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Showing posts from 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,

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

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

We are now too small to be a denomination

There's a thought that I keep coming back to: Unitarians in Britain are now too small to be considered "a denomination." Now, I've not gone out of my way to research what sociologists of religion consider to be the definition of "a denomination" so I'm not trying to make a claim with a lot of research to back it up. But it seems to me that a denomination is "an organisation of organisations" it is a series of organisations that have enough left-over energy and personnel to donate "upwards" to the organisation of a structure that is an umbrella to those local organisations. I just don't see that being possible any more. And I think that changes things. Many times I have said of Unitarianism "someone should do something" and imagined money, people and structures who's job it is to do those things. But that's just an illusion. Those people and structures don't exist, or at least are really struggling t

165 Congregations in 2016

Here is a record of the number of Unitarian congregations in Britain in the past few years, from looking at directories that I have. 2007: 182 2008: 177 2009: 175 2010: 173 2011: 172 2012: 2013: 170 2014: 169 2015: 166 2016: 165

A parable

There were once some people who decided to throw a party. They decided to invite as many people as they could. They put up a big sign outside their house which said, "Party here, all welcome." They sent out invitations which said, "Everyone is welcome at our party, whether you're black or white, gay or straight, young or old, you're welcome at our party." They invited friends. They advertised their party on the internet. When the day of the party came around a few guests arrived and came into the party. They stood around and wondered whether anything was going to happen. There were big signs all over the party that said, "All are welcome here. Whoever you are, you are welcome at our party." But there was no music playing, and there was no sign of any food or drink. One of the guests eventually asked one of the party organisers, "Is there going to be any music playing?" The party organiser said, "You're welcome at our pa

Growing Unitarian Congregations 2010-2015

In this blog I have repeatedly called attention to shrinking Unitarian numbers. However it is worth realising that not all Unitarian congregations are in decline. The picture is of course more complicated than that. Some decline, some stay static, some grow. Membership numbers have now been reported in the Annual Report for enough years that it is meaningful to look at growth across this time.  If we look at the five years 2010-2015 we can see that in fact 32 Unitarian congregations grew in this period, though many of them by only one or two and so really within the margin of error for these kinds of numbers. Nevertheless some grew more substantially.  So the most growing Unitarian congregations 2010-2015 were: Congregation 2010 2015 Change Norwich 37 55 18 Hollywood 48 65 17 Golders Green 41 54 14

Has there been a paradigm shift in Unitarian theology?

I'm currently doing some thinking about Unitarian tradition, and bringing in some ideas from the history and philosophy of science, particularly the idea of the "paradigm shift." The concept of a paradigm shift is one first postulated by Thomas Kuhn in explaining times when science has radically changed the theoretical underpinning of its work. The shift from Newtonian physic to the physics of relativity and quantum mechanics is a classical example of this. This suggest the question - has a similar shift happened in Unitarian theology - from a basically Christian framework of God, Jesus, Bible to - something else? In addressing the question I am attempting to keep quite closely to Kuhn's understanding of "paradigm shift" and not using it in the imprecise way the phrase has dropped into language of common usage. It may be tempting to make this argument. It is a helpful explanation for why the theology of a contemporary Unitarian might be different from

Some Foundations for Unitarian Theology (Video)

If you haven't seen it already thought I would link here to my lecture in May, "Some Foundations for Unitarian Theology"

A Free Religious Faith (1945)- a belated book review

I'm currently on sabbatical so have a bit more time for thinking and writing, so you can expect a lot more content on this blog over the next few months. The first thing I'd like to share is the book I've just finished reading "A Free Religious Faith" a report created by a commission of the Unitarian General Assembly and published in 1945. This book has been gathering dust on my shelf for many years (and many other people's shelves before that probably, it's a second/third/fourth-hand book and I can't remember where I got it). But having read it, I think there's a number of things that are really fascinating about it. First, that it was written at all seems quite remarkable. In a way it is an attempt to write a coherent description of Unitarian theology, published by the denomination. True, there's always a bit of a freedom clause thing in the preface to say this isn't a once-and-for-all-official-theology, but still it is a denomin

"We're different" or "we make a difference"?

I was in a discussion today with some of my church folks. We were supposed to be talking about salvation, and I was trying to find a way into this by talking about what difference belonging to our community might make to us. I was trying to get us to think about what church does rather than what church is - asking the "process" question not the "essence" question. I asked why people came to our community, trying to work out what difference it makes to people's lives. I kept pushing but the answer I kept getting was how we were different to other churches - how other churches felt oppressive, restricting, confusing - but we felt liberating, simple, and lighter. We kept coming back to the conversation about how we're different to other churches. Which might seem like a great thing to hear - it was a positive statement about the quality of our religious life in community - but as I reflected on it it worried me. Why? Because it's not the l

Largest British Unitarian congregations by membership 2015

This is some more number crunching from the Unitarian Annual Report. I thought it would be interesting to see the largest Unitarian congregations by membership: 1. London New Unity: Membership: 83 2. London Hampstead: Membership: 79 3. Hollywood (Kingswood): Membership: 65 4. Edinburgh: Membership: 60 5. Bolton Bank Street: Membership: 58 6. Mansfield: Membership: 57 Joint 7. Kendal: Membership: 55 Joint 7: Norwich: Membership: 55 Joint 8: Bury: Membership: 54 Joint 8: Eccles: Membership: 54 Joint 8: London Golders Green: Membership: 54 9. Portsmouth: Membership: 53 10. Dean Row: Membership: 52


Unitarian numbers time again as the new Annual Report is now out. Here's the number: 3095 Unitarian members reported. This number is down, but only slightly from last year's 3,179. Only 84 people down. Here's how the numbers have gone over the last 11 years: 2005: 3952 2006: 3754 2007: 3711 2008: 3642 2009: 3658 2010: 3672 2011: 3560 2012: 3468 2013: 3384 2014: 3179 2015: 3095

Why worship God through dance?

A dervish was asked why he worshipped God through dance. "Because," he replied, "to worship God means to die to self; dancing kills the self. When the self dies all problems die with it. Where the self is not, Love is, God is." Art by Shafique Farooqi (

166 congregations and what is coming next

This is the kind of occasional post I write, keeping an eye on the numbers of the Unitarian community in Britain. The latest Directory lists 166 congregations. It takes a keen eye to see which ones have died, but I reckon than we can count 4 congregations as having closed down in the last two years. Horwich have been small and slowly closing down for a number of years. I think this is also true of Worthing. Halliwell Road Free Church Bolton closed down last year, and the remaining congregation have now joined with my community. This has been a very positive experience and seemed like a sensible move. Newington Green and Islington have now formally merged, having been acting as one community (New Unity) for several years. This is not a sign of decline, but in fact quite healthy growth the last few years. So that's where we are in 2015/2016. I looked through the Directory carefully to think about what the future will hold. From what I know of congregations, here's my pr

Reflections on visiting Hillsong

OK, so this blogpost is very overdue. I've been meaning to write a post about an experience I had in the summer and have not got around to it before now. While on holiday in the summer I found myself in London on a Sunday. I was faced with the usual question of a Sunday: do I go to church? Do I just ignore the fact that it's Sunday and get on with the day? Or do I seek out a Unitarian church? Or some other church. Anglican? Quaker? Maybe a nice cathedral. What I decided to do was find the biggest, Evangelical megachurch I could and go along. I did a quick bit of research and decided to go to Hillsong. I thought to myself if they're very successful there are always things to learn. Plus I'm just really fascinated, in a religious studies sort of way, with this kind of thing. The church meets in one of London's West End theatres and so it was very easy to find coming straight out of the tube and finding it in front of me. It's worth reflecting when we obsess