Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The shocking truth #2

Here's another shocking truth for Unitarians:

People don't have a problem with 'God' - people have a problem with 'church.'

If two thirds or more of the British population consider themselves Christian, but less than 20% go to church, what is that telling us? It is telling us most Britons don't dislike 'God' or 'Jesus' - though they may not have orthodox intepretations of what they are. But I think most people are deeply distrustful of 'church.' I think people are distrustful of institutions that they see as wielding power (bishops in the House of Lords) hierarchical (bishops in general) and interested in lining their own pockets and keeping people in their place.

In short people are interested in a church-less God, and Unitarianism is offering a God-less church.

Our message, then, should not be 'you don't have to believe in God to come here' - but 'we do church differently.' What needs redeeming is not people's understanding of God as much as people's understanding of church.

The shocking truth #1

Here's the shocking truth about growth, people:

We don't need better advertising. We don't need to get in the papers more. We don't need better PR.

All that stuff is good, but it's not enough.

All that stuff will get more visitors. But guess what? We already have enough visitors. I've never been to a Unitarian church that didn't get several visitors a month. All we need to grow is to turn visitors into members. If every visitor I have seen come to my church in the last year had become a regular attender the Sunday morning attendance would have doubled.

For a starters we need to be more welcoming and better at introducing and integrating people into our community. But more that that, we need to seriously look at the 'product' we offer, because I don't think people are interested in singing dirgy hymns and receiving bland messages. I'm not interested in it, and I'm going to be a minister.

I believe this:

The follower of Jesus is to discover and then promote the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom has two tenses: it is already here, in each one of us; and it is still to come, when God's goodness becomes a universal norm. We are to live now 'as if' the Kingdom of God were already fulfilled.

Sydney Bailey, 1993
Quaker Faith and Practice, 24.57

Last night

Last as I was going to bed, I turned the radio on to listen to James Whale on TalkSport. I've listened to him for years, since back when it was called Talk Radio. If you don't take him too seriously then it's a lot of fun. Last night they had someone on from the Evangelical Alliance and also someone from the National Secular Society. They were talking about various things, and to be fair both of them were perfectly nice and reasonable. It just saddens me that these are the two alternatives presented to the world, as if there is nothing in between.

I was listening in bed with the light off. After midnight I felt the a little spiritual push to go down stairs and ring up the station and engage with this EA guy. I went downstairs and thought about it for a while. But then chickened out and just wrote an email. This morning I found out the email had bounced back.

I feel increasingly pushed to ring up radio stations and give the Good News of Unitarianism like this, but I get scared and shy. Hopefully there will be another opportunity and I will go for it another time. The voice within me does not let me get away with not doing things that scare me. I've got to keep on pushing myself.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Unitarian scriptures

This is what I decided at church on Sunday:

I can't listen to poems. If someone is reading a poem in church, I can't tell you anything about the poem two minutes later. I just can't pay attention to poems in the slightest. I drift off as soon as someone starts reading. I get nothing out of a poem in church.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm not a poem person. But I think this brings up a couple of issues. First the issue of readings used in worship. What is scriptural for Unitarians? When I heard that Unitarians didn't just use the Bible in worship I was excited at the prospect of hearing from the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita or Julian of Norwich every week. I was most disappointed, and have continued to be disappointed by the predminance of poems about flowers and such, rather than world religions and mystical texts.

Secondly in general I can't listen to a lot of stuff in church. My mind wanders most of the time. This is why when I am leading worship I have readings written down in an order of service to allow people to read along, and refer back to. This is what I was brought up with in the C of E, and this is what I believe works. But I've never seen any other Unitarian do it. I don't know why.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Christianity... is COOL!

I love this photo, though I don't think I look very good in it. I'm kind of red faced, and I think I look really young. I have longer hair and a bit of a sort of a beard at the moment.

The photo was taken at Come to the Feast 2004, in Tampa. Florida. It was an ecumencial NCCUSA young adult ministry conference. I was helping to clear up at the end of the conference and so I picked up this cross that was being returned to a local church. One of the conference organisers, who was an Episcopal priest, said, 'I gotta get a picture of this - a Unitarian carrying a cross.' and so he took this. It was like a year later when I was browsing a website about the conference that I found this picture posted online and downloaded it for myself. It makes me smile.

By the way, I stuck a knife in that thumb once and nearly lost it, so I'm lucky to be able to do that.

Monday, July 17, 2006

39 days until Greenbelt

My tickets arrived this morning for Greenbelt. Am I the only Unitarian going? I don't want to get burnt at the stake or anything, anyone wanna come with me? If you do let me know.

The northenest Unitarian church

God bless Leslie McKeown. She had a vision and she went for it. She's now opened the Haughlands Unitarian Retreat and the Hollandstoon Unitarian Chapel in the Orkney Isles. I could be cynical about the prospects for a Unitarian community on an isolated Scottish island, but I'm not going to be. We need more visionaries, more risk-taking, more dreams realised. Start Unitarian communities. Create them on remote Scottish islands, create them in tower blocks, create them in villages, create them in your house. More of this please. Much more of this.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The dumbest thing about American Unitarian Univeralism

I'm glad Peacebang started blogging about this cos I was about to, and now it's like I'm joining in with a conversation rather than doing a big rant and having a go at Americans (though that is always fun ;-)).

Why the hell do American (or is it just in New England??) UU churches take, like a quarter of the year off? In the summer they close. They CLOSE!! A church, closing. It's so bloody weird and wrong. Where does it come from? Why? Why? Why? Why do people need church less in the summer? Where are people supposed to go? Where is the Divine supposed to go?

My church in Boston didn't close exactly, but moved to the smaller upstairs chapel, but the minister still had all that time off.

Now I've spent most of my life around teachers and priests, both jobs where people think people don't put many hours in, when in fact they put in loads ('you only work Sunday mornings/9 to 3.25'). Teachers work hard and need their long holidays. Ministers work hard, and reserve holidays. But a QUARTER OF THE YEAR? Dude, when I'm a minister I'll be getting six Sundays off a year, at least half of the amount Americans get.

I'm not angry about it, I just think it's the weirdest thing. Unitarians in Britain don't do it (are Canadians the same as Americans?), no other denomination in America does it.

In short, it's the dumbest thing about American Unitarian Universalism. It's just weird.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A personal God

Amongst all the God-language stuff, Peacebang says this:

I don't have a personal God in the way that all this LORD stuff would suggest,
but I certainly do believe in some impersonal force of moral imperative, by
whatever name. I have said many times and in many places that my own sense of
what God might be wavers and changes and gets lost on many days.

Which is kinda interesting. Whereas I wouldn't really argue for using the word 'Lord' for the Divine, I do experience God as personal.

As much as I know it's not rational, and not fashionable, God does feel like something that I can communicate with like a Friend. At times I've really tried just to experience Oneness and Silence but what comes out of the silence is a something. A something communicating love, compassion and humour. There are times (usually when I've been reading theology) when I despair that there is too much to understand about Life and Religion, that I'll never be able to understand one tradition, let alone all of them. At those times I eventually give up trying to understand anything and submit. I go to silence, to trusting in the flow of things. What, when it comes down to it, can I trust? What do I know, in my bones? That there is a something and that this something, amazingly, is benevolent. Somehow, it loves me.

I guess ultimately what I am talking about is Universalism, the mystical heart of Universalism. The conviction (so strong it can get you on a horse riding across the country to tell people about it) that somehow, ultimately, there is no need for despair. There is something to trust. Love is possible, and it is within you. The Depth of Life is not indifferent but somehow wishes well for us. Longs for our happiness and for justice and peace. I don't know how, I don't know why, but I do trust it.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Barriers to faith

I get excited by the emerging church movement. I'm glad there's a group of Christians who are radically rethinking Christianity for a new generation. Different worship, a different approach to the way of doing Christianity. It's all good. However in some way it is going to fail if it doesn't take into account a few big issues. There's some things that have changed, and no incarnation of Christianity is going to be successful unless it deals with these changes.

1. Gender and sexuality. Our understanding of both gender and sexuality have dramatically changed in the last few generations in British/western society. I don't think the Church of England (easy to criticise I know, but hey) realises how irrelevant it sounds as it debates how much it want to discriminate against women or sexual minorities. They are debating something that is essential not an issue anymore in secular society. The ethical issue has essentially already been decided in the larger society. The churches are far behind. We had a woman Prime Minister 30 years ago. Yet there can still not be a woman Archbishop of Canterbury. Any religion that does not state categorically that women and queers are equal human beings is going to be viewed as irrelevant.

2. Religious pluralism. People are more aware today that there are many, many religions. Religious pluralism is the context in which we live, even though many Christians try to ignore this fact. A religion that is exclusivist, that says (or even implies) that it is the only way, and that something bad is going to happen to others, will be seen to be committing a sin as bad as racism. Modern people cannot and will not accept a message that seems so exclusive. Moderns cannot accept that God would condemn someone just for being born in the wrong country.

3. Empiricism. Or in other words - 'I only believes what I sees.' Science and the scientific method has given us a way of looking at the world which makes us less inclined to believe in something we cannot see. We cannot see God, there is no evidence for God's existence so we reject the hypothesis. We simply cannot believe in a being in the sky who creates/d and has power over the universe. Frankly it's a bloody stupid idea that we can pretty confidently reject. Any successful religion in Britain in the twenty-first century has to be able to show God in an empirically satisfying way, a flimsy hypothesis will just not do.

Let me be clear: I think these changes are all bloody brilliant. It's brilliant that women and queers are affirming their full humanity and that we can view sexuality as a healthy part of human life. It's brilliant that different religions are co-existing and learning about one another in the same society. It's absolutely brilliant that we don't believe everything we're told, that rational empirical investigations of the world have revealed it's amazing beauty; that we reject superstitions and religious systems that do not describe the physical world and may serve those in power. This is (post)modernity. And I think it's great.

But the only religious community I see dealing with these issues in anything like the way they need to be dealt with is Unitarianism. And that is why I'm a Unitarian, and not just a liberal Christian or and emerging Christian. We've had women ministers for over a hundred years. We've had openly gay ministers for 30 years. And we don't believe in a limited once and for all revelation.

Perhaps on point 3 we have not yet come to a good answer. An answer for many of us is humanism, rejecting all religious hypotheses and trusting only what is rational and empirical. That is a good and logical position. But I think ultimately it isn't good enough. It doesn't give us a good enough reason to go on living, to stop us burning out, in short, to save us.

Why I am a Unitarian is because I think we have the potential to answer this question if we tap into our mystical roots in Emerson and Martineau and further back to the radical reformation. It is good and right to only trust and believe what we can experience. But you can experience God, you can experience the religious depth within yourself beyond the words. I haven't thought that the 'idea' of God made any sense since I was 18. I only continue to speak of God because I have a real relationship with God. Empiricism is an invitation to mysticism. We must make the leap that Martineau told us we needed to take, to become a Religion of the Spirit. If we do that and let people know that we're a faith that has adapted to modernity in terms of sex, pluralism and empiricism then we have a real chance of being incredibly relevant to our society. But of course we will also have to take on the insights of the emerging church in terms of worship and how to do church.

Disclaimer: I know that there is still sexism and homophobia in both British society and Unitarianism; and that Unitarianism hasn't come up with a theologically coherent and satisfactory answer to the puzzle of religious pluralism. Hey, I paint with broad brush-strokes, OK?