Sunday, 20 June 2010

Organic Growth versus Acquisitions

As The Bottom Line with Evan Davis points out this week, growth can come with acquisition or by organic growth, the latter meaning building up a business. Acquisition suggests that nothing in fact grows, it is a purchase in, but resources may be integrated in a new firm and value added that way. It is daft, for example, to reinvent a wheel when the product you want is out there, to be integrated into another product line.

In the religious world the equivalent is structural ecumenism or rationalising, or building within a church. In the 1960s and 1970s there were delusions of growth by rationalising and joining congregations, the biggest and best case being the formation of the United Reformed Church. Building a decent gathering from a number of places gives another chance for the new place to develop. Yet the URC continues to diminish. Such transdenominational mergers always weaken traditionalisms within the subsequent denomination and thus one of the hooks of attachment is lost. Also some traditionalists form continuing Churches and thus make a joining a bit messy.

The Methodists have an active closure programme within their own denomination, and it might like to merge back with the Church of England (could be a culture shock there).

The problem is that people are attached to buildings, locations and styles, and so every merger loses people along the way, who simply stop attending. It shows just how much church attendance is a cultural matter, and that there is not some irreducible ecumenical core.

Evangelicals seem to make most claims to organic growth, but it's more complicated than this, however, because people also circulate. They are loyal to the evangelical brand rather than one of the old denominations. For as long as they have the belief pattern, they may well move around from one place to another according to attraction. Some of the big media churches are vacuum cleaners from smaller less exuberant or entertaining evangelical concerns.

Unitarians have no one to merge with any more, so churches either bob along the bottom or work out their own organic growth. They once merged with Unitarian Baptists, and with Cookite Methodists and liberalising congregationalists. Those were the old days. Nowadays liberal theology is in some trinitarian denominations, but the formalities and self-deceptions about liberal positions (many a trinitarian of old wouldn't recognise some of the descriptions that pass as 'trinitarian' these days) mean a wall between Unitarians and other liberals.

The nearest merger group would be the Society of Friends, but then there is a radical difference of style. Unitarians still practice with the culture of a Protestant Church, even if the content is heavily modified - still prayers/ meditations, hymns, readings, address. There are still ministers, although they have no exclusive functions.

What the Unitarians have to do is make themselves better known. There must be, well we know there are, many people out there who have enquiring minds about the divine and who would investigate different faiths and philosophies, or have fairly settled views that fall outside the ecumenical fixed stance for Christianity (incarnation, resurrection: and basically a cult of an individual). The Unitarians offer a place where people can meet with different others and yet practise religion in terms of meditation, contemplation and worship, through the language of faith and doubt. Unitarians are practiced in this themselves, and it has to be a participatory faith. There is no overriding loyalty to a book or tradition: it has to be individual conscience.

A liberal faith with a democratic polity in each place has to be equalitarian, and why it was the first denomination to have professional women ministers (the first in England started training in 1897) and ministry is open without regard to sex or sexual orientation.

I made a response-comment in a recent blog entry that I understand that we are evolved. To use what a media evangelical said recently (as his sarcasm), it means Mary the mother of Jesus is the evolved product of the chimp's ancestor (perhaps this was said for the benefit of Roman Catholics, who say they accept evolution). And of course I do not regard Jesus as any different from anyone else, in any sense. He had wisdom, made mistakes, learnt, and the material he learnt and lived by is available to anyone. There are no mechanisms by which one person's martyrdom, if that's what it was, transmits to others and absolves them of anything, other than as a form of example. All this is so obvious (to me) it is hardly worth saying, but as someone who still practises Christianity elsewhere at the margin as a means to reflection, I perhaps need to say this to counter assumptions and because these assumptions exist - I don't say the creeds or stand at the Gospel (it signifies 'presence') nor do I partake in the Eucharist any more. There is far more to reflect upon than one man, far more in the world, in nature, in the sciences, social sciences and arts: these all have signals of transcendence.

This is actually rather a simple stance, however much I can make it complicated: it even tends to be anti-theological, but then so much theology is an attempt to make black look like a shade of white.

These views are all over the Christian churches these days, it would be odd if they weren't: but structurally the Unitarians are condemned to their own structural and organic growth or diminishment, and that's the strangeness of organisations.

I doubt I will be alive in 2050, but it will be interesting to see where all the denominations are then. I suspect many will have arrived at something like the Unitarians, and oddly the Unitarians may have been able to bob along the bottom with the unique selling point, even if it is not one that attracts big numbers. We cannot predict, however.

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