Monday, 24 May 2010

Interfaith and Unitarians

I encountered, in the US, a rabbi who was on the staff of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. It may seem like a remarkable oddity, but for a religion that embraces a pluralistic religious ethos it did not seem particularly strange. This rabbi had coined a particular label for Unitarianism - 'the interfaith faith.' [He also spoke of the Jews as the original Unitarians with a wry 'welcome back' sort of look in his eye!] In some ways, that label fits us as we incorporate within our tradition, teachings from many sources - including the great world religions.

And so, we seek out the wisdom and writings of other traditions. We want to find out more about what a Buddhist thinks and feels, what motivates a Sikh, and how powerful it is to pray five times a day as Muslims do. This exploration is very much part of our own work to seek our personal spiritual paths and to grow toward wholeness.

And yet I am puzzled. British Unitarians not only seek interfaith exchange for spiritual exploration, but seem to consider that such contact is also an essential - perhaps even central - part of their mission in the world. And it's not usually the Muslims they want to talk to, but the Christians who have very deliberately and resoundingly rejected them! I don't get it...

In the US, where 50% of people participate in a religious community on a regular basis, to avoid interfaith work means ignoring 150 million people!

In the UK, where only 5-10% are regular participants in traditional religion, what is the rationale?

As I understand it, my mission as a Unitarian minister is to create growing, vital communities of faith that help people transform their lives and join together to transform the world. To do that, surely it is the 'unchurched' 95% of the population with whom we most want to be in conversation.

Yes, there are social action and social justice causes that are important - we should participate in those. I would even call that a moral obligation. But again, if we wish to join forces in such work and such struggles, why focus specifically on religious groups? Shouldn't we join our efforts with those of any group - secular or religious - that has the best hope of making a difference in the important work of peace, justice, and equality?

I am left puzzling over why a movement with so much potential to affect the world for the better - a movement that is more able to speak the language of the contemporary post-modern, secular, world citizen - is so intent on spending limited time and energy talking to the relatively few people who are already part of other faith bodies. Is it that we are afraid we can't relate to secular people? Is it that we are reluctant to try to understand the perspective of those people who don't like the word 'church' or that we dread that we might be harshly rejected by them?

Whatever the reason, our purpose in the world depends on our talking to and engaging with the majority secular portion of our population. The religious minority is a side-show. 

And, if my experience is a reliable guide, the secular majority will find in Unitarianism - a religion that encourages thinking for yourself and deliberately welcomes diverse beliefs - a place that feels like the home they have been seeking.


  1. Interfaith work is absolutely not about trying to convert other groups to your religion (though some Christian groups think it is that); it's about promoting understanding, peace and tolerance between different religious viewpoints.

    I totally agree about getting involved in secular charities and not Christian ones; a lot of the Christian ones have converting people to Christianity as part of their remit - an aim with which I completely disagree, especially if the flavour of Christianity in question involves penal substitution theology.

    I also agree that the secular majority is the people who would naturally be attracted to Unitarianism.

  2. I disagree with Andy's post and I see nothing wrong with a "specific" focus on working with religious groups.

    When interfaith dialogue works, many Unitarians feel enriched by experiencing other faith communities, including their places of worship, their teachings and their rituals. Whether on individual or congregational initiative, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue is a natural and good response to a Unitarian's inquiring mind and search for truth and wholeness, which should be encouraged. It makes all the groups involved more visible to the surrounding community. To close off such initiatives to concentrate on attracting those of no faith does a disservice to existing Unitarians, new and longstanding.

    Work with secular charities and local groups goes on throughout the country. Most major Christian charities (such as Christian Aid, Bible Lands and Cafod) do not proselytise as part of their mission, even if they once did. The Unitarian GA is a partner with Christian Aid, and local congregations should not be discouraged from supporting faith-based charities, if they choose to do so.

    It must be said that many faith groups - particularly Trinitarian Christian ones - have little time for Unitarians, but the problem isn't so much their rejection, but our past (and sometimes present) unwillingness to challenge their ignorance. I understand how “mainstream” Christians may question whether Unitarians fall into an “ecumenical” (inter-Christian) or an “interfaith” setting. Yet a local Christian church refusing to work with a Unitarian congregation on social action, dialogue initiatives, or even shared worship because "they don't believe in the Trinity" is no longer acceptable or desirable, especially when both groups share an aim of fostering good community relations. I do not believe it should be a priority for our movement to seek to become part of national organisations - such as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (as Andy has said, our energy is limited) - but it is imperative to do our part on a local level to engage with other faith groups in promoting understanding and working towards shared aims.

    We definitely shouldn't forget our neighbours of no faith, and there is clearly much more we can do to attract to our movement those who are "un-churched" with little or no substantial experience of faith communities. Reaching out to those of no faith is very challenging, which is shown when we see how many newer members to our congregations have at least some significant previous experience of a faith community. If we knew the answer of how to reach the un-churched, we wouldn’t need this discussion.

    Despite this, I do not recognise the implication that we spend too much time courting other faith groups to get them to like us. While faith groups may be in the minority, religion and faith issues have not held such a prominent place in public discourse for decades. I believe the 5-10% of the population only applies to Christian communities, and as we know from our own experience, patterns of religious observance are much more difficult to measure than they were a generation ago, so the figure is not reliable.

    All Unitarians need to find the energy in our limited reserves to reach out much more to outside communities – whether of faith or not.

  3. Great post.

    I'd like to comment on Yewtree's comment regarding Christian groups.

    Not all Christian groups make conversion the point of their charities and missions. I think you'll even find some mainline protestant Methodist, Presyberterian, United Church of Christ (and others) involved in Christian ministry and charity organizations where compassion and service are the focus and where neither "scalp-taking" nor atonement discussions take place. There are many of us in the Progressive Christian community who don't believe such theology and therefore don't include it in our mission work.



  4. Thanks Tim - for disagreeing politely and strongly. A good discussion on this topic would certainly be worthwhile.

    “When interfaith dialogue works, many Unitarians feel enriched by experiencing other faith communities, including their places of worship, their teachings and their rituals.”

    Indeed, I agree it benefits us and that this is a part of our own spiritual growth and exploration. Interfaith interaction can enrich us, as I said in my second paragraph. Interfaith exposure is, for Unitarians, a way of broadening our exposure to different perspectives and practices. It is something we find stimulating and enjoy.

    “Reaching out to those of no faith is very challenging, which is shown when we see how many newer members to our congregations have at least some significant previous experience of a faith community.”

    My experience has been different.

    You imply cause and effect: you suggest that new Unitarians predominantly have previous experience of a faith community because our outreach to people without faith has been unsuccessful. Instead, I would suggest that the assumption that we will only be successful in attracting former Christians makes us likely to act in such as way as to appeal primarily to them. Might it not be that the assumption that it will be difficult – and the accurate projection that it will be uncomfortable – is what prevents successful outreach to the unchurched, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophesy?

    The point of my post is not to suggest that we should shun people of religion by any means or that we should discourage congregations with working with whomever they please. I don’t think I said any such thing. I think, however, that we have an unfortunate tendency to seek out people of religion rather than reaching out to the vast majority of people who do not already have a faith community and could most benefit from what we have to offer.

    I think we need to think more about our purpose in the world. In some ways, our purpose is well-served by working side-by-side with other faith communities. However, I suggest that we largely underemphasize the importance of reaching out to the vast majority of people and that doing so is key to our purpose.


  5. @ Allen - glad to hear it. I stand corrected. However, I think Unitarians do need to look carefully at the aims of faith organisations before partnering with them. If I recall correctly, Tear Fund has been criticised by no less than the splendid Simon Barrow of Ekklesia for its narrow creedal test for staff. (Not that Unitarians would be involved with Tear Fund, but my point is that not all Christian charities are benign.)

    For instance, a while back, the Women's League chose CHASTE (Churches Together Against Sex Trafficking in Europe) as its charity to raise money for, and there is a better secular alternative which doesn't impose Christian values on the people it is helping.

    @ Andy - I do agree that we sometimes focus too much on being a featherbed to catch falling Christians; but on the other hand, the reason I became involved with Unitarianism was because I wanted to explore the mysticism of other faiths, including Christianity - and Christianity is very unpopular with a lot of Pagans, because of many Christians' negative attitude towards Paganism and many Christians' view that their faith represents the sole truth. Inclusive, tolerant, progressive, liberal Christians are assumed to be the exception rather than the norm. Therefore Unitarianism is a place where I can do that exploring without anyone thinking that I have "sold out" to the opposition.

  6. Yewtree -

    I am with you entirely about the opportunity to explore other faiths. Indeed, this freedom to draw on other traditions without buying into the exclusivity is one of the great strengths of Unitarianism.

    My concern is not about that side of it, but by what seems to be a tendency to affiliate with and seek out the traditionally religious minority over the vastly larger majority. Your example of CHASTE is a perfect one. (When we raised money to fight trafficking of women, we worked with Stop The Traffik.)

    It's all a question of balance and my impression is that the balance is currently too far toward associating with the churched over the unchurched.

    Maybe citing Jesus helps here... When challenged on his association with tax collectors, he said "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick."

    I am NOT calling the unchurched sick by any means. But should we not be aiming primarily to reach people who need religious home rather than those who already have one?


  7. should we not be aiming primarily to reach people who need religious home rather than those who already have one?

    Yes, but that's not what interfaith is for.

    Of course we should be attempting to attract like-minded people, i.e. the huge swathe of the population calling itself "spiritual but not religious" plus the secular humanists, pantheists, and other people who would like to have a spiritual community but don't want to leave their brain at the door.

    But the point of interfaith is not to attract seekers, it is to have dialogue with other religions.

    That said, one of the reasons I joined Unitarianism was because I liked the Unitarian I met at my local interfaith group; but the reason I became disgruntled with Paganism was entirely due to internal issues of Paganism, which led me to look around for a new spiritual home. I considered quite a few things before deciding Unitarianism was the closest match for my values.

    Also, two of the new members of our congregation went along to interfaith to see what religion matched their views (they feel that all religions are valid paths to the Divine) and everyone at interfaith said "oh you're a Unitarian then".

    But attracting people to your religion should never, ever, be the primary purpose of interfaith.

  8. Yewtree

    Clearly, the purpose of interfaith work is not about attracting people. I agree with you.

    And if interfaith work for us is primarily about dialogue with other religions, how much of our time and energy should be spend in that activity. My point is that it may currently be out of balance.


  9. It seems that we're all agreed that we need to do more to reach out to the "unchurched" secular community, but to me this is not an opponent to interfaith/ecumenical engagement, but they should complement each other as part of a wider strategy to make ourselves better known and understood to the whole community.

    If we are to communicate effectively with the secular majority and invite them to become Unitarians, there are questions about our own church culture we need to discuss first, not least the old fashioned, heavily wordy, free church worship style, which predominates in most congregations. Was it not from Newington Green and Islington that surverys showed newer members attended inspite of, rather than because of, hymn singing?

    Our Western Protestant-influenced church culture still permeates how we go about our business, and the Unitarian Sunday service still forms the centre of nearly all our congregations' activities. I don't believe we will be very successful in reaching out to the unchurched until we radcially rethink how we relate to them.

  10. I think Tims right and the issue comes down to where Unitarians are at in terms of there religious/spiritual identity and where they expect to be going practically.

    I don't think theology will be the hard and fast factor that will influence how we worship in terms of format. Theology tends to alter or at least challenge issues around content, meaning and purpose over time.

    Of course a traditional theology is likely to create and help feed a service format that is traditional but I think the two issues need to be separated. I think this is partly what you might be saying as well Tim.

    In my mind theologically the movement has come along way in removing the restrictive barriers, often organically, over time and this wouldn't necessarily be the stumbling block for most 'secular' people now as it maybe once was.

    Of course there are still some disagreements around theology and direction within the movement but its something that can be argued from all sides with as much equal conviction. With our Congregational independence I see little point getting tied up with it.

    If anything i'd say the biggest challenge theologically would be 'filling the gaps' by presenting the secular masses with a plausible theology that they can understand and grasp. It seems in parts so woolly minded at the moment and it can really put people off.

    Many people don't see the point of an organisation that seems theologically empty or pluralised to death. Of course that's a matter of opinion but its a reasonable assumption to make early on that we'd need to counter.

    I think the prime issue for the present moment is formats: hymns, content, and the attitude of the people at services. I think these things mainly influence the likeliness that someone would settle or not.

    So if we can all agree to alter the format then what do we replace it with? What do we change and keep? How do we survive the periods, or at all, if too many people leave and new people don't settle as we expected?

    Of course we have to take risks but before raising anyone's anxiety levels around change we need to think of the proposals that would replace or reform what's currently there and be able to explain why that's better for everyone.

    I think we need to think how we relate to people outside our congregations but very often there's a real need to work on relationships inside them as well and it will obviously sometimes be difficult.

  11. Interesting that this has become a conversation about how traditional (or not) Unitarians are in practicing their spirituality/religion...

    The original post was not about that per se, but about who we seek out for conversation, as allies in social action/justice work, etc. My point was that, given our very limited time and energies, it is interesting how much of that many of our congregations seem to want to spend with traditional religionists.

    The segue to the new topic makes sense though. It's about how we see ourselves. Members of my congregation mostly sees themselves as part of something quite different from traditional religion.

    I wonder if this is true of most Unitarians. I suspect not, and from my perspective, that's a shame because it means that a religion that is so very different from others and that has so much potential to speak to a post-modern world and offer the generally unavailable combination of spiritual growth and grounding in community does not live up to its potential value to a world that needs it.


  12. I have no idea about the amount of time specific congregations spend with interfaith groups (that doesn't necessarily just include religionists) or working with other local religious/ secular groups.

    What specific churches do or not comes back to their own mission and values. This has a link to their theology and the worship formats etc. I think that's how we got onto that topic.

    There are also the practical considerations that many churches are small and many may have a lack of time, energy and resources to dive into new ventures.

    I think interfaith issues and seeking out groups, religious or not, to do social justice are two different matters.

    We could work with religious or non religious groups on social issues without needing to work on our interfaith understanding. Many groups are able to differentiate between the two things when working towards shared goals.

    I think Unitarians should work with whoever will work with us towards specific objectives.

    I'm not too interested in assuming whether secular groups do things better or not because it depends on the issue and this should be a secondary factor anyway.

    It can get a bit sticky when talking generics like secular, spiritual, the masses etc.. and
    I'm interested to know specifically the groups, people and places we're meant to be working with that we're not at the moment. Then its the how, when and where this could best happen if we attempted to do so.

    Once we know that we can have a better idea about whether we're actually best placed to be of need or use within that specific context.

    We can't also assume because we're different, willing and interesting that we would automatically be wanted by others in every context.

  13. Unitarians practically invented interfaith, and there are often a lot of Unitarians and Quakers at groups because of their radical inclusivity. Also, Unitarians are one of the groups (along with the Hindus and the Jews and the Buddhists) who accept Paganism as a proper religion, and often stick up for Pagans when there's a discussion around whether Pagans should even be allowed to participate in interfaith.

  14. "Shouldn't we join our efforts with those of any group - secular or religious"

    Yes we should! To us, interfaith also includes people of no faith (people of good will).

    I'm glad I found your blog, I'll be in touch! Keep it up!