Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reasons to be Cheerful (1,2,3)

This blog has always been a place where I have been critical of the Unitarian movement. I've always been acutely aware that the Unitarian movement is in deep trouble and has lost its way in many ways. It has been in decline, and many congregations have been devoid of the Spirit and very inward-looking.

So I always try to balance this out when I can when I think I can say something positive. There are in fact many positive things to say. I feel more optimistic about the state of Unitarianism today than I did five years ago. I hope this is not just the effect of me becoming more mainstream within the movement and less of an outsider. I do think real changes have happened, and there are reasons to be cheerful.

Here are some of them:

1. Some congregations are growing
There are in fact many of our congregations that are growing. Some of our healthiest congregations have grown much more. Some congregations have grown steadily. Some congregations have gone from a tiny number to a healthy sized congregation, growing at a huge rate. Transformations have happened. We have a handful of growing, vital congregations. This should show us that Unitarian congregations can grow in the 21st century. We can become relevant to a community and offer something that many people are looking for. This should fill us with hope.

2. Good new Ministers
It's hard to say this without sounding like I'm being big-headed. But I genuinely think that new Ministers that have come out in the last five years or so are of a high quality. "Quality" may not be the best word. But I think they "get it." I think they get that our life has to be rooted in a life of the spirit first and foremost. They get that change has to happen. This makes me very happy.

3. Real national leadership
It's far from perfect, but the Executive Committee is a much better form of leadership compared to what it replaced. It does enable some leadership, some visioning, and some pushing forward of change. I'm grateful for that.

4. We're getting better at living out our values
Our pursuit of an agenda around civil partnerships with the Quakers and Liberal Jews has showed that we can join together with other liberal religious groups to fight for our values. Equally joining the Accord Coalition on faith schools also showed us coalition building to fight for an agenda of equality and inclusiveness. We're getting better at this.

5. The new hymnbook
It may seem like a small thing, but our new hymnbook Sing Your Faith is inclusive, radical, spiritual and musically diverse. It offers a real change to renew our worship and make it spiritually vital and true to our values.

What still needs to be done
But there are still significant changes that need to happen. There are two major changes I have always pushed for and will continue to push for:

1. Enhance ministry
We need to make sure we train ministers as missionaries more than pastors, as leaders more than managers. We need to train ministers to be able to deal with the radically different circumstances we face in the twenty-first century. This will involve ministry training taking at least 3 years and usually involving gaining a bachelor's degree in theology.

2. Church planting
We need to create a fund that will enable and encourage church planting, of all kinds. We need to encourage church planting by ministers and non-ministers, and finding ways of resurrecting congregations that are almost dead (2 or 3 members). We need to encourage a risk-taking culture that encourages different types of church-planting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Do Civil Partnerships undermine marriage equality?

I was never in favour of civil partnerships. Living in Massachusetts in 2004 I saw marriage equality come to that state, and I was very aware of all the debates at that time. In the American conversation civil partnerships were the conservative compromise position. Pro-marriage equality campaingners generally considered them to be based on a doctrine of "separate but equal" which had been rejected as a racial philosophy in America a generation earlier.

So I was very ambivalent when civil partnerships came into force in the UK. They certainly provided a lot more rights for same-sex partnerships but they also made it very clear that same-sex partnerships were inferior to different-sex partnerships which could be solemnised as marriages.

One of the ways that inferiority was expressed was that civil partnerships had to be, well, civil: i.e. non-religious. There was no way that same-sex couples could affirm their relationship in a religious ceremony. As a person of faith and a queer person, I found this offensive. The government had declared that same-sex relationships could not be holy. That to me seems like something the government has no right to legislate on.

The rest of the Unitarian community, as well as Quakers and Liberal Jews also came to this position and began to campaign for civil partnerships to be allowed in religious buildings. Lord Alli in 2010 then proposed an amendment to the Equality Bill to lift this ban which was passed allowing this to happen.

We are now in a period of consultation on this. The consultation closes on 23rd June. You can contribute to the consultation by clicking here. I went to a consultation meeting in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, and I've come away pretty disappointed.

So let's be clear about what the government are proposing:
Civil partnerships will still be civil and cannot contain any religious language or music while the partnership documents are being signed.
Civil partnerships will still only be able to be performed by civil registrars.
The ONLY difference is that civil partnerships will be able to be performed in religious BUILDINGS.

This means that instead of having a civil partnership registration in the registry office then walking across the road to the church for a blessing you can have the civil partnership registration in the building and then stay where you are for the blessing. BUT THERE WILL STILL BE A SEPARATION BETWEEN THE ACTUAL LEGAL ACT AND ANY RELIGIOUS ELEMENT. The separation will simply be in time and not space. This separation is not a requirement for different-sex couples wishing to marry.

This seems to me to be a hell of a lot of fuss for a tiny change. And I wonder whether the whole concept of "religious civil patnerships" is not completely flawed logically, theologically and tactically.

If we believe in equality, we believe in equality. If we believe in equality then nothing less than marriage equality is good enough.

You see I'm not sure I believe in civil parnerships at all. I believe in marriage. I'm not sure if civil patnerships undermine the institution of marriage, whereas opening marriage to same-sex coiple renews the institution of marriage.

The Quakers have come to a very clear coherent, theologically and spiritually grounded position on marriage. Unitarians have not. As often happens Unitarians have been reactionary liberals, simply offering a knee-jerk reaction to events rather than doing some deeper thinking and actually approaching the question, "What is marriage?"

I am in favour of marriage equality. But I would not want to simply propose a General Assembly motion in favour of it. Because I think our position on marriage would have to be deeply rooted in the lives of individual congregations. I would want each of our congregations to spend a year thinking about the question "What is marriage?" before we come to a position. This is what the Quakers have done.

The government have made a commitment to "look at" the issue of marriage equality, but I wouldn't underestimate the upward struggle it would take to achieve that. However regardless of how difficult it might be we Unitarians do need to be able to say clearly, rooted in our faith, what our position on marriage is and to campaign for that with vision and integrity.