Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The work of an evangelical Unitarian

I call myself an evangelical Unitarian, an evangelical liberal. I know that the only way the Unitarian faith in Britain is going to survive is if we get out in the world and build mission-shaped churches. We are currently a declining community, and the only way we are going to turn that around is if we do new things, and get our message out in the world.

Here's a case in point. Unitarians are opposed to the blasphemy law in Britain. We passed a resolution at the 2002 General Assembly saying that. Well, that's a start. Then last November Essex Hall held a Celebration of Blasphemy evening of light entertainment. Fine, but these things are just us talking to ourselves. I'm sure we wrote a letter to the Government. Well, big fucking deal. Do we think this makes a difference? Do we think this is good enough? No, this is self-congratulatory posturing. And it doesn't filter down to the congregations.

If we believe in something we have to be completely committed to it, and evangelical in getting our message out.

So last week I started to practice what I preach. Literally actually. A few months ago I preached (my first sermon ever in fact) about the abolition of the blasphemy law. Now the opportunity arrived to get the message out to a wider audience.

Jerry Springer the Opera, the controversial West-End show, began touring the country and came to the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre for a two-week run. The first week I went to see it. It's very funny. There is a hell of a lot of swearing. The first half is a Jerry Springer show, set to music, and Jerry gets shot at the end and in the second act goes to hell, where he does another show with Satan, Mary, Jesus, God etc. It's all quite silly.

Anyway, far right Christian groups like Christian Voice have been very vocal and in calling the show blasphemous and protesting outside. They have been putting out inaccurate and homophobic comments about the show. Once again Christianity is being presented as reactionary and conservative and this is the only form of faith that most people have any contact with.

So I decided it was worth getting the alternative message out. To protest for the abolition of the blasphemy law and also to promote Unitarianism.

So Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday I got down there to the Hippodrome and handed out leaflets about Unitarianism and abolishing the blasphemy law. There were Christian protesters there, but sometimes only two or three. They tended to ignore me, which was fine, because I didn't expect them to change their mind about anything. The thing I found most worrying when I read their leaflets was that some of them were Methodists and Catholics. I assumed they would be some sort of independent evangelicals. But no, these were people from mainstream denominations. Where are the liberals?

I was really nervous about doing it. I would have preferred to stay at home. My lips are still chapped from spending so much time out in the streets at night. But I kept thinking about James Luther Adams saying that your faith should change you, should convert you, should make a difference in what you do in your life. So I did it.

And I got a really good reaction. Clearly everyone who went to see the show agreed with me and disagreed with the conservative Christians. I had really good conversations with a lot of people, and really good reactions. People were so happy that I was there giving an alternative message. It was really nice to have good chats with people.

The most amazing thing, which I didn't expect in the least was this: someone came back to me after reading the leaflet and asked, 'Is there a Unitarian meeting in Birmingham?' I explained where the church was, and the next day on Sunday she was there! Amazing. Maybe, she'll stay, maybe she won't. But this confirmed to me that this was the right thing to do. And Unitarian evangelism does actually work. I'm more confirmed that ever in my desire to be a Unitarian missionary.

Thanks for the guy in the street for taking this photo and emailing it to me. Ta mate!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Results of the Executive Committee election

Here are the folks elected to the first ever General Assembly Executive Committee:

Jennifer Atkinson
Dawn Buckle
The Rev Stephen Dick
Dorothy Hewerdine
Neville Kenyon
The Rev Ann Peart
Sir Peter Soulsby
The Rev Robert Wightman

They will take office at the Annual Meetings in April.

First, let's say what's good about this. The General Asssembly Council, a body universally thought of as too big and completely ineffectual, and a body that people dreaded serving on, is being abolished. The Unitarian General Assembly structures are changing in the most dramatic way since 1928, and that shows a community that is prepared to make some changes, which is heartening.

There are 4 women and 4 men. This is good. There are 3 ministers and 5 laypeople. I think that's about the right proportion.

However, the people elected to the EC are definitely the usual suspects. The form is new, but the people are old faces. Several of the people above have served on the Council. I suppose that's understandable for the first administration as a transitional body. I know I voted for a usual suspect and didn't take any risks. Hopefully in 3 or 6 years people (including me) might want to take some risks, and vote for people with radical change agendas.

The turnout for the election was 66.4%. Better than the turnout in the 2005 General Election which was 61.3% but still far from a number to be proud of.

Now the issue of the number of people on the electoral role, a question I asked here and an issue that Boy in the Bands talks about too.

The number is 2563.

This is an absolute minimum number of Unitarians in Britain. There are more, but any other number is going to be an estimate. We can only know for sure that there are more than 2563 Unitarians in Britain. Jeff Teagle says 4000. But this is still less than the figure of 6000 that I've always heard being knocked about. I think this may have come from George Chryssides in his 1998 book, The Elements of Unitarianism, but I don't know for sure. If that is true then are we to assume that the number has dropped from 6000 to 4000 in 8 years? Are we losing 1000 members every 4 years? Does that put our extinction at 2022?

These are rough numbers, but I think it's worth putting it in such stark terms. If we continue doing what we're doing we'll be dead in 20 years. Is that enough of a reason to do something radical?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What would Mohammed do?

In the light of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed I came across this article, which I thought was very interesting.

My own observations about the cartoons is that those responsible should have chosen not to print them, though it should not be illegal for them to do so. They should have been responsible enough to realise what a stupid idea it was to print those pictures. Freedom of speech does not mean you can shout 'fire!' in a crowded theatre, someone one said (a Unitarian?). And this was effectively what these cartoons were.

The ignorance of Islam staggers me. People don't seem to realise that to picture Mohammad at all it frowned upon in Islam, let alone ridiculing him in a very hurtful way.

It worries me a great deal the Islamaphobia in America. The Daily Show, which I usually love, is making jokes that show a real ignorance towards Islam. No one would talk like that in the UK, it would be considered racist. A while ago I heard an African American Baptist preacher say that she heard someone use the word 'Arab' the way 40 years ago someone would have said 'nigger.' That seems to be the way things are going in America.

Anyway, here's someone else's take on it:

What would Prophet Mohammed have done?

The Globe and Mail

Keep to forgiveness (O Mohammed), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.
- The Koran, Chapter 7, Verse 199

During his lifetime, Prophet Mohammed endured insults and ridicule on a daily basis. His opponents mocked his message and used physical violence to stop him from challenging the status quo.

At no stage during this ordeal did the Prophet lose his temper or react to these provocations. Tradition has it that he would, instead, offer a prayer of forgiveness to those who showed contempt for him.

Today, however, many followers of Prophet Mohammed are acting the exact opposite. Reacting to the provocative Danish cartoons about the Prophet, they are burning newspapers, threatening journalists, issuing bomb threats, yet claiming they are standing up for the Prophet himself.

I have seen the cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. There is no question they are meant to hurt the feelings of Muslims. As I saw them, I had to restrain my anger. Once more, Muslims were being depicted as a violent people. (One particularly derisive cartoon showed the Prophet wearing a turban with a bomb inside it.)

No one in the Muslim community is willing to buy into the notion that these cartoons were not meant to promote racism against Muslims. The editors may say otherwise, but the community knows better when it is depicted as the"other," to be scorned and sidelined.

Caricaturing racial minorities has been a tradition in Europe and North America since long before it became acceptable to deride Muslims. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn't uncommon to see Jews and blacks depicted negatively. Today, thanks to the great work of many civil rights and anti-racism activists, no newspaper would invoke press freedom to depict Jews and blacks or their leaders the way the Danish paper depicted the Prophet.

Having said that, the way some Muslims have reacted to the provocation leaves a lot to be desired. Provoked, they walked blindfolded into a trap set for them, and came out worse than what they started with.

In Canada, we had a similar case, if not of the same magnitude. In the mid-90s, a Toronto man distributed highly inflammatory literature against Islam and the Prophet. Unlike our European colleagues and some fanatics of the Middle East, Canadian Muslims took up the case with the police and the gentleman was charged under Ontario hate laws and convicted. End of story.

In the Danish case, the Arab world's reaction, led by the Egyptian government, suggests there is more to it than meets the eye. Thousands in the Arab world have protested against the publication of the cartoons. The Danish paper has received bomb threats. Two armed groups threatened yesterday to target Frenchmen and Norwegians in the Palestinian territories, as well as Danes, after the caricatures were published in their countries.

Many believe that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government is acting not for the love for Islam, but for love of the power it has usurped for decades.

Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, a regular columnist for the London newspaper Sharq Al Awsat, wrote in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Dastour: "Perhaps the Muslim governments who spearheaded the campaign -- led by Egypt-- felt this was an easy way to burnish their Islamic credentials at a time when domestic Islamists are stronger than they have been in many years."

For the Arab League to demand that the Danish government shut down the newspaper Jyllands-Posten shows how deeply entrenched dictatorial practices are in many Muslim countries. They are so accustomed to closing down their own newspapers, they could not understand why the Danish government could not issue a decree closing the Jyllands-Posten.

This posturing by Arab governments and Islamist movements is not in the tradition of Islam. These zealots should ask the question: What would Prophet Mohammed have done when faced with this insult? He would, I suggest, have said a prayer for the cartoonist and "turned away from the ignorant," as Allah commanded him to do in the Koran.

Tarek Fatah is host of a weekly TV show on CTS-TV, The Muslim Chronicle, and is the communication director of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

The word 'God'

The good thing about our small British Unitarian churches is that it's possible to have some dialogue in worship. I took a service on Sunday and we had some dialogue during the sermon about questions and beliefs we have.

The dialogue brought up for me the issue of the word 'God.' It seems to me most Unitarians don't have a problem with the idea of (some sort of) God. However, a lot of people have a problem with the word 'God' - associating it with a war-like vengeful God found in some parts of the Bible. A lot of people seem to prefer something like 'Spirit of Life.' The thing is if you say to any unchurched people out there 'Spirit of Life' they are either not going to understand you, or they are going to say, 'What, you mean God?' To which you'll have to reply, 'Well, yes.'

It's the same as saying, 'Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.' To which someone may ligitimately ask, 'What, you mean God?' To which you'll have to reply, 'Well, yes.'

So it seems that to serve the population in the churches I need to say 'Spirit of Life' and to be able to communicate to the world outside I need to say 'God.' This is the issue I think about a lot, how to balance the needs to those within the church, with the needs of those outside the church if we're going to attract them. What does it mean to be mission-shaped in this context?

My instinct is to continue to use the word 'God' along with other names, and to try to create a place where direct experience of God is possible. The problem with a lot of Unitarianism is that we stay at the level of words, without realising that the words point to a deeper reality.

Incidently, if present-day Unitarian Universalism took as its foundation the first source (direct experience of Mystery) rather than the first principle (inherent worth of everyone[which really goes without saying]) then I believe UUism would be more of a real coherent religion.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Anyone identify with this?

From PostSecret, which is a wonderful place of democratic post-modern angst-art.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Captain Jack, positive bi role model

I was living in the States last year when the new series of Doctor Who came on, so I never saw any of the new episodes. This week a friend lent me the DVD box set of the whole series, so I've been spending the week watching them. They're great. I love the fact that a Doctor Who fan, who clearly knows what makes Doctor Who great, has written the new series. I also love the fact that that person is Russel T. Davis, the writer of Queer As Folk. Fantastic.

Anyway, another reason I'm loving the new Doctor Who is the character Captain Jack, played by John Borrowman. (By the way: phwwahr! - and you thought this was one of those intellectual Unitarian blogs, not some big old queen drooling over actors - don't worry I'll get back to that soon). Apparently he's getting his own series, called Torchwood.

The character is also bisexual. And the first bisexual character I have ever seen in the media presented in a positive light. He's not 'mixed up' or 'confused' or moaning about not knowing whether he's gay or straight. He's simply positively bisexual, exuding confidence, charming, and chatting up men and women in different places in time and space. OK, so maybe he's suggested to be a bit promiscuous, but in no different way than a straight character would be. He's like James Bond, just bi.

When Rose first realises Jack is bi she asks the Doctor about it, he simply shrugs and says 'Hey, he's a fifty-first century guy.'

It's such a positive presentation of bisexuality. Jack is presented as being somehow whole and and natural, at ease with himself. It's liberating, and I hope 13 year old kids watching this with their parents are liberated, and know that it's OK to be bi. In fact, it's kinda cool. I wish I'd seen these episodes of Doctor Who when I was 13.