Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What is Unitarianism?

I'm working on our new website at church, and writing a bit about Unitarianism. This involves striking a balance between my understanding of Unitarianism, my congregation's, and my national community's understanding. Here's what I've got.

Unitarianism is a liberal and creedless faith, rooted in the Christian tradition, yet on a spiritual adventure in search of truth, justice and healing for the world. We are a faith community for those on a spiritual journey, for those who believe there is still more to be discovered in religion. We believe in religious exploration – through the intellect and through the spirit. Through the intellect we explore religious questions in sermons, lectures, courses and dialogue. Through the spirit we explore through worship, music, ritual, meditation and prayer.

Though we are on a spiritual journey, we are not only concerned with our own spiritual enlightenment, but know that the world today cries out for justice, compassion and healing. We believe religion is useless if it does not result in real prophetic compassionate living in our everyday lives. Therefore our religious journey also includes service to humanity and the world.

Unitarianism draws on many sources:

First and foremost the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder that some of us name as “God.” Unitarians believe that there is a divine spark within each person, and that each person can have direct access to that divinity, without needing a priest or book to mediate between us and the Divine.

Secondly the teaching of the first century rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. Unitarians see Jesus as a fully human teacher and seek to follow his radical teaching of justice and love. Jesus taught that the realm of God is within us, that love comes before law, and that we should be on the side of the poor and oppressed of this world.

Thirdly the spiritual insights of all of humanity. Unitarians believe that revelation is not sealed or limited to only one particular religion. So many of us draw inspiration from many world religions including Buddhism and neo-paganism.

Fourthly the intellectual insights of all humanity. Unitarians see reason and science as giving important insights into the world. We believe the search for truth must involve both head and heart, both reason and intuition, both doubt and faith, both science and religion. We seek truth in science and philosophy and all of humanity’s (and our own) rational enquiries.

Drawing on these sources each Unitarian is free to come to their own beliefs, to name the Holy in a way which makes sense for them, and to be themselves in a community that celebrates diversity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

GA 09: Day Four

I managed to agree to do the 7.30am worship on this last day of the Annual Meetings. Urgh. It was a shame I couldn't enjoy the last night of GA but had to go to bed reasonably early. I was suprised that a good number of people actually turned up. The crazy idiots, they should have been in bed like any reasonable person.

Last day of Business

Emergency motion came from my district where Unitarians have suddenly been banned from a state-funded Church of England school: passed.

A motion calling for a set of "behavioural principles" I guess what they mean is something like the Seven Principles of the UUA. But just observing the debate about the revision of these in the blogosphere has got me feed up of it all. I can't be bothered with arguments about words. And I don't think we should be directing our energy at this when we could be investing in practical mission and spiritual renewal. I voted against. The motion passed.

A motion calling for the Scout Association to allow atheist leaders. I was undecided and abstained. The motion passed.

A motion calling for the results of the Executive Committee elections to be published. At the moment only the three-member electoral panel know the results. We only get names not numbers. I voted against and the motion was defeated. That's the first time in the four years I've been going to GA that a motion has actually been defeated.

Overall there was a lot more debate, and a lot closer votes this year than any other year I've been to before. Instead of voting for motherhood and apple pie these motions actually represented a debate, and personally I voted against more motions than I ever have. But I found the debates to be cordial and good-humoured and I enjoyed them.

It's also worth saying that the youth got a proper voice this year too. Horah!

Procedural and ceremonial stuff:

The new Executive Committee were installed. Bob Wightman became the new President, Derek McAuley became the new Treasurer.

Joyce Ashworth as retiring President gave a very moving address.

Overall not the most exciting Annual Meetings: no stand-out talks by anyone. No really amazing worship. No great clarion-call or great commission. Sorta luke-warm. Not bad, not great.

Right, I'm off for a week now. Tara.

GA 09: Day Three

Business Meeting

Motion calling for a shorter, more dynamic title for the denomination to be brought next year was passed. I supported this. See post below.

Two motions naming James McClelland and Eric Jones as Honorary Members.

That's about it.

Growth session

We finally got somebody who actually knows something about growth to talk to us. Jane Dwinell, a small congregation specialist in the UUA (we're all small congregations in American church growth terms) spoke very well about a lot of good things. I was reading an Anglican book a while ago that was talking about the so-called "Decade of Evangelism" (1990s) being in fact more of a decade of learning about evangelism. I think that's kind of where we have been in the last few years, learning, thinking, not really doing. This can be a bit frustrating. But I hope we're moving on now. It's not brain surgery to learn best practice from thriving congregations in our community and in other communities.

Anyway it was all good. After lunch we split into region-defined groups and talked about various things, but came to no conclusions. It was alright, and good to see Kendal Unitarian Church's fantastic postcards they've just created, but I get a bit tired of such processes. I get tired of a room of 30+ people, all giving their opinions but with no sense that the group actually comes out with an end product. It's the kind of thing that happened at the Minister's conference too. I just get a bit tired of it.

Then we returned to the main room and talked about "elevator speeches" (we're yet to find a good Britishism for this) which is always fun. But much better to do the course Articulating Your UU Faith to do it a bit more intentionally.

Anyway, it got me thinking so I was able to give a good answer when I was asked to go and talk to a camera for a video that will be put on YouTube. I'll post it here, when it's online.

Radical Hospitality

This was a bit of a strange session, not what I was expecting at all. It wasn't about congregational hospitality, but about 'opening our hearts.' At the risk of sounding a stiff-ass Brit it was all a bit American. We were asked to do some pretty raw sharing, and it was all very emotional, and a bit much. My worry was people were asked to dig out some pretty emotional stuff, and then the session just sort of ended. At a conference like Hucklow Summer School I could imagine this being pretty powerful. After such a session I could go for a long walk, talk to the chaplain, I could have time to process it all. But GA is not a time to process a lot of emotional stuff. It's much too busy and hectic, and not supportive or safe enough. I felt the session and context didn't hold the emotional baggage we were asked to unload well enough.

Anniversary Service

I was being welcomed onto the Roll of Ministers so was on the stage for part of the service. It was a nice service, but much too hot. Shame we couldn't be in a cool cathedral.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I wrote this piece for the GA Zette last week, and seeing as its made it into the Bolton News today, I might as well share it here, slightly adapted:

I have been asked by the Ministry Commission to write an article here to explain the fact that the honorific title of “Reverend” was not used for me at the Anniversary Service. I must explain that this is entirely at my own insistence, and is a matter of personal conscience.

The title “Reverend” meaning literally “one worthy of being revered” was a medieval title of respect that in the fifteen century began to be restricted to clergy. This was despite Jesus’ specific condemnation of special titles for religious leaders (Matthew 23:6-12). As someone who considers himself a follow of Jesus, I feel the use of such titles runs against Jesus’ teaching, which warned against the love of status and religious pomposity. This is the main reason I don’t feel like I can use the title.

Also, as a Unitarian I am committed to the inherent and sacred worth of all people, and I feel designating some as more worthy of being revered than others is inconsistent with this belief. As a Minister I believe I am defined by my professional training, spiritual calling and accountability. This makes me able to offer spiritual leadership, but it does not make me inherently more sacred or worthy than anyone else.

This is a difficult thing for me to say, because it is difficult to say it without sounding critical of my friends and colleagues in the Unitarian ministry. I do not mean to be. But after much prayer and thought I have decided that I must take this position for myself. Thank you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

GA 09: Day Two

OK, so sorry. I've done what I often do and got so busy that my blogging has become less than "live." I'll try to catch up.

Business Meetings

The first day of business meetings. Reports given and the first motion passed approving the statement with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland .

Then two motions calling for the appointment of salaried Information and Social Justice positions at the Unitarian headquaters. Both of these were passed. I voted against them as I feel like this decisions need to be made on the ground, not by a large assembly. I might be proved wrong, but it will be interesting to note what the new Executive Committee do now, having been strongly instructed on details by the assembly. I definitely remember one candidate who got elected saying in an interview that "we don't need any more staff at headquaters."

Unitarian Christian Association - a taste of Taize

We watched this video.

Hopefully next year we will have a full Taize service. More worship at the Annual Meetings please!

Youth Worship

Always good to see our youth becoming more and more active and empowered. It's been a long road, hopefully next year will be even better, with a theme of youth. It was really good to spend a little bit of time with our younger Unitarians.


It's finally published and I think its brilliant. One of the best things to happen in years to us. Lots of good singing. We took 50 copies home for my lot.

In the evening (after a friend of mine setting off the smoke alarms with her hair straightener) we went out to an organised social evening of an Abba tribute act in a local (posh and expensive) hotel. It was enjoyable, but slightly random.

I had a moment of disappointment about this day's timetable (although I realised it on the train on the way). There was something in the timetable called "Public Benefit" and I thought - oh good, we're going to go and do some local mission project of benefit to Chester. Unfortunately no - it was a talk about charity law. I still think we're missing an opportunity to do some mission and raise our profile at GA.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

GA 09: Day One

Evening. I'm back here in the computer room in Chester, after coming out of the bar, offering a few relfections after the first day of the Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings 2009.

After a number of a travel hiccups I managed to get here in time for the start of the Minister's Pre-Conference. Nothing much to say about that.

Went to the John Relly Beard lecture with someone talking about ministry and trade unions. Then I was in with the youth group helping them plan their worship for tomorrow.

I went to the Ministerial Pension Fund AGM, nothing much interesting to say about that, but thought I ought to go because, well, it is kind of important to me now.

Opening Celebrations - seem to have become less and less celebratory over the last few years. It has become another service like the Anniversary Service, when I would really like it to be something a bit different.

Then UniPride (the GLBT Unitarian group) - where Andy Pakula, the Minister of Newingoton Green and Islington Unitarians spoke about his congregation's stand of not performing different-sex marriages until the same rights are available to same-sex couples to get married. It was an interesting meeting.

Two random thoughts:

1. These Meetings are not at all newcomer friendly. If I were here as the sole congregational delegate for the first time, and didn't know anyone here, I'd be completely confused and not have any idea what's going on. This is an issue we really need to deal with.

2. It strikes me that our problem is our we're the size of a movement, and yet we have all the baggage of an institution. We could be ten times the size we are with this number of committees and organisations (a functional institution). Or we could be the size we are (a few thousand) and with loose, dynamic, leadership and organisation (a functional movement). In some ways we have the worst of both worlds.


Monday, April 13, 2009

GA 09

As Tim commented in the last post, I will be blogging live from our national Unitarian Annual Meetings. Reignite remains the only place to find info about what will be going on in Chester day-by-day. I'll be offering my own, entirely personal, biased, subjective reflections on what's going on, when I get a chance between meetings, or after the bar. It'll be fun. See you there.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Unitarians in the Guardian

I should probably say something about Easter, but other than saying, "Happy Easter" I won't. You shoulda come along to church this morning if you wanted to hear what I had to say about that.

Instead I wanted to mention the coverage Unitarians have got in the Guardian. One, an article written by a Unitarian is here. And another, more critical (not overly negative, but critically engaged) is here. I only found the second article while searching for the first, I haven't heard anyone mention it before.

Both articles, and their comments, are worth considering. I want to make one point. In the comments section of the first article someone says something like, "If I were going to belong to a religion, I might do this one." I expect a lot of Guardian readers would have thought something like that. Unitarians probably get all excited about that, but the problem is that "if." Many people will agree with the kind of thing we're saying, but will never join a church.

This is an important point about Unitarian evangelism. It's not a matter of making people agree with us. Most of the country already agrees with us. But they see no reason to come to our congregations to agree. The issue is not agreement with our principles, the issue is showing people what difference belonging to a congregation makes in our lives. If belonging makes a difference, we need to witness that, if it doesn't make a difference, then we will not grow, and we don't deserve to.