Sunday, October 09, 2011

172 Congregations

It's the time of the year when the Unitarian Directory comes out. This means I can do some number crunching, and thinking about the health of our community.

There are 172 congregations in the Unitarian General Assembly. This is one down from last year (173). Two congregations have disappeared from the directory, though I can't remembering anything being reported about the congregations closing. One is Pudsey in West Yorkshire, and the other is Loughborough in Leciestershire.

The good news is that one new congregation has been recognised this year, Bangor, in North Wales, accepted as a small congregation.

I'm sure that we going to continue to see about two congregations closing every year, I just hope we can see a few more starting as well.

The Directory also lists 133 Ministers (one down on last year) but this is a pretty meaningless number as it includes retired Ministers, and Ministers living in Ireland, America and other parts of the world.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Marriage Equality Gains Momentum

This week the Prime Minister David Cameron said he was in favour of same sex marriage, saying, "I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” I remember reading a similar argument a number of years ago in America. I sort of agree with it, though I'm not a Conservative in any way. Marriage equality is a pro-marriage position: it's valuing commitment, family, love, stability.

The Government has announced it's going to hold a consultation on same sex marriage in England and Wales next March, but it has already excluded the possibility of religious marriage. They only want to allow civil marriage as a possibility. This cannot be acceptable to religious progressives who want to allow marriage in their own places of worship. So we're now faced with a major disagreement between religious progressives and religous conservatives. Religious conservatives should not be made to perform marriages of which they disapprove, but that should not mean the law bans religious progressives from doing so. This is where the disagreement is going to be in the coming months.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Dangerous Unitarianism

In the last few weeks there have been two articles on Unitarianism in the Guardian. In the first Theo Hobson described visiting a Unitarian church in the US. He describes what sounds like a summer lay-led service that might be different to what he would get a month later. He describes three women who led a service based on a play they had recently put on. In his final paragraph he says this:

"I came away with the feeling that it was very harmless. And maybe that's the key difference from Christian worship. In Christian worship there's a certain sense of risk: we risk affirming an idea of truth that is somewhat at odds with natural wisdom, inner peace. And we risk affirming a tradition that has an aura of violence – the violent rhetoric about the Lord of hosts and so forth – and the references to death and blood in the sombre ritual. There's a sense of potential danger in Christianity – this religion has been used for violent ends, and people have suffered martyrdom for it too. There's a disturbing absoluteness. Unitarianism carries about as much sense of dangerous otherness as a tots' singalong at the local library."

This week Rose McDonagh wrote a response pointing out how literally dangerous Unitarianism can be in that it has led to persecution. She mentions amongst other things, the Knoxville church shooting. (She also reads this blog - hi Rose!)

Now, I do take Theo Hobson's criticism seriously. Much of Unitarianism can descend into meaningless pleasantries. The Quakers (who face the same issues as us) call it "daffodil ministry" - "oh, I saw these beautiful daffodils this morning and it made me think - isn't that lovely, and aren't there a lot of lovely things in the world?"

Yes, religion does need a sense of radical Otherness that transcends ourselves. And yes, we can lose that if we're not careful. Hobson links this "dangerous" Otherness with violence. There is no need to do this. Authentic religion does not offer violence, but neither does it offer only pleasantries and inner peace. Authentic religion is not afraid to pick you up by your ankles and give you a good shake until the silliness and fear falls out of you. Jesus said it this way, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

But Unitarianism, when it is properly rooted in its own radical tradition, does do this. James Luther Adams was all about this. He said that

"[Unitarianism], when alive... is the community in which men and women are called to seek fulfillment by the surrender of their lives to the control of the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality. It is the community in which women and men are called to recognize and abandon their ever-recurrent reliance upon the unreliable. It is the community in which the life-spirit of faith tries to create and mold life- giving, life-transforming beliefs, the community in which persons open themselves to God and to each other and to commanding, sustaining, transforming experiences from the past, appropriating, criticizing, and transforming tradition and giving that tradition as well as newborn faith the occasion to become relevant to the needs of a time."

All religious faiths can drop into idolatry of one form of the other, and Unitarianism can become an idolatry of the self - a religion of "Number One" - in which we think we are the inerrant prophet of our own individual religion.

But Adams and others show us that Unitarianism is truly about a radical challenge to ourselves, as well as to any "orthodoxy."

What I find most challenging is that we are asked to put aside any "belief" and really live out our faith. Jesus' challenge to "follow me" is much more difficult than to "believe in me." To live out in every aspect of our lives the values of peace, love, compassion, justice, non-judgment, non-violence, humility, generosity, hospitality. That is challenging. But it is the work of a Unitarian community.