Report of meeting, 29 August 2007

We met on 29 August at David Lambourn's house. (There had been an informal meeting as planned on 11 July with an apology from Stephen). Present this time were John Challenor, John Howard, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams.

Stephen reported back positively on the Conference. He had been especially taken with the talk by Tim Jackson and recommended looking out for it when it appears in Sofia. Regarding the health of the network, he had been pleasantly surprised by the numbers of new people around since he last attended and it was also reassuring to discover that at least some of the apparent loss of membership was down to administrative cockup: that the system is now back in the safe hands of Peter Stribblehill and that the financlal predic- ament, if any, should become clearer. The magazine is to revert to quarterly publication but the AGM rejected the more extreme economies that were being canvassed.

Stephen also got the impression that there were fewer ‘unattached' members and more who combined SoF membership with affiliation or at least association with other organisations, both churches or things like the BHA. It is as if SoF has a role in supporting or invigorating its members in their engagement with other groups, rather than acting on its own behalf or for its own purposes (probably rightly, given SoF's traditional commitment to openness and dialogue, and its reluctance to adopt party lines). This thought seemed to link in with the planned topic for today's meeting.

As agreed, David introduced a discussion on 'the temptation to go back'. It had special poignancy as he had returned that day from the funeral of John Austin, former Bishop of Aston, an event attended by many bishops and clergy to varying degrees associated with an open, liberal approach to their faith, and there was something attractive in being part of such a gathering. David went on to remind us of his personal history. his work as a cleric, how he came to understand the importance of myth and metaphor, and how that caused him to become unemployable as a parish priest. He pursued a career elsewhere and looked to other sources for the development of his ideas, notably the work of Richard Rorty.

The temptation to return is partly to do with unfinished business. There is much wrong with religion, especially when it seeks a privileged place for itself in public life (e.g. education) or when it seeks to impose dogmatic, fundamentalist positions on public debate (e.g. on sexual morality or freedom of speech). 'Return' could be with a view to diminishing it, refreshing it, or in a more selective focussed way doing a bit of both. Similarly an engagement with religion could be from within or outside formal membership and David showed how these possibilities could be explored in a 2x2 grid. It became clear, however, that 'return' in David's terms meant working to change what he found there.

We recognised that this would be a difficult undertaking, and in practice impossible without allies. There is probably more sympathy within church memberships for the idea of religion as a human creation than is acknowledged (I have just seen the letter from Robert Norton in the latest Sofia) but it is not organised to take on the conservatism of the institution. There is of course a SoF in the Churches group but it appears to have become marginalised within the Network and none of us were really sure what it did. It seems to be a support group for SoF members rather than a focus to challenge the churches to adopt(!) or at least accept as equally valid a SoF approach to religious belief and values. Perhaps SoF in the Churches could be more upfront about what it is up to (through Sofia?).

We recognised that an understanding of religion as a human creation can take us in different directions. It can be a spur to transform religion so that its beliefs and traditions can be properly interpreted as values and deployed for human and social benefit (and so that David does not need to defend a Christianity without supernaturalism). There is also the implication, however, that what humans have made we can unmake. The choice is ours.

Stephen has enjoyed reading the first chapter of The Human Touch - our part in the creation of a universe by Michael Frayn, and offered to share his thoughts on the whole book at our next meeting. This will be on Wednesday 10 October 2007 at 1930 at David Lambourn's home in Edgbaston (David.Lambourn@blueyonder.co.uk for details).

The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 14 November.

Stephen Williams.