In the Beginning

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How It All Began

At the heart of the Sea of Faith network is an open, uninhibited conversation. It’s how it all began. Early in 1984, Ronald Pearse, a Leicestershire priest, after reading Don Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God, wrote to him to say how his book articulated a theology and spirituality he had been moving towards over many years. Another Leicestershire priest had also written to Don Cupitt that year and Don put the two in touch with each other. The conversation had begun.

Later that same year, the BBC broadcast The Sea of Faith, a series of six programmes written and presented by Don Cupitt. Taking its title from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, the series explored the implications for faith of the work of thinkers such as Galileo, Neitzsche, Freud, Jung and Wittgenstein.

Meanwhile the little Leicestershire group was growing, more people were joining the conversation. More people were also writing to Don in response to the programmes. In July 1988, the Leicestershire group invited those who had written to Don to a conference in Loughborough. The first Sea of Faith conference was held. The conversation was growing.

After two conferences, the question was “What next?” and sixteen people from across the country met in Loughborough to decide future policy and strategy. The Sea of Faith was founded as a “network exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation”. Now the conversation was growing through a magazine first published in 1990 and through local groups across the country modelled on the little Leicestershire group.

Since these early beginnings, the conversation has spread through the website, an on-line discussion group, local one-day conferences, publications and other networks in New Zealand and Australia.

Ronald Pearse was the network secretary until 2004. The first Sea of Faith Magazine was published in Spring 1990 and he wrote the following by way of an introduction:

My own part in the ‘S.o.F.’ story began in November 1983 when I had business with Emmanuel College,Cambridge, and met its dean. Previously I had only glanced at one of his books but the encounter with this kind and pastorally-minded priest encouraged me to spend a book token, early in 1984, on his ‘Taking Leave of God’. I was thrilled to find that the spirituality and theological position of this book articulated something I had been slowly moving towards over many years.

In the life-long process of growing up I was at the stage where it made sense to equate autonomy with integrity. For one who had moved from seeing integrity mainly in terms of obedience to an external authority it was liberating to discover a fellow priest who was no longer in chains to a realist God but was obedient to an ideal. The growing spiritual freedom I enjoyed was constricted, however, by the words which I had to use liturgically. I could and did interpret them privately and publicly as symbolic, but the weight of the church’s literal interpretation of them for centuries bore heavily upon me. I wrote to Don Cupitt about this and had a sympathetic reply.

Unknown to me, in the summer of 1984, another priest in the Leicester area was writing to him on similar lines. Don put us in touch and we met for talks at my rectory at Thurcaston. That autumn ‘The Sea of Faith’ appeared as a book and TV series. The two of us delighted in it and were joined in discussion by a third sympathetic local priest. In November I responded to a critical letter in the ‘Church Times’ with one saying that as a very ordinary parish priest I had beenenriched by the TV series. In response I received four supportive letters and one (anonymous) opposing. One of the four was from a priest who would later join our group.

Meanwhile, the three had continued meeting for discussion and sought an occasion to talk to Don. He invited us to Emmanuel and we took the train to Cambridge on 13 December 1984 for a lengthy discussion with him. We suggested there might be value in a conference of likeminded people. Don was willing to host such a gathering at Emmanuel but had not the time to do so for two years.

Back in Leicestershire, Stephen Mitchell (soon to be rector of Barrow-on-Soar) had joined us by February 1985. We continued meeting in each others’ houses, including in April of that year a vicarage in Ely diocese where the vicar there increased our number to five. In October, some of us heard Don lecture on ‘The Origin of Religious Thought’ at a meeting of the Leicester Theological Society.

In 1986 we met at the White Hart in Uppingham, in a Fenland vicarage, in my own rectory and at (then deaconess) Jean Lamb’s house in Leicester. Until that October our gatherings had no pre-arranged subjects since there was always plenty to talk about in the agendas each brought with us from our various radical positions and experiences. However, that month we met to discuss the recent Anglican bishops’
statement on doctrine and in December our subject was Don’s ‘Life Lines’.

By 1987, David Paterson (vicar of St Peter’s, Loughborough), Robert Rankin (a recently retired priest) and Martin Roberts (a polytechnic chaplain) had joined us and we had our last two pub-lunch meetings in Loughborough and Shepshed. After that, Barrow Rectory became a frequent meeting place. On 20 September that year Don came to Thurcaston Rectory to talk with seven of us (including Alan Lilley, then university student counsellor) after he had preached in Loughborough. The question of a conference for radical Christians was raised again but Don was unable to offer any help with this for a further two years.

We started thinking about organising a gathering ourselves and in October sought to arrange it as one of the courses in Loughborough University’s ‘Summer University’ programme. The programme’s organiser, Margaret Gill, was very helpful and we were accepted. This would have meant that the university handled all the advertising and administration. I was to be overall tutor, bringing in other speakers as
visiting tutors. Don immediately agreed to come, promising us three days. Graham Shaw also pledged himself to come despite being about to move to a
new benefice. On 11 December I went to see Don in Cambridge to discuss our plans.

When the group looked for a course title it was clearthat this was ready-made – ‘The Sea of Faith’ – but it soon became clear that the course fees would be too high, its length too long and the number of places too small for the sort of gathering we had in mind. Loughborough University allowed us to withdraw, offered facilities for an independent conference and generously gave information about it in their ‘Summer
Programme’ brochure. However, now we had to do our own administration and further advertising.
At Cambridge Don had shown me a wooden box containing letters received in response to his books and TV series. He offered to compile a first mailing list from them. Soon 143 names and addresses arrived. (It happened that at the time of our first mailing the Post Office was using a controversial postmark paid for by an evangelical businessman and so it was that our envelopes were heavily over-printed with the un-interpreted slogan ” Jesus lives !”.

By now our leisurely pub- or vicarage-lunch discussions were over and our informal group had hardworking evening meetings planning the conference. On 9 February we were joined by Paul Harrison (then a Loughborough parishioner) and Jonathan Stock-Hesketh (then an assistant priest in Loughborough) who became our first treasurer and conference press officer. We were without financial resources but received two kind offers (of £200 and £100) to underwrite conference expenses or losses which fortunately we did not in the end need. Dennis Nineham was persuaded to be a main speaker. We advertised in a range of religious newspapers. Eventually `S.o.F.’ (as we may now call it)  happened in July, 1988.