Monday, November 28, 2016

Things that matter

On this blog I have often mused on the decline and possible death of Unitarianism. It's interesting to ask the question of why I do this. I think partly it's because I see British Unitarianism as being in a kind of a denial about it and I don't see that denial as healthy. I don't want to be negative, but I want to confront reality face on and make decisions based on that reality.

What if Unitarianism were to die? If we knew that was a certainty, how it would change the way we act and the kind of decisions we make right now? I find it strangely liberating. It's like - none of this stuff matters that much so we might as well chill out about it all, right?

Here's one scenario I can imagine happening: Unitarianism dies away in a few decades. Time passes, meanwhile Pentecostalism becomes the largest kind of Christianity in Britain and matures as a movement. But then, some people in Pentecostalism start opening to liberal ideas, start questioning the Trinity, eternal damnation and other ideas and eventually become a Unitarian Pentecostal movement. 

Why shouldn't this happen? Unitarianism has spontaneously happened in different countries across the globe. In Britain there were movements of Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians who all became Unitarians. Why shouldn't that happen again in other denominations? History would suggest such a thing is quite possible. 

So in 50 or 60 years time "our" Unitarianism has died but a Pentecostal Unitarianism now exists, a Unitarianism with Pentecostal worship and culture. And then they discover our tradition and start mining it for its treasures as they build a new Unitarian identity.

What do we want them to find in the archives? What will resource them well in the future? Will they be excited that we used the latest technology and trends (which by then will be woefully out of date)? Will they think we had good advertising? Will they be impressed by our accounts and healthy bank balances? Will they be inspired by our committee minutes and efficient meetings that we had by the bucket load?

Let me suggest that the answer is no.

But if they were to discover inspirational devotional material, sermons, theology, spiritual writings, and stories of a bold and fearless people living prophetic lives, then this, I would suggest would inspire them. And Unitarianism would rise again.

I'm not a seer and I'm not saying I can predict that this is how it will happen. It's just a hypothetical experiment. But then again, it's not a crazy prediction either.

But my point is this: even if we are going to die, it still matters the kind of thing we do, and what legacy we leave, and this might shift our priorities. 

So I'm making a commitment now. I'm going to try, I'm really going to try to use this blog to give a much more positive and powerful message about our tradition. I'm going to try and let off the snipping and criticism and I'm going to try to do just do my thing. I'm going to try to just give my best understanding of the nature of this powerful and amazing tradition called Unitarianism. Because, maybe, this blog might be one of the things that's left over. And that's the legacy I want to leave. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What if we've got worship completely backwards?

What I believe now more than ever is that we Unitarians need a radical shift in our worship. Through our own strange path from Protestant Non-Conformity to postmodernism we have developed a style of worship that is seriously damaging our spiritual health.

We have developed the strange idea that worship is essentially a thematic presentation. We believe that worship is fundamentally "about" something, some theme, some idea. We say "today's service is about compassion" or some such thing. We advertise it thus. And then we gather together for a time when one person (almost always only one person) has curated a presentation on this topic. They've collected thematic readings, poems and hymns on this topic. And they present it. Sometimes it's quite good. Sometimes (perhaps more often) it isn't, because actually it's a fairly difficult thing to do.

But actually this isn't even the point. The point is this: it's not worship. It just isn't. We have gathered and listened to a presentation about a topic. We have not worshipped.

The biggest problem, the biggest biggest problem by far in Unitarianism is that we don't actually worship.

Worship is never ever "about" anything. A sermon is about something. But "worship" is not synonymous with "sermon". Worship is not about anything. Worship is about worship. It does not have a theme or a topic. It is about the same thing every single time: opening the soul to God.

Worship is the spiritual practice of a community. It is people drawing near to one another and to God. And it is primarily non-rational. There may be a bit of explanation, exploration, thinking in it, but that is a secondary purpose. The primary purpose is to create a first-hand experience of the numinous through bodily acts. Such acts may be singing, meditation, dancing, ritual, feasting. But they are bodily before they are mental and rational.

We can be scared of such things because we tend to be people who get a feeling of safety by living in our brains, with all the defences of doing so. Worship breaks down those defences. That is the point of it. Worship is something fundamentally silly. It is fundamentally a strange and silly thing to do that makes little sense if approached externally, because it can only be understood internally. But it is good for us. It is good for us to move out of our brains and dance and sing and bow and eat a little wafer and spin around in circles and talk gibberish. It is a time-tested method of replenishment and connection. If we don't do it, if we make worship "safe" we cease to worship, and worship ceases to "work". This is what we Unitarians have done.

Unless and until we make this kind of shift in our worship, things are going to look dire for us, because we're fundamentally not offering that which quenches the thirst of the spiritual seeker: a genuine connection to God.

Ministers can make this shift. What is more difficult is congregations who have different worship leaders every week. They are much more dependent on the "worship as presentation" model. What I would like to say to such congregations is - it's OK to just pray, mediate or sing in worship. This is I think a better path for such congregations. It would be so much better to develop a local liturgy, songs and prayers that the congregation like that they sing and say every week. A simple way of being open to one another and to the divine with a basic liturgy and plenty of silence. By all means have a cycle of inspirational readings to stimulate your thoughts. Don't worry so much about sermons. Don't worry about guest preachers.

What might be more useful to us right now than training preachers is training liturgical musicians. Although I am a preacher I would say a good musician is much more important to a small congregation than a good preacher. A musician that is liturgically and pastorally sensitive, that understands worship, that knows how to lead people in participatory music and singing. That's someone who can make a bigger difference to worship than a preacher.

And when we do train "lay preachers" the priority needs to be much more in teaching people to pray than in teaching them to preach. In fact I'm tempted to say the priority should be a deepening spiritual life, retreats, a spiritual director, a deepening connection to Life, before anyone should think about preaching. And people need to be taught to be liturgists much more than preachers, to understand the flow of worship and what it means before they think about giving any kind of message.

In short we need to understand what worship is, and start actually doing it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism: review


I've just finished this book that I bought at General Assembly this year and thought I would write some of my reactions.

This book is based on the vision of Frederic Muir, who thinks Unitarian Universalism is in serious trouble and will die out unless some big changes are made. In making this point he points to British Unitarianism as a "canary in the coal mine" for what might happen to American UUism in the next few decades. He uses British Unitarianism to make the rhetorical point, saying basically that British Unitarianism is doomed to die out within three generations. British Unitarianism is beyond salvation, he says, but pleads that Americans might learn from this to save American UUism.

His analysis of the problem is that Unitarian Universalism has been dependent on a "trinity of errors": individualism, exceptionalism, and anti-authoritarianism. It seems to me that individualism is the root problem of the others though. He blames Emerson for this emphasis. Perhaps these values have served UUs in the past, but now they are part of the problem. The problem is that UUs create an "iChurch" - a church that we think should only serve the needs of the individual.

To counter this he proposes a "trinity of promises": generosity, pluralism and imagination. However although there is nothing wrong with these values, I'm not sure exactly why they are the particular values that would save UUism. They seem a bit arbitrary to me and it's difficult to see why they would be the solutions to the problems of individualism, exceptionalism and anti-authoritarianism.

More fruitful I believe is Muir's emphasis on Beloved Community as the mission of Unitarian Universalism. This seems like a good emphasis for the mission of UUism, although for me there are limits to its usefulness.

The rest of the essays by other authors sort of expand on these points with varying degrees of success. Some of them seem to say same old same old kind of UU stuff seeing salvation as a matter of being sufficiently up-to-date with the latest trends and earnestly pursuing social justice. One essay says something like "as long as there's fundamentalist religion there'll be a need for liberal religion" which suggests where fundamentalist religion is not dominant (like secular Europe) there is no need for liberal religion. It's the same old counter-dependent relationship of religious liberalism defining itself against conservative religion, and it becomes less and less effective in secular societies such as Britain and increasingly coastal USA.

But some of the essays are really inspiring, particular ones by young leaders doing church planting (this phrase isn't used) of new, radical communities that are doing mission and worship quite differently. There are real signs of hope here, and signs of different kind of UU communities arising.

For me though the book doesn't go far enough in arguing for a coherent theological and spiritual message and practice needed to save Unitarian Universalism. It talks a lot about story but ultimately does not provide a spiritual story but points to vague values like "generosity." Such words do not save. Stories save.

Whether Muir's prophecy is accurate is an interesting question. Will British Unitarianism die, and the US learn from this to bring about a radical change in the way it does things? Perhaps. Perhaps in 50 years British Unitarianism will be dead and American UUs will be down to 10,000 members, or will have learnt the lesson and be doing OK. Perhaps secularisation is an inevitable process and American society is just 50 years behind Britain in this process?

But I think such comparisons are dangerous. Secularisation is a complicated thing happening in very different ways in different countries. I do think secularisation is going to hit UUs more strongly than they currently realise, and decline may well be on the cards, but this is not a simple picture.

But there is another way to look at this. It really depends on how you believe change happens. It may be that American UUism can be persuaded to change while British Unitarianism has stubbornly refused to. Or it may be that the only way change happens is through death and resurrection. It may be that in 50 years British Unitarianism has gone through the process of death and resurrection, while the US UUs are still hanging onto life, but declining. It may be that the changes Muir argues for cannot happen in any other way. If that's true it will happen in Britain before it happens in the US.