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.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Winning elections shouldn't be the aim

I occasionally feel the need to write about politics on this blog. There are a lot of people more qualified than me to talk about this of course, and they do. And there's all kinds of things I'd want to say that others can say better than me about politics and the election, and there's not a lot of use repeating it. But I've found myself shouting at the radio and TV a bit recently so I have felt the need to express these thoughts.

I'm thinking a bit about the Labour leadership election. I've heard some of the leadership candidates speaking and got so frustrated by the lack of any inspiring vision that I felt the need to think more deeply about this. What I haven't heard from many of the leadership contenders is the sense that winning elections is not an end in itself, but the means to an end. There's a lot of talk about "we have to do this and that to win elections" - but my question comes back to "why?" Why does the Labour Party want to win elections - what is the end to which winning elections is the means?

It occurs to me that a lot of the growth of the smaller parties has been due to those parties seeing winning elections not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. UKIP want to win elections so that the UK can leave the European Union. The SNP want to win elections so that Scotland can become an independent country. The Greens want to win elections to radical change the economy to be sustainable and more equitable (admittedly this is a less specific aim than the last two). Why do the Labour Party want to win elections? What is the Labour Party for?


I've not heard anyone answer those questions, and that's why I've found it frustrating to hear the Labour leadership contenders. It seems to me this is part of the problem. An organisation needs to know it's "why" before it can know its "how." I haven't heard anyone explain to me why the Labour Party wants to win elections. That's what it needs. That, in fact, is what "leadership" is all about. That lack of a vision is why people (such as myself) are not voting Labour.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An invitation to a conversations about Unitarian Anabaptism

In recent years I've found myself identifying more and more as a Unitarian Anabaptist. This is increasingly feeling like the path for me. But I don't want to plough a lonely furrow on this path, but rather I want to connect with others who might be open to this approach.

So I'm interested in connecting with others who would like to explore what it might mean to follow a Unitarian Anabaptist spiritual path.

What do I mean by Unitarian Anabaptist?

Well, by Unitarian I mean a commitment to spiritual oneness, the unfolding nature of truth, inclusion and pluralism.

By Anabaptist I mean a commitment to radical equality, peace, simplicity and discipleship.

This conversation would be inspired by the historic extinct Unitarian Anabaptist movement in Poland as well as the recent resurgence of interest from contemporary (UK and Ireland) Christians in Anabaptism, exemplified by the Anabaptist Network.

I would like a conversation that would explore what it might mean to give real commitment to what Jesus called "the kingdom of God" in our lives, our communities and our neighbourhoods.

Though this is initially an invitation to "a conversation" the idea is it would not remain this, but lead us to find ways to concretely act to bring about these values. This is not just a theological or historical conversation, but a commitment to journeying together as both seekers and disciples.

If you're interested, please email me through this link. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why Unitarians need to experience orgasms (spiritually)

The joke goes something like this:

A Unitarian finds a fork in the road. One sign points to "Heaven" while the other points to "A discussion about heaven." The Unitarian follows the path to "A discussion about heaven."

There's a lot of truth in that joke. In fact I think the situation is sort of worse than that. I would categorise the Unitarian situation as more like this:

A Unitarian finds a fork in the road. One sign points to "an orgasm" while the other points to "A discussion about orgasms." The Unitarian follows the path to "A discussion about orgasms."

The problem with our religious life, most significantly about our worship life, is that we believe we are worshipping by having a discussion about worship, or praying by saying clever things about prayer. It is as ridiculous as believing you are having an orgasm by attending a three hour lecture about orgasms. The two do not compare.

We gather, sing songs, listen to words, and somehow think we have worshipped. So many times, we have not. We have merely talked about these things. Worship, prayer, God, grace, freedom, love are things that must be experienced directly, not discussed or debated.

The purpose of worship is to experience things, not to talk about things. Worship itself is an experience, a verb, a practice, a habit, not merely a concept up for philosophical examination.

You can talk all you want about sex. You can read poetry and biological explanations for it. You can analyse it scientifically, sociologically, culturally. You can read reflections on the matter from various cultures and periods of history. But none of these things are having sex. None of them come close to the human visceral and physical experience of making love. None of them can in any real meaningful way tell you what it is like to have an orgasm.

You have to experience it. Anything else, though interesting and informative, doesn't really get to the heart of the matter. If you want to know about orgasms, you need to experience one.

No actually, scrap that. Who the hell cares about knowing about orgasms when you've experienced one? The experience is primary, the knowing about it is a secondary thing, perhaps interesting for specialists, but not actually necessary, and maybe sometimes a complete distraction.

When we gather for worship, the purpose is worship itself. The purpose of an orgasm is the orgasm itself. Worship is not about hearing something interesting, informative or clever. Worship is about worship. Every time. Do not say "today's service is about social housing and here's two informative readings and here's my thoughts about the issue, interspersed with some pleasant thematic music" rather say, "Holy! Holy! Holy! We enter now the deepest experience of transcendence," or better, sing it!

Visitors do not stay in our churches because we fail to offer them any real substantive experience. They like our values and our approach but they do not find anything spiritually real in what we offer. We need to offer real religion, in a liberal and open way, not just liberalism with a sprinkling of religion as an afterthought.

I want Unitarians to desire orgasms enough to leave the discussion about orgasms and actually try them for once! I think you'll find, once we do that, we'll not be too bothered about the discussion.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Churches are not immortal

This is sort of obvious when you say it out loud:

Churches are not immortal.

Churches (I mean local congregations) do not live forever. Why would they? Nothing lasts forever.

And yet we often act and talk like churches should be immortal, and that if they die it is an unqualified disaster.

Of course a church, like a person, dying prematurely is a tragedy. But a church, like a person, dying after a good long life may just be a fact of life. Sad, most certainly, but also in the natural order of things. And we can respond to this death with sorrow but also with gratitude.

But how often do we deny this reality? How often do we assume that a church can live forever or that it should? How often do we think of church that is something somehow ancient and eternal? How often do we think our priority should be ensuring that churches live forever?

Sometimes churches can be saved. Sometimes not. They just die.

It's not actually death that should worry us. It's reproduction. It's birth.

Think about an endangered species, such as the panda. Scientists and conservationists are concerned about the continuing existence of this species. But are they spending millions of pounds investing in research that will make pandas immortal? Are they searching for the panda fountain of eternal youth? No, of course they're not. They're putting millions of pounds of effort into trying to make pandas breed.

And yet, denominations often put all their effort into trying to make old congregations live forever. When in fact the priority should be to make sure new congregations are born. If old congregations are dying, maybe that's OK, maybe it's just their time. Maybe some congregations live for 5 years, maybe some for 50 years, maybe some for 500 years. But they all die.

But what makes a religious movement continue? New birth. New congregations. This has always been the case, but maybe it is true even more so today because the pace of change in society is so rapid. The need for new congregations to engage with a radically new culture is even greater.

Once we accept the undeniable truth that churches are not immortal we can stop beating ourselves up so much when they die, and give our resources much more enthusiastically to new birth.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Where is leadership?

When we think about the state of the Unitarian community in Britain, as I have been doing in recent posts here, our great temptation is to come up with a list of all the things "they" should be doing.

What do we mean by "they"? We tend to mean the General Assembly structures, the Executive Committee and the small number of paid staff at Essex Hall.

I'm sure I have done this before now. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have. It is completely unrealistic to expect that "they" can do something about the health, vitality and growth of our movement. I've realised this now.

That's the truth of the matter: they can't.

Let's be realistic about what the Unitarian General Assembly structures can do. They can:

  • Coordinate the training and qualification of ministers.
  • Provide a few other resources, and pieces of training, like hymn books, good governance, children's work training etc.
  • Provide some publicity by maintaining a website, and providing a spokesperson when required to respond to the press.
  • Organise the Annual Meetings.


And that folks, is about it. We give them neither the power, the legitimacy, the resources or the money for them to do anything more.

And then, entirely unfairly, blame them for the (lack of) health and vitality of our congregations.

You may notice that the above list of things has only an indirect effect on the health and vitality of congregations.

To be fair, sometimes "they" give the impression that they are capable of more. The Executive Committee aiming for 20% growth in five years gave the impression that they had the power to create that growth when in fact they had no power at all to do that. It would, perhaps, have been more meaningful for them to ask congregations to pro-actively sign up to this growth aim. Then the congregations committed to this could have come up with their plans to create this growth, and after five years we could have compared what worked, and what didn't work, and how this compared to congregations who didn't voluntarily sign up to the commitment.

But that's the point. It's congregations and the grassroots who need to do this work. Not the centralised "General Assembly" structures.

Take one of this year's motions at the Annual Meetings calling on the Executive Committee to set up a "programme" to foster community cohesion. No no no! This is not the responsibility of the Executive Committee. It is the responsibility of individual congregations to work in their communities and with local interfaith/community groups to do this work. It's work we should already be doing. But instead of doing it, we're asking our central structures to do a set up what will be (let's face it) a committee and and few pieces of paper, that will dissipate their energy from doing the work they actually are capable of doing.

If you want to do something about the health, vitality and mission of the Unitarian community, then you do it. Don't ask the centralised body to set up a committee on it. Just do it, just get on with it. It's your responsibility, not "theirs." If it's a good idea, it might get off the ground, and work. Or it might not. But YOU do it. Stop expecting others to do it for you. Stop passing the buck.

Here's the point. The General Assembly structures, committees, Executive Committee, Essex Hall do not represent the leadership of the Unitarian community.

Leadership means that which will create change. The General Assembly structures, in that sense, are not capable of leadership. I don't mean that as a criticism in any way. That's just the way it has been for a long time. The General Assembly structures manage our national movement. It's good stuff. It's important stuff. But it's management, not leadership.

I believe leadership will come from the grassroots. From good folks doing good practices and good congregations doing ministry well.


We have it backwards. We think the General Assembly structures lead and congregations follow. That's wrong. The congregations lead. The General Assembly structures will follow. 

Monday, March 02, 2015

What does the Unitarian future look like in Britain?

I'm reflecting on the declining (perhaps accelerating decline) of Unitarian congregations in Britain.

The numbers are not good. Just over 3000 Unitarians and a drop last year of 200. You don't have to be too skilled at maths to work out that a continuing decline at that rate would give us just 15 years to total extinction. Of course statistics don't work quite that neatly. But when I look around at the age profile of many of us, it really doesn't seem impossible to be looking at death in less than 20 years.

I've always said things will get worse before they get better. It maybe that this "getting worse" is really starting to bite in 2015. This may be the the beginning of the end.

Unitarians may find this quite depressing. In many ways it is. It may be particularly depressing when we think of all the good work that Unitarians do on many projects.

It may be disheartening, because in many ways I think Unitarianism is doing quite well. In many ways there's some excellent things happening. The General Assembly structures are in some ways doing very well. The 2020 project is getting off the ground. UK Unitarian TV is providing some important new ways to do publicity. Lots of good things like this.

But none of this stuff is leading, right now, to growth. And that's OK, because it was never going to. The Executive Committee plan for 20% growth in five years, which it has now failed to achieve, was incredibly naive. We are in a steep decline and our tinkering around the edges is not going to apply the breaks to that decline.

I'm sorry to say it, but huge decline is inevitable. It really is. Let's stop kidding ourselves and fully embrace this reality. This is what we need to be thinking.

The future will not look like the past.

That's the main point I want to get across. If we think the future will look anything like the past, or very much like the present, we are completely kidding ourselves. If we think we can operate as a "denomination" doing anything like the same thing we are (just about) doing today, then we are wrong. The numbers just don't add up. It's not going to be like that. We can't find a President. We can't find people to serve on the Executive. Why? We're running out of people. We're in decline. We can't hope to continue as we have been.

We need to fully embrace this reality: really fully live it in our bones. We are dying. Death is inevitable. Let's grieve for that. Let's cry our tears for that. Let's be angry and fearful and emotional. Anything other than denial.

So, then, what?

Well let me be totally clear. I accept the reality of death. But I also believe in resurrection.

Death and resurrection is the only path that is open to us.

Unitarianism as a denomination of 170 congregations is dying.

We're not going to be a denomination of 170 congregations. Let's just accept that. So our first task is to find a properly pastoral way to minister to the dying. Let's be with the grief and the dying of our churches. They were great places. They were places of important moments in people's lives. They hold huge emotional resonance for us. But their time of death has come, as it comes to all of us. Let's not keep them on life-support machines. Let's not keep them in pain or a half-existence. Let's cry and grieve and say our goodbyes, and pull the plug. Let's have our funerals. Let's have our burials. Let's have our wakes and eat sandwiches and quiche and talk about all the great times we had.

What will be left? Some will be left. Some congregations have grown in the last few years. Some have grown quite dramatically. There is a future for some basically traditional congregations. They will continue. They will have hymns and pews and sermons and organs. They will do things well. They will have excellent leadership.

But there won't be that many of them. Maybe a dozen, maybe twenty, maybe less. That's it. I used to advocate for prioritising the biggest cities where I imagined these congregations would exists: London, Birmingham, Manchester etc. However I'm now of the opinion that this is a bit idealised and the reality on the ground is more complicated. So I don't know where they will be. They may be rather unevenly distributed across the country. That's OK. It will happen where it will happen.

In addition to this there will be a variety of other kinds of Unitarian community. I'm not entirely sure what these will look like. That's sort of the point. It will be an experimental growing edge. We may have a variety of house-churches, networks, new monastic communities, retreat houses, other weird and wonderful things. Their relationship with the established traditional churches will be mutually enriching.

We will do much fewer things. We will pray, mainly, and remind ourselves of deeper spiritual things. We will be activitist and social justice advocates, but not out of a grand sense of our importance, but our of a humble ethic of service and love, and a practical approach to networking and effective working with others.

This is my vision, for where we're heading. I think we need to stop resisting this and fully embrace it, and we will find ourselves a lot more joyful and a lot less anxious.

I have, and I am.


Growing, declining and stable Unitarian congregations 2014

Following on from my last post I am having a closer look at what the Unitarian membership numbers reveal about the state of the denomination.

Comparing numbers to last year it looks like most congregations are either stable or slowly declining.

The biggest decline is London Hampstead that has gone from reporting 134 members to 79 members. The Annual Report suggests this is the result of a tidying-up exercise on behalf of that congregation, which is fair enough and needs to be done. But this does rather suggest maybe a change in numbers over many more years which is now only being reported this year.

This change means the combined congregations of Newington Green and Islington are now the biggest congregation with a combined membership of 87. However this is down from 92 last year, after seeing a period of extended growth.

I haven't analysed every single congregation, but those that stick out for me reporting a decline are Cambridge, Croydon, Dean Row, and Eccles.

But also there is a modest growth reported at Kendal, Aberdare, Bangor and Glasgow.

Norwich has seen significant growth growing 8 members from 46 to 54.

And Birmingham Hollywood has seen the biggest growth of 9 members from 59 to 68.

As always happens, an overall decline in numbers reveals a variety of congregations in various conditions. A majority are declining, some are holding their own. Others are growing.

What should our response be to this?

I'll be thinking about that in my next post.

Monday, February 23, 2015

3,179

It's that time if the year again, when I crunch some Unitarian numbers. The Annual Report has landed heavily on my doorstep and I turn right away to look at reporting church membership numbers, and the total number reported.

And guess what? Numbers are down again.

3,179 members of Unitarian congregations reported. This is down 205 people from 3,384 reported last year. A drop of 6%, which is a pretty big yearly drop.

Here, again, is 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
2014: 3179

This gives a decade drop of 773 people or about 20%. The Unitarian community is one fifth smaller than it was a decade ago.

There are of course more than things that could be said about all of this. But these numbers should not be ignored by any of us.