Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Flexibility of American Religion

As part of my American trip during my sabbatical to the 2016 Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Studies I took part in a tour of local Unitarian Universalist congregations. The conference was in the Minneapolis/St Paul area and so we were taken around several UU congregations in the Twin Cities.

We visited the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis:

If you look at the main external picture here you will see the words "Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one."

This might seem to be a surprising thing to find on a Universalist church (though it is of course classically Unitarian). But that's because the building used to belong to a Jewish synagogue. Certain features like that still looked fairly synagoguey including Stars of David at the end of each pew.

We were told that the Universalist church bought this building, while simultaneously selling their old building to a different synagogue.

We were also shown a Roman Catholic church.

This church was originally a Universalist church in the nineteenth century. The Universalists then sold the building to French Canadian Catholics as they started coming into the area. It is still a Catholic church today, but no longer French-speaking. The basic structure of the building though was built by the Universalists.

Later on that same trip I visited our partner church, Spindletop Unitarian Universalist Church in Beaumont Texas.

They had just a few months ago moved into a new building that has previously had a lot of different secular uses. They're just settling into their new home. For a while they had no building of their own and worshipped in an art studio space.

All this made me think about the flexibility of American religion. How American congregations don't seem to think much of selling one building and moving to another one, even if it's several miles away. A building serves them for a while, and then it no longer serves them any more, and they sell it and buy another building.

Although I know this does happen in the UK, it doesn't seem to happen quite so easily. Americans seem to see congregations as societies of nomadic people, capable of moving from place to place. Whereas there's something in the British psyche that tends to see churches as part of geography, like mountains and rivers. They have always been there and they always will be. They were pagan sacred places and then a thousand years ago a parish church was built on the spot, and it continues to be part of the sacred geography.

There are advantages and disadvantages of course to these attitudes, but I thought they were worth noting and musing upon.


Meanwhile I might just put some more pictures of my trip to Convocation here as well:

Me giving my talk.

Keynote speaker Rosemary Bray McNatt, talking quite a lot about British Unitarians condemning lynching of black Americans more than America Unitarians did.

First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

Unity Church, St Paul

Thursday, February 02, 2017

What is a Unitarian? (Video)

Monday, November 28, 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, eternal damnation and other ideas and eventually become a Unitarian Pentecostal movement. 

Why shouldn't this happen? Unitarianism has spontaneously happened in different countries across the globe. In Britain there were movements of Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians who all became Unitarians. Why shouldn't that happen again in other denominations? History would suggest such a thing is quite possible. 

So in 50 or 60 years time "our" Unitarianism has died but a Pentecostal Unitarianism now exists, a Unitarianism with Pentecostal worship and culture. And then they discover our tradition and start mining it for its treasures as they build a new Unitarian identity.

What do we want them to find in the archives? What will resource them well in the future? Will they be excited that we used the latest technology and trends (which by then will be woefully out of date)? Will they think we had good advertising? Will they be impressed by our accounts and healthy bank balances? Will they be inspired by our committee minutes and efficient meetings that we had by the bucket load?

Let me suggest that the answer is no.

But if they were to discover inspirational devotional material, sermons, theology, spiritual writings, and stories of a bold and fearless people living prophetic lives, then this, I would suggest would inspire them. And Unitarianism would rise again.

I'm not a seer and I'm not saying I can predict that this is how it will happen. It's just a hypothetical experiment. But then again, it's not a crazy prediction either.

But my point is this: even if we are going to die, it still matters the kind of thing we do, and what legacy we leave, and this might shift our priorities. 

So I'm making a commitment now. I'm going to try, I'm really going to try to use this blog to give a much more positive and powerful message about our tradition. I'm going to try and let off the snipping and criticism and I'm going to try to do just do my thing. I'm going to try to just give my best understanding of the nature of this powerful and amazing tradition called Unitarianism. Because, maybe, this blog might be one of the things that's left over. And that's the legacy I want to leave. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

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. We have gathered and listened to a presentation about a topic. We have not worshipped.

The biggest problem, the biggest biggest problem by far in Unitarianism is that we don't actually worship.

Worship is never ever "about" anything. A sermon is about something. But "worship" is not synonymous with "sermon". Worship is not about anything. Worship is about worship. It does not have a theme or a topic. It is about the same thing every single time: opening the soul to God.

Worship is the spiritual practice of a community. It is people drawing near to one another and to God. And it is primarily non-rational. There may be a bit of explanation, exploration, thinking in it, but that is a secondary purpose. The primary purpose is to create a first-hand experience of the numinous through bodily acts. Such acts may be singing, meditation, dancing, ritual, feasting. But they are bodily before they are mental and rational.

We can be scared of such things because we tend to be people who get a feeling of safety by living in our brains, with all the defences of doing so. Worship breaks down those defences. That is the point of it. Worship is something fundamentally silly. It is fundamentally a strange and silly thing to do that makes little sense if approached externally, because it can only be understood internally. But it is good for us. It is good for us to move out of our brains and dance and sing and bow and eat a little wafer and spin around in circles and talk gibberish. It is a time-tested method of replenishment and connection. If we don't do it, if we make worship "safe" we cease to worship, and worship ceases to "work". This is what we Unitarians have done.

Unless and until we make this kind of shift in our worship, things are going to look dire for us, because we're fundamentally not offering that which quenches the thirst of the spiritual seeker: a genuine connection to God.

Ministers can make this shift. What is more difficult is congregations who have different worship leaders every week. They are much more dependent on the "worship as presentation" model. What I would like to say to such congregations is - it's OK to just pray, mediate or sing in worship. This is I think a better path for such congregations. It would be so much better to develop a local liturgy, songs and prayers that the congregation like that they sing and say every week. A simple way of being open to one another and to the divine with a basic liturgy and plenty of silence. By all means have a cycle of inspirational readings to stimulate your thoughts. Don't worry so much about sermons. Don't worry about guest preachers.

What might be more useful to us right now than training preachers is training liturgical musicians. Although I am a preacher I would say a good musician is much more important to a small congregation than a good preacher. A musician that is liturgically and pastorally sensitive, that understands worship, that knows how to lead people in participatory music and singing. That's someone who can make a bigger difference to worship than a preacher.

And when we do train "lay preachers" the priority needs to be much more in teaching people to pray than in teaching them to preach. In fact I'm tempted to say the priority should be a deepening spiritual life, retreats, a spiritual director, a deepening connection to Life, before anyone should think about preaching. And people need to be taught to be liturgists much more than preachers, to understand the flow of worship and what it means before they think about giving any kind of message.

In short we need to understand what worship is, and start actually doing it.

Friday, November 25, 2016

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 emphasis. Perhaps these values have served UUs in the past, but now they are part of the problem. The problem is that UUs create an "iChurch" - a church that we think should only serve the needs of the individual.

To counter this he proposes a "trinity of promises": generosity, pluralism and imagination. However although there is nothing wrong with these values, I'm not sure exactly why they are the particular values that would save UUism. They seem a bit arbitrary to me and it's difficult to see why they would be the solutions to the problems of individualism, exceptionalism and anti-authoritarianism.

More fruitful I believe is Muir's emphasis on Beloved Community as the mission of Unitarian Universalism. This seems like a good emphasis for the mission of UUism, although for me there are limits to its usefulness.

The rest of the essays by other authors sort of expand on these points with varying degrees of success. Some of them seem to say same old same old kind of UU stuff seeing salvation as a matter of being sufficiently up-to-date with the latest trends and earnestly pursuing social justice. One essay says something like "as long as there's fundamentalist religion there'll be a need for liberal religion" which suggests where fundamentalist religion is not dominant (like secular Europe) there is no need for liberal religion. It's the same old counter-dependent relationship of religious liberalism defining itself against conservative religion, and it becomes less and less effective in secular societies such as Britain and increasingly coastal USA.

But some of the essays are really inspiring, particular ones by young leaders doing church planting (this phrase isn't used) of new, radical communities that are doing mission and worship quite differently. There are real signs of hope here, and signs of different kind of UU communities arising.

For me though the book doesn't go far enough in arguing for a coherent theological and spiritual message and practice needed to save Unitarian Universalism. It talks a lot about story but ultimately does not provide a spiritual story but points to vague values like "generosity." Such words do not save. Stories save.

Whether Muir's prophecy is accurate is an interesting question. Will British Unitarianism die, and the US learn from this to bring about a radical change in the way it does things? Perhaps. Perhaps in 50 years British Unitarianism will be dead and American UUs will be down to 10,000 members, or will have learnt the lesson and be doing OK. Perhaps secularisation is an inevitable process and American society is just 50 years behind Britain in this process?

But I think such comparisons are dangerous. Secularisation is a complicated thing happening in very different ways in different countries. I do think secularisation is going to hit UUs more strongly than they currently realise, and decline may well be on the cards, but this is not a simple picture.

But there is another way to look at this. It really depends on how you believe change happens. It may be that American UUism can be persuaded to change while British Unitarianism has stubbornly refused to. Or it may be that the only way change happens is through death and resurrection. It may be that in 50 years British Unitarianism has gone through the process of death and resurrection, while the US UUs are still hanging onto life, but declining. It may be that the changes Muir argues for cannot happen in any other way. If that's true it will happen in Britain before it happens in the US.

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.