Monday, March 02, 2015

What does the Unitarian future look like in Britain?

I'm reflecting on the declining (perhaps accelerating decline) of Unitarian congregations in Britain.

The numbers are not good. Just over 3000 Unitarians and a drop last year of 200. You don't have to be too skilled at maths to work out that a continuing decline at that rate would give us just 15 years to total extinction. Of course statistics don't work quite that neatly. But when I look around at the age profile of many of us, it really doesn't seem impossible to be looking at death in less than 20 years.

I've always said things will get worse before they get better. It maybe that this "getting worse" is really starting to bite in 2015. This may be the the beginning of the end.

Unitarians may find this quite depressing. In many ways it is. It may be particularly depressing when we think of all the good work that Unitarians do on many projects.

It may be disheartening, because in many ways I think Unitarianism is doing quite well. In many ways there's some excellent things happening. The General Assembly structures are in some ways doing very well. The 2020 project is getting off the ground. UK Unitarian TV is providing some important new ways to do publicity. Lots of good things like this.

But none of this stuff is leading, right now, to growth. And that's OK, because it was never going to. The Executive Committee plan for 20% growth in five years, which it has now failed to achieve, was incredibly naive. We are in a steep decline and our tinkering around the edges is not going to apply the breaks to that decline.

I'm sorry to say it, but huge decline is inevitable. It really is. Let's stop kidding ourselves and fully embrace this reality. This is what we need to be thinking.

The future will not look like the past.

That's the main point I want to get across. If we think the future will look anything like the past, or very much like the present, we are completely kidding ourselves. If we think we can operate as a "denomination" doing anything like the same thing we are (just about) doing today, then we are wrong. The numbers just don't add up. It's not going to be like that. We can't find a President. We can't find people to serve on the Executive. Why? We're running out of people. We're in decline. We can't hope to continue as we have been.

We need to fully embrace this reality: really fully live it in our bones. We are dying. Death is inevitable. Let's grieve for that. Let's cry our tears for that. Let's be angry and fearful and emotional. Anything other than denial.

So, then, what?

Well let me be totally clear. I accept the reality of death. But I also believe in resurrection.

Death and resurrection is the only path that is open to us.

Unitarianism as a denomination of 170 congregations is dying.

We're not going to be a denomination of 170 congregations. Let's just accept that. So our first task is to find a properly pastoral way to minister to the dying. Let's be with the grief and the dying of our churches. They were great places. They were places of important moments in people's lives. They hold huge emotional resonance for us. But their time of death has come, as it comes to all of us. Let's not keep them on life-support machines. Let's not keep them in pain or a half-existence. Let's cry and grieve and say our goodbyes, and pull the plug. Let's have our funerals. Let's have our burials. Let's have our wakes and eat sandwiches and quiche and talk about all the great times we had.

What will be left? Some will be left. Some congregations have grown in the last few years. Some have grown quite dramatically. There is a future for some basically traditional congregations. They will continue. They will have hymns and pews and sermons and organs. They will do things well. They will have excellent leadership.

But there won't be that many of them. Maybe a dozen, maybe twenty, maybe less. That's it. I used to advocate for prioritising the biggest cities where I imagined these congregations would exists: London, Birmingham, Manchester etc. However I'm now of the opinion that this is a bit idealised and the reality on the ground is more complicated. So I don't know where they will be. They may be rather unevenly distributed across the country. That's OK. It will happen where it will happen.

In addition to this there will be a variety of other kinds of Unitarian community. I'm not entirely sure what these will look like. That's sort of the point. It will be an experimental growing edge. We may have a variety of house-churches, networks, new monastic communities, retreat houses, other weird and wonderful things. Their relationship with the established traditional churches will be mutually enriching.

We will do much fewer things. We will pray, mainly, and remind ourselves of deeper spiritual things. We will be activitist and social justice advocates, but not out of a grand sense of our importance, but our of a humble ethic of service and love, and a practical approach to networking and effective working with others.

This is my vision, for where we're heading. I think we need to stop resisting this and fully embrace it, and we will find ourselves a lot more joyful and a lot less anxious.

I have, and I am.


Blogger Andrew Bethune said...

I agree with you about looking for a different future. It seems crazy that a membership of about 3000 should be supporting such an enormous administrative infrastructure. Are you going to GA? It would be good to talk.

10:12 pm  
Anonymous Amanda said...

This is a really interesting post, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

When I first discovered the Unitarian church I thought "finally, I have found my home!" but we don't have a church nearby so whilst I blogged about liking what I saw online, I just never got involved at all. I guess I'm one of those potential new members who never quite managed to join in!

That being said, I do wonder whether there is an opportunity being missed here. I see a lot of online ministries and communities that have been developed to help people get more out of their time online and support each other in ways that they could not if they were unlimited by location. For instance, there is a US ministry just for mums (Thrive Moms) who run an online retreat twice a year so that anyone, anywhere in the world, can tune in and watch the speakers. They also have a weekly newsletter, an active instagram feed, support groups, local groups etc and it is growing so fast. Yet it all started because two bloggers got together and had a vision for it just 2 or 3 years ago.

I think people want to get involved and want to be part of something, and if you provide them with the opportunity then they will take you up on it. I wonder whether, in looking beyond the standard style of church, some kind of online community might be an option to consider as part of moving things forward and welcoming new people? I know it's definitely something I would consider.

7:27 pm  
Anonymous Another Andrew said...

In most organisations, a chief exec and their management team would have resigned by now having overseen such a calamitous reign. But no, we are stuck with a faceless leadership team headed up by a former DUP bag carrier turned groupie for every Londonista liberal conference going!!! We could strike up 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' as the Titanic orchestra are said to have done but no, that would not be deemed theologically correct either as the New Unity cult now reigns. So lets just sit on our hands and wait politely for the inevitable. Priestley must be doing 100rpm in his grave at the total and utter mess we have become!!!

7:54 pm  
Anonymous Another Andrew said...

PS. Amanda, we have an online community called 'Uk Unitarians' on Facebook - a bunch of oh-so-metropolitan navel gazers applauding themselves on how high minded they are.............. Go figure!!!!!!!!!!!!

7:56 pm  
Blogger Naomi said...

Stephen wrote:

“… We will do much fewer things. We will pray, mainly, and remind ourselves of deeper spiritual things. We will be activist and social justice advocates, but not out of a grand sense of our importance, but our of a humble ethic of service and love, and a practical approach to networking and effective working with others.”

I am moved by this piece of wisdom but, as someone who nearly ten years ago found Unitarianism on the Net and has flourished in this etherial environment, I also welcomeAmanda’s Comment:

“I think people want to get involved and want to be part of something, and if you provide them with the opportunity then they will take you up on it. I wonder whether, in looking beyond the standard style of church, some kind of online community might be an option to consider as part of moving things forward and welcoming new people? ”

In fact of, course, divers online communities of Unitarians already exist and folk like myself have found a spiritual home amongst them. This may well be an indication of the positive role Unitarian principles and experience could play in the spiritual lives of thousands. If these online communities were to flourish, they could become an significant and welcome sources of spiritual practice and wisdom.

But as things are now, I have always been aware that for myself at least there is something, not perhaps absolutely essential but rather desirable, lacking in the current online arrangements. My Congregation of One by definition has no other actual human presence; no wise Elder to suggest face to face: “Child you may have got This, or That, or The Other just a mite wrong.”; no body language or eye contact which can speak volumes of silent wisdom to the searcher after truth.

In spite of this, my online experience has been very good. Although from time to time I have wondered if it might be even more effective if literally fleshed out, linked both intellectually and emotionally to the “real” world. I enjoy the welcoming and tolerant National Unitarian Fellowship, and I have found two very special ladies within that group whom I feel I know and care for as if they were members of my own close family and other friends whose company I always welcome. Even so, I have continued to look for a way in which I and others like me might establish a living bond with a real gathered congregation whose liberal free or non-subscribing Christianity we might share.

I did, some years ago, make a tentative approach on these lines to a specific gathered Unitarian congregation, but the silence that greeted these presumably unacceptable overtures was in itself answer enough. Then quite recently, Bingo! Into my Inbox came an invitation to join a new group, the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians. I did so and found, for myself at least, that which I had been hoping to find. Not an alternative to that which I already had, but a more apposite resting place for this particular restless soul. Maybe if this kind of relationship could in the future be established between whatever few Unitarian congregations may remain and, very important this, other congregations like the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland or the Dutch Remonstrant Church for example, then more devoted users of the Internet might be encouraged to do what I am delighted to have done. I can but hope.

8:48 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

@Andrew Bethune: sorry I'm not going to GA this year.

@Amanda and Naomi: I think there is certainly a place for the online, but it is limited. But I think online, linked to maybe meeting twice a year for a retreat/residential is an interesting option.

@Another Andrew: I think you are being unfair on people who are working very hard. Our expectation of what "they" can do is often completely unrealistic. And I'm going to do another blog post on this subject.

10:38 am  
Blogger Naomi said...

Of course, Stephen, a gathered congregation for whom face to face, eyeball to eyeball, an annual gathering are integral parts of its being seems the "best" home for those who can take a full part in its worship and work for its own community and for society as a whole. But those of us who by disability, distance or the like are permanently precluded from any gathered congregation are in just as much need of individual human contact as any other Liberal Christian or Unitarian. If such real regular contact were impossible for you, just imagine how precious would be the virtual company of the FNSC or the NUF, for example. I believe that however limited online church or chapel or meeting may seem, imaginative use of this resource could well become an equal partner of such gathered congregations that remain to us.

On a regular basis I use the London Internet Church who in their Mission Statement declare: "The uniqueness of the London Internet Church as it is conceived at St Stephen Walbrook is that as well as being an internet based church it is rooted in a real community of Christian people who through their prayers and active pastoral outreach respond to the needs of the LIC community on a daily basis." Their resources would appear to be somewhat greater than ours, but it would be well worth exploring the pattern and the scope of their online church activities and services. We might even learn something from them. The LIC can be found at

9:51 am  
Blogger Naomi said...

Another Andrew: your maybe heart-felt but pretty infelicitous rhetoric adds little to this discussion amongst friends. A reasoned and courteous complaint is far more likely to be taken seriously than your wild accusations. Much more effective than any giant wrecking ball ...

10:05 am  
Anonymous Not an Andrew said...

Sadly it is precisely the waspish smart-arse know-it-allness displayed by the likes of Another Andrew that made me leave.

It was all too common amongst the groups I encountered.

I may have been VERY unfortunate, but I think a significant core ceased to be anything like a religion a long time ago.

We're Unitarian "sniff".

No thank you.


7:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All denominations are declining in the West. But the fact is the current self-interested leadership of the British unitarian movement have hastened the decline.

Working hard does not necessarily mean working with vision.

Doing more does not automatically translate into going somewhere.

Let us start asking some tough questions. Lets get some creative tension going rather than polite chit chat.

Here's a start...

why has Derek Macaulay constantly lined up the movement with the Sunday Assembly, the British Humanist Association and the Secular Society? What message does this send to the simple seeker with an inclination towards God who cares to do a bit of research before entering a Unitarian church? What dischord does this sow amongst the theists amongst us who have been with this church since birth? I follow his twitter and see him out there signing letters and busying himself with all these other movements but there is silence on our decline.

It doesnt have to be this way. The quakers have the same problem and they have started to talk. But ours remain silent.

The methodists have the same problem and have started to talk. But ours remain silent.

I think, Stephen, you are shying away from the tough question about what British Unitarians stand for, what energises them, what might make the ordinary man or woman feel it is worth showing up on a Sunday. We need to re-start with vision and values then move to what needs to be practically done.

7:55 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home