Tuesday 14 December 2010

A church for atheists?

I am the minister of a church for atheists!!

Of course, it is also a church for theists. It is also a church for all kinds of other "ists."

I was speaking with a member of my congregation yesterday who said her friend wouldn't want to come to church because he's an atheist. I waited for more... yeah? and? Oh, I get it! He thinks that church is not for atheists. He's right of course - usually...

Just about no one who calls him/herself an atheist would expect to be welcome in a "church", much less to find something there to nurture, inspire, and sustain them.

They would be wrong - at least in the case of some Unitarian/Unitarian Universalist congregations, such as mine in north London. [I've heard it said that a Unitarian is an atheist who likes to sing hymns - as long as the words are suitably modified!]

What! Atheists in church and not to be forcibly converted or burned at the stake? I know it's unexpected, but yes, atheists sitting beside monotheists, polytheists, pagans, humanists, agnostics...  all of us trying our best to find meaning in life, to be more deliberate and present in the moment, and to figure out how we can work together to make our world more just and peaceful.

It's important to say that defining "atheism" is almost impossible. It means not believing in God, of course, but that forces us to define God - a nearly impossible task. Within my congregation, definitions of God range all the way from the all-powerful enthroned, bearded 'big daddy in the sky' [this mostly from the people who would say "I don't believe in God"] to a force of love that we draw upon when we are at our best or even to the truest and best self we find within us.

In general "I am an atheist" really means "I am not going to believe the unbelievable supernatural stories that traditional religions present as truth. I have my own mind and I'm going to use it!"  If that's our definition, then I am an atheist too. Do I believe that a personal God literally created the world, that the whole earth shook when the Buddha achieved awakening, or that the Goddess is a personal reality in our lives? Do I believe that praying to God can make something good happen or prevent something bad? Not at all.

I do believe though that when we come together in community with an openness to hear each other's stories and beliefs, and when we deliberately commit to working to grow and be our best selves, that something very worthwhile, sustaining, and inspiring happens. And - for historical reasons - I call the place where this happens "church".

My idea of "church" is a place where we step aside from the hectic lives we lead - lives that are awash in the materialistic, individualistic messages of the world of business. And in this place, we pause to consider who and what we truly are and want to be - what creates meaning and satisfaction in life - what is important to us. We turn to one another and we share the answers we have found and then we ask more questions together and we search some more. It is a place where we care what happens to each other, where we aim higher, where we strive to include everyone. It is a place where we envision the world we want and then we go out and try to create that loving, just world of our dreams.

Atheists - come to this church. You are welcome.

Saturday 4 December 2010

Light a candle for miracles

Don't give up hope! The order of things could turn upside down tomorrow. What would you do then?

I am a Unitarian from a Jewish background. That makes me what is often called either a "Junitarian" or a "Jew-U." I like that because it gives a hint of Unitarianism's openness. On the other hand, it's a bit of a misleading term since my spirituality is informed by so many traditions now. Still, I find that the Jewish traditions continue to offer significant inspiration.

Today is the third day of Hanukkah.  Although Hanukkah has become a very well-known Jewish holiday, it's not traditionally a major celebration. It only expanded in importance when Judaism came into contact with Christianity and Jewish kids felt an understandable envy around the deluge of Christmas presents. Junitarians typically get gifts for both Hanukkah and Christmas - a really good deal.

Hanukkah commemorates the defeat of the powerful armies of Syrian king Antiochus IV by a Jewish guerilla band led by the Maccabees in the second century BCE. The story focuses on that victory but also on the re-purification of the Jerusalem temple after it had been defiled by the occupiers. The so-called 'miracle' of Hanukkah is that a one-day supply of lamp oil  lasted a full eight days - long enough for more consecrated oil to be made ready.

A story like this is all well and good, but it's only powerful and useful if it speaks to our condition today. I want to suggest two important messages.

First, the world that looks so fixed and set against you can change tomorrow in unexpected and often wonderful ways. Five days ago, my mother had heart surgery. She was unconscious. She couldn't even breathe on her own. Today, she's walking the hospital halls faster and faster and looking remarkably well. What might it be in your life? The daughter who is addicted to drugs finally goes into rehab. The tumor shrinks. The love you have been looking for appears as if out of nowhere. You find that affordable flat, that rewarding job, or the purpose that keeps you inspired.

You may want to call them miracles. I call them the generosity and abundance of life. Don't give up hope. Things change in remarkable ways.

And second, our blessings rarely arrive without our participation and our attention. The occupying armies did not simply trot back to Syria out of boredom or because a divine presence blew them that way. The Maccabean Revolt was a very human endeavour - an application of courage, hope, and cleverness in a situation that seemed doomed to failure. Lamp oil did not appear from nowhere. The lamp did not light itself. Just a little bit that had been saved and held precious and that small portion of oil was set ablaze - the very human contribution done with unwarranted hope. Participation is essential.

And much of what comes as a miracle depends on what we are willing to see as a miracle. In the context of the grand parade of biblical miracles, lamp oil lasting a few days longer than expected is really a rather minor miracle. If the Jews had sat watching an unlit lamp, praying for it to light itself without any oil or spark, they would have had nothing but disappointment. Miracles are how we define them and what we watch for an appreciate when it arrives.

For this Hanukkah, find the senseless optimism that we call hope. Expect wonders. Expect relief. Expect joy and expect blessings. And then get in there and help make it happen!

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Create a "Happiness Gap"

I am about to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and then to be with my mother as she goes undergoes and begins to recuperate from heart surgery. There is an interesting challenge in these coinciding events - Thanksgiving and a serious medical event. It is a challenge that is not unique, but representative of the way our lives all take shape.

Although the Thanksgiving holiday as it is celebrated in the US has lost much of its emphasis on gratitude, the practice of being appreciative and grateful is at the centre of what it means to live a fulfilled life. Every story can be told in at least two ways. “What terrible luck that my mother needs heart surgery. Why her? Woe is me!” And there is another story: “What wonderful luck that she has lived to the point she has and that there are wonderful hospitals near her and that surgical techniques have advanced so far and that she can afford to have state of the art medical treatment!”

The stories we tell ourselves and others determine whether we are experiencing lives of good fortune and blessing or lives of bad luck and torment.

I read an excellent book a while back with the title: “How to Want What You Have.” What a counter-intuitive notion that title represents! In a culture where we constantly seek to have everything we want and more, happiness is tied to having good things happen rather than appreciation of life as it is currently. There are even spiritual programmes based around getting what you want through chanting, prayer, or just having the right attitude. All of them are useless if not frankly dangerous because striving to get what you want reinforces and magnifies the ‘misery gap’ - the gap between what you think you should have and what you actually have.

A key to happiness is turning that attitude around - to learn to really want and appreciate what you already have. And if you can reach the point where what you have feels like even more than what you want, then you have created the ‘happiness gap’ - the feeling that you have been gifted and blessed beyond what you could have hoped and what you deserve. This is where profound happiness begins to appear.

We open the happiness gap by being consciously deeply and deliberately appreciative of what we already have - the views from our windows, the fact that we are alive, the abilities of our bodies, the people we meet, the new opportunities of every day... There are joys that each of us has by the millions.

I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, whether you celebrated it or not. With gift-giving holidays directly ahead of us, let’s not think about having what we want, but wanting what we have.

Monday 15 November 2010


In my efforts to be inclusive in worship, I often say (as do many other Unitarians) "God of many names" by way of including the many different conceptions of the divine we would hope to embrace.

My darling wife has now modified her use of OMG in texts, tweets, and instant messages.  The new, more inclusive version is OMGOMN!

Sunday 14 November 2010

Social Justice for a small congregation

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one... I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
These are the words of 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. They were repeated again and again in a more concise and catchy form in the 20th century by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an immensely hopeful and encouraging truth that both of these great, justice-seeking men offered. We must add, however the truth that the inclination toward justice does not take place on its own, but with the aid of the constant force of justice-seeking human hands.

The congregation I have the privilege of serving has been among those who have helped to shape that arc toward justice. Our resolute stance against the ban on civil partnership in religious premises was noticed. Although we may well have thought at the time that it was a symbolic act without impact, we most certainly contributed to the subsequent liberalization of the law. We made a difference.

We have proved that a small group of liberal religionists can have an impact on the rights of millions. Why? How? An essential factor is that our stance stood out. Had we been agreement with the vast majority of othe religions, the story would not have been covered by the press. Nothing would have come of that ‘dog bites man’ story. As a religious group that stood against the prevailing religious viewpoint though, it became a ‘man bites dog’ story. That makes all the difference in the world.

There are countless issues in need of attention. People are hungry, enslaved, imprisoned, and/or uneducated even in our own nation! In these sorts of issues, however, our voice would be as one tiny drop in an ocean of voices all saying the same thing. Everyone is against these particular scourges.

In order to really make a difference, we must speak - as we did with marriage equality - on issues where our voice is in conflict with the positions espoused by more traditional religious groups. These issues are the ones where we - by bring a radically inclusive religious perspective to the table - can inject encouragement and real strength to justice campaigns.

I wonder what my congregation will come up with next! I have tentatively arrived at two areas of interest in my own mind: assisted suicide and reform of drug laws. In both instances, traditional religious groups take a conservative view, opposing options for suffering individuals to obtain help in ending their lives and providing support for the maintenance of ineffective drug laws that actually create criminals and increase opportunities for criminal enterprises. 

The future awaits and the arc of the moral universe needs our help.

Be Saviours to One Another

Can a diverse community support individuals as they travel their own spiritual path?

I’m talking to a young man at the Southbank – he’s sitting on the ground and is at least slightly intoxicated from the bottle of cheap wine that he and his friends are passing back and forth. On realizing that I’m a minister, he offers his opinion about religion. Everyone has an opinion about religion!

Let’s backtrack for a moment. Despite what you might be thinking, I promise that I did not set up a stand on the Southbank and preach to the crowds. Really. Even I’m not that enthusiastic. And I didn’t even bring up the topic of religion.

My conversation with this particular group of young people began when their dog took a romantic interest in my leg, if you know what I mean. They apologized and our conversation began. We talked about where we live… I mentioned I live above a church… and suddenly we’re onto religion.

His opinion: there ought to be a religion where everyone can have the freedom of their own beliefs! Amen! Great idea! Done!

It’s very satisfying to find that when someone imagines their ideal religion, they end up reinventing Unitarianism!

But you will probably not be surprised to hear that our very inclusive way of being religious also has its own challenges. Part of what makes traditional religion work – what has made it a consistent and often central part of human society for thousands of years – is a shared set of beliefs. In almost every other religion, there is a story, a book, a creed, a teaching to which all members subscribe. The word subscribe is important; they may not all believe in this central core of their religion, but they commit to it nonetheless. It is there for them as an answer and a guide.

If you are despairing, those core beliefs can provide comfort. If you are in conflict, the core beliefs can offer a resolution. If you seek meaning, the core beliefs tell you what your purpose should be. When you seek spiritual growth, the core beliefs describe the path must follow and the destination you are to seek.

Without a proscribed set of beliefs, a central story, a unique goal that each of us should seek, religion becomes a different matter altogether.

When one of us despairs, we don’t feel we can turn to easy answers: “God moves in mysterious ways” or “it is your accumulated Karma – hope for a better rebirth next time.”

The answer to “why am I here” is not as simple as “read chapter 9, verses 32 to 36”!

Religion offers meaning, purpose, guidance, and it offers salvation.

The word salvation might be the one word in that list that some of us find problematic. Salvation can be much broader than simply the Christian meaning with which we may be most familiar. Life involves struggle and suffering. We ask why we have had to confront such pain and such loss. We ask why we are here and struggle to find meaning behind the trials we face. Religion offers the salvation of an answer to these existential challenges.

What kind of salvation can our radically inclusive faith offer?

How can it offer guidance and meaning without a list of answers and set beliefs. How can it give us a sense of the nature of the sacred when we don’t profess to a single shared understanding?

Recently in one of our Bright Lights family events, we told the story “Swimmy”, by Leo Leonni. Swimmy is a little black fish who lives with a large happy community of orange fish. When his entire community is devoured by a fierce tuna, he is left alone to find his way. After a long journey and many adventures, he comes upon another large group of orange fish.

But this community of orange fish all hide in the shadows for fear of being eaten. Swimmy organizes them to swim together in the shape of one great huge orange fish with himself as its eye – as black as a muscle shell. The plan works – the big fierce tunas are scared away – and the whole community is saved.

It has always been one of my favourite stories – even before I was a Unitarian! And what a Unitarian story it is.

There are no easy answers, but together, with creativity, with cooperation, having journeyed, helping each other, in community, we can find our own kind of truth and our own salvation.

Note what I just said. We can find our own kind of truth and salvation in community. If you thought that Unitarianism was a low obligation, easy faith, you might be getting a bit uneasy as I am suggesting that each of us can, and indeed must bring a bit of truth and salvation to our communities – we must each be saviours for the other.


This is the work of religious community. It is the work that, step by step, leads us toward the goal of a community where each of us feels safe enough to be fully ourselves – safe enough to take the chances that we must take in order to grow – safe enough to risk appearing foolish or ignorant – safe enough to cry together in despair and safe enough to shout for joy when the blessings of happiness come our way.

How can we be people who can create such a community? How can we offer this quality of safety to each other?

A person seeking this quality tells a bit of his story in “How can I help?” a book written by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman:

I've been chronically ill for twelve years. Stroke. Paralysis. That's what I'm dealing with now. I've gone to rehab program after rehab program. I may be one of the most rehabilitated people on the face of the earth... I've worked with a lot of people, and I've seen many types and attitudes. People try very hard to help me do my best on my own. They understand the importance of that self-sufficiency, and so do I. They're positive and optimistic. I admire them for their perseverance.
My body is broken, but they still work very hard with it. They're very dedicated. I have nothing but respect for them.
But I must say this: I have never, ever, met someone who sees me as a whole... Can you understand this? Can you? No one sees me and helps me see myself as being complete, as is. No one really sees how that's true, at the deepest level. Everything else is Band-Aids, you know.
What we want – what we each need – is to be seen as whole. We need to be recognized and accepted as we are – to know that we are enough as we are. Most of us, thankfully, are not horribly broken physically or mentally, and yet most of us carry the gnawing pain and worry of our flaws, our errors, the deeds and thoughts of which we are ashamed. Each of us feels to some extent that we must pretend to be something we are not in order to be acceptable – to be loveable.

A saving community is a place where we are safe enough to drop our armour and put aside our perfect masks. Paradoxically, to be accepted as we are is the first step toward becoming who we can be.

It both heals us and enables us to enter into our journey of growth. These two things, healing and growth are inextricably linked. Like a broken bone, we can not grow strong and true if we are broken.

When the dog who took such a liking to my leg made my introduction to a new group of friends, I was not entirely comfortable at first. They were drinking cheap wine in the middle of the day at The Southbank, after all. They were cooking and selling dubious sausages off of a charcoal fire in a foil pan on the pavement. They were trying, with little success, to sell some junky postcards.

How will you approach the next stranger you meet? What message will your presence convey?

We each have it in our power to offer to one another the saving power of acceptance. By recognizing the wholeness and sacredness in each other, we begin the work of creating the world we seek.

Each time we meet, we have the chance to help and heal. We need only open our hearts.

Simple stupid answers to hard questions

The world we live in is filled with complex and trying challenges. The questions we raise every day are hard - really hard - and we crave some simplicity. Someone is always ready to give (or more likely sell) you simple answers to all your problems and questions. Here are some of those appealing simplifications:
  • Just choose things that are 'natural.' Anything natural and organic is good. 'Chemicals' are bad.
  • He died because God had another purpose for him.
  • If you believe the right story, all will be well.
  • You are either gay, street, or bisexual. There is nothing in between.
  • It was meant to be...
  • Bad people will suffer later - life is fair.
  • You got sick because you 'attracted' it with your bad attitude.
  • Some people are good and others are evil.
  • People are either black, white, or Asian.
  • Never trust a ______ person. (fill in your favourite prejudice)
  • Pick a card and I'll tell your future.
  • It happened because you broke a mirror/walked under a ladder/spilled salt, etc.
  • All your problems are due to those people.
  • 800 cubic centimeters of silicone gel will make you happy.
  • Oh, you're an Aquarius!  That explains it.
  • Islam is bad.
  • You just need to find the right girl/guy.
  • Drink up mate!
  • You need to pray more and God will fix it
  • The Bible is literally true
  • Just do what your guru/priest/minister/imam/rabbi says...
In some ways, Unitarianism is unattractive because it doesn't offer simple answers. Perhaps if we did, there would be many millions of Unitarians in the world rather than a few hundred thousand. 

I'm really curious about some of the other simple stupid answers to hard questions you've heard. Feel free to comment

Wednesday 13 October 2010

The barriers to love

I am proud of Unitarianism/Unitarian Universalism.  The faith to which I have committed myself has been an activist, justice seeking movement. It has been at the forefront of the struggle for GLBT rights. We have seen our male-dominated ministry turn into a majority female one. We continue to struggle mightily to combat the causes of racism and are prepared to do the hardest work of all - to look within for the persistent seeds of that poisonous tree.

But, as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Peter Morales describes as reported in the UUA World, the growing diversity of the leadership of even this remarkably open and accepting faith masks a deeper barrier to true diversity
When we look more closely at the change in our professional ministry, we see that the vast majority of women, gays, and lesbians admitted were middle class, well-educated people of European descent.
The barriers of race and sexual orientation, while challenging, are as nothing compared to the fortress-like walls presented by interconnected differences of culture, education, and social class.

The UUA can be justifiably proud that its two most recent leaders are not from white Anglo backgrounds. Morales is of Mexican descent. His predecessor, Bill Sinkford, is black. But these steps forward hide the fact that class and culture barriers remain intact. Morales again:
We have seen this in our nation with the election of Barack Obama and in our UU movement with the election of the Rev. William G. Sinkford and myself to the presidency. Each of us is less threatening to the dominant culture because we are the products of elite educations and have spent our lives in the dominant culture. If Barack Obama sounded like a poor urban African American he could not have been elected. If I sounded like San Antonio’s West Side barrio, I would not [be] president of our Association.
The barriers of race, gender, and sexual orientation are challenging - make no mistake about it. These differences activate strong hard-wired fears of difference. Those who look or love differently from us make us fearful and wary. But, with honest and courageous effort, we can enter into open dialogue. We begin to understand that they are like us - we have so much in common beneath the superficial differences.

But this moment of conversion happens because more basic, more essential, facilitators of dialogue are present - they are based on other similarities. If class and culture match, we have the tools we need to cut through other differences. Yet we have not connected simply on the basis of being human. We have connected because we share similar struggles, like similar writing, speak in similar vernacular, and have similar goals. We have a common 'language' to allow us to see beyond our differences.

It is when cultural and educational differences between people directly frustrates attempts and deep communication - when  common ground can not be found because we approach life with different stories, with deeply different perspectives based on educational background, and deeply different interests - that we fail to connect.

This is the continuing problem of our world. The divide between rich and poor grows larger in Britain and elsewhere and the divides are not necessarily around skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. The divides are based on class and culture which translate into the presence or absence of opportunity. This is a justice issue - perhaps the single greatest justice issue of the developed nations. As long as class and cultural differences continue to define who we can understand and who has a chance to get ahead, there will not be true equality.

But as Peter Morales adds, this is not so much a practical or political issue, but rather a deeper question of who we choose to be as human beings and to what vision we are dedicated:
This great challenge of culture and class is ultimately a religious, moral, and spiritual issue rather than a social justice issue. Perhaps the great challenge for us [...] is whether we can learn to understand, accept, include, and ultimately love our neighbors who are different from us.
The work is enormous and may never be completed. That is no reason not to begin it. The first step - as always - is the vision. Can we imagine a society where class advantages disappear? Can we imagine a society where our cultural background does not define our opportunities? I hope that we can commit to that kind of a future and begin the work today of trying to understand across the great barriers that would divide the human family.

Saturday 9 October 2010

Spirituality is simple

Someone asked me recently what spirituality is all about.

This is the life I am blessed to lead in vital north London: I am surrounded by people who don't bring a load of biases and preconceptions when it comes to their interest in religion and spirituality. I certainly came to it with those biases from traditional religion! [I apologize yet again to all of you who were appalled and distanced by my fearful response to a proposal to use that S word some 15 years ago.]

Many, many people come to religion with wounds an burdens.  My ministry is rather different. It is so freeing not to have to begin such a discussion with "no, I don't mean that", where that is something that was taught to them early on and presented in an inflexibly doctrinaire manner.

So, I considered this fresh, unbiased question from a young adult who has grown up in a surprisingly secular western Europe.  Every time someone asks something like that I think of it anew – partly because my memory is so bad that I can't possibly remember what I answered last time, but also partly because my perspectives continually change as I grow and (hopefully) mature.

I don't know what I said last time, but this time I suggested that spirituality is about two simple ways of being: awareness and appreciation. Maybe they're not quite so simple though. In fact, I want to use both of those words in their most expansive forms.

Awareness is not simply the state of being 'not blind' to everything around us, but rather a condition where our senses are almost tingling and reaching out to take in everything – to catch the smells and sights and sounds around us - everything – good and bad - and especially to take in our fellow beings.

And by appreciation I want to go much farther than the positive but superficial sense of “I really appreciated the card you sent” but rather the sense of that word as a full understanding of the meaning and importance. Appreciation is joy at seeing a flower. It is a feeling of awe at taking in a view of the clear night sky. It is sharing a sense of another person’s sadness to the extent that you feel it in your own guts.

Spirituality as awareness and appreciation connects us to each other. It connects us to everything around us. It brings us joy and sadness and allows us to live deeply and fully.

And that's the goal. That's the way of being that we're after in the spiritual pursuit.

What is the path to approach this goal?  Ha!  Trick question... I'm a Unitarian. There are many valid paths.  These two qualities - awareness and appreciation - have been the goals of many spiritual teachings. Meditation is an obvious tool for increasing awareness. Prayer a well-known approach to increasing our appreciation. Praying five times daily as Muslims do or uttering a blessing for almost every act of the day as do Orthodox Jews - the potential to grow in a awareness and appreciation is enormous.

Some will disagree. The goal of spirituality, they may say, is to know God.  Well, then, we must ask what it is to know this God? What is the effect of knowing God. Hafiz - the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic - tells us that the true vision of God can be identified as one that makes you "more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know."*  

Do you have a better definition of spirituality? I'd love to hear about it.

*Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Growing old gratefully

I have been a bad blogger!  It's been ages since my last post. The summer slowness combined with a steadily growing to-do list has been the cause. Hopefully, I'll be a bit more regular at this now... [I wish Unitarians had confession so I could be absolved of my sin of lazy blogging!]

I see a big part of my job as a minister to be naming and combating the evils of modern western culture. Of course, I understand those evils rather differently that other religionists who might use similar words. To me, gay rights is a good, not an evil. Increasing power for people to make decisions about the nature of their deaths is another good that too many religious people will call an evil.

Make no mistake about it, our culture is full of its own evils. Materialism, fierce individualism, lack of compassion, tolerance for injustice and poverty - these are all evils that we must oppose.

Another evil is tied up with our attitude toward aging.  Aging is bad. Aging is shameful. Aging makes you less of a person since physical attractiveness is one of the key ways we - and especially women - are measured.

And so, I was delighted when a woman in my congregation asked me to help her think about how she would celebrate her 60th birthday. She decided to bring together her many friends and relations and we began the evening with a ritual - a ritual of transition - a rite of passage.

Now, if she had been recently born, I would know what to do. If she were just reaching adulthood, there would be a more-or-less standard ceremony to perform. Marriage or death - same idea.  And yet, this important life transition - from adult to elder - is rarely marked in our culture. (Yes, I am aware of 'croning' rituals derived from Wiccan traditions. I drew on these, although I could find only limited resources.)

The intentions for this ceremony were to mark an important transition, to strengthen connections, and to help bring an appropriate dignity to the aging process.

The only laugh of the evening came when I said "we have come not to console but to celebrate this transition." It was a laugh of unease and discomfort. Everyone - whether under or over that 60 year mark - knew full well that aging is not to be celebrated in our culture.

But that night, we did celebrate. Everyone had an opportunity to offer their love, their wishes, recollections, and blessings to the new elder. They sang together, they embraced and kissed. And finally, to demonstrate the transition in a physical way, I asked the group to divide themselves at the two ends of the room by age - under 60 at one end and 60+ at the other. This was another moment of discomfort. The under 60s were quick to get to their positions...  Not surprisingly perhaps, the others perhaps a bit less ready to be recognized for their ages.

And the new elder was then ushered from one end of the room to the other, a guide and example to the 'youngers' she left behind and to be welcomed by the group of her own elders who promised to guide her.

The evening's events left me with an ever-stronger understanding that our elders are truly treated as second-class citizens. They are no longer considered attractive for the all-important mating game. They become legitimate targets for a type of ridicule and derision as would be completely unacceptable for almost any group.

Maybe honouring and dignifying transitions would be a good step in helping to change this awful cultural bias.  I hope so.

OK, who else wants a 60th (or 65th? 70th?) birthday ceremony?  I'm ready when you are!

Tuesday 31 August 2010

Do you know the truth?

"Truth" is something we hear quite about often in religion – including in an ultra-liberal one such as Unitarianism.

As part of its seven principles, the American Unitarian Universalist association’s congregations pledge to affirm and promote “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”

The truth is that we mention truth a lot. I went looking through our two current British Unitarian hymnbooks. 88 of our hymns mention truth!

So, throwing caution to the wind and showing a complete absence of good sense, I thought today would be a good day to take on “The Truth.”

What is it?

I have a feeling that truth can be rather overrated.  Some truths are not so helpful at all… The answer to “do I look fat in this outfit” is always “no”! I don’t care what else is going on – the answer is “no.”

But of course, the kind of truth we are talking about today is not simply the one that is the opposite of the falsehood. This truth speaks to the true, more essential nature of things – the deeper reality behind what is apparent.

Our culture is steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and whether we recognize it or not and whatever we may believe, much of what just seems like part of the secular culture originates in that tradition.

In the Gospel according to John we find this passage:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

That phrase – “the truth will make you free” is shot throughout our culture. And that Christian truth – for Christians, the truth, is the truth of Jesus’ identity with God the father and his role in bringing salvation to believers. So, believing the Christian truth brings freedom from sin and freedom from death.

I rather like Gloria Steinem’s turn on this oft-quoted Christian phrase. Her version: “The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.” Isn’t that the truth?

The Christian Truth is the Christian path to salvation, accomplished by belief. If you believe this truth – the one and only truth, then you will be saved.

I think you will immediately recognize that this approach is not exactly a great fit with a faith like Unitarianism. If we accept a diversity of beliefs, we can’t very well do that with the attitude “well, we accept your belief even though you are just dead wrong and headed for hell!”

As Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet: “Say not, 'I have found the truth,' but rather, 'I have found a truth.'”

A few billion people in the world follow religions that offer up different essential, cosmic truths. At Buddhism’s core are the “Four Noble Truths”, which acknowledge life’s suffering, explain its cause, and offer a way in which to eliminate that misery.

In Judaism and Islam, truth centres on the word of God as revealed in the bible or the Quran, but rather more like Buddhism than Christianity, the path has more to do with how to live than specifically what to believe.

A little quiz for you:
True or false: Today is Sunday
True or false: You are in the UK
True or false: It is the afternoon
True or false: You are sitting comfortably
True or false: The purpose of life is to love
True or false: There is a single absolute truth to be found
I wonder how that last question would have been answered here 50 or 100 years ago. I suspect that more people would have said ‘true.’

We have changed tremendously as a society. We have moved from the modernistic impression that there is a truth to be found and – if only we can find it – life will make sense. With that truth in our hearts, we will be united, heaven with come to earth and all will be well.

The post-modern view says… well, I suppose it says ‘it depends.’ Post-modernism acknowledges the existence of many truths. Truth is no longer a simple matter of matching understanding to a single kind of reality and having it right or wrong… Truth is complicated.

As Unitarians – as people committed to worrying less about what we believe than how we live our lives – we have a real challenge before us when confronting the issue of truth.

We must accept that there are different truths, even though those truths are in conflict with one another. If you have found your truth or your truths, what does it mean if mine are different? Does that mean that at least one of us is wrong? How do we manage that?

Perhaps some light is shed on the question by Andre Gide’s comment: “Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.”

Philosophers have wrestled with the question of truth for millennia now. And ultimately – each of us needs to do a bit of wrestling on our own as well.

For some, truth is simply an accurate correspondence between what we understand and what is actual. There is a real truth and other notions are simply false. It is sunny or it is not. There is only one answer.

Others see truth not as an absolute, but as a property determined by some larger system. The truth may simply be determined by what most of us believe. Is this England – well, yes. It’s England because that’s what we’ve all agreed to call it. If we changed the name tomorrow, the answer would instantly be different.

And the final approach is the philosophical school called Pragmatism. This is perhaps the most radical view of truth – maybe it’s no coincidence then that this is the one I find myself most attracted to. Pragmatism’s view of truth is revealed in these words written just over 100 years ago by William James:
“Pragmatism asks its usual question. ‘Grant an idea or belief to be true,’ it says, "what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false?’”
Pragmatism judges the truth of a belief or idea by its effect.

The notion that there is no absolute truth does not mean that we should not search. I tend to stand with Clarence Darrow – the famous American civil rights lawyer who said:
“Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coattails.”
I don’t necessarily recommend pragmatism as a guide to truth suitable for a University exam, but in our religious and spiritual lives, I submit that it is the only guide we need.

Any belief that makes us more loving, more kind, more compassionate, more ready to go out and help others and help to make a better world – that belief is true. Beliefs that turn us inward, close us to love, close our hearts – those beliefs are false.

Ours must be a religion that accepts and honours all truth – even those truths that are in conflict, one with the other. This is our great challenge: to embrace the contradictions, to live in the ambiguity, to accept our differences, to teach and learn from one another, as we find the truths that lead us toward wholeness.

Let’s close with the words of one of my Unitarian heroes - the 19th century’s Rev. Theodore Parker – he who wrote his sermons with a pistol in his desk and a sword by his side in case he should need to defend the fugitive slaves he sheltered in his own home. His wish and mine:
Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere,
its temple all space,
its shrine the good heart,
its creed all truth,
its ritual works of love.

Sunday 8 August 2010

How to Start a Mega-Church in 7 Steps | Irreducible Complexity

Over at Irreducibility Complexity, Ian wrote a wonderful post two months ago [hey - it's summer. I'm allowed to be slow...] on How to Start a Mega-Church in 7 Steps.

I have very mixed feelings about what he's written... I'm pretty sure he's right about the content. Of course the plan he lays out is entirely cynical, calculating and businesslike. I am certain that good religion should not be like that (or if I am feeling more skeptical, I am sure that religion is always like that - and when it's not, it is is a matter of incompetence rather than intent!)

For a really sincere religious movement dedicated to inclusiveness, openness, faith, and transparency, much of what seems necessary to succeed in such a large-scale way also seems contradictory to the mission. We want everyone to have a say, and that very democratic process may be antithetical to the kind of bold leadership and decisive strategy that leads to huge congregations. Can't we just imagine the committee meetings trying to decide about whether or not to have a rock band? Each person giving their personal preference about types of music and winding up with a compromise that pleases no one completely...

On the other hand, if religious people are serious about religion in the sense of service to the world and not just to themselves, they ought to be doing everything it takes to include more people. Is this where liberals go wrong? Too much emphasis on making ourselves comfortable and not enough on transformation or service?

Of course, I only want people who have an inclusive religious ethos to succeed. Anything homophobic, doctrinal, repressive, misogynistic, superstitious, abusive, etc. should not be permitted to read Ian's post!

Unitarian, Quakers, Liberal Jews and any other group that is working for true justice and is truly accepting of all - study this carefully!!

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Congregational Growth: a simple "how-to" guide

The growth scheme presented here some time ago is now endorsed by the EC and included on the UK Unitarian GA web site. We have also included all kinds of linked resources. Take a look if you think it might be helpful to you!  A simple growth scheme for congregations.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Who will speak up for offensive offenders?

Author sentenced to six years in prison for possessing child porn

This recent CNN.com headline seems almost unremarkable. News reports reach us nearly every day about the sexual abuse of children. There is the Catholic priest scandal, of course, but other stories appear with great frequency: teachers, strangers, and now children's book authors. It feels as though there is an epidemic of child abuse and it is unsurprising, therefore, that the public would call for a very strong response. Such heinous crimes are surely deserving of severe punishment. Sexual abuse of children arguably ruins lives and thus is comparable in some ways to grievous bodily injury or even murder.

But wait a moment. The author in question - K.P. Bath - is not accused of molesting children. He is not even accused of participating in or abetting the molestation of children. He is accused of possessing pictures of the molestation of children.

I was curious how others would view this case, so I began to read the comments attached to the article and elsewhere. Most of them suggested that the punishment was - if anything - not severe enough. Many comments expressed the hope that Mr. Bath would be raped in prison - repeatedly and violently - as a fitting punishment for his perversion.

Remember that the crime in question is possessing pictures. In the internet age, possessing pictures can be identical to viewing them, as anything viewed on a computer is stored there unless removed by very deliberate and vigorous means.

K.P. Bath will go to prison for six years for looking at pictures - nasty, horrible pictures. His life is ruined, even if he is not assaulted in prison. There is almost nothing else that carries a stigma as strong as a child sex crime. The pictures that he looked at will ensure that he will never again lead a normal life. He will be subjected to continual suspicion and abuse and may not be able to support himself.

Why is harsh punishment appropriate for this crime? The comments are again interesting. Some suggest that looking at the pictures is equivalent to the original abuse and that the children are being abused again each time they are viewed. I would note that it is also illegal to possess pictures of simulated child pornography - even if real children are not involved. This seems to deflate the re-abuse argument somewhat.

Other comments insist that possession of child pornography must be harshly punished because it leads the viewer to abuse children. Aside from the fact that there is apparently no evidence for a causal connection between pornography and abuse, one has to consider whether our laws should go so far as to punish an activity that could - at some later date - make commission of a crime more likely. We can imagine all kinds of images and writing that could easily fall into that category, including most films made today, violence-laden as they are.

The most compelling argument for criminalizing and harshly punishing the possession of child pornography is that acquisition of these materials helps to create a market for materials whose production causes immense harm. Clearly, it is too difficult and too ineffective to target only the producers of this material. Thus, the argument goes, we must target the consumers. For the same reason, it is illegal to possess endangered species of animals - criminalization reduces the market and thus reduces the attractiveness of the production - the activity that causes the damage.

How do we understand the severity of the sentence? Six years in prison for a first offense?

Are long prison terms for child porn viewers the best way to reduce the market for this kind of material? Possession of endangered species is generally punishable by hefty fines. Would this not be effective for pornography? What about prohibiting offenders from accessing the internet or use of a monitoring system that records every site they visit?

While the goal of preventing abuse of children is obviously a good and right one, the punishments for possession seem so extreme as to suggest that there is more going on here. Indeed, the western world is, and has been for some time, seized by a terrific anxiety about child sexual abuse. We imagine sexual predators everywhere (except perhaps where they are most likely to be found - among family members and close friends). People have been arrested for taking innocent pictures of their own children. Those of us whose work involves children know that we must never be alone with a child. Sadly, it is common for teachers to avoid touching children - even to comfort them when they are distraught.

The viewers of child pornography are not sympathetic characters. Few people are willing to go out of their way to defend them or to suggest that punishments might be unnecessarily severe. Indeed, those few people who posted comments suggesting that it was not quite right to wish that K. P. Bath would be raped in prison for six years were immediately labeled "pedo" themselves. (I myself feel significant trepidation at posting this blog for fear of such reactions.)

I recall learning as a child of many examples of persecution throughout history and I remember wondering how anyone could have allowed these abuses to take place without saying anything: Nazi Germany, McCarthyism, the Spanish Inquistition, witch trials... I wondered if I would be brave enough to speak up. Viewers of child pornography are not innocent victims as were the Jews of Nazi Germany or supposed witches, but the apparently excessive harshness with which they are being treated seems to suggest some parallels.

Maybe it felt like this to be a bystander to the Inquisition. Maybe people said to themselves "Gosh, that seems a bit harsh, but I don't want them looking at me... and he is speaking heretically... who knows where that could lead!  I think I'll just keep my mouth shut." It was a wise move, I suppose. Defending a Jew, an accused 'commie', heretic or witch was downright dangerous.

Somehow, we must find the courage to stand up for the rights of all - including those for whom we reflexively feel disgust. We need to ask whether the punishments being meted out are truly appropriate and necessary for the best interest of our society. I don't have the answers to those questions, but I do want to stand up and make sure they are being asked.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Locking up children

I have come to realize more and more how very fortunate I have been in my life. I could list many instances of this good fortune, which I surely did nothing to deserve. Just one for today: I have never had the misfortune of being entangled in the criminal justice system. It is only now that I am beginning to understand more about this  monster that we - as citizens - create in an attempt to uphold the rule of law.

An excellent recent report from the New Economics Foundation is entitled Punishing Costs: How locking up children is making Britain less safe.  As of February 2010, there were 2,195 10–17-year-olds imprisoned in England and Wales. 82 per cent of 12–14-year-olds sent to prison have never committed a violent offense. These seems like shocking facts, even before we know that this is a higher rate of child imprisonment than almost any other developed country. It seems all the more shocking when we learn that child imprisonment is neither a good strategy for reducing crime in the long run, nor a cost-effective strategy.

Child imprisonment is not without rationale, of course. There are indeed benefits to incarceration of children; it dramatically reduces or eliminates their ability to commit crimes and abuse drugs for the period of their imprisonment. The problem - from a cold detached perspective - is that this approach is neither effective or efficient. A year's imprisonment costs society more than £140,000. £100,000 of this is in the direct cost of imprisonment. A minimum of £40,000 of additional costs results from all the many negative consequences of imprisonment: reduced ability to earn, disconnection from education, increased criminality upon release, and reduced connection to family and community.

There are clearly better ways to deal with young offenders, including helping them (through mental health and drug services and providing paid work) before they offend.

Why then have we as a society opted to use approaches that are both less humane and less effective than alternatives when dealing with child offenders? 

According to the NEF report, a key factor is a mechanical and systematic one: the central government bears the entire cost of prison placements while local councils are responsible for the services that might keep kids out of prison. In other words, imprisonment can seem to councils like a respite from the duties and cots of dealing with children in trouble. Imprisonment is more attractive locally because it reduces problems and costs. It's only a disaster when we see the bigger picture.

As a person who believes in the possibility for goodness in everyone, I have a profound moral objection to a criminal justice system that does not aim to reform offenders whenever possible and give them the possibility of living with dignity. I have a profound moral objection to a system that it more inclined to spend money to punish and sequester offenders than to help them avoid becoming offenders in the first place. I would have these objections even if the system were cost effective. To find that it is neither humane nor effective should outrage all of us. This is no way to treat human beings - especially children.

Monday 14 June 2010

Being wrong as a spiritual practice

Failure! Oh, that is a bad word. "You failed" seems like one of the most deflating things we can hear. When I was a laboratory scientist, failure was part of the game. Everything was an experiment. Sometimes things were successful and sometimes they failed. That's just how it works.

In other parts of our lives, trying and failing just seems much worse than not trying at all.

Over at Ministrare, my colleague Sean Dennison wrote recently about human fallibility and forgiveness.  He describes something that all of us probably see in organizations (and feel in ourselves) too often - the fear of making mistakes:
I’ve watched people, committees, and whole congregations become paralyzed by this anxiety.   I’ve seen ideas that were destroyed by an almost compulsive need to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong and try to figure out how to avoid them all.
His take on it is that Unitarians are more afraid to make mistakes than others and that this comes down to theology. He chalks this up to the Unitarian move away from certain aspects of Christianity:
when we moved away from orthodox Christian theologies of sin and redemption, we gave up the stories, theology, and practices of forgiveness as well.
I could not agree more that the fear of making mistakes is paralyzing. It is destructive of trust and prevents the formation of truly authentic relationships within congregations. It prevents us from growing and learning because growth always means stretching and trying something new.

I’m not convinced, though, that a strong theology of sin makes anyone less susceptible to this sort of thing. I haven't seen a lot of conservative Christians coming up to me lately to say "sorry - I was wrong." Quite the contrary. So if orthodox Christian belief is a key to being more willing to be wrong, there must not be many true orthodox Christians - ones who really, really believe the teachings of their faith (and that is certainly very possible.)

I'm not even sure that this fear of mistakes is so much a particularly Unitarian (or non-Christian) thing as it is a 21st century, mean old work-a-day world thing. It is part of the materialistic tool kit required for “success” in the regular world. People have bosses and want to get ahead. You get ahead by being right - even if you're wrong. People don’t just drop that ethos when they walk into church (unfortunately).

A minister - or anyone in a position of influence - has some opportunity to change that at least a bit. The most effective approach is modeling. If I admit when I'm wrong - often and loudly - and show that the world does not come to a sudden end, it may make members of my congregation more willing to do the same. And, if we can accept that failure is not a disaster, we become more willing to try new things. So what if it doesn't work? We'll never know unless we try.  (One more experienced colleague advised me to make deliberate mistakes and then admit them!)

Sean's post got me thinking about something else though. I'm very focused on spiritual practice at the moment and especially thinking about non-traditional practices.

We know that needing to be right is destructive of relationships and communities. We know it makes us timid and defensive. What if - as a spiritual practice - we make a point of finding something we are (or were) wrong about and admitting it. First, admit it ourselves, but under the condition that we are going to be accepting and gentle about it. "I put too much salt in the hummus." And my response: "So what! The Queen's not coming for dinner tonight!" 

And then maybe admit it to a person you trust. Start small: "you know, it turns out I was wrong about dolphins just being gay sharks.* Oops!" See what happens...  If it's not a disaster, then maybe we can learn that we don't actually have to be right all the time.

One of the central notions of spiritual growth is putting aside the stuff that distracts us from authenticity, connection, and wholeness. It's not about creating something new, but about cultivating and revealing what is already present - although fragile or obscured.  If we learn that have to be right all the time, maybe that helps us to put aside the overriding ego thing just a bit

For this week, I think I'll give this a try and find something every day to be wrong about!  Anyone else willing to give it a go?

To begin for today, I was wrong to buy that Tesco 'value' paper shredder. Although it was cheap, it keeps jamming all the time. I should have spent more to get something more reliable.

Oh, I was wrong ignoring the half and half brown and green composting rule too. the compost is getting stinky.

And while I'm at it, the readings I chose for the service today were no better than just OK...

Now, let's see if the sky falls!

*Glee reference

Friday 4 June 2010

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo spirituality

I have developed a problem shopping in large stores. It's simply that I am overwhelmed by an excess of choice. I remember being in the toothpaste section in a one of the big American supermarkets. I just wanted toothpaste - simple ordinary toothpaste - for tooth brushing. You know? Nothing special please! There had to be a good 25 feet of toothpastes. Toothpaste for tartar, toothpaste for fresh breath, toothpaste to whiten and brighten. Toothpaste with fluoride, toothpaste with mouthwash, and toothpaste with special unnamed magical ingredients that would surely win you the partner of your dreams. If that choice of contents weren't enough, you have to choose between tubes, gels, pastes, pumps, drops...  and everything comes in five or six different sizes. Oh no! How can I make the 'right' choice? So many options! Help!

As I recall, I had to be rescued from the toothpaste aisle and led gently but firmly to a small mom-and-pop store that only sold two kinds of toothpaste. Done!

Now, when I shop in any large store, I remember to bring one of the most important childhood decision making tools with me: the ancient wisdom of eeny, meeny, miny, mo...  It never fails.

In some ways, spiritual practice is like shopping for toothpaste. If you are a strict _____ [fill in the blank with the religion of your choice], your path is constrained and proscribed. Simple. Just like the mom-and-pop store. You can choose between two kinds of prayer. Easy enough...

If, however, you are seeking spiritual growth outside of a traditional religious structure [Unitarians included here], you are in the mega-market toothpaste aisle! You have too many choices and, like me, you may go into the overstimulation daze and choose nothing. You don't meditate because it might be better to pray, or to do yoga, or to take a walk in the park, or or or or or...

Just like the toothpaste though, there really is no right answer. Eeny meeny miny mo is not a bad way to approach the problem. The truth is that any reasonable spiritual practice will help.

Why? Because spiritual growth depends always on being present, noticing, being mindful, being connected. However you describe it, this quality of awareness is the foundation upon which everything else in the spiritual life is built. You can't notice the sacredness of life if you are not aware. You can't detect the divinity in each person if you never look in that special, deliberate way that requires slowing and focusing. You can't detect the 'still small voice' if you can't stop long enough and listen intently enough to hear.

My advice: Just pick one and start.

Yes, different practices will help in somewhat different ways. After eeny, meeny, miny, mo takes you a certain distance, you may become aware that what you need now is something that is more physical, more focused, more people-oriented, more humbling, more emotional, more intellectual, or more creative. That wisdom will emerge once you are on the path. The key is to get started.

Often incorrectly credited to Goethe, but no less important if another author is responsible, are these words:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!
Nothing could be more true of your spiritual journey. Get started, even if your choice depends on the wisdom of eeny, meeny, miny, mo.

Monday 31 May 2010

Who's worse: missionaries or marketeers?

David Griffiths writes in defence of missionaries in the Guardian's Comment is free section today. Griffiths works for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organization completely focused on defending Christians from persecution, so his interest in the image of missionaries is less than an objective one.

[There has recently been considerable noise in the UK that Christians - the vast majority here in this country with a Christian State religion - are being persecuted.  It just amazes me when the increasing rights of the minority are termed 'persecution' of the majority!]

Griffiths would argue that missionary work - when done respectfully - brings exposure to new ideas. It is a healthy thing done only by those dedicated to preserving the status quo.

Well, he may be ignoring the obvious fact that it has always been the powerful and the affluent who have the ability to send forth such missionaries. The poor and weak are always at the receiving end of the 'saving message.' This is not hardly our ideal free exchange of ideas when it is so entirely tied to power and money.

On the other hand, we live in a world awash in a different kind of evangelism - advertising. There is almost nowhere we can go where we will not be exposed to the promise of salvation through purchases. I am beginning to suspect that a new iPad will truly bring me the independence, connectedness, efficiency, effectiveness and sheer joy that I have been craving!

In that kind of a world - where missionaries are so enormously out-gunned by corporate evangelism - is a bit of missionary activity really so bad?

I recently heard an excellent presentation by Brian Kiely, President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). Kiely was very, very careful to ensure the audience that the ICUU was not in any way working to spread the U*U [Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists - oy!] movement, but rather to support those groups that have have already become identified with and connected to U*Uism. Good religious liberals like the U*Us are impeccably careful about imposing anything on anyone - so much so that we tend to be invisible. The ICUU is well aware of the history of Western religious imperialism. It clearly does not wanted to get painted with that brush.

But...  isn't there a good argument to be made that in a world awash in materialistic, corporate evangelism, a respectful message - a truly respectful message without attempts to convince or convert - would be appropriate? More than appropriate, perhaps it is irresponsible not to share a way of life that is more meaningful and satisfying than materialism.

I would be very supportive of some good U*U missionaries travelling the world, standing on soap-boxes, and shouting out our not so oppressive messages: "you are worthy of respect and love", "you have the right to think for yourself", and "it doesn't matter what you believe, just be good to each other and the planet."

Sunday 30 May 2010

Anglicans cling to biblical fig leaf in same-sex marriage struggle

Ken Cauthen, writes in his blog, Liberal to Left Musings: Politics, Religion, Ethics, Justice, Humorthat Exegesis Follows Belief.  For those who have not had to learn such arcane terms in a theological education, exegesis simply refers to a critical reading of a text, and particularly of scripture. [I do love how every speciality creates special language to keep the riff-raff off of their intellectual turff!]

Cauthen was reacting to a statement from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, against Anglican recognition of same-sex marriage. Williams declared
Changing the Anglican theological position on homosexuality would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion
Cauthen points out that, contrary to Williams' implication, religionists do not in fact make their moral decisions based on interpretation of scripture. Rather, they do their scriptural interpretation based on prevailing moral stances.

Were this not the case, we would certainly see Christian preachers routinely urging members of their flocks to stone their neighbours who wear clothing made of mixed fibres and extolling the virtues of slavery (so long as the slaves come from a nation other than their own, of course).

The Archbishop then only pretends that the intellectual work must come before a change in Anglican ethics, but this is merely another attempt to avoid having to make a move toward justice - a move that would be terribly divisive within the Anglican Communion.

Our moral stances do not - even for true believers - come directly from an interpretation of scripture. They come from our own sense of the world - a sense that is deeply and inextricably influenced by the culture of our times. In the 19th century, Theodore Parker told us that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. That ongoing change in the cultural ethics is influenced by religion, but it is a product of so many more influences that - in practice - our exegesis follows our moral choices and not the other way around.

Cauthen concludes,
[Those religionists] who approve of same-sex love need most is not more and better exegesis but to find non-exegetical ways to change hearts and minds. When that happens, the foundational and sustaining exegesis will be forthcoming.
My hope is that the Anglican Communion's 'bending toward justice' for same-sex couples does not take too terribly long and that - despite the very present risk of schism - it will recognize that an exegesis incompatible with the culturally recognized demands of justice is unsustainable.

Friday 28 May 2010

Unitarian congregations membership

Warning! The numbers below may be very inaccurate! Very!

I needed to get that warning out of the way... I arrived at these membership numbers using the congregational quota contributions from the GA's 2009 Annual Report. I simply divided by £24 and rounded, as each chapel was meant to contribute £24 per member in 2009. Some chapels give more and some give less. Some chapels have  not cleaned out their membership list in a while. It happens... Life is messy.
Nonetheless, as the old management adage goes, "you can't manage what you can't measure." If we are trying to measure growth, we need to be able to measure it.
Admittedly, weekly attendance is a better, more reliable measure than membership, but you have to use what you've got.  So, here are the 2009 numbers!
If anyone would like to correct the numbers listed for their chapel, please feel free to post a comment.

Birmingham Edgbaston
Birmingham Hollywood
Bolton Bank Street
Bolton Chorley New Road
Bolton Egerton
Bolton Halliwell Road
Bradford Russell Street
Bradford Unitarians
Bristol Brunswick Square
Bristol Frenchay
Bury St Edmunds
Capel Ifan
Cardiff West Grove
Cefn Coed y Cymer
Ciliau Aeron
Dean Row
Great Hucklow
Great Yarmouth
Hale Barns
Hyde Flowery Field
Hyde Gee Cross
Liverpool Gateacre
Liverpool Sefton Park
Liverpool Toxteth
London Bethnal Green
London Brixton
London Golders Green
London Hampstead
London Islington/Newington Green
London Kensington
London Lewisham
London Stratford
Lytham St Annes
Manchester Chorlton
Manchester Cross Street
Manchester Dob Lane
Manchester Gorton
New Mill
Newcastle upon Tyne
Sheffield Fulwood
Sheffield Norfolk Street
Sheffield Stannington