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.

Stephen

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.