About the Research Project

Presentation to Sea of Faith annual conference, July 2021

Sea of Faith Network members and supporters may be interested to learn of a new research project, “Don Cupitt, the Sea of Faith Network and the Future of Radical Theology”. This is a collaborative venture between two academic researchers (Elaine Graham, Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester, Graeme Smith, Professor of Public Theology at the University of Chichester) and Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, North Wales. 

As many readers may know, in recent years Don Cupitt has been gradually donating his personal archive to Gladstone’s Library. It consists of a fully-catalogued set of all his published outputs from 1970s to 2010s, several unpublished academic theses on his work and additional working papers and notes. Correspondence received by Cupitt relating to the original 1984 BBC TV series, plus its subsequent repeat broadcast in 1986, offers a measure of the phenomenal public reaction to the programmes and provides a unique insight into the diverse and changing attitudes towards religion in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  The archive also contains many visual, documentary and audio materials from Cupitt’s numerous public lectures, interviews and media appearances from the 1970s onwards. These holdings are complemented by a range of theses and dissertations on Cupitt’s thought, as well as collected materials from the SoF Networks in the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

This now represents a substantial and significant body of material, which the Library has named ‘The Sea of Faith Collection’. It represents a unique primary resource for the study of the history of religious thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Through their investigations into the Collection, Elaine and Graeme plan to address a series of key questions:

  1. What were the main features of Cupitt’s thought? 
  2. What place do Cupitt’s ideas have within broader intellectual movements of his day? 
  3. What is the lasting significance of Cupitt’s theology and how does this relate to the future of progressive, non-realist theologies? 
  4. What contributed to the success of the BBC TV series, and what can be learned from audience responses to the series about changing patterns of religious belief, understanding and affiliation? 
  5. What can contemporary media professionals, religious groups and educationalists learn from the series about contemporary approaches to religious and philosophical questions for popular, non-specialist audiences?
  6. How has the Sea of Faith Network grown and developed in different countries since 1984? 
  7. Is there a constituency for Cupitt’s brand of non-realist, progressive or radical theology today; how do people encounter such ideas and express them in practice?

How will the research project be undertaken? Our planning has had to take account of the constraints of COVID-19 and the fact that Gladstone’s Library is currently closed to visitors. But we have recently applied for funding from the British Academy to establish an online resource hub, which will be accessible virtually via Gladstone’s Library website.  We hope to return to Gladstone’s in the spring or early summer of 2021 to begin to scope and curate the archive with a view to placing primary materials, commentaries, study guides and bibliographies online. This repository will, we hope, generate, in turn, further interest and debate and engage, in particular, with three key constituencies: students and researchers in the study of philosophy, religion and theology; the Christian churches; and general audiences interested in popular spirituality, religion and belief.

In later phases of the project, we plan to produce a range of publications, public events and resources. These will include a major intellectual biography of Don Cupitt, the first of its kind, as well as a series of popular and academic articles. We would like to establish some doctoral studentships, which would investigate the impact of the Sea of Faith TV series and undertake an oral history of the Sea of Faith network. We are also beginning to convene a small academic network of scholars to debate and publish around non-realist and radical theologies, setting Don Cupitt’s work and that of others in historical, intellectual and cultural context.

Finally, we are planning a series of public events at Gladstone’s Library and around the UK to mark the 40th anniversary in 2024 of the original TV series. For readers familiar with events at Gladstone’s Library, we have in mind something similar to its annual literary festival, known as “Gladfest”, held over a long weekend and comprising lectures, discussions, exhibitions and book launches.

We are very excited to be embarking on this project. Our aims are to make Don Cupitt’s work more widely available to new audiences, to stimulate broad-based discussion of his (often neglected and misunderstood) ideas and initiate a comprehensive evaluation of his enduring legacy.

We hope to keep SOFN members updated as the project unfolds, but if you would like to contact us, with suggestions, ideas, or further materials please do so!

Elaine Graham (e.graham@chester.ac.uk) 

Graeme Smith (g.smith@chi.ac.uk)