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Thursday, 13 October 2016

The International Vision of British Unitarians - 2016 Channing Lecture

This blogpost is based on the William Ellery Channing Lecture which I delivered at Golders Green Unitarians on 23 April. 2016.
Channing Statute in Boston
Channing was the foremost American Unitarian of the 19th Century and when I was recently in Boston I was pictured alongside his portrait which is one of only two that have been displayed in the new headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

My lecture had the title “The International Vision of British Unitarians”. The UUA has a project “Heritage and Vision at 24” using new technologies to tell their story. The intention is “to expand on our storied past, and connect it in a living stream to our dynamic present and our exciting future”. This inspired me to look for some stories of our international engagement that would do the same.

I would suggest that in taking forward this international vision that the work of British Unitarians can be characterised in four ways; Mission,  Solidarity, Generosity and Inclusion. I have drawn from a period of our history; 1890s to the 1920s when we were strong yet it was a time of great change.


India remains a key part of our international story right from the foundation of the Madras Church by the former slave, William Roberts to Rev Margaret Barr working in the Khasi Hills from 1933 until her death in 1973. I told the story of the first visit by a representative of the BFUA to India in the 1890s. Rev Dr Jabez T. Sunderland had only intended spending a quiet summer and autumn in England in1895 before travelling to Egypt. He was prevailed upon by the “men from the B&FUA” to go as their representative on a four month trip to India reporting to the Annual Meetings in May 1896.

We remember today that Hajom Kissor Singh as the founder of the Khasi Unitarians in 1887 when he rejected the Calvinistic Methodism brought to his homeland in North East India by Welsh missionaries. He was given a volume of the works of William Ellery Channing and found he was a Unitarian. He began to hold services in his home and slowly gathered a small group. Sunderland visited and ordained a former Methodist evangelist as their first minister.

Yet at the time the more significant work he undertook was to develop closer relationships with the Brahmo Samaj, the liberal theistic Hindu group established by Raja Rammohan Roy, with whom English Unitarians had had a long association. Sunderland also spoke to huge audiences including on education to 6000 people at the National Congress of India; the forerunner of today’s Congress Party of India.

As a result of Sunderland’s visit the B&FUA appointed a missionary; initially only a visit by Rev James Harwood and then a three year appointment of Rev S Fletcher Williams. The latter believed that the best way to spread liberal religion in India was to support the Brahmo Samaj and his most enlightening experience was to join the Brahmos in conducting a religious service at the Albert Hall in Calcutta for several months each Sunday which drew Brahmos, Christians and Muslims in a united congregation.

Today our work with India continues especially in the Khasi Hills and Unitarian talent and money has gone to support the causes close to the heart of Rev Margaret Barr, however, our links with the Brahmos are weak.


My second theme is solidarity, meaning support and assistance to existing Unitarian groups. The links with the Transylvanian Unitarians go back to earliest day of the B&FUA. This story was the support and advocacy given the Transylvania in the post-World War One era and is I believe the most important contribution of British Unitarians to public affairs certainly in the last century. It shows a high degree of political mobilisation and sophistication due to the leadership of B&FUA Secretary, Rev W. Copeland Bowie. The campaign was widely covered in “The Inquirer” of the day whose role as a campaigning tool at the time has not again been recognised.

The end of World War one say the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the harsh military occupation of Transylvania by Romania. Reports were received that the Unitarian Bishop Joseph Ferencz had been imprisoned – it seems held hostage for the good behaviour of his community - and British Unitarians began to use all their political muscle to raise their concerns. By the end of 1919 “The Inquirer” was reporting on expulsions from Kolozsvar, “pillaging and executions” and of historic significance to Unitarians, the destruction of the memorial stone in Deva to the memory of Francis David – what we would call cultural genocide today.

In November the Rev W H Drummond was sent by the B&FUA to Transylvania and was the first Englishman to visit after the end of the War. He returned via Paris where he reported to the British and American delegations to the Peace Conference. His three page report was published in full in “The Inquirer” and reproduced as a supplement. Such was the Unitarian influence that on 30 January 1920, Rev Copeland Bowie was invited with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Rev F B Meyer to meet the Romanian Prime Minister of Romania at the Carlton Hotel. When Transylvania was transferred to Romania under the Treaty of Trianon safeguards were given on minority rights and violations remained a concern to Unitarians.

Today we recently joined ICUU in supporting the Unitarian Church in Burundi when its leader and members suffered as a result of political unrest. Rev Fulgence Ndagijimana has fled to Canada seeking refuge and his family are in the US British Unitarians raised funds for the Church and I used political contacts to raise his persecution and imprisonment directly with the Foreign Office. Others in Canada and the US did the same.


The third feature of British Unitarian international engagement is that of generosity. In five years the Special India Fund raised the equivalent of over £530,000 at todays value. An appeal for the “Starving Children in Europe” was launched by the B&FUA for a collection at the services on Sunday 28 December 1919 and raised £2,569 which is about £131,000 at 2016 prices. This was at a time of “home” demands, including an appeal for £20,000 (£1million) to support the “Stipends of Ministers and the Education of their Children” and £10,00 for the National Unitarian War Memorial – “The Florence Nightingale Convalescent Home” in Great Hucklow..

Today the Unitarian Clara Barton Red Cross Fund has raised what must be fast-approaching £100,000 for emergency and crisis relief and locally Unitarians are active fundraisers for many causes.


The story here is a desire to bring together religious liberals in an inclusive way and led in 1900 to the establishment of an International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers (Now IARF).. Great international congresses took place before the advent of World War One. It had been intended in October 1914, had war not intervened, to have a World Pilgrimage of Religious Liberals funded in part by the B&FUA, which entailed a group of diverse western theists journeying round the world but especially to encounter the East.

Today we continue to participate and lead in IARF both globally, regionally within the Europe and Middle East region and nationally in co-operation with others such as the World Congress of Faith, Religions for Peace and the Interfaith Network. Having led the way the interfaith scene is now much fuller and rich.

In conclusion I feel that the tension – I hope creative tension – between the various themes still raise issues for us. The International vision of British Unitarians was not about expanding Unitarianism across the globe but more a commitment to promoting liberal religion. This is a staggeringly open and inclusive perspective for the time and indeed for today.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Unitarian Congregational Growth and Change 2.

My last blog has produced some positive feedback so I would like to follow it up with more advice for congregational leaders on growth and change. I hope it is also encouraging for ordinary chapel and church members who may worry about the future. This draws upon work carried out in East London by The Centre for Theology and Community (CTE).

They have found that attitude rather than theological tradition is the key determinant of growth. Our tendency has been on occasion to see churches with rigid doctrines that are growing and then excuse ourselves by saying that we demand more from those who commit to us; it is harder to be free-thinkers. So it is not all about evangelical churches with their Alpha courses. Growth is actually happening in churches with very different theologies and liturgies. On this evidence I see no reason why Unitarian and Free Christian churches should not grow. But as the report observes “the degree of intentionality behind growth is related to the likelihood of growth. Those [congregations] that have seen significant growth, it seems, have made structural changes in terms of leadership or “models” of church”.

These growing churches have a clear vision of their goals, and engage in “conscious self-reflection” on what it means to be both faithful and effective in their local context. There is no one-size-fits-all pattern to follow, however, three factors seem important:

Pursing a deeper common life of worship and prayer
An enterprising use of assets, including property, for mission
A commitment to working for the common good with others in the local community

Attitude must underpin these approaches. Unitarians should be able to apply these factors to their local situation and I know some congregations are already doing so. This is where we can draw upon our own tradition of reason; we have never been afraid to look at the evidence and learn even if it challenges long held beliefs.

So let us not dismiss growth as simply an obsession with “bums on seats” but an opportunity to change lives. As Canon Archie Richie has written “an empty church cannot embark on any of the activities we rightly value; worshipping God, growing together, showing hospitality and acting for social justice”.

We certainly have the skills locally to reflect on changes in the demographics of local areas and how we can connect to the people who now live there. If we do not do this the evidence is that, especially in urban areas undergoing rapid social change, we will slowly fade away. Community organising has proved to be one way to change the focus in a congregation – especially in developing new leaders through action.

So are we “missing a trick?" “Next Steps” has reinforced that our 2020 congregational growth programme should be expanded and more new or rekindled congregations established, what others call “church planting”.  Without this all the evidence from many studies is that decline will not be reversed. So are we willing to reflect, learn, change and adapt.

This blog first appeared in The Unitarian (October 2016) as "A View from Essex Hall"

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Unitarian Congregational Growth and Change 1.

One of the most useful aspects of the recent Conference in the Netherlands organized by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), the global Unitarian body, was the opportunity to share practical experiences of congregational life. Congregations remain the way that our Unitarian faith is expressed in most parts of the world; recognizing of course that for some the online experience is now part of the mix.

We had the one-to-one chats over coffee and meals and drinks; we do this’ what do you do? Really! There were more formal networking opportunities and also a day of workshops and a day of more substantial learning sessions. There were excellent programmes for individual personal development which should enhance leadership capacity around the world.

I was particularly struck by the similarities as well as the differences between the UK and The Netherlands, who were represented by the Vrijzinnigen Nederland (VJ) a liberal religious group about the same size as British Unitarians; but with fewer groups. I already have good contact with them and their director Wies Houweling has been to a British Unitarian Annual Meeting.

In one session I heard about a self led congregation and the phrase “professional amateur organisation” was used,  which I interpreted to mean that all that was done, although there was no paid “professional” leader, was of the highest quality. This congregations has grown from 60 to 100 members; with Sunday attendance from 10 to 40. They asked the members initially “if we change, do you want to be part of it?”

Over more than ten years they have changed the:
Role of the Board (ie the committee)
Role of the community – which is seen as a source of creativity as everyone has a special gift
Role of Sunday services (which is seen as the most important change)
The building – especially the symbols used

A positive approach was adopted to change but quality was key. Other learnings were that nothing is permanent and that renewal never stops. Infact; knowing that those activities that are going well will not last should make us look to the future and new ideas. Another lesson is to resist the temptation to compare yourself to others and that in the end you must find your own solution. Also, look to your roots for keys to the future.

This was reinforced by another session on the Dutch experience where it was emphasised that the liberal religion should be about connecting rather that separation as with orthodox religions with their focus on maintaining group identity. In a group we talked about how locally Unitarians can play a leadership role in connecting people. We of course often do this is individuals. The challenge is to reach out to other religious people and other groups; often simply to get them around a table when they would not otherwise be able to do so. So are their issues in your community that needed to be talked about but are not?

I shall be developing our relationship with Vrijzinnigen Nederland further as we have much to share and learn from each other. Their connections especially with other liberal groups and in the academic arena are particularly impressive and raise issues for us. So lots to do all round.

This blog first appeared in The Unitarian (September 2016) as "A View from Essex Hall"