Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Parliament fails children on sex education

The Children, Schools, and Family Bill was passed last night by Parliament. In general this was a good piece of legislation that made Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (which includes sex education) part of the National Curriculum. However an amendmend was added that seriously weakened the bill by allowing tax-payer funded schools with religious foundations to opt out of these requirements. This means that while all other schools are required to teach "balanced" and "accurate" sex education, tax-payer funded faith schools (around a third of all schools in Britain) can choose not to if they believe it contradicts their "religious ethos." The bill as it stood without the amendment already allowed for education that explored and respected different cultural and religious perspectives, and would have already allowed tax-payer funded faith schools to teach their religious views on issues of sexuality. But now the religious ethos can trump all other principles. If you claim its because of your religious ethos, there is no requirement that your sex education has to be accurate.

This is a failure of the thousands of children in state-funded faith schools. In a country with a large teenage pregnancy problem, this is a failure on behalf of the government to have the courage to deal with the problem.

Also worrying is the fact that homophobic bullying is a worse problem in tax-payer funded faith schools. The bill will now do nothing to address that problem.

What's also got me angry is the fact that there wasn't even time to debate this amendment last night in Parliament. This is a huge issue and Parliament didn't even get around to talking about it before they were asked to pass it? What is going on? Whatever you think about an issue, surely the whole point of Parliament is to debate an issue? How much more evidence do you need that Parliament is in dire need of reform?

If you are as annoyed as me about this, please support the Accord Coalition, that campaigns for an inclusive schooling system.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What words do we use to describe our communtiy?

Last month I did an activity with my congregation, Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, about the words we use to describe ourselves. We had a general discussion and then each person voted (with three votes each) on the words or phrases they liked the best. This was concentrated on working out what we think about the words we (or other Unitarian communities) currently use, rather than trying to creatively come up with our own phrases (though one person couldn't resist). The results were pretty interesting:

Open hearts, open minds 8
Here let no one be a stranger 7
Founded 1672 6
Unitarian 5
Liberal religious community 4
(Comment: basically Christian as we were born into Christian community)

Many beliefs, one faith 4
Everyone welcome 3
Spirituality without conformity 2
We welcome all without discrimination 2
Reason, tolerance, liberty 1

And one person tried to sum it all up by writing:
Missing – “worship” “challenging”
Many beliefs, one faith – founded 1672
We welcome you to our open, challenging, worshipping community of Unitarians, founded 1672.
Spirituality without creeds

The following all got zero votes:
Bolton’s First Dissenting/Non-Conformist Chapel; peace and happiness; a religious home for the liberal spirit; General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, free and inquiring religion; Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre; Unitarianism is a free religious faith

What is most interesting is that all the phrases we currently use on the front page of our calendar, website and noticeboard all get zero votes.

If all those words currently mean nothing to us, why are we still using them?

What came through pretty strongly was that we didn't want to concentrate on our history any more than saying "founded 1672" and that welcoming all people was pretty central to us.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Evangelism and church growth: the same or different?

In the last few years in the Unitarian community there has been a lot of talk of growth. In these conversations there often arises some tensions around growth. Some people are unapologetic about going for growth for growth's sake. They would argue that is it a moral imperative to grow our congregations, that if we are doing things right, if we are healthy and living out our mission, our churches will be growing. "Growth" is the accumulation of a congregation changing the lives of many individuals, and it matters to each of those individuals, so growth matters. This is the philosophy on which Peter Morales was elected as UUA president.

At the same time there are those who are a bit reluctant about all this. They are a bit uncomfortable with "marketing" and "sales" philosophy being applied to religion. They don't really think growth should be for growth's sake, but they're not really sure for what's sake it should be. They're kind of uncomfortable, but not really able to articulate exactly why they're uncomfortable.

At the same time as being aware of this conversation, I'm aware of the academic conversation about church growth and evangelism. This is largely an American Christian conversation (in the English-speaking world at least). There are some theologians who find church growth literature rather theologically thin and sometimes in opposition to the values of the gospel. Most of the literature I read is clear in saying that growth is not the same thing as evangelism.

Let me give an example from my current reading. The United Church of Canada some years back took a stand in saying that the church was welcoming to all LGBT people and that LGBT people could become ministers. This led to the denomination's numerical decline as conservatively minded people left to join other denominations. Now arguable the stand for LGBT rights and radical hospitality was an evangelical act. It was a missionary act. It lived out the extravagant welcome of the gospel, and built the kingdom of God. But it did lead to numerical decline.

Also in my mind is the report that the Methodist President in talking to the Church of England said, “We are prepared to go out of existence not because we are declining or failing in mission, but for the sake of mission," he continued. “In other words we are prepared to be changed and even to cease having a separate existence as a Church if that will serve the needs of the Kingdom.”

Could we make a similar statement? That we are prepared to cease to exist if it would serve the kingdom? Serve to build the beloved community?

Often it seems not. I'm thinking of this lecture, which begins "I believe in Unitarian Universalism." Now regardless of what else is in this lecture (and its worth reading), I find myself snagged on the first sentence. "I believe in Unitarianism"? It seems a strange statement as no one says "I believe in Christianity" they say "I believe in Jesus." The institution only serves God/the greater purpose, but sometimes I think we believe in institutions for institution's sake.

So are we prepared to go out of existence if it served the purpose of creating the world we long for? My answer is yes. It has to be. Which is part of the reason I don't have existential angst over numerical decline. My ultimate trust is not in the institution itself.

But here's the thing. Even though evangelism is not the same thing as church growth, even though church growth is not necessarily a sign of living out the gospel, neither is church decline. Church decline does not necessarily mean that you are bravely living out counter-cultural values in a hostile world. It could mean you're just an unfriendly miserable congregation. And sometimes some people might be saying "church growth isn't all that" as an excuse to be really bad at your mission of hospitality.

And I don't believe that going out of existence would serve our mission. I believe our mission is served by radically inclusive communities engaged in loving and transforming the world. So growing such communities committed to that mission is evangelism. But if a community is simply a social club that has past its sell-by date as a socially useful institution, then it doesn't really matter if it dies. Maybe it was a lovely thing in its time, but its time has past, and we let it die in a pastoral sensitive way and move on.

Which is why decline does not worry me if it means we're left with a missionary remnant. If it means we're left with a people who know who they are and why they are. If we're left with no one who goes to church because it is the socially normal thing to do. It's my vision of this missionary remnant that makes me excited and hopeful about ministry in a British Unitarian context.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

At the risk of seeming schmaltzy...

I really shouldn't be blogging this much when I'm off work so I'll just leave you with something I quite liked before I go off for the weekend.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Power 2010

There's less than three months until a General Election, and I'm trying to get a wee bit excited at the prospect, but I really can't. Compared to the last American election, which was already at fever pitch by this point, I just can't get excited by this election. None of the leaders are very exciting. I can't even really think of a debate about the issues that is really exciting. I am a politically-minded person. I will stay up all night to watch the results. I want to be excited by the prospect of an election, but I'm struggling.

The prospect of television debates between the leaders for the first time ever is possibly one thing that might make this more interesting. But the scandal of MP's expenses has lead to such a disillusionment with politics in general there seems a strong danger there will be the lowest turnout ever.

Perhaps one way to re-engage us all in politics is some grassroots work for reforming our political system. This is the idea of Power 2010, a campaign that has collected a number of ideas and are now asking people to vote now online to produce the top five reforms that the campaign will ask all political candidates to support. I've voted and I'd encourage all UK citizens to do so.

It seems like this is a good time for this as MPs voted last night to give the public a referendum on a new voting system. But this won't be until after the next election, and a lot can change between now and then. And I can't help remembering that Labour said they would reform the House of Lords in 1997, and have not got around to that in 13 years.

Hopefully something can be done to re-invigorate our democracy.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Growth and Decline

Peter Whitman, in a letter to The Inquirer, has worked out some numbers for Unitarian membership in the UK. I'm not quite sure how he's done it, perhaps it's not difficult if you want to delve through Annual Reports, but I'm glad he has. Once again, I want to know why such numbers are not publically available and discussed at the Annual Meetings.

Here's the numbers:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642

These are membership numbers for every Unitarian church in Britain. The numbers are dropping by about 100 people a year. If we follow the graph down we will be extinct in 35 years. Seeing as I am due to retire in 38 years this is certainly somewhat worrying. And of course these kind of statistics rarely behave quite so linearly, so it's much more likely that we'd be looking at extinction in something closer to 20 years.

I'm convinced this would be a fascinating study for a religious studies academic: what does a dying denomination look like? How does it behave? Part of me approaches these figures with such morbid fascination.

Right now it's amazing to me how much denial there is. It's amazing that it takes a lone individual to simply give us these figures. I think there needs to be a frank acknowledgement that if things carry on as they are we will be dead in 20 years.

This leads to a very simple conclusion: whatever the next twenty years will hold, it will certainly hold change. The only question that remains is: what kind of change will it be?

Will the change be one of death and decline or life and growth? Or will it be the death of something and the birth of something different? Or the birth of all kinds of different things?

If there is anything of beauty, truth and goodness in Unitarianism worth preserving then it is the primary responsibility of its leaders to be agents of change.

"The religion of the future"

As I sit at home this morning, waiting for a delivery of a new power cord for my laptop (the old one is frayed and crackling vaguley when I move it - not good) I thought I'd offer some reflections.

I'm thinking about the silliness of liberalism, liberals can be very silly sometimes. Despite trying to be rational and sensible liberals can convince themselves of their own stories through the momentum of their own myths as much as anyone. But when we examine these things we can find their foundations very shaky.

One of the myths that religious liberals tell themselves is that we are "the religion of the future." We tell ourselves that society is changing dramatically and that we are so much more in tune with society, and the way things are going that we are bound to become the dominant religion very soon. The trouble is, when you examine this you find that people have been saying this for at least 200 years. Thomas Jefferson was sure that all of America would become Unitarian within 50 years. Despite the fact this prediction never came to pass, we keep saying something very similar. Marcus Borg writes about an "emerging vision" of Christianity. And Peter Morales, in his US UUA Presidential election campaign spoke about UUism becoming "the religion for our times."

Yet it doesn't happen. And perhaps its only because of our poor sense of history that we aren't terribly disappointed about this. Perhaps because Unitarianism is dominanted by converts, and it is a new and emerging thing for us, we are convinced that it will be a new and emerging thing for the culture in general.

What to learn from this? Perhaps that "conservative" religion has some things to teach us. Perhaps that we should be paying attention to why so few of our children hang around, which gives us so little continuity as a religious community.

But mainly I think it's a theological point about being at the margins. We should get used to being a minority, we always will be, but this is no bad thing. The margins, in a Jesus-shaped ministry, is where we are called to be.