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

Monday, February 08, 2016

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

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 prediction: in the next ten years we will see 50 congregations close down. 

A word of caution: I would probably have made the same prediction ten years ago, and that "apocalyptic" moment hasn't come yet. But I can't see it being put off much longer. I predict an increase in the rate of church closure.

The real question is whether we will have the presence of mind to be effective in the use of assets of these closures. Let me crunch some numbers, keeping estimates very conservative. Even if congregations have no assets other than buildings, if buildings are worth an equivalent of the average value of a UK house (£200,000) then 50 congregations still adds up to ten million pounds.

If we could harness that ten million pounds for mission, we may actually be able to do some exciting, brave and important things. Of course this will not be the decision of one person or one institution. It will generally be the decisions of individual districts, where the money is most likely to go. But if that money could be given over to mission imagine what could be achieved.

Imagine is the 2020 Congregational Development Fund could be given ten million pounds. The assets from old congregations could be used to seed new ones. Wouldn't that be marvellous?

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

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 so much about buildings that this church was extremely successful by just renting space.

I was warmly welcomed as I went through the doors, in fact I was given a high-five. The people right there at the door were enthusiastic and joyful and it really showed the culture right there from the first second of the experience.

There was a free cloakroom! Which was absolutely wonderful for me as I was carrying a large heavy bag and felt much better not having to barge my way past people with it. So after depositing the bag I went into the large theatre space and took up a seat about halfway into the space. At that point I think they were encouraging people to fill up the bottom floor (stalls) before letting people go to the next level. I looked around at the people there. They were largely young (I don't think I saw anyone over 50, certainly no one over 70) and the crowd was pretty multicultural. In short, it looked like London. The people in the church were exactly the same kind of people I would see in the streets. I'm not very good at estimating crowds but my best guess would be that there were about 500 people there.

Things got going. The one word I would use to describe the worship experience was LOUD. Like, really really loud. So loud many people would no doubt find the experience unpleasant. The service continued much as I expected it to: beginning with a long period of singing five or so songs; then various bits of talking, prayers, a long sermon, an altar call.

Of course I didn't know any of the songs, but I did my best to sing along, if I didn't object to the words too much. The weird thing was, the music was so loud I couldn't actually tell if the congregation were singing or not. I could hear the guitars and drums and voices of singers on stage, but the sound system was so loud I couldn't hear the congregation. Although in a way this was strange, in other ways I enjoyed the fact that I could not sing some words and no one would notice, or if you felt you were a bad singer, you could not sing and no one would notice. People were joining in in other ways. They were raising hands and all that jazz. The people right at the front seemed to be making a bit of a "mosh pit" going a bit crazy on the front row. Some people were even getting their phones out and taking pictures! That for me felt very weird "in church" but this didn't feel like "in church" in a way. It felt quite a lot like a concert.

Also one unforgivable sin - there was a grammatical mistake on one of the song words on the screen!

The (intercessory) prayer bit I found a bit strange. They had obviously collected prayers from prayer slips or via email before the service, and so on the screen appeared some short sentences for what people were praying for: "my son's GCSE results", "my brother's addiction problems" etc. Fine. I see nothing wrong with that, it's a pretty good way to do that in a large church. But I wanted to sit quietly, and read and honour those prayers as they appeared on the screen. But I found I couldn't really do that because the leaders were yacking on and on about prayer. This was definitely the thing I noticed: I couldn't tell when we had stopped talking about prayer and started praying. It all felt a bit of a jumble to me as the leaders spoke fast and loudly and I felt like saying, "can you please shut up so I can actually pray and honour those joys and concerns that are being displayed on the screen?"

There were no women's voices in the service. I counted four men who contributed but no women. But I might be being unfair in making this comment as it's quite easy that you could come to my church and not hear any women's voices on a Sunday too.

There was very little I could object to in the intellectual content of the service. In the prayer bit there was a theology that God did literally answer prayers. The sermon itself was not particularly conservative at all, nor was it particularly impressive. The basic gist of it was that we have things to do in the world to change it for the better. The preacher spoke about Martin Luther King and various other examples. In some ways it wouldn't have been completely out of place in a Unitarian church. Apart from an aside dig at evolution it wasn't a particularly fundamentalist or conservative Evangelical message.

The young woman beside did play with her phone through a lot of the sermon though, which again I felt a bit shocked by. But then again it was a relaxed atmosphere so you felt no one was watching you. I felt perfectly comfortable reaching into my bag and taking a swig out of a bottle of water, which I might not have done in a different church.

The service ended with an "altar call" of a kind. But they didn't ask anyone to come to the front if they wanted to "give themselves to Jesus" but just to raise their hand. Everyone was standing at this point and my head was bowed so I didn't see if anyone did, or how many.

The service ended and people filed out happily. There was no social time at all from what I could see. No tea or coffee, just spilling out again onto the streets of London. It occurs to me if you had a friend in the congregation you would have to send them a text message to arrange a place to meet them afterwards. You would easily miss them otherwise.

So what do I conclude from this experience? Well I'm very glad I went, and I found it an interesting and somewhat enjoyable experience. In general everything was done well and things were organised and professional. It was a place that was very easy to be anonymous, which is exactly what I wanted that morning. I wanted to slide in, experience something, then slide out without anyone noticing me, and that's pretty much what happened. But it's very tough to build community that way. Clearly they did have a small group ministry programme that they were promoting, but still I felt you could go to a church like that for months without really making any real connections if you were a shy person. These are all the predictable problems of very large churches.

What can someone like me in a little old Unitarian church learn from such a place? Well I think a culture of joy and enthusiasm has much to commend it. As well as being functional outside a building. But ultimately I think the effectiveness of mega-churches is limited, especially outside of large urban areas.

My main criticism though would be the simple impression that it didn't feel like worship for me. Don't get me wrong, I don't object to clapping, loud joyful music etc. But something about the experience did not click for me. In the end there was just too much going on for me to find God. I need a more spacious feel to find God. Places of depth and wonder. For me the loud music drowned out that. And without that, I'm not sure the rest matters so much.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Unitarian Theology Conference 2016

Something I've been working on. .
All are welcome at a Unitarian Theology Conference at Cross St Chapel, Manchester, on Saturday 21st May, 2016, 10.30 for 11 am start. Details are on poster below. 
Fuller details also in text below.
Unitarian Theology Conference, Cross Street Chapel, Manchester
Saturday 21st May 2016. 10.30 for 11am to 5pm
"Do Unitarians need Theology?" Stephen Lingwood
Response by Dr Melanie Prideaux
Lunch (please bring your own, or sandwich bars nearby).
"The Spirit in Unitarian and Judaeo-Christian Thought" Rev Jo James
KEYNOTE ADDRESS "Towards a Unitarian Theology for the Twenty-First
Century" Rev Dr David Steers.
Panel Discussion: Revs Sarah Tinker, Sheena Gabriel and Lewis Connolly.
Opening and closing devotions, as well as time for Q + A.
The conference is supported by The Hibbert Trust.
Further information contact Rev Jim Corrigall.