I am by nature a very optimistic person - sometimes absurdly so. At the moment though, I am deeply pessimistic about something that matters a great deal to me: the future of the Unitarian movement in Britain.
It is not Unitarianism itself that is the problem. Unitarianism has a tremendous gift to give to our society. It is the one faith I know of where people can be supported in their spiritual lives by a caring, committed community and yet still be free to follow their own path - wherever it may lead. It is the right faith for a pluralist, multicultural society. I know this to be true. I have seen people come to my congregation seeking what we have to give and I have seen the extraordinary growth there.
But, despite my usual readiness to ignore the obstacles and go full speed ahead, I can find little reason for hope that the kind of turn-around that happened in my congregation will happen in many others. There are two reasons for my pessimism. The first is related to attitude and the second to professional spiritual leadership in our congregations.
Attitude is essential, of course. To the extent that congregations wish to grow only for their own benefit, they will fail. Consistent, sustainable, and meaningful growth can come only out of a faithful desire to serve others and a deep readiness to give Unitarianism away to the future. [I talked about this in a recent presentation to the Midlands Unitarian Association's AGM.] Until we can understand our mission as calling us to give Unitarianism away, we will not progress.
But even if this great shift should come to pass across our movement's congregations, it would not be enough. Most of our congregations are tiny. They are elderly. They have no professional spiritual leadership. To attract members in significant numbers, these congregations would need to be able to offer high quality programming that is relevant to their context. Without excellent professional leadership, there almost no chance that this will happen.
What we need is for superb ministers to appear as if by magical in the pulpits of each of these congregations and for the small groups of existing members to embrace change and fling open their doors to the world. This magic will not happen. The reality is that many, if not most British congregations will have to shut their doors for good as their existing members become increasingly unable to keep things running.
But part of this dream is possible. How? We would need quite a bit of money to support additional ministers until the congregations could grow enough to become self-sustaining. Could that money be found? I believe that it could. I believe that if we united around this one essential objective rather than spreading our energies, we could do it. If a focused, coherent, compelling plan were brought forward, people would support it financially.
What about the number of ministers needed? There are not enough in the UK, but ministers could come from the US if British Unitarian congregations would welcome them. [There has been a considerable discussion on the potential challenges of bringing US ministers to Britain in the comments to a previous post.]
Uniting around the goal of getting qualified ministry into many more of our congregations would not, I am sorry to say, save all our congregations. But it would leave a number of vibrant congregations dotted around the country from which a new generation of Unitarianism could grow. That seems to me a dream worth working for.