Wednesday, October 12, 2016

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 to function.

I need to repent of those times when I've imagined that we were a denomination that should be doing things and asked for things to be done. It's simply not realistic.

We need to stop doing it. We think of various projects that we think a denomination should be doing. We have meetings and argue about such projects. We want order and organisation and functionality. I want those things too! I'm frustrated when things don't seem to be happening properly. But I (and all of us) need to get over that.

We are still thinking as if we were a denomination of 50,000 people. Now a denomination of 50,000 people would still be a tiny denomination. But it would be big enough to function. We are no where near that. There are less than 3000 of us. We are below the level where it is possible to function as a denomination.

Our expectations need to change dramatically.

Is it possible to have a new President every year? I don't believe that it is.

Is it possible to fill all of our current committees? I don't believe that it is.

It is possible to have different grand plans and projects every five years? I don't believe that it is.

There is a certain amount of busyness that we get up that assumes we are a denomination and that such busyness will generate results. It hasn't for decades.

We need to be liberated from such busyness, liberated from trying and failing to be a denomination of 50,000 people.

And get down to what matters most...

Monday, October 10, 2016

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
2013: 170
2014: 169
2015: 166
2016: 165

Sunday, October 09, 2016

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 party whatever music you like. Whether you like rock'n'roll or dance music, classical or pop music we affirm your choice to enjoy whatever music you like. You're welcome here. We're inclusive of all musical tastes."

The guest noticed that her question wasn't actually answered, but didn't ask any other questions.

Another guest asked another of the party organisers, "Is there going to be any food or drink at this party?"

This party organiser said, "You're welcome at our party whatever food and drink you like. Whether you like crisps and pop, or a roast dinner, whether you're vegetarian or meat eater, whether you enjoy wine or are a teetotaller we affirm your choice to enjoy whatever food and drink you like. You're welcome here. We're inclusive of whatever kind of food and drink you enjoy."

The guest noticed that his question wasn't actually answered, but didn't ask any other questions.

Eventually one of the party organisers stood up and gave a speech. The guests looked interested as they thought this might be the moment when the party was really going to start.

The party organiser stood up and said, "Welcome to our party. This is an inclusive party. Whether you are gay or straight, black or white, young or old, whether you like rock'n'roll or classical music, whether you like wine or fruit juice, whether you like pasta or sandwiches, you are welcome at our party."

Then they sat down.

No music played.

No food came out.

No drink was offered.

Eventually the party guests began to get hungry and thirsty. There was no food or drink at this party. There was no music. There wasn't even any scintillating conversation. One by one the party guests slipped away.

Occasionally one of the party organisers would stand up and give another speech about how this was an inclusive party.

Some guests hung around a bit longer, because they thought it was a really noble effort to throw an inclusive party. And they thought, maybe if they waited long enough the party would get going. But eventually they too were just too hungry to stay.

Every guest left. The party organisers were left scratching their heads.

"What went wrong?" they asked, "We were very inclusive. We said that people could stay whatever music they liked, whatever food they liked. We should have been a really popular party, because we included everyone. I don't understand why this wasn't the most popular party in town."

Monday, October 03, 2016

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:

Golders Green
New Unity
*Bangor is a new congregation and wasn't registered in 2010

Monday, September 12, 2016

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 the theology of a Unitarian from previous centuries. But I would suggest that our inability to define a new theoretical framework for Unitarian theology means that paradigm shift is not an accurate term for what has happened. It is not that the continuing work of Unitarian theology has shifted to a radical new set of metaphors and symbols. It is, I would argue, that the continuing work of Unitarian theology has stopped. We have not attempted a systematic description of our theology since 1945. The task became too difficult and we stopped trying.

This is understandable as the task did become very difficult, but the result has been deeply problematic. Unitarian theology, I would suggest, has not come into a new paradigm when new vistas of work have opened up. Rather it is as if we found Newtonian physics to be inadequate, therefore we stopped publishing our physics journals, disbanded the universities, let the old books gather dust on the shelves and everyone went back to throwing apples around their own back gardens. It is as if Einsteinian physics did not happen and everyone also forgot about Newtonian physics as well, starting from scratch making up their own theories.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

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"

Monday, September 05, 2016

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 denominational statement of theology, the likes of which has never been seen since. In that sense it reminds me a bit of the Racovian catechism written by the Polish Unitarians.

It was written by 13 men, collectively, and so there was clearly enough agreement among them for this to be possible, though there are a few "minority reports" giving some dissenting views. But, apart from that, the report is written with one voice, and that in itself seems remarkable. I'm sure Lindsey press today could publish a book of 10 individual chapters giving individual views on things, but to seek one report that all will put their names to? That would be harder.

The report is an argument for a basically liberal "rational" cool (as in luke-warm) theism/ Christianity. There's a gentle self-confidence to it that I kind of like. I also found it gratifying that some of the foundations of Unitarian theology I've been trying to articulate are also spelled out pretty clearly here. It adds to an argument that I have made that we really do have a coherent theological tradition.

It's also remarkable how contemporary some of it seems, how we've been having the same conversations for decades. It starts by saying "religion is in decline, lots of people don't go to church" which is almost hilarious given the difference between now and 1945, but it's good to be reminded the trends we're experiencing having been going on for a very long time.

But overall this is a very flawed document. With the hindsight of history it seems laughably irrelevant in some ways. This is something written in 1944/1945, and yet the Second World War is never explicitly referred to. The great historical realities of war, Nazism, the Holocaust, the development of nuclear weapons are staunchly ignored. Now some of those things weren't as clear in 1945 Britain as they are now, but some of them were.

Even trends that had been happening for some time don't get a look in: the First World War, the rise of socialism and Labour, the decline of the Liberal Party and the decline of nonconformist churches, and the Great Depression are ignored too. There is not much historical consciousness.

This is a document that is rather theoretical. It spends a fair bit of time dealing with challenges to religion from Darwinian evolution and modern psychology, which is fair enough, but these issues were not the only or the most pressing ones for theology at that moment.

I can imagine the Ministers in the commission serving congregations where people were malnourished through rationing, deeply worried about loved ones serving in the forces, likely to be killed at any moment, and facing death at times through the blitz. And yet these Ministers were able to put these things entirely out of their minds when in the comfort of their own studies they wrote about ethical and theological questions.

They should not have separated so radically the pastoral needs of their congregations to the theological questions they were asking. There should have been more contextual and pastoral in their theologising. They should have worked harder at making their theology contextual.

And more practical. Like a lot of systematic theology the report tags "worship" and "church" at the end of the report and doesn't say anything very interesting in those chapters. The report can say things like developing a religious sense is essential to developing a full humanity (33) and yet not go on to ask if our churches are doing this effectively. Are the Sunday gathering, hymns, prayers, sermons by ministers, Sunday schools, social clubs etc developing the religious sense that is so important? If they are how are they doing it? If they're not why not? These sorts of questions are absent.

So there's a lot it doesn't do. But I am glad this report was written, and I feel like it should be better known and read, at least by ministers and Unitarians wanting to go more deeply into their faith and theology.

And I can't help wondering why similar reports haven't been written every twenty years. Imagine a report like this written inn 1965, 1985, 2005. No doubts those reports would be much different, and yet we would be able to see Unitarians trying to coherently express our theology every generation. I think that would be no bad thing.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"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 law that you have to go to any church.

If it was the law you had to go to church then Unitarian churches would be doing great. If the government passed a law that said, "You have to go a worshipping community once a week - it doesn't matter which one, but you must go to one" then millions would research the right church for them, and loads would go to Unitarian churches. Really, loads and loads would. We'd be doing brilliantly.

If you had to go to a church - then we'd be the kind of church that millions would choose to go to.

But here's the problem - such a law doesn't exist - and you don't have to go to church.

So let's bring it down to something weaker than a law - to some kind of "cultural momentum." If the cultural momentum in a society says "go to church" then maybe lots would and do choose to go to Unitarian churches. This cultural momentum does exist, but it exists unevenly and it is declining.

In the United States where there is still (in general) a greater cultural momentum that says "go to church" then Unitarian Universalist churches can still do well.

In Britain, if the generation(s) over 60 still experience a cultural momentum that says "go to church" then they may well decide Unitarian churches are the ones they will go to.

In this situation our evangelism is based on saying "We're really different to other churches, we're more liberal, etc etc, so you'll find us a refreshing change." That's the story of the people in our churches. We've rejected other churches and embraced Unitarianism because of its differences to other religions.

But the foundation for all of this approach is Christendom - is the cultural momentum that says "you should go to church." Once that momentum has gone, the whole thing comes crashing down.

Most folks in my generation in Britain do not experience the cultural momentum that says "go to church" and so this won't be seen as any way meaningful to them.

Here' the thing - this approach to Unitarian evangelism will work - just for an ever smaller group of people. We could keep up this approach, keep aiming at older folk who feel the momentum and an ever smaller group of younger folk. We could keep showing how we're different to other churches - and if we do really really well, it will work. To be honest it's what it most likely to work as a growth strategy for my own church.

But one day, sooner or later, it will stop working. The maths will stop working as we seek to carve a minority out of a minority.

For most people in my generation you don't need to convince them how we're "better" than other churches - but why anyone would want to go to a church in the first place. We don't need to convince them that "we're different" you need to convince them "we make a difference to life." And I think that means a completely different language and approach, a different liturgy and spirituality. It requires some kind of soteriology - some kind of theology of salvation - that shows what a difference it makes in life to have faith.

Which is why we need to be very sceptical about American approaches to Unitarian evangelism - because they are operating within a much more church-going culture so the approach of "we're different to others" is likely to be much more effective there than here.

And I have a feeling that these two approaches are mutually incompatible. I think one community that operates the "we're different" approach might be very successful in appealing to "church-goers" and maybe for another 20 years this could work very well in creating an older, but healthy congregation.

But it will work for fewer and fewer younger unchurched people. If the Unitarian community has any hope of appealing to this growing demographic it will need communities that operate from a different language and practice that is more explicit about what church does and more positive about what it is and not negative about what it is not. It will need a "we make a difference" approach.

So this would suggest we need two approaches to Unitarian evangelism.
1. Established communities can keep up the "we're different" narrative and be effective in appealing to an older demographic of church-goers. If the ministry is done well, this may be effective for some decades to come.
2. But we also need new communities to use the "we make a difference to your life" narrative to build culturally appropriate communities for the growing and younger demographic of "unchurched" people. These will be experimental, unstable, weaker communities finding their legs for some years, but after a certain cut-off point will be the only communities that will survive.

We may be some way in doing the first - but are we capable of doing the second?

Saturday, April 09, 2016

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

Monday, February 22, 2016


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