Sunday, April 24, 2016

"We're different" or "we make a difference"?

I was in a discussion today with some of my church folks. We were supposed to be talking about salvation, and I was trying to find a way into this by talking about what difference belonging to our community might make to us. I was trying to get us to think about what church does rather than what church is - asking the "process" question not the "essence" question.

I asked why people came to our community, trying to work out what difference it makes to people's lives. I kept pushing but the answer I kept getting was how we were different to other churches - how other churches felt oppressive, restricting, confusing - but we felt liberating, simple, and lighter. We kept coming back to the conversation about how we're different to other churches.

Which might seem like a great thing to hear - it was a positive statement about the quality of our religious life in community - but as I reflected on it it worried me. Why?

Because it's not the law that you have to go to any church.

If it was the law you had to go to church then Unitarian churches would be doing great. If the government passed a law that said, "You have to go a worshipping community once a week - it doesn't matter which one, but you must go to one" then millions would research the right church for them, and loads would go to Unitarian churches. Really, loads and loads would. We'd be doing brilliantly.

If you had to go to a church - then we'd be the kind of church that millions would choose to go to.

But here's the problem - such a law doesn't exist - and you don't have to go to church.

So let's bring it down to something weaker than a law - to some kind of "cultural momentum." If the cultural momentum in a society says "go to church" then maybe lots would and do choose to go to Unitarian churches. This cultural momentum does exist, but it exists unevenly and it is declining.

In the United States where there is still (in general) a greater cultural momentum that says "go to church" then Unitarian Universalist churches can still do well.

In Britain, if the generation(s) over 60 still experience a cultural momentum that says "go to church" then they may well decide Unitarian churches are the ones they will go to.

In this situation our evangelism is based on saying "We're really different to other churches, we're more liberal, etc etc, so you'll find us a refreshing change." That's the story of the people in our churches. We've rejected other churches and embraced Unitarianism because of its differences to other religions.

But the foundation for all of this approach is Christendom - is the cultural momentum that says "you should go to church." Once that momentum has gone, the whole thing comes crashing down.

Most folks in my generation in Britain do not experience the cultural momentum that says "go to church" and so this won't be seen as any way meaningful to them.

Here' the thing - this approach to Unitarian evangelism will work - just for an ever smaller group of people. We could keep up this approach, keep aiming at older folk who feel the momentum and an ever smaller group of younger folk. We could keep showing how we're different to other churches - and if we do really really well, it will work. To be honest it's what it most likely to work as a growth strategy for my own church.

But one day, sooner or later, it will stop working. The maths will stop working as we seek to carve a minority out of a minority.

For most people in my generation you don't need to convince them how we're "better" than other churches - but why anyone would want to go to a church in the first place. We don't need to convince them that "we're different" you need to convince them "we make a difference to life." And I think that means a completely different language and approach, a different liturgy and spirituality. It requires some kind of soteriology - some kind of theology of salvation - that shows what a difference it makes in life to have faith.

Which is why we need to be very sceptical about American approaches to Unitarian evangelism - because they are operating within a much more church-going culture so the approach of "we're different to others" is likely to be much more effective there than here.

And I have a feeling that these two approaches are mutually incompatible. I think one community that operates the "we're different" approach might be very successful in appealing to "church-goers" and maybe for another 20 years this could work very well in creating an older, but healthy congregation.

But it will work for fewer and fewer younger unchurched people. If the Unitarian community has any hope of appealing to this growing demographic it will need communities that operate from a different language and practice that is more explicit about what church does and more positive about what it is and not negative about what it is not. It will need a "we make a difference" approach.

So this would suggest we need two approaches to Unitarian evangelism.
1. Established communities can keep up the "we're different" narrative and be effective in appealing to an older demographic of church-goers. If the ministry is done well, this may be effective for some decades to come.
2. But we also need new communities to use the "we make a difference to your life" narrative to build culturally appropriate communities for the growing and younger demographic of "unchurched" people. These will be experimental, unstable, weaker communities finding their legs for some years, but after a certain cut-off point will be the only communities that will survive.

We may be some way in doing the first - but are we capable of doing the second?

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Largest British Unitarian congregations by membership 2015

This is some more number crunching from the Unitarian Annual Report.

I thought it would be interesting to see the largest Unitarian congregations by membership:

1. London New Unity: Membership: 83
2. London Hampstead: Membership: 79
3. Hollywood (Kingswood): Membership: 65
4. Edinburgh: Membership: 60
5. Bolton Bank Street: Membership: 58
6. Mansfield: Membership: 57
Joint 7. Kendal: Membership: 55
Joint 7: Norwich: Membership: 55
Joint 8: Bury: Membership: 54
Joint 8: Eccles: Membership: 54
Joint 8: London Golders Green: Membership: 54
9. Portsmouth: Membership: 53
10. Dean Row: Membership: 52

Monday, February 22, 2016


Unitarian numbers time again as the new Annual Report is now out.

Here's the number: 3095 Unitarian members reported.

This number is down, but only slightly from last year's 3,179. Only 84 people down.

Here's how the numbers have gone over the last 11 years:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642
2009: 3658
2010: 3672
2011: 3560
2012: 3468
2013: 3384
2014: 3179
2015: 3095

Monday, February 08, 2016

Why worship God through dance?

A dervish was asked why he worshipped God through dance.
"Because," he replied, "to worship God means to die to self; dancing kills the self. When the self dies all problems die with it. Where the self is not, Love is, God is."
Art by Shafique Farooqi

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

166 congregations and what is coming next

This is the kind of occasional post I write, keeping an eye on the numbers of the Unitarian community in Britain.

The latest Directory lists 166 congregations. It takes a keen eye to see which ones have died, but I reckon than we can count 4 congregations as having closed down in the last two years.

Horwich have been small and slowly closing down for a number of years. I think this is also true of Worthing.

Halliwell Road Free Church Bolton closed down last year, and the remaining congregation have now joined with my community. This has been a very positive experience and seemed like a sensible move.

Newington Green and Islington have now formally merged, having been acting as one community (New Unity) for several years. This is not a sign of decline, but in fact quite healthy growth the last few years.

So that's where we are in 2015/2016. I looked through the Directory carefully to think about what the future will hold. From what I know of congregations, here's my prediction: in the next ten years we will see 50 congregations close down. 

A word of caution: I would probably have made the same prediction ten years ago, and that "apocalyptic" moment hasn't come yet. But I can't see it being put off much longer. I predict an increase in the rate of church closure.

The real question is whether we will have the presence of mind to be effective in the use of assets of these closures. Let me crunch some numbers, keeping estimates very conservative. Even if congregations have no assets other than buildings, if buildings are worth an equivalent of the average value of a UK house (£200,000) then 50 congregations still adds up to ten million pounds.

If we could harness that ten million pounds for mission, we may actually be able to do some exciting, brave and important things. Of course this will not be the decision of one person or one institution. It will generally be the decisions of individual districts, where the money is most likely to go. But if that money could be given over to mission imagine what could be achieved.

Imagine is the 2020 Congregational Development Fund could be given ten million pounds. The assets from old congregations could be used to seed new ones. Wouldn't that be marvellous?

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Reflections on visiting Hillsong

OK, so this blogpost is very overdue. I've been meaning to write a post about an experience I had in the summer and have not got around to it before now.

While on holiday in the summer I found myself in London on a Sunday. I was faced with the usual question of a Sunday: do I go to church? Do I just ignore the fact that it's Sunday and get on with the day? Or do I seek out a Unitarian church? Or some other church. Anglican? Quaker? Maybe a nice cathedral.

What I decided to do was find the biggest, Evangelical megachurch I could and go along. I did a quick bit of research and decided to go to Hillsong. I thought to myself if they're very successful there are always things to learn. Plus I'm just really fascinated, in a religious studies sort of way, with this kind of thing.

The church meets in one of London's West End theatres and so it was very easy to find coming straight out of the tube and finding it in front of me. It's worth reflecting when we obsess so much about buildings that this church was extremely successful by just renting space.

I was warmly welcomed as I went through the doors, in fact I was given a high-five. The people right there at the door were enthusiastic and joyful and it really showed the culture right there from the first second of the experience.

There was a free cloakroom! Which was absolutely wonderful for me as I was carrying a large heavy bag and felt much better not having to barge my way past people with it. So after depositing the bag I went into the large theatre space and took up a seat about halfway into the space. At that point I think they were encouraging people to fill up the bottom floor (stalls) before letting people go to the next level. I looked around at the people there. They were largely young (I don't think I saw anyone over 50, certainly no one over 70) and the crowd was pretty multicultural. In short, it looked like London. The people in the church were exactly the same kind of people I would see in the streets. I'm not very good at estimating crowds but my best guess would be that there were about 500 people there.

Things got going. The one word I would use to describe the worship experience was LOUD. Like, really really loud. So loud many people would no doubt find the experience unpleasant. The service continued much as I expected it to: beginning with a long period of singing five or so songs; then various bits of talking, prayers, a long sermon, an altar call.

Of course I didn't know any of the songs, but I did my best to sing along, if I didn't object to the words too much. The weird thing was, the music was so loud I couldn't actually tell if the congregation were singing or not. I could hear the guitars and drums and voices of singers on stage, but the sound system was so loud I couldn't hear the congregation. Although in a way this was strange, in other ways I enjoyed the fact that I could not sing some words and no one would notice, or if you felt you were a bad singer, you could not sing and no one would notice. People were joining in in other ways. They were raising hands and all that jazz. The people right at the front seemed to be making a bit of a "mosh pit" going a bit crazy on the front row. Some people were even getting their phones out and taking pictures! That for me felt very weird "in church" but this didn't feel like "in church" in a way. It felt quite a lot like a concert.

Also one unforgivable sin - there was a grammatical mistake on one of the song words on the screen!

The (intercessory) prayer bit I found a bit strange. They had obviously collected prayers from prayer slips or via email before the service, and so on the screen appeared some short sentences for what people were praying for: "my son's GCSE results", "my brother's addiction problems" etc. Fine. I see nothing wrong with that, it's a pretty good way to do that in a large church. But I wanted to sit quietly, and read and honour those prayers as they appeared on the screen. But I found I couldn't really do that because the leaders were yacking on and on about prayer. This was definitely the thing I noticed: I couldn't tell when we had stopped talking about prayer and started praying. It all felt a bit of a jumble to me as the leaders spoke fast and loudly and I felt like saying, "can you please shut up so I can actually pray and honour those joys and concerns that are being displayed on the screen?"

There were no women's voices in the service. I counted four men who contributed but no women. But I might be being unfair in making this comment as it's quite easy that you could come to my church and not hear any women's voices on a Sunday too.

There was very little I could object to in the intellectual content of the service. In the prayer bit there was a theology that God did literally answer prayers. The sermon itself was not particularly conservative at all, nor was it particularly impressive. The basic gist of it was that we have things to do in the world to change it for the better. The preacher spoke about Martin Luther King and various other examples. In some ways it wouldn't have been completely out of place in a Unitarian church. Apart from an aside dig at evolution it wasn't a particularly fundamentalist or conservative Evangelical message.

The young woman beside did play with her phone through a lot of the sermon though, which again I felt a bit shocked by. But then again it was a relaxed atmosphere so you felt no one was watching you. I felt perfectly comfortable reaching into my bag and taking a swig out of a bottle of water, which I might not have done in a different church.

The service ended with an "altar call" of a kind. But they didn't ask anyone to come to the front if they wanted to "give themselves to Jesus" but just to raise their hand. Everyone was standing at this point and my head was bowed so I didn't see if anyone did, or how many.

The service ended and people filed out happily. There was no social time at all from what I could see. No tea or coffee, just spilling out again onto the streets of London. It occurs to me if you had a friend in the congregation you would have to send them a text message to arrange a place to meet them afterwards. You would easily miss them otherwise.

So what do I conclude from this experience? Well I'm very glad I went, and I found it an interesting and somewhat enjoyable experience. In general everything was done well and things were organised and professional. It was a place that was very easy to be anonymous, which is exactly what I wanted that morning. I wanted to slide in, experience something, then slide out without anyone noticing me, and that's pretty much what happened. But it's very tough to build community that way. Clearly they did have a small group ministry programme that they were promoting, but still I felt you could go to a church like that for months without really making any real connections if you were a shy person. These are all the predictable problems of very large churches.

What can someone like me in a little old Unitarian church learn from such a place? Well I think a culture of joy and enthusiasm has much to commend it. As well as being functional outside a building. But ultimately I think the effectiveness of mega-churches is limited, especially outside of large urban areas.

My main criticism though would be the simple impression that it didn't feel like worship for me. Don't get me wrong, I don't object to clapping, loud joyful music etc. But something about the experience did not click for me. In the end there was just too much going on for me to find God. I need a more spacious feel to find God. Places of depth and wonder. For me the loud music drowned out that. And without that, I'm not sure the rest matters so much.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Unitarian Theology Conference 2016

Something I've been working on. .
All are welcome at a Unitarian Theology Conference at Cross St Chapel, Manchester, on Saturday 21st May, 2016, 10.30 for 11 am start. Details are on poster below. 
Fuller details also in text below.
Unitarian Theology Conference, Cross Street Chapel, Manchester
Saturday 21st May 2016. 10.30 for 11am to 5pm
"Do Unitarians need Theology?" Stephen Lingwood
Response by Dr Melanie Prideaux
Lunch (please bring your own, or sandwich bars nearby).
"The Spirit in Unitarian and Judaeo-Christian Thought" Rev Jo James
KEYNOTE ADDRESS "Towards a Unitarian Theology for the Twenty-First
Century" Rev Dr David Steers.
Panel Discussion: Revs Sarah Tinker, Sheena Gabriel and Lewis Connolly.
Opening and closing devotions, as well as time for Q + A.
The conference is supported by The Hibbert Trust.
Further information contact Rev Jim Corrigall.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

On ten years of blogging

Happy birthday to this blog! Well OK, Reignite's birthday was in August. I did mean to note this at the time but I was on holiday, and then the busyness of September hit etc etc.

The fact that the tenth anniversary of this blog went by quietly is pretty typical of the nature of this blog at the moment. It's true that I don't have the time to blog as much as I used to. And I also have a lot more outlets for my writing in various publications as a part of my ministry, which I didn't have in 2005 when I started. But it's also true that this blog has always remained a bit homespun and low-key, so there didn't seem to be a need to make a big thing about it. I try to keep it simple, and for example have never updated the format of the blog, which probably means it looks a bit old-fashioned now. But I like to let the writing speak for itself.

Although my writing here gets very patchy nowadays I have no plans to stop the blog. I still find it a useful format for bits of writing that don't really fit elsewhere. I don't publish sermons here as, in my view, those are very different forms of writing. And I don't post articles that I think will fit better in Unitarian publications like The Herald, The Inquirer, or Faith and Freedom.

This format is a bit more rough around the edges. It represents thoughts-in-progress that nevertheless I want to share. I'm not entirely sure who I'm sharing my thoughts with. I write mainly about Unitarianism and so I assume a Unitarian audience I suppose. But I write more bluntly and controversially than if I write for a Unitarian audience in The Inquirer. I suppose because here on this blog it is a self-selected audience. If you don't want to read my stuff you don't have to be here, so I feel free to write more boldly.

It was also the "voice" of a lot of blogs that were around that I enjoyed when I started writing in 2005. There weren't many British Unitarian blogs around then (possibly none?) and so my blogging conversation partners were generally Americans - such as Peacebang, Philocrites, Boy in the Bands and Never Say Never to Your Travelling Self. That community felt important to me, and still does in a way. But it was a bit sassy and critical. This blog continues to be in that genre.

Today I'm less certain who is listening to me, and joining in the conversation. There are a lot more British Unitarian blogs around now, but a lot of these have been used for printing sermons, which for me is a different thing. A blog is more about commentary, wonderings, and half-thoughts rather than a pastoral and faithful word to a particular community and context.

And there is an element of course of the web-log, the journal as well. I have occasionally written personally on here, probably too personally at times. There is a way that the evolution of social media now provides a more appropriate format for some of the things that I would have once put here. But I would not want this blog to be impersonal either. I write as a particular human and believe that's an important thing to embrace. Of course my life has changed in the last ten years. I started this blog when I returned to Britain after two years in the States. At the same time I applied, successfully, for ministry training, worked in Tesco before starting, then trained for the ministry in Manchester before being appointed in Bolton, where I am still the minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel. This is of course a big part of who I am, but in a way I don't write here as a minister. I write as an engaged Unitarian and human being. It's always been quite separate for me from my traditional ministry. I think that's how it will remain.

What does the future hold? I'm not sure. But I expect I will continue to be opinionated. And so this will still be a useful format for some of those opinions. We shall see. Thanks for being part of the journey.


Saturday, July 25, 2015

Unitarians and the imperialism of pluralism

Unitarians have a problem with pluralism. We think of ourselves as cool pluralists, and constantly tell ourselves we are all about pluralism - that our congregations are full of religious diversity. "We are very diverse people!" we shout ad nauseam. But I want to argue that we're not actually true pluralists.

We're not true pluralists but imperial pluralists. An often unexamined theology we espouse is that we are building a "religion of religions" - that us (and us alone) offers the possibilities for all religions to come together "under one roof." What we fail to see is how imperialist this is. We expect all religions to come together on our terms and under our auspices. It looks something like this:

Unitarianism is the holder of religious diversity in this model. But can you not see that this gives Unitarianism a privileged place? We are the ones in charge. We are the ones who create the context into which all of the world's religious diversity must fit within. This is patronising to all other religions, and gives us all the power. This is imperialist pluralism.

A true pluralism sees Unitarianism as one of many religious traditions. It looks more like this:

Here Unitarianism is just one branch of one tree of religious diversity, and a tiny branch at that. We are one tiny branch in the complex bush of Christianity, and if we were being objective we wouldn't even be big enough to be mentioned. Our place is not to include all the world's religious diversity within our tiny tradition, but rather appreciate that we are one out of many. Our pluralism is not to include all religious diversity within our tradition, but rather to see and appreciated that we are connected to all others. Some traditions deny this (exclusivism); we affirm it.

We are not THE ONE that encompasses the many. But we are one amongst the many, and we know and celebrate that.

We need to be a faith

I am responding (admittedly probably too late - apologies for that) to the Unitarian conversations started by the Executive Committee on "Vision" following a Vision Day last year.

Of course this day (as these things always do) ended with a lot of words that are now being reflected upon. But I think the first phrase is in some ways the only thing that matters:

"We want to be... a faith that matters."

 In fact, I would say this is still too wordy. The challenge is that "we need to be a faith."

That's it, simply being a faith. If we're not engaged in the things of faith: prayer, God, soul, forgiveness, theology, then we're not really being a faith and everything else is just window-dressing.

But this leads me to another really important point. It it not the Executive Committee's job to nurture faith in Unitarianism. In fact it's not the Executive's job to do most of the things suggested in the Vision document. What we're talking about is cultural change which the Executive has almost zero influence over. I worry, once again that the Executive are promising more than they can possibly deliver. This is only setting the Executive up to be criticised by the rest of us, and encouraging the rest of us to be too passive in expecting "them" to do things for us.

The fact is we are now too small to be "a denomination" - we are still acting like we're the Methodists (and the Methodists are pretty small nowadays but still seventy times bigger than us). We are tiny and we just haven't got that into our institutional head yet. We can't expect "the denomination" to do anything. You have to do it or it won't get done. We need to really realise that there is a limit amount of vital life-saving work the General Assembly structures can do, and they need to concentrate on that and nothing else. We should support them and pray for them in that work.

Meanwhile, those of us who feel called to do so, should work for the spiritual, liturgical and theological renewal of Unitarianism. The grassroots needs bold experimenters and faithful mystics prepared to go deep and go out. That's where our salvation lies, God willing.