Saturday, March 17, 2018

What is Unitarian Christianity? (Video)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

What if there are different Unitarianisms?

I keep coming back to the idea that there might be two or more mutually incompatible visions of Unitarianism in Britain.

I'm very aware, for example, that there are several different strands of Quakerism in the United States - Liberal Friends, Pastoral Friends, Conservative Friends, and Evangelical Friends. They share the same roots but are today quite radically different from one another in worship, organisation, and theology.

I'm wondering if something like that exists, under the surface, in British Unitarianism. If there are, perhaps, two Unitarianisms.

Unitarianism A defines Unitarianism as an individualistic, liberal movement that is defined by values but tries to remain neutral in matters of belief.

Unitarianism B defines Unitarianism as a basically heretical form of Christianity that has taken on Anabaptist radicalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and Emersonian individualism, but is still basically Christian.

It is interesting to note that the General Assembly, on paper, is defined as Unitarianism B - the object of the GA says the purpose of the denomination includes "the worship of God" and "upholding the liberal Christian tradition".

However, the General Assembly in fact operates as if it is promoting Unitarianism A. If you look at the website, or at leaflets or videos produced by the GA, they very much promote a vision of Unitarianism that is about liberalism and individualism without religious language.

What frustrates me as someone who is situated in Unitarianism B is I find all the publicity material produced by the GA unusable. I read all the leaflets produced by the GA, and nowadays I think "this is not the kind of stuff that I want to promote." I don't want to give those leaflets to anyone.

What solves this problem? One solution is schism, to admit there really are different things going on here, and that they are mutually exclusive and so we should recognise this reality.

There is no reason that there can't be two, three, or more different Unitarian denominations in the UK. Would that really be so bad? They could still share some resources, some institutions, but admit that they are not of one mind on all matters.

In a way that is already the case. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is essentially a definitely Christian liberal/Unitarian church. It shares much with the Unitarians, but it is definitely a Christian denomination. It could, conceivably, operate in England, Scotland and Wales. Or something like it could.

But if we don't schism, and there are good reason not to, perhaps it's worth admitting that we are different theological projects sheltering under the same administrative roof.

That would mean that the GA would either give up producing any publicity material OR that it would produce a more deliberately diverse range of materials.

Because here's the kind of thing that set me off on this kind of thought process: I really really dislike this video. It simply does not describe my faith, or the religious project I am in anyway interested in. It describes Unitarianism A, but it does not describe Unitarianism B. And if the GA is going to produce a video promoting Unitarianism A then it needs to produce a video describing Unitarianism B. It needs to produce a video that says "Unitarianism is a radical way of following Jesus and connecting with God".

If the GA says, "we don't want to produce such a video, we don't think we should" then my conclusion is that you're not serving some of your constituents and they would be better off forming a different denomination that does. 

I say this not to be argumentative, or because I'm particularly hacked off with the denomination. I'm not in the slightest. Rather I sort of think we all might get on better if we were just honest and admitted that we don't share the same faith. I wonder if we would all be happier if we stopped trying to fit two things together that, perhaps, are simply not compatible any more.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dialogues of faith - an Adamsian approach to Unitarian evangelism (video)

"Dialogues of faith - an Adamsian approach to Unitarian evangelism" a lecture by Stephen Lingwood
From the Unitarian Theology Conference 2017 in Leeds

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Deffro, mae'n ddydd! (or reflections on my new ministry in Cardiff)

"Deffro, mae'n ddydd"

"Awake, it is day"
(motto on the coat of arms of Cardiff)

2018 marks a new start in my life as I have moved to a new city, a new country, and a new ministry. 
As of 1st January 2018 I am now working as Pioneer Minister in Cardiff. This is the sort of ministry I have always had an interest in and I am unbelievably excited by this new opportunity. But as some people may not completely understand this role I thought it would be a good idea to explain it here. 
There is a small Unitarian community without a building in Cardiff, and they have appointed me as their minister. However because the community is small we have agreed that we will view only a minority of my time as dedicated to ministering to that community. The majority of my time is for engaging with the unchurched populations of Cardiff (that's the "pioneer" bit). My job is not trying to attract people to "come to us" but to "go to them" wherever they are in the city of Cardiff. 
So my primary job will be to simply be present as an explicit person of faith in the communities of a large modern city. My job is to serve those outside the church, to explore their pastoral and spiritual needs, and to have lots of conversations. My job is to "listen" to this city, to "read" the city, to understand its culture(s) as deeply as I can. To be present and to be in relationships. This is not something that can be rushed, this is something that will take years to do properly. 
As a recent Twitter post from someone said recently:
What is the end point of this? Well, although it doesn't perfectly fit with my theology I would say the end point is up to God, not me! There is something inherently unknowable, experimental, open-ended about this project. Having said that I think faith should always lead us into community, and away from isolation and alienation. So the evolution of this may well lead to a (re)new(ed) Unitarian community or communities in Cardiff. We may, in the fullness of time, (re)plant a new church in Cardiff. But we may have to rethink what we mean by "church". It almost certainly will not involving owning a building. It may be just ten people in a living room, or a network of lots of groups of ten people meeting in living rooms, or... something else. It may not look or sound like Unitarian communities usually look like in Britain today. Or, it may not work out at all, and perhaps we will just learn some things through a process of failure. 
I think it is worth the risk. I have for many years argued for the Unitarian community to move from a "maintenance mode" to a "missionary mode" and now I have the opportunity to put this into practice. I feel deeply blessed to have been given this opportunity. I'm sure there will be ups and downs in the future, and as I say there's a risk this will not work out at all. But right now I feel that there is a real sense of God's calling in my work as a missionary/pioneer minster in a great city. 
As the Cardiff coat of arms says, "Deffro, mae'n ddydd" - "Awake, it is day" - time to get up and do something new. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Seven Theses of Unitarian Christianity

We're currently remembering the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther allegedly hammered his "95 Theses" to the church door in Wittenburg, on 31st October 1517.

This has got me thinking about hammering my own theses to a church door (figuratively). From time to time it is worth trying to articulate what my tradition stands for like this. So here are my Seven Theses of Unitarian Christianity:

Our understanding of ultimate truth and meaning is partial, every word we utter when we talk about religion is ultimately wrong, because words cannot capture Reality. We will not make statements that will stand for all time because every generation needs to seek truth afresh and build on the work of the previous generation. Nevertheless, we must speak our truth as we understand it right now, in humility and hope.

1. God is love and God is loving. 
Though we do not claim to understand what we mean when we use a word like "God" - though we recognise that "God" is just a label we place on something which is an Ultimate Mystery - we recognise the testimony of mystics and prophets that God embraces us with a wild and passionate love beyond our understanding.
Therefore we reject completely as a lie any doctrine or idea that contradicts the love of God, such as eternal punishment in hell for any person.

2. God is here.
God is not "in heaven" or some other realm of reality, but intimately present in every moment of existence. There is no gap, none whatsoever, between every day reality, and the divine reality. We are surrounded by love and beauty.

3. Paradise is here.
When God's love and presence is recognised in this reality, we awaken to earth as paradise, or as the kindom of God. Our purpose in life is to awaken to this paradise in all we do. Jesus, in his acts and storytelling, is the great teacher of this truth.

4. The purpose of the church is to seek paradise.
We open to paradise here on earth when we join together in the church. The church is a parable of paradise, the Beloved Community, where we learn together to become disciples of love. It is a great feast where we join together in communion with one another and with God.

5. We are children of God.
We recognise that every person had sacred worth and value. Every person contains the divine spark. Nevertheless it takes a disciplined effort to let that divine spark grow within us and for us to answer the calling of our lives.

6. We must wake up.
We are committed to a way of life and a way of spirituality that will awaken us and free us from all that keeps us asleep and enslaved. We commit to a life of truth-seeking, prayer, simplicity, humility, compassion, hospitality, justice, love, forgiveness, and nonviolence.

7. God is still speaking. 
Though we recognise Jesus as our teacher, God's truth, love, and beauty is not limited to any one person or tradition. We value, and learn from, all the great religions of the world. And we recognise that there is yet more light and truth to break forth from the divine.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How can we be joyful in dark times? (video)

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Can I be a Unitarian and not believe in individualism?

Recently I've been thinking a lot about Unitarianism. In some moments I even question whether I am, in fact, a Unitarian.

And for me it has come down to this question: if I reject individualism can I still be a Unitarian?

What I mean is that I'm considering this sort of a definition of Unitarianism:

  • Individual Unitarians can believe whatever they want to. What matters if that you come to your own conclusion and Unitarianism offers the freedom to do that. 
I have decided that I wholeheartedly and passionately reject this idea. I think it comes from our neoliberal individualistic culture and I think it is a philosophically and morally bankrupt idea. I reject it. 

If I do reject this idea, is there a still a place for me in the British General Assembly? Or is this essentially the creed of the General Assembly, and if I don't sign up to it, I should leave?

Why do I reject it? Well, honestly, so many reasons. I think it's impossible to build community based on this idea. I think it precludes the possibility of people in any way growing in their spiritual life. I think it bears almost no resemblance to what Unitarianism has actually stood for across its global 450-year history. I think it indulges selfish awkward people who disrupt community life. I think it offers no challenge for people to become better. I think it makes church incredibly boring. I think it actually allows people to concentrate more on beliefs, not less. I think it's actually impossible to build faith community on this basis. I think it fails to make faith do what it's supposed to do - offer meaning-making stories. I think it's not true, I think there are lots of beliefs that are precluded by Unitarianism. I think it leads to "iChurch" where people want church to be about "me, me, me." I think encourages a weird counter-dependent relationship with orthodox religion. I think it prevents people from healing from their previous harmful religious experiences. I think it fails to offer children growing up among us the solid spiritual foundation they deserve. I think it makes us arrogantly believe we are better than other religions. I think it encourages a dysfunctional anti-authoritarianism that prevents any kind of leadership or useful change. I think it fails to appeal to people with no religious background. I think it makes it impossible for our theological and religious ideas to evolve any further. I think it kills progress. 

Ultimately I think, along with the recent American book Turning Point that this idea is killing British Unitarianism. I've genuinely come to the point when I believe this individualism is a hostile virus that has infected British Unitarianism and is killing it off wholesale. 

So... again I turn back to my question: if this is my position, if this is what I believe, is there a place for me in the General Assembly? Is there a place for someone who does not sign up to this vision? Or is this vision, this definition of Unitarianism, now mandatory? 

Is it possible to be a Unitarian, to be affiliated to the GA of U and FCC and reject the model of individualistic Unitarianism? I would really like to know. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reflecting on my pilgrimage to the sites of Polish Brethren Anabaptist Unitarianism

(This update is a little late, but hey.)

In June I was on a Unitarian pilgrimage to the few remaining extant sites of Polish Anabaptist Unitarianism. As I have said before I increasingly see myself as a Unitarian Anabaptist, and so it was important for me to see what still exists of this important tradition of our past. The answer is not much. There are a few Polish Brethren chapels, though if you didn't know it you might just think they were barns. Two were on private estates where the owners had spent some money restoring them. One was on land beside a school. One was just in a field by the side of the road.

They were one, two, or three storeys high. Where there were upper storeys they would have been used as an apartment for the minister.

Inside they were simply and white-washed. In one there were some biblical inscriptions but it's not clear if these had been added when the buildings were taken over by Calvinists in later years.

In Racow, the centre of Polish Unitarianism, there are no chapels standing. On the site of the Unitarian chapel a large Catholic Church has been build (called, of course, "Holy Trinity Church").

In the seventeenth century the Polish Brethren were persecuted out of existence by conservative Catholic forces. They were utterly destroyed and a liberal tolerant country became the conservative country Poland still is to this day to some extent.

It was good to return to these sites, to pray in these chapels deprived of prayer for centuries. To touch them and wonder what memories they held. The most touching moment was when Transylvanian members of the group sung a psalm in Hungarian in one of the chapels. The simplicity of Unitarian worship echoed through those ancient walls, perhaps for the first time in more than three hundred years.

In some ways this is a forgotten strand of Unitarian history. But I continue to feel that this movement is not just our past, but may in fact hold the keys to our future.

That's because Polish Unitarians emphasised the thing that is most missing in British and American Unitarianism - and that is discipleship.

Polish Unitarians were not just liberal, they were also radical. They understood that faith meant rejecting the values of the world and embracing the values of the kindom of God. They understood this meant a radical change of life in embracing discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth.

They rejected the values of militarism. Nobles who converted refused to wear swords which were their usual symbol of rank. They understood that they were committed to the gospel of peace.

They rejected the values of materialism. One convert, Jan Niemejewksi, sold his large estate, and freed all his serfs. He understood that riches and discipleship were not compatible. In the early days they even experimented with a "common purse," rejecting the idea of private wealth, though in reality this became impractical and didn't work.

They rejected hierarchy. They debated whether it was right to have ministers of whether they should, like the Quakers, embrace a radical understanding of the priesthood of all.

They practised adult baptism as they understood that faith was about making a conscious decision to follow Jesus and live by these values.

They celebrated reason, rejected the Trinity and the sacrifice of the cross, but this lead them to engage more deeply in the radical teaching of Jesus.

And they understood that they were a radical minority, and would never be anything other than that.

In post-Christendom secular Britain, where religion is no longer respectable or socially normal I tend to believe that the future involves embracing this kind of radicalism. Church as Sunday hobby is dead. It was never true to real religion and it offers no appeal to seekers.

But there is a minority of people who will be attracted to a faith which offers radical discipleship, a set of community practices that will help them to join in the work of transforming the world.

Our future is to be tiny. A tiny minority. But a radical tiny minority that by it's commitment can change lives and change the world.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Should we change language to attract newcomers?

I have heard the opinion recently, and not least at the last Unitarian Annual Meetings, that we need to change language to attract newcomers. Don't say "hymn" or "church" (or even "God") - we're told - these sorts of words put people off.

This argument comes from a genuinely good instinct - to do all we can to attract people outside our Unitarian communities - but I think it needs thinking about a bit more. Let me use an example to think through these issues.

Imagine I am on a mission to get more people to play football in the United States of America. I would certainly be starting on the wrong foot if I started talking about "football" all the time, because that means a completely different sport in that culture. I would need to use the word "soccer." It would be absolutely necessary to translate a term to something more meaningful in that culture. In all I did I would say, "I'm promoting soccer" even though in my life and culture I would naturally use the word "football."

But that is a different process to thinking "Americans don't like exercise they like fast food" so I'm going to say, "I'm promoting lovely delicious fast food." I'm sure I could selectively find lots of research and statistics to back up my assertion that Americans prefer fast food to exercise. And so I could make a good argument that saying "I'm promoting fast food" would be a much more popular advertising campaign. So I could set up football matches but advertise them as giving away fast food. I could put up golden arches outside football pitches but then when people came through them they would discover not fast food but in fact the invitation to play football. The problem with this is obvious. It is false advertising. It is lying.

The other way I could promote this is the opposite. I could say "come and play soccer" but in fact give up the game and just give people fast food when they turned up. "I'm promoting football" I could say, "It's just that 'football' now means eating hamburgers, as we've discovered that that's much more popular." This has the disadvantage that it might very well annoy the people who did want to come and play football, but in turning up have discovered only fast food. It also, obviously, is a failure of the basic mission of getting people to play football - I have failed in that task as I've forgotten what football actually is. I'm just promoting something entirely different and labelling it "playing football."

So, to return to the world of religion - should we give up words like "hymn" "church" or "God"? Well, that entirely depends. If it is a matter of translating a term into something more meaningful to a particular culture, then fine. But if it is indulging in lying (pretending we're something we're not) or of abandoning the mission (promoting something more popular, but in doing so losing the very essence of what we're doing) then we clearly shouldn't.

The point is we need to know very clearly what the essence is of what we're doing before we start doing it. I need to be very clear that I know what football is and how to play it before I go about my mission of getting more people to play it. If I get in a muddle and start promoting American football (an entirely different game) then I'm failing in my mission. If I cheat, lie, or cynically manipulate what I'm doing so that I'm really promoting fast food and simply labelling it "playing football" then I'm failing in my mission.

And if I want people to play football I need to realise that I am going to have to spend some time getting people to understand the language and the rules of the game. I need people to understand the off-side rule, what a goalkeeper is, what a penalty is, if I want people to play football. If people change the language, and use entirely different words, then no problem. But if folks start changing the rules, like picking up the ball with their hands, then we have stopped playing football.

Similarly it is not unreasonable to think that in joining a religious community, there will need to be a process of induction and education. People don't understand what a term means? Well, of course they don't, until we teach them. We must teach them the rules - the practices of the faith. That may be a process that takes a long time, years even.

So how about dropping a word like "worship" - calling it a "gathering" or "celebration" or something like that? Well, sure, if that's a reasonable translation of the term that is more meaningful and understandable, then absolutely fine. But if we actually stop worshipping, if we actually change the core activity that we're doing, then we've got rather in a muddle. And we may have failed to fulfil our mission.

If our mission is to get people to worship (a particular spiritual practice) then it doesn't really matter if we call it "worship" or some other term. But if we cease to worship because we believe people don't like worship, then we have failed in our mission to get people to worship. We've stopped doing the core activity we were trying to promote. We started playing football, and now we're just eating hamburgers. 

(Some of these ideas are explored in a similar way in the book "Evangelism after Christendom" by Bryan Stone)

Monday, May 08, 2017

Prayer - the centre of Unitarian faith (video)