Thursday, 26 March 2015

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.


  1. I am in alignment with Bill Darlison's two most vital conclusions: the importance of "regular spiritual practice" and "emphasis on our interior life". What spiritual purpose does the Unitarian movement have? Is it to enable spiritual seekers to find? To find sustenance, to find nurture, to find inner peace, to find personal spiritual fulfilment, to find their heart’s connection to the Greater Whole?

    If so, do we need to re-envisage the Sunday service, anyway for some people, from centrepiece to gateway?

    The Sunday service is splendid for those who are glad to be stimulated to think a little, or to feel comfort, or to reconnect with values; and when its prayer and contemplation parts are good, to be gently touched by the presence and love of Spirit.

    And what can we offer for those who are ready for more, for a deeper spiritual commitment than one hour a week of words and singing can ever fulfil, even when the service-leading is excellent? For in towns where the answer is ‘nothing’, these people must seek it elsewhere – from the Brahma Kumaris, from classes in mindfulness, from repetitious rituals in soaring-arched cathedrals, from books, from country walks, or alone with their laptop or smartphone on the internet.

    Patchily, there are saplings sprouted from new seeds in Unitarianism which do begin to address people’s hunger for that deeper ‘more than’ – more than 11 to 12 on Sundays. “Questing” groups at Hampstead, where each person, in partnership and dialogue with others, gets to better discover their own answers to spiritual questions - in contrast to an Alpha Course with its ‘right’ answers. Short, three or four session, “Life and Soul” courses in Brighton, and in Kensington. The Blue Sky Discussion Group, exploring Life’s ‘big questions’, in Southend-on-Sea; and a similar monthly gathering in Bristol. And, from my perspective most valuably of all, groups committed to real meditation in a couple of dozen congregations from Godalming to Golders Green, from Frenchay to Mansfield – groups which, whatever else they include, provide at each meeting a substantial period of focused concentration in silence with a practice for using the silence such as mantra, silent chanting, or breath awareness.

    Unitarians have the opportunity to carve ourselves a significant, precious niche in the crowded meditation marketplace. We can offer meditation without doctrines. Our meditative practices need to be borrowed, for there are none in our heritage – borrowed from the Hindu yogi tradition, Buddhist mindfulness or another mystical faith path. But we can, if we so choose, borrow them without also borrowing the overall teachings of those faiths which tend to dominate the programme if you attend one of their communities in order to learn to meditate.

    None of these opportunities for developing deeper personal spirituality were in Unitarian practice 25 years ago, if I recall correctly. If Unitarianism is to be “a faith that matters”, frequent meditation-group hours and some group reflective practice experience activities must both, I recommend, become normal in our congregations. And both are most likely to thrive if sustained by personally spiritually committed leaders, if developed and publicised independently of the Sunday services, and if valued by the whole congregational community including its non-practitioners, not as a peripheral add-on but as a core part of the spiritual programme the congregation offers.

  2. Friends

    I've been pondering these issues for a long while. I plan to go through the pieces on the blog systematically and respond to each of them, although it might take a little bit. I'm happy to discuss things privately too.
    Unitarians are indeed good at standing up for people and championing causes. I am eternally grateful to our denomination (I refuse to use the word ‘movement’ as it makes us sound like we’re a new fangled thing) for promoting equal marriage along with the Society of Friends and the Liberal Jews.

    The problem is what we give to individuals. For example, we do not actively promote a life a personal prayer and although that might be because many Unitarians are not wholly comfortable in that space, some of us are and would be able to help. Unitarianism can offer a beautifully rich framework, based upon all the paths of truth we encounter in this world. Beyond that framework, we can offer people who have come from other traditions, or still participate in other traditions, who can bring light from those other paths. There is a wealth of experience within our congregations and it may be worthwhile having a database on the website (behind a wall) where we can sign up saying what our areas of expertise are and what we can offer to others. It would link congregations to visiting preachers, individual members to others with similar spiritual interests or who are willing to help with a specific aspect of the spiritual path on an informal basis.

    I believe that we should say to people, ‘You are free to find your spiritual path.’ That’s not all we should say though. We should minister to each other, which is to say we should offer our whole lives to each other. We might not be able to offer people a spiritual path but we can offer to hold their hands on the way and guide them with the breadcrumbs we’ve left along our own ways.

    Unitarianism is rather untragic but not so completely. In Britain that may be the case but in the US, the UUA has recently commemorated the events in Selma during the Civil Rights Movement. Our brothers and sisters in the States, including the UUA president, have been arrested whilst standing up for immigrant rights. We are, in Britain, able to be a ‘fair weather religion’ because we’re not out there in the thick of things. But we can say that every one of us is valuable and, for those of us comfortable with God language, a child of God. We can say that we are a church for the seeker and for the dissatisfied. We can be there to ‘get some goodness back’ because we are a religion of love.

    As for our rationalism, we must be a thinking religion; there is no use in a church where one checks one’s intellect at the door. But, we must also be open to the steps beyond rationalism. Religious language is just part of the huge tapestry of life and a way we can learn more about ourselves. Listening to a brother or sister speaking passionately about God or about a relationship with Jesus can inspire us to take a tiny step into what for us is unknown and we should be able to approach that person and ask for guidance. We can do so in full awareness but our rationalism can become a straitjacket preventing spiritual growth.

    We absolutely must step out into the maelstrom of existence. If we remain closeted for much longer we’ll not only fail to reach out to others but we’ll start to stagnate and then we’ll really be irrelevant.

    My experience with Unitarians began in America where this question appears to be very clear: it’s a church that matters for everyone because everyone is valuable and deserving of love. That’s a healthy place from which to begin. I also regularly worship with Quakers, which I sort of fell into because I was looking for liberal religion when I came to Britain. I’m glad I did because I love the valance. As Frank Cambridge says in the replies, we have so much in common. Quakers struggle with these issues too.

    In peace
    Tristan Jovanovic (member of Kensington Unitarians)

  3. St Albans’s people are glad that Unitarianism is not a faith which says “this is how it is, this is how you should think”. [The personal theological standpoints people touched on in our sharing group were quite diverse, including “Jesus is not God, but do follow the teachings of Jesus and live by the standards of the Church”; “God is a god of Order, not one who intervenes in ways that violate natural laws”; “ethically, Christianity is much the same as Buddhism”; and “the true meaning of life is: love”.]
    People love that they experience in our worship: SIMPLE and TRANQUIL feeling, through poems and [mostly light-classical] music and thoughtful Addresses, which helps us to REFLECT and FEEL (sometimes indeed continuing to reflect for days afterwards), and to THINK about life’s deeper questions with an OPEN MIND; reinforcement of their beliefs (e.g. the importance of kindness) which gives strength for living them when it’s not easy; and it all being at a slower pace which younger members, in particular, specifically value as a counterweight to the fast pace of their modern lives.

  4. I am responding (admittedly probably too late - apologies for that) to the Unitarian conversations started by the Executive Committee on "Vision" following a Vision Day last year.

    Of course this day (as these things always do) ended with a lot of words that are now being reflected upon. But I think the first phrase is in some ways the only thing that matters:

    "We want to be... a faith that matters."

    In fact, I would say this is still too wordy. The challenge is that "we need to be a faith."

    That's it, simply being a faith. If we're not engaged in the things of faith: prayer, God, soul, forgiveness, theology, then we're not really being a faith and everything else is just window-dressing.

    But this leads me to another really important point. It it not the Executive Committee's job to nurture faith in Unitarianism. In fact it's not the Executive's job to do most of the things suggested in the Vision document. What we're talking about is cultural change which the Executive has almost zero influence over. I worry, once again that the Executive are promising more than they can possibly deliver. This is only setting the Executive up to be criticised by the rest of us, and encouraging the rest of us to be too passive in expecting "them" to do things for us.

    The fact is we are now too small to be "a denomination" - we are still acting like we're the Methodists (and the Methodists are pretty small nowadays but still seventy times bigger than us). We are tiny and we just haven't got that into our institutional head yet. We can't expect "the denomination" to do anything. You have to do it or it won't get done. We need to really realise that there is a limit amount of vital life-saving work the General Assembly structures can do, and they need to concentrate on that and nothing else. We should support them and pray for them in that work.

    Meanwhile, those of us who feel called to do so, should work for the spiritual, liturgical and theological renewal of Unitarianism. The grassroots needs bold experimenters and faithful mystics prepared to go deep and go out. That's where our salvation lies, God willing.

    Cross-posted at