Thursday, July 17, 2014

What are the theological commitments of Unitarianism?

I'm just back from spending a few days with ministry students and probationary ministers for an intense time of residential learning called Ministry in the Making.

One of the topics we discussed was whether Unitarianism had any theology beyond personal credos that we all share in common. Or whether it is only values we share.

I said I do believe that Unitarianism is a coherent theological tradition very definitely committed to a particular approach to the life of faith and to theology. There is a theology that holds us.

Some folks asked for one comment I made to be written down, so for them, and for anyone else interested, here is what I would say we are committed to as Unitarian theology. This is a lot more than I said at the time, but I got going with it.

Unitarianism is a theological tradition with commitments. This list could be improved, or put in different ways, but we really are committed to the following theological points:

1. There is a spiritual dimension to reality - though this should be understood as an existential claim rather than a metaphysical one. In other words there is a deeper, fuller, better, more mysterious, more alive way to live - and this is what the religions have been wrestling with for thousands of years.

2. Revelation is not sealed: the fullest truth about the nature of our lives and the universe has not once and for ever been revealed and codified at any point in the past. Instead we are part of our continuous process of seeking ever deeper, bigger and more complex understandings of this truth. We are part of a historical process of discovery.

3. The spiritual reality is imminently and fully present in the here and now. We do not look to the past for evidence of revelation or to the future for a time of fulfilment and completion. Neither should our attention be on the afterlife or some other place. Religious drives us deeper and deeper into this reality, not an escape from it.

4. Related to this is the affirmation that fundamentally reality, the universe, life is good. There is pain and tragedy, but ultimately "it was good" - it is good.

5. The human being (the human "soul" if you like) is a source and locus of spiritual reality. We are intimately involved in this: "the Highest dwells within us.... As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins." Emerson.

6. We are One - we are deeply intertwined with one another in an "interdependent web of all existence" or an "inescapable network of mutuality" (ML King). This may be point 5 above just described in a different way. The fundamental truth of our existence is that we are not separate but deeply connected with all that is.

7. Human beings have sacred inherent worth and value. For this sacredness not to be trampled human beings must be free. Therefore relations between people should be based on free consent and not coercion.

8. Related to this is the realisation that the human race is one. We have more in common than divides us. There is not one particular people who are superior. There is a foundational equality for all people.

9. We live in an non-optimal world where the oneness and equality of all is frustrated by various systems and forces. It is a moral obligation to seek to put this right and commit to justice. Or, to put it another way, love and spirituality cannot be separated. "You cannot love God without loving your sister." Religion must lead us to a greater compassion, and any religion that does not increase our capacity for compassion is a false religion.

10. Community is necessary. We cannot live out these truths in isolation, but must enter into the discipline of community-making to live out this calling in the world.

11. We are ultimately hopeful about this universe. Not immediately, "not without dust and heat" but eventually there is a reason for hope. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Growing Unitarian congregations 2013

More analysis from the Annual Report.

2010 was the first Annual Report to list quota membership numbers, so it's now possible to use this baseline to see what congregations are shrinking (most of them) and which are growing (some of them).

Keeping in mind that quota numbers are a poor reflection of the reality of congregations, I still think it's valuable to do a bit of analysis. Three years is also too short a time. Five would be better. Also an increase of 1 or 2 is probably within the margin or error for this kind of thing. But with all this in mind we can see the growth in the following congregations, comparing 2010 and 2013.

Congregation
Increase in members
Change
London Islington and Newington Green           
22
From 70 to 92
London Golders Green
14
From 41 to 54
Birmingham Hollywood  
11
From 48 to 59
Bangor*
8
From 0 to 8
Edinburgh
8
From 60 to 68
Leicester
7
From 26 to 33
Richmond
7
From 35 to 42
Brighton
5
From 38 to 45
Hastings
5
From 18 to 23
Sevenoaks
4
From 20 to 24
Wirral
4
From 20 to 24
Ipswich
3
From 45 to 48
Bath
2
From 5 to 7
Billingshurst
2
From 7 to 9
Denton
2
From 5 to 7
Doncaster
2
From 16 to 18
Kidderminster
2
From 31 to 33
Oldham
2
From 10 to 12
Oxford
2
From 37 to 39
Wakefield
2
From 17 to 19
Bridgwater
1
From 5 to 6
Ditchling
1
From 19 to 20
Mansfield
1
From 50 to 51
Plymouth
1
From 24 to 25
Scarborough
1
From 6 to 7
Southampton
1
From 17 to 18
Southend-on-Sea
1
From 3 to 4
Tenterden
1
From 8 to 9
Wolverhampton
1
From 3 to 4


*Bangor is a new congregation that was started in this period. 

3,384 or 3,900 and why "visibility" is not the answer

This is a delayed post of the usual post I do about Unitarian membership numbers reported in the Annual Report.

The number of Unitarian members reported in the Annual Report is 3384, down 84 people from 3468 last year. A drop of about 2.5%.

Here's how the numbers look over the last few years:

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

Despite a short blip in 2008 to 2010, the numbers continue to fall steadily.

In addition to the official numbers this year there was a congregational survey that reveals a few interesting things. One of the outcomes was that the survey suggested that the number of regular people in our communities was more like 3900 regular people in Unitarian congregations. This is hardly surprising as official membership numbers are likely to be smaller than actual numbers for many different reasons.

The most interesting thing for me about the survey was the number of visitors. In one month the 80 congregations that responded reported 831 visitors. Scaled up - this would suggest 1300 visitors a month to all congregations.

Let's make that a bit more pessimistic and make it 1000 visitors a month. That is still an astounding number. That's 12,000 visitors a year. OK, let's err on the side of caution and scale it down again to 10,000 visitors a year.

This suggested that all we would have to would be convert 10% of our visitors to members and we would have 1000 new members a year. Even if we're losing a few hundred a year through death - all of this suggests we really should be growing.

If these numbers are anywhere near accurate it points to a very clear picture: all we have to do to grow is repel fewer visitors.

(With due reference to Peter Morales who came up with this phrase, as far as I know)

This is very clear: visibility should not be a strategic priority. We are visible enough to get 10,000 visitors a year. A priority should be healthy and hospitable congregations. Lots of people are visiting us, they're just not staying. They are not finding what they're looking for, they don't want to hang around.

Healthy and hospitable congregations need to be our priority. That's what we need to be looking into.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Resolutions are a terrible way to do social justice

So, how are you doing with your General Assembly resolutions then?

What are you, or your congregation doing about… what was it again? Ah yes: Thought for the Day, gold mining in Romania, the Red Cross and books in prisons?

Can I ask another question? What are you and your congregation doing about the resolutions passed in 2013? Um, let’s see. It was something about… drug reform was definitely one of them… no I can’t remember the rest. Can you?

How about how we’re getting on with the resolutions we passed in 2010? Can you remember any of them? Or the ones we passed in 2000? Can you remember any of them?

If, like me, you struggle to think what the issues were a couple of years ago, can I make a suggestion? Can I suggest that our current system is actually not working?

Every year I have the faint hope that there will be no motions at all at the Annual Meetings. I think it would be wonderful if we could not talk so much one year and find something more useful to do with our time. But every year my heart sinks as I open the post to find a whole long list of things we’re all going to yak on about again. The same congregations have put forward more motions that the same old people are going to get up and talk to and we’ll pass it with 99% in favour and then…

And then, what, exactly? “The Unitarian General Assembly has said we’re in favour of this thing or against this other thing!” So what? So what? Who cares? Who is listening?

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think engaging with current societal issues is a bad thing. I long for us to be a more justice-centred, radical prophetic religious body. My contention is this: passing resolutions is a terrible way to do social justice work. It’s not only that it’s ineffective (it is); I have a feeling it might actually be counter-productive because it is a distraction from the activism we should be doing. I think it is about our collective egos more than the needs of the world. “Oh we are good liberal people,” we think to ourselves, “We care about the world. Look! See – we passed a resolution and everything – aren’t we a good liberal people?”

OK, so, so what did we actually do? Was the pain of one person alleviated? Did government policy change? Did we actually reach out to be in relationship with people beyond our community? Did the world become more beautiful and good? The American Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka asks the question: “Do we believe that simply to think about an issue is the same as to live in a way which exemplifies our concern for the issue?” And that questions rings in my ears as I think about this. We think, we have opinions, we talk. And this distracts us from actually doing anything effective.

Meanwhile the vast majority of our congregations ignore the whole process. They don’t discuss motions before or after the meetings. They take no action. Some disagree with the positions taken.

And I don’t blame congregations for this. Not in the least. Most congregations simply do not have the energy to deal in any meaningful way with five or six different social justice issues every year. Dealing with one would be ambitious enough.

Our system is broke. It does not engage the grassroots congregations. It rarely makes any impact whatsoever beyond our little community. It is not an effective way of doing social justice.

So, what is the alternative? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions but these are some of the things I’ve been thinking about.

Firstly, let’s be clear what the purpose of a motion should be. A motion should either establish internal denominational policy or establish our communal response to a genuinely new issue in the world. “We believe in same sex marriage” is a genuinely new position, and establishes a unique voice for Unitarians. “We believe in human rights and freedom of expression” is not new. It has been said. It does not need saying again.

Secondly we need to understand something about definitions here. Resolutions say “This General Assembly…” Who is the General Assembly? We can tend to think that this means staff at Essex Hall or volunteers on denominational committees. It does not. It means all of us. It means you. It means your congregation. If we say “the General Assembly calls for this…” then we need that to mean all of us, or at least the majority of us. If you think your congregation is not able to address this issue then should you be saying the “General Assembly” is going to do or campaign for this or that? If your congregation isn’t going to do that, then is it meaningful to say that “the General Assembly” is?   

So, can I suggest something radical? We have one motion that we take three years to consider. That’s right: we take three years to consider something. “But this will slow things down to a snail’s pace!” – I hear you complaining. Yes, it will. But for our social justice positions to be actually effective and owned by the whole denomination I think this is what it takes.

An effective social justice process would have a number of stages. Firstly education – we would all take the time to really get educated about an issue; this could easily take a year. Next we discuss the issue in congregations, in districts, in societies. Any wording is hammered out to be much more meaningful at this stage. Next we actually take a vote as an informed, thoughtful and faithful denomination. The final stage is that we are empowered for our activism. We are provided with activist resources: sample letters to MPs, ways to protest, to network, to campaign. As I say I think this process could easily take three years.

So let’s take one example. In 1977 the General Assembly passed a motion that Ministry would be “open to all regardless of sex, race, colour or sexual orientation.” Well  great. How progressive of us, we think. And indeed it was. A stand still too radical for most Christian denominations.

But I understand that being an openly gay minister in the 1980s was still incredibly difficult in this denomination. There was a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination in our congregations still. Congregations did not actually embrace this position.

So let me suggest an alternative scenario – what if in 1977 the denomination started a deeper conversation that involved the grassroots and effectively dealt with homophobia and prejudice in every congregation? What if that motion waited until 1980 to be passed, but by then it was really and truly owned by the whole denomination? Would that not be more effective?  

For these big, new, complex issues a deeper, longer, theological conversation is needed. And yes, it needs to be theological. I despair at our embarrassment to speak a language of faith around these things. Take same sex marriage. We said, “the government should do this.” I wish we had said, “as people of faith who believe marriage is about this…. we believe the government should do this.” I wish we could take the time to root our positions in our faith, not just in liberal politics that could be said by any trade union or political party.

But many issues do not need a motion at all. Most motions coming before the Annual Meetings are unnecessary. The question is not what we think about something (that is already well established) the question is what are we going to do about it? More useful than passing motions at the Annual Meetings would be activist training. If we spent our time getting better educated, and then were sent back to our congregations with tools and resources that would be truly useful – what difference would that make? What if instead of being one denomination “having a position” (again, who cares?) we were four thousand effective grassroots activists? What sort of a difference would that make?


Or, if you think all my ideas so far have been rubbish – how about this one? Instead of debating motions at the Annual Meetings us three hundred delegates go to the nearest town to pick up litter for two hours? Because honestly, most years I think this would be a much better use of our time that would genuinely be more effective in making the world a better place. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Truth and Oneness

(I'm writing here just as a notebook basically as my ideas develop, this is not totally thought-through stuff, this is me jotting down some ideas)

I don't agree with the assertion that Unitarianism is primarily characterised by a belief in the authority and autonomy of the individual. I tend to think this is a post-modern perversion of what we're really trying to say about the nature of Truth. It is as mistaken to think "my truth cannot be questioned" as it is to think "the Bible's truth cannot be questioned." The foundation of religious liberalism (James Luther Adams expresses this well) is that NO truth is above scrutiny. All truths can be scrutinised and analysed. The trouble is we apply this idea happily to the Authority of the Church or the Authority of Scripture as ideas we have historically rejected from Catholicism and Protestantism respectively - but we refuse to apply the idea TO OURSELVES. We make ourselves Infallible Popes of our own individual religions, and believe our own particular dogmas can be questioned by no one. True we don't seek to impose our ideas on others, but neither do we exposes ourselves to the fresh air of free inquiry, opening ourselves to the possibility of finding greater Truth. "I believe this" or "I am a [theological position]" are dogmatic statements that be believe cannot and should not be open to scrutiny, questioning, or analysis. And so we  reject the free and responsible search for Truth for a pragmatic individualism that treats truth-claims as a matter of identity politics.

We are not the religion of the dogma of individualism. We are the religion of Oneness and Truth. The Unitarian approach should be that we are open to the fullness of Truth and affirm its importance.

This is different from other religions and their approach to Truth. Many other faiths will hold that Truth has been Revealed. For example: in the person of Jesus Christ the fullness of Truth is revealed to the world. Or, in the Qur'an the fullest revelation of Truth possible has been revealed to humankind. But when a Unitarian seeks after Truth their first conclusion is: - we don't have it yet. When considering the vastness of the universe, and the vastness of human experience our conclusion is "we don't yet have the fullness of Truth." So our approach has to be a "scientific" one to the deepest universal, cosmological, ontological and existential truths. We are not there yet, there is a long way to go.

But this does not mean that there are no truths to find on the way. Jesus Christ and the Qur'an - to continue to use those examples - clearly represent deep sources of truth, that we would be foolish to ignore. But we cannot affirm that these truths represent a full and final Truth. They are building blocks to truths, taking us so far, but not all the way towards Truth.

To affirm both Oneness and Truth means that Truth is universally accessible to all human souls. We are all in relationship with the same Truth and Oneness. But we find that many people express diverse and contradictory truths.

One response to this is to stick to the position "I have the full Truth - you have some perversion or contradiction of the truth." But this is ultimately arbitrary.

Another response is to give up on Truth: "Well we all have our own individual truths and there's no way to compare truths, and anyway truth doesn't matter so let's just not worry about it."

The Unitarian position should be to say, "There seems to be some important part of the Truth here and there. Let's hold on to these things but keep searching because clearly there is some more truth to find before we find the full Truth."

Our Unitarian position should not be "believe whatever you like. It's up to you, mate." Rather all of us are called to pay full attention to the truths humanity has found along the way, even as we know there is a need for us all to keep seeking.

When did we stop talking about Truth? When we realised it was all much more difficult and complex than we originally thought? Well it is. Hugely. But to give up on Truth is a betrayal of the journey we've been on since the beginning.

That's why I'd like us to speak a lot more about the search for Truth as one of our foundational principles.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The difference between "taking the service" and "leading worship"

"There is a subtle yet profound difference between 'taking the service' and 'leading worship'. The focus on the former is on following the liturgy or order of service. The focus on the latter is on helping people to encounter the presence of God. This is likely to involve an ability to be comfortable with the use of silence to enable people to hear what God is saying to them. Equally the use of testimonies and stories, in which people share experiences of God's action are likely to be evident. A sense of celebration of the reality of the goodness of God will be present. This is likely to be balanced by an ability, corporately, to engage with the pain and brokenness in the world around. So joy and sorrow, laughter and tears will be in evidence."

Robert Warren, The Healthy Churches' Handbook  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Bank Street photos

I'm mainly posting these for a technical reason too boring to go into. By you might enjoy them.








































Friday, November 29, 2013

What does it mean that Unitarianism does not start with an experience of revelation?



Last week on the way back from a few days in the Lakes I stopped by in Kendal to visit the Quaker Tapestry.

I found some inspiration in the history of George Fox and the early Quakers, as depicted in the various panels. I was struck by George Fox seeking answers to his questions until his inward revelation that "there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition."

As I pondered this I reflected on the differences between Quakers and Unitarians. Quakerism has a more definite and clear story of its beginnings - and I think significantly, Quakerism started with an experience of revelation.

In fact most religious paths start with an experience of revelation, major religious traditions, like Islam, and often divisions of religious traditions like Methodism or Zen/Chan Buddhism, begin with some formative, experiential experience of revelation/truth.

What does it mean that Unitarianism does not start with an experience of revelation? How does it affect the way we tell our stories or understand who we are? What would it mean if we could point to an experience of revelation at the beginning of our story?

Universalist history does include some instances of revelation of the truth of the universal love of God, but Unitarianism seems not to. (Am I wrong?)

I wonder if this is something we're missing? 


Sunday, October 27, 2013

LOVE IS ... [censored]

OK, this is a weird one, folks.

I was wandering around Google street view, as you do, and checking the street view of my church.

I could see that is was a relatively new shot as it has our (relatively) new noticeboard on. I zoomed into the noticeboard to get a better look.

I recognised that it had the temporary sign up that said, "LOVE is the doctrine of this church" - but what was weird was that everything but the first three words were blurred out. Take a look:


Everything else is clear enough on the noticeboard. You see "LOVE is the..." but rest of that looks like it's been deliberately edited out like they do with everyone's faces on Google street view.

I can't think for the life of me why anyone would do this. How curious. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Disappointed in Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams has always seemed like he has the potential to be a great Christian leader. There's a lot of great things about him. But he has disappointed me.

He spoke recently about whether he had let down GLBT people in his time as Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. But it actually wasn't this issue that has disappointed me. It was only reading about this talk in an article recently that I realised something that happened several months ago: he has become a member of the House of Lords.

I'm quite disappointed in that. A few years he spoke at the University of Manchester and his talk was, of course, excellent. He spoke about the place of the Christian community as offering a radical alternative to the mainstream society - witnessing to a different set of values than the materialism, hierarchy etc of society (this is from memory so I'm just recalling a rough impression of what he said).

I got up at the end of the talk and asked a question. I said that I totally agreed with everything he said - it's just that I didn't see the leadership of the Church of England living it out. It seemed to me, I said, that unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords "lording it over" the country was in direct contradiction to everything he had just talked about for the last hour.

His answer was equivocal. He just sort of shrugged and said, "well this is the system we've inherited and we've got to work within it." It seemed bishops in the House of Lords was something he didn't want to defend.

But to find out he has accepted his own seat in the House of Lords, again seems like a betrayal of the values he can and does articulate so well. As Archbishop of Canterbury of course he had a seat, which you could argue just comes with the job; but to accept a personal seat to this unelected illegitimate chamber seems like another betrayal of those Christian values.

All political parties agreed in principle to reform the House of Lords and this government has not only failed to do so, but stuffed the house with more and more and more peers. Rowan Williams has come in as part of a wave of unelected peers that is making the House of Lords even more laughable in a modern democracy. There are currently about 750 peers with a chance under the current system of this going up to 2000. This is not only clearly impractical as a way to run a Parliament, it is also a system based on party patronage, privilege, and unaccountable power.

How I wish someone as respected and well known as Rowan Williams could have witnessed to Christian values by refusing to be a part of such a system.