Sunday, 3 July 2011

Unitarian Crystal Balling

The Hibbert Trust has organised a crystal ball to look at the condition of Unitarianism. Ten people looked at it, equal male and female, but only one minister (the former Principal of Unitarian College Manchester), and there were eight Unitarians, one Quaker and one Sea of Faith.

I have here some choice paragraphs, and the first loks at the paradox between matching society to develop compatible forms of religion and the lack of interest that results.

Unitarianism as an approach fits well with many current trends in society generally and religion/ spirituality in particular (and a definite fixed creed does not fit in with those trends towards personalised religion). Thus it is an alternative to the increasingly dogmatic expression of Christianity to be found in Britain. It is exploratory, open to innovation, open to many sources of inspiration, has elements in its tradition able to connect with ecological issues and respond to the problem of fundamentalism. However, Unitarianism as a set of organisations falls far short of the potential of Unitarianism as an approach. There is therefore little need to change the approach, but there is a very clear need to improve the way it is mediated within society. This would involve the critical appraisal of Unitarianism at all levels, and its ability to communicate meaningfully with the contemporary world. [Page 6]

In other words, the strategy is right but the organisation is wrong.

How is it, then, that a New Life Church with a congregation of about 1000 can simply announce its move also into north Hull, to develop space there for 1000? There's confidence. It will do it with a church plant, dividing its existing congregation and sending say half to the new facilities. These can attract in more, though in general it comes from a redistribution of evangelicals, sucking out from mainstream churches.

The answer is it works even for some new people because of a combination of low cultural and high belief hurdles. The low culture hurdles come in the rock-music band entertainment format, with informality, and then comes the price tag of membership. Unitarians with the old Protestant formal approach has a higher cultural hurdle and a low belief hurdle.

Interestingly, one of the things I am trying to do with the mixer-CD players is get away from the organ music hegemony of church life and put acrossmore contemporary music. A number of people don't like it. Of course, if no one outside knows this is happening, it may as well be all by silence. The idea, though, is that the few who come through the door encounter a good quality service that is accessible, and then they might stay.

However, Unitarians cannot produce a 'fear factor' that the easy to join in with Pentecostals can: that is, once you are joining in the fun a mental necessity arises that forces you to stay and work out your salvation. If you don't believe that (really) then you might stay around for the big volume socialising. You can always select friends there. Only normal life changes break the spell. Let's also remember: if a congregation is mainly young middle aged, people are leaving.

The point is that Unitarianism attracts people already interested in religion and for whom there are only institutional round holes for the square pegs.

A concern is that it could become just too easy for Unitarianism to offer only passive acceptance. This might suit those who are renegades from orthodox religions and looking for a comfortable place to continue feeling they are religious but without having to think too much about their cognitive dissonance. But it would spell death for the movement in the long run as no one with a genuine and serious passion for religious questions would find a home there. [Page 9]

I'm not sure about this. I think most of us attending Unitarian churches are religious nutters of some kind, we are just an odd kind. In society most people compromise with given institutions: it is why people put up with working for organisations (well, there's the need for money) but equally they will attend an Anglican (say) church and read out nonsense but just put up with it for the communal benefits. It is those who can't put up with the rubbishor the ethical price who seek out the smaller bodies.

The document has two categories of clients for Unitarianism:

Dissenters, those who are practitioners of other faiths (or of none) but have found the constraints, both intellectual and emotional, too much, were seen to be highly susceptible to the appeal of Unitarianism. This group has been a considerable source of new Unitarians in the past. It does not have to be large to have a significant effect on the size of the Unitarian community and on its influence.

The Seekers are a broad group of individuals exploring the spiritual dimension of life (perhaps for the first time) for whom Unitarians could offer a welcoming community within which they could do this safely and without rules about right and wrong beliefs. The quality of both the welcome and the experience is crucial to retaining these individuals. [Page 9]

The interesting point is that it takes very few of these folks to turn a congregation around (and very few appear). It is the fact that so few enter that is the puzzle, which is something to do with the very low profile of Unitarians. But it is not just that: the profile has been rising. It needs commitment to want to come along; most people with their own religious ideas simply keep to themselves. People are not joining any organisations these days. On a similar basis I should have joined the Liberal Democrats years ago, although by now I'd have sent my membership back.

Yet Unitarians also value the need to come together in community, providing opportunities to support each other and also reach out to the wider world, even if only locally. The recent report on "Unitarian Social Action at Work concluded that much of the falling off of social responsibility work over the past forty-five years was due to lack of capacity rather than a diminution in social concern. [Page 10]

We forget that in the past most 'coming together' was because the church provided actual social, welfare, entertainment and educational functions. The specialisation of religion and rise of the welfare state makes the 'coming together' a problem as to why. Benefits of being individuals yet together never get well explained. A church can reinforce a local community: but what about a church that is associational rather than communal - this is the specialisation aspect again.

It is such an old movement. The document has it simply:

The challenge facing Unitarians is "Are we willing to change?" [page 11]

There are a number of suggested responses that can be made for change. Business as usual leads to failures at critical masses, and can be quite swift. Here is another (unmentioned) point: families no longer renew the membership. This is why Methodism has been declining rapidly. The Strachans and the Rymers still exist as family lines, but not to come to the Unitarians in Hull any more. So it is that:

Overall, the group considered the strategy of "no change" as one that could see the demise of Unitarianism within a remarkably short time. [Page 11]

Congregational development needs strategies, says the document, but:

a tendency within the movement [is] to forget past activities and then to "reinvent the wheel" [Page 12]

You need a minister but should not leave growth efforts to the minister:

...growth is more likely to be achieved if it is broadly based and not simply delegated to the minister. Full-time leadership works because most communities are local - a local constant human presence gives life to the building, which is still the most visible manifestation of the Unitarian community. [Page 12]

But it all comes down, in such 'development', to what happens on the inside. It is barely examined here (what does ritual actually do - it is an exchange means to bind, is it not?):

There have been tremendous changes over the past fifty years in Unitarian worship and services are designed to appeal to the whole person. The place of ritual (in its broad sense) in worship was recognised as crucial to experience. There is also the need to address the theory of how Unitarians come together as a religious community (ecclesiology) and whether this is through a process of belonging or a discovery of shared values; ideally, perhaps, a balance of both. [Page 13]

The strongest strategy suggestion is 'clicks and bricks' - one to find out about and the other to be a physical base. But websites are not enough for information purposes: there needs to be a literature. The document also notes that Unitarian publications are too inward looking [See pages 17 and 18].

a multi-level strategy including web sites (clicks) -with perhaps a portal to all the other Unitarian resources -and the established churches and other organisations (bricks) working in parallel. The group considered the strategy for Unitarian contact must include cyberspace. [Page 13]

There needs to be "a strong emphasis on books and pamphlets". [Page 13]

The forms of communication Unitarians particularly need are - A quarterly magazine (or special issues of The Inquirer) geared principally to an external audience. A group of people organised to write letters to newspapers and contributions to on-line forums. Someone designated as national media spokesperson, "quoted" in press releases. Widely available leaflets in libraries and other public points of contact. Books - with an effort to get one introductory Unitarian book into specialist religious bookshops, although the group appreciated the efforts to do this and the problems faced. [Page 18]

One things Unitarians do well is bespoke rites of passage, and this can be part of promotion, states the document. The question then follows whether people are prepared to overcome their quiet conservatism to go for the varied ceremonies Unitarians can do but others refuse to do.

Unitarianism, with its multiple flavours, is well positioned to provide completely bespoke services. In addition the organisation has buildings in which various services and receptions can be held; it has ministers who are official wedding registrars. There are leaflets in existence which explain Unitarian ceremonies and so everything is already in place. All that is needed is a more active pushing of the service to funeral directors and, perhaps, some recruitment of additional lay ministers who are trained to conduct these kinds of ceremonies. [Page 14]

This would help Unitarianism build a brand, but unless it is alternative enough (I say) then it won't build a brand at all.

One of the issues the group discussed was the problem that there is virtually no public recognition of Unitarianism in the marketplace. On the other hand, when you think about Quakers or Buddhism, you get a clear picture of what they are about because they each have characteristic practices that come to mind. The Unique Selling Point of Unitarianism, the group decided, lay not in any particular practice but in the support it offers individuals in following their own spiritual path. [Page 14]


The benefit of Unitarianism may lie in its diversity but for many outside this may just look like vagueness and absence of commitment. [Page 15]

The brand image at present, I suggest, if it has one at all, is some form of Victoriana: It is a rump of people who come together at the lost end of belief, like people used to do but who have no idea why they do so still.

In addition to congregational growth, the future of the Unitarian movement lies in the development of those of its parts which are national or international... [Page 15]

This is where websites and policies come in; where, for example, Unitarians have called for religious Civil Partnerships.

The problem of social action, it seems to me, is that despite the government's cuts and attacks, we still do have state support against poverty, and that thinking global and acting local is useful but limited - and this is anyway more a sideline of a religious community rather than its specialisation.

But leadeship is important (and Hull people have chewed this one over again and again). Do we all pitch in and share responsibility, or do we look for a strategy making facilitating individual who gives co-ordination?

Full-time leadership works because most communities are local -a local constant human presence gives life to the building, which is still the most visible manifestation of the Unitarian community. [Page 16]

That specialisation as well as historical rejection does mean many a congregation lives alone. Congregations should not. Each should make interfaith and (if selective) ecumenical links. In any case congregations should connect with others, even if far off.

Where there is an activity, the activity can link up with others of that activity: e.g. music groups.

Some of this document is cliche-like: having "change champions" and "celebrating" (what, clapping?) successes. It is really practical change that will make a difference. Counting and surveying and measuring is just that, and only that. So what about overall?

the strategy for the development of Unitarianism is likely to be "bricks and clicks" [Page 17]

The document states:

Perhaps, indeed, the exact turning point is something that will only be determined by history, in retrospect, and until then the best we can do is continue "sowing our seeds", knowing that some will fall on stony ground, while others will grow and flourish, and we cannot know ahead of time which are which. [Page 19]

This is both the problem and solution. The environment for gathered religion among the settled and culturally-general community is very difficult. Religion has become privatised. The World Wide Web is a godsend for Unitarians in terms of even being noticed, but it still does not answer the core point as to why people of differing religious views wish to gather. You have to be interested in it to do it, rather as others do model railways or birdwatching.

The congregation can provide emotional support to people, in the pastoral sense, but people also get this elsewhere, just as welfare and educational provisions are elsewhere. You can also end up arguing in congregations and, in any case, they have to function when people say: these people are NOT my friends particularly. You go and participate as much despite the people as much as because of them. With that in mind, it all needs some sort of educational-facilitating model where people can express their ideas and views to others. That's where the personal and the collective come together; the worship service is then a form of engagement of ideas as well as the practice of spirituality. Ideas and the engagement of the ideas has to be the core, these are then practised variously, and it is done regularly and then come associational benefits.

1 comment:

Louise said...

Hi Adrian, thanks for this. I read this document with an ever-sinking heart. It does not look well produced, looking tired and jaded (or perhaps it was produced in a hurry). We do not know what the methodology was despite being told that it was collaborative enquiry when clearly it wasn't. I have written a bit about this in my blog here -

We continually ask people who don't know what to do, what we should do. And we struggle because there is a gaping leadership chasm nationally. Whilst we are talking about Shaping our Future we are having our internal structures re-formed - again! Why - because the current structure doesn't work? No, because there are new priorities - not a good reason in my book. And who picked the priorities? Everyone who answered the survey.

When we get an Executive Committee that decides to lead and not follow we may have a chance. But constantly working with the same models and an obsession with consultation will take us round ever-decreasing circles.

Whilst we are encouraged to use new ways of being locally this does not seem to filter up.

Louise xx