Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Potential for church planting in the UK

In response to Scott Wells' question, here is my analysis that I did a few years ago of the places where there is potential for Unitarian church planting in the UK and Ireland:

The largest towns without a Unitarian presence:

Walsall (the church closed last year)
Milton Keynes
St Helens
High Wycombe
Cleethorpes and Grimsby
South Tyneside

These are all Metropolitan Borough Councils or equivalent with a population of over 150,000 people. If you assume that a population of 150,ooo people could support one Unitarian church, then each of these could support one church, Fife could support two. Manchester does support that many Unitarian churches in relation to its population.

There are subtleties, for example Stoke itself does not have a church itself, but Newcastle-under-Lyme, which is technically a different town but effectively the same urban area does have one.

Large cities that could support more Unitarian churches (1 for every 150,000 people, the density in Manchester) are:
London could support 36 more churches.
Birmingham 4 more
Leeds 3 more
Glasgow 3
Edinburgh 2
Dublin 2
And all these towns could support one more Unitarian church:
The Wirral

To be blunt, I'm not aware of any Unitarian churches that were founded in the last 100 years, nevermind the last 10.

I think fellowships have come and gone. For example I think a fellowship started in Solihull, the town between Birmingham and Coventry, in the 70s and died in the 80s. I think these tend to be small social groups that don't outreach much and so die when people die or move away.

The task therefore, is to explore which of these towns has circumstances congenial to a church plant (like a sympathetic district) and find what sources of funding exist to pluge a few grand in to start a church.

Corrections are welcome.

Monday, May 29, 2006

More depressing statistics

According to The Unitarian (quoting The Interchange magazine of Southampton, May 2006, page 47) in the twentieth century Unitarian membership declined by 78.8% from an estimated 26,000 in 1900 (making a 5512 membership figure in 2000 by my calculations). This was the highest rate of decline of any denomination apart from the Congregationalists. The comparable figure for the Church of England was 51.4% decline.

I think we're about to see this decline translate into more churches closing. A number of churches have managed to remain open with fewer and fewer members but we're now at a stage when even the very few members requires to keep a church going in some state are dying off. As an entirely unscientific guess I would say that of the about 170 churches in Britain, half are going to close in the next 20 years.

I always like to shout about these kinds of statistics, not because I want to depress people, but because I think we need to realise the situation we're in. We need to realise that what we're doing is not working. Something is wrong. Something needs to change. There's no kidding ourselves about that. Continuing as we have been is not an option.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


I'm doing a lot of preaching at the moment. Last weekend I visited Wales. On Saturday I visited a lot of the (Welsh speaking) chapels around Lampeter and then visited a Cymanfa (singing festival). On Sunday I preached at Cefncoed and Aberdare.

If anyone's interested, my preaching arangements are:
28 May Westgate Chapel Wakefield
4 June Broadway Avenue Church and Russel Street Church, Bradford
11 June Back at Birmingham

Friday, May 12, 2006


First and Second Church at Boston Pride 2004

I'm disillusioned and disappointed.

I was looking forward to Birmingham Pride. I hadn't realised it was coming up so soon. Birmingham is always the first pride festival of the summer. Unfortunately I realised that I'm preaching in Wakefield on the Sunday so I'll miss that day. Then I remembered that I work on Saturday so I will miss that day too.

I looked up the Birmingham Pride website to check details. The more I read of this, the more disillusioned I became. It confirms everything I've come to realise about the queer community in Britain. Firstly, the festival is not free, as it has been in previous years (is this the first year it's done this? I haven't been since 2003). Birmingham was always the only major pride festival that was free. Not any more.

Secondly, Pride is organised by the Birmingham Gay Business Partnership. This is what I've come to realise comparing the queer community in the UK to the US. In the UK it's all much more commercial, and not political or spiritual or community-based. In Birmingham Pride is a big festival organised by the big gay night clubs to promote themselves. Boston seems to be a non-profit community organisation, and seems to be full of churches and cultural and community groups. My Birmingham friend was very struck by this when he went to New York Pride.

Compare what it costs to have a stall. In Birmingham a small stall cost £194.25 ($369), and that's when you book six months in advance otherwise it's more expensive. There is no reduction for non-profit organisations. In Boston there is a reduction for a non-profit organisation to have a small stall for the equivalent of only about £58 ($110) and you only have to book a month in advance. That's a big difference.
It's very depressing. The gay scene in this country is so apolitical, narcissistic, commercial and superficial. That's why most people get disilluioned with it after a while. That's how Pride can seem. Marching with 500 Unitarian Universalists in Boston Pride last year summer was amazing. One of the most amazing experiences of my life. I want to bring some of that attitude to the UK. I'm convinced more than ever for the need for a queer-affirming faith in this country. The queer community need a kick up the arse to be more politically engaged and really a community, not just a place where we get drunk and pull (not that I'm against those things in themselves) .
I'm not sure how to help this to happen. I might wander over on the Monday and hand out some Unitarian leaflets. I'm not going to be able to do much in Birmingham this year. Maybe next year in Manchester.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

ICUU Theological Symposium

This looks intersting. I won't be able to go, as I can't afford it and couldn't get the time off work. I might try to go to the next one in 5 years. I'm glad this is happening though, as I really think we need more theological reflection, and it needs to be a global conversation.

ICUU Theological Symposium - Kolozsvar, Romania 3-8 July 2006

The ICUU International U-U Theological Symposium, "Liberal Religion for Changing Global Society" is just around the corner, but there is still time to register.

Held this year in historic Kolozsvar (Cluj-Napoca) Romania, the center of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church, the Symposium draws U-U theologians, thinkers, and learners from all corners of the globe. Major speakers are the Rev. John Buehrens, former UUA President, talking about how theology shapes us, and the Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, UU theologian, describing "Postmodernity, Globalization, and the Future of Liberal Theology."

A dozen other presenters will offer their perspectives in lecture, seminar and panel discussions. They come from Transylvania, Spain, New Zealand, Canada, the Czech Republic, the UK, India and the USA. Their papers consider, among other things, relations between church and state, terrorism in the world-at -large, the impact of indigenous perspectives on modern theology, the role of liberal theology in southern hemisphere cultures, the changing theological influences on worship, and lessons from modern theological thinkers like Vaclav Havel and James Luther Adams. Three further examples: Rev Derek McCullough from New Zealand will base his talk on the writings of Juliet Batten, Lloyd Geering and Brian Swimme and explores the development of a calendar of spiritual celebrations based on local seasonal and cosmological events. Rev Richard Boeke (USA/UK) will present a paper dealing with a fundamental tension in our movement; Wilfred Cantwell Smith's book, FAITH AND BELIEF, is central to his discussion, where he looks at the role of faith traditions and the continuing inspiration of the holy in nature, under the title "Fideology". Jaume de Marcos, a computer expert and translator by profession and holding a Master's degree in History of Religions will examine the issue of defining a religious identity for the Unitarian*Universalist faith for a globalized society and how the existing conflicts may be overcome by finding theological common ground. Given the difficulties in finding common God-centered beliefs shared by all Unitarians of different historical lineages (or even within the same lineage), his paper introduces, as a proposal for further discussion, a theology with 3 pillars: a person-centered approach based upon the sacredness of the inner, actualized self, and a soteriology of liberation, encompassing 3 concentric circles: individual, social, and ecological.

ICUU member groups in Europe, South America, North America, India, Africa, and Asia will be represented, as will each of the main U-U theological schools. Worship will be a daily part of the symposium, with morning and evening services led by small groups of participants, representing the wide diversity and the common elements of our particular cultural traditions. All participants will have an opportunity to participate in worship, panel discussions, seminars, and /or affinity groups, to get to know each other better. The working language of the symposium will be English. Our hosts have organized special programs to highlight Transylvanian UU history and culture.

If you have wondered about the breadth and scope of our U-U movement world-wide, this is your opportunity to take part! The Symposium takes place only every 5-6 years. Please join us!

Opening Ceremony, Monday Evening, July 3, 2006
Closing - Friday evening, July 7, 2006
Also being presented at the Symposium is Bill Wallace’s “Sacred Energy/Mass of The Universe” .

For registration information, please visit the ICUU website <www.icuu.net>

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

New First Church Website

My old church, First Church in Boston, has finally got a new website, after changing the name (dropping the "and Second") at the last AGM. But even cooler than that, I've made it onto the front page (well, sort off). I am in the group shot on the first page. I'm pretty easy to spot in the middle, up and left from a lady in a yellow hat. I'm wearing a black top with a rainbow chalice, and a white nametag. The picture was taken at Easter 2005.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Called Out

My experiences and musings recently have caused me to think about what my religious community really is - in theology-speak - ecclesiology: the study of 'church.'

In an evangelical Christian understanding the community is united by faith in Jesus: and a particular understanding of what that means.

In our Unitarian communiy I believe we understand the Divine Mystery as infinitely complex, and can choose to follow whatever spiritual teacher speaks to our condition. Rabbi Jesus remains my primary teacher, but this is not true for all of my fellow Unitarians.

So what unites us? What defines our community? What makes our gatherings of conversation and prayer unique?

The problem can be that very little unites us. Very little call us out to be different from the surrounding society. Often we can be a mirror, or microcosm, of the surrounding world. We are no different from the world outside. There are advantages to this. We are not limited to a conservative agenda tying us to the past, so can keep up with the changes in the relationship between women and men, and understandings of sexuality, and experience of religious diversity. But there are also big disadvantages.

Can you run a church the same way you run a society? I ask the question, because this is what I see happening. We use words like 'freedom' and 'tolerance' but can these things mean the same thing is greater society that they do in a church?

In society I am prepared to tolerate offensive opinions. I am prepared to tolerare racist and sexist opinions in the sense that I don't think people should be arrested, removed from society, just for having those opinions. We should try to convert them, but if we cannot, they should not be removed from our secular society.

But in religious community I think we are called to a higher standard. I think we are called to be more accountable to the damage we do to each other. That is what community means. If someone expresses offensive or hurtful opinions in church then they can expect to be called to account for those opinions, and ultimately I believe could be asked to leave if they are doing real harm to our community. In church our freedom is much more moderated by our responsibilities and our dedication to tolerance is moderated by our dedication to love.

I am beginning to run out of patience with the argument that our Unitarian community's dedication to tolerance means that we have to tolerate expressions of opinions that are deeply out of step with our community testimony. We do not. We must call people to be responsible for words they use that are dangerous and hurtful. This is difficult, very difficult. But we need to do it, with as much love as possible.

If our faith community stands for something, if it exists at all, it must representing a call to a deeper, more loving, more chanllenging way of life. We are called to love each other, and we are called to be accountable, and we are called to listen to the witness of the community. I have no patience with Unitarians being rude to each other, arguing in the letters pages of the Inquirer. We are called to be better than that.

Our lives must preacher louder than our lips.

Whether we like the words 'God' or 'Christian' or not is entirely irrelevant if we do not love each other.

Friday, May 05, 2006


In Birmingham the political scene looks much the same as it was before. There is still no overal control of the council, so a Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition will continue to govern. Up the road from me in Sparkbrook the anti-war Respect Party won its first seat in Birmingham. I also heard that the Green Party did pretty well in Bournville.

Most worrying of course is the success of the far right, anti-immigration, racist British National Party. For the first time they put candidates in every ward in Birmingham. The BNP candidate was declared a winner in Kingstanding, but then that result was later decared false, which would mean no BNP candidates won in Birmingham proper.

However, in the greater Birmingham area some BNP candidates did win. In Solihull the BNP candidate in Chelmsley Wood beat the Labour candidate by 20 votes. In Solihull the Conservatives hung on to power, with the Lib Dems gaining by one seat.

In Sandwell the BNP now have 4 councillors. Labour retain overall control.

In my old home town of Walsall Conservatives retained control.

In Redditch Labour lost overall control, there is now no overall control.

Nationally of course it was a terrible night for Labour. Everyone expected this with a third term administration with two weeks of terrible publicity. Conservatives did reasonably well, but not in places like Manchester. Lib Dems seem to be coasting along.
The percentage of the votes seem to be:
Conservative 40%
Liberal Democrats 27%
Labour 26%
Other 7%

I can't find the turn-out but I think it was pretty low.

The Greens have done reasonably well nationally, gaining 18 seats nationally, with more expected.

And the BNP have done well in some areas of London as well.

Blair's done a major reshuffle of the cabinet this morning. Most significant: Charles Clark has been sacked, Jack Straw demoted. Margaret Becket (formally Environment) is now Foreign Secretary (the first woman foreign secretary); John Reid (formally Defense) is now Home Secretary; Alan Johnson (who?) is now Education Secretary.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Local Elections

Today is election day for 4360 council seats in England.

In Birmingham, the biggest metropolitan borough in the country, 41 seats are up for election, that's a third of the council.

At the last council election in Birmingham there were a large amount of vote fraud. An election judge said the evidence he heard would 'disgrace a banana republic.' Birmingham city council leader Mike Whitby has asked for police officers to be deployed in wards considered at greatest risk from fraud and intimidation.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

More photos from GA

All photos by John Hewerdine and Kathy Faiers.

'Faith Without Certainty' by Paul Rasor - a book review

I must say I was disappointed by this. It is good, it's just not what I expected, or wanted. This book is a survey of liberal theology. It explains what liberal theology is, and then it explains the challenges that it faces in a postmodern age. It's basically a book that lists the things you have to take into account before you begin to do liberal theology today. Mainly the understanding that we are social beings, not autonomous individuals.

What I wanted the book to do was to begin to do contructive liberal theology, which it doesn't. What I really want is a theologically coherent answer to the question 'what is Unitarian Universalism?' This book does not even begin to answer that question.

Also I'm not sure there is such a thing as 'liberal religion' and 'liberal theology' - at least not a coherent thing. There is liberal Christian theology, and Unitarian theology, but I'm not sure you can be general and simply say 'liberal theology.' It's trying to be more general than is possible. Christian theology, even liberal Christian theology, is still necessarily about Jesus and God. UU theology is not necessarily. Unless you entirely maintain that UUism is a part of Christianity, and I assume the author does not. I do not. (well, sort of, it is complicated). To me there is a false kind of (lower case u) universalism, in that the author believes he is talking to a big thing called 'liberal religion' when in fact he is speaking out of his own UU community. He fails to take his own advice into account in realising we are all social beings. Because we are social beings, we cannot speak universally (from above) but only from our own place, within our own tradition (again it is more complicated than this, but I can't express my opinions coherently now). I wish Rasor had realised this and spoke explicitely out of his UU tradition.

I want explicitly Unitarian theology. This book gives some foundations for doing this. But it does not do it.


I've been out of town for a while. I was in Stoke for a few days then I went to the Foy Society weekend at the Nightingale Centre in Great Hucklow. It was really relaxing to be out in the Peak District, enjoying fresh air, quiet, and nights that are dark without street lights. Good people, good time.