"It is one thing to dance as though nothing has happened; it is another to acknowledge that something singularly awful has happened . . . and then decide to dance" - on impending denominational collapse

 You'll spot Chief Plenty Coups'
picture above my head amongst some
of my other teachers and models

I want to begin by noting that this is an address from me very much as a minister within a particular religious tradition (Unitarian and Free Christian) who has a position of corporate responsibility. Would I say what I say here if I were not a minister? Perhaps not. However, my own personal identity is so tied up with my ministerial one that today they cannot really now be untangled.


Today, the day of our AGM, I want to tell you a story about radical hope which, at first sight, will seem to have nothing to do with us. However, by the end of this brief address I hope you will see why it does.

The story concerns the native North American tribe called the Crow which had its lands in what is modern day Montana. They were a people whose understanding of in what being-in-the-world consisted centred wholly on hunting and warring with their Sioux enemies and these activities and the practices that were related to them were absolutely constitutive of Crow subjectivity - i.e., the understanding of what they were. Consequently, when the white settlers came and not only destroyed the buffalo herds but also outlawed intertribal conflict, what it was to be a Crow was in danger. Their remarkable chief, Plenty Coups, said of this period "when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened." The philosopher Jonathan Lear - mostly known for his work on Freud - recently wrote a poignant, accessible and helpful book called "Radical Hope" which starts with Plenty Coups' statement and which explores the extraordinary story of how the tribe were able eventually to manifest a radical hope by finding a traditional way forward in the new world that was to be the USA even as they faced the complete and total end of their way of life. Life as the Crow literally became impossible.

But what does this mean? For the moment let's stick just to hunting buffalo. Lear notes there is something here we are liable to miss if we are not careful because, when we say "It is no longer possible to hunt buffalo", we are speaking of two things (Jonathan Lear "Radical Hope", Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 38ff):

The first is that "Circumstances are such that there is no practical possibility of our hunting for buffalo" - i.e. there are simply no longer any buffalo to hunt.

The second is that we mean "The very act of hunting buffalo itself has ceased to make sense."

Not clear about the difference? Well, Lear gives us a modern illustration of this:

Consider a person who goes into her favourite restaurant and says to the waiter, "I'll have my regular, a buffalo burger medium rare." The waiter [replies], "I'm sorry madam, it is no longer possible to order buffalo; last week you ate the last one. There are no more buffalo. I'm afraid a buffalo burger is out of the question." Now consider a situation in which the social institution of restaurants goes out of existence. For a while there was the historical institution of restaurants - people went to special places and paid to have meals served to them - but for a variety of reasons people stopped organising themselves in this way. Now there is a new meaning to "it is no longer possible to order buffalo"; no act could any longer count as ordering. In general [Lear continues] these two sense of impossibility are not clearly distinguished because they often go together. (Jonathan Lear "Radical Hope", Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 38-39).

Now let's turn to war and to an act which was for the Crow closely bound up with it, namely, the Sun Dance. This dance was a prayer-filled ritual asking for God's help in winning military victory. But, as Lear points out, what is one to do with the Sun Dance when it has become impossible to fight - impossible in both the senses I've just noted. In essence a culture facing this kind of cultural devastation has three choices:

1. Keep dancing even though the point of the dance has been lost. The ritual continues, though no one can any longer say what the dance is *for*.

2. Invent a new aim for the dance. The dance continues, but now its purpose is, for example, to facilitate good negotiations with whites, usher good weather for farming, or restore health to a sick relative.

3. Give up the dance. This is an implicit recognition that there is no longer any point in dancing the Sun Dance. It is also to give up, of course, any hope of continuing as a Crow people.

By 1875 the Crow finally chose the third option. When, ten years later and by now on the reservation, Plenty Coups said "After this, nothing happened" Lear points out it is tempting to think that Plenty Coups simply meant no traditionally important events like the Sun Dance happened any more. But, as Lear observes, it is

"also possible to hear him bearing witness to a deeper and darker claim: namely, that no one dances the Sun Dance any more because it is no longer possible to do so. . . . One might still teach people the relevant steps; people might learn how to go through the motions; and they can even call it the "Sun Dance"; but the Sun Dance itself has gone out of existence" (Jonathan Lear "Radical Hope", Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 36-37).

The two central shaping acts that gave everything to the Crow had just gone out of existence. Imagine, just imagine, how that felt to the members of the tribe now herded together on their reservation. It is no wonder there were such high levels of depression and despair amongst Native American peoples.

At this dark moment - and before I explore the decisions they took to continue and point to the radical hope that Plenty Coup and his tribe eventually found - I need to let you know why I am telling you this. In a way, I think that as a certain kind of liberal church we, locally and nationally, are in the midst of an analogous situation - no where near as horrific and total as that faced by the Crow, of course, but analogous nonetheless.

We grew to our height and greatest strength during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the equivalent  for us of buffalo (well not really equivalent but analogous) at the time were the many hundreds of thousands of people we were able to attract who were looking for a version of Christianity religion which was egalitarian, theologically non-judgemental, which was open to the insights of other religions and cultures and also open to the discoveries of the natural sciences. But for all kinds of reasons the whole culture changed and became more and more secularised. This immense group of religious people actively seeking a liberal Christian institution have simply disappeared from the landscape to be replaced with a similar but really very different kind of secular person. (Cattle are similar to buffalo but not the same. A person whose cultural background is religious is different from a person whose cultural background is secular).

The equivalent for us of the Sun Dance were our many congregational rituals, our hymn-singing, our prayer-saying, our sermon-giving and special services such as baptism and communion - all of which were, of course, tied to a particular kind of God language and metaphysics. All of these embodied activities were intimately woven in with our conception of in what the good life consisted and they helped us structure our world and give it deep meaning and significance. But, in so many ways, we find that although we still know the steps and words the whole way wider culture structures the world and gives it meaning and significance has changed such that many of our old ways are impossible (in both the senses Lear points to).

Now you might be saying by now "Good God, that's bleak" and I won't deny at one level it is. Figures don't tell everything but they indicate how bad things are for us. There are now only 163 member churches in England, Scotland and Wales with a total membership of 3,672. The largest church is Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London has 168 members but the second largest is Dean Row Chapel, Wilmslow, with 80. In Cambridge we have 43 and sixty-one of our congregations have 10 members or fewer. (See this post by Boy in the Bands - a US Universalist minister who helpfully keeps an eye on such things around the world).

For us as a denomination it really is do or die.

But here I can turn to the radical hope with which I began. The Crow decided that they wanted to survive - it was an existential decision - and to do that they first had to acknowledge that the old ways of living a good life had gone. For him that involved "the stark recognition that the traditional ways of structuring significance and meaning had been devastated." But, in his beautiful book, Lear believes  that for the Crow this recognition was not an expression of despair but the only way to avoid it. He points out that one must recognise the destruction that has occurred if one is to move beyond it.

Having acknowledged this Plenty Coups and other members of his tribe returned to their stories and dreams (dreams and their interpretation were, as I'm sure you know, key in tribal life) and they radically re-interpreted them to find a traditional way Crow forward. There are some beautiful and moving examples of this in Lear's book but I'll just use that of the Sun Dance as it is here that I find a convergence with what I'm trying to do with our own beleaguered church tradition.

In 1941, sixty-six years after they abandoned the Sun Dance, the Crow decided they wanted to re-introduce it but at that point they found that the steps of their version no longer existed in the memory of single member of the tribe. However, they pressed on by seeking out the leaders of the Sun Dance among the Shoshone tribe in Wyoming and, in so doing, learned the steps that their traditional enemies had danced when they hoped to defeat the Crow in battle - here is one important moment of reconciliation. But, you might ask, was this, is this, the maintenance of a sacred tradition or is it, to quote Lear "a nostalgic evasion - a step or two away from a Disneyland imitation of 'the Indian'?.

Lear thinks everything hinges on Plenty Coups declaration that after the buffalo had gone and the warring had stopped "nothing happened" because it lays down something key if a genuinely vibrant tradition is to be maintained or reintroduced. As Lear says:

"It is one thing to dance as though nothing has happened; it is another to acknowledge that something singularly awful has happened . . . and then decide to dance" (Jonathan Lear "Radical Hope", Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 153).

Because that acknowledgement was made their decision to dance  again helped them, not only survive in a real and meaningful traditional way, but also to bring some of their unique traditional insights to the common table of modern American culture. Plenty Coups is now a national hero and stands as an example of reconciliation. The singularly awful happening the Crow experienced has not gone away but they have redeemed it - not only for themselves - but, potentially, for the whole of modern USA as their stories have commingled and the resulted in an enrichment of the whole. Not everything Crow was salvageable but enough was.

We, too, as we face what might seem like the end can choose to do likewise. We can choose to begin to dance again some of our traditional dances - even if we have to learn them again from others, namely those people from different Christian traditions, Protestant and Catholic, people from other religious traditions and even the non-religious, who are finding a home amongst us. (I forgot to mention this at the lectern but the major recent reintroduction in this congregation - ten years ago - was, of course, the communion service and it was well over sixty-six years since it was last held in Cambridge).

If we have the courage to do this kind of thing more fully I am sure we will not only be able to survive in a real and meaningful traditional way, but we, too will also be able to bring some of our unique radical insights to the common table of modern secular British culture and we will be able to enrich each other. Not everything we valued will be salvageable but enough will.

"It is one thing to dance as though nothing has happened; it is another to acknowledge that something singularly awful has happened . . . and then decide to dance" (Jonathan Lear "Radical Hope", Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 153).

So, let us acknowledge the awful thing that has happened - is happening to us and then decide to dance again. That decision saved the Crow. It may yet save us.

Shall we dance?