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Friday, 27 February 2015

After Islamic State: can religious freedom survive?

Yes, seemed to be the answer at this seminar at St. Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace which I attended last evening. The two speakers; Professor David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and Dr Zaza Elsheikh, offered different perspectives. Dr Elsheikh was  a last minute replacement for Dr Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation.

Professor Ford spoke about the need for pluralism with many voices, each drawing upon the integrity of their own tradition. He highlighted the work of Cambridge Muslim College and the role of Jordan in promoting interfaith understanding and rejection of religious justifications for violence eg the Amman Message of 2004, a and the Global Covenant of Peace. Islamic State needed to be tackled internally by Muslims as in the Open Letter to their leader from 126 senior scholars challenging their teachings and practices.

Dr Elsheikh focused more on Koran statements such as the Medina Charter with the challenge to Muslims; are you protecting Christians? Violence is not the response to insult. Pluralism is allowed. Walking towards the other is to be encouraged to build relationships across boundaries.

I was called upon to ask the second question and managed to highlight that I was a Board member of the Europe and Middle East Region of the International Association for Religious Freedom and that religious freedom was under threat in the midst of complex geo-political tensions in the Middle East; with religious and political divides.

I do not feel that the seminar really got to grips with the questions posed in the title. Perhaps this was in part due to the absence of Dr Hasan as Quilliam? Dr Elsheikh was able to talk about the attraction to young Muslims and her work against the grooming of young women. Prof Ford talked hopefully about developments in Libya which seemed surprising in light of recent chaotic events and the rise of an Islamic State offshoot.

Like many I probably left with a sense that I would have liked to have learnt more about Islamic State and where it draws its ideology from within its self-proclaimed Islamic context. The conversations at the break were useful and some attempt was made to encourage inter-action between attendees.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Gender and Leadership

With the naming of Rev Libby Lane as the first woman bishop in the Church of England I thought I would share this article on gender and leadership which appears in the latest issue of "The Unitarian" (December 2014).

Listening and talking to those from other Churches and indeed other faith groups can be illuminating. What we in our Unitarian and Free Christian community now take for granted is still contested in other churches. The whole issue of gender and leadership remains controversial.

The Church of England has finally approved the ordination of women as bishops having celebrated the 20th anniversary of women in the priesthood. 2014 also marked the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women by the Methodist Church.  The United Reformed Church will commemorate the 100th anniversary in 2017 of women ministers within the Congregational churches. Pope Francis stated this year that “women must have a greater presence in the decision-making areas” of the Roman Catholic Church.

I heard Kate Coleman speak at a conference I helped organize for MODEM on “Emerging Themes in Leadership” on “Gender, Leadership and the Church”. She said that it grieved her to have to say on so many situations that she is the first women in a leadership role. She is a Baptist minister and first woman chair of the Council of the Evangelical Alliance and former President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. She emphasised the power of personal history in shaping our perspectives; not least that she once belonged to a Church that did not believe in women in leadership positions.
In many ways Unitarians have much to be proud of. Gertrude von Petzold was in 1904 admitted into our ministry at Narborough Road Free Christian (Unitarian) Church, Leicester, the first woman to have full ministerial status in any British Denomination. Mrs Sydney Martineau was President of the General Assembly in 1929-30. Women have comprised increasing numbers of ministers and GA Presidents (seven of the last 15).

We would undoubtedly find offensive the conservative theological justifications for discrimination – either that women are inferior and incapable of leadership (Traditional view) or that they are equal but should not lead in the home or church (Complementarian view). We would surely advocate an Egalitarian approach that Kate outlined as the third view; that women are equal in being and in leadership.

However, we should not rest on our laurels. A look at the Roll of Presidents in the Annual Report will reveal few women Presidents in the first column and that equality took a long time to come. Women ministers for so long did not receive calls to the “plum” ministries. We have not had a woman General Secretary/Chief Officer. So whilst we have come further than others on the journey to equality and made lots of progress in recent years we still need to be careful about the assumptions we make about appropriate roles and positions.

We are influenced more than we think by wider society and we should pay attention to the conclusions of the Everyday Sexism project ( that sexism does exist, it is faced by women every day and is a valid problem to discuss. Yes, even in Church.

Kate highlighted that “Great leaders don’t just appear, they are crafted over time” (Reggie McNeal) and urged provision of systematic training for women. Elizabeth Welch, former Moderator of the URC, observed the paradox that “those in power think themselves powerless; yet those who feel powerless think those in power have too much”. Males and females need to take note as gender is not only an issue for women. A good start would be to make sure we reflect on this in all our decision-making and in the design of GA leadership programmes.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Making Connections - Plenary Address to the Sea of Faith Annual Conference "Building Bridges Not walls in a Diverse World"

I was one of the three speakers at this year's Annual Conference of Sea of Faith at the University of Leicester, 18-20 July 2014, on "Making Connections". This article is based on my talk and appears in the latest edition of "Sofia" No. 113, (September 2014).

" I am not a theologian or minister so I offer no deep theological reflection. I truly believe that the purpose of religion is to make connections with the world, with others, with oneself and with the divine, the spirit, whatever phrase one wishes to use. I am also very conscious of the wise words of Margaret Mead:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

My focus has been on the role of religion in building a better world. When I was appointed to the role of Chief Officer in late 2009, I concluded that I needed to get out there and make connections. Society has moved on from simple models of how the world works. What are our responsibilities to one another? Is there a sense that just like in the wider society there is a deeper feeling of powerlessness in the liberal progressive faith environment – not only that we are failing to use our power to promote our values, but that we are not prepared to use that power to tackle the big issues?  I feel this about Unitarianism, as I told the National Unitarian Fellowship in April. I have drawn on some work by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts, and some of his colleagues who did work on Connected Communities (in the sense of physical communities).1 He talks about this feeling of powerlessness leading to social pessimism. And he describes three forms of power, used here as the capacity to achieve desired objectives:

1. Downward power of hierarchical authority, associated most strongly with the state. Of course, this view of power characterised the Church as it developed over the centuries, right up to and encompassing much of the Reformation world in Europe. We know that global levels of trust in the leaders of government and other institutions, including the church, the press and the media have fallen to new lows. Government and business have not delivered against rising expectations. Technology has increased pressures. There has certainly been a decline of authority.

2. Lateral power of solidarity and shared values, generally associated with the power of community. The past 30 years have seen a rapid decline in active membership of, and even nominal allegiance to, civic institutions such as the trade unions, political parties and the organised church. These all offer opportunities for cooperative action across significant boundaries of interest and identity, with many opportunities to develop relationships.

3. Upward power of individual aspirations, which tends to be associated with markets – ‘…individualism is the strongest force of our times’ – yet is problematic for both society and the individual. I attended a conference on Post-liberalism, Individualism and Society at the Lincoln Theological Institute last weekend. Here liberalism refers to the current political and economic structures. Post-liberalism represents thinking that challenges this consumerist model of society, thinking often based on faith positions. That disquiet, of course, has a long history; Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America:

"I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each of them withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As far as the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing."

Each of these forces of power has plus points and negatives:
1. Hierarchy has strategic capacity yet has a tendency to be controlling.
2. Solidarity fosters selflessness but also breeds insularity and sectarianism.
3. Individualism can be creative and dynamic but selfish and irresponsible.
The solution is, in fact, ‘clumsy’: combining the three active forms of social power, while acknowledging and working with the tensions between them. Relying on one approach can be inflexible, so the way forward to address the problems we face is to mobilise all forms of social power.

Building bridges and connections is crucial to rebuilding that sense of solidarity that has been in decline. I was stimulated to read about the seven laws of social connectivity which the Connected Communities programme outlined:

Law 1: Six Degrees of separation, Three degrees of influence

You may have heard of Stanley Milgram’s letter-forwarding experiment in the 1960s, in which he suggested that everyone in the world is connected up to six degrees of separation. That was questioned, but in 2002 reinforced by a study using email data of 48,000 people. However, connection does not necessarily mean influence. Research by Christakis and Fowler indicates that our influence only extends to three degrees. Robin Dunbar claims that we have the social and cognitive capacity for up to 150 people. Nevertheless, the research suggests a high degree of interdependence and that we do have power to influence behaviour, spread values and shape attitudes (Christakis and Fowler). So never under-estimate your power to influence others. What you do and say does have a real impact. I have been surprised by who has heard about me. One of our Unitarian ministers recently engineered an invitation to a meeting of university chaplains and others in his local city. He was surprised in conversation to hear: ‘You Unitarians and Derek McAuley have done a great job on same sex marriage. I follow him on twitter.’

Law 2: Birds of a Feather Flock Together

We shape our own network and create it in our own image; what is known as homophily. This of course means that our networks can lack diversity and access to often helpful information, ties and resources. Indeed, as well as what is known as ‘bonding’ capital – what holds us together as a group – you also need ‘bridging’ capital – those who build connections with other groups.
I would ask: are you in a metaphorical ‘gated community’? Do you only talk to like-minded people? I ask myself how far do my links and connections go beyond the liberal progressive elements of faith and indeed politics. At the Post-liberalism event I shared a platform with the Director of Advocacy of the Evangelical Alliance. He talked about William Wilberforce as a hero of evangelical social action (he didn’t use that term but you know what I mean). I was able to draw from an article in The Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, which shows that one of his key lieutenants in the cause of Abolition was William Smith MP for Norwich, chairman of the dissenting deputies and a Unitarian, member of Lindsey’s Essex Hall Chapel. Wilberforce was much pained at Smith’s Unitarian opinions but prepared to mix with Unitarians and other Nonconformists in defence of the causes he espoused. This caused puzzlement to many Churchmen. He worried: ‘They think that I cannot be loyal to the Established Church because I love dissenters’. Well, if Wilberforce can do it, so can you, and so can I.

Law 3: Location, Location, Location

The third aspect of networks is that they shape us, and have positive and negative aspects depending upon our position in the network. For example – as with a physical location – if you are at the centre, you get more information but can be easily contaminated if an infectious disease is going around.
Every decade we Unitarians seem to have a debate about moving our headquarters out of central London. We are in Essex Street opposite the Royal Courts of justice off The Strand and by Fleet Street. Why? Well, it was Lindsey’s original Unitarian chapel from 1774 in an auction house, when the City of London was densely populated. It became offices in the late nineteenth century. Yes, it probably would save us a lot of money to move, yet I would argue that it would significantly reduce our influence. Being in central London makes building connections with those who matter very easy. I am two tube stops from Westminster Station. I can pop down to an event in Parliament with ease.
At the end of April it was a pleasure to attend the Annual Reception of the All-Party Parliamentary group on the Bahá’í on the Terrace of the House of Commons, convened by Louise Ellman MP. She told me that her interest arose from her Jewish background and a visit in the 1960s to the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa/Acre in Israel. She and her husband also knew of Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool. I managed to talk to Andrew Stunnell MP, former Liberal Democrat Minister and Methodist lay preacher. I also spoke to a young couple who had been married by my good friend Rev Gordon Oliver, Unitarian Minister Emeritus in Cape Town. Apparently, he conducted a lovely civil marriage ceremony for them, and had previously done so for the woman’s two sisters, prior to their Bahá’í ceremonies; the latter having no legal standing. It is a small world indeed. Others I was able to talk to were Harriet Crabtree, Director of the Inter-Faith Network of the UK; Rev Patrick Morrow, Council of Christians and Jews; Andrew Copson, British Humanist Association and Robert Papini and Pedjman Khojastem of the International Association of Religious Freedom. And, I would add, it was an opportunity to enjoy the view of the Thames on a nice sunny evening.

Law 4. Imitation Drives Contagion

This concerns peer-to-peer mimicry. Is this what lies behind ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’, fashion trends and fads in many areas of life? It seems we like to copy people and are likely to copy those we see most frequently. Within bigger systems the more ‘powerful’ organisations send out signals that others then imitate for acceptance and status. How far do we as individuals or as part of particular communities end up imitating the more powerful or the more successful rather than ‘ploughing our own furrow’?

It is sometimes uncomfortable being a Unitarian. I recall Rev Dr Ann Peart, former Principal of Unitarian College Manchester, talking about attending a Unitarian District Association event with Graham Kent, the ecumenical officer of Churches Together in Manchester. She wrote: ‘As might be expected, we expressed our sadness that we as Unitarians were not accepted as full members, and were excluded from some gatherings. Graham replied that because we had important differences from mainstream Christian bodies, we must expect not to be included, and that perhaps our vocation was to be ‘on the margin.’ Ann went on to describe the work of Heelas and Woodhead on Kendall, which confirmed: ‘Unitarian communities, placed as they are on the margins of mainstream Christianity, have the potential to bridge the different worlds of congregational life and holistic “new-age” spirituality.’ Of course many religious leaders over history, including Jesus of Nazareth, came from the margins. In building our own connections we must remain true to who we are. As the popular hymn Spirit of Life, often sung in Unitarian services, stresses: roots hold me close; wings set me free.

Law 5: It’s Not What You Know, it’s Who They Know

This law stresses the importance of belonging to groups. The traditional phrase ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ is only true because of who they know and how well.  This is what is known as Reed’s Law; network growth is geometric not arithmetic. Membership of one group breeds membership of another in a multiplier effect. Your connection to another group will significantly increase your resources. I know this from my connections across the progressive environment. We support the Accord Coalition, chaired by Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain. We support assisted dying and were invited to a new group of faith leaders supportive of change, led by, yes, Rabbi Romain. The Accord Coalition staff member is based at the British Humanist Association office. The BHA are active with us in the Cutting Edge Consortium, which works to combat religion-based homophobia and transphobia. I can see key people regularly on real issues that matter.

Law 6: Experimentation gets Results

Networks have emergent properties that cannot be explained with reference to their parts. You cannot predict the impact of your actions. Networks are complex systems and it is best to try things out on a small scale. For example, I do wonder how the network of individuals and organisations campaigning for same-sex marriage achieved such a major result despite being so weak in many ways. How did a consensus for not only civil but religious same-sex marriage emerge across all the political parties? How did the connections we had built between the Unitarians, Quakers, Liberal Jews and Movement for Reform Judaism have such an impact?

Law 7: Weak Ties Get you Working

Ties between people vary in strength and the nature of your connections is often more important than their number. It is interesting that opportunities, say a new job, often arise from people we do not know very well who have connections to other networks. These weak ties are only strong if they connect two strong networks. To me this means that it is important to be grounded in a strong network. The small Unitarian movement is tremendously ‘strong’ and cohesive. Nearly 10% of our membership come to the Annual Meetings. Many of the same people have been around for many years in various organisational roles. In times of change organisational memory is rarely lost. So whether it is your local church community or a national network like SOF, do nurture and value it. It enables you to go out and engage in building connections with others in similarly strong networks and perhaps you can make a difference together."

1. Rowson, J; Broome, S and Jones, A Connected Communities: How Social Networks Power and Sustain the Big Society, (RSA, London 2010).

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Accord Coalition Faith Schools Manifesto - Religious Education

I participated in the launch of the Accord Coalition's manifesto for faith schools at Central Baptist Church Bloomsbury. Further details of the six point manifesto and the launch event chaired by Rabbi Jonathan Romain are to be found of Accord's website.

My particular focus was on the need for inclusive religious education arguing that all children should learn about the full range of faiths and belief systems in Britain - not just one or none - by adding Religious Education to the National Curriculum.

At the press conference I said:

"We propose that Religious Education is added to the National Curriculum. We live in a diverse and multi-religious society and it is imperative that all children learn about the full range of faith and belief systems in Britain. It is so easy for stereotypes to build up about the beliefs of others which, of course, do not reflect the complexities and diversity within faith groups as well as between them. In referring to faith and belief systems this should include the range of non-religious belief systems.

Many schools provide excellent RE, including some faith schools, however, RE in others is narrow in scope and/or is instructional. Academy schools and most faith schools are able to determine for themselves the RE they teach which can lead to pupils not receiving broad and balanced religious education.

The relationship between religious freedom, culture and ethnicity and indeed politics requires knowledge of religion to ensure an understanding of a digital world where events in seemingly far-off countries can through the internet and social media be on our mobile phones and laptops.

As well as learning about religion it is also important that children learn from religion. That they make connections between what they learn in class and their own lives as part of their spiritual and moral development. Effective religious education can open up possibilities for all children."

Pictured at the event

back row from left: Derek McAuley, Rev Richard Bentley (CoE), Simon Barrow (Ekklesia). 
front row from left: Jonathan Bartley (Ekklesia), Symon Hill (Quaker), Rabbi Jonathan Romain, Martin Prendergast (Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Media and Responsibility - IARF World Congress

At the International Association for Religious Freedom 34th World Congress in Birmingham, England last week on the theme "Challenges for Religious Freedom in the Digital Era". I participated in a Panel on the "Media and Responsibility". This is my opening statement on social media.

"I come to this Panel as a user of media not a journalist, media commentator or academic. I suppose I am like many of you. I have seen the transition into the digital age and whilst not an innovator I am an early adopter (using the model of Everett M Rogers). I have an active twitter account with 1095 followers. Amongst active accounts the number if followers is only 61. I operate a facebook account and am in several groups; mainly Unitarian, as well as a Linkedin account. My Klout score, which is intended to measure digital influence,  varies around 50-54. The average is 40. With this degree of social exposure it is essential to maintain boundaries; easier for me perhaps but less so for those young people who grew up knowing nothing but the digital age.

Religious freedom is one of the topics I promote in social media. I monitor the use of the term. My conclusion is that religious freedom remains contested; believing in religious freedom is not necessarily a progressive stance. Yet like” peace, motherhood and apple pie”; we are all in favour of it.  But there are very different meanings ascribed to the term. We of course know this but social media gives this a very different spin which you will find when you begin to engage online. I found this in my own campaigning for same sex marriage rights in the UK; both sides of the debate claimed to champion religious freedom. Parliament on several occasions recognised the importance to albeit small religious groups of their wish to conduct same sex marriage on the basis of religious freedom. In the US religious freedom is however used to claim exemption from human rights standards.

One advantage of social media is that it may give a voice to the individual and the small group, however, such is the size of the internet is actually anyone listening or looking as we like to believe? I often talk about religious freedom issues on my chief officer’s blog; which has had more than 20,000 views, about 20 a day. I have a global audience; one third UK, one third US and the remainder from around the world most notably Russia, Germany, Ukraine and China. Very few from the African continent reflecting lack of access to the internet. Social media can give marginalised and excluded groups an opportunity to speak out.

Yet studies at the London School of Economics have shown that globalisation, of which the growth in the internet is a major driving force, is leading to declining levels of religious freedom. Visibility of minority religions results unfortunately in the fear of the “other” and the stereotyping which drives conflict and in my view seems to be magnified on social media. The concept of the “troll” – someone who delights in harassing others online - is truly shocking but not surprising given the anonymity of the internet. Some are sadists in personality type. Others are the fervent followers of religions. Some are likely to be both?

Of course the boundary issue affects those seeking religious freedom. Across the world individuals have been imprisoned for their online postings; in former days subversive writings would not so easily be seen and the author could preserve their anonymity.

The way forward must be, as in all our inter-faith work in IARF, to see the humanity in one another.  The internet space is not one in which this is easy; indeed it can facilitate dehumanization as shocking pictures online show."


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Women in Leadership: What Needs to Change?

Very pleased to give my support to the Women in Leadership event last evening at St Paul's Cathedral with a glittering array of speakers:

Liz Bingham - Managing Partner for Talent for EY
Shami Chakrabarti CBE - Director of Liberty
Ceri Goddard - Director of Gender at the Young Foundation
The Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin - Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons
Frances O'Grady - General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress

Not enough men were present to hear the strong messages about change. The acceptance of women bishops by the Church of England was applauded but there is much more to be done.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Challenges and Opportunities: the Unitarian Future

The following is the talk I gave to the National Unitarian Fellowship at the Annual Meetings in April 2014:

 Thank you for the invitation to speak this afternoon and to explore with you and hear your views. I agreed the topic with Tony months ago “Challenges and Opportunities: The Unitarian Future”.
 I would like to begin by describing some aspects of the present situation; the challenges and opportunities:
“.. faces many problems and cannot, on the basis of recent and current trends, contemplate the future with a great deal of hope.
…changes have been too local and piecemeal to constitute an adequate response
…there seem few reasons to believe it is likely to address its many challenges successfully.
… attendances have been declining over the past few decades. The numbers are alarming…however you measure it the trend is still relentlessly downward…and if the current trend continues it will get much worse…statisticians envisage a calamitous decline… in business only because of its considerable historic assets.
…all activities are less well supported than they used to be and the Church’s beliefs and ideas are less well understood
Inevitably the decline in attendance has had a negative effect on finances…it seems unlikely that it will be able to maintain the full range of …ministries…there are fewer full-time, paid ministers
When all the factors are taken into account, it does not seem unduly alarmist to say that things could become much worse yet – the patient may not survive
…internal focus is a classic symptom of lost direction and confidence.
…the difficulties…create heavy daily burdens and dilemmas for those whose task it is to lead….
However not all things have stood still
- Worship is different
- Buildings re-ordered to make them more useful
- Ministry is shared
- Most members recognise that they too have ministries
- Outreach takes place
This is infact not a description of the Unitarians but as some of you will have guessed but of the Church of England from Keith Elford’s recently published book “Creating the Future of the Church. I heard Keith speak last December at a Ministry and Leadership conference and he brings together his experience as a minister and as an organisational consultant. Does this however strike a chord? I think so.
Turning to our Unitarian future we somehow must not imagine that our predecessors were somehow not up to the task and lay the blame on them for our present predicament nor indeed naively believe that we have greater insight than them and that we know best. Indeed given our larger size then it is likely that access to intellectual, professional and practical resources was greater to help understand what was going on and take action in response. Taking the long view can give real perspective rather than be buffeted by the prevailing fads; do more of this, or of that, they are doing this why are not we!
Since the establishment of the General Assembly in 1928 in virtually every decade there has been initiative after initiative to address the identified problems of decline:
1930s   - series of articles in The Inquirer in 1936 on “Regenerating Unitarianism beginning with “A programme for regenerating our churches” by Rev Percival Chalk. If you run down his list there is nothing that would be out of place today suitably updated for our context. Yet the impact of the Depression completely undermined an Appeal for funds to triple the Assembly’s income and start new congregations. More churches closed and as John Keilty said in his 1959 Minns Lectures in the US “enthusiasm wilted under the stress of hard, cold facts”. A Commission put forward plans for groupings to meet ministerial shortages and financial stress but “independency” prevented any movement.
1940s  in the midst of the WW2 a Commission on our Free Religious Faith and for the first time a group of prominent Unitarians set out their thinking on faith a religion. Hand in hand with this thinking went practical steps. Even before Essex Hall was destroyed an appeal for funds - £100,000 – and large sums were raised.
1950s publicity drives into the 1960’s – the language of mission was used again but shortage of money and staff.
1960s GA established a Commission on the place of the Unitarian Churches in the modern world – theology, leadership, education and religion in the community. In mid 1960’s the Foy Society congregational survey set out for the first and only time where we stood at congregational level.
1980s falling numbers and declining influence focus on growth and development – the quality of leadership. One result was 1993 Presidents Commission on Education and Training.
2000’s Task Force and governance changes

Some will say let’s leave the past to the past. I believe this is wrong. As I read recently “Looking backwards and seeing how change happens is part of futuring” (RSA 9 Oct 2012). Lets us not repeat the mistakes of the past; but learn from them.
Returned to Keith Elford. He sees that the Churches’ particular problems stem from one larger problem. The Churches are still struggling to come to grips with what it means to be part of a secular, multi-cultural society – egalitarian, democratic, composed of multiple faiths and cultures.
His view is that the Church must articulate what Church is for and where it is going in a society like ours.
Professor Linda Woodhead work has made her very unpopular in some Church of England circles. She wrote in the Church Times in January this year “The Church’s greatest failure has been its refusal to take decline seriously. The situation is now so grave that it is no longer enough simply to focus on making parts grow again. The whole structure needs to be reviewed from top to toe, and creative and courageous decisions need to be made”. Has this any relevance for our tiny movement.

So that’s a quick run through the challenges and opportunities. I could sit down now have covered my remit but you would probably feel short-changed.
I don’t think any of us would think these are easy questions with easy answers. The future of Unitarianism and indeed of organised religion in this country is becoming known as a “wicked” issue. They have complex causes and multiple stakeholders and are unlikely to be fully solved in the foreseeable future. They may demand far-reaching changes which will be complex and contested.
I would like us to explore the bigger questions. One of the responsibilities and privileges of being Chief Officer as all chief executives is that I am paid to think – I don’t do enough of it with all the other day to day work pressures but I really feel that this is what is expected of me for who else can do it. So two questions?

Firstly, what is Unitarianism and Free Christianity?
In thinking about this talk I was struck that in the 1940s in the midst of War Unitarians established a Commission on our Free Religious Faith. I was also struck with the statement on the back cover of “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought”, published by the Lindsey Press in 1999, that this “is the first substantial publication about Unitarian theology to be published for forty years”. If this is true perhaps this explains much of our diffidence and uncertainty about where we stand in a changing world.
Defined by the name “Unitarian”, with “and Free Christian” added when the full formal title is used, has this any meaning in our secular multi-cultural society where orthodox Christianity is no longer the default position against which we set up our stall. Of course we like Alice in the Looking Glass wonder. “When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."

So as in our “a faith worth thinking about” pamphlet we stress our “traditional Insistence on divine unity, the oneness of God” but now add “because they affirm the essential unity of humankind and of creation”. In the post-modern age when there is no truth and no grand narratives this is of course acceptable.
With our work on the new GA website this has of course emerged as a question. I always regarded the “What we believe” pages as fairly inadequate. It is now to be “Unitarianism Explained” and the professional help we are using to help compose material in a web friendly way has challenged us in our efforts to ensure we assist the seeker in actually getting a clear insight about who we are. You may be interested to learn that the importance of community has been stressed given that many people pursue their spiritual path alone buying in practices from self-employed practitioners.

For too long we have allowed a very individualistic view of what Unitarianism is. “Everyone is on their spiritual journey and you can believe what you want” – this is of course a parody but points us to some insights. Of course you cannot believe what you want and remain part of a Unitarian community; there are actually boundaries.  
I was also struck by comments in a blog by UUA Minister Peter Boullata in December 2011 with the title “The Liberal Church Finding Its Mission: It’s Not About You”. He challenges us “There’s a difference between a free and disciplined search for truth and meaning, unencumbered by doctrine and “a religion that’s all about you and whatever you want”. Certainly what drew me to a Unitarian community is that it offers one of the few places where issues of true meaning can be explored and where wisdom and teaching is respected. It is also about looking beyond the needs of those present and as Keith Elford says asking what is the Church – your community – for and where is it going.
I am a firm believer that in meeting the needs of those outside the community we can build community within. My commitment to effective social action and service cannot be doubted, however, it must be based upon a deep spiritual and theological underpinning for us as a religious movement.

I will now turn to the second question; how does Unitarianism organize itself for the future?
For this I have drawn on some work by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts.
Here we are at the Annual Meeting of the General Assembly.
What are our responsibilities to one another? Is there a sense that just like in the wider society there is a deeper feeling of powerlessness – not only that we are failing to use our power to make Unitarianism stronger but that we are not prepared to use that power to tackle the big issues. About society he talked about this leading to social pessimism. To explain power is used here as the capacity to achieve desired objectives. Matthew Taylor describes three forms:
Downward power of hierarchical authority associated most strongly with the state
We know that globally levels of trust in the leaders of government and other institutions including the Church and the Press and Media has fallen to new lows. Government and business has not delivered against rising expectations. Technology has increased pressures. There has certainly been a decline of authority.
Secondly, the lateral power of solidarity and shared values generally associated with the power of community
The past 30 years have seen a rapid decline in active membership of and even nominal allegiance to civic institutions such as the trade unions, political parties and the organised church. These all offer opportunities for cooperative action across significant boundaries of interest and identity. There has been a decline of solidarity
Thirdly, the Upward power of individual aspirations, which tend to be associated with markets
“…individualism is the strongest force of our times” yet is problematic for both society and the individual.
Each of these forces has plus points and negatives.
Hierarchy has strategic capacity yet has a tendency to be controlling
Solidarity fosters selflessness but also breeds insularity and sectarianism
Individualism can be creative and dynamic but selfish and irresponsible
In the absence of countervailing forces, fatalism will fill the gap.

The solution is, infact, “clumsy” – combining the three active forms of social power – and acknowledging and working with the tensions between them. If we rely on one approach it can be inflexible – example of investment banks broken by act of an individual. Communes take solidarity to extremes and rarely last but need some hierarchy to enforce rules.
A way forward to address the problems we face is therefore to mobilise all forms of social power
How can this analysis help us? How do we understand how we have approached power?
Individualism is built into our DNA; the focus is on the individual in a community not on a community made up of individuals. We tend to take it for granted that people will come to us and leave as part of their spiritual journey. The congregation is sovereign; the own their own buildings and pay for their minister. The General Assembly is just that “an assembly” with no power over any congregation. Indeed in our Constitution there is no power of expulsion of a member body. Congregational autonomy of course means that innovation can take place with no need for approval however this means that we don’t tend to learn from failure. It also means that when congregations are in trouble they often only seek help when it is too late or never do resigned to closure – a fatalistic approach unfortunately.

Hierarchy of course therefore has a flawed history. The General Assembly came late in our denominational structures. For most of the 19th century the focus was on individuals taking forward collective initiatives not congregations. The task force changes more recently which led to the new structures of course point to a model of governance focused upon the board; the Executive Committee. We see the language of strategies, strategy groups, action groups, measures of success reflecting this approach yet the power to influence is weak. Externally there are expectations on the central structure yet not a willingness to give it real power.
Solidarity had however a unique quality for the Unitarian Movement which has been lost. We emerged from the dissenting tradition. The taint of persecution lingered well into the 18th century with the last physical attacks during the Priestley Riots in 1792 in Birmingham. Throughout the 19th century it remained just not respectable to be a Unitarian. This forged a sense of community reinforced by marriage with a network of wealthy Unitarian families spread across the country; now dissipated. In Lancashire Unitarian Methodism brought its own sense of cooperative values amongst working class congregations. With a seeming inability to pass on our faith inter-generationally and relying on mid-and late-life converts (can I use that word!) we have to continually re-learn our values as local communities.

Some conclusions therefore:
1. Recognise that there is not one easy or coherent answer; it will be “clumsy”. Some things will work and some things won’t. What works in one place; will not in another.  
2. Accept that too much emphasis on one approach will mean that we are unlikely to address the “wicked problems”
3. Ensure that our initiatives are based on a deep understanding of the complexities of the issues we face. Just because something works in another country does not for example mean it will work here; which is pertinent given the dominance of UUA thinking and approaches.

I will finish with some ideas to get you thinking where I think that change is needed:
Solidarity – Many of grew up in a period when in the public mind expressing solidarity with someone else pointed to going out on strike and was not then against the law. It is said that where you put your money says a lot about your values. With our individualistic congregational culture our resources are concentrated. I see congregational Accounts. I also see situations whereby a few thousand pounds could make a major difference. So I would ask how can we truly show solidarity with our neighbours financially? Is it morally right to sit with massive cash reserves when you could have more impact by investing it elsewhere?
What about our sense of solidarity with emerging Unitarians in other countries. We are amongst the most wealthiest country in the world yet some Unitarians in Africa exist on less than a $ a week. Where did the "Foreign" go in the BFUA when it merged to become the General Assembly?

In relation to the General Assembly’s work we do need to do less but better. We need to improve accountability and for example not expect volunteers to be managers of significant projects. This is were some of the ideas of hierarchy are infact beneficial as opposed to individuals doing their own thing however worthy. When the GA awards grants it needs to hold recipients accountable. If congregations benefit from “excepted” status at the very least they need to acknowledge what this means for them as an unregistered charity.

Reflecting on the first question can we not collectively come together to create circumstances whereby the issues of our faith can be addressed at some depth – we have got width not depth - academically and theologically. Hard-pressed ministers of tutors cannot do this. We need a lectureship at some university department of religious studies on Unitarian studies. But are we prepared to support this financially?

Finally what collective stories do we tell? If Unitarianism is not about creeds and beliefs surely stories and narratives – our own and that of others - is a way of expressing our identity.