Inclusion Among the Unitarians: Interview with the Reverend Jo James (Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds)

Any interviews featured in this journal relate to certain topics relevant to the UniLib journal itself, broadly speaking. Interviewees are not to be understood as explicitly or implicitly endorsing the journal or any particular ideas relating to the project of Universal Libertarianism, unless otherwise stated.

  1. First of all, Jo, can you tell us a little bit about what the ‘Unitarian’ character of your Church means to you?

Historically speaking, the denial of the legitimacy of the notion of a Trinity, and the testament to a different kind of ‘Unity’ of God is part of Unitarianism; but is the Unity or Oneness of God or of the divine more than just a matter of metaphysical speculation?

In other words, does the unity of the whole world, of creation, and of the divine and the human actually have serious ethical implications for everyone?

For me, ‘Unitarian’ means an engagement with the sacred and holy which preserves personal integrity and free agency. And for me the character of my church is also an engagement with religious radicalism, next year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but in fact the religious radicalism my tradition engages with goes back much farther than that.
For me Unitarianism isn’t defined by a doctrinal dispute over the exact nature or enumeration of Godhead, its defined by freedom of individual religious search, a commitment to the truth howsoever it may unfold but this search takes place within a relationship to specific tradition — in my case Christianity, and specific place.
So it’s an engagement with ambiguity, paradox and inclusivity. This is then not a ‘metaphysical speculation’ but a continuity of discourse around God (and a vehicle for the direct experience of the numinous).
Out from these extensive theological enquiries sometimes emerges a different way of understanding mainstream doctrines. Incarnation for example, an idea found in the Hebrew scriptures, can be extended by reference to that tradition and others to the universal. And this, as you suggest, does, or should, have serious ethical implications for everyone who is prepared to consider it.

2. Already, I admit to feeling a little reticent. I’ve just used hedges such as ‘God’ or ‘the divine;’ and of course, ‘the whole world’ and ‘all creation’ are quite distinct notions already, are they not?

So I am unsure about what your preferred terminology might be, and I also realize you would not wish to speak for all Unitarians.

So, according to my understanding, the Unitarian Church is known for a general reluctance to regulate right belief and right action via creeds and other formal covenants of doctrine.

But is this a strength, a weakness, or both? How does it relate to the unity of all people and all the world?

So yes, I can’t speak for all Unitarians and don’t claim to, and yes, Unitarian refers not to the negation of any doctrine or creed but to the refusal to subscribe to any doctrine or creed — and yes this is both its strength and its limitation because doctrines and creeds can be definitional — and definition can be a useful part of a strategy for extending knowledge and dialogue.

3. In my opinion, the Unitarian Church has worked hard on what some would call ‘circles of inclusion.’

One obvious example is LGBT individuals. It is noteworthy that there are a number of different acronyms for ‘LBGT.’ Could it be that this proliferation of alternatives is suggestive of an uncertainty about just how far circles of inclusion may extend?

And do you believe that Unitarians, or indeed human beings more broadly, can ever fully encompass the entire range of inclusions?

If so, how can we move towards that?

If not, what can we do instead?

It is also part of our theological narrative that having been outcast and sidelined ourselves we have learned the value of inclusivity. The earliest Anabaptists and Socinians after all wanted religious toleration for themselves. It is only by extending the implications of their own requirement of the right to exist that they were able to perceive the ethical dimension of the oppression of other groups, Muslims or Jews for example, and begin to make a case for toleration.
LGBTQ is also a reminder of the value for individuals of definitional identity and characteristic distinctiveness.
I dont believe that Unitarians can ever fully encompass the entire range of inclusions — we would cease to be recognisably religious for a start. I think that to be valid religion must include an element of discipline, an element of ‘sacrifice’ [not in the sense of ritual killing but in the sense of choosing to forgo (although there may be a conceptual link?) In choosing a. I relinquish b.
What can we do instead? Seek meaning in participation. Seek individuation and celebrate difference. Seek an alternative narrative than the neo-liberal one of totalising consensus.

4. Similarly, in the book ‘Animal Liberation,’ Peter Singer suggests that, there is always going to be a risk that more individuals are overlooked, even in spite of historical progress in recognising the value of marginalised groups of people (or indeed of living creatures, or sentient beings).

Are you sympathetic towards this view, or are there some limitations there?

In the answer above I’ve covered some points about the limitations of the project of total inclusivity, but I suspect that there is also a question here about the utilitarian argument of the greatest good for the greatest possible number, which seems to me to risk bypassing ethical and moral responsibility altogether.

5. Speaking of animals: Christian teaching has often prophesied the future return of all Creation into the arms of God; although some Christians, and indeed non-Christians also, would see this not as a guarantee of some future event, but rather as a poetic lesson about the here and now.

Either way, it could be argued that this view either contradicts, or is at least in some kind of paradoxical tension with, the ‘human-centred’ or ‘anthropocentric’ aspects of Christianity.

So, are there reasonable limits to how far people of faith and spiritual people should try to ‘include’ animals and other non-human creatures in our circles of concern?

Are all animals equal, or are some, regrettably, more equal than others?

And what are a few ways people of faith might respond to the call to love your fellow living creature as yourself?

For me the visions of harmonious co-existence in (for example) Isaiah, and the concept of the Kingdom, are both metaphorical descriptions of the same alignment with the ultimate or natural law that we find in the Tao Te Ching and elsewhere. Nevertheless I think that humanity still has a responsibility to develop and increase its potential [including the possibility that part of that potential may be the discovery of better ways of integrating within a whole system of which we are part]. In religious terms this development and evolution is perhaps humanity’s calling.
Should we treat nature with respect and reverence, unquestionably. Are we part of an interconnected web of existence, certainly. Should I work towards living in a way that demonstrates these religious commitments — better ways of integrating within the whole system of which we are part? I should. And according to my lights I try. And I fail, a lot. ‘Well, fail better’ as Samuel Beckett said.
One side point in reference to animals — in all religious traditions there is a potential for extending discipline into asceticism and self denial. Some forms of veganism as practiced in (for example Jain and Hindu cultures) have, in my view, as much to do with this tendency as with high moral regard, just as some Western veganism and animal liberationism seems to me to show an unacknowledged (and possibly unconscious) tendency towards ascetic Puritanism. Nothing wrong with that — but it is usually the case that bringing an unconscious drive into consciousness is sound strategy. How a largely secular humanist movement might engage with reclaiming Puritanism would certainly be interesting to see.

6. The Unitarian Church might easily be seen as somewhere where people with multiple faith identities may feel comfortable. I can easily picture a Buddhist Unitarian or Sikh Unitarian (for example) finding a niche in at least some Unitarian congregations and communities.

So, will Unitarians benefit from finding ‘strength in diversity,’ or is it advisable to seek a more nuanced understanding of otherness?

Is there something potentially patronizing about the notion of ‘celebrating diversity,’ in which case a more ambivalent way of engaging in tolerance, inclusion and pluralism might be expedient?

Or, on the contrary, is it better to take the view that ‘we are all in this together?’

Certainly although I situate myself within a specific and located tradition, I aim for a religious environment of inclusivity. I know that my congregation currently includes on any given Sunday morning people from Muslim, Jewish, P/pagan, Buddhist, LDS, Agnostic, atheist, Trinitarian & Unitarian & Free Christian traditions. I don’t presume to direct or validate belief, I try to encourage and hold a space for unmediated experience of the Divine — and it seems to go OK… but I’d repeat that I can only do this from within the structure (and limitations) of a specific and located tradition and it is from these resources that I can have an expectation of substance, depth and spiritual responsibility.

7. In other words, and to round off:

Is there a difference between ‘celebrating diversity’ and ‘acknowledging and honouring difference?’

Or are they fundamentally the same thing?

‘Celebrating Diversity’ can only be more than an advertising slogan if we do genuinely honour difference and resist the temptation to flatten out or make everything the same, which, as I said earlier, is part of the neo-liberal project.

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