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Showing posts from 2011

Clergy-wear during protests

OK, I'm wandering into the territory of Beauty Tips for Ministers here, but a couple of recent conversations have brought up the issue of what clergy should wear for protests. I know a number of Ministers who only wear clerical collars for protests. The logic is that it's important to identify as a Minister when you're supporting something society doesn't expect clergy to. So Ministers will wear a collar at gay prides or pro-choice rallies to make this point. Now I could understand this if it you wore a collar going about your general business, and also did during a protest, but I'm quite uncomfortable with the idea of wearing clerical wear ONLY for protests. The seems to be something worth exploring. I have said before that I'm not in favour of special titles or clothing for religious leadership, mainly because Jesus explicitly said this was a lot of nonsense. Religious leaders should not need these articial crutches. I have no problem with certain liturg

Do we welcome atheists?

Posts by a couple of my colleagues have got me thinking. Here Andy posts about the slogan of his church in London : "A church for atheists... and everyone else." And here Danny says "There is no such thing as atheism." How interesting. So do Unitarian churches welcome atheists? To me this is not the significant question. I don't know of any church that would say it wouldn't welcome atheists. If I asked my Anglican neighbours "do you welcome atheists?" they would say, "Of course we do, but we welcome them to enter into a relationship with God." So the question is not "who do you welcome?" but rather "what do you welcome people into?" The invitation goes out to all, but what is it an invitation to ? This is the pressing question to Unitarianism. In many Unitarian circles there's a lot of talk about welcoming all people: people of different beliefs, different sexual orientations, different races, but what are we wel

Live Adventurously

Why I'm "evangelical"

A commenter on the last post asked why I call myself "evangelical." Now it's certainly true that I'm not part of the Christian movement called Evangelicalism (although I do have a lot more respect and admiration for some aspects of it compared to some liberals). Evangelicalism is characterised by a strong commitment to the authority of the Bible, amongst many other things. As a liberal I do not share that approach. However I am not prepared to give up the label of "evangelical" - someone with good news. I still believe that faith is good news, and I'm not ashamed to live it and say it. I am an evangelical liberal. The point for me is that liberal religion needs to be evangelical. The reason liberalism is nearly always a failed project is that it is not evangelical enough. Conservative, orthodox, even dangerous forms of religion are out there in the streets with passion saying what is so important about their faith. If liberals do not do the same then

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.

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

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 f

The broom is mightier than the sword

There's been plenty of talk about the English riots last week. There will no doubt be a lot more as politicians, police, religious leaders and all of us try to work out what all those riots mean for our society. I don't want to get into too much speculation, but just want to reflect personally on my experiences in Greater Manchester. On Tuesday night I was following Facebook and Twitter and watching the news as the riots migrated from Salford to Manchester city centre. I know a few people who live in the city centre so I was looking out for them on Facebook to see if they were OK. It is interesting that now we can all experience an event in a very different way that we did in the past. I was alone at home, but through the internet and 24 hour news I could follow the events in a very involved way as they happened, and also be part of a conversation about it all. Such events are challenging to anyone who has faith in humanity. That faith is challenged when violence and

Unitarians should tithe

"We say that revelation is not sealed but we often act as if our purses were." John Clifford, Anniversary Service Sermon, 2003 Unitarians should tithe. Yes I said it. Let me say it again: Unitarians should give away 10% of their income. Sound radical? Crazy? Controversial? If so maybe we should ask ourselves why. Unitarianism is a radical liberal way of being religious. We say what matters is not what you believe but how we live our lives. We've signed up to the Charter of Compassion which speaks about restoring compassion to the centre of religion and morality. Well, what do we think that means? What concretely does it mean to have a faith based on love and compassion? What it means is, amongst other things, is giving. Let me be clear that I'm not saying that people should give 10% of their income to their congregation. Between 1% and 5% I would think is OK. And the rest should be given to other charities and groups. Unitarianism is not an easy religon. It sh

Reasons to be Cheerful (1,2,3)

This blog has always been a place where I have been critical of the Unitarian movement. I've always been acutely aware that the Unitarian movement is in deep trouble and has lost its way in many ways. It has been in decline, and many congregations have been devoid of the Spirit and very inward-looking. So I always try to balance this out when I can when I think I can say something positive. There are in fact many positive things to say. I feel more optimistic about the state of Unitarianism today than I did five years ago. I hope this is not just the effect of me becoming more mainstream within the movement and less of an outsider. I do think real changes have happened, and there are reasons to be cheerful. Here are some of them: 1. Some congregations are growing There are in fact many of our congregations that are growing. Some of our healthiest congregations have grown much more. Some congregations have grown steadily. Some congregations have gone from a tiny number to a he

Do Civil Partnerships undermine marriage equality?

I was never in favour of civil partnerships. Living in Massachusetts in 2004 I saw marriage equality come to that state, and I was very aware of all the debates at that time. In the American conversation civil partnerships were the conservative compromise position. Pro-marriage equality campaingners generally considered them to be based on a doctrine of "separate but equal" which had been rejected as a racial philosophy in America a generation earlier. So I was very ambivalent when civil partnerships came into force in the UK. They certainly provided a lot more rights for same-sex partnerships but they also made it very clear that same-sex partnerships were inferior to different-sex partnerships which could be solemnised as marriages. One of the ways that inferiority was expressed was that civil partnerships had to be, well, civil: i.e. non-religious. There was no way that same-sex couples could affirm their relationship in a religious ceremony. As a person of faith and a q

American Unitarians are declining, British Unitarians are growing

OK, I've been writing a lot about statistics lately, and you have to be very cautious about statisitics. There's all kind of ways in which they don't report the full picture of reality. But they are worth keeping an eye on. The UU World has reported that the membership numbers of UUA congregations in the United States have fallen for the third year running. This was reported at the latest UUA Board meeting. First (at the risk of repeating myself) I want to note that membership numbers are reported as a matter of normal business at the UUA Board, whereas I've never seen them discussed in the British Executive Committee minutes. This should be normal practice. As these numbers aren't reported normally in the British Unitarian community I've drawn upon work that other people have done ( here and here ), and this year's (2010) Annual Report to look at what our trends are. Here we go: 2005: 3952 2006: 3754 2007: 3711 2008: 3642 2009: 3658 2010: 3672 Over

Time for bishops to leave the House of Lords

The Government has released plans to reform the House of Lords, replacing an entirely unelected chamber with a wholly or partly elected chamber. The plans are that the House of Lords should be either 100% or 80% elected. I don't want to express an opinion about whether it should be 80% or 100%. But if we are going to appoint 20% I want to make sure that that does not include, as a matter of right, 26 Anglican bishops. Of course if some committee decides it wants to appoint any bishops, fine. And to be honest someone like Rowan Williams is probably the kind of person I would want. But we cannot continue to have a constitution that deliberately favours one particular religion and one particular denomination. It should not be the right of 26 Anglican bishops to vote on national legislation. Last year as part of the Power 2010 movement, over 50,000 people wrote emails to those 26 bishops asking them to support a pro-demoncracy reform that would include an elected House of Lords. I

Church Re-Starting

A friend of mine from my time in Boston, Christana Wille McKnight, is doing a really interesting ministry and blogging about it here . She's re-starting a church, First Unitarian Church of Norton , Massachusetts. There was a church building, but the congregation went extinct some time ago, and her ministry has been to go in, and see where there is possibility for re-starting the congregation. This seems like a very exciting ministry and might be another model of church planting that will work in Britain. We have a lot of congregations that might be on the verge of closing. Could we put ministers into places where there's a building but no congregation to start something from scratch? I'm watching with interest.

Church Planting and Church Renewal: The Way Forward

So, I'm going to shift from talking about politics back to church planting now. The Executive Committee have committed to grow the Unitarian community by 20% in five years. How do you achieve that? Do you expect every congregation to grow at 20%? Well if you did then every congregation would have to grow as laid out here by Scott Wells . But the fact is not every congregation well grow at 20%. Obviously some will decline, some will grow, will stay the same. Some will change at a different rate than others. The least we can do is monitor this, to get a sense of what is growing and why. But eventually the Executive Committee are going to have to make an uncomfortable decision. That decision is based on the fact that they cannot give the same support to all congregations and so will have to prioritise those congregations that can benefit most from their support. For my congregation, for example, I wouldn't expect to get a any particular support from the national body. We can (

Some post-match analysis on the AV Referendum and local elections

Well, obviously I'm disappoointed at the results of the referendum. But it's important not to live and die but such things. From a spiritual point of view I think you have to be engaged and fighting for the politics you believe in, but it can't be your ultimate concern. The Beloved Community is not built on the results of any one election. It is positive that it was a reasonably high turn-out, higher than many expected. It was a reasonable turnout with a clear result, which is what you hope for in politics. The people did vote. The issue was aired, though not as well as it should have been. I would have liked to have seen a BBC1 primetime debate, like the Prime Ministerial debates. I think the media has a responsibility to give this more coverage than they did. I've heard that under 40-year-olds were much more likely to vote yes (been searching through the Internet and I've not found any reliable statistics on this yet though) which might mean that in another gen

Vote Yes!

Tomorrow is the the vote to decide what system we want to elect our MPs to Westminster. First-past-the-post, the obvious system to use when 90% of people voted for two parties, is not a fair system to use in a multi-party democracy. AV, however, is a simple, common-sense solution to having fair votes in a multi-party democracy: Most elections under first-past-the-post are won in a small number of marginal seats. This increases apathy in our political system, as most people think that their vote won't make a difference. The public are getting more and more disenchanted with politics, and politicians. This is dangerous for demoncracy. Under AV, your vote is much more likely to make a difference. AV reduces the number of safe seats and increases the number of marginals. Put simply, it gives more power to the voter. Full-stop. It's more democratic. And I have to say the "No to AV" arguments are misleading to the point of being outright lies. And you have to wonder wh

Church Planting and Church Renewal

Where should we concentrate our ministry and mission as British Unitarians? Ever since I started this blog I have been calling for church-planting. Five years ago I wrote this post doing some analysis of the largest population areas without a Unitarian presence, therefore where you could plant new churches. It's probably time to do some updating. The following is a mixture of analysis of populations and gut instinct. There are large areas of the UK where people could not get to a nearby Unitarian church even if they wanted to. There are very isolated towns such as Carlisle and Peterborough where we could plant new churches. The other place I would aim is the large urban area of south Yorkshire, planting in either Barnsley or Rotherham or looking to grow the cause in Wakefield . The Blackcountry is another large urban area with tiny churches. You could either look into resurrecting the Unitarian communities in Dudley or Wolverhampton or plant something new in Walsall (m


In one of the early episodes of Batttlestar Galactica (2000s series) the President carefully writes down the number of surviving humans on the band of surviving spaceships on a whiteboard. She adjusts the number with each news report of loss of life. That reminds me of the situation we're in now in British Unitarianism. We passed a resolution in 2006 calling for growth, and it's taken five years before we have publically published what our actual membership numbers are. So here it is: 3,672. Even that number has not been officially published, but added up by someone in America. If any British Unitarians are not paying attention to what Scott Wells is writing, particularly here , then you should be. We all should be. And we should realise that our situation is exactly that of Battlestar Galactica. We are a surviving band. There is much too much complacency still. The next ten years will be vital.

AV Voting is just like the X Factor, it's not complicated

Back in January I posted about the AV referedum with a reasonably open mind. Since then I've become more convinced that AV is a far superior system than first past the post. I don't mind publicly saying so. AV will mean fewer safe seats, and more marginal seats which means elections won't be fought just in a few isolated places. True, the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. But it is an improvement. MPs will need to work harder to secure the public's vote. AV will also mean more genuine choice. You won't be forced to vote for only two or three main parties. You can vote for who you really want, knowing the vote won't be wasted. No more tactical voting. If you're happy with the bigger parties, this might not convince you, but if you could imagine voting for smaller parties (or you at least want the option) then AV will allow you too. AV will mean that extremist parties will be less likely to get into power, because the vast majority oppose them.

Strategic change and culture change

I was very tempted to call this post "Why the Unitarian Executive Committee's growth strategy will fail" but I don't want to be quite that negative. Actually I want to say that I think a lot of what our national Unitarian leadership is doing is absolutely right. I completely agree with what they have prioritised and most of what they're doing to get there. It is good to aim for growth. 20% growth in five years is very ambitious. It's pretty much what we're aiming for at my congregation, but aiming for it in one reasonably healthy congregation is very different from aiming for it for a complete denomination. The EC have set out a vision, and told us where they want to be, and what changes will have to take place to get us there. Now, of course, is where the resistance to change kicks in. They need to keep communicating, communicating, communicating, as much as possible what the vision is, why we need to get there, how we will get there. They need to keep

Undodiaid Bangor Unitarians

I'm still blogging about (but not at anymore) the GA. I'm keeping an eye on the Twitter feed. This morning Undodaiaid Bangor Unitarians were welcomed into the General Assembly as a new small congregation. This is great news, in many ways the best news to come out of the these meetings. If I had been there this morning I would have stood up and said that this is the kind of thing we need to be supporting as strongly as possible. Essex Hall should prioritise support it gives to new and emerging congregations. The number one way any denomination grows is by planting new congregations. We should be giving financial grants for development, and finding ways to help the evolution of such groups to become healthier and stronger. The last time I remember this happening was Durham Unitarian Fellowship in 2003 . And where is Durham Unitarian Fellowship now, eight years later? It's extinct. We need to work hard to make sure this doesn't happen again. Emerging congregations have

General Assembly Annual Meetings 2011

The Annual Meetings are still on-going but I am home now, and can report on the first half of the meetings that I attended. Derek McAuley, the Chief Officer is also blogging from GA on his blog. The Ministerial Fellowship conference was good, and included a live video link up from a consultant in Seattle who lead a workshop on social media and communication strategy. The only other thing I can really report on is the main Business sessions . This seems to be a larger than usual Annual Meetings as the venue for the business sessions felt pretty full, and quite a bit hot, dry and stuffy. The way they are doing business has also changed and Chairs of Commissions did not give verbal reports this year. As it's written in the Annual Report, this seems like a good way to cut down on the time it takes for business. I did ask a question about reporting membership numbers and was told that the total number of Unitarians would be reported in Annual Reports in future, so five or six years a

General Assembly Preview

The Unitarian General Assmebly Annual Meetings are on this weekend. The Minister's Conference starts tomorrow and then the main meetings on Friday. I'm not staying for the whole conference this year (I'm not staying away from my congregation on Palm Sunday). So I'm not going to be live blogging exactly. I'll do some reporting when I get back. Anyone else want to do some live blogging? Anyone? I'm presuming some people will be Twittering hashtag #GAUK? To be honest I'm not sure there's anything terribly exciting going to be happening. I don't know if it's just me, but GA's feel more boring than they used to. I might be suprised.

Our Mission Statement

For the past ten months or so we've been working on a process to create a mission statement at my congregation. The process was led my a small group including myself. We began by having a meeting of the Chapel Council when all members tried to come up with a mission statement, then get together with another person and try to come up with a consensus statement between two. Then each pair joined up with another pair, and tried to come up with a consensus, and then again. The idea was to end up with one statement, but with the time available we came to two statements. But none of the statements were thrown away, all the suggestions were kept. The next step was to work with the whole congregation. During a worship service each person present was asked to come up with just one word, and all of them were collected and read out. Then all of those words, and the phrases produced by Chapel Council, were considered by our working group one evening. We considered what words were most impor

Unitarian Congregational Membership Numbers

For the first time the Annual Report of the General Assembly had included membership numbers in it's report. I still think it should include the total number of Unitarian congregations and the total composite membership numbers as a matter of policy. The UUA does this as part of it's annual reporting. But this is a step in the right direction. I think the way the numbers are reported they're probably 18 months out of date by the time they're published. It is possible to compare the 2009 numbers posted by Andy Pakula here I haven't got time to post the full results here, but I'll list the largest congregations by membership below for interest. London Hampstead 168 (up 5) Dean Row 80 (down 4) Bury 75 (down 6) Newington Green and Islington (counted as one congregation with two sites) London 70 (up 14) Eccles 67 (up 3) Atherton 62 (up 3) Edinburgh

Some thoughts on the 2011 census

This morning my census form arrived in the post. I read through it and had a few thoughts. I wonder whether I should be English or British? Ten years ago I remember agonising over whether to list myself as "Christian" in the religion question. Today I am more confortable describing myself as Christian but I will list myself as Unitarian. But it's interesting to note that there is not enough room in the question to write "Unitarian Universalist" so no one could write that if they wanted to. I shall list my job title as "Unitarian Minister" but the next question "Briefly describe what you do in your main job" I'm going to have to have a think about. I wonder whether it would be considered illegal to list a same-sex civil partner as your wife/husband if you considered them to be that spiritually and personally?

Rowan Williams on the Relations Between Church and State

Last week I went to a lecture at the University of Manchester by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The lecture was on the relationship of church and state. The link says there will be a video of the lecture available online, but I don't think it's there yet. It was of the high standard I would expect of Rowan Williams. He talked a lot about Christian witness in the political arena being based on rejecting the "chaos of selfishness" and based on a different vision of generosity, care for the least etc. All of which I entirely agreed with. But I couldn't let him get away with it without raising my hand at the end and asking how any of that was consistent with 26 Anglican Archbishops sitting as a matter of right and privelege in the state legislature. His answer wasn't entirely satisactory. I wish I could view the video to check what exactly he did say, as I can't really remember, but it seemed to me to be a bit of a fudge. And I'm

Twitter Mini-Reflections

To promote our new website and our Invite Service this weekend I've done some publicity and this week I'm doing mini-reflections on Twitter @BoltonUnitarian . An article appeared in The Bolton News here .

New Website for Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Yesterday we launched our new website at Bank Street . Our webmaster's been working on it for a while and it's really good to finally have it up and running. There's a few new features and hopefully it will be easier to maintain and update than the last one. Any constructive feedback is appreciated as we try to work out any kinks. Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, Bolton

Prayer and Protest

The view from Egypt This is an amazing icon of nonviolent dignified prayer vs the power of the state. Let's hope that any protests remain rooted in prayer and non-violent action. H/T Young Anabaptist Radicals

The Alternative Vote Referendum

I've started to have a think about the AV referendum in May. I've been disappointed so far that I've not seen any wide-ranging discussion about a possible change in our voting system. My instinct has been to support Alternative Vote, but I'm happy to change my mind in a public debate. I just want to see a public debate. I haven't seen one yet. I feel like this is a pretty important issue and we need a proper debate about it. I've had a look at the Yes campaign and the No campaign websites. I did so with a reasonably open mind, but I have to say the arguments of the No campaign are absolutely rubbish. They keep talking some people having their votes counted more than others. But this is misleading nonsense. Under AV some people's votes may be physically counted by the vote counters on the night more than once, but everyone still only gets one vote. A person's vote will only be counted again if their first choice is eliminated. It seems to me to be int

Management vs Leadership

"Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. The most important aspects of management include planning, budgeting, organising, staffing, controlling, and problem solving. Leadership is a set of processes that creates organisations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles." John Kotter The problem with British Unitarianism, locally and nationally, is that we do management rather than leadership.

Bank Street Unitarian Chapel on Twitter and Facebook

Happy New Year! My new year's resolution is to for my congregation to reach out to more people than we have before. As such I've finally given in and started a Twitter account @BoltonUnitarian . Please note this is not my personal Twitter account, but the congregation's. This blog remains my own thoughts and reflections. But the Twitter is for Bank Street Unitarian Chapel. While I'm at it I've also created a Facebook page for Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, Bolton. Feel free to like it.