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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Challenges and Opportunities: the Unitarian Future

The following is the talk I gave to the National Unitarian Fellowship at the Annual Meetings in April 2014:

 Thank you for the invitation to speak this afternoon and to explore with you and hear your views. I agreed the topic with Tony months ago “Challenges and Opportunities: The Unitarian Future”.
 I would like to begin by describing some aspects of the present situation; the challenges and opportunities:
“.. faces many problems and cannot, on the basis of recent and current trends, contemplate the future with a great deal of hope.
…changes have been too local and piecemeal to constitute an adequate response
…there seem few reasons to believe it is likely to address its many challenges successfully.
… attendances have been declining over the past few decades. The numbers are alarming…however you measure it the trend is still relentlessly downward…and if the current trend continues it will get much worse…statisticians envisage a calamitous decline… in business only because of its considerable historic assets.
…all activities are less well supported than they used to be and the Church’s beliefs and ideas are less well understood
Inevitably the decline in attendance has had a negative effect on finances…it seems unlikely that it will be able to maintain the full range of …ministries…there are fewer full-time, paid ministers
When all the factors are taken into account, it does not seem unduly alarmist to say that things could become much worse yet – the patient may not survive
…internal focus is a classic symptom of lost direction and confidence.
…the difficulties…create heavy daily burdens and dilemmas for those whose task it is to lead….
However not all things have stood still
- Worship is different
- Buildings re-ordered to make them more useful
- Ministry is shared
- Most members recognise that they too have ministries
- Outreach takes place
This is infact not a description of the Unitarians but as some of you will have guessed but of the Church of England from Keith Elford’s recently published book “Creating the Future of the Church. I heard Keith speak last December at a Ministry and Leadership conference and he brings together his experience as a minister and as an organisational consultant. Does this however strike a chord? I think so.
Turning to our Unitarian future we somehow must not imagine that our predecessors were somehow not up to the task and lay the blame on them for our present predicament nor indeed naively believe that we have greater insight than them and that we know best. Indeed given our larger size then it is likely that access to intellectual, professional and practical resources was greater to help understand what was going on and take action in response. Taking the long view can give real perspective rather than be buffeted by the prevailing fads; do more of this, or of that, they are doing this why are not we!
Since the establishment of the General Assembly in 1928 in virtually every decade there has been initiative after initiative to address the identified problems of decline:
1930s   - series of articles in The Inquirer in 1936 on “Regenerating Unitarianism beginning with “A programme for regenerating our churches” by Rev Percival Chalk. If you run down his list there is nothing that would be out of place today suitably updated for our context. Yet the impact of the Depression completely undermined an Appeal for funds to triple the Assembly’s income and start new congregations. More churches closed and as John Keilty said in his 1959 Minns Lectures in the US “enthusiasm wilted under the stress of hard, cold facts”. A Commission put forward plans for groupings to meet ministerial shortages and financial stress but “independency” prevented any movement.
1940s  in the midst of the WW2 a Commission on our Free Religious Faith and for the first time a group of prominent Unitarians set out their thinking on faith a religion. Hand in hand with this thinking went practical steps. Even before Essex Hall was destroyed an appeal for funds - £100,000 – and large sums were raised.
1950s publicity drives into the 1960’s – the language of mission was used again but shortage of money and staff.
1960s GA established a Commission on the place of the Unitarian Churches in the modern world – theology, leadership, education and religion in the community. In mid 1960’s the Foy Society congregational survey set out for the first and only time where we stood at congregational level.
1980s falling numbers and declining influence focus on growth and development – the quality of leadership. One result was 1993 Presidents Commission on Education and Training.
2000’s Task Force and governance changes

Some will say let’s leave the past to the past. I believe this is wrong. As I read recently “Looking backwards and seeing how change happens is part of futuring” (RSA 9 Oct 2012). Lets us not repeat the mistakes of the past; but learn from them.
Returned to Keith Elford. He sees that the Churches’ particular problems stem from one larger problem. The Churches are still struggling to come to grips with what it means to be part of a secular, multi-cultural society – egalitarian, democratic, composed of multiple faiths and cultures.
His view is that the Church must articulate what Church is for and where it is going in a society like ours.
Professor Linda Woodhead work has made her very unpopular in some Church of England circles. She wrote in the Church Times in January this year “The Church’s greatest failure has been its refusal to take decline seriously. The situation is now so grave that it is no longer enough simply to focus on making parts grow again. The whole structure needs to be reviewed from top to toe, and creative and courageous decisions need to be made”. Has this any relevance for our tiny movement.

So that’s a quick run through the challenges and opportunities. I could sit down now have covered my remit but you would probably feel short-changed.
I don’t think any of us would think these are easy questions with easy answers. The future of Unitarianism and indeed of organised religion in this country is becoming known as a “wicked” issue. They have complex causes and multiple stakeholders and are unlikely to be fully solved in the foreseeable future. They may demand far-reaching changes which will be complex and contested.
I would like us to explore the bigger questions. One of the responsibilities and privileges of being Chief Officer as all chief executives is that I am paid to think – I don’t do enough of it with all the other day to day work pressures but I really feel that this is what is expected of me for who else can do it. So two questions?

Firstly, what is Unitarianism and Free Christianity?
In thinking about this talk I was struck that in the 1940s in the midst of War Unitarians established a Commission on our Free Religious Faith. I was also struck with the statement on the back cover of “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought”, published by the Lindsey Press in 1999, that this “is the first substantial publication about Unitarian theology to be published for forty years”. If this is true perhaps this explains much of our diffidence and uncertainty about where we stand in a changing world.
Defined by the name “Unitarian”, with “and Free Christian” added when the full formal title is used, has this any meaning in our secular multi-cultural society where orthodox Christianity is no longer the default position against which we set up our stall. Of course we like Alice in the Looking Glass wonder. “When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."

So as in our “a faith worth thinking about” pamphlet we stress our “traditional Insistence on divine unity, the oneness of God” but now add “because they affirm the essential unity of humankind and of creation”. In the post-modern age when there is no truth and no grand narratives this is of course acceptable.
With our work on the new GA website this has of course emerged as a question. I always regarded the “What we believe” pages as fairly inadequate. It is now to be “Unitarianism Explained” and the professional help we are using to help compose material in a web friendly way has challenged us in our efforts to ensure we assist the seeker in actually getting a clear insight about who we are. You may be interested to learn that the importance of community has been stressed given that many people pursue their spiritual path alone buying in practices from self-employed practitioners.

For too long we have allowed a very individualistic view of what Unitarianism is. “Everyone is on their spiritual journey and you can believe what you want” – this is of course a parody but points us to some insights. Of course you cannot believe what you want and remain part of a Unitarian community; there are actually boundaries.  
I was also struck by comments in a blog by UUA Minister Peter Boullata in December 2011 with the title “The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You”. He challenges us “There’s a difference between a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning, unencumbered by doctrine and “a religion that’s all about you and whatever you want”. Certainly what drew me to a Unitarian community is that it offers one of the few places where issues of true meaning can be explored and where wisdom and teaching is respected. It is also about looking beyond the needs of those present and as Keith Elford says asking what is the Church – your community – for and where is it going.
I am a firm believer that in meeting the needs of those outside the community we can build community within. My commitment to effective social action and service cannot be doubted, however, it must be based upon a deep spiritual and theological underpinning for us as a religious movement.

I will now turn to the second question; how does Unitarianism organize itself for the future?
For this I have drawn on some work by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts.
Here we are at the Annual Meeting of the General Assembly.
What are our responsibilities to one another? Is there a sense that just like in the wider society there is a deeper feeling of powerlessness – not only that we are failing to use our power to make Unitarianism stronger but that we are not prepared to use that power to tackle the big issues. About society he talked about this leading to social pessimism. To explain power is used here as the capacity to achieve desired objectives. Matthew Taylor describes three forms:
Downward power of hierarchical authority associated most strongly with the state
We know that globally levels of trust in the leaders of government and other institutions including the Church and the Press and Media has fallen to new lows. Government and business has not delivered against rising expectations. Technology has increased pressures. There has certainly been a decline of authority.
Secondly, the lateral power of solidarity and shared values generally associated with the power of community
The past 30 years have seen a rapid decline in active membership of and even nominal allegiance to civic institutions such as the trade unions, political parties and the organised church. These all offer opportunities for cooperative action across significant boundaries of interest and identity. There has been a decline of solidarity
Thirdly, the Upward power of individual aspirations, which tend to be associated with markets
“…individualism is the strongest force of our times” yet is problematic for both society and the individual.
Each of these forces has plus points and negatives.
Hierarchy has strategic capacity yet has a tendency to be controlling
Solidarity fosters selflessness but also breeds insularity and sectarianism
Individualism can be creative and dynamic but selfish and irresponsible
In the absence of countervailing forces, fatalism will fill the gap.

The solution is, infact, “clumsy” – combining the three active forms of social power – and acknowledging and working with the tensions between them. If we rely on one approach it can be inflexible – example of investment banks broken by act of an individual. Communes take solidarity to extremes and rarely last but need some hierarchy to enforce rules.
A way forward to address the problems we face is therefore to mobilise all forms of social power
How can this analysis help us? How do we understand how we have approached power?
Individualism is built into our DNA; the focus is on the individual in a community not on a community made up of individuals. We tend to take it for granted that people will come to us and leave as part of their spiritual journey. The congregation is sovereign; the own their own buildings and pay for their minister. The General Assembly is just that “an assembly” with no power over any congregation. Indeed in our Constitution there is no power of expulsion of a member body. Congregational autonomy of course means that innovation can take place with no need for approval however this means that we don’t tend to learn from failure. It also means that when congregations are in trouble they often only seek help when it is too late or never do resigned to closure – a fatalistic approach unfortunately.

Hierarchy of course therefore has a flawed history. The General Assembly came late in our denominational structures. For most of the 19th century the focus was on individuals taking forward collective initiatives not congregations. The task force changes more recently which led to the new structures of course point to a model of governance focused upon the board; the Executive Committee. We see the language of strategies, strategy groups, action groups, measures of success reflecting this approach yet the power to influence is weak. Externally there are expectations on the central structure yet not a willingness to give it real power.
Solidarity had however a unique quality for the Unitarian Movement which has been lost. We emerged from the dissenting tradition. The taint of persecution lingered well into the 18th century with the last physical attacks during the Priestley Riots in 1792 in Birmingham. Throughout the 19th century it remained just not respectable to be a Unitarian. This forged a sense of community reinforced by marriage with a network of wealthy Unitarian families spread across the country; now dissipated. In Lancashire Unitarian Methodism brought its own sense of cooperative values amongst working class congregations. With a seeming inability to pass on our faith inter-generationally and relying on mid-and late-life converts (can I use that word!) we have to continually re-learn our values as local communities.

Some conclusions therefore:
1. Recognise that there is not one easy or coherent answer; it will be “clumsy”. Some things will work and some things won’t. What works in one place; will not in another.  
2. Accept that too much emphasis on one approach will mean that we are unlikely to address the “wicked problems”
3. Ensure that our initiatives are based on a deep understanding of the complexities of the issues we face. Just because something works in another country does not for example mean it will work here; which is pertinent given the dominance of UUA thinking and approaches.

I will finish with some ideas to get you thinking where I think that change is needed:
Solidarity – Many of grew up in a period when in the public mind expressing solidarity with someone else pointed to going out on strike and was not then against the law. It is said that where you put your money says a lot about your values. With our individualistic congregational culture our resources are concentrated. I see congregational Accounts. I also see situations whereby a few thousand pounds could make a major difference. So I would ask how can we truly show solidarity with our neighbours financially? Is it morally right to sit with massive cash reserves when you could have more impact by investing it elsewhere?
What about our sense of solidarity with emerging Unitarians in other countries. We are amongst the most wealthiest country in the world yet some Unitarians in Africa exist on less than a $ a week. Where did the "Foreign" go in the BFUA when it merged to become the General Assembly?

In relation to the General Assembly’s work we do need to do less but better. We need to improve accountability and for example not expect volunteers to be managers of significant projects. This is were some of the ideas of hierarchy are infact beneficial as opposed to individuals doing their own thing however worthy. When the GA awards grants it needs to hold recipients accountable. If congregations benefit from “excepted” status at the very least they need to acknowledge what this means for them as an unregistered charity.

Reflecting on the first question can we not collectively come together to create circumstances whereby the issues of our faith can be addressed at some depth – we have got width not depth - academically and theologically. Hard-pressed ministers of tutors cannot do this. We need a lectureship at some university department of religious studies on Unitarian studies. But are we prepared to support this financially?

Finally what collective stories do we tell? If Unitarianism is not about creeds and beliefs surely stories and narratives – our own and that of others - is a way of expressing our identity.

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