Saturday 25 April 2015

Scotland the Contributor

Scotland is a nation large enough to have always been ethnically mixed. It has always been linguistically mixed too. Its Celtic language is different from the rest of the island, and is taken from the Irish island and not that of the one time Brythonic that became Welsh/ Cornish that shares its superstructure with Breton. Indeed when Anglo-Saxon culture and higher birthrate spread through the land, pushing the ethnic Celts west, they did not go further north than Cumbria.

After the Jacobite (Anglican and Roman Catholic) rebellion, as hated by progressive Enlightenment Scots as the English, led to English-British forced ethnic cleansing, a sort of pastiche Scotland was set up when royalty took up the kilts and other markers so recently banned, and the feudal Lords were Anglicised. It was not for nothing therefore that the best English outside the Oxford-West London triangle was spoken in eastern Scotland or that many Conservative MPs came from Scotland in the 1950s.

Also the trade unionism of Glasgow linked well with that of the North West of England, and the internationalist  Labour movement made real inroads into uniting Scotland and England.

I would suggest that this recent period of 'sameness' has been the exception and not the rule. It gave the excuse for a centralised Britain around London that was always an illusion. Wales might have been absorbed somewhat successfully over time East and West, with cultural distinctiveness too, but for Scotland it was too quick and too recent whereas Scotland had its own law, potential politics, cultures, ethnicities.

First the feudal hierarchy became a shadow of its former self, even while royalty retained its silly kilt-wearing culture and approval of local 'games'. Thatcher over centralised and bust the working class culture through deindustrialisation - the loss to the Clyde happened with the loss to the Tyne. Surprise surprise that the Tories disappeared in Scotland in terms of MPs. Let's face it, the Tories took over feudal Scotland as a test of loyalty after the Jacobite failure. Old clan bosses became English loyal feudal land and castle owners - they have since been given the cultural boot into pure tourism land.

Scotland had its own Enlightenment contribution (linked to the French) and growth of a collective sense of Labour that linked back to the collective sense of its communities - harsh weather, harsh conditions, and you work together. Labour inherited that, but in the resurgence of Scotland Labour found itself wrong-footed on the Independence debate, making friends in wrong places. So did the Liberal Democrats, one time inheritors of the cultural fringes of the UK, and now sunk by association with Tory priorities that have served no one beyond the capitalist game.

So suddenly, perhaps not fatally, Labour finds itself under the same sweep as the Tories suffered. Scotland's other collectivist party, the independence party (that otherwise would stretch too far in social economics) can take its place because the result is similar plus national influence.

The fixed term Parliament act is one of those not quite thought through reforms that would work along with other reforms - like voting reform, changing the House of Lords to democracy (bye bye to those Scottish Lairds so loyal to England). But it does mean that when parties cannot form majorities that government has to work from collections of parties present. The largest party does not have to form the government, but the largest number of seats gives any government support.

Of course a simple majority can remove the fixed term Parliament act, even when a two-thirds cannot be achieved to go to an election. But which Prime Minister would be given the right to dissolve Parliament? If the wrong person is in charge, the act won't be repealed. The Queen's ministers they are, and so is the Prime Minister, and it was how he or she could call an election: but now Parliament says it should do it by large majority. Perhaps it might reform the act to simple majority to go to an election.

If we have a United Kingdom and it is not federalised, then the Scots have every right to make their input into the governance of the UK. What's missing is an English Parliament.

Cameron is the person in danger of breaking up the UK. Many a Tory would say sod off to Scotland in order to leave the EU and have itself a best chance to gain majority power. The Welsh would not be too pleased. The Northern Irish would presumably stay in its sectarian camps. You cannot have a British government on the one hand elected by everyone and then only English MPs vote on English matters - a British government might not get anything through on matters devolved to English only MPs. English only MPs must sit in an English only parliament with English governance! Then a UK government would command a majority in a UK discussing and spending Parliament.

The future has to be federal or confederal. The Tories are playing fast and loose, because they won't accept a restored Scotland inputting its part into the UK. We'll end up not with federalism but independence, and then a confederal Council for the British Isles, a weak body to discuss common approaches to matters, rather as is the European Union. Don't blame the Scottish Nationalists in this election - blame the Conservative Party and its chronic privileged-based misunderstanding of anything outside the London, Oxford and Cambridge zone of one time feudal and moneyed privilege. The Scots know that community is different and worth having, and let's take them up on their offer.

Friday 17 April 2015

Three Weeks to Punishment Time

So far, it has to be said that it has been a good election campaign for Labour. This is good and steady as she goes, because the electorate is waiting to deliver its punishment.

Normally a campaign would make little difference: the public mood matters more. However, this election is so tight that the slightest benefit for one side or the other matters.

Ed Miliband has shaken off a lot of his negative image, that was never justified anyway. He seems to be very coherent and his obvious intelligence is showing well: the son of an academic and an academic himself.

I also consider he is the right man for the job. Consider if it was his brother David Miliband. David Miliband might have been ahead earlier, but by now things would be stale. He would have faced the shock, the difference, of Scotland a lot earlier too. At least the direction of an Ed Miliband government is such that the SNP would want to support it.

The other counterfactual is that with David Miliband we might be intervening in Syria in a mirror of Iraq. Syria and Iraq is a desperate situation, and we might indeed end up fighting there, to remove the dreadful Islamic State, but it's far better if the locals can sort it out and remove them with more indirect help. David Miliband might be having to justify a vote for Blair Mark II in more ways than one.

Natalie Bennett in the opposition debate on Thursday was right to pick up Miliband in his use of 'working people' and its exclusionary nature. This follows on from the Tory and Liberal Democrat government's agenda of victimising the unemployed and poor, with targets among staff for dishing out sanctions. The Liberal Democrats' talk of inclusion and equality is contradicted by the reality: and they signed up for it all. Take the Bedroom Tax. One year Danny Alexander says how people on benefits were protected; next year he and they defend and vote for - and vote for it again - the Bedroom Tax.

Labour sees itself forced to pander to the current political agenda that is anti-benefits. Labour can promise to remove the Bedroom Tax because it is seen as such an injustice, such a high price to pay by those who have nothing for a supposed housing redistribution that does not work.

In the same way Labour has had to follow the political agenda that is anti-immigrant. It will do enough - more than enough - to tackle this matter, given the free flow of people both ways around Europe. The real issue regarding immigration is a tragic one of Europe next to zones of conflict causing continued movements of people trying to get in, and when they get in being exploited. But it becomes important to turn this rhetoric around, that once there are some 'safeguards' and procedures in place regarding immigration, then the talk must be positive. Pity they can't do the same about those who are not working.

So far, then, a good campaign and a bit of hope for those who want this lot in government removed. And they are still in government. I'm sure to this day Ian Duncan-Smith is issuing orders to up the sanctions and reduce the unemployment count perhaps just before voting. He is still in office. They all are. They only go when the Queen invites someone else to become Prime Minister and he or she then chooses her other ministers. People forget that the Ministers are by Royal appointment and that they are sustained in the House of Commons but not when it is not sitting.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act also changes things. It can be removed by a simple majority, but it forces a two thirds vote to go to an election before time (staying on the statute book). This does mean that if Cameron after all gets most seats but not a majority, he may be asked first to form a government, but, if he cannot, a smaller party but with bigger minority support (e.g. Labour with SNP saying Cameron must go) can form a government. The SNP is right about this. The House of Commons can distribute itself around in forming government over a five year period - unless a majority of MPs can be persuaded to repeal the fixed term parliament act and go back to a position where the Queen's Prime Minister can dissolve the House of Commons.

At least we won't have an elected dictatorship - always the problem with our system - but yet a coalition as this one has been the worst government we have had in terms of victimisation. Thatcher's government was full of enemies and dragons to slay, but even it knew limits and considered (mostly) individuals to be upheld. This one hasn't: this has seen people sent to food banks.

So the electorate is very British. It queues. It waits. It waits patiently and grumbles, but does so because we will arrive at an election. Overdo it, something particular, and there are riots. But the general population waits. It's why the Scottish Referendum was a beacon of peace to the world - only marred by one Orange riot in Glasgow after Glasgow's yes vote. The public sits, waits and then strikes. This election is when the Liberal Democrats will receive its punishment and when the Tories will have it underlined that they are a party of privilege. In 2010 the majority vote was centre-left, and we got this lot - still in power for a few weeks more. So this election is punishment time, and a readjustment again, to get the left in, perhaps with the help of the Scots.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Grow First, then Preach Growth

It's fascinating to read research used and abused in relationship to church decline and growth. Initiatives for growth like, even want to be, based on data about 'what works' as well as impressionistic accounts and subjective preferences regarding decline and growth.

It's particularly interesting to read, therefore, a critical view of an Anglican Church growth initiative, specifically Mark Hart's statistically informed warnings about causality, reverse causality and lack of impact using the fuller report of the bedrock research that lies behind the more fanciful and wishful use of the research by a Church growth initiative.

The Church Times produced a very useful summary of this article here.

There is the actual research by a team from the Institute for Economic and Social Studies at the University of Essex, led by Professor David Voas with a fuller report of it obtained by Mark Hart in September 2014 than the one placed on the Church Growth website that accompanies From Anecdote to Evidence published in January 2014. The issue is whether the optimism of the report and the Synod task group based on it justifies finding £100 million over ten years. See Mark Hart's piece for the references through.

The Unitarians had their General Assembly recently, in a posh hotel where I'm told it cost £3.60 to have a crap cup of coffee and a bottle of wine was extortionate, which people failed to drink. There was a sense of money swilling around and expense accounts. The denomination, despite decades of initiatives, fell by some 8% in two years: even around the 5000 mark all told it continues to dive bomb. The dead keep dying, there are people who drift away, and those that join are not keeping the numbers up. Some congregations continue to exist on tiny numbers in the hope of the bounce that some others have experienced.

And there are some congregations that grow nicely with steady numbers, where live rather than dead money can pay for professionally trained ministers.

Everyone wants in on the magic formulas of the successful congregations, and the successful congregations tell us that they prioritise growth in both number and quality, through nurturing leadership, involvement, a sense of purpose and identity (that might be less in range than the denomination's range of theology and ecclesiology) and co-ordination, often via a minister.

I don't buy it. It is the places that are growing, and can, that then say they have prioritised growth. A place in an identifiable town centre surrounded by evangelical churches of various denominations is more likely to grow. It has a more Christian identity that therefore attracts those that will fall out from the competition. A church in an urban sprawl offers a minorities agenda and is progressively humanist and attracts people that seek out such speciality, and they put on events that reinforce this cultural identity and their made community. Or take Ireland with its anti-Catholic cultural fall-out, and the attraction to a church representing a new, young, progressive culture. The failure, say, to grow Dublin Unitarian church would surely be catastrophic.

The one person I know about is me. I'm not typical, but me by me is solid qualitative research. So I was Anglican liberal from the off, interested in ministry, and realised I was beyond the shrinking boundary. So I was also Unitarian, and discovered an, in places, and beyond home base, narrow chapel subculture they could keep. The publicity and the reality didn't match. For a long time I have kept a marginal place and yet good attendance with Unitarians, being wary, although recently (if by necessity, but also choice) I have become more involved with voluntary tasks. But 2004 to 2009 I tried to be Anglican, and my research of me found me relating, yes, to a minister I thought I could converse with, and didn't regard me as too dangerous, but also useful in my danger (to shake a few things up), and so I crossed the boundary out of an evangelical rural parish into a broader Anglo-Catholic town parish. And there I added 250 webpages to the church website on its old magazines, and eventually led a theology group at "seminary level" presentations that I wrote. The clash with the minister was not actual or personal ever, but purely theological: he said he was not a liberal but held to the whole tradition 'as a discipline' even if it was all a story (not saying it is) whereas I was a liberal and selective. So he could blab out a creed with virgins having babies and dead men living again and I could not, and increasingly I was going through 'liturgical withdrawal'. Since I've been gone, the church has reportedly gone ever further up the candle and I just see that as a smokescreen.

Since then I've been Unitarian again, but still not a member and won't be. I have put up with the attacks and clashes, and as a result stayed the course whereas I might have withdrawn. I'm aware that I live in an associated charity house, but this is not dependent on my involvement. In fact the pastor has one such flat for the manse and I rent one bungalow, but a few residents only go to the trust service and Christmas service. Most are non-attenders anywhere, and elderly. Remember, most churchgoers are elderly, but most elderly are not churchgoers. Not any more.

My friends have no interest in formal religion, and it offers nothing but irrelevance and the superfluous. They see Unitarianism (quite properly, why not?) in social and economic history terms, and regard it as a middle class inheritance and reality that was as much socially harmful as helpful, out to embed itself in civic society. The Sunday School movement was a form of exploitation; the factories like the Greggs at Styal were just self-seeking exploitation wrapped up in self-opinionated self-justification.

I think church growth is largely random. It does come from people already interested, already involved for one reason or another. If those people have friends, or perhaps similar children, and if those people like to join things and do things, they can get involved. Some people are like this: they see few people and see an opportunity to involve. Some people also do warm to potential others to talk to, as if the church is a club.

A city centre church in a secular urban setting is a very difficult location and setting for any kind of growth. But a random event of trial attendance can lead to a bounce. It MAY make a difference that a minister is someone to relate to and if warm and directive can assist in the people attending again. On the other hand, there is also resistance to ministers and those who would call around and find out things you want to keep to yourself. There is an anti-clerical streak in some, or at least the intention to keep all churches at arms length.

I hear talk about developing loving communities. I don't buy it. I go where I go as much despite the people as because of them (and read both sides of that equation). I want to be friendly, and to be treated in a friendly manner, but I choose my friends and I don't seek a 'loving community'. If it became that, I'd run off. I don't believe it anyway. Basically it is a place to learn to get on with people we might not choose to be our friends, for example people who have contrary different political opinions to me. Loving communities do not suddenly start showing 'lights' that attract others in, indeed they are as likely to repel.

It is whether, what we are about, and this would be a critical and broad approach to religion, yet positive about religious practice, has sufficient appeal. It will among a minority, and probably indeed of the religious escapee, and perhaps those who want better than the dreadful RE in schools for their children (of which there are very very few).

So I'm with Mark Hart. Spend £100 million over ten years and you waste your money. It all comes down to the local 'chaos' (as in theory) of the random enquirer and whether the pick-up in terms of the chats they have after a service and perhaps with a minister cause them to again return. Some people will return under their own motivations. The odd enquirer and retired minister can work wonders. Can.

Older church models - women doing the donkey domestic work, men leading (a microcosm of comfortable, known, traditional society) - are dead in the water. That's the generation now finally dying off, and part of the old chapel culture I discovered and hated among Lancashire and Manchester Unitarians. Horrible. It is now individuals and just what happens. You bob along the bottom, as people die, and some visit and mostly don't come back (or very rarely), or you get an unexpected bounce. When you get the growth, things like groups and activities become possible. You then preach your growth, once you get it. When you don't, you can't, or it sounds hollow.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Winding Up the Denomination

I think it is a brave decision if the Unitarian denomination has decided to cease. The General Assembly has been meeting, and it sure makes for a bold resolution. The numbers are now so low, that there are so many congregations running on single figures with elderly populations, that the sensible decision is not to keep bobbing along the bottom waiting for extinction, but to be rational and wind things up.

The final GA was a happy occasion, with photographs shown of a collection of well-retired people holding string to make a big cat's cradle or something about being bound together in a shared future. What future? 'Unitarian' will now become a word recognised by clever people who do word games.

Apparently there is plenty of property and in some places stacks of money. There's just no one interested any more. The days when people wanted to hear a minister's sermon, when they would flock to sing well-known (either words or music or both) hymns and say public prayers are over. The sub-culture is finished.

It's one thing to have enough people to generate live money to keep a live entity going; but the experience has been to use dead money to keep a place alive, and now it seems there is dead money and dead places.

Elsewhere it is noted that not one Anglican bishop is now a 'scholar bishop' and they are all being introduced by this businessman Archbishop into management speak and management training. The Liberal Arts are pretty dead now anyway: their benefit towards critical thinking is being lost to the Business Administration Degree and what is known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Anglican bishops are thus are all into marketing, as if makes one jot of difference. With the exception of the transitory in cathedrals, for a bit of cheap high-end culture, and the occasional media churches with big car parks that just happen to be Anglican, the Church of England is on one long trip to where the Unitarians have already arrived.

The URC will be dead within a decade, as it has no rhyme or reason specifically to exist any more. It's effort to maintain itself by taking over Scottish evangelical churches has come to nothing, as these tiny things shut their doors and the URC finds itself with anti-baby baptising and baby baptising factions, as if anyone else could care less.

The Methodists are collapsing, with an active church closing programme, as if bunging people together in fewer buildings will make any difference. Lots of older people is still lots of older people, and the rate of decline ends up at the same place reached by the Unitarians.

The Unitarians at least have had a unique selling point of freedom of belief, although people say that they have that anyway outside of it, and also it has been confused by an Object seeking to uphold Liberal Christianity as a kind of one-faith privilege, although no one knows what 'Liberal Christian' is any more. I don't do it and others don't do it and we're not sure if we should or shouldn't and occasionally get irritated when someone says we should. It's a death rattle muddle, introduced by people who thought 'upholding' meant 'maintaining', when it didn't.

Apparently the last gasp attempt for relevance was providing religious gay marriage and no doubt it is a way for the remaining trustees here and there with all that money and those buildings to provide a useful service but it turns out that some mainstream denominations can jettison their principles when it comes to trying to stay alive and adopt gay marriage after all. But you can't gather congregations on the basis of providing gay marriage services.

Significant dates then turn out to be 1662 and the Great Ejection, 1689 and trinitarian toleration for Calvinists, 1813 and Unitarian toleration, 1844 and Unitarians can keep their money from the ravenous orthodox; the theological changes from Arminianism and then some Anglican-influenced Arianism to biblical and then individualist Unitarianism, from Free Christianity to a pluralistic faiths position with a generalised humanism; and now 2015: the date to wind it all up and say it has run its course.

Yes, it is a far bolder step to smell the coffee, and that's not after any more services! It is useful that the General Assembly meets on this day, because this is the right date to announce the winding up, to say 2015 is the year when it all ended. Apparently the final services will be on the Sunday before the General Election, when we British lose all remaining hope.