Being an ‘umpire’ and not a ‘player’


I publish the following piece with an important caveat which borrows some words of Herbert Fingarette (1921-2018) found in his ‘The Self in Transformation’ (Basic Books, New York 1963, p.1). I want to make it clear that this piece is an outcome rather than a realised objective and, as such, it simply forms an intellectual footprint and not a blueprint. If it helps you personally to find your place on the intellectual map and the existential position in which you point, all well and good. If not, so be it, I wish you well in your own place and in following your own direction of travel.


This occasional piece finds its genesis in a chance encounter with a fellow, free-thinking, minister of religion who, on hearing Susanna and I were caring for Susanna’s terminally ill daughter, offered us in a gentle but, in terms of his personal belief anyway, a ‘hot’ message of hope involving belief in the survival of personality beyond the grave and the existence of, what seemed to me, to be an almost Kantian kind of ‘kingdom’ or ‘realm’ of ends in which an all-good God (or principle) eventually brings all people to some kind of salvation and so, along the way, gifts our transient life (and, therefore, death) with some kind of ultimate and eternal ‘meaning.’

Neither Susanna nor I share my colleague’s beliefs but we did not take his proffered gospel of hope unkindly for this person has always seemed to us to be a genuinely good and kindly soul. Nevertheless, something about the encounter unsettled me but I couldn’t immediately quite put my finger on what it was. It was only a few days later when I began to read through the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s 1962 book ‘Rationalism in politics and other essays’ that I began to see with a small measure of clarity what it was that had disturbed me.

To be able properly to reveal to you what this was I’ll begin by noting that the encounter high-lit a profound tension between my colleague’s and my own understanding of in what consists the primary role of a minister of religion.

The traditional role of every minister of religion (of whatever persuasion) remains to teach and preach to a particular, voluntarily gathered community (and, oftentimes, also to the wider world) some kind of positive religious/philosophical doctrine for which they are personally prepared to go out to bat. In short, an important defining characteristic of this kind of minister is to be a ‘player.’ In offering Susanna and me his particular, Kantian-flavoured gospel my colleague was simply and uncontroversially engaging in a traditional kind of religious ministry.

But, for all kinds of reasons, many of which I have related in this blog, I have found myself less and less able to do likewise. It’s not that I’m not prepared to continue to make some personal, albeit very minimal religious/philosophical wagers about how the world is and my place in it—of course I do. But, in my twenty-year long public role as a minister (which has always run alongside a continuing series of private philosophical and theological studies and reflections) I have become ever more acutely aware that when it comes to my own religious and philosophical wagers—and political wagers for that matter—I’ve often been certain, but wrong, and that, in the future, even when I am once again very, very certain, on too many occasions the conditions will be such that it will be unlikely I’d ever be able to realize how wrong I am.

Consequently, in my public role as a minister, all I am able (and prepared) to do these days is tentatively to bring my own very minimal and provisionally held wagers about how the world is and my place in it into an ongoing and radically open-ended conversation in which ‘the participants’, as Oakeshott says,

‘. . . 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).

The defining characteristic of a person engaging in the the kind of ministry which seeks to promote such a conversation is NOT to be a ‘player’ like my colleague—taking the field to bat passionately for his/her own religious/philosophical wagers—but to be an ‘umpire’ carefully attending to the arrangements, rules and by-laws which both enable and govern this conversation.

I began to see that Oakeshott’s understanding of in what consisted the best way to govern the (British) nation state was, quite unexpectedly, analogous to the way I have (always very imperfectly) tried to be a minister by putting just such a conversation at the heart of things and, in the next four paragraphs, you will hear Oakeshott (‘Rationalism in Politics’, Liberty Fund, Carmel, 1991, pp. 433-434) gently paraphrased, and sometimes directly quoted, again and again.

On taking up my first ministerial position in 2000 I quickly learnt that one of my key public-facing roles—especially in the increasingly fraught post-9/11 context—was 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 saw how important it was to make it clear that, although I did not believe myself to be an agent of a supernatural God or some other benign providence, a custodian of a moral law, or an emblem of a divine order, I was still able to alert people (both inside and outside any local congregation) to the existence of something shared which they could easily recognize as valuable; something that, to some extent, they were already experiencing in the ordinary course of their own religious and, for that matter, political, lives.

I also came to recognise that I needed to find ways to ensure that in any local, liberal religious congregation the aforementioned restraint upon passionate religious belief was imposed upon its members, not by my own inappropriate suggestion or cajolery, or by any other means than by, if not legally binding laws (as is 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/free-Christian and Enlightenment inspired behaviour (rather than belief). I saw 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 was important 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, 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.

Lastly, I also realized my role included finding ways to strengthen already existing, but occasionally forgotten—and, alas, sometimes deliberately obscured—congregational structures which ensure that 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. For me, as a minister, what has come to count above all else is, not my own religious/philosophical wagers, but the meaningful continuity of the four-and-a-half century old, free-thinking religious tradition to which I belong and which includes, remember, a genuine defence of the freedom to become tomorrow what we are not today.

In short, I have come more and more to see the value of a maintaining a free-religious congregation whose (lowercase ‘c’) conservatism imposes upon us all 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 was, and remains, that everyone who becomes a member of such a community is prepared to accept such a liberal/free-Christian and Enlightenment derived 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 said, also moderated ‘the plague of a too diligent clergy.’

Now, in order to bring this piece to a satisfactory enough—though very provisional—close, I need to return to the distinction I pointed to at the beginning 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 now realise that my chance meeting with my colleague so unsettled me because it unexpectedly brought back into mind my strong intuition that when and wherever a person in a formal representative or leadership position (such as a minister of religion) is a player in whom dreaming and ruling are conjoined there will always exists the very real danger of generating tyranny, and this is so even when the person concerned is kind and gentle in so many ways, as is my colleague.

If my intuition is correct (although in the conversational spirit outlined here I recognize I might be mistaken), I hope you can see why, as a minister, I cannot be a ‘player’ but only an ‘umpire’: i.e., a person 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 outlined above 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.’


I add here the Object and Constitution of the General Assembly of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (on whose roll I am a minister) because it seems very germane to my reflections above.


We, the constituent congregations, affiliated societies and individual members, uniting in a spirit of mutual sympathy, co-operation, tolerance and respect; and recognising the worth and dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate; and believing that truth is best served where the mind and conscience are free, acknowledge that the Object of the Assembly is:


To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.

To this end, the Assembly may:

Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds;
Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity;
Act where necessary as the successor to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association and National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations, being faithful to the spirit of their work and principles (see appendix to the constitution below), providing always that this shall in no way limit the complete doctrinal freedom of the constituent churches and members of the Assembly; Do all other such lawful things as are incidental to the attainment of the above Object.

(Adopted at the General Assembly Annual Meetings, April 2001)


In reference to Clause 2 of the foregoing, the following is a statement of the Objects of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, as set forth in Clause 2 of its Constitution [as worded at the time of adoption of this Constitution]:

“The diffusion and support of the principles of Unitarian Christianity, including the formation and assistance of Congregations which do not require for themselves or their Ministers subscription to any doctrinal articles of belief; the publication and circulation of biblical, theological, scientific and literary knowledge related to Unitarian Christianity; the doing of all such other lawful things as are incidental or conducive to the attainment of the above objects or any of them”

The following is a statement of the Objects of the National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations, as set forth in Clause1 of the Constitution:

“To consult, and when considered advisable to take action, on matters affecting the well-being and interests of the Congregations and Societies on the Roll of the Conference, as by directing attention, suggesting plans, organising expressions of opinion, raising funds to carry out the foregoing objects.”