Friday, March 23, 2007

What has happened to the Free Churches?

Here's an interesting article from the former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches about the state of English Free Churches.

I too would like to see stronger voices from a variety of Christian communities and the dominance of Anglicanism questioned. I'd also like to see the Free Churches re-engage with their historical commitment for a separation of church and state.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Church planting in historical perspective

Here are the youngest Unitarian communities in Britain, the year they were founded, and how often they meet, which gives some indication of their vitality:

2006 Hollandstoon Unitarian Chapel, Haughland, Shapinsay (weekly services?)

(2005?) Charnwood Unitarian Fellowship (monthly services)

(2002?) Durham Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

(2000?) Harrogate Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

1994 Banbury Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

1993 Bath Unitarian Fellowship (twice a month)

1981 Hyde Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

1976 Chelmsford Unitarian Fellowship (twice monthly)

1964 Worthing Unitarian Fellowship (weekly)

1963 Unitarian Fellowship of Enfield and St. Albans (three times a month)

1959 Cirencester Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

1947 Watford Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

Date unknown, but presumably in the late twentieth century:

Reading Unitarian Fellowship (monthly)

Manx Unitarian Fellowship, Isle of Man (quarterly)

Colchester Unitarian Fellowship (eight times per year)

Exeter Unitarian Fellowship (twice monthly)

Salisbury Unitarian Universalists (monthly)

1906 Free Church, West Kirby (twice monthly)

1906 Broadway Avenue Unitarian Church, Bradford (weekly)

1905 Ansdell Unitarian Church (weekly)

1904 Unitarian Church, Cambridge (twice weekly)

1903 Golders Green Unitarians, London (weekly)

1900 New Street Meeting House, Aberystwyth, (fortnightly)

1899 Halliwell Road Free Church, Bolton (twice weekly)

1897 Lewisham Unitarian Congregation, London (weekly)

1897 Unitarian Meeting House, Southend-on-Sea (monthly)

1896 Capel-y-Cwm (weekly)

1894 Blackpool Unitarian Church (weekly)

1894 Urmston Free Church (weekly)

1892 Unitarian Meeting House, Bedfield, Suffolk (monthly)

1890 Chorlton Unitarian Church, Manchester (weekly)

As you can see in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a healthy amount of church planting, with close to one church a year being planted. But throughout the twentieth century only fellowships have been planted. What's the difference between a fellowship and a church? I'm not entirely sure. But I think that meeting only monthly, as most of them do, is an indication of a smaller community that cannot easily grow.

This list only includes communities that still exist and not communities that have died out. I'm unsure how many fellowships have died away, but its a few.

So how did those churches get started in the early twentieth century, and why did such church planting stop?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Why we need Americans, and why it won't work

We need American ministers: here's why it makes sense:

The UUA has 1658 ministers and 1039 congregations. Many more ministers than congregations.

The British Unitarian General Assembly has 65 active ministers and 180 congregations. Many more congregations than ministers.

(The Directory lists 145 ministers, but this includes retired ministers, ministers in the NSPCI and ministers that have now moved to other countries).

Looking at these figures it occurs to me: wouldn't it be good if 100 American ministers could come over here?

Let's put aside the question of pay for a moment, and let me give the other reason why this wouldn't work (or would create problems).

Why this wouldn't work:

"I believe... that we are inheritors of a deeply and profoundly spiritual tradition of our own. What is more this tradition is not only uniquely Unitarian Universalist, but also typically American." (Barry Andrews, Thoreau as Spiritual Guide, xiii)

How much is Unitarian Universalism typically American? How much is Unitarian Universalism tied to the US American culture? This is probably a question that gets Canadian Unitarians going more than anyone else.

So much of what UUs speak and preach about is very tied to American culture. I heard a sermon about Abraham Lincoln the other day. A lot of what gets talked about is internal American politics, and the social justice dimension is always more American than global.

Now in many ways there's nothing wrong with that. Churches in America should be speaking and worshipping in a way that makes sense for them, but what is left when that gets transferred to a different culture?

You see a lot of American ministers do come over here, but a lot of them struggle. I have an inclining that this is because they have not studied enough mission theory. Faith expressed in one culture is always different from the same faith expressed in a different culture. This is what it took missionaries a while to realise, but eventually they did realise it. You have to work hard to work out how a faith will be expressed differently in a different culture.

Remove Unitarian Universalism from America and what are you left with? Remove any talk of next November's election, remove the culture wars, remove all that, and what are you left with? You have to answer that kind of question before you can come to a different culture to speak about Unitarian Universalism. You need to find the spiritual heart of UUism apart from the current social justice battles in America, and be able to adapt that to a different culture.

So we need Americans, but they need to study mission theory and be able to separate Unitarian Universalism from leftofcenteramericanism.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Scripture and Creed

I've been learning more about Sikhism. There's a great deal that's very appealing about Sikhism to me, especially as it was originally taught by Guru Nanak, who really wanted to get away from 'isms.'

Sikhs reject the idea of creeds. They would say that you can't capture God in one written statement, I'd agree with that. Often Unitarians speak as if being creedless means there is no such thing as shared beliefs. Lots of religions in fact are creedless, possibly most of them. But this doesn't mean that there is no shared theology or scripture, or important shared ideas. You have to have that, you're not a coherent religion without it.

It seems to be what Unitarianism needs is not creed but scripture. It is important for me to affirm revelation is not sealed or limited to one book; and I want to reject the idea that the Bible can ever be authority for us. But we do need something that is foundational and scriptural for us. We don't need to define the edges of that, but we do need to find the centre. It needs to be more than the Bible, but less than everysinglebookintheworld. Since I first started going to going to Unitarian churches I've been continuously disappointed by readings in worship from sociology textbooks, poems about flowers and newspaper articles. I long for scripture. For writing that in some sense can be considered revelation. For me this means the Bible, writing from the Unitarian tradition and scriptures from the other faiths of the world. Stuff that has given spiritual succour to several generations, stuff that has a tradition of interpretation and stuff that can become familiar to us. The only problem is that I am very poorly trained in understanding other religious scriptures. And my education is not helping me in that regard. I use the Qur'an a bit, but have never got around to reading any more scripture. I have read all of the New Testament, but haven't read most of the Hebrew Bible; I've read tiny bits of the Qur'an and nothing of anything else. So for now it's the Bible that I use about 60% of the time for worship, because we need scripture.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Where I study the buzzword is 'context.' I'm studying for a degree in 'contextual theology.' We're always being asked to relate academic study to our work in church and the world. We're asked to think about our context theologically and our theology contextually. I like this approach. I think its quite appropriate and useful for ministerial training. I pass this building everytime I walk to Sainsbury's to do my shopping. It used to be a Unitarian church and now its the home of Manchester Amateur Photographic Society. For me its a gravestone: 'A Unitarian community once lived here 1646 - 1970. Now it is dead.'

If I needed it, this serves as a sombre reminder of the context of British Unitarianism. Everything we do and say should be related to this context: the context of decline; the context of gravestone-churches; forgotten brick buildings rotting slowly away at the side of the road.

It's irresponsible to act like this isn't happening. It's irresponsible to think we can continue to go on as we have been. It's irresponsible to keep our money locked away, and not spend it on exciting new ways of doing church and ministry.

Everytime I walk past this building I think of these things.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

MPs vote for an elected House of Lords

This week MPs voted for a fully elected second chamber in Parliament. It's not what the government wanted, and not what anyone expected but the vote came out with a clear majority for a 100% democratically elected House of Lords. This vote is 'indicative' not binding on ministers, but it gives a very clear signal.

I'd say it's about time. Frankly I find it embarassing that the lower house of the Parliament that runs this country is made up of heredity peers, appointees, and worst of all 26 Church of England bishops. It's a blight on our democracy, and needs reforming.

I always find it curious and a bit annoying that in America there is such organisations as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to maintain a separation that is already constitutionally established; whereas in the UK, where there is no separation of church and state, there is no such organisation to campaign to create that separation.

One organisation that does want a separation of church and state is Ekklesia. I really like the stuff that comes out from them. About this vote they said, "This vote indicates clear support for bringing an end to an historical anomaly in the Second Chamber which has done no favours for either church or state.

"The removal of bishops from the House of Lords is long overdue. It has been a travesty that 26 men sit in Parliament simply because an undemocratic religious institution, in a curious conjunction with Government, has appointed them as their leaders.

"The presence of 26 bishops in Parliament implies that one brand of Christianity should be given special status over all other religions and belief systems. Not only is it at odds with democratic values, it is at odds with Christian values. Reform is long overdue, and the Government should now respond to the way that MPs have voted, and give their backing to the complete removal of bishops from the House of Lords."

Amen to that.