One of the most important part of these Unitarian gatherings, where people come to Great Hucklow from around the country, is seeing people you have and have not met before. The large musical group was dispersing, so some quick hellos to these folks, and the publicity people were gathering. There must have been some forty or so going as we were around twenty five in number. One person who moved from one meeting to the next was someone I could ask about a friend, a Sea of Faith met Scottish Episcopalian who had started attending the Unitarians at Glasgow but now is tailing off somewhat.
One friend I met was a remarkable encounter. I did not recognise her at all, but back from the village pub with some she was one of those going into the night chatting, and it dawned on me that she and I went together to the pub when she was in Hull as a student. I said, "My clockwork mind is slowly turning," and said to all we went to a pub. "1986," she said. I cheekily commented on her lower speed speech these days, but she jumped at the opportunity that this gave to say she had changed. More than this, though, and even more bizarrely, LinkedIn had sent a message whether I knew certain people, but I'd pretty much ignored it. When back I realised this was the very same person: and while I'd stagnated she had attended university after university and unlike me had enjoyed a succession of promotion making jobs and is now high-powered in a university management e-learning post. Not only this but she was also one of the denomination's publicity people. However, after introducing sessions on Saturday she was gone - I assume the lifestyle of someone quite busy.
There was a lot of one-to-one chat throughout, and new friends made too. It was amazing to talk to someone who also uses Audacity for music editing and has made use of MuseScore, though her church has an organist. I said how I use such software methodically as well as websites and denominational source CDs so that we have music for any of our hymns. Indeed when introducing myself to all others in the evening session I said that my church enjoys some of the best organ playing in the world. This is actually true! That set of introductions was followed by an exercise where we created phantom friends: profiles of people to whom publicity material is targeted. It is another means of visualising, but it also means addressing specific people. The humorous result of group exercises (I joined the online National Unitarian Fellowship grouping) was that group after group produced ex-Roman Catholics. We know Roman Catholicism is going through something of a collapse, but the age ranges and sources of people in their former religious preferences (if any) had to be more variable. I think six such profiles were invented and we will receive these summaries of phantom biographies for later use.
One thing that sociology of religion told me years back was that people who try out churches and religions tend to come from other churches and religions, so this is accurate and especially the case with Unitarians.
The earlier Friday afternoon session introduced me to the denomination's website and publicity man, and knowing what we know there (and he will launch at the General Assembly, so I shall not reveal), I can only think he must be incredibly busy. The resource base coming through the denominational website will be extensive for both insiders and outsiders.
We have a "Mr President", as Bob Wightman (known as Reverend Bob on the former Terry Wogan show) called Neville Kenyon. Unitarians are very small in number, and therefore 'flat' and non-hierarchical so that there is no remoteness regarding presidents and the like. They are invited, after all, among people already well known (but there are friendship cliques). I enjoyed Bob's pub stories from around the denomination (I've been out of touch) and indeed the difference between Bob's tolerance for all and Neville Kenyon's desire for identity and "clear blue water". Neville did a good service (Sunday morning), full of humour and I said I'll pinch his story.
Tony McNeile, now a retired minister but booked up every Sunday had kind words to say about me (surely not "admiration"), being one of a very few to be heretical among the heretics and shown the door after a year at Unitarian College. He remembered my gown frightening the locals, as if I was on a New Age trip (I blame Peter Roberts!) and I said how a student service I thought was with students turned out to be a disaster in a locality, and an inappropriate pastorate. That's the problem - the history is with me. Tony remembered me going to Knutsford church and he was in the congregation where I was socking it to them. I said that after removal I had a few loose ends to finish and then I left altogether: I had one and a half years of no religious involvement anywhere. That was in 1990. Tony reckons I should have gone to Oxford, and the denomination lost an intellectual input I could have given between then and now. At Manchester I wrote a 50 page piece on ministry, using educational theory rather than this 'priesthood of believers' and asked what happened to it I said again, "Nothing." So new people heard about my old story.
These gatherings are a gossip shop of course, so you hear about other personalities. This even stretched into the Liberal Catholic movement outside Unitarianism where I could speak about afterwards and I discovered what happened before. The fact is that a small movement makes many mistakes, and you never know who presents themselves for what and then what may happen. On the other hand, it all adds to the fun. I also spoke about some Anglicans I know, if only 'know of' online, given my blogging. I said about the Anglican Covenant debate and the risk some bloggers were taking and have suffered who put their necks on the line. And of course you talk about your own locality, its problems and potential, and hear about other localities. I didn't even know there were Unitarian churches in both Newcastles, one being weak in an overlarge building and the other better off and towards the humanist end of the perspective.
People were too kind about my radio voice or lack of one heard during the session I attended on Saturday and at the coming back together (posters or press releases or radio). I once was at hospital radio in the early 1980s - this started my religion contact because of a Baha'i presence - but my visiting was not hospitals but the music library and I did a programme scripted and timed based on WXQR New York and BBC Radio 3 ideas (this was before Classic FM, which is more DJ based). I feel I need to better present services too, and indeed used the script of one in my practical effort. The fact is that the later session meant no one missed out on the insights of each specialist session. So I also know the principles of posters and how the best might work, the difference from leaflets, and the construction of the press release and about sending them off.
But what about just chatting to people. One person was absolutely right to say that if you travel far and pay you want the time available used productively. I was wanting more social time (though it came on evenings and Sunday morning after chapel with the remaining people). Next year the practical Saturday sessions will have a more pop in and pop out character. In fact there was a chance for some to take the twenty five minute triangular walk, but I didn't having been out taking photographs after our radio group had come to a finish.
One chat late on was interesting. One of the presenters was saying about going to America. If we compare the American UUA experience with our own, it is more group based inside the church. So there will be one service but then meetings, say with the LGBTQ group or the polyamorous group and so on. She herself is an atheist, and that again fits in easily with the American tendency to push out difference into similarity groups. It can mean more conflict but it also means debate.
The assumption is that those present turn up again next year - it is after all about a network of communication people - but it all depends on who goes from the church. It does cost, but the centre has improved physically since I last visited and it is possible to pay to stay as an individual or to come to a Unitarian gathering when there are no set sessions at all about anything.
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