Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reflecting on my pilgrimage to the sites of Polish Brethren Anabaptist Unitarianism

(This update is a little late, but hey.)

In June I was on a Unitarian pilgrimage to the few remaining extant sites of Polish Anabaptist Unitarianism. As I have said before I increasingly see myself as a Unitarian Anabaptist, and so it was important for me to see what still exists of this important tradition of our past. The answer is not much. There are a few Polish Brethren chapels, though if you didn't know it you might just think they were barns. Two were on private estates where the owners had spent some money restoring them. One was on land beside a school. One was just in a field by the side of the road.






They were one, two, or three storeys high. Where there were upper storeys they would have been used as an apartment for the minister.

Inside they were simply and white-washed. In one there were some biblical inscriptions but it's not clear if these had been added when the buildings were taken over by Calvinists in later years.

In Racow, the centre of Polish Unitarianism, there are no chapels standing. On the site of the Unitarian chapel a large Catholic Church has been build (called, of course, "Holy Trinity Church").



In the seventeenth century the Polish Brethren were persecuted out of existence by conservative Catholic forces. They were utterly destroyed and a liberal tolerant country became the conservative country Poland still is to this day to some extent.

It was good to return to these sites, to pray in these chapels deprived of prayer for centuries. To touch them and wonder what memories they held. The most touching moment was when Transylvanian members of the group sung a psalm in Hungarian in one of the chapels. The simplicity of Unitarian worship echoed through those ancient walls, perhaps for the first time in more than three hundred years.

In some ways this is a forgotten strand of Unitarian history. But I continue to feel that this movement is not just our past, but may in fact hold the keys to our future.

That's because Polish Unitarians emphasised the thing that is most missing in British and American Unitarianism - and that is discipleship.

Polish Unitarians were not just liberal, they were also radical. They understood that faith meant rejecting the values of the world and embracing the values of the kindom of God. They understood this meant a radical change of life in embracing discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth.

They rejected the values of militarism. Nobles who converted refused to wear swords which were their usual symbol of rank. They understood that they were committed to the gospel of peace.

They rejected the values of materialism. One convert, Jan Niemejewksi, sold his large estate, and freed all his serfs. He understood that riches and discipleship were not compatible. In the early days they even experimented with a "common purse," rejecting the idea of private wealth, though in reality this became impractical and didn't work.

They rejected hierarchy. They debated whether it was right to have ministers of whether they should, like the Quakers, embrace a radical understanding of the priesthood of all.

They practised adult baptism as they understood that faith was about making a conscious decision to follow Jesus and live by these values.

They celebrated reason, rejected the Trinity and the sacrifice of the cross, but this lead them to engage more deeply in the radical teaching of Jesus.

And they understood that they were a radical minority, and would never be anything other than that.


In post-Christendom secular Britain, where religion is no longer respectable or socially normal I tend to believe that the future involves embracing this kind of radicalism. Church as Sunday hobby is dead. It was never true to real religion and it offers no appeal to seekers.

But there is a minority of people who will be attracted to a faith which offers radical discipleship, a set of community practices that will help them to join in the work of transforming the world.

Our future is to be tiny. A tiny minority. But a radical tiny minority that by it's commitment can change lives and change the world.



Monday, May 15, 2017

Should we change language to attract newcomers?

I have heard the opinion recently, and not least at the last Unitarian Annual Meetings, that we need to change language to attract newcomers. Don't say "hymn" or "church" (or even "God") - we're told - these sorts of words put people off.

This argument comes from a genuinely good instinct - to do all we can to attract people outside our Unitarian communities - but I think it needs thinking about a bit more. Let me use an example to think through these issues.

Imagine I am on a mission to get more people to play football in the United States of America. I would certainly be starting on the wrong foot if I started talking about "football" all the time, because that means a completely different sport in that culture. I would need to use the word "soccer." It would be absolutely necessary to translate a term to something more meaningful in that culture. In all I did I would say, "I'm promoting soccer" even though in my life and culture I would naturally use the word "football."



But that is a different process to thinking "Americans don't like exercise they like fast food" so I'm going to say, "I'm promoting lovely delicious fast food." I'm sure I could selectively find lots of research and statistics to back up my assertion that Americans prefer fast food to exercise. And so I could make a good argument that saying "I'm promoting fast food" would be a much more popular advertising campaign. So I could set up football matches but advertise them as giving away fast food. I could put up golden arches outside football pitches but then when people came through them they would discover not fast food but in fact the invitation to play football. The problem with this is obvious. It is false advertising. It is lying.



The other way I could promote this is the opposite. I could say "come and play soccer" but in fact give up the game and just give people fast food when they turned up. "I'm promoting football" I could say, "It's just that 'football' now means eating hamburgers, as we've discovered that that's much more popular." This has the disadvantage that it might very well annoy the people who did want to come and play football, but in turning up have discovered only fast food. It also, obviously, is a failure of the basic mission of getting people to play football - I have failed in that task as I've forgotten what football actually is. I'm just promoting something entirely different and labelling it "playing football."



So, to return to the world of religion - should we give up words like "hymn" "church" or "God"? Well, that entirely depends. If it is a matter of translating a term into something more meaningful to a particular culture, then fine. But if it is indulging in lying (pretending we're something we're not) or of abandoning the mission (promoting something more popular, but in doing so losing the very essence of what we're doing) then we clearly shouldn't.

The point is we need to know very clearly what the essence is of what we're doing before we start doing it. I need to be very clear that I know what football is and how to play it before I go about my mission of getting more people to play it. If I get in a muddle and start promoting American football (an entirely different game) then I'm failing in my mission. If I cheat, lie, or cynically manipulate what I'm doing so that I'm really promoting fast food and simply labelling it "playing football" then I'm failing in my mission.

And if I want people to play football I need to realise that I am going to have to spend some time getting people to understand the language and the rules of the game. I need people to understand the off-side rule, what a goalkeeper is, what a penalty is, if I want people to play football. If people change the language, and use entirely different words, then no problem. But if folks start changing the rules, like picking up the ball with their hands, then we have stopped playing football.

Similarly it is not unreasonable to think that in joining a religious community, there will need to be a process of induction and education. People don't understand what a term means? Well, of course they don't, until we teach them. We must teach them the rules - the practices of the faith. That may be a process that takes a long time, years even.

So how about dropping a word like "worship" - calling it a "gathering" or "celebration" or something like that? Well, sure, if that's a reasonable translation of the term that is more meaningful and understandable, then absolutely fine. But if we actually stop worshipping, if we actually change the core activity that we're doing, then we've got rather in a muddle. And we may have failed to fulfil our mission.


If our mission is to get people to worship (a particular spiritual practice) then it doesn't really matter if we call it "worship" or some other term. But if we cease to worship because we believe people don't like worship, then we have failed in our mission to get people to worship. We've stopped doing the core activity we were trying to promote. We started playing football, and now we're just eating hamburgers. 

(Some of these ideas are explored in a similar way in the book "Evangelism after Christendom" by Bryan Stone)

Monday, May 08, 2017

Prayer - the centre of Unitarian faith (video)


Think For Yourself



Thursday, April 06, 2017

On going to church, and not going to church

One of the most important parts of the experience of being on sabbatical was the experience of not being a minister. After eight years of being a minister I needed to spend some time not being a minister. I needed to become a lay person. Actually, not even really a lay person. I became, a free, non-church person. Sunday morning came. I could go to church. Or I could chose not to. For the first time in ten years it was entirely up to me with no obligations.

What I discovered was that, for the most part, I did want to go to church. But when I did, I came to church with huge expectations. I mean absolutely huge expectations. And if they weren't met I was incredibly disappointed. And I tend to think this is the experience of most people visiting our congregations.

I think those of us who lead worship need to realise how hungry people are when they walk through the door. We need to not insult their intelligence or their spirituality by offering something paltry.

I mean do you know how wonderful it is not to go to church? Do you? I've got to tell you, it's pretty marvellous. I tried it. I liked it. It's absolutely lovely to sit in a cafe on a lazy Sunday morning, read the paper, read a novel or an interesting book.

And as a spiritual seeker, it's pretty good too. There are some amazing books out there that expand the mind and the heart. It is possible to meet God in reading those books. It's an absolutely wonderful, and spiritual experience to enjoy breakfast, coffee and a good book on a Sunday morning.



Why interrupt that and go to a church? Well, only for one reason that I can see - because church offers something more: because church offers a deeper experience of the divine and a deeper wisdom for life. That will get me there.

But I've got to tell you, if I go to church and experience something with less spiritual power and wisdom than sitting in a cafe reading a good book, then I am pretty pissed off. I feel cheated and annoyed. I've asked for bread and you've given me a stone. I wish I had stayed in the cafe.

Maybe I am a demanding consumer, a demanding worshipper. Well actually, yeah, I am. I really am. It takes a lot of effort to get to church, and if I'm offered something less than real worship, something less than what you are advertising, then yeah I am bloody annoyed.

Because I think we do often offer less than real worship. We often offer mediocre after-dinner speeches. We often offer academic essays. We often offer twee pleasantries. We often offer things I could easily read in a book. We often offer amateurism and mild embarrassment about the act of worship itself.

Am I piling up the pressure here on preachers and service leaders just doing their best? Well maybe. But my first response to that would be if this is the truth of why visitors don't stay, we need to know that truth. But my second response would be this is not necessarily about doing things better, but doing things differently.


It's not that we need to become more proficient public speakers. Rather its that we need to offer a transforming experience of worship (which does not ultimately depend on the skill of anyone but rather the openness of participants to the divine). And we need to offer humble reflections that have come from people who are walking a genuine path of faith.

People come to church hungry. They could be doing lots of other things, but they've made the effort, they've taken the risk and they are hungry for something of real spiritual depth. If we give them less than that, we are turning away the hungry or feeding them only a thin soup that will give them no real satisfaction, 

Worship leaders need to always keep this in mind. 

The spiritual path of joy (video)


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Want to change the world? Let love be your energy.

Want to change the world?
Let love be your energy.

A better world is possible when we're powered by love.
Find the love within.
And let love be your guide.

We are Unitarians.

"Never lose a holy curiosity."

"Never lose a holy curiosity."

So said Albert Einstein.

For us, curiosity is holy.
We never stop questioning, never stop seeking.
The universe is too big to think we have all the answers.
We believe in curiosity.
We believe there is more to life than we can know.
We believe faith should open your mind, not close it down.
We believe we will always have more questions than answers.
Ours is the religion of curiosity.

We are Unitarians.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

We love Jesus. We love Buddha too.


We love Jesus. We love Buddha too.
And Muhammad and Krishna and Moses and Guru Nanak and Julian of Norwich.
And lots of other folks.
We find that when you look for it, you find spiritual wisdom in lots of places.
And why should wisdom only come from one place?
Why should God only care about one religion?

What if God's love is bigger than any one religion?
What if God speaks in a thousand different voices? Shouldn't we listen?

We believe truth is bigger than any one religion.
We believe love is bigger than any one belief.
Love beyond belief.

We are Unitarians.






Wake up! And smell the God.


Spirituality has one simple purpose: to get us to wake up.
We usually live half-asleep, half-blind, half-dead.
Wake up! Wake up to the simple truth that there is so much to experience in life.
You are surrounded by so much love and so much beauty.
You are surrounded by so much God.
God is not a man in the sky.
God is a way of seeing the world when you're fully awake. So wake up, open your eyes, and take it all in.

We are Unitarians.