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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. 

Forth Valley Unitarian Fellowship is new. They are meeting in members homes, but do have a decent website.

So, overall numbers of congregation are steady or steadily declining. I do wonder though, how long numbers of members can continue to decline before we see numbers of congregations declining rapidly. I wouldn't be surprised if one year we see ten congregations dying. But some research does suggest that small congregations can be surprisingly resilient.


What is more important than the absolute number of congregations is the number of effective congregations ; I know there is a significant number of congregations 'hanging on' whose witness to the Unitarian faith is just not strong enough to encourage inquirers, often sympathetic to the advertised claims of a liberal religious denomination, to affiliate to them.Churches whose age profile is 50 plus across the board will not easily draw in families with children, churches that do not engage as an identifiable body with their local community beyond the provision of a Sunday service will not attract those with the volunteering energy to carry them forward into the future.Yes, some small congregations can be persistent in taking a long time to fade away, some can be truly resilient and come back 'from the dead' but there are some who have been 'going through the motions' of being a church for a long time with no discernible wish to do more.
Matt said…
I agree with Kenneth's comments. I recently got married in a Unitarian church - in a very moving service with great support from the church in its planning and delivery. However, since then we have drifted from it.

The church is a pretty one, one which attracts many young couples wishing to get married, and the minister gives engaging sermons. But ultimately, I wanted to be more than a passive congregation member - and perhaps also, viewed more than a passive congregation member who was simply getting married there. That's the feeling we were often left with.

I have been a Unitarian for over a decade but I've now drifted towards the Quakers and the Baptists. The chances are I will now not go back to the Unitarians and will committ to one of these. The main reason for this is firstly - as pointed to above - the congregation didn't engage me, even when I offered to get involved.

The second reason is I am a liberal Christian, and I don't really want to exist in a denomination where there seems such tension and splits.

The Unitarians are now competing in a marketplace of liberal-minded religions, with Jews, Christians, Buddhists and perhaps even Muslims (via Sufi groups) all having liberal homes - but particularly so, liberal Christians. Things have changed and they cannot simply think proclaiming themselves liberal is what will make them stand out from the crowd.
I agree Kenneth, and I wonder at what point that might catch up with us. I wouldn't be surprised if at one point we'll start seeing 10 - 20 closures a year.

Churches adapted to the nineteenth or twentieth centuries will go extinct eventually if they don't adapt.
Matt, what would it have meant for the congregation to have engaged you? What was it your were looking for that didn't happen?

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