Church-going or the church going?—sites of revolutionary resistance

Memorial (Unitarian) Church, Cambridge
Last week I talked about how our free-thinking, liberal Christian, Radical Reformation and Radical Enlightenment tradition has, at heart, been concerned with accessibility, firstly to the source of being (“God”), then to education, knowledge, democracy, certain rites of passage such as marriage and, latterly and long overdue, to the buildings in which many of the aforementioned activities have taken place. Well, today, I want to talk about another kind of accessibility, the accessibility of our church services and communities to ‘millennials’ (also known as Generation Y). There are no widely agreed dates for this generation but, generally speaking, it starts in the 1980s and ends in the mid-1990s to early 2000s.

I’m not going to explore here the supposed characteristics of these contested demographic cohorts but I do propose to juxtapose Philip Larkin’s poem, “Church Going” which speaks powerfully to someone like me who straddles the end of the ‘Baby-boomer’ and the beginning of ‘Generation X’ with some words by a ‘Millennial’ Unitarian in order to see if this juxtaposition may bring forth any useful insights into what might be done by us as a radical church tradition to secure some kind of meaningful future.

READINGS: Church Going (1955) by Philip Larkin

“Why I Have ‘Failed’ as a Unitarian” by George King

I'm George. Some of you may know me better as the GA Zette Co-editor from the last few years. I've been a Unitarian for the last twenty-two years of my life (since birth), but the GA is one of only two Unitarian events I attend every year. The other is Bridging Weekend at Flagg. I have failed as a Unitarian.
          As a member of that excellent ‘Millennial’ generation, I have benefited from extensive progress in the field of technology, but not much else. So far, I have attended school, college, and had eight part- and full-time jobs; leaving me with little time for much else. I tried to go to Church when possible in my formative years, but working late Saturday nights for the last six years meant that Sunday was my only day off and became my actual ‘day of rest’.
          I fell out of love with going to Church and found myself dreading the traditional hymn sandwich and sitting on wooden pews whilst enduring the caterwauling of the Organ. Psalms grew increasingly dull, prayers are not my thing (I’m more of a ‘lie down and reflect on stuff’ guy), and let’s just say I may have fallen asleep during the odd Minister's address. TL;DR—Church is not my scene.
          I still live my life as a Unitarian and hold those same values I had been brought up with, but I fell out with ‘Religion’ the day I found my ‘Faith’. As a young Unitarian, I know that it’s down to me to keep flying the flag, as it were, but I just don’t see how going to a Church really does that. It may well have done it for generations before mine, but I simply can't see it.
          You see, I may have ‘failed’ as a Unitarian, but maybe I’m succeeding as a member of the next generation. Maybe the future of a modern Faith in this day and age lies not with attending a weekly Church service, but with a simple community. The young Unitarians in the UK have always demonstrated a strong sense of community and belonging, despite the fact that most of us only see each other once or twice a year. We are a family who show each other love, respect and treat each other with dignity, whilst welcoming newcomers with open arms. I feel as if Unitarianism could have a thriving future if only we could band together to recreate the same thing on a national scale, rather than relying on maintaining Churches and Sunday services which often seem to alienate newcomers; especially young ones.
          In short, perhaps my failings as a Unitarian are not, in fact, failings after all. Perhaps I have somewhat stumbled upon a successful future for Unitarianism. Or perhaps I'm downright wrong.



Let’s start with Larkin. In his 1955 poem called ‘Church Going’ — a pun, of course, on going to an empty church and the going of churches from the centre of our culture — Larkin recounts his feelings and actions on entering an empty parish church — feelings and actions shared by many people of my generation. 

Although I had been a very active and enthusiastic member of my local village church as a choir-boy and bell-ringer, by the start of my A-levels my formal Christian faith had gone thanks, in part, to being gently introduced by my English teacher, Mrs Hill, to the naturalistic, Epicurean and Lucrecian world-view found behind A. E. Housman’s poems and Montaigne’s skeptical essays. But despite my skeptical turn I was then, indeed still am, fascinated by and irresistibly drawn towards religion (particularly certain forms of Christianity) and, as a keen solitary and philosophically inclined cyclist, I would often plan rides around my home on the Tendring Peninsular to take in a some of its isolated churches. Countless numbers of times, and long before I read Larkin’s poem, once I was sure there was nothing going on inside the church at which I’d arrived, I’d too step inside, let the door thud shut and, hatless, would take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence and proceed to do all the things Larkin had done. Also like him, I began to realise that the meaning of these churches was taking on a shape ‘less recognisable each week, a purpose more obscure.’

My point is that in early 1980s — when the first millennials were being born — the end of formal English Christianity so clearly seen by Larkin in the 1950s was even clearer to someone like me. It’s a vision that has become clearer and clearer in various ways every day since.

Given this, and given what is effectively my own philosophical a-theism — albeit a very Christian kind of a-theism — why on earth did I nearly become an Anglican priest and actually did become a Unitarian minister? Well, my answer is to some extent found in Larkin’s last verse and I’ll return to this at the end.

Let’s turn now to the piece written by George King, a recent GA Zette Co-editor, called “Why I Have ‘Failed’ as a Unitarian”. As you heard King is a member of the millennial generation which has significantly distanced itself from formal forms of religion. His list of dreaded things in formal religion make for salutary reading for a church such as our own that still does many of them. Let’s also not forget that he tells us he may have fallen asleep during the ‘odd Minister's address’. I assume he means here the odd, i.e. occasional, address by the minister but, maybe not, for to millennials we ministers are clearly very odd creatures prone to producing work that prompts King to the use the acronym TL;DR. So, hands up, how many of you know what that stands for? . . . Well, it’s ‘too long; didn’t read’ and, just for the record, yes, I had to look it up myself.

I want to begin by responding appropriately and positively to King’s words about the inaccessibility of church to him and his generation and acknowledge that what we offer is, for most millennials (and certainly to ‘Generation Z’), profoundly unattractive, both in terms of the basic form of our services, events and the times at which they occur. We can, here, probably continue to go on as we are for years to come but that’s a different matter from whether we should. Anyway, I think King is right that the way we currently do church, week by week, Sunday by Sunday is, in the end, simply not going to do the job of keeping whatever free-thinking, radical religion we have here accessible and alive to the generations who will follow us.

But despite this I also need to be critical of certain things King says and I want to begin with his claim that ‘a modern faith in this day and age lies not with attending a weekly church service, but with a simple community.’

Firstly, in my experience no such community exists because there is nothing simple about community, especially if King means by this something like a group of like-minded people offering each other nothing but uncritical and totally unconditional support no matter what the circumstances. Real community is fraught with conflicting desires, aims, expectations, extraordinary and flawed personalities and much, much more besides. Also it’s important to realize that community is not just about unconditional support for who you are, it’s also about challenging you rigorously to transform who you are so you may become someone better, someone you didn’t, couldn’t, know might be possible before your involvement with this or that community. Unpopular though it may be to say, true community is about critical, ethical, moral and intellectual challenge and accountability to each other and this means community is never going to be an entirely easy or pleasant, unalloyed experience. Community is something profoundly difficult and complex, something that has to be maintained and worked at over the long-term in a disciplined and loyal fashion and it has to be something with a certain set of shared challenging desires, aims and expectations at its centre.

I realize, of course, that these desires, aims and expectations are often defined by many communities in horrible, maximal ways involving the adoption and promulgation of abstruse and regressive doctrines and theologies to which any prospective member must assent and in which they must come to profess they believe. King would, I’m sure, be as opposed to these maximal articulations as I am but, from where I stand, a community bearing the name ‘Unitarian’ must, at the very least, have at its centre a disciplined minimalist desire and means to access what the philosopher James C. Edwards (in his “The Plain Sense of Things – The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism”, Penn State University Press, 1997 p. ix) calls the basic sacramental energies that used to be bound up in the stories of the gods. These energies are: (1) energies for limitation in the face of hubris and (2) for transformation in the face of complacency. As James C. Edwards says, ‘If the distinction were not both too crude and too familiar, one might say that [the central task here] is about what it might mean for us to be religious without explicit religion.’

I cannot but help think King and I share a real desire to find a way to be precisely this, i.e. ’religious without explicit religion’ but yet still able to access these two sacramental energies. However, one doesn’t get these things via some ‘simple’, uncritical community, they only come with the disciplined, conscious building up of a new kind of complex, critical, post-religious religious community. Simple this ain’t.

The second thing I want strongly to disagree with is King’s throw-away use of the acronym DR;TL in relation to the minister’s address. I do not doubt that ministers and other service leaders do, at times, write long (and we may presume bad and boring) addresses. However, merely to say that something is ‘too long’ and that THIS is why ‘I didn’t read it’ reeks to me of a problem faced by ‘Millennials’ and ‘Generation Y’ brought up with Twitter. Here’s what I mean.

At the beginning of this October the US author Mark Harris who writes eloquently — and at considerable length — about the history of film, published a powerful tweet that read as follows:

The plain fact is that in order properly to become religious without any explicit religion and to be able to tap into and transmit the two aforementioned sacramental energies we have no choice but to explore (amongst other things) the truth that things have many causes, that something can be flawed but worthwhile, that basically good people are imperfect, and all of this takes way, way more than 140 characters taking no more than a couple of nanoseconds to read. The things I think King cares about in the Unitarian tradition can only be unfolded carefully, critically and at length in conversation over a considerable length of time. They are also all things which will not easily be grasped the first time round even by the best writer and certainly not by even best hearer or reader. Of course, the writer must put work into making what they say as concise and as accessible as possible but sometimes the writing is, itself, part of the conversational process of developing together greater brevity and clarity. In this process the listener needs to do some of the serious hard thinking themselves and do it over a considerable length of time in an ongoing critical, conversational encounter with the writer. Consequently ‘TL;DR’ is, in my opinion, a deeply problematic thing to say and should never ever be used in the Unitarian context.

Finally, let’s come back to the last verse of Larkin’s poem. I think Larkin is right to suggest that actual, special, liminal, interstitial, physical places of worship which have been made holy and sacred by a community of people who have consciously gone to them to engage in deep and serious thinking about the meaning of life and death and where they have been able to celebrate and mourn together, can never be obsolete. Church going — that is actually going to church — is today for me a necessary revolutionary act that can, in a small but effective way, push against the shallow, exploitative neoliberal consumer culture that is every everywhere around us and which George explicitly references when he tells us he doesn’t come to church in part because he has been worked to the bone at school, college, and in eight part- and full-time jobs, all of which have left him with little time, and presumably energy, for much else.

In the 'blent air' of places of worship like this, this ‘serious house on serious earth’, we know we must encourage each other to stop, reflect and remember again and again that it is ‘proper to grow wise’ and that we must resist becoming, as so many people have been forced to become, wage and time-slaves to a deeply unfair and exploitative system. We are here to show another way of being human and to offer an actual site of resistance to the dreadful modern exploitative way of being King references. Here we can give people real hope that they can access the two sacramental energies I mentioned earlier: (1) energies for limitation in the face of hubris and (2) for transformation in the face of complacency.

These — and other things besides — are all revolutionary activities which I do not think can be fully or properly replicated in straightforwardly private domestic spaces, nor in secular public places such as pubs or cafés, nor in virtual spaces such as those found on Facebook, Twitter or Youtube.

So, to conclude.

Bearing in mind all my aforementioned caveats I think King is right to suggest that the old ways of doing church are going and that we need to find new ways of being religious without any explicit religion. But, because of the reasons I’ve just outlined, I think King is profoundly wrong in believing we no longer need TO GO TO a church.

Personally I find that church going, in both the senses meant by Larkin, is vital and the words of his last verse remind me that I wanted to become a minister because I felt a powerful call, not only to help move religion on by letting so much of the old church go, but also because I wanted to help maintain and flourish at least one of these extraordinary, living, liminal places of serious, holy and sacred resistance against the exploitative and destructive forces that continue to plague our whole world.