I have a few online friends whom I don't know in any other sense. Lesley Crawley, as now is, is one of them. From encounters with her, I acquired the self-given label of 'terror blogger' because I say things that might not always be welcome, and do things from a completely heterodox point of view.
Lesley puts more of 'herself' online than I do, though I do display quite a bit via blog and website. I do this display on the principle of the rare bird that the bird protection agency wants to protect. All the time it keeps the bird and its location a secret, the eggs keep being stolen, but turn the bird's location into a visitor centre and the thing can breed happily. My shopkeeper friend tells me that shoplifting occurs most when the shop is relatively empty, and these days he wonders about changing the shop towards the virtual as the shopping numbers go down and down and 'the shop' as was goes into serious decline. The lines that sell these days reduce, when you follow the money, and a shop might exist better as a warehouse.
Which brings me to churches. Churches too are in serious decline. Unitarians, always being a small denomination, are first to the point of serious central collapse (the centre was reorganised to cope), and there is the phenomenon of churches either closing or bouncing. Bournemouth and Exeter are gone now. Some of these churches are quite well off. The one I attend is trying to organise to be prepared for a bounce, and can organise this with sufficient imagination.
It is why we don't have the need for development ministry any more. Every church is a development ministry. Back in 1989-90 I was a ministry student. I preached near atheism to a bunch of traditional liberal Christian Manchester churches, and they said there weren't the vacancies. Liberalism meant localism meant go, and the Principal resigned not long after.
I did a University course on psychological theories of adult education because the theology course overlapped with my degree - I was actually told to make an essay simpler and thus changed course. The course was seen as me not being serious about ministry, whereas I thought the course was far more useful for ministry than a social theology course! How do volunteer learners come together and learn? So I wasn't serious, apparently, and the idea of doing a Development Ministry - pay me and I'll start you a church from scratch - was pie in the sky.
Twenty years plus later a lot of the people in my photograph album are dead. Many of them who had 'captured' their church and were far from encouraging freedom of religion have either gone or lost capacity to rule as they did. Matriarchs and patriarchs have lost their allies and friends. The old days of lifelong Unitarians age gone, as families no longer provide. Churches either recruit or they die.
Now my online friend, Lesley, who gives us all kinds of liberal and inclusive opinions, wants to do the equivalent of Pioneer Ministry. It's not Evangelical church planting, but is growth from nothing and also among the age group that shows the least interest in organised religion. The round peg wants a round hole, but the system provides square holes. Indeed, even Anglican Evangelicals who want to plant churches bump up against the parish system, and so they have to be a bit entryist especially if they classify the system as not 'orthodox'. It is no surprise that a 'fading juggernaut' like the C of E is failing to organise or fund new growths, in that the system it provides has priority. It does this despite alarming losses from the pews, a decline towards the same inner collapse end point as the Methodists and URC. I've indicated that Unitarians are first to start to reorganise the centre and are trying to bounce churches (they do bounce - recovery, if it happens, can be surprising and swift and is always renewing).
At least the Unitarians (should) have a unique selling point. The rest of the denominations will have to start merging. Unitarians can't merge with the Quakers, because Unitarians are noisy and Quakers are quiet.
So the point has arrived where I would not seek Development Ministry (doesn't exist now) as every place is such. Some churches are even thriving with people, sometimes thanks to the very fact that the previous folks but a few have gone!
Anglicans who are really liberal make good ministers. The late Francis Simons was my 'spiritual director' (if I had one) and I spent 10 days at his church where he lived underground. Francis also had much time for my trainee colleague Andreas, the Marxist German, at Oxford, and he was kicked out after a year when I was too. The denomination didn't half waste some money between 1989-90, and the supporting funds. Francis - about himself - said how one Sunday he presided at the Eucharist, gave his sermon that obeyed the rule of upholding the gospel, and then he told his congregation that this was the end. Next day on Monday he walked into Essex Church Kensington and became its Minister, one of the religious humanist radicals of the denomination and a church less for folks like Andreas and me.
Now recently a Hull Unitarian in charge of these things said about an open pulpit as an ecumenical and/ or interfaith outreach and I said oh I know who could fill that. Mhoira of a Liberal Catholic outfit had made a connection with me since Adrian Glover had told me that the LCAC was still alive after its founders had walked off (and they've had a split since!). I'd done my own reading about Liberal Catholicism and Free Catholicism and now here was an opportunity to start making a difference, to shift some furniture about.
Mhoira is one of those who dealt with 'official religion' but ended up getting herself independently ordained, and then came back to Britain from Australia. The chance to offer a service, to therefore meet physically, not just online, turned out to be more like an interview, so I called the pulpit organiser and he joined in, and we pulled the service forward (originally the idea was wait for Mhoira to be made a bishop). But in the meantime, Mhoira has done what all independents do, which is to make her own ministry. Being liberal in outlook, she has gone to her former hometown and got herself well in there, and now is spreading herself around further - and this is among existing congregations. But, as I say, all congregations are development ones these days.
My 'met at Hucklow' and online friend Louise was not happy about the Hibbert Trust crystal ball gaze, which ended up thinking the future is clicks, bricks and a focal person. She says we should see what people need to do, what they do do and build faith communities like that. I see the point, but I'm not sure if that doesn't still end up with a focal person with a core spiritual role. I think I'd be more creative, and drop a Mhoira in every so often and have a Francis start up. It kind of distorts the expectations and freshens things up when the usual is risked.
But the Unitarian movement is at a point where flexibility ought to be forced on to it. For example, if you want to be a minister, you have to be a residential trainee, and you go through the existing well-worn pathways. There are provisions for transfers, though there are difficulties about being a minister in two places at once. I once wrote about that, but then being a Bishop of the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star was hardly Unitarian in ethos at any point. Liberal Catholicism raises some liturgical issues, but they existed in the late nineteenth century and after and some of them usefully could be creative.
Now I would prefer a more 'distance learning' approach, and no doubt some C of E people will start groaning at me that the C of E increasingly does this "on the cheap" and it does not lead to the formation of the person as a minister. Believe me, my year at UCM only led to how to manage boredom, not acquiring formation. I once went to the Principal and said, "Find me something to do." The amount of actual, useful training offered could have been done in a few weeks. You may as well be in a community and do the training, and be funded to go out and about - travel. Plus, I'd have everyone gathering regularly at Hucklow and shut both colleges (quite seriously - I could even write the course).
The daft thing is that there are the vacancies. In some places there is the money and few people, and in others people enough for someone if money is difficult. The training is such that the candidates are not available, and also many a minister sticks in the church they inhabit with those wanting ministers not finding one to attract. This is the opposite situation from the Church of England's, although it may be a function of a state and stage of decline: the money still exists, the vacancies are wanted, but no one is being 'grown' into ministry. There is a sense of amateurism about service taking (I think so), although again flexibility does lead to some highlights. Some of this is about how to successfully bring in quality control when the scene is so open, where no one is prevented from doing any particular role.
So what might I do? I've often considered ministry. I was in the C of E Fellowship of Vocation that existed in Hull and East Yorkshire in the mid eighties onward (I went into this virtually straight from confirmation) and, between the denominations, I now simply could not be such a person. I often wonder if I'd carried on, say ignorant of the Unitarians, and they'd taken me on. I think I'd have had my honesty and ethical back broken by now and probably be some sort of silenced Sea of Faith type stuck in a twenty five hamlets outfit. But I am also looser about the Unitarians, in that I'm no fool now. I'm a lot less hotheaded, but can still analyse and could still do the whole thing, with experiment. So I might just go an investigate in August at the open day, but, on the other hand, I might not. If the system is rigid, then we just have to go around it - it is quite weak anyway now. Flexibility has to be the method and the 'how to be active' changes as the structures have to respond.
Anyway, best of luck to Lesley as her curacy ends: I'd guess she'll probably end up doing secular work and might be able to do some educational stuff and be a sort of campaigner, and there might be some sort of ministry; and of course I'm quite fascinated to see how Mhoira's efforts will turn out - relatively conventional, in the end, or really flexible and creative?
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