Report from General Assembly
In April I attended the annual General Assembly for British Unitarianism, held this year in Birmingham. I thought I should use this column to report back on the state of Unitarianism in the United Kingdom today. A few of you may have read my similar column in our sister congregation at Cairo Street, Warrington – if so, sorry for the repeat of the material, but most haven’t read this.
The state of Unitarianism is, to put it bluntly, troubling. Every year, there are fewer Unitarian chapels, as well as fewer individuals who are members of the chapels that remain. Unitarianism never boasted enormous numbers of adherents in this country, but in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries there were chapels dotted throughout England. And Unitarianism’s influence belied its size: from women’s rights to prison reform, from better working conditions to national parks to the international peace movement, we have been amongst the core group of radical innovators lobbying for a better world. Many of the rights and conditions we now take for granted came about through the efforts of Unitarians, amongst others.
But these are different days. Now, we wonder how long our religion might keep its doors open. This problem is not unique to Unitarianism: in the UK, church attendance has fallen dramatically in the Church of England, and the Catholic church, and in Presbyterian and Methodist congregations. Families that formerly attended church for countless generations in the past have now stopped coming.
So as you can imagine, much of the conversation at our Unitarian General Assemblies revolves around the question, “what is to be done?”
There are many different opinions about this, and sometimes Unitarians will disagree vociferously with each other – because we all care about this faith so much and we want the best for it. Some argue that old-fashioned religion is irrelevant to today’s times, and what is needed is more inclusive gathering places for spirituality,
that jettison religious language like “sermon” and “atonement” for more welcoming terms like “reflection” and “community”. Others argue that in today’s uncertain times many are in fact looking for a return to faith and to faith language, but we need to dig deep into our Unitarian tradition to remind the public that faith does not need to be intolerant and regressive, but can be, and has been, a voice for inclusion, reason and justice. Running parallel to this argument are conversations about where we invest what resources we have left – our money, time, human talent and energy. Do we invest these in new congregations, trying things in new ways? In rejuvenated programming? In publicity? In centralized denominational staff, or in some modern-day model of Unitarian missionaries, who go out into our communities and see how they can help?
If you have an opinion on all this, I’d be very interested to hear it – let me know! As for myself, I’ll point out that Unitarian chapels that are doing relatively well in this difficult terrain all have one thing in common. Do we invest these in new congregations, trying things in new ways? In rejuvenated programming? In publicity? In centralized denominational staff, or in some modern-day model of Unitarian missionaries, who go out into our communities and see how they can help?
If you have an opinion on all this, I’d be very interested to hear it – let me know! As for myself, I’ll point out that Unitarian chapels that are doing relatively well in this difficult terrain all have one thing in common. It isn’t a particular theological outlook: are most successful congregations include a couple of thoroughly Christian, more traditional chapels in the Midlands; an openly non-theist multisite congregation in London; and a new congregation in Derby that eschews traditional religious language but embraces spirituality. No, instead of one particular theology what thriving congregations have in common is an outward focus. They ask the community what is needed, and try to make a difference in the neighbourhood around them. Research by the Alban Institute suggests that this outward focus is a key marker of growth for congregations across a range of theologies and denominations.
Here at Park Lane, I think it’s fair to say the amazing sense of community fosters this congregation much more than any particular theology.
You see that spirit of community every Thursday morning at coffee mornings; and we certainly experience it on Sundays. It’s not inward-looking either: welcoming the stranger is, hopefully, the heart of what we’re about when we gather together. We extend a warm welcome to those who are here for the first time.
Looking at the vibrancy of our community today, it’s hard to believe the congregation dwindled to only a half-dozen people a few years ago. Park Lane came back become of a determination, made by many, that we were to be a community which was there for each other and there for the world. So many people around us today don’t have a place to go where they are truly welcomed and inspired – sad to say, but true. So when we are simply present to one another, and actively welcoming to outsiders, we are offering something of great value in today’s rapidly shifting world. We may not have all the answers. But we have a commitment to the common good – and that, in itself, is an answer worth sharing.
On the service on the 28th of May we held a celebration in honour of all the children who were christened in the chapel five years previously. At the time of writing the service hasn’t been held yet, but as a result of the letter invited people to attend we know there at least one family is planning on attending – and two more would like more christenings for a brother or sister who has been born since! It’s lovely to reflect on all the life happening everywhere at Chapel. To any of the many families who have come here for a wedding, a funeral, or a Christening, we here at Park Lane Chapel say: we are honoured to have played a role in your lives, and we consider you very much a part of the chapel, whether we see you on Sundays, Thursdays or once or twice a decade. Let us know if we can be of service. And here’s to the children, let’s take good care of them!
PARK LANE HOTEL
The Park Hotel, next to the chapel, is holding an Americana festival the weekend of 19th-20th of August. Our American minister, thoughtlessly, is planning to be away visiting family that weekend. No doubt, had he been there, you could have enjoyed his estimable skills on the banjo, which all Americans are born proficient in (note: sadly, this is not true). However, if any congregants want to come support our neighbours, I am sure they will be warmly welcomed.