The Unitarian faith is, of course, in a period of transition. It's almost a cliché to say so. The most visible change is the change in the way we govern ourselves nationally. The old big Council is going and it's going to replaced by a slim line Executive. This Executive is going to be elected directly by every member of every congregation (at least in theory if everything works out with paperwork). This is quite remarkable. It makes us in the Britain much more democratic than the American UUA which as far as I understand it elects the President at a General Assembly. Not that for us, but a direct postal election for every registered member of a congregation. Hopefully people who are Associate Members of the General Assembly will also be able to vote, but that has yet to be decided. I'm an Associate Member, but I only just joined my church so I will only be able to vote if Associate Members can.
I think the change is to be welcomed, although I wish a more spiritual, and less management/business type word than 'Executive' could be used. This will indeed be an interesting period as we go through the first election.
An interesting change this will bring about will be the shift from a congregational-based to a membership-based religious culture. This might be quite a revolution. I'm not sure if this will happen, but I've heard a lot of people in-the-know talking about it. The absolute individualism of Unitarians is something that has been holding us back for a long time. Every congregation has the right to run its own affairs, but this also means each congregation has the freedom to ignore its connections nationally and regionally, and to ignore its mission as a church.
In short, there has been much freedom and little responsibility, little sense of belonging to a greater community covenanted to be together. This has meant that a small group of people could run their church as a social club for their kind of people, with no mechanism to challenge them. Perhaps I am being a little unfair, and a little simplistic, but there is some truth to what I'm saying.
How revolutionary it will be, then, for us to see ourselves as being a member of a national body, defined by our right to vote for the Executive, who join together in various ways locally. What will this mean? What will this look like?
Sure, congregational polity ain't all bad. Something like it will always exist in this community, but it is in need of renewal. The UUA Commission on Appraisal Report
is a good start. Nevertheless I think the way we view 'church' is changing, and must change.
What we need is interconnected webs of communities. What is needed is small group ministry, engagement groups that meet and pray together interconnected locally and nationally. It depresses me a little bit that I hear a lot of American Unitarian Universalists talking about 'megachurch' as the future. Sure megachurches can teach us some stuff, but I think what is needed is ‘microchurch.’
Thankfully, I’m not the only person thinking about this. Epiphany Church
in Oklahoma is the kind of church that makes me optimistic about Unitarianism (at least from the website). It is a Universalist Christian microchurch. The website says,
‘Micro-church means that we intend to be the opposite of the modern "mega-church." Following the model of the early church movement, we seek to focus on spiritual depth in small communities that will then multiply themselves in other places and other ways, all with the aim of developing the leadership of all, becoming permission-giving and mission-focused instead of being clergy-focused and controlled by committees. Instead of putting all our money and resources into bigger buildings, budgets, and lengthy bylaws, we want to put them into our passions and ministries in the world. Eventually we hope to have a network of "Epiphanies" or "micro-churches" in and around the Tulsa area. One overall congregation meeting in multiple sites at different times and places and different ways, cultivating lay leadership and hands-on service to our immediate neighborhoods as well the wider world, staying connected through leadership gatherings and some regular celebrations of worship.’
I would hope this could be something we could begin to cultivate in British Unitarianism. I wonder whether this could only work as a church-start, or whether it could develop out of an existing church. I don’t know. Perhaps what is needed is small group ministry in many different contexts. Our churches in the UK are already small, how difficult would it be to convert them to intentional micro-church groups?