What is the difference?
Many years ago one of my colleagues suggested our churches were more like social clubs, that they were meeting places for middle class, like minded people who met up on a Sunday morning for an unchallenged hour of singing and listening. It was also suggested we were the irrelevant last hurrah of a great reforming religious movement when the name itself identified a person as an influential game changer.
It is indeed a great legacy but visit many of our congregations where there is only a handful of members and it does seem to be a legacy which is almost spent. It makes me ask: What we Unitarians can offer in today's world that others do not? Do we still have a unique selling point?
I learnt a lesson many years ago when the congregation decided to have a flower festival in the Chapel. Someone suggested that as well as the main theme we invited displays to represent the interests of our members. To my surprise these filled a very large section. The Bolton Equality Council, the Women's Refuge, Save the Children, United Nations Association, all founded by present day Unitarians and there were about fifteen other organisations in the display that people supported.
But no one said, 'I do this work because I am a Unitarian'.
They simply did it from the goodness of their hearts and they also happened to be Unitarians but never said so. After that I gave everyone a chalice lapel badge to wear. It made me realise that we are still more than the legacy of our past.
It is just that help is given in an unsung modest Unitarian way. It is not our unique selling point either, charity shop workers and interfaith supporters don't just come from the Unitarians. They come from all walks of life, all faiths and no faiths. I am not sure whether the worship we offer, even the rights of passage we offer, can be claimed as a unique selling point either. I have been to other churches just as happy as ours. I have been to non religious funerals just as sensitive as ours, and weddings.
There are two things we need to do to continue our existence as a church that matters in the world. First we need to transform ourselves into a living tradition and secondly we need focus on meeting the spiritual needs of the modern individual. The Living Tradition is about modifying our worship, using our space and extending our ministry.
Worship should be a joyful, happy experience open to participation and with a message that can be discussed openly. We don't need to be tied to the wheel that is the hymn sandwich. Our space should be an open space where other than worship groups can meet - meditation, yoga, fringe faith groups, support groups and discussion groups.
We shouldn't be afraid of collaborating with other faith groups for the mutual advantage of the wider communities we seek to serve.
Our ministry should be about leadership, not just spiritual leadership, but groups leadership, community leadership. We should not expect to find all these leadership skills invested in one person but be prepared to facilitate training of our own members and to work collaboratively with other churches and organisations.
In the communities around our churches there are many, many individuals who feel lost and isolated. Loneliness is an issue, meeting and socialising with other people is an issue, age is an issue, mind, body and spirit are issues. We have to ask ourselves as a church if we provide space and comfort for people to address those simple questions of, 'Who am I?', 'How can I feel better about myself as an individual and a participator in life?'
I often hear people say, 'But that is about counselling!' I say this is different. It is about spiritual development, finding the confidence and the place to explore those questions of identity and relate them to an overarching reason to belong in the world. Add to that a sense of being in a community where you feel you belong and yet you are still an individual.
How are we to achieve all this? It requires a change of direction, moving away from being just a worshipping community based on a Unitarian tradition. It requires developing a web of interdependence between individual Unitarians, congregations, districts and Essex Hall. We need to share experiences of what works and what doesn't. We need to financially support the training of leaders and the delivery of courses and resources.
We need to share templates for worship and personal spiritual development. We need to promote ourselves - wear the badge and the fly the flag that says who we are and what we stand for.
Above all we need to share a new vision for the future that meets the spiritual and emotional needs of the searching individual. We need to support, enable and empower our own generation to do great deeds because they have found a faith that speaks the truth of life to them?
When we are talking about empowering people it means giving them the opportunity to travel forward in life the way they would wish, being offered opportunities and being able to take them. By encouraging participation in worship we give opportunity to engage in discussion on content and to feel able to volunteer to take part in leading worship. And by offering training and opportunity people can develop skills if they want to. By collaborating with other churches and groups we reach a wider constituency and that gives opportunity in the community where none might have existed before.
Spiritual development gives people the opportunity to know themselves better and the confidence to be involved in the whole of life. I suppose empowerment to me means providing opportunity that allows people to give power to themselves and their life paths.
This is how I believe we can best serve the present age as Unitarians.
Rev. Tony McNeile