Tuesday, February 28, 2012


It's that time of the year again. The Annual Report has been published, with the number of quota members of each congregation. Though again the total number hasn't been published, and I've had to do a quick calculation, which gives us a total number of 3560. Unfortunately this represents a 3% drop in UK Unitarian membership in the last year. The Executive Committee were aiming for a 20% increase by 2016. The numbers have risen very very slightly in the last few years, but that looks like a blip now, as numbers have continued to decline.
Here's how the numbers have been in the last few years:
2005: 3952
2006: 3754
2007: 3711
2008: 3642
2009: 3658
2010: 3672
2011: 3560
Now let's look at congregations with more than 50 members, and compare their numbers to last year (in brackets)
Ashton 54 (54)
Atherton 62 (62)
Birmingham Hollywood 58 (48)
Bolton Bank Street 58 (58)
Bury 73 (75)
Croydon 50 (51)
Dean Row 70 (80)
Dukinfield 52 (52)
Eccles 60 (67)
Hinkley 57 (59)
Kendal 51 (51)
Knutsford 55 (55)
London Hampstead 150 (168)
London Islington and Newington Green 75 (70)
London Kensington 63 (55)
Padiham 53 (53)
Sheffield Norfolk Street 58 (58)
Edinburgh 64 (60)
As you can see most congregations have stayed static or declined. Birmingham Hollywood, London Islington and Newington Green, London Kensington and Edinburgh have grown.
Yes, these numbers may not be accurate. My congregation (Bolton Bank Street) has a membership number of 58. This is not accurate, and I'm not sure where it came from. Last summer out membership number was 56.
Numbers are not everything. But if we're a few short years away from exinction, we should be aware of that.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

LOST and theology: The Others

***Spoiler Alert***

I've been re-watching the American TV series Lost. It is one of my favourite TV programmes, it's very well produced on all levels.

The engine of the storyline is mystery. As the viewer, you don't have any idea what's going on, and the drama happens when certain things are revealed. But of course every answer just brings ten more questions.

The basic premise is that an airplane crossing the Pacific crash lands on a deserted island. Except the survivors soon discovered the island is not exactly deserted. There are "Others" on the Island, as well as all sorts of mysterious goings-on.

Obviously re-watching a series like that is very different experience when you know most of the answers, and what's happening behind the mystery. In general the show knew where it was going, and planted some mysteries at the beginning that it solved at the very end six years later. This is not to say that there weren't some inconsistencies and plot dead-ends. But in general they had a strong sense of plot.

What is striking when you re-watch it is the development of "the Others." In the first two series the Others are slowly revealed. They are mysterious figures that emerge out of the jungle and kidnap children, they appear to be "savages" dressed in rags, they appear to be sub-human, amoral, vicious killers. One of the survivors says "they're animals."

But they appear a lot less scary when you're re-watching the series. Because you know that they are nothing of the sort. As the series develops we begin to see more of the Others. We see that they are people of different ages and sexes. We see some of them are married. We see they have book groups and bake muffins. And significantly we see them having funerals when one of them is killed by one of the survivors. We've been used to seeing them as the "bad guys" but slowly we begin to see things more from their perspectives. We begin to see them as frail human beings doing the best. No doubt some of them do some very immoral and violent things: killing, kidnapping, torturing. But then, when the survivors felt it was really necessary they did similar things too.

The point is an enemy is much scarier when we view them as inhumane monsters. When we know their names, their frailties, when we see their grief, it's impossible to see them as terrifying. Certainly the violence they bring is dangerous, but as a viewer you are simply not scared by them anymore.

Humans have an ability to "Other" a group of people - this fuels our fear and anger. But it is much more difficult to do this when we see the reality that, whatever else they are, they are still stupid frail human beings like the rest of us.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prayer in council meetings

I was really interested to hear the High Court ruling yesterday that it is unlawful for public prayers to be said in local council meetings.

I was actually pretty suprised by it. It wouldn't suprise me if this was a story from the United States. Stories like this come from the US pretty frequently, such as this story about a girl's objection to a written prayer in a public (state) school. But this is the UK, a country with a State Religion. I can't remember a ruling having gone this way before.

The ruling was only in relation to the Local Government Act 1972, but it may have much wider implications. Don't forget that prayers are said in Parliament every day. How long until they are challenged? Are we actually seeing a move towards the separation of church and state in the UK?

Well, I hope so. I entirely agree with the people who brought this case. The principle has to be that councils, or any democratic body, have to be for all the citizens of an area. Council meetings should represent all citizens of all religions and none. Saying prayers as part of council meeting suggests we are all of a the same religious opinion, and that simply itsn't true.

The unholy alliance between state and church does no good to either. If some people would like to gather for prayers before meeting, then so be it. And of course anyone can offer a silent prayer any time they like. But public prayers in meetings should have no place in a democracy. Religious freedom has to include those with no religion, or else it is no real religious freedom.