Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What is dying?

British Unitarianism came from many different sources. The source of much Unitarianism was the old Presbyterian churches dating back to the Great Ejection in 1662, over the years these churches became increasinly liberal until they became Unitarian. Although Presbyterianism was the dominant strand, other movements did come into the Unitarian community. Unitarians came from Anglicanism (Lindsey), Methodist Unitarianism and the General Baptists. But these remained a minority that were absorbed into the majority.

Well what's that all got to do with anything? Well it means that the style (but not the polity) of Unitarianism is dominantly Presbyterian. And what can we say about Presbyterianism in the last few decades in the West? It's in decline. It's in a nose dive. The United Reform Church has halved it's membership since 1972. The Presbyterian Church USA is losing 50,000 members a year.

Liberal-moderate Protestantism is dying. I think this is largely about worship. I think hymns and sermons are just boring and aren't holistic enough for people today. Anglican-Catholic-Orthodox churches have the richness of the ritual which provides something people can plug into spiritually. Evangelical-Pentecostal-Charismatic churches have powerful preaching with a clear message, modern, uplifting songs and an emphasis on direct experience of the Holy Spirit. Quakers have a meditative spirituality that is appealing to many. Liberal-moderate protestantism cannot compete.

Which is fine. It's going, it's on the way out. But if Unitarianism can come from different sources in the early nineteenth century, maybe it can come from different sources again. Maybe Presbyterian Unitarianism is dead. But if Unitarianism can emerge within the Baptist tradition 200 years ago, maybe it can come from somewhere else today. Maybe Post-Evangelicals will come to a Unitarian understanding. Maybe alternative worship movements will become Unitarian. Maybe a coherent movement will arise out of the Progressive Christianity Network or even the 'new spirituality.'

I never much liked Presbyterian Unitarianism in any case. It will die. What's exciting is what will happen after that. It will happen in my lifetime. It's going to be a fun ride.

PS Happy Thanksgiving to Americans. Even though I couldn't see much point in it myself. It's just Christmas without presents.


Anonymous Matt said...

I think this was an excellent post, Stephen. Two things have resulted in me wondering whether I should walk away from Unitarianism entirely.

Firstly, I realise that my Unitarianism is essentially a theological position in relation to Christianaity. Yes, I'm a liberal but I just can't buy into the dominant mode of thinking within the Unitarian / UU denomination.

Secondly, worship is a big issue. I have attended a number of liberal Christian churches within Unitarianism but the worship style is, as you say, so archaic and boring.

I don't know what the future holds. I spoke to a leading URC minister some time ago and he commented that shortly after Unitarianism becomes extinct as a denomination within the UK, his church will follow.

But, as am sure you will have noted, there are many churches within the Unitarian General Assembly and URC who exist with minimal contact with their denominations. Some of these are relatively successful.

And so, I don't think we will see all churches close, but rather a slow fragmentation - sort of 'survival of the fittest' - and then the question is whether these will then come together under some new network - such as PCN Britain.

6:00 pm  
Anonymous Mike Killingworth said...

Well, is our relationship to Christianity one of belief that it offers insights that other religious traditions don't, or is it simply that most of us were brought up with it in some form or other and we're used to it? Rather in the way that being a native speaker of English doesn't imply that other languages aren't just as effective at doing the job.

What worries me about Christianity is its popular image of God as an old man with a beard which - particularly given its on the whole fairly grisly history as a State religion (in any variant you care to name) - tends to prevent rather than to promote spiritual wholeness (individuation, in Jung's term).

If we have a future, it is as a "church" (for want of a word that isn't culturally specific) that has a unique offer - and one concept that holds meaning for me is that of "heresy" - the idea that it is only through an acceptance that heresy is OK - that, whether or not there is a God-Out-There, bearded or otherwise, we can only apprehend the divine within our selves.

Doubtless this is too difficult, and our places of worship will go on being empty except when someone organises a service of blessing for domestic pets...

8:29 pm  

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