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Dear Mr Cupitt

15 March 2019

Rosie Dawson takes a look through the tributaries that flowed into The Sea of Faith

Anglia TV

Don Cupitt

Don Cupitt

EVERY now and then, an academic appears in my Twitter feed expressing inordinate excitement about a visit to Gladstone’s Library, and the respite that it offers from the daily demands of university students and administrators.

Close to the Cheshire border in Hawarden, North Wales, the library houses the collection of William Gladstone and many thousands more volumes of history and theology. Previously known as St Deiniol’s, it was a well-kept secret until the centre’s visionary warden Peter Francis saw its potential as a venue for events, short courses, and the now annual Gladfest. These days, its restaurant and accommodation get rave reviews on TripAdvisor. Overnight guests can sit in front of a log fire and play Scrabble.

Upstairs is the Robinson Room — named after the former Bishop of Woolwich and author of Honest to God — and, next to it, the Sea of Faith Room. The latter is the reason for my visit. Dr Elaine Graham, Grosvenor Research Professor at the University of Chester, had begun looking into the legacy of radical theologians from the 1960s onwards, based on the archives held here. They include the Revd Don Cupitt, Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, from 1966 until 1991, and now a Life Fellow.

Besides papers and books by and about him, there are boxes of correspondence arising from his 1984 BBC television series The Sea of Faith. Professor Graham thinks that these boxes might repay the attention of a Ph.D student — in the mean time, would I be interested in taking a look?

A letter in the archive

“IT IS hard to think that a more visually exciting film on religion has ever been made than The Sea of Faith,” the Church Times’s TV reviewer, Douglas Brown, declared in September 1984. He praised the programme for “engaging both the intellect and the imagination”.

Broadcast once a week for six weeks, the programme charted the challenges posed by scientists, historians, and philosophers to traditional Christian beliefs, and argued that these needed reinterpreting. They caused a storm. The BBC wheeled out its big guns — David Dimbleby, Sue MacGregor, Ludovic Kennedy — for the debates and phone-ins that followed.

When I began contacting people who were around at the time, to ask about their memories of the series, I found that they divided neatly into two camps. To my surprise, some journalists, including those who had been at the BBC, had only vague recollections. More important things had been going on at the time: the miners were on strike; there had been a fire at York Minster after another turbulent priest, Dr David Jenkins, had been consecrated Bishop of Durham; and a Church of England working party was wandering the land preparing to detonate an explosive report, Faith in the City.

Others I spoke to remembered the series as if it were yesterday, saying that it had changed their lives. Among them was Canon Giles Fraser, who presents his personal view on it for a programme on BBC Radio 4 today. A student in 1984, he wrote to Cupitt, asking to visit him. He credits the encounter with leading him away from atheism and into the Church.

At this point, Cupitt was already the enfant terrible of the religious Establishment, having argued, in 1980, for a non-realist view of God in his book Taking Leave of God, reviewed by the Church Times under the headline “Atheist Priest?” (Books, 3 October 1980). The advance publicity for The Sea of Faith meant that objections were being lodged before the first programme was even aired. The critics were ready for a row. “There’s No God Says City Dean” ran the headline in the Cambridge Evening News.

The letters to Cupitt poured in at the rate of 80 a day during the series, and continued to arrive long after it had finished. They make fascinating reading. A tick indicates that Cupitt replied, sometimes more in his position as a pastor than as an academic. One letter, for example, reads: “Thank you very much for your acknowledgement of my earlier letter about my mother. She died last Wednesday, peacefully and surrounded by her family.”

Most letters were from Christians, but there were also some from atheists and humanists, Muslims, and Bahais. The youngest correspondent was an indignant 11- year-old boy: “If people like you and the media have become the anti-Christ it’s no wonder our teachers talk of the benefits of Communism.” No doubt this would have been of interest to the writer of another letter — from the Religious Advisory Committee of the Communist Party.

It needs the Ph.D. student to come and do a more rigorous assessment; but my impression is that more women than men were writing, and that the majority of the letters were positive. A few were written in capitals and multi-coloured inks, and threatened Cupitt with his own special place in hell. But I was struck by the level of serious engagement, both from those who agreed with Cupitt and those who did not.

One 70-year-old man described the effect of the series on him as a “religious mugging”: “All my assumptions about Christianity were in pieces. There was no truth left for me in the Gospels.” Even so, “I went to the public library and borrowed copies of Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. I found nothing in them to which I could respond. They seemed negative and destructive.”

An “ordinary housewife and widow” wanted to discuss the truth that she found in Nietzsche, while another self-deprecating woman delivered a 6000-word philosophical reflection on the series, “which has taken me two weeks to write and another week to type up”.

Members of the Mottram Deanery, Cheshire, and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, worried that he would weaken the faith of believers, and several people wanted to know what to tell the children. “I wonder what harm you have done. You have certainly undermined all my Christian teaching as a mother. My son and daughter, both baptised and confirmed, have turned away from the Church. Loving them isn’t enough. They need a creed to live by.”

But many people wanted to thank Cupitt for expressing beliefs and doubts that they had held and felt unable to voice. “Now that I have had my private thoughts expressed in public by a minister of the Church I feel a new spiritual confidence,” one wrote. “Now that I have seen your series and read your book, I no longer feel so alone,” another commented.

Rosie DawsonDon Cupitt today

THE producer of The Sea of Faith, Peter Armstrong, thinks that it is time for the programmes to be broadcast again. Their power and relevance are timeless, he says. Canon Fraser is less sure. Are the questions that Cupitt that was asking 35 years ago the ones that people are still asking today? Would the general public, less versed in religious doctrine, with no history of churchgoing, be able to engage with them? As one person wrote to Cupitt: “I wonder if it’s even possible to hold your views without first having gone through orthodoxy. Grown through it, struggled with it, discarded the irrelevant and untenable, and come out on the other side.”

Professor Graham believes that Cupitt elevated the position of the theologian as a public intellectual to a new level. “His ideas reached a far greater audience than most academic philosophers or theologians can ever dream of,” she says. “The public response showed that there was a huge popular appetite for debating the relationship between belief and unbelief, and the compatibility of religious traditions with modern thought.”

Both the Church and academic theology must continue to show courage in asking the difficult questions about the nature of God and the credibility of Christian faith, she argues.

The power and relevance of Cupitt’s work has remained for those of his correspondents who became the founders and members of the Sea of Faith movement. It continues to hold conferences in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, and its quarterly magazine still has a print run of 500.

Its tide may be withdrawing, but it has left an indelible mark on the faith contours of Britain’s religious and television history — as well as on individuals such as the man from Somerset whose letter simply said: “I feel it is my duty to tell you that you have salvaged the meaning of Christ’s message for me and with it my life.”

Sea of Faith is broadcast on Radio 4 at 11 a.m. today, and will be available afterwards on the BBC Sounds app.

Angela Tilby: Don Cupitt - a spiritual sceptic

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