Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Collapsing Unitarianism (Plus)

There are difficulties in the minimal hierarchy of British Unitarianism at present, with the early resignation of Steve Dick as Chief Executive Officer earlier this month. It's all rather shrouded in mystery, but probably more about incapability for many in that post. He filled the post for two years only. I remember him as a bit of a techno as well as a minister: it begs the question what makes a bureaucrat.

Throughout the world there may be 800,000 Unitarians and Unitarian-Universalists. Peter Witham of Stockton did a number crunching exercise in June 2008 and came up with a terrible tale of decline for Britain. In 1928 there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Unitarians in Britain. In the 1960s there were some 14,000 Unitarians. In 1989 there were some 5,400 members and in 1998 there were 4,500 members, but down to 4,000 or so in 2005. British Communism wound itself up when it reached 5000.

There was an average of 22 members per congregation in 2005, but some 20 congregations actually measure zero and yet remain counted: 112 are below the national average of 22, 66 of which were under 10 including zeros. Some of these zeros could be shut, barely shut or hanging on via neighbourly support. I know of one in the rural sticks that has its four required services a year so that other churches get their cash from the Disney Corporation every year. That will be one of the zero churches.

The next bit is interesting. Peter Witham did a calculation, and this produced a point of extinction in 2053, based on decline in 138 and growth in 46 congregations in 2005. Yet, what makes this interesting, is that this is about when the Methodist and URC Churches could conk out as well.

The problem is that Unitarianism is so small that it is imploding now. The structures were rationalised some years ago, but in effect they are falling in. Now the Methodists and URC are much bigger, but that is a mirage. They have the same top heavy congregations age-wise, and so are coming down at the same rate of knots.

It is surely the case that the sort of arguments and social setting that made Methodism relevant has gone now. It is also the case that the distinctive basis of the URC - that it has two orders of ministry not three - is hardly a crowd-puller. There is a case for more informal worship than at the local CofE, but then there are these media churches and the like that do it such much better. At least the Unitarian argument - that of being liberal - is a contemporary argument. However, churchgoing is so derisory in the United Kingdom that it is being throttled.

The Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States has a small and persistent growth because it can capitalise on the American habit of churchgoing, and this allows it to develop various liberal forms of belief and practice. Thus neo-Paganism forms inside the UUA whereas in the UK you really do have to find a Coven (there are British Unitarian neo-Pagans but they don't exactly form inside congregations). There are Buddhist specialities in the UUA whereas, again, Buddhists are more likely to hire a British Unitarian building on a Sunday evening. The UUA further builds on the absence of Religious Education in state schooling and produces it for all ages, whereas in Britain state schools followed established religion and so many parents handed the matter over to teachers.

British Unitarianism is just not flexible enough. It almost worships history, and its forms become moribund. It keeps the hymn sandwich Protestant-appearing service, but why? Well people like it: that is people inside like it, but this is just the road to the numbers falling away.

My own view is that there will be more in the way of informal contacts and regional gatherings. There will be plenty of plant and equipment available, and money too. A going concern needs a lot of local advertising, and a building up by welcoming people and not having a sense of possession and thus a rejection of change. Elsewhere it needs a development of small gatherings in people's houses. There are quite a few progressive religious groups that do meet, but fairly invisibly, and they are also rather awkward about coming together.

But in the end open liberal religion will be a small movement of the interested, and it could be that formal, congregational gatherings are not always the most suitable means to gather. What is puzzling is that you'd think in some towns and cities that there would be at least a number of interested people who'd gather to freely discuss, to share ideas, and to develop forms of meditation, contemplation and use of music and symbol. It does seem baffling that so little seems possible, but this is the way it has become.

I was thinking about Hull and its Methodist churches. At one time there were so many, but how many are needed now? Well maybe one in the centre, one to the east, one to the west and there is Hessle. But if they rationalised down to these, say, and then the top heavy congregations keep dying off ever more rapidly as age advances, eventually you come down to one church, one presence. And once that is gone it is gone. As Unitarianism itself reaches points of random recruitment and empty chapels (some can turn around seemingly from nowhere), the others are coming down in the same percentages but numerically far more rapidly. 2050 is going to be an interesting time, when old structures may collapse, and there is a residual State Church that carries on functioning when the old arguments for difference are finished.

The puzzle for me has always been why the Unitarians cannot exploit the new arguments; that, in the face of all this evangelical and charismatic exclusivity, it cannot provide a space for some of the refugees.


Anonymous said...

Where there has been revival of Unitarian congregations it has often been enabled by 'refugee' ministers from other denominations taking on a church ; I notice this has also been the case in Africa where there has been remarkable Unitarian growth in some countries led by ministers whose only knowledge of Unitarianism has come through the Internet.Maybe 'Unitarianism, but not as we know it ,Jim' but growing to a point where it could eclipse British Unitarianism in the not too distant future.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Very interesting comment, and such development is not out of keeping with developments towards Unitarianism in the past. In such cases they formed new congregations (or revived old shells): where ministers left with people or attracted new people or both. Historically they set up either Puritan trinitarian or later Unitarian congregations.

Should the Anglican Church (or other denomination) ever get to a point where it starts disciplining those it suspects of being beyond the pale, say with an evangelical takeover, then there would be minister-led developments. They would not necessarily sign up to the General Assembly, but might find such useful over time.

Unitarianism would have to become a little bit more symbolic, more liturgical: some aspects would seem unusual, but that's what happens with new developments.

There is a 'refugee' liberal congregation in the Norfolk area I believe that happily goes along on its own, centred around its minister.

Fred Preuss said...

Unitarianism in the US is 'growing' from 220,000 to about 250,000 since the Kennedy administration. That is to say, it's about a quarter of a million people in a country of 305 million.
If the upper middle classes weren't so grossly over represented in its ranks, it would have about the same national significance as the Polish National Catholics.
You're looking at your own future.