Sunday 13 November 2011

As With the Norse Gods Again

I don't think today is any exception, despite a Remembrance Day service led by a professional minister in every sense of the word (yet, retired). There is a sense in which we are seeing a change as big as the loss of the Norse Gods taking place as regards our religious institutions.

The Quakers in Hull might be happy, because their numbers will have risen by one. An occasional attender of the Unitarians has, apparently, moved over to attend there. But this is not an unusual pattern: people who join churches are often the already interested. People do join the church, otherwise it would have vanished long back: but they tend to have histories of attending elsewhere.

Today a board that was found with the names of the lost during 1914-1919 was displayed. The names were family names all recognisable within the church until recently. None of these families supply members any more. Some of the surnames were related to other surnames, and criss-crossing, because down the years they supplied the church with members, and they kept having relationships and getting married. The family trees will interlock over and over again.

In my time a younger Strachan was the uncle of an older Strachan, as well as cousin; now there are no more nor the related. Names still large in the city no longer come in to the church.

Recent posts have looked at the disconnect between Christianity and the public in Europe. There is the straightforward decline in numbers. There is the loss of intellectual content in supplying answers to questions of existence. There is the ethical mismatch in questions of equality and value of persons. The whole business of St. Paul's in London has been a perfect example of a disconnected Church rushing to catch up.

The Unitarians have all sorts of plans and strategies at the very lowest level to increase numbers; the schemes are given fail-safe status by their writers. But I can say we've had no visitors through the door at all by which these plans could be exercised. We are not full-on with publicity, but we are far from publicity free and invisible. People are not even visiting nowadays.

It might be better in a more cosmopolitan place, which imports habits of religious observance from around the world. But this is nothing to do with a small congregation holding on to its visitors. The church has done this. It is that the curious are simply not attending. The argument that so many people out there are Unitarian-compatible makes not a jot of difference to trying out attendance.

People talk about the rise of the Eastern religions, and there is that growth. But these are about the odd group here and there within the city. This increase is at the tiny level. There is a lot of 'spiritual' and even 'New Age' but the groups simply don't exist: these are private expressions. You might find the odd Wicca group here and there.

This is not me starting to despair, but rather simply a recognition of the situation. In terms of where we are now, we are like people within a snow storm. We are close to it and we cannot see around, but I bet this is as historically significant as the end of the Norse Gods. In the snow storm we look for scraps and pieces to keep going, but afterwards what was before is not coming back.

I remember at school, in the 1970s, being given the impression that Christianity had replaced Judaism, and that was a load of rubbish, as was the impression that lots of Gods had been replaced by the superior understanding of one God. That was nonsense too, as no God can be its equal and superior, just as can be a polytheism of thinking. What is remarkable is that those assumptions could be given to children just a short time ago.

In my head on Remembrance Sunday was the religious service that could incorporate the fallen and the need for conditions of peace. We could be reminded that capitalism is there to serve us, and not for Europe to decline again into conditions that led to reaction and war. But Remembrance Sunday was also about what there once was.

Soon there will be some more CDs of a Unitarian choir singing hymns with introductions. Why is this? Because there are more and more churches where no one can play a keyboard, either due to old age or low numbers. Producing two CDs will be very helpful, but let's not be unaware as to why this is happening. For us it might go through an excellent sound system, as these CDs add to prepared CDs, but for many it will be popping the originals into some small player. The same virtual congregation will be reproduced up and down the land. The same people appear, as if in a cartoon, repeated each time. But the reality is that the different people are ever fewer, needing the prop of a virtual congregation.


Anonymous said...

Visiting other people's churches is quite scary - and I say that as someone who goes to church! I don't think regulars realise how much courage it takes to step over the threshold when you don't know anyone, you don't know the beliefs, the rituals, etc. And at least with the CofE, people have a vague idea of what they might get, be it low, high or whatever, but the Unitarians seem to have vanished from the public consciousness. Most people wouldn't have a clue what would await them in a Unitarian meeting house, and ignorance must add to the scariness.

All religious groups need to ask themselves what needs they're trying to meet. What do you have to offer that anyone else would want? What challenges would people be expected to meet? Which groups in society do you have most affinity with? Most religious groups have a niche, despite what they say about wanting to reach out to everyone. It's very difficult, I think, for one congregation, or even one denomination, to appeal to everyone. To me, Unitarianism has a middle class, intellectual but spiritual image, and it shouldn't shy away from that. The issue is how to ensure that your communal life is attractive to that kind of person. Many churches aren't quite as friendly and as open as they think they are, sadly.

Some Christians talk about how evangelism today has to be about relationships, not information. People are looking for authentic relationships, not programmes, labels and institutionalisation. Most of these relationships won't have anything to do with 'going to church', at least not initially, and maybe never. As I said, places of worship are strange to many people, which is why many new forms of church (emergent church, Fresh Expressions, etc.) don't belong in church buildings. They come to being in bars, pubs, coffee shops, etc. Neutral territory. It's not about bringing people in, but going out to where people are.

You never talk about this sort of thing in your blog. Perhaps it's because Unitarians are outside of Christian networks, and so don't get hear about these developments and ideas - which are still on the fringes of most Christian church life anyway. I imagine that Unitarian buildings are a bit underused, and you'd like to try and fill them rather than base your evangelistic work elsewhere. But perhaps we've all just got to face the fact that trying to get people into our buildings isn't where it's at!

I'm not convinced that Christianity is going to disappear like the Norse Gods (although I hear that some Scandinavians still believe in them!), but I accept that the historical churches are likely to continue to decline in this country. But church doesn't have to look as it does today in order to be church. I presume that's true for Unitarianism as well.

There's a growing body of literature on developments in new forms of church life. It would be interesting to hear if they have any resonance in Unitarianism.

Kenneth Robertson said...

"Visiting other people's churches is quite scary" Indeed they can and crossing the threshold of a Unitarian church where most likely there will be only a handful of worshippers makes it almost impossible to 'hide'!The Unitarian church that hired a big TV screen and invited the community to join them to watch the Royal wedding followed by a free lunch afterwards knows more about church growth strategy than could be gleaned from any number of 'growth strategy'seminars.

Elizabeth Wickens said...

I think most mainstream churches are in the same position. The only 'thriving' ones (superficially) are the ones that practice brainwashing and emotional manipulation of the gullible, and recently the cathedrals where a high standard of outward worship can be taken for granted. According to one of my favourite Unitarian preachers, Brian Anderson, the Anglican church is full of closet Unitarians. And I agree that going to any church should be about recharging spiritual batteries for the purpose of being sent out into the world. 'Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory' is what we Anglicans say at the end of the Eucharist. I find Unitarians totally invisible outside their churches. I think what I miss is the colourful nature of liturgy generally in Unitarian worship, though it is usually imaginatively carried out at my local chapel. The little old blue Unitarian prayer book I was given is as turgid as parts of the BCP. I might value a new, contemporary common but flexible Unitarian liturgical book with seasonal variations, as well as suggestions for judicious use of 'sacamentals' (candles, incense, bells etc.) But I come from an Anglo-catholic background, and have partially defected only for theological reasons. In my experience there is such a large variety of expectations and aspirations among the small band of Unitarians, that it would be almost impossible to cater for all.

Anonymous said...

'The only 'thriving' ones [churches] (superficially) are the ones that practice brainwashing and emotional manipulation of the gullible, and recently the cathedrals where a high standard of outward worship can be taken for granted.'

I think this is something of a sweeping generalisation!

Are you really saying that most churchgoers or potential churchgoers are either gullible folks who are only looking to be brainwashed - or else people who want a high church 'performance' in a cathedral?

This much is true: some commentators, often sociologists of religion, say that people tend to look for religion for the answers to their questions. Few turn to religion simply to acquire more unanswerable questions. If many of the mainstream churches, and indeed Unitarianism, are only able to offer unanswered questions, then it's unsurprising that they're not flourishing. But that's not to say that flourishing churches are full of 'gullible' people. These are people who, at least for the time being, have found somewhere that meets their spiritual and emotional needs. The theology itself might not even be the main attraction,although high standards tend to appeal to serious churchgoers rather than repelling them.

Very cerebral attitudes towards faith don't appeal to everyone, and I don't think it's helpful to imply that they should. In fact, it could be said that the over-intellectual western approach to faith, the division between mind and body, is guilty of driving many ordinary people away from the church. John Drane in his book 'The MacDonaldization of the Church' makes this point, and it seems quite pertinent. If Unitarianism takes this approach, then I can see why it might be in trouble.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I have to say that I think Fresh Expressions is a symptom of this overall decline, and is often clergy led and is ambiguous about the potentially free-range nature of what it throws up. Unitarians tend to have added events, such as Pagan or humanist or event based additional gatherings. But I take on board much in the first comment.

Joining a few people present is daunting; oddly, some people see it as an opportunity to have an instant impact. But if you are the sort to hide away, it is rather impossible. And the danger is of being jumped on and over-welcomed.

I have two liturgies at present for 'emergency' purposes but which, when with others, could form a core worship approach. At present we favour variety, though the problem side of that is the hit and miss nature of what is provided. I think I am coming round to the view that there needs to be some co-ordination and consistency and a reliable standard. If we had as at Remembrance Sunday, in terms of style and presentation, that would give a welcome standard. It is not that others don't achieve it, but that it is basically hit and miss.

Anonymous said...

'Fresh Expressions' is obviously a symptom of decline in the sense that it's a response to the increasing marginalisation of the denominations that have bought into it.

On the other hand, it tends to be a suburban phenomenon, and suburbia has withstood church decline more successfully than other places. It's often (but not always) the case that only successful middle class congregations can afford to participate in Fresh Expressions, because only they have enough resources to be able to run their traditional churches and also set up, run and finance what's basically a church plant at the same time.

You're probably right about FE often being clergy led, but then, this is how traditional expressions of church often work too, especially in the CofE! Also, the role of evangelist as separate from the minister is often undevelopped in the historical churches. Newer denominations seem to be better at this, because they're starting from scratch and are therefore more compelled to give evangelism a high priority. Anglicans and Methodists don't really expect ordinary laypeople to go off and 'set up' a new church (although it has happened)! It would seem irregular and presumptious. There would be administrative hurdles, which the clergy would naturally be more experienced at dealing with.

Plus, the clergy tend to have a low opinion of laypeople's knowledge of theology, and the feeling is that you can only 'lead' a church if you have a proper theological grounding. Ironically, though, I also feel that the clergy don't particularly want congregations that are highly theologically aware. This would undermine their influence, and the distinctiveness of their 'call to the ministry'. But if laypeople are always expected to be lead and fed by 'experts', then you can hardly expect them to behave like leaders and experts themselves, and to go off and plant new churches!

As for the ambiguity - all evangelistic ventures have to deal with that. There's no escape from awkward questions. So courage is required!

From a Christian perspective, I don't see the answer as more 'consistency' (or more liturgies), but perhaps that's a particularly Unitarian issue.