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Potential for church planting in the UK

In response to Scott Wells' question, here is my analysis that I did a few years ago of the places where there is potential for Unitarian church planting in the UK and Ireland:

The largest towns without a Unitarian presence:

Walsall (the church closed last year)
Milton Keynes
St Helens
High Wycombe
Cleethorpes and Grimsby
South Tyneside

These are all Metropolitan Borough Councils or equivalent with a population of over 150,000 people. If you assume that a population of 150,ooo people could support one Unitarian church, then each of these could support one church, Fife could support two. Manchester does support that many Unitarian churches in relation to its population.

There are subtleties, for example Stoke itself does not have a church itself, but Newcastle-under-Lyme, which is technically a different town but effectively the same urban area does have one.

Large cities that could support more Unitarian churches (1 for every 150,000 people, the density in Manchester) are:
London could support 36 more churches.
Birmingham 4 more
Leeds 3 more
Glasgow 3
Edinburgh 2
Dublin 2
And all these towns could support one more Unitarian church:
The Wirral

To be blunt, I'm not aware of any Unitarian churches that were founded in the last 100 years, nevermind the last 10.

I think fellowships have come and gone. For example I think a fellowship started in Solihull, the town between Birmingham and Coventry, in the 70s and died in the 80s. I think these tend to be small social groups that don't outreach much and so die when people die or move away.

The task therefore, is to explore which of these towns has circumstances congenial to a church plant (like a sympathetic district) and find what sources of funding exist to pluge a few grand in to start a church.

Corrections are welcome.


Rich said…
Manchester's chapels do a very good job catering for Salfordian Unitarians too. Salford doesn't even have a city centre, it's so dependent on us. :)
Matt said…
Unitarians, in trying to reach out to everyone from every creed, have ended up reaching out to very few people.

What can Unitarianism offer a Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Buddhist or Hindu (or Christian these days) that they cannot find locally in a congregation / place of worship dedicated to their faith?

There are strong liberal movements within Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and to a lesser extent in Islam (but they are growing) - so the 'liberal alternative' doesn't work either.

And if Unitarianism is now about exploring other people's faith, as well as your own, then how does this differ from the many interfaith groups / forums active across the UK? And would a Muslim or Jew feel more comfortable going to an interfaith forum or a 'church' to explore faith?

What exactly does British Unitarianism offer that is different to other faiths?

All I have seen in the last few years is over 60s gathering in mausoleums to carry out the typical hymn sandwich service - but with anything substantial removed for fear of appearing intolerant.

That sounds pretty damning but I'm being honest here.

I am a Unitarian Christian (or maybe that should be "was a Unitarian Christian", as I find myself increasingly aligned with the Progressive Christian movement) but my criticism is not just of non-Christian congregations but Christian ones too. There is no dynamism, no desire to reach out beyond the established clique and no real thirst for change.

I honestly think that Unitarianism as a national, organised denomination is destined for extincton. Unitarian & Free Christian churches may continue as seperate units - possibly eventually aligning themselves with other liberal minded denominations or faith communities - but the current movement is on the way out.
Anonymous said…
Well, I've no idea how much it would cost to "plant" a church - I presume this involves buying property and endowment sufficient to pay a ministerial salary at the minimum.

Historically this was done by wealthy individuals - e.g. the Holt shipowners on Merseyside - who then of course ran it how they wanted to. I would ask Stephen only this: how would you feel about being, in effect, some millionaire's chaplain?

Religious ultra-conservatives, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, can build churches through tithing. AFAIK this has never been part of our tradition.

I am very dubious about the superiority of churches to fellowships. Saying that the latter "come and go" isn't exactly an argument.
Anonymous said…
I have to agree with M Grant here when s/he says "All I have seen in the last few years is over 60s gathering in mausoleums to carry out the typical hymn sandwich service - but with anything substantial removed for fear of appearing intolerant."

That describes the Unitarian Church I attend pretty well, except that we do have over 50% who are under 60 (including me, who won't be 60 for another 9 months!) Any ideas I had to try and inspire anything other than hymn sandwich have fallen, in the most part, on stony ground. But to my mind this fear of offending will be its downfall. In trying to be "all things to all men" (ouch - people) it ends up being nothing to a lot of people.

I personally do not feel my identity to be "Unitarian", even after 14 months of attending the services, yet I have no difficulty in calling myself a Buudhist, something I only realised about 2 months ago. It's good that I can still attend the Unitarian Church as a Buddhist and be accepted, but in all honesty Unitarianism does not offer me the depth of spirituality that I crave.
Matt said…
I think the question is what do Unitarians want Unitarianism to be?

1. Do they want it to be a movement that can go out there to the masses and provide a powerful, lifechanging vision - and the means to nurture those who take up said vision and enable them to act positively in their communities?

2. Or does do they want to provide a multi-faith forum for spiritual exploration where people can come and share a variety of religious views / experiences?

Because, as far as I can see, it cannot be both.

Its like that old joke about Unitarians knocking on a door, in an attempt to emulate the JWs, and having nothing to say - or better still, knocking on your door annd giving a vision of hope, only for your colleague to say you're actually incorrect or offer something completely different.

Perhaps Unitarians have to accept that they cannot be a mass movement, that they will always be a tiny niche group primarily for educated, middle class types who wish to debate religion?

Perhaps, they also have to accept that for many people, including myself, Unitarianism is a place we seek temporary refuge in whilst we rediscover our faith etc - and then move on from?

I think the issue is the need for consensus and clarity regarding the purpose / role of Unitarian churches in the 21st Century.
I’m not sure there are sufficient liberal alternatives in this country. For example, what other denomination could I be open about being queer in my interview for becoming a minister/priest/religious leader? I don’t know of any apart from the MCC, and they have, what, five churches in the country? In the States there is more strong liberal religion, such as the UCC, and liberal Jewish movements, but there is nothing comparable in this country. Most non-religious people experience religion as conservative.

There is no need at all to buy property to begin with. A church can keep going very successfully without its own building for a long time. I’m personally not convinced that a building is required at all. Meeting in a school hall can work extremely well. You’d need a stipend plus a little more for other expensese. £20,000? Who knows.

I don’t think looking at our past is a model for church planting. I think we can look at what is effective today in other churches. I would say this is 1) denominational support 2) expecting a large commitment from all members. This is not just about finance, but it includes it. There is no reason why we cannot have a conversation about tithing. The facts are the churches that expect a lot from their members grow the most, those that expect little grow little.

In response to your second comment it has to be primarily number 1, but that does not exclude some drawing on other religious views.

By they way, I’m really glad we’ve got a British based dialogue going, thanks ya’ll.
Anonymous said…
I'm keen on the idea of church planting, and I think we need a more consious effort regarding growth, but I think part of that might mean letting congregations die. We seem to put a lot of effort into keeping congregations (and their buildings) going... maybe unwisely as small depressed congregations and large drafty buildings are not a good advert!

What's wrong with the good old house group model? I'd love to get something going from my own abode as I have a small nucleus of people I know valued a group we had going for a while, but, I feel constrained against doing so as it would be seen as competition for my local congregation. Not the case everywhere though...

Focussing on cities misses the fact that city centres do not tend to be big residential areas. Only one person at my church can walk to church very realistically (I do but it takes a long half hour) I don't think that's the right way to go somehow. Not environmentally sustainable either.

A church grows around a small nucleus of committed people prepared to give of their time and be proactive about financial resources. Maybe we should look for where we have that, rather than look at cities where we might not have any resident Unitarians?

I'm a bit late in the day to get involved in this conversation, it might already be over, my only excuse is I don't always think to look at when Stephen's written recently - what a bad woman I am!
Matt said…
Stephen, you may have a point regarding ministry - however, in terms of the ordinary person seeking liberal Christian dialogue / theology / fellowship / guidance... you have the following groups:

- Modern Churchpeoples' Union
- Free to Believe
- Sea of Faith Movement
- Progressive Christian Network
- Christians Awakening to a New Awareness
- Society of Free Christians
- Unitarian Christian Association

True, not many denominations (if any) have yet to take the necessary steps in officially welcoming openly homosexual ministers - but within each denomination there are well established, often informal, networks of liberals.

My point was essentially that liberal Christians can find homes within their existing denominations - Unitarianism no longer acts as the 'dissenter's church'. It has lost that role.

Furthermore, the existence of liberal alternatives can be found in Judaism (Reform and Liberal Synagogues) - and to lesser in Buddhism and other faiths. I also question whether a Jewish or Muslim person would be happy switching to a church given all the connotations this carries.

And yes, I totally agree you can offer a vision of faith that includes other views - Revisionist scholar Marcus Borg (a Lutheran church member) does this in his books.

But my experience of Unitarian churches is that the 'Good News' is not so much about bringing together various views to compliment and enrich an existing vision.

It is more a process of excluding anything that could be deemed offensive / not inclusive by certain members - leaving nothing more than an empty shell.

I have honestly sat and listened to sermons on the benefits of pets, water, sleep etc with any mention of God, Jesus, other faith teachers etc completely removed.
Anonymous said…
I think Matt's got a point about 'empty' services. But gosh, when it's good Unitarian worship puts everything else in the shade. The problem is we all have different tastes (and I think it is an issue of taste). Whereas larger churches can encompass the range of tastes with different congregations, we're a bit stuck with a one size/service fits all model!
On another of Matt's points, a lot of liberal religious groups elsewhere are liberal in certain areas but not others e.g. liberal about sexual ethics, illiberal about pluralist theology. I think the word liberal may be a red herring here, but I need to put some thought into the issue...
Scott Wells said…
It's almost five years since you wrote this. Any thoughts for revisions?
It's funny Scott, I was looking at this very post a couple of days ago. Yes, it probably is time for an update.

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