Monday, September 20, 2010

Why is British Unitarianism in decline?

In a comment on the last post, Joseph said we should be asking the question of why British Unitarinaism is in decline.

So here goes:

First and foremost Unitarianism is in decline because religion in Britain is in decline. For whatever reason (and plenty of people are thinking about this) active adherence to religious institutions has been dropping for a very long time. Immigration reverses this trend in some areas (most church-goers in London are non-white for example). But overall the trend is the same. Brits have rejected religion.

But I don't see this as an entirely bad thing. Many people in the past were religious purely because of social momentum. They did what everyone else did. This doesn't mean it meant that much to them.

For example 60 years ago my church was much bigger. It was an incredibly active place. However, this was largely because the church was the centre of people's social lives. You didn't go to a club on Saturday night, you went to a dance in the church hall. Our old and huge Sunday School building (now demolised) was a place for dances, amateur dramatics, a gymnasium and every kind of social activity. It was where people hung out with their friends. It was where people went on dates.

It's hard to say any of these are bad things. But how much do they have to do with the primary purpose of a church, to create spiritually mature people and build the beloved community? Not a lot. If people's lifestyles mean they don't need to have a social life invested in the church anymore, then fine. Stuff changes.

Secondly Unitarianism is in decline because it is isolated from the Christian community. Please note that I am not saying we are in decline because we're not Christian enough anymore. What I'm saying is that sources of renewal in Christianity have not touched Unitarianism. I've already mentioned immigration. That is having a huge effect on many different denominations, and offering some boosting in terms of numbers and energy.

But not only that but things like charismatic renewal that have had an effect on many churches, not simply Evangelical churches but also even the Catholic church. Charismatic worship, and other worship innovations, new songs, new instruments, new technologies have offered lots of places for renewal in mainstream churches. This has not touched Unitarianism. I'm not giving a value-judgement to that. I'm just saying the fact is a lot of mainstream churches that do this kind of thing are growing, against the trend of denominational decline.

Thirdly Unitarianism is in decline because it has no institutional memory of church planting. Almost of all of our churches existed before Unitarianism. They were independent Protestant dissenting chapels that converted to Unitarianism. So churches for us were things that were always just there. We still have no real concept of how to start a church. It's pretty inconceivable to us.

This is true of most British denominations still. In America as the country expanded to the west you had to plant new churches otherwise there would be no churches where lots of people were living. In Britain, with a parish-christendom mindset we tend to think of churches as eternal things; things that have always been there and always will be there.

But church planting is the most reliable way to grow a denomination.

Fourthly Unitarianism is in decline because we are still producing pastors not missionaries. In ministry training there is an assumption of a maintenance way of doing ministry. Such a way of doing ministry may have worked in the past but today it is likely to produce the result of a declining congregation. Ministry training needs to equip ministers to be missionaries, either in the business of starting up new ministries and congregations, or in the business of managing institutional change to make congregations into missional communities.

Fifthly Unitarianism is in decline because it has no theology of evangelism. We have no understanding of an urgent gospel message. We largely do not accept that the purpose of a religious community is change/metanoia/transformation of people and the world. We do not say, "here is a coherent way of life, a way of being in the world, an ultimate concern that will give your life meaning and purpose." We struggle to answer the question of what difference becoming a Unitarian will make to people's lives.


Anonymous Ian said...

How about a lack of charismatic and passionate leaders? I can't think of a major growing church of any denomination in the UK without a charismatic leader with a passion and vision.

Your other reasons are also valid, I think. Although I'm not sure that the connection with greater Christendom isn't a red herring. Just an additional one.

8:01 pm  
Blogger Andrew Bethune said...

Some excellent points, Stephen.

May I add another three?

Sixthly, Unitarianism is in decline here because our worship is too passive and uninvolved. It doesn't reach the emotions. Despite claiming to have a radical message (no creed, everyone on a personal spiritual journey, etc) our services are usually incredibly staid. Not only that, we bend over backwards not to offend, and so we become incredibly unimaginative, or worse, we avoid actually committing to anything. We scarcely use the senses of smell, touch, or sight in our worship. There is little physical movement. We are scared of liturgy and participation.

Seventh, we are trapped by our buildings, many of which are quaint, historic and charming. Many are dreary, ecclesiastical and uninviting - inappropriate to the needs of our religuious communities of today and tyomng us up in struggles to keeop the bricks and stones together. We are so tied up with keeping dry rot at bay that we can't move out into the world around us.

Eight, we are invisible. We do little that is controversial or newsworthy in any way, and we seem detached from the theological debates and movements of our time.

I think modern people like the 'festival' style of doing things. They like getting involved in events e.g. focussing on some activity or topic, and not just meeting on a Sunday morning. People like art, creativity, music, drama, physical movement, dance.

So I think the varied programme of spiritual and community events and activities which our London churches run, and which has given rise to the UK Spirituality Network, may well be an indicator of a useful way forward. To me,as an outside observer of the London churches, the Network seems to be an improtant part of revitising those churches. The rest of us could learn from them.

8:09 pm  
Blogger Joseph said...

I agree with most of the points you made, they certainly are food for thought. On the general decline in UK religiosity; am I not right in thinking that British Islam continues to grow and not just via immigration but also by conversion? Would these often ex-Christians be more likely to embrace a Unitarian Christianity instead of Islam if they were aware of it? The British Unitarian community has had its own missionary past, perhaps we should consider resurrecting some of that heritage. Finally I would disagree with your final point "We struggle to answer the question of what difference becoming a Unitarian will make to people's lives." In our past I believe such a comment would not have been understood, and even now not all of us agree, and to a certain extent I wish for a future were every Unitarian would find it easy to explain the difference that Unitarianism can make to a person.
Thank you for turning your wisdom to this important subject. God bless.

10:17 pm  
Anonymous NUFer said...

I think both Stephen and Andrew make important points ; the problem is that the present structure of the denomination with a Chief Officer and an Executive Committee is suited to a maintenance approach rather than a missioning approach.The 'keep the show on the road' attitude seems to permeate everything the denomination does ; as Andrew remarks about worship in particular ,we need to re-write 'the show'or at the very least have a new 'production.

10:42 am  
Anonymous Angela @ said...

If by lacking connection with Christianity, you mean that we haven't shared or learned from changes in the form of worship, then I completely agree. It's shocking how old fashioned we are.

I'm not sure what conversion rates are for Islam - worldwide it is increasing, but whether that's noticeable in Britain is a different matter.

If we're thinking about whether or not people might be tempted by Unitarianism instead of some other faith, then I think that depends on whether they are interested in a fundamentally liberal approach to religion. If most seekers want 'the truth' then it would be hard to persuade them of the benefits of many truths.

We could do with people who understand sales and marketing - essentially that's what a missionary does. And also community building.

8:44 pm  
Blogger Ian said...

From my own personal experience, I'd say the biggest reason would be because very few people have heard of Unitarianism. Applications to do "Thought for the Day" and some self-promotion is required, I think.

I came to Unitarianism only recently, after years of not considering myself Christian as I didn't believe in the Nicene Creed. I was brought up as a Methodist, but left the church at 13 to avoid confirmation. I didn't want to say I believed in something I didn't. 24 years later, I got to hear of Unitarianism and, after some research, found that my beliefs were pretty much the same.

To many people, Christianity is exclusive to the churches preaching the Nicene Creed. Unitarianism has given me a way to express my Christian beliefs in the context of belief in one God and a human teacher/prophet named Jesus.

12:14 pm  
Blogger Louise said...

Very interesting and seems to talking about the national situation - because obviously some bits of our Unitarian landscape are not in decline.

If this is about national Unitarianism then (1) there may or may not be a memory of congregation planting - the problem is that it is nobody's responsibility. I have recently been thinking about Staffordshire - the only active Meeting House is ours in Newcastle-under-Lyme, in the north-west corner of the county. When getting a domain name for our website I purposefully called us Staffordshire Unitarians and think that at some point we should be doing outreach elsewhere in the county - planting fellowships. But who should be doing this? We have 8% of a minister and are in the East Cheshire Union whilst Staffordshire is really in the Midlands - Staffordshire is a vast county - is it our responsibility to do the work? (2) We have no models for how congregations/faith communities work. What work needs doing; what skills are needed; what time commitment; how much of a minister is needed, how much community development, how much communication work, and how much administration? Essentially we don't know. (3) Agreeing with points others have made - we fear charisma - we need much better training for ministers and lay people in how to communicate effectively so that we enthuse and motivate. (4) We need national leadership which thinks differently from the past and presents Unitarianism as a 'faith worth thinking about'. The EC needs to lead from the front.

As a community we have some very committed and skilled people who are enthusiastic about doing Unitarian community differently but no-one is leading that or co-ordinating - what happens well happens in isolation unless districts are active. But then these are not steered from the centre.

Louise xx

5:14 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Andrew and Angela,
My point about disconnection with Christianity is largely about worship. When I was studying at the ecumenical Luther King House I was taught about the "liturgical movement" that happened in Methodist, URC and Baptist churches in the 1960s. These were pretty basic innovations - the sermon in the middle of worship, not the end; more responsive and unison liturgy; more communion (obviously that one has more complex issues). I had already started doing these things by instinct, but most Unitarian churches still remain in a pattern of worship that was rejected as outmoded by most churches 40 years ago.

Ian, I am not convinced that national publicity should be a priority, certainly not in terms of a national media campaign. The problem is the "product" many will receive when they visit a Unitarian church may be a disappointment compared to any radical national media message.

The fact is that the best publicity is also free i.e. doing something controversial enough to get noticed.

11:41 am  
Blogger Unitalian said...

(Apologies if multiple posts - had problem with broadband... )

What a lot of good points, both in Stephen's original post and the follow-ups.

I think it is important to say there are no absolute rights or wrongs - I suspect there are many reasons and possible solutions. However, my random thoughts are:

1. Dynamic leadership matters. Stephen's looks like a vibrant community, and my own Islington/ SN congregation has grown exponentially in recent years.

2. Being prepared to learn. Is it just me, or do British Unitarians sometimes act as if there was no vibrant, confident church across the Pond which, although not necessarily a big hitter is punching above its weight? Look at what the UUs do and how they position themselves and learn! Is it a pride thing? Is it a fear thing, of being overwhelmed? Is it theological (heaven help us)?

3. On which point, I have long been banging on about the need for UU missionaries to the UK - look at our empty churches and declining populations, but the property too, the opportunity! Why not ship in trainee ministers from the States to provide spiritual renewal to the UK? The need is there - look at Islington/SN - we just have to be humble enough to accept help.

4. Publicity. Well, as a campaigner myself I would say it wouldn't do any harm, but I agree with Stephen's point about individuals and the experience of people visiting churches - I've attended services in the UK where had I not already been a member I would have written Unitarianism off. Marketers cannot market without a good product - realistically we have to get this right before we go in to the market, but this requires a radical re-think. We need to develop our own "ipod" - at present we are like a once revolutionary brand that has become comfortable with a sense of decline. But the essentials are there - they simply need to be re-imagined.

5. However, I agree if nothing is done, then we've had it. Although I don't think there's harm working with the Christians, I think we should do so on equal terms, and to do that we need to be clearer about who we are (see above). One reason why Christianity is doing ok, is because of its confidence - we need to be equally confident. That takes courage.

9:00 am  
Blogger Jaume de Marcos Andreu said...

Stephen, you mention lack of evangelism and purpose as one of the issues in the current situation of decline. I also see this as a main point, particularly as it refers to "transformation". We modern Unitarians lack the willingness and aspiration to transform people for the better. And that is because we have no spiritual purpose. We say "come, come, whoever you are", but we leave them "as they are", no challenge, no demands, no nothing. Acceptance is not enough, we need process and goals. In Europe, competition is not as much in other religious denominations (as it might be the case in the US), but in the plural and chaotic world of self-help, therapies, spiritual/transpersonal courses and seminars, etc. Western Buddhists and some Hindu movements have adapted to that new sensitivity much better than us, who still struggle with orders of service, sermons & songs, and a minister talking from the pulpit. To be honest, I see little chances of any significant growth happening unless Unitarianism reconsiders its whole way of looking, thinking and behaving as a spiritual tradition.

11:17 am  
Blogger Yewtree said...

A lot of good points have been made here. I think there is a core of people who are committed to Unitarianism as a spiritual path and want to build the beloved community. There are lots of others who just want to turn up on a Sunday. (Maybe that's OK.)

I agree we should look to UUs more but there does seem to be a resistance to that idea. I also agree that we need worship that engages all the senses and the heart. But there are still churches where people would throw up their hands in horror at things like incense, for example.

And mention of marketing ourselves often brings concerns about consumer spirituality - which are valid, as a genuine spiritual path should bring about inner and outer transformation; and I believe we have the tools to do that (engagement groups etc).

The post and the comments have outlined a lot of work to be done.

I also think our services should invite the Divine to be present more (of course in one sense, the Divine is always present, but our services should focus more on communing with the Divine and being aware of the Divine in each other and all around us). Some sort of communion is one way to do this (though we do need to sort out what communion means to Unitarians).

8:52 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home