Wednesday 19 January 2011

A liberal congregation grows in London

For the past four and a half years, I have been fortunate enough to be the minister - first student and then fully fledged - of the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians in north London. Each year over those years, I've had the pleasure of marking and celebrating the growth of this rapidly-growing congregation. The time for that tallying is always at the beginning of the New Year, when we honour and celebrate those who became members of the congregation over the previous year. So, here we are again!

I was sure that this year our growth would finally slow down. A month ago, it looked like it would, but a late swell of new members meant that we grew faster than ever before! Four and a half years ago, there were thirty-five members. This year, we are welcoming twenty-eight new members. After adding in the new members and removing a few inactive members from the roles - we have decisively broken the one-hundred barrier and reached 106 members. This is a congregation where - when my predecessor began some ten years ago - the total membership was about one dozen.

Each year, as we grew, we have heard comments from outside the congregation that the growth can not and will not continue. We have heard that our success is simply due to being in a good location. And most sadly, we have heard that with growth like that, we must not be 'authentic Unitarians.' Fortunately, that latter view comes from a small minority of very discouraged people.

Well, the growth has certainly continued. If I'm not mistaken, we are now the second largest Unitarian congregation in England as measured by membership.

Why have we grown? And why is our membership so young (we are at least half young adults, despite the minister being a decidedly middle-aged adult!)

As always, explaining congregational growth is extremely difficult - it is the result of so many factors. Some are the things we're doing right and others are simply the traps we've managed not to fall into.

Here are the factors I think explain our growth:

  • Our services are not bad... They could be a whole lot better (and they will be!) but they are good enough not to repel visitors!
  • We handle conflict reasonably well - people don't sense a lot of anger or hostility when they come in
  • We are visible in the world - with signs, articles in the local paper, our web site, Twitter, Facebook, etc. we make sure that people can find us easily.
  • We know what we're here for. My predecessor laid the ground work and a clear mission has emerged of a justice-seeking congregation that welcomes, accepts, loves, and thereby heals. 
  • We are not afraid. We've taken controversial stands on social justice issues and let the chips fall as they will.
  • We have good lay leadership. Our committee members and other volunteers understand our mission and put that ahead of their personal preferences.
  • We have focused on the people who need Unitarianism and are not yet among us. We strive to be conscious of their interests, tastes, needs, and ways of thinking. We have reached out to them with programming that addresses their life issues and interests.
  • We set goals and then keep our eyes on them and work to meet them. 
  • Continuous improvement - we never cease to ask how we could be doing something better
  • We are not afraid to fail - we fail often and know that this is the cost of trying new things. Experimentation is good!
This is the best I can do at this point in time. I hope it is helpful to others. 

I would just ask us all to remember that it is not only religiously conservative congregations that can grow. If we reach out to the millions who share the open-minded, open-hearted, justice-seeking perspective of Unitarianism, we will experience dramatic growth, we will transform lives, and we will make a better, more tolerant, more justice, more peaceful, and more loving world.

Monday 17 January 2011

A prayer/meditation for the sacredness of community

I've never posted a prayer here before, and I thought I'd give it a try. If it flies like a lead balloon, it will be the first and last at the same time! (If you want to use/adapt these words, feel free! Permission granted!)
Let’s settle into our selves now for a moment, allowing the time and space we need to reconnect with the wisdom within, with the sacred as we understand it. 
Each day of our lives, we contend with challenges and we encounter wonders. We have our deep sorrows and our enlivening joys. And most of the time, we face life in our essential aloneness. 
We join together in community because we have come to know somehow that our aloneness is not enough. We have learned that the myths of individual self-sufficiency are false and toxic. We have learned that independence weakens us and our world while interdependence strengthens us all. 
Alone, we struggle to find the strength to cope with hard realities. We cast about for answers with nothing to hold on to. Alone, we fail to be present to life’s wonders and to know the deep satisfaction that comes of appreciation and gratitude. Alone, our perspective narrows until we can see little more than the inside of our own eyelids and our immediate frustrations. 
Together though, we find strength. At our best times, our togetherness brings a courage into our hearts that we could not have expected. It brings a force of love that threatens to burst from our usually tentative hearts. It deepens our longing for justice throughout our world. 
Together, a spirit emerges among us. We understand this spirit in so many different ways and know that no words are adequate – no images accurate – no understandings sufficient. 
And yet we know that the something that becomes present participates with us to recreate our lives and our world. It is to this spirit that we address ourselves now. 
Unnameable spirit, be in us and among us. May we come to open our hearts to all that is. May we be with one another in authenticity and in compassion. May we broaden our view to take in all manner of things without judgement. 
Help us to be a community of spirit – a community where love becomes real, where acceptance is unconditional, and where justice is a necessity. 

Tuesday 11 January 2011

What about God?

To be completely honest, the word "God" does not have a lot to do with my way of being religious - at least not when I consider the word God in a traditional sense. So, when I was asked recently "what is your theology of God?" I fumbled around without a particularly clear answer. The question deserves an answer, even if only because God is the word that plays the central role in most traditional religion.

I find it easy to say what role God does NOT play in my theology. For starters, I am quite convinced that there is no God that controls our lives, unleashes natural disasters, or decides who will "miraculously" survive a terrible plane crash.

I also can not conceive of a God that needs my praise or supplication to encourage God do good in the world. If there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God, would this entity really have a delicate ego in need of human strokes?

I feel certain too that God is not an old white guy with a long beard and a golden heavenly throne. In fact, I can't accept any notion of a gendered God and I don't believe that using the kind of language we use to describe human beings is either helpful or appropriate. God is not the sort of thing we can fully describe or understand; after all, if God is beyond our full comprehension - as most traditions assert - it would probably be best if we could stop trying to do just that.

With all of those traditional images around, I'm inclined to say that the word "God" has more often been an impediment to my spiritual growth than a guide in that journey. After all, it is the prevalence of those views of the divine that kept me away from religion for so many years before I found that there are ways to be religious that don't depend on conceptions of the divine that I find so difficult and unpalatable.

But there have also been times when I have come across understandings of God that do indeed speak to me.

One of these is the conception of God as an intangible force or spirit that leads us toward the good. This God is a flow rather than a consciousness - a direction rather than an answer - a "way" rather than a rule-giver.

Another image of God is as a source - an infinite reservoir of hope and love and compassion upon which we can draw when our own stores have been depleted by misfortune, sorrow, and by the seemingly endless needs of a world in pain.

A third way of seeing God that appeals to me is God as action rather than as entity. This view sees God as the inspiration and revelation that come when we open ourselves to one another and expand ourselves and each other through a deep, authentic interchange. This "God event" brings understanding, compassion, and connection to our lives. God is - in this way of thinking - an action in which we can participate. It is a happening that brings love and justice more surely than any bearded, enthroned, divine ruler.

Can I really put together these loose ends to become a coherent answer to "what is your theology of God?" probably not, and in fact, a clear coherent view of what is essentially unknowable may be contrary to the ineffable nature of the divine essence.

But, a question asked awaits a response, if not an "answer." thus, I would say this:

I conceive of God as beyond understanding. God represents that which we can not prove, or grab hold of and which is yet central to living with wholeness and connection. The conception of God can serve us well if we are careful to avoid the trap of personification. With anthropomorphic images, understandings, and analyses set aside, the incomprehensible, intangible God becomes that which brings us back to the ways in which we choose to live faithfully: to reach outward and be filled when we are depleted, to find a way toward goodness when we are lost, and to participate in the expansive, life-embracing action that helps to create a heaven on earth.