The Sea of Faith - 20 years on

Ronald Pearse, a founding member the Sea of Faith Network, its Secretary for the first 20 years, and now its Honorary Archivist, reflects on the founding of the Network.

For those of us who were adults half a century ago, the year 1984 had ominous advance overtones that lasted for many years. 1984 was the title of George Orwell's famous futuristic novel depicting the ultimate in state control of all aspects of life, based on a political philosophy of a Soviet flavour.

When the year 1984 came, those overtones had faded. During the summer of that year I was eagerly awaiting the autumn broadcast of Don Cupitt's TV series The Sea of Faith. I was not disappointed. The series, with his book of the same title, provided a panoramic historical view of the evolution of the Christian faith, using the rational tools of the scientific method and modem historical examination.

It enabled me to gain a wider perspective of faith, compared with the emotionally and aesthetically attractive, but benignly authoritarian, interpretation of Christianity of my youth. It was for me a stage on the progress of my achieving integration of tradition and rationality - from Galileo to Jung—in an acceptable way.

As the presenter and author makes clear in his book, TSOF was not just one man's work. He paid tribute to the skills of the series' chief instigator and producer, Peter Armstrong and many others. Without the beauty that was created, visually and audibly, in each of the six programmes, the ideas they conveyed would not have spoken so clearly and effectively to the wide viewing public that the series reached.

The first scene was Dover Beach, with the words of Matthew Arnold's now famous poem about the 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' of the retreating sea of faith. The series ended back on that beach with Don amongst television equipment, saying, 'I am a priest in the Church of England ...' and 'We have finished now. It's over to you.'

That was easier said than done. What could individual viewers do to spread the enlightenment offered in the programmes? I wrote to Don and found that a few other priests were doing so. He put me in touch with one, local to me. We met and were joined by three others, for pub lunch discussions.

We hoped for a national conference of like-minded people. After much delay our pub-lunch group organised such an event - in Loughborough in 1988 - and had the promise of Don's presence throughout. One conference led to another: this year's conference was number 17.

The TSOF background and its presenter's fame/notoriety made it easy to attract both attendees and lecturers. In the early days we invited scholars from home and abroad, with no fee offered and no promise of travelling expenses (but we provided free accommodation!). Several, including from the USA, Australia, South Africa and New. Zealand, came, very nobly, on those terms.

These included Lloyd Geering from New Zealand, whose book Faith's New Age (later re-issued as Christian Faith at the Crossroads) is listed in TSOF as being among Cupitt's sources for his book and series. On returning home, Geering set up the Sea of Faith Network (NZ), which continues to prosper after a rapid early rate of growth. More recently SoFiA has been started by Greg Spearitt and others in Australia, and is prospering there. Readers of the SoF Magazine and individual overseas members in the USA of SoFN (UK) are slowly increasing in numbers.

Although what became the first SoF conference, in response to TSOF, was addressed primarily to radical Christians it soon became clear that a wider spectrum of people was interested. At one time it was thought that the Network's membership could be classified as made up of 'Church', 'ex-Church' and 'non-Church'. I think we have all benefited, in whatever bracket, from the presence and contributions of those in the other two.

We have long been aware of the desirability (David Paterson would say the necessity) of - thinking more broadly than within the Christian faith tradition, but except for some Buddhist practitioners or sympathisers, the membership seems not to show much representation of people other than those from a culturally Christian background.

Twenty years after TSOF, and with the series now available on DVD in the SoF Network (within strict limits, for copyright reasons), we have opportunity to pause, reflect and review our strategy as people convinced of the value of a reasonable religious faith. An unhappy and suffering world needs something better than the lust for certainty (and power) that fundamentalists of whatever flavour encourage.

The political alarm that 1984 expressed passed with the end of the USSR, but a religious totalitarianism now threatens the world in a way that could not be imagined half a century ago. In the UK we are led by one whose messianic self-assurance and apparent lack of historical knowledge and effective self-criticism (the latter long a part of Christian spirituality) has led us, with the support of a supine parliament, to become accomplices of a country set on world domination based on economic greed and religious fanaticism.

Evil often results from good men and women doing nothing. With notable individual exceptions the Christian churches seem to be doing little to combat the fundamentalist theological views that seep out of a USA' that seems hell-bent on destroying the world by demonising Islam and so inciting a cataclysmic clash of opposites. (By contrast, the Church of England's General Synod recently passed a resolution criticising Royal Mail's designs fur postage stamps at Christmas—and only narrowly defeated a move that could have imposed theological censorship on the clergy!)

What can good men and women who have been inspired by TSOF or by subsequent publications of similar outlook do to ensure that rationality and faith are not seen as incompatible? Some who keep their loyalty to the Churches sometimes feel isolated and ostracised. I know: they write to me about it. But some others find a quiet acceptance.

The Sea of Faith Networks have had some achievements in fifteen years. George Bush's bellicose attitudes seem to achieve instant effect. We may need to be more patient, although time is not on the side of our planet's survival. Ecological disasters don't wait for us to change our habits.

It is often a slow progress towards wholeness and balance that individuals, and perhaps communities, make. We all have opposite and, potentially complementary, traits in our psychological make-up. Psychotherapy aims to give them balance and to make us whole, but it can take time. Interestingly, Jung observed that many of his patients found that a mature religious faith was a long-term fruit of their therapy.

The policy-and-task-setting meeting of October 1989 decided the Network's statement of purpose, which remains unchanged as 'exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation'. It deliberately says nothing for or against the concept of God.

The Magazine started in 1990 by the enterprise of its first editor, Clive Richards, and was then intended for circulation within the membership only. When he emigrated to the USA, a new member, David Boulton, was recruited as editor, followed for a spell by Anthony Freeman. In a later period of David's editorship, the magazine was professionally designed and eventually increased its appearances to six issues a year, a situation maintained by the most recent editor, Paul Overend. For speedier communication within the Network, a photocopied and occasional newsletter was established quite early and then upgraded as the two-monthly Portholes by Stephen Mitchell, followed by Peter Fisher and now Patti Whaley as editors.

A more formal constitution for the Network was adopted by its AGM in 1994 and slightly revised in 1997. The business of the Network is carried on between AGMs by an elected steering committee which has been chaired successively by Aileen LaTourette, Maxine Green, Stephen Warnes, Stephen Mitchell and Patti Whaley, all of whose wisdom and increasingly heavy workload have been invaluable in the Network.

As a limited-term project, the educational work of the network was developed by the appointment of Michael Elliott, which resulted in the creation of a teaching course, Sea Change.

The first conference, and then the Network, grew out of a small local group and so it is not surprising that local SoF groups developed and now number 28 across the UK. These have benefited by wise guidance and support from Helen Fisher, Penny Mawdsley and now Christine Dyer, as co-ordinators.

Also, a special-interest group, Sea of Faith in the Churches (originally Church Members in Sea of Faith) has developed, with now an annual gathering in Loughborough. It arose from organising protests about the dismissal of Anthony Freeman from his parish for publishing a book God in Us.

The Network has offered public support to others experiencing ecclesiastical pressure as a result of their expressing interpretations of their faith somewhat in advance of those of their superiors.

A letter of protest went to the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris against the dismissal of Jacques Gaillot as Bishop of Evreux for the latter's support of gay priests. Our protest was one among about 42,000 others!

After Andrew Furlong's resignation (as Dean of Clonmacnoise in Ireland) under threat of a heresy trial, and after Jeffrey John withdrew, under pressure, from appointment as a bishop, because of his gay (but celibate) lifestyle and his publicly held views about gay priests, the SoF AGM resolved that alertness should be maintained and there should be public outspokenness on behalf of the Network on issues affecting religious life.

This has resulted in some recent action to lobby General Synod members against the proposed strengthening of Church of England law about heresy trials. The motion in favour of the strengthening was lost in Synod by only four votes.

Recently, SoF set up a study group on the theme of Diversity in Doctrine and resulting material from it was published in a special edition of the SOF Magazine. The Network has also undertaken a number of publications, including the symposia This Is My Story and Time and Tide. The programmes and book of 1984 have been followed up in some degree. Much remains to be done.

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