Drowning in the Ebb Tide

Nicholas Smith wrote this article for the July 1996 edition of the SoF UK quarterly magazine.

In the April [1995] edition of SoF Magazine there were a number of comments from readers who would like to see more articles of a personal nature or about others' experiences. I too felt that this would be a good thing, particularly as I have not (so far) been able to meet any other SoF people face to face, and feel somewhat isolated and alone. The magazine is indeed a lifeline, so why not grab it and make a contribution in return?

Autobiography can so often be interesting only to the writer, but in this context an outline might be useful. It is sobering to note that the majority of members are middle-aged academics, most with some sort of church connections. [This is not an accurate profile of the overall SoF Network membership, but perhaps it reflects the more vocal and high-profile members. - Ed.]. I am not sure where I fit in on this scale, but I would describe myself as 40, white, single and male. I used to work as a full time Anglican parish priest (with a five year interlude as a Roman Catholic which included a spell in a Benedictine monastery). For the past five years or so I have worked with the NHS as a nurse, currently on a coronary care unit. After a period with no church contact at all I began to resume some attendances (why?) and agreed to appear occasionally as a non-stipendiary priest in one of the famous anglo-catholic shrines in Birmingham. I had had some SoF contact before that time—and had indeed harboured secret radical/heretical views since my time as a Benedictine - but allowed that aspect to sink into the background for a while whilst I tested the waters again in a very traditional, though very part time, capacity.

Perhaps I was seeking some kind of spiritual life and security, some kind of 'spiritual uplift', especially as it was at a time of great personal upheaval following the ending of a significant relationship which coincided with the increasingly stressful and irregular working patterns which nursing entails. I knew all along that my views, at least in certain areas, were far from the full 'Forward in Faith' agenda catholic minded parishioners would expect, but I justified my preaching and presiding at Mass in terms of symbolic language and the expression of archetypal imagery and human needs. It was a kind of amalgam of Jung and Cupitt with a bit of contemplative new-ageism thrown in! I actually quite enjoyed the ritual side and found preaching stimulating when I steered clear of anything ecclesiologically or theologically contentious. (I had promised not to preach in favour of the ordination of women, so as not to compromise the Vicar.) But as time went on I found the tension, between what I felt and what was expected of me, increasingly difficult to cope with, to the point that I have now greatly reduced my commitment and wonder what right I have to be there at all.

I understand that clergy such as Anthony Freeman can (and should be allowed to) go on doing the full round of priestly tasks whilst personally adhering to non-realist beliefs. But for me sustaining the apparent dichotomy between traditional religious faith language and non-realism requires so much energy and double-think that I would have to be continuously explaining to myself and others why and how I could say one thing and actually mean something quite different.

I think I actually ceased to 'believe in God' in any orthodox sense many years ago, but was frightened to admit it. What does one say to the dying or bereaved? I think I actually may accept that there is some form of spiritual existence after death, or at least some progression to a different form of being, or participation in the collective unconscious—but to counsel people and perform funerals in church or in any kind of Christian context whilst not accepting the reality of 'God' or any kind of 'resurrection' seems to me intellectually and pastorally dishonest. I would welcome the views of other readers on this.

A little knowledge can sometimes be more dangerous than ignorance, but having once begun to read various radical authors, or at least non-traditional ones, I have been reassured to know that non-realist theologies have been gaining a wider audience, despite the onslaught of fundamentalism from other quarters. Although I am a graduate with some critical faculties I am by no means an academic and wonder how the non-realist approach can be made meaningful to the wider population outside the academic's study or the radical clergy house. Indeed is there any point at all in promoting a kind of God-less Christianity when a version of Buddhism or non-dogmatic paths such as Quakerism might be more appropriate, particularly if some provision were made for human rites of passage and other quasi-liturgical needs. Christianity is so embedded in the concept of historical reality that it seems unlikely that any of its followers would want to give up the historical and dogmatic dimension completely. To talk about symbols, poetic language and the personification of human aspirations may be satisfying to some educated free thinkers—but what on earth would it mean to the unemployed or the single mother who 'wants the baby christened' or to have granny given a decent burial? Can we go on offering them the traditional stuff whilst ourselves living in a very different sphere of thought? 'I am the resurrection and the life,' says the Lord. What resurrection? What Lord?

My present existence (which includes regular night duties and weekend work) makes it hard enough to run domestic life, let alone do much thoughtful reading or study, which is why SoF Magazine is so important as a stimulus and encouragement. From time to time I dip into articles or books which hold interest, but such opportunities are rare. Looking back over the twenty-two years since Scripture A-level, through university, theological college, three parish posts (and many temporary jobs in catering, etc.), plus the Roman sojourn, I can recognise some kind of consistent theme and progression, even if like the Spanish proverb the road has been erratic and circuitous.

Being somewhat hypersensitive and scrupulous has at times meant that the transition from conservative anglo-catholic to what I suppose now is a non-position has not been without its emotional and psychological cost. The consequent insecurity, especially in times of personal stress, has seemingly led to short bursts of trying to find peace and stability through a more traditional observance—but these retreats into orthodoxy have not been satisfying or sufficient to cause me to leave my intellectual doubts outside the church door.

Donald Nicholl, in his book Holiness, said that once you have started and been touched by the quest for spiritual truth and life you can never completely give it up. Despite all the distractions of living what is effectively now a completely secular life, I have found what Nicholl suggests to be true. Tiredness and lack of consistent daily routine caused by shiftwork make it almost impossible to plan or carry out much in the way of regular meditation or reading. (How lucky the full time clergy are in this respect, and how little some of them know about the demands of 'ordinary' life.) And yet there is still the deep desire for silence and stillness, for inner peace and recollectedness, for a philosophy of life which gives value to human experiences and, supremely, fosters a way of life that is loving, giving and sharing. There is the desire for a change of attitude that can do something about the violence and fear which humans create for each other, and to alleviate the terrible loneliness and alienation which contemporary urban society creates. There is the desire for beauty, music and ritual, for relationships and for the fulfilment of natural sexual and romantic needs. There is, in short, a desire to live life as fully as possible on all levels and to discover a spirituality which is world-affirming and not negative and puritanical as so much religion seems to be.

One encouraging aspect of some of the articles I have read in SoF Magazine is that there is a willingness to explore aspects of religion (I am not too happy with the word 'faith') not just as an esoteric exercise, but as something which must inevitably relate to the world of politics, environment and human relation-ships. As a gay man who is lucky enough to have found a partner in a stable and hopefully long-term relationship I was encouraged by the editorial on 'grey areas'. Whatever we may think about the inconsistency and hypocrisy of much of what 'the church' says about sex, there is an increasing tendency to be open and unafraid about honesty in sexuality and the need to give value to different ways of expressing human love. We may not support the tactics of Outrage or similar groups, but 'exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation' must surely embrace the problems and joys of love, sex, friendship and family life, as well as the more arcane preoccupations of academic philosophy of religion.

What I would really like from SoF would be the opportunity to meet and talk and share silence with people with similar thoughts and maybe create some kind of simple liturgy without too many historical overtones. It would be good to find a soul mate or spiritual director who would offer guidance and support without creating guilt or setting up too many hoops to jump through. It would be good also for the network to achieve a higher profile and wider circulation whilst not becoming itself an institution, and to explore ways of developing a human spirituality that can include people who do not want any kind of formal religious commitment, but who want to have a soul-full life.

Talk of 'God' in the traditional sense has helped to give strength to people in darkness as a source of strength from beyond. Now we need to learn how to find help and strength from each other and in the context of the present moment, having accepted that there is no 'Other' out there in any real objective way. 'God' is dead. Where do we go from here?