Monday, March 31, 2008

GA 08 Day Four (Saturday)

Morning communion

I suprised myself by actually getting up and going to the morning communion worship. I would have liked to have stayed in bed. But this is usually the only time in a year I take communion in a completely Unitarian setting, and that's important to me. The service was pretty traditional, too traditional for me really. I think a lot of non-Christian Unitarians go to this service so it would be good to show them something really radical one year, instead it rather comfirms the idea that the Christian end of the movement is pretty traditional, which it is. But good not to have a sermon I think, good to show that you can have a service without a sermon.

Business meetings

Celebrating our congregations, procedural motions and these motions:

The government should set up a body that deals with all religious bodies equally since Unitarians and Jews have been thrown out of the Churches Main Committee when it was reorganised. Apparently such an advisory body is beeing set up, so not really a motions with much bite.

We believe that same-sex civil partnerships should be able to be carried out in those places of worship that want to peform them. As the law stands religious language is banned from civil partnership ceremonies. Some people made the perfectly legitimate argument that we should not be involved in working for the state in this way. The state should always do the legal bits of all marriages and civil partnerships with an optional religious part for those who want it. I've got no problem with that, it's a much better solution long term, but I think we needed to say this now. It passed, as did all motions, with a clear majority.

One incident during the debate is worth reporting, the youth, who usually go bowling or some such babysitting activity at GA, have begun to get political, which is quite right. There is no voice for youth in our movement right now. We have no youth on the Youth Panel, and they have no right to speak at the Annual Meetings. Well this year they had their own mini-debate in their own time and decided they wanted to speak to and support this motion. They prearranged this with the President, who can allow non-delegates to speak within her own discretion.

At the microphone the other delegates let the youth representative go in front of them, but Celia Midgley, the President, wanted to hear from delegates before she let the youth speak. Fair enough but it was very badly handled I'm afraid. She rather embarrassed this 14 year old girl by asking if she was a delegate or an associate member, after the youth had said she was talking on behalf of the youth. The nervous youth representative didn't reply and then Celia made her sit down and wait until later to speak.

I think this showed the institutional problem of the disempowerment of our youth. Hopefully this will bring about some change in policy and we can regular make a spot for the youth to speak for one minute. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Last motion: Roy Smith, former General Secretary, is given Honorary Membership

Overall I enjoyed GA. The best bits aren't necessarily the formal bits but the conversations over coffee, breakfast or drinks in the bar. There are some really remakable people in our Unitarian community, and it's good to rub shoulders with them. One snatched 20 second conversation is going to stay with me for a long time.

I would like to see a big cut in the time for business meetings. We managed to cut a lot out this year to get a whole day for growth, but we could do more. We could cut down the motions to no more than two or three, and use the rest of the time for training and education and worship.

The facilities were excellent, too good in fact. I'm sure it all comes as a package but to have such good food three times a day seems unnecessary. And all that bottled water is not good for the environment.

Next year I would like to see another whole day devoted to growth but this time have people leading workshops on how we can achieve growth, British Unitarians, and UUs, and evangelicals and experts in church growth and evangelism and mission and the emerging church. Us talking only to ourselves is really not enough!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

GA 08 Day Three: Growth Day (Friday)

(Not exactly live anymore but still faster than any other news source)

This is my continuing coverage of the Annual Meetings, I only report on events I attended.

Morning worship

Another friend of mine, Csaba Todor, the Sharpe Scholar from Transylvania at Unitarian College, led this worship. He asked me to do a reading, so I had to be there by 7.30. It was good though, he was a very hypnotic way of preaching without notes, really draws you in.

Business meetings

Reports from Commisions, celebrating our congregations, Motion that Mike Tomlin (former GA Treasurer) be given Honorary Membership.

Growth Process

This was a sort-of open space technology process in which the whole assembly talked about what we meant by growth and what priorites we wanted to have as a national community to bring about growth and renewal. I think this was a useful process and I hope it got people excited about working for growth, and a lot of people worked hard to organise this process (including myself as I was scribbing onto the big screen in the feedback process, which is quite stressful considering what I said about grammar and Unitarians below), but I do have some criticism of the process.

First in break-out sessions we were asked the questions "what is growth?" and "what is renewal?" In some ways I wasn't happy with this as we were seeking to broaden the definition of "growth" whereas I would want to continue to understand growth as numerical growth and seek to include that as one area of what I would call "mission." So we talked about numerical growth and how that comes from internal health etc etc.

This was then collatted into a number of categories like "numerical" "spiritual" etc etc. We were then asked which area we would like to look at in a further break out session. But I'm sure some things got missed in the process. For example I wanted to talk about church planting but that didn't come up in the group I was in because we were told that answering the question "what is growth" not "how do we grow" so I didn't talk about church planting because I thought that was a "how" issue more than a "what" issue. Luckily someone else had mentioned it so it did become one break-out session that I attended.

We did have quite a few people to talk about starting new congregations and did have a good conversation and made some demands of the Exectutive Committee to look at.

But honestly I do not want the EC's priorities to be shaped by what came out of this process. The EC should not do what 200 Unitarians think will lead to growth, because, honestly, what do we know about it? If we knew how to grow, we would be growing. Priorities should be set by what actually will lead to growth. And we find that out, not by talking to ourselves, but talking to those communities that are growing. We do that by looking at empirical research and theological reflection on growth, evangelism and mission. I don't want the EC to do what we tell them, I want them to lead.

Anniversary Service

This was excellent. Choir was very good, and the preacher was great. It was Art Lester from Croydon. Guess what he said? He said we should pray. He said it very well, but that was the gist of it. We have these symptoms: our decline, our struggles; but the real issue was that we have lost our soul. That is the cause of all our symptoms. We will never grow unless we find a spiritual core to our religious life. I take this to be a "practice of reverence" sermon that I hope will become symbolic of a turning point as William Sinkford's "language of reverence" sermon was. It was the perfect thing to say at the end of the "growth day." Before all our strategic planning we need to seek the presence of the Living God, and let that guide us. Amen.

A bad photo of Art Lester

Friday, March 28, 2008

GA 08: Day Two (Thursday)

Business Meetings

Nothing too contentious going on. A new innovation via the Denominational Support Commission is to 'celebrate our congregations' through a two minutes slot for one congregation per district. I like to see this kind of thing which should showcase our most successful and innovative congregations, though clearly through the presentations some are more innovate than others.

Mortions (in roughly the order they came) And I'm paraphrasing.

The General Assembly congratulates the Women's League on its 100th anniversarry. Well duh. Non-contentious.

The Ministerial Fellowship is recognised as an affliated body to the General Assembly. Not every minister was in favour of this, I don't think anyone else cared about it very much.

We believe prison if often inneffective and encourage other more effective rehabilitation. Another social justice motion that is entirely worthy but entirely ineffective as a way for us to do effective social justice work as a community.

Constitutional amendment. Partly this was a tidying up of the constitution, but it did represent some changes. The number of members a congregation needs to send two delegates to the Annual Meetings has changed from 50 to 30. A sign of our decline I'm affraid. The other change was a rolling system for the Executive Committee elections. Now instead of a whole new committee every 3 years (although you can serve two terms), now 4 people will be elected every two years, so only half of the committee will change in an election cycle. The next election will be 2009.

What I find in some ways horrifying and in some ways fascinating is the need of some people to spend so much energy trying to correct grammar and English in something like a constitution. We're so nit-picking as a movement! It's a depressing thing being stuck in a room of 200 people arguing about grammar. Why do people get so engaged with that? Is this the thing we ought to be concerned with??

Hibbert Trust

This was a presentation by David Usher, who the Hibbert Trust have paid to create a 'liberal alternative to the Alpha course.' This seems now to be called 'A Course in Practical Spirituality.' The first DVD for this has been produced and it's planned that there will be five more. It was very professionally done. I'm not convinced myself that professionalism is the most important thing myself. Plus I would really like to see something that is distinctly Unitarian, and this is not.

International Association for Religious Freedom

My mate Simon Ramsay did a time of meditation using readings from various traditions. The problem of course with meditation is that I became aware of how tired I was. I'm not getting much sleep.

Communications Commission

Michael Dadson told the story of the publicity material used in our Macclesfield congregation.

Also at this meeting my new book, The Unitarian Life, was officially launched. I'll write more about the book in a post very soon. But I'm very pleased that we managed to get it out in time for these Meetings, and I'm also very pleased that we have sold out of the book after two days. Fifty copies were delivered directly to Hatfield and they've all gone. Good good.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

GA 08: Day One (Wednesday)

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about you. I have been meaning to blog before now, but I've only got internet properly set up in my room today. I've brought my camera with me, but not the cable to connect it to my computer, so I'll upload photos when I get back home. So I'll try to catch up with my brief coverage:

Minister's conference

Nothing of interest to report.

International worrkshop

We had speakers from USA, South Africa and Uganda. The Ugandan speaker, Mark Kiyamba, was most interesting to me, as I already know a fair bit about Unitarianism in the USA (obviously) and a bit about South Africa as well. It really excites me to hear about growing Unitarian communities in Africa. Could it still be possible that the renewal of our faith could come from the third world? Historically Unitarians have been really rubbish at supporting emerging Unitarian communities outside of Euro-America, I really hope that might change.

Hymnbook panel

The new book should be out in 2010. It's really good, I'm excited, some good stuff that will get me swaying in the aisles in there (I do have a bit of charismatic Christian in me). I like to have a good sing-song at GA, rather than it been all listening to speakers. Can't wait for the new hymnbook.

Opening celebrations

A celebration of the 100 years of the Unitarian Women's League. Very pleasant and dignified. Me, I'd have prefered a good old sing song and some really loud celebration. As much as the whoope-whooping that goes on at American UU GA gets a bit tiresome and inauthentic, I think in the UK we could do with a bit more of it.


Are we going to get around to making some kind of vaguely official Unitarian queer group? Hopefully. I'm hoping we can move beyond the secret meetings in darken rooms late at night at GA (very 70s) to get a proud and loud and activist community. Organising is so tiresome though.

Monday, March 24, 2008

GA 08: Preview

All of a sudden GA is upon us! Early because Easter is, it starts on Wednesday. I'm travelling down tomorrow for the Minister's conference. It's being held once more in Hatfield. I shall try to blog live from GA as usual. I'm going to take my laptop down as I think I should be able to get wireless in the room. So blogging should be easy. Watch this space.

Been buried in books for several days

But I've been really enjoying getting into some good ol' theologising.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I'm dreaming of a white... Easter?

Happy Easter from a snowy Manchester.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Unitarian Good Friday

This is a day late, but, hey, I'm busy writing a Unitarian theology of mission, which is hard enough...

I don't often put other bits of my writing on here because I think that different media require a different genre of writing. My writing here is different from my sermons, or articles, or theological papers.

But the someone said to me that a paper I did for Faith and Freedom should be more widely circulated so I did a briefer version for the Inquirer, which should be out now, though I haven't seen it yet. I thought I'd share the Inquirer article, for those who might be interested.

What do we do with Good Friday?

Most, if not all, of our Unitarian congregations will celebrate Easter Sunday this year on the 23rd of March. But how many will mark Good Friday? Much fewer, I’m sure.

What does this say about us? What does it mean that we generally don’t mark Good Friday in our tradition? Perhaps we wouldn’t know what to say on Good Friday. What is it that Unitarians think about Good Friday, and the event it commemorates, the execution of Jesus of Nazareth?

The orthodox Christian understanding is that on the cross Jesus, somehow, ‘took away the sins of the world.’ Jesus’ death bridged a gap between God and humanity, making it possible for humans to be united with God: at-one-ment, atonement.

This never made a blind bit of sense to me. Statements such as ‘Jesus died to take away the sin of the world’ always seemed to me to be simply nonsensical. It is clear that there is still evil, suffering, death and sin in the world. Jesus’ death took away none of it. My inability to understand this doctrine was a major reason that I left the Church of England and became a Unitarian. I wanted a faith that concentrated on the life and ministry of Jesus, not doctrines about his death. This seemed to make a lot more sense to me.

There are many other criticisms that feminist theologians make of this doctrine of atonement. It can suggest that the best way to solve a problem is passive suffering rather than active resistance. Some theologians say that it paints a picture of divine child abuse. God ‘the Father’ is so angry at you and me for being sinners that he wants to punish us, yet Jesus ‘the Son’ steps in our place and is punished on our behalf. This suggests Jesus loves you, but God the Father doesn’t. This gets even more confusing when Trinitarian doctrine says that the Father and Jesus are one and the same thing! It all seems much easier to reject the whole thing, as I, and many Unitarians before me, have done.

And yet there is a deep power and fascination for many people in the symbol of the cross. The pull of this symbol is evident in the film, The Passion of the Christ that graphically illustrates Jesus’ bloody death. Why does this remain such a powerful symbol?

I do not think it is just because people have an unhealthy fascination with horrific gory sights. I think the power of this symbol is something to do with solidarity. This symbol says to millions: whatever you’re going through, God is there with you, because God has been through it too. God is with you in your suffering. If this is the reason for the power of the symbol of the cross, then I am confronted with an uncomfortable idea: maybe I ‘don’t get it’ because I’ve lived a relatively comfortable life, maybe those who suffer understand the cross in a way that those who do not suffer cannot. Maybe one of the reasons Unitarianism doesn’t appeal to more people is because we don’t have a religious language or symbol system that can deal with suffering. Perhaps the symbol of the cross, then, has something to offer us. Perhaps there is a way we can have a Unitarian approach to the cross, a Unitarian approach to Good Friday.

First I think we need to affirm that there is some truth in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. God is in the world. Jesus represents one place (but not the only place) where God’s incarnational nature is revealed. Jesus’ life and death reveal a God who experiences everything that we experience. Jesus’ suffering represents solidarity with our suffering. God is ‘with us’ and the cross can be a symbol that in our suffering God is ‘with us.’ I believe it is worth retaining a Christian theological understanding that teaches that the cross symbolises God’s presence with us in suffering.

But, does that mean that the cross is a symbol of salvation? No. The cross represents solidarity, but not salvation. Salvation does not happen on the cross. The story of the cross is not a model for our salvation or our work to defeat suffering in the world.

I believe we need to view the cross as a symbol of the problem (“sin”), rather than the solution (“salvation”). The cross did not take away sin. The cross is sin. It was a historical event of sin. And it remains a symbol of sin. The cross reminds us that we live in a sinful world. Did Jesus die for my sins? Perhaps we can say that in some metaphorical sense, but more importantly I must say that people today, in the developing world, and in the streets of our cities, are dying for my sins – or rather because of my sins, because of the interdependent web of communal sin that we live in: economic and political systems in which we all participate.

The cross is sin. It is a symbol that gives us a clearer picture of sin in the world. The fact is the world is full of crosses, full of instances of oppression and suffering. It is the refusal to acknowledge this spiritually that is a major weakness of our Unitarian liberal religion. People are suffering in our world and in our neighbourhoods and maybe in our households. If we throw out the cross then we are in danger of blinding ourselves to the suffering in the world. The cross is a symbol that demands we look suffering square in the face. That is its power.

But awareness of suffering is not the end. We should be made aware of suffering so that we can become committed to fighting against it. The process of overcoming suffering I call salvation. So what is salvation? Symbolically, if the cross is sin, then salvation is the defeat of the cross. Salvation is the Resurrection. The cross is a symbol of the suffering of the world. The Resurrection is a symbol of the defeat of the suffering of the world. Resurrection happens every time suffering is defeated, every time someone hungry is fed – that is Resurrection. Every time justice is achieved – that is Resurrection. Every time suffering is alleviated – that is Resurrection, that is salvation. Resurrection is a symbol of our commitment to defeat suffering, to tear down all the world’s crosses.

Historically we can say this: Jesus of Nazareth was murdered. He was unjustly arrested, tortured and executed. This was a sin, an evil event that should not have taken place. But that was not the end of the story. The story does not end with the death of Jesus. A few days later Jesus’ disciples experienced something we call the Resurrection. What that actually was is not really relevant. What matters is that the cross was not the end of the story. What matters is that a religious community arose after the Resurrection that was able to continue the ministry of Jesus. A community that, at its best, could continue Jesus’ ministry of love, justice and liberation. And we, as Unitarians, are heirs to that community.

So, for Unitarians Good Friday should be a time to reflect on the suffering of the world, to pray about the places of famine, oppression and war in the world. It should be a space to engage with the darkness of suffering, something Unitarians spend too little time doing. I once held a worship service on Good Friday at First Church in Boston. I decided to construct ‘Stations of the Cross’ around the room. These consisted of readings and artwork posted to the walls that worshippers were encouraged to read in their own time, while music was playing. Instead of the traditional story of Jesus’ Passion, I created stations describing martyrs from many different times and places. The different stations included readings about Dorothy Sang (murdered Brazilian nun), Harvey Milk (murdered gay rights activist), Jesus of Nazareth, Michael Servetus (Unitarian martyr), James Reeb (Unitarian martyr of the civil rights movement), Martin Luther King and Mansur al-Hallaj (Muslim mystic who was executed for his mystical teachings and political activism).

I believe it is essential for us to engage with the crosses of the world like this on Good Friday. For me, it is only after the darkness of Good Friday that the light of Easter makes sense. Easter becomes, then, an affirmation of ultimate hopefulness in our ability to fight against, and defeat, suffering. This gives us a powerful Gospel message for Easter. It avoids the pitfalls of either talking about a dubious historical event, or saying something incredibly bland about new flowers sprouting in spring. Rather Easter becomes a time for us to recommit ourselves to working for justice in the world. To recommit ourselves to work for the Resurrection of the world. Easter is a traditional time to reaffirm baptism vows, so it is very appropriate for Unitarians to use Easter to reaffirm our Unitarian vows to work for justice. This is the Good News of Easter: that suffering is real, but that there is hope beyond suffering, and that’s where we’re heading, that’s Resurrection.

Stephen Lingwood
This article is based on a paper in Faith and Freedom vol 60, part 1, no 164 (2007) 34 – 40.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The weird world of Google Earth

The BT Tower in Birmingham - what's wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Both progressive and emerging?

The Sactus1 video has made me think about an issue that's been rolling around in my head for a while: is it possible to be both progressive and emerging? In other words is it possible to be radical in content as well as in style?

Look at someone like John Shelby Spong: pretty radical in what he says, yet he still wears the dog-colar and purple shirt of a bishop. He looks entirely like a bishop.

Similarly in Unitarian congregations: the theology might be off the wall, heresy of heresy, yet the minister may will still be in a black preaching robe looking terribly formal, there is much resistance if you don't wear a suit (I've experienced it, though it's always been in good humour), we have hymns and organs and pews and everything about our form is terriblly formal and traditional.

But go to the congregation where the preacher is in jeans and a T shirt, where there is a jolly informality, or even where there are people with nose-rings and green hair, then the theology, the message is usually conservative, or at least orthodox. The emerging church, for all its radicalism, is still orthodox in its theology (as Ben is at pains to point out).

Is it possible then to be radical in both form and content? Is it possible to have a christology influenced by Marcus Borg and a ecclesiology influenced by Dan Kimball? I hope so, because ultimately that is the kind of church I'd want to belong to. More than that I think its the kind of church that would have the power to become a dynamic religious force in this country. I would hope it would be the church of the future. Yet where is it? Perhaps it is up to me and you (if you agree with me) to create it.

Loving Jesus?

Jaume, commenting here, makes what I think is a really good point. Would I like Jesus if I met him?

I was thinking about this the other day. It was probably during ecumenical worship here in college when I was singing hymns about loving Jesus. There's a certain strain of Christianity, and definitely Christian hymns, that says something along these lines, "Jesus is so great, he loves me so much, he looks after me, I can't believe how much he's done for me."

I sort of wonder if we're talking about the same Jesus. The Jesus I find in the Gospels isn't exactly cosy. Sure he has his soft side, but mostly he really challenges me. I think if I wrote a Valentine's card to Jesus he would write back to me saying rude things. I can't imagine the first reaction of the crowds listening to Jesus would be, 'oh, isn't he lovely, I really like him, he's really kind.' He wasn't the kind of person who you loved, he was the kind of person who you take a step back from while muttering something like 'oh, I've never thought of it like that.'

I suppose his disciples would have loved him, and he loved them. But it'wasn't the kind of unthinking adulation of a teenage girl for a pop star. Jesus always seems to be not let love become an excuse for neglecting discipleship. 'Blessed are the breasts that fed you.' 'No, rather blessed are those who do the will of God.'

With the greatest respect and love to my Trinitarian friends and colleagues I still think that adoration of the teacher represents a kind of spiritual immaturity. 'If you really love me, stop going on about it, feed my sheep.'

Growth: priorities

What should be the priorities of the General Assembly if it wants to promote growth? According to Lyle Schaller (Growing Plans, 165-168) the top three priorities should be:

1. Organise new congregations. This is the most effective way to reach people without any church affiliation. Newly organised congregations have a greater rate of growth than any other type of church.

2. Encourage the growth of large congregations. (I'm less convinced of this one because I'm not sure people born after 1975 are as invested in big churches as those born between 1945 and 1975, plus I'm not sure we have what church growth people would call a large congregation)

3. Help congregations assimilate new members. In many congregations as many people drop out of the back door as come into the front door. We need to understand why people leave our congregations as much as why they come to our congregations. Do we need more systematic systems for becoming members? i.e. membership classes, more liturgical relevance for becoming a member, abolishing the laity so every new member welcoming is an ordination?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Do Unitarians believe in the unity of religions?

I've been mulling something over. Peacebang asks if this is the best statement we can make about Unitarian (Universal)ism.

I've been thinking about the language used here: different people identify with different beliefs; this is fine because we're non-creedal, and we have principles that unite us. It's a negative way of putting it I think. It seems to suggest to me that beliefs don't matter. You can be a Christian or a Buddhist or a Pagan, but that's secondary, what unites us is our principles, therefore they matter more.

Yet how can we say that following Jesus is a secondary thing? How can we say that taking refuge in the dharma of the Buddha is an unimportant thing? These are life-transforming things. These are things that shape the entirity of one's life. And these are exactly the things that I go to church to to talk about, and to practice.

So how can these things live side by side in one community? There are three posibilities: one: they cannot, pluralist religion is impossible; two: for us to live side by side, religious belief must become secondary to basic ethical principles that don't really have the power to be life changing; or three: we hold a belief that there is something that unites all religions, there is the possibility of a unifying reality beyond all genuine experiences of enlightenment.

The third option is not without it's problems. And it may need more work to articulate is theologically, yet I would maintain that it's better than the other two options. It's sort of hinted at by some things that Unitarians say, and yet it doesn't quite seem to be something we've committed to wholeheartedly. Maybe there are good reasons for that. But I think the other option is to degrade the importance of all religions to maintain unity in diversity.

Wouldn't a better way to put it be to say that we affirm the unity of all religions and that we're engaged in a search for the unifying reality behind all religions, and that some of us do this by choosing and praticing one particular tradition? This seems to affirm the importance and power of religious traditions, while the language on the UUA website seems to degrade their importance. In short, we aren't united despite our diffferent religious committments, but because of them and through them.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

It would be enough

Even if there was no Nicene Creed, I would still be here.
Even if he wasn't of one essence with the Father, I would still be here.
Even if the Bible is not divinely inspired, I would still be here.
Even if there was no Paul, I would still be here.
Even if he didn't rise bodily from the dead, I would still be here.
Even if he didn't bodily ascend into heaven, I would still be here.
Even if he isn't the Only Way, I would still be here.
Even if he didn't walk on water, I would still be here.
Even if he didn't heal anyone, I would still be here.
Even if his mother wasn't a virgin, I would still be here.
Even if he wasn't the Messiah, I would still be here.
Even if he thought he was the Messiah, and was wrong, I would still be here.
Even if he was wrong about a few things, I would still be here.
Even if there was nothing of him but the sermon on the plain, a piece of writing describing a way of life filled with divine love, a way of life so radical and yet so simple. Even if there was only that glimpse of that kind of life, it would still be a life I would want to try to give myself to. It would still impress me enough for me to try to live my life in such a crazy, impractical, romantic, spiritual love-filled way.
It would be enough.