, despite my own move into rather more radical forms of liberal Christianity, though it is fair to say that I'm increasingly disinclined to label it thus, I have continued to be disturbed to observe the Church's continuing collapse. But this post isn't going to be an example of schadenfreude because I think Hobson's basic conclusion is massively relevant to the problems my own adopted liberal religious institution/s is facing - we need to listen to him. Hobson notes:

. . . institutional religion is not very compatible with liberalism, at the end of the day. It is addicted to some degree of authoritarianism, legalism. The Church of England concealed this, for centuries - thanks to its cultural establishment it was a fairly liberal Christian institution. But that era's over. It now follows the logic of Roman Catholicism - liberalism is a threat to unity.

And he concludes:

So a fairly stark choice has emerged: stay within Anglicanism, and be part of its post-liberal realignment. Or seek a new sort of Christian culture, accepting of liberalism, free of the old power-itch. Leave the ruins of Christendom behind, and build afresh, on new foundations.

The reason for pointing you to Hobson's blog is because it echoes a point I have been making, reasonably consistently, over the past year, which is to suggest that if we want to be true to basic liberal religious impulse of the Unitarian tradition's unique mix of rational Christian humanism and radical and mystical Anabaptism (first articulated by the sixteenth century Polish Socianian community) then we must absolutely avoid strengthening any kind of formal institutional religion. Genuinely to follow Jesus surely requires nothing less from any of our communities.

Alas, it has proved very tempting to all the various groups in the now incredibly diverse world of contemporary Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christianity to think that by strengthening our institutions we will find the answer both to our own slow decline and also our hoped for renaissance of a liberal, radical and reasonable spirituality. I feel confident enough now to say that I don't think it is. We have to let such ideas go and we should publically model this letting go so that others can see how to do it and so come to experience themselves the kind of open-hearted and inquiring faith Jesus promised every person could have.

It's dammned hard to do though - I should know, having many times been an institutional activist. So, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Anyway, all these thoughts have reminded me of the "mission and vision statement" of the Congregational Church in Middlebury, Veromont, one of my friends helped draft. I conclude with them because they still seem to me to point those of us who want to remain connected with Christianity (albeit a genuinely rational, radical and open-hearted Christianity) in something like the right direction:

We are a community that seeks to live by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that we love God with our whole heart and mind and that we love our neighbour as ourselves. In this spirit, we affirm universal and unconditional equality and acceptance of all. We affirm but one orthodoxy: a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it. With our whole heart, we desire to promote, among ourselves and in the world, compassion, justice, and peace, for such is the Kingdom of God.


Our Mission is to live as Jesus taught, loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.


Therefore, looking to the future with hope, our church community will be defined by all of these characteristics:

The life of Jesus of Nazareth will be the standard for all that we do individually and collectively.

We will reflect continuing growth in our understanding of our place in the world and our responsibility in it.

Children and Youth will be central to the life of our church and will be unconditionally accepted in it.

Our search for truth and a sustaining faith in God will be evident.

Communal worship in many forms will be vital to church life as will our support and encouragement for each other in our individual spiritual journeys.

Education in the ways of Jesus of Nazareth will be an essential and exciting part of our programs for children, youth, and adults.

We will be active and responsible stewards of Earth.

We will be practicing radical hospitality and welcoming all with unconditional equality and acceptance.
We will be caring with compassion for our church family and neighbours near and far.

We will be working for justice and peace among all people. We will be committing our time, our treasure and our talents to fulfill this vision for our church.


What exactly do you mean by avoiding strengthening formal institutional religion? Are you arguing for congregationalism against strengthening national structures? I'm never completely sure when a "community" becomes an "institution."
Thanks Stephen, a good question. I've just posted a tentative, albeit rather long, "answer" as a full post. Sorry about the length but then the answer is, although simple at one level, seems to require to me unhelpful just to answer with a yes or no.

Hope all is well with you.