Thursday, 26 March 2015

A Vision for Our Future

To read the individual contributions and comment follow the links.


We want to be

A faith that matters

A reflection of the world's complexity bound together by our many different views

A spiritual feast for each person to bring and share ideas and experience

A promoter of social justice for all, listening and responding to the needs of others

There for everyone

We must

Tell the world we're here

Be understood by the public

Connect to people everywhere

Serve our communities

Develop personal leadership

Be religiously literate

Provide Ministry that enables ministry

Prepare for our children's future

To do this, we need to

Harness our energy

Use our resources to the full

Embrace new technology

Acknowledge contribution and success

Empower individuals

Make change happen

A Vision For Our Future - Introduction

Last September (2014) leading Unitarians and Free Christians met at Cross Street Chapel in Manchester to share their vision for the Future of Unitarianism in this country.

They discussed many ideas and tried to deal with pictures rather than words, recognising the challenge of coming to an agreement. It is strange to record that the day passed almost without dissent and the outcome has served as the basis to develop the ideas contained in this book.

This is a vision for our future created by the members of our Movement themselves. It is not a product of Executive Committee thinking, though the Executive Committee are 100% behind it. It has evolved through fundamental thought, creative argument and consultation. Many of you will have seen these pieces published in the Inquirer and the Unitarian; there have been discussions on Facebook and conversations between individuals.

There is still much to do and the debate must continue as we develop our thoughts into some sort of cohesive picture. It will, of course, fall to the Executive Committee and the various Strategy Groups to evolve a plan on how to implement the thoughts and ideas that have been put forward.

This vision, though created with a view to the Unitarian Movement nationally, applies just as easily to Districts and congregations. How it is implemented will, of course, differ according to circumstance. But it can become a uniting factor in our search for a better future.

We all hope that it will serve to inspire those many individuals who love our Movement so deeply to join together in serving by whatever means they are able.

There are some practical things that we can do to improve this vision, because it relies on everybody to join in and have their say. Here are 3 ways in which you can become involved:
If you are a member of any Unitarian Facebook groups - comment directly - go for it!
If you are on the Internet, you can access the national Unitarian website and comment on any             individual article at
For those without Internet access, for whatever reason; discuss the various pieces as a congregation    and then get somebody with an Internet connection to make your contribution.

This is a vision for everybody. It will continue to develop with new ideas and new thoughts. Please come and be part of it.

Robert Ince
Convenor of the Executive Committee


Thank you to all those who took part in the Vision Day at Cross Street Chapel and those who have contributed pieces to this document.

Thank you to the unknown artist from the Vision Day who drew the outline figures.

The Executive Committee's Thoughts

The Executive Committee has spent considerable time reading through the various pieces. This is a summary of phrases that struck the EC as important together with thoughts and comments that came to mind in our discussions.

Our identity

If we are to be a faith that matters to both society and to the individual, we should recognise that we are first and foremost a faith community; social action, whilst part of who we are, is not our primary purpose. Our communities should be places where the imagination can be fed, where our deepest instincts can be satisfied, where our sense of transcendent otherness can be explored. Yet we understand the need for people to be inspired to express their faith practically.

We also see a need to re-establish an identity, a unique spiritual position. No creed does not mean no belief!

We are a reflection of the world's complexity, where the various strands that make up our Unitarian religious perspective, (Christian, Theist, Pagan, Buddhist, Mystic, Agnostic amongst others) are our great strength.

We understand the desire to and the value of sharing our time and our thoughts, not just for an hour
on a Sunday but at other times and in other ways as a means of strengthening our communities.

We recognise the importance of giving something of ourselves for the benefit of our community. We learn about one another, and the more we learn about each other, the stronger the bond is between us.

What is now needed is for us to find new ways of being together and this is where the giving comes in. We need to give our time. We need to be willing to add at least another hour to the time we come together in church, as a church. To build new communities in the future, we are going to have to be prepared to change and move away from the classic Sunday Service.

We aspire to be there for everyone who shares our values, to create a place for everyone, but many of us are happy in our own little comfort zone. We have a long way to go to become an all-inclusive community. This means change - so be prepared to be uncomfortable!

We do social justice and social action because this is inherent in who we are - a deep theological claim is made on each of us within our congregation to hone our communal conscience as well. In truth though, many who feel that they are social activists feel more comfortable paying others to roll their sleeves up and get involved.

We need to consider how we might symbolise our identity and express the essence of who we are through our rituals.

The role of the Minister is to enable the ministry of the congregation. The dynamics within congregations should process moral sensitivity among members in ways that lead to specific commitments to action based on their skills and interests.

What are we going to do in the future?

We do not want to be a proselytizing religion, but we do need to announce our presence; to tell people what we stand for. We should not be worried if people are upset by this. We need to get out, rather than expect people to come in. There is a great opportunity now for outreach using electronic media, recognising that communication is a complex area with new risks if not handled well.

The Internet has reduced the cost of connecting to people and them with us - it has changed the rules! We need to overcome the fear of some of the Internet and get the younger people to help the older generation to embrace the new opportunities. Yet we must keep those who struggle with electronic media as active members of our community.

We are here to minister to the wider community. We should learn to be more adventurous with our resources: Money, buildings and people. They should all be net contributors to our activities. Each of us should establish a covenant with our community to agree what we will give. We need to accept the need for more live giving and make it a reality by asking 'What could we do if we gave more?'

Children and young people should feel part of our supportive community. We should encourage them to speak the truth. They look for alternatives to our "hymn sandwich" culture and we should search for ways to bridge the gap between their ways of expression and traditional / classical expressions, whilst recognising the value that that the 'hymn sandwich' provides for many people.

Leadership can be expressed in many different ways, including servant leadership. Training can help in leadership and we have in some of our congregations people with skills and knowledge of leadership; we have people skilled in working with volunteers and we have people who work in education and training. We need to encourage these people to step forward and help develop others. There are many opportunities for us to develop religious literacy in other communities and through national programmes.

For us to thrive in an increasingly global world, we recognise our interconnectedness to people everywhere, but our focus will remain primarily within the UK. We still have problems understanding who we are and how we wish to be perceived. Although many have a clear idea of who they are as a person, more work needs to be done to develop a shared idea of who we are as a community. This should be far more friendly and accessible than our General Assembly charitable Object.

We must harness our energy by understanding who we are as communities and what we can offer to the world outside. It begins with opening our eyes and ears, by taking a good look around us and by listening to the voices of inspiration both near and far. This will include using all forms of media, including social media. This is likely to attract new people and new money but will make our communities more lively and creative in any case.

A faith That Matters

'Matters to what or to whom?' one has to ask. I suppose the answer will be, 'To society and to the individual'. We Unitarians have been very good at saying and doing things that matter to society. We have taken a stand on many of the big social and political issues of our time and on the big social and political issues of times past. We can boast a proud record of standing up for the under-dog, of proclaiming freedom and tolerance in times when it was unpopular and even dangerous to do so. Our involvement in social justice issues has been, and is, exemplary.

But what about the individual? What about the person who feels an existential sickness of soul, who is seeking answers to life's deepest questions, who wants to learn how to pray, how to approach God, how to find forgiveness for past sins and how to find hope and faith for future endeavours? What can we offer him or her? Is it enough to say that words like 'God', 'soul', 'forgiveness', 'sin', 'prayer', and 'faith' are very troublesome and so don't get much attention in our churches? Is it enough to satisfy such a sensitive individual when we preach about world religions, global warming, gay rights, feminism, abortion rights, assisted suicide and the like? Is it enough to imply, as we often do, that when we eventually tidy up society our individual problems will evaporate? Is it enough to say to the earnest inquirer, 'Here you are free to find your own spiritual path.', when they probably came through our door thinking we could offer them one?

The great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, became a Catholic towards the end of his life. When he was asked why, he replied, 'To get some goodness back.' Would someone become a Unitarian 'to get some goodness back'? I doubt it. We don't deal in such categories. As James Woods wrote in the Guardian a few years ago, 'Unitarianism is tediously untragic', meaning that it is a fair-weather religion which speaks to the optimistic and the comparatively prosperous and which confidently (and often patronisingly) addresses issues of social amelioration but which has little or nothing to say about the anxiety and despair which afflict us all, not because we are poor or disadvantaged, but just because we are human. To the questions, 'Who am I?', 'Why am I here?', 'Where am I going?', 'What's the ultimate point of it all?' we can offer no answers beyond the dreary banalities distilled from Neo-Darwinism, that we are nothing special, that we got here by accident, that we're destined for the grave, and that there's no ultimate point.

This is not the Unitarianism of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, James Martineau, Susan B. Anthony, and L.P. Jacks, who were not afraid to challenge the intellectual orthodoxies of their time and to bear the opprobrium of their peers as a consequence. We pretend to an intellectual freedom and fearlessness, but, as I can testify from personal experience, there is precious little freedom to deviate from the powerful but unacknowledged 'rationalist' dogmas which dominate contemporary Unitarian thought.

Like so many people who 'convert' later in life, I naively used to think that when people heard about Unitarianism they would immediately be attracted to it. But it's not true. Very few of my friends and family have shown much interest, and our declining numbers demonstrate lack of interest generally. People who like to talk about religion are attracted to it; people who want to practise religion aren't. Meanwhile, New Life Centres are springing up everywhere, and their services are packed. There are 18,000 Mormons in Britain and about 3,000 Unitarians. Mormonism, despite teetotalism and tithing is growing; Unitarianism, which doesn't require too much from its devotees, is declining.

And it's not, as we sometimes condescendingly assume, because the vast majority of people are simple-minded and in search of 'certainties'. It is, rather, because people instinctively feel that life has more meaning than the sterile rationalism of our white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant outlook will allow and so they go where their imagination can be fed, where their deepest instincts can be satisfied, where their sense of transcendent otherness can be explored. Our own ethical society-masquerading-as-religion satisfies few human desires.

We lost so much when we surrendered to contemporary naturalism. We need to start 'exploring boldly' again, to become, in the words of John Pickering, 'spiritual pioneers'. We need to stop the interminable agonising over words, to let the spirit move us, to re-learn the meaning and importance of prayer and of regular spiritual practice. And, most of all, we need to discard our literalism and discover the centrality of poetry and imagination in religion.

If we can do these things; if we can put as much emphasis on our interior life as we put on our political efforts, we can be a faith that matters.
Rev. Bill Darlison

In Response

From: Rev Jim Corrigall

The article by Bill Darlison on whether we can be a ‘faith that matters’ was most stimulating. His warnings that we need to re-learn the importance of prayer and spiritual practice, and the value of poetic and metaphorical understandings, seem timely.

I was particularly interested in his statement that ‘unacknowledged dogmas’ pervade our denominational thinking – he refers to sterile ‘rationalism’.

It seems to me perhaps the most pervasive ‘orthodoxy’ of our denomination today is that we – as a denomination – have no shared theology, only shared values. And this is usually presented as a neutral or ‘common sense’ position, which requires no theological or philosophical justification.

Yet surely to assert that we are ‘non-theological’ or that we have ‘no common theology’ is itself a deeply theological statement – just as maintaining one is ‘non-political’ is itself a deeply political stance (usually unacknowledged). Our position may well have developed from our radical protestant roots, and it may chime with some contemporary popular ideas, but surely in its contemporary form it should be introduced as a starting point for theological reflection rather than as the conclusion?

In terms of practical theology, little support for such a belief is likely to be found among faith practitioners of the different world religions. Obviously most creedal Christians would reject it, but so too would Sufi mystics (who say if you want to find water, dig one deep hole rather than 10 shallow ones), to the spiritual teachers of Buddhism and Hinduism, who emphasise the need to choose a path if one is to advance spirituality, and for that path to have authentic cultural resonance for the devotee. Liberal Jews believe it essential to remain rooted in the Jewish Bible, even as they advance very liberal positions on contemporary issues.

Could the (mainly) unacknowledged point of maintaining we have no ‘shared theology’ be that it allows us to ‘leave behind’ Christianity, the only theological tradition we are heir to, and thus leave behind the difficult task of renewing it in our assertively multi-faith world (a task we may be particularly well-qualified for)?

From: John C Hall

Bill Darlison writes very challengingly for us. He asks: “How can we be a faith that matters?” and he goes on to address serious Unitarian shortcomings, from his point of view. Quoting from a Guardian article: ‘Unitarianism is tediously untragic’, Bill takes this to mean that our is, “…a fair weather religion which speaks to the optimistic and the comparatively prosperous but has little or nothing to say about the anxiety and despair which afflict us all, not because we are poor or disadvantaged, but just because we are human.”

So that is concerning enough; but he presses on: “To the questions, ‘Who am I?, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Where am I going?’, ‘What is the ultimate point of it all?’ we can offer no answers beyond the dreary banalities distilled from Neo-Darwinism, that we are nothing special, that we got here by accident…. and there is no ultimate point.” And if this, from Bill Darlison, isn’t questioning current Unitarianism almost to a point of despair, he continues, after another pummelling paragraph: “Our own ethical society – masquerading as religion satisfies few human desires.” And I would say that was the particular sentence that sparked off this personal response.

Perhaps the great question for Unitarians should be: what, truly, are we?

Is there, largely owing to our pulling away from traditional Christianity, combined with a rationalist intellectuality, something of the loosely religious about us?

Or, in the case of some Unitarians, not even tenuously religious? Yes, but then we are, as Unitarians, altogether concerned about what can be termed spiritual matters. And I think that we Unitarians do put quite as much emphasis on the ‘interior life’ as we put on our ‘political efforts’. Certainly my personal view is that we are a brotherhood community that matters.

Indeed, in a climate of religious extremism, surely we matter very much! And don’t we accept that we are different? For instance, there is no one Unitarian faith. So, personally I do feel that we need to believe in ourselves as Unitarians; and countering Bill Darlison somewhat, I’d say that we need to keep faith with our sensibly independent Unitarianism, while seeking to establish whether we can term ourselves Christian or Post-Christian.

As a comparative ‘new boy’, I have to acknowledge that we could be viewed as taking up an indeterminate position where religion is concerned. And whereas Bill Darlison wishes that we were more overtly religious within Unitarianism, some of us might see that as feeling like retreat rather than enlightenment?.

So what do you think?

From: Rev Frank Walker Cambridge

It has long been apparent that many members-perhaps a majority - of the Society of Friends in England have a very similar liberal religious outlook to Unitarians. They are undogmatic and universalist, willing to include on an equal footing people who have a humanistic and non-theistic religious outlook, welcoming insights from non-Christian sources as well as from the Christian tradition. Quakers, though, are a tiny minority. Liberal views also find expression in the Progressive Christian Network and Modem Church within the C of E, to name but a few. These too are small groups, but there is evidence that lower-case ‘unitarians’ are present in large numbers within the great official and historic churches.

In January 2014, Prospect magazine published a survey of religious belief in England. It showed that ‘one-third of the public count themselves as part of the Church of England or Scotland; only 45 per cent of them say that Jesus is the son of God. The figure is higher among Catholics at 67 per cent - but this still means that one Catholic in three does not share this belief.’

These are astounding figures. What do they mean? Nearly one-half of Anglicans and an astonishing one-third of Catholics hold a humanitarian (or ‘Unitarian’) view of Jesus. They may well be perfectly loyal Anglicans and Catholics who would never dream of being anything else. In religion especially people are able to live with contradictions. They take what they can from a religion and leave aside what they find irrelevant or unintelligible. So Unitarians are by no means as isolated as they may think: there are millions of lowercase ‘unitarians’ in the most historic and seemingly orthodox churches.

A Reflection Of The World's Complexity Bound Together By Our Many Different Views

Being a Weaver

A Persian poet wrote 'Broad is the carpet God has spread and beautiful are its colours'. A Persian carpet is durable because of the long, arduous weaving process where the tough warp and weft hold together hundreds of woollen and silken knots that create its pattern, provide its richness of colour, its depth of texture and make of it one whole. The imperfections are woven into the design; sometimes an imperfection is deliberately created and the fringes around the edges will wear in time because they are unsupported by the weft and the knots.

Some years ago, I remember calling it 'ballast for the soul'. It was an awareness of the strength that comes from the many varied strands that make up our Unitarian religious perspective; Christian, Theist, Pagan, Buddhist, Mystic, Agnostic amongst others - none of these strands in any way a weakness, or a fatal flaw at the heart of our Unitarian religious identity, but a hard won strength borne out of the struggle to bear witness to religious differences in a complex world, a struggle not to capitulate to any one view, however persuasively argued.

Of course, the struggle goes on. Some strands seem to shine more brightly at certain times; a pattern emerges that feels the right one to follow but then life experience moves us in a different direction, a new perspective opens up and we go on weaving the path and the pattern that gives life meaning at that time.

Maybe here the analogy breaks down because, unlike the carpet that might adorn our homes, there isn't a finished product. We just go on creating it, all the time connected and strengthened by the process and by the people who accompany us on the journey. And because our lives are messy and complex and nothing is ever fixed like a Grecian urn or a Persian carpet, we find our truth in the process and that is good enough.

Rev. Margaret Kirk

A Spiritual Feast For Each Person To Bring And Share Ideas And Experience

In order for us to fully engage with one another and be able to achieve this spiritual feast of ideas and experience we will have to be willing to 'give ourselves' in new ways which may feel alien to how we have related to church before. We may even have to review what we presently perceive worship to be.

Our time in communion with one another is extremely brief these days. At present, worship in most of our Unitarian communities, consists of an hour long service and then a cup of tea with a biscuit and off home. The time we give to listening to a service is 1 hour, but the time after the service rarely lasts more than 30 minutes, with individuals floating off as soon as cups are emptied. During this brief commune we may discuss the previous week, the week ahead, where we're going on our holidays and other snippets of our lives. What we don't tend to do is converse, as a group, about the worship that has taken place, the life of the church, our spiritual goals, needs or expectations. Strangely, these important areas of being 'church' are now, more often than not, left to church committees and councils to discuss behind closed doors, as if the rest of the community are programmed not to 'think' on such subjects.

Historically, the most bonding ritual known to humanity is the sharing of food and that is still the case. When sitting at a meal, there is a common purpose, to be nourished, and our distractions are limited. The people sitting around us are able to spend time in conversation with us. We learn about one another and the more we learn about each other, the stronger the bond is between us. Time is given to one another, in the preparation and the sharing. It is a wonderfully spiritual way of 'being together'. The ancients realised this and it became part of their spiritual ritual. Even Christianity, at its beginning, consisted of reading from the Gospel followed by a meal together. Both worship and communion were as important as one another. For us, it is the intended 'being together' which has diminished. In order to get that back, we may need to find new ways of coming together as a community, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a cooked meal.

It could be said that our chapels and churches hold events where we are able to socialise more intently with each other and the wider community, but do we discuss our hopes and dreams, our theologies and beliefs, the worship we've just experienced and our own takes on the subject, or do we place our concentration on the event at hand? Filling in the answers to the quiz, dancing with one another, watching and putting on plays together, days out, jumble sales, fairs and all the other events we host are wonderful and socially nourishing, but it is difficult to cultivate the community when there is the distraction of something else going on.

What is needed is for us to find ways of being together and this is where the 'giving' comes in. We need to give our time. We need to be willing to add at least another hour to the time we come together in church, as a church. This can be done in a multitude of ways; the sharing of food, a group discussion, an after worship presentation, or even, if space or pew-dynamics dictate, split into smaller groups each week to have set topic discussions (although it would be important to rotate these groups so that we don't establish cliques or give allowance to avoidances). Each church would need to find what works for them, what cultivates them as a community.

In order for our communities to be able to fully engage in a spiritual feast of sharing ideas and experience, we need to give ourselves and our time, and give it to one another. Sixty minutes is not much to ask of each other if we want to share the feast.

Rev. Shammy Webster

A Promoter of Social Justice for All, Listening and Responding To The Needs Of Others

Social Action, Social Justice: Open the Door!

Religious scholar Prof. Charlie Hallisey tells this story about what it means to live a religious - and thus, compassionate life. He writes, "There was a Protestant village in France during the Second World War that got involved, at great risk to themselves, in protecting Jewish refugees. The people who participated were extremely inarticulate when asked why they did what they did. They said, 'Someone knocks on the door, you open it. You don't think about it. You open the door.' How did they become so good? They said, 'I don't feel so good. I didn't decide to do anything. I just opened the door.'

It is a striking illustration. I have only one problem with this "parable of the open door" and that is with the idea that the villagers, "...didn't decide to do anything." I disagree; I think they did decide to do something. They decided to live a religious life in religious community. Unlike many in today's rapidly secularizing world, the French villagers were guided not simply by their own personal spiritual promptings. They lived in covenanted community: that is to say, their individual spiritual journeys were tempered in the flame of group devotion and reflection and emerged on the other side stronger and more purposeful than if they had gone it alone. It was in no small part this communal religious life that made their actions during the Holocaust seem almost second-nature. Of course we will open the door. How could we do any other?

It seems to me that we Unitarians and Free Christians sometimes stumble when facing similar, if far less stark, decisions. Our community ought to remind us - if it is to deserve both the title "religious" and "community" to open our doors, again and again, even when it is not comfortable to do so, even when we have other things that fill up our church calendars, even when we are small or primarily elderly or under-resourced or whatever it is that keeps us stuck in our own safe, small house. We speak a great deal about freedom of conscience; being a Unitarian/Free Christian also means that a deep theological claim is made on each one of us within our congregations to hone our communal conscience as well. "Slavery is bad. Stigmatising immigrants—not allowed. Loving our neighbours, even ones we don't quite understand or struggle to appreciate—that is good." We may differ on who or what makes this deeper claim on our souls, our minds and hearts: God or our basic humanity or some other universal impulse we sense deep within. Where I would hope we would not differ is in agreeing that it is within the sanctuary and support of our chapel "home" where that community conscience is made flesh. Doing social action as individuals is important and honourable; thinking that it supplants or makes up for justice-making congregations is to misunderstand why liberal religious congregations exist in the first place.

There is good news out there as well of course. Some have been quite keen to poke our heads out (together) and welcome in the larger world. Send a Child to Hucklow is in its 60th year of providing holidays to disadvantaged children; the Penal Affairs Panel and its work continues to remind us of our commitment to treating even the most outcast with humanity and basic dignity, and within the GA and the outside world we have collectively taken a stand on gay/lesbian/bi and transgender dignity and equal marriage rights.

I like to think that SimpleGifts: Unitarian Centre for Social Action (for which I work) is a part of this ongoing effort as well, both at the community centre in East London and through "The Road Ahead" congregational coaching programme to help chapels become more effective, creative and collaborative places in which to act on their communal conscience.

We at SimpleGifts are working hard to help congregations and our movement to think larger thoughts, to move together in common pilgrimage towards a more peaceful, more just, more compassionate UK and, ultimately, world. Of course we are not alone in this effort. All the same, many agree that the collective "we" can be rather tentative when it comes to taking common action.

"The Road Ahead" coaching programme is only one suggestion for becoming more dynamic and proactive from being a group adept at making motions (which undoubtedly have their place) to actually moving as a group in order to make the change we hope to see in our hurting, hopeful world. If we cannot or will not do that, then in my view we neither deserve to be called "religious" nor a real "community."

On the other hand, we have made common cause in the past, and there is no reason why we can't "up our game" again in future. It is my hope that social action/social justice making will no longer be a sideline within the Unitarian/Free Christian tradition, but instead a cornerstone of the engaged liberal religious life in 2015 and beyond. Here we are, still together, unwilling to be either museum curators or religious patients on life support. We live together, you and I, in a safe and welcoming house. Before us is the door, and the knock, and the need. Why not open it together?

Rev. Rob Gregson
Director SimpleGifts Unitarian Centre for Social Action