Monday, May 23, 2011

American Unitarians are declining, British Unitarians are growing

OK, I've been writing a lot about statistics lately, and you have to be very cautious about statisitics. There's all kind of ways in which they don't report the full picture of reality. But they are worth keeping an eye on.

The UU World has reported that the membership numbers of UUA congregations in the United States have fallen for the third year running. This was reported at the latest UUA Board meeting.

First (at the risk of repeating myself) I want to note that membership numbers are reported as a matter of normal business at the UUA Board, whereas I've never seen them discussed in the British Executive Committee minutes. This should be normal practice.

As these numbers aren't reported normally in the British Unitarian community I've drawn upon work that other people have done (here and here), and this year's (2010) Annual Report to look at what our trends are. Here we go:

2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642
2009: 3658
2010: 3672

Over six years we can see an overall picture of decline (7% by my calculations). That does not suprise me. What does suprise me is that the last two years have actually reported growth. Only very slight growth, only a little bit more than a flat line, but decline has stopped.

How do we explain this? Is it a blip? Is it just a difference in reporting? That's quite possible. With numbers this small it's hard to see a clear picture.

But in fact this might point to the fact that the Unitarian General Assembly is growing. Well, to be more accurate, I think it probably means that some congregations are growing.

Because the numbers are so small I think these numbers are probably pointing to about five congregations growing. The steady or dramatic growth of a handful of congregations is probably enough to offset the decline or stasis of 160+ congregations.

What this might mean is that the overall number might stay the same over the next five years, while the distribution of members might change dramatically. Are we heading towards fewer, but larger congregations? This might have all kinds of interesting ramifications.

But perhaps amid the decline we are seeing some signs of hope.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Time for bishops to leave the House of Lords

The Government has released plans to reform the House of Lords, replacing an entirely unelected chamber with a wholly or partly elected chamber.

The plans are that the House of Lords should be either 100% or 80% elected. I don't want to express an opinion about whether it should be 80% or 100%. But if we are going to appoint 20% I want to make sure that that does not include, as a matter of right, 26 Anglican bishops. Of course if some committee decides it wants to appoint any bishops, fine. And to be honest someone like Rowan Williams is probably the kind of person I would want.

But we cannot continue to have a constitution that deliberately favours one particular religion and one particular denomination. It should not be the right of 26 Anglican bishops to vote on national legislation.

Last year as part of the Power 2010 movement, over 50,000 people wrote emails to those 26 bishops asking them to support a pro-demoncracy reform that would include an elected House of Lords. I don't know if there was ever any official response from the bishops, but perhaps now is the time for another letter writing campaign.

It's frankly embarrassing and undemocratic to still have religious officials in our Parliament like this, and now is the time to get them out.

What a wonderful Christ-like witness it would be if they voluntarily left, rather than hanging on to their antiquated powers. But if they don't do it, the people should make it clear that we don't want them there.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Church Re-Starting

A friend of mine from my time in Boston, Christana Wille McKnight, is doing a really interesting ministry and blogging about it here.

She's re-starting a church, First Unitarian Church of Norton, Massachusetts. There was a church building, but the congregation went extinct some time ago, and her ministry has been to go in, and see where there is possibility for re-starting the congregation.

This seems like a very exciting ministry and might be another model of church planting that will work in Britain. We have a lot of congregations that might be on the verge of closing. Could we put ministers into places where there's a building but no congregation to start something from scratch?

I'm watching with interest.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Church Planting and Church Renewal: The Way Forward

So, I'm going to shift from talking about politics back to church planting now.

The Executive Committee have committed to grow the Unitarian community by 20% in five years. How do you achieve that? Do you expect every congregation to grow at 20%? Well if you did then every congregation would have to grow as laid out here by Scott Wells.

But the fact is not every congregation well grow at 20%. Obviously some will decline, some will grow, will stay the same. Some will change at a different rate than others. The least we can do is monitor this, to get a sense of what is growing and why.

But eventually the Executive Committee are going to have to make an uncomfortable decision. That decision is based on the fact that they cannot give the same support to all congregations and so will have to prioritise those congregations that can benefit most from their support.

For my congregation, for example, I wouldn't expect to get a any particular support from the national body. We can (just about) afford a full-time minister, we are in an area densely populated with Unitarian churches. We're doing OK.

But there are other places that would most benefit from support. We need to identify which those ones are. Here's a modest proposal: In every one of the ten biggest British cities there should be at least one healthy Unitarian congregation with a full time Minister. This would prioritise Glasgow, Bradford, Liverpool and Bristol. Liverpool and Bristol have some, part-time, ministry, Glasgow and Bradford have none.

I would pick one of these cities as a growth project. This would involve largely providing money towards the stipend of a Minister. But it could also involve something like a local publicity project. It would, of course, depend on the local congregation committing to the process, and wanting to be part of it.

In addition to this I would look into planting a new church somewhere in London and the southeast. In fact I would aim to plant a new church in London and the southeast every five years. I would fund a Minister for this new start.

Where does the money come from?

Of course this is the key question. The answer is obvious. The money comes from the funds of closed down churches. These will either tend to go to districts or to the national General Assembly. What we need to do is make sure these funds go to some kind of pot that can be used for missions.

This is potentially a lot of money. A closed down church could easily have assets that could pay for a full time Minister for five years. We would have to understand that the money would be for spending, not for living off interest and investments.

And what you cannot plan for

The kind of thing I'm talking about is a national plan. But there's plenty that would fall outside it. It would never have occured to me to plant a new church in Bangor, but there were a handful of Unitarians there, and they did, and so there it is.

None of this national planning should discourage any pioneering folk from planting new churches wherever the hell they like. And if such congregations start they should be supported (including financial support) by the national or district body. There's the stuff that a national committee would plan for and then there's the local project inspired by the vision of a few in a local context. Great, fantastic, let a thousand flowers bloom.

The priority

The point where the rubber meets the road is money. We've been talking about growth for ages. Now's the time to commit it. We need to set up a fund for church planting and church renewal. This fund needs to be where funds from closed churches go, and can also be supported by other fund-raising. That's the next step.

Some post-match analysis on the AV Referendum and local elections

Well, obviously I'm disappoointed at the results of the referendum. But it's important not to live and die but such things. From a spiritual point of view I think you have to be engaged and fighting for the politics you believe in, but it can't be your ultimate concern. The Beloved Community is not built on the results of any one election.

It is positive that it was a reasonably high turn-out, higher than many expected. It was a reasonable turnout with a clear result, which is what you hope for in politics. The people did vote.

The issue was aired, though not as well as it should have been. I would have liked to have seen a BBC1 primetime debate, like the Prime Ministerial debates. I think the media has a responsibility to give this more coverage than they did.

I've heard that under 40-year-olds were much more likely to vote yes (been searching through the Internet and I've not found any reliable statistics on this yet though) which might mean that in another generation there might be more appetite for this, but for now, it's over. We lost. The people will continue with first-past-the-post.

I always like to give a very local twist when I talk about elections on this blog, so I'll briefly mention Bolton.

Bolton Council went from no overall control to a Labour majority. I don't expect that to terribly change anything happening in Bolton. Most people I speak to are pretty disillusioned with the council, whichever party is in charge. Obviously the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed in Bolton as in elsewhere, and in several wards in Bolton the Green Party came third, beating the Liberal Democrats down to fourth place.

Bolton results.

UPDATE: Oh yes, and in other news active Unitarian and Labour MP Peter Soulsby has been elected the first elected Mayor of Leicester.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Vote Yes!

Tomorrow is the the vote to decide what system we want to elect our MPs to Westminster. First-past-the-post, the obvious system to use when 90% of people voted for two parties, is not a fair system to use in a multi-party democracy.

AV, however, is a simple, common-sense solution to having fair votes in a multi-party democracy:

Most elections under first-past-the-post are won in a small number of marginal seats. This increases apathy in our political system, as most people think that their vote won't make a difference. The public are getting more and more disenchanted with politics, and politicians. This is dangerous for demoncracy.

Under AV, your vote is much more likely to make a difference. AV reduces the number of safe seats and increases the number of marginals. Put simply, it gives more power to the voter. Full-stop. It's more democratic.

And I have to say the "No to AV" arguments are misleading to the point of being outright lies. And you have to wonder why they've not wanted to debate the merits of the two systems. Instead all they can say is "it's expensive" which is simply not true, and "it's too complicated" which is insulting to the British people.

But don't take my word for it. Go to the No to AV website, the Yes to AV website, and the BBC website for an objective view and decide for yourself. That's what I did.