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Showing posts from 2012

"Values" are overrated

This is the second of my "heretical" Unitarian thoughts. I think what might be the most unhelpful of the orthodoxies of modern Unitarianism is that what really matters is "values." As we have become more doctrinally diverse we have seen "values" as the only thing that can unite us. So we can agree on nothing religious, so we decide we will just agree on basically liberal values of tolerance, gay rights, the environment, etc. We have begun to think this is what matters most in our religious community. You can see this in the language that has been coming out of the leadership of the American UUs recently.  This statement from UUA President Peter Morale s has caused a lot of discussion. In it he notes some interesting points including the fact that a lot more people in America identify as UU than actually go to congregations, and a lot of people who grew up in UU congregations don't continue to attend as adults. This, in a sense, is the inevitable

"Diversity" is overrated

I've had some "heretical" thoughts knocking around in my head recently. I think it's time I said some of them. Of course Unitarians claim we embrace heresy, but we have plenty of orthodoxies, some of which may not be helpful, some of which may need challenging. One orthodoxy is "what we're really all about is diversity" - or as the GA website puts it: "Unitarianism is an  open-minded and individualistic  approach to faith that gives scope for a very wide range of beliefs and doubts. Religious freedom for each individual is at the heart of Unitarianism. Everyone has the right to search for meaning in life and reach their own conclusions. Unitarians see diversity and pluralism as valuable rather than threatening. They want faith to be broad, inclusive, and tolerant. Unitarianism can therefore include people who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan and Atheist." Unitarians want to be "broad, inclusive, and tolerant.&q

173 congregations?

I got my directory in the mail today. As always I use this as one of the ways to keep an eye on the overall health of the denomination. This is not always an easy thing to do, but it's still worth trying. The preface says that there are 173 Unitarian congregations in Great Britain, which is one up on last year (172). But I can't work out where the new congregation has come from. The breakdown in the preface suggests that the growth is in England (146 congregations compared to last year's 145). When I counted the recognised congregations and unofficial fellowships I also counted 146, but none of those are new, so perhaps last year's numbers were wrong? I'm confused. However, going through the directory, I can see that one congregation has closed in England and one fellowship has been formed in Scotland. Gloucester Unitarians , listed as worshipping with the Quakers once a month in 2011, has disappeared in 2012. Gloucester is a city with a population of 121,000

"Redefining" marriage

OK, let's deal with this idea, presented by the critics of marriage equality, and defenders of "traditional" marriage that same sex marriage "redefines"  marriage. Is this true? What is the nature of this "redefinition"? I think we gain an important insight into this from an interesting story that has just emerged from Australia. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney has added the word "submit" to the vows a wife makes to her husband in the marriage ceremony . In the proposed new wording the minister will ask the woman "Will you honour and submit to him, as the church submits to Christ?' This is justified by the very conservative bishop by explicitly saying that equality between sexes is wrong. Clearly women need to submit to men, according to this bishop. This is the argument for "traditional" marriage. It is about one woman (or more) submitting to a man. It's about women becoming, in some sense, the property of men.

A Parable for Small Congregations

H/T Scott Wells ( Boy in the Bands )

Citizen not Subject

This afternoon I am not watching the Diamond Jubilee Pageant. In fact if I didn't have Sunday responsibilities I would be at the republican protests. The idea of a hereditary head of a state seems entirely irrational to me. The idea that somebody should have the job of head of state for life for the simple reason that their parent was also the head of state is, well, just silly. But what offends me most is the language of monarchy. Our language reinforces ideas of hierarchy and class divisions - when we say "your highness" or "your majesty" we are explicitly saying that Elizabeth Windsor is a better human being than the rest of us. As Will Self said in a recent piece I heard , "while our society may pay lip service to equality of opportunity, our fundamental values remain those of inherited wealth and privilege... Yes, deference is the key - and with each bent knee, each ma'am and sir and Your Majesty, we reaffirm that this is the way things are m

LOST and theology: who are the good guys?

***Spoiler alert*** I'm continuing some theological/philosophical reflections while re-watching the series LOST. One of the recurring themes in LOST is the idea of the "good guys" and the "bad guys." We start the series assuming the survivors (who are the main characters) are the "good guys" and the mysterious "Others" are definitely bad guys. But at the end of series 2 one of the main characters asks the Others, "Who are  you people?" and they answer, in an extremely disturbing way, "We're the good guys." The series develops with a number of different factions appearing, "the people from the freighter" "the DHARMA initiative" as well as divisions among the original survivors. The question remains among all these complicated happenings "who really are the good guys?" I think one of the most significant lines in the series is an episode when Hurley is having a conversation with

Unitarian General Assembly Annual Meetings 2012

So the Annual Meetings have ended today. First I need to say that I wasn't there the whole time. Frankly it was very inconvenient and annoying that the meetings were in the week before Easter. We have a Maundy Thursday communion and this year we hosted the ecumenical Good Friday service (today), so there was no way I could be there the whole time. Frankly if I didn't have an official role in the being Chair of Ministry Strategy Group I wouldn't have gone at all. As it was I was there from Monday to Wednesday. So Tim Moore ( starting here ) has got a lot more detail than I have this year. Since I've got back Twitter has also been a good place to keep in touch: #GAUK . The meetings started, as always, with the John Relly Beard Lecture this year by Peter-Owen Jones off of the telly. A lot of people seemed to like what he was saying, but to be honest to me it was a bit of preaching to the choir. It was the kind of talk I would hear at Greenbelt , a basically liberal re

The difference between homophobia and heterosexism

The issue of same sex marriage represents a different sort of conversation than previous conversations around queer rights. Before now GLBT people have wanted to be tolerated - not criminalised, attacked, fired from their jobs etc for who they are. Same sex marriage is different it's about more than tolerance. It's about same-gender loving people standing up and demanding that their they be treated in every way equally. It's about believing that in every way same-sex relationships are of equal value to different-sex relationships. Some might say that opposition to same sex marriage is homophobic. It isn't. It's not about people having a fear or hatred of GLBT people. But it is about heterosexism - it is about believing that same-gender relationships are of an inferior status to different-sex ones. There are plenty of people who are not homophobic, who would not wish any ill to queer people, who may think of themselves as quite liberal and open, but who neverthe

I am leaving the Liberal Democrats

There's probably a few blogposts like this floating around, like this one . But I shall add to it, I am leaving the Liberal Democrats. I have been a member since 2007. Admittedly a non-active member, but nevertheless a member. I joined because I've always felt my faith calls me to be engaged with the world, and calls me to substantial financial giving to make the world a better place. For me this calls for more than giving to charities but also giving to organisations that can change the world, including political parties. Once my personal finances were somewhat stable as a young adult I knew that I had to join a poltical party. My family have always been solidly Labour, and I voted for them the first time I voted in a General Election in 2001. But I could never forgive Labour for the invasion of Iraq, by far the worst political sin this generation. So in 2007 the Liberal Democrats were the obvious choice, so I joined. I voted for Nick Clegg as party leader and supported them

Marriage equality: the conversation has got going

Well there's been a lot of news about same sex marriage in the last couple of weeks, and you know what, I really welcome it. Certainly many Catholic and Anglican clerics have been making a big sound about being against it, but I sort of welcome that too, in a way. The conversation has started! And that has got to be a good thing. When I returned to the UK in 2005 after personally witnessing the first same sex marriages in America I was frustrated that marriage equality just didn't seem to be on anyone's agenda in the UK. It just wasn't on the table. Well it's on the table now. The UK government are launching a consultation very soon about marriage equality in England and Wales and they're already a step ahead of that in Scotland. We're having the debate, and I'm glad about that because it's the first time it's really happened. For most people this is a novel idea, so I think most people haven't really made up their minds yet, and are list


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) Ke

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 de

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 meeti

The Heart of the Gospel

This morning I read this provocatively-titled article Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus . The author admits the title is a bit provocative, but he still makes some really good points. (I would only add that it's written from a US-perspective and that even in that context it does not describe all Evangelicals, though it does describe a significant segment of conservative Evangelicals. For a fruitful dialogue between a Unitarian and an Evangelical see this video .) But you do have to wonder how people who are so vocal about being Christian can have values so different from the actual teaching of Jesus. But this does fit into some of the thoughts I'm having at the moment. What is the heart of the Gospel? What is the the most vital part of Christianity? For a great proportion of the Christian population the heart of Christianity is the person of Jesus, devotion to him, and belief in his divine sonship. Now some Unitarians claim that this kind of thing was only made up in the fourth ce

"Can you have sex?"

This does fit into my current musings on theology of ministry, honest.

Have we forgotten how to pray?

Have you read Art Lester’s 2008 Anniversary Sermon ? If not you should do, go on, do it, I’ll wait for you. Even if you’ve read it before, or heard it at the time, go read it again . It’s really important stuff. Go on. Art’s words are on my mind at the moment. You see what I find most disheartening about some Unitarian gatherings is not someone saying “there’s not enough of us” or “we don’t have enough money” – it’s my sense that we’ve forgotten how to pray. When we try to pray, or have something like prayer, I often think to myself that we don’t get it. They might be really worthy words, clever or thought-provoking words, but I don’t think it’s prayer. Maybe I’m being really intolerant and judgmental and not recognising that other people have different sorts of spirituality. Maybe. Forgive me if I am. But Unitarian prayer often seems to me to be not deep enough. Prayer’s not just “here’s some cool words.” Prayer should be saying “OK, what we’re doing here is connecting ourselves

Time and Faith

There may be many reasons why orthodox Christianity doesn't make sense to me, one of them is about a theology of time. Orthodox Christianity seems to me to be a lot about the future and the past, and for whatever reason that doesn't make any sense to me. There's a lot of talk about "what God has done" and "what God will do" which just seems sort of irrelevant to me. Maybe it's because I'm a scientist by inclination and by training, and I sort of look for universal laws. Because the law of gravity is a fundamental law of the universe it was the same 2000 years ago, it will be the same 2000 years from now, it is the same today. It does not change. Similarly I would expect theological laws to be the same today as they were 2000 years ago, yet orthodox Christianity insists that God was more present in the universe 2000 years ago than God is today. I cannot accept that. Also I'm convinced that mindfulness of the present is so very important.

I am not a vicar

The previous post on what ministers should wear during a protest led to a conversation about what ministers should wear in any case, which also leads to the question of what a Unitarian minister is in any case. Sometimes people call me a vicar, usually non-churched friends while we're sitting in a pub. I'm not exactly offended by this, the worst thing to do is judge non-churched folks at using the wrong terms, giving the impression that religious people are hyper-sensitive and easily offended so you need to walk on eggshells around them. But nevertheless I would say, no, I'm not a vicar. The basic way of explaining this is to say vicar comes from "vicarious" - doing something for someone else, and I don't do anything for anyone else. I don't do your religion for you, you have to do it for yourself. But I suppose the basic reason why I don't wear a clerical collar is because I'm not a vicar, this is also the reason I do not use the title "

We are but witnesses

I love the Quakers. I find it quite inspiring the way they have come to a decision on same-sex marriage. They have produced a fantastic document, designed to explain their decision to other faith communities, that you can download here . The most signigicant paragraph of their decision is this one: …we are being led to treat same sex committed relationships in the same way as opposite sex marriages, reaffirming our central insight that marriage is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses. The question of legal recognition by the state is secondary. It's such a spiritually and theologically articulate decision, and also one that is incredibly simple. It's worth reading if your community is making a decision about same-sex marriage, as my own is doing soon.