Tuesday, September 14, 2010

173 Congregations

This is the time of the year that I receive my copy of the Unitarian General Assembly Directory. I usually do a bit of comparing and number-crunching as I read through the new directory.

The most significant thing is the number of Unitarian congregations. Although you would have thought this kind of thing is what would be included in the General Assembly Annual Report, and discussed at the Annual Meetings, it's actually in the Directory that you get a clearer picture of the health of the Unitarian community.

So 2010-2011 Directory tells me that there are 173 member congregations in Great Britain. This is down 2 from last year. And trawling through the pages you can work out that Bournemouth Unitarian Church has died in the last year, as well as Exeter Unitarian Fellowship.

I've only been getting directories for five years but I can tell you that in five years 8 Unitarian congregations have died.

I'm not prepared to say "this is a terrible thing, we should do all we can to make sure no more close down" because I'm not sure that's a good use of national resources. If a congregation's within 5 years of dying, then I'm not sure it's a good use of resources to try to extend that life. The question is what congregations could survive, grow, and prosper if they received appropriate support? And which ones need to be left to slip away?

And when do we consider the possibility of starting new congregations?

11 Comments:

Blogger Joseph said...

And now might be the time to ask some serious and difficult questions as to what the reasons for this decline might be.

10:02 pm  
Anonymous Ian said...

Well, the positive thing is that, at this rate, Unitarianism in the UK has nearly 90 years to live. Which is an improvement on the estimate based on the decline in numbers of adherents :)

11:41 pm  
Anonymous Angela said...

It's the congregations that are 10-15 years from dying that we need to spot. That's enough time to see if they can be revived.

173 congregations is not good. I've got no plans to move location, but if I did my search would be limited if I also wanted to belong to a good congregation.

1:13 am  
Anonymous NUFer said...

The saddest part of your analysis is that the two congregations which died last year were both in university cities - it is often during the student years that young people become awakened to religious faith - the evangelicals know this and organise strongly in universities;one would have thought that Unitarians might have wanted to present an alternative view ; I put down a question about this at the NUF AGM this year but received no feedback of what the main speakers said. I suspect that the reason that university students shy away from our churches is that Unitarian congregations are overwhelmingly filled by the over 55s and most students want to align themselves with a group that contains more of their own age.

10:37 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Joseph,

What do you think the reasons for decline are?

5:34 pm  
Blogger Joseph said...

Stephen, I am unsure as to the reasons. But I would ask, where are all the Unitarian books? Were are the biblical commentaries, explanations of Unitarianism, devotional books, children's books etc? Were are the recordings of Unitarian hymns? In my local library there is not even one book about Unitarians. (I know that you have written books, and you should be commended).

Secondly, and this is my personal opinion only, I feel that the modern Unitarian drift away from its Christian origins has not helped. Most people in this country come from a Christian background. Many do not believe in the standard beliefs of most churches. These people would perhaps be open to Unitarianism but either don't know anything about it, or dismiss it because it appears "new-age". And most people interested in Buddhism, Paganism et al, would become Buddhists or Pagans not Unitarians!!

I also think there is a certain lack of intellectual honesty in Modern Unitarianism, reflected by on the one hand a total rejection of any set theological beliefs due to proud anti-creedalism but an almost creedal view regarding social or political issues.

Clearly the reasons for the decline are persistent, but not irreversible, and we must all work to find the causes and fix them.

8:05 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

@ NUFer - you're probably right, but it may not be the people, it may be the style of the services.

In Wicca, because there are so few elders (because Wicca only started 50 years ago), they are revered and treasured. Unitarians should also revere and treasure the elders - in many cases, these are the people who went on demos for LGBT rights and feminism in the 1960s and 70s.

1:03 pm  
Anonymous NUFer said...

I think Joseph touches on important matters ;there is very little Unitarian scholarship easily available now - it would be good to see some of the out of print Lindsey Press titles made available as pdfs as the American Unitarian Conference does with many historic Unitarian texts at its website.Yes, there is a kind of liberal creed in matters of social and political issues which may deter some of those who find Unitarianism theologically congenial.I'm not sure to what extent Unitarian parents pass on their adherence to their children ; Quakerism seems more of a family tradition whereas new Unitarians seem to arise mainly among people of mature years whose children have already left home.

9:46 pm  
Anonymous Angela @ liveunitarianly.com said...

Secondly, and this is my personal opinion only, I feel that the modern Unitarian drift away from its Christian origins has not helped. Most people in this country come from a Christian background.

I think the nearness or farness from Christianity varies across the country. But also, liberal Christianity isn't actually doing that well in the mainstream - the big growth is evangelical and pentecostal.

I'm also not sure that most people come from a Christian background. Most people (especially if they are under 35 or so) are unchurched, not former believers. At best they might want a church wedding. And probably a vicar for a funeral. But that's it.

6:38 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

I just want to respond to one particular point. I think Unitarianism, for a tiny religious community, has been reasonably good at publishing books. My shelves are full of British Unitarian books. Most of them are out of print, and maybe could be put on google books or something, but it's not a task I have time to take on!

11:33 am  
Blogger Joseph said...

Angela, you are right that many people are unchurched and have no real connection with any particular Christian beliefs. But they are born and bred in a country which is still shaped by its Christian past and many of them are searching for something with a greater depth and spirituality than what they experience in day to day secular life. Some of these people, who may not want a strict dogmatic Christianity, might be open to a liberal Unitarian Christianity, if only they knew about it. I don't know if this is true or not, I am simply musing, (and I suppose, hoping).

Stephen, I have found it very hard to find Unitarian books. While Amazon has been good for finding 19th century Unitarian books and some modern books, I still find a huge lack of a range of books that can provide Unitarian perspectives to many areas of life. Or simply provide some soul nourishing moments of devotional reading.

11:15 pm  

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