In 2016, we had monthly discussions of the “A Vision for Our Future” document produced by members of the national church. It is a document intended to stir thought and suggest ways forward, but one which each individual church may consider and use, or not, as they see fit. Some key points from our discussions are shown below, along with a longer response (at the end) to Rev. Bill Darlison’s piece at the start of the Vision document, “A Faith That Matters”.
Part 3: A Spiritual Feast
We discussed how many of us valued the time we spend together talking and having coffee after the service., but noted that it is not always easy to organise and attend events other than the Sunday service when everyone is working or has care commitments or health issues. If society has changed, how can we accommodate this? There was a feeling that “a sense of community” is what the writer is after, being part of the church.
Part 4: A Promoter of Social Justice
We debated the purpose of a church. One view expressed was that the prime purpose of a church is to be a space for people to meet their spiritual needs, and that social justice activities should grow from this. One thought was that, given our small size, if we wished to take more action on social justice, we might do this most effectively by working in partnership with other religious and spiritual groups in the city, such as the Inter Faith Council and Newcastle City Centre Churches Together. Thanks to everyone who took part in the discussions, for these points of view.
Being a Faith that Matters: A reaction to Rev. Bill Darlison
Rev. Bill Darlison answers the question of whom our faith should matter to: society and the individual. We have indeed historically been great at committing ourselves to progressive causes in society, but for me, this indicates the first great question raised by Rev. Darlison, are we talking about the national Unitarian faith, or about individual churches and fellowships? This is an issue for Unitarians as it isn’t for faiths with a single unifying theology.
I love my church, the Newcastle upon Tyne Unitarians, for different viewpoints expressed, the fact that we welcome newcomers, our mixture of experienced wisdom and new ideas, I love the friendship and fellowship of a group of people containing, among others, theists, Unitarian Universalists, atheists, and the not-quite-sure. Perhaps most of all, I love the wide range of different views expressed in our services, and the blessed freedom to disagree openly with them and be encouraged to do so. I have grown as a member of my church. That freedom is what I want to offer to anyone who walks through our door.
Rev Darlison asks: “What about the person who feels existential sickness of soul, who is seeking answers to life’s deepest questions, who wants to learn how to pray, how to approach God, how to find forgiveness for past sins and how to find hope and faith for future endeavours?” I’m tempted to reply that that person clearly has a particular theological view of the world. The words “sin” and “soul” tend not to get much attention in our churches and fellowships because they convey a particular theological outlook: that there is a God who has set down rules for human behaviour, and actions contradicting those rules are an offence against God as well as a wrong to one’s fellow human beings. Many, probably most, of us reject that viewpoint.
Yet it is a question: if someone comes to us in the depths of a spiritual crisis, what can we offer them? We can’t offer them an answer in the form of a detailed theology setting out rights and wrongs. We can offer them the space to explore their own answers to their questions. If someone comes to us thinking we could offer them a spiritual path, we can say to them “Here you are free to find your own path, and we will walk with you on the way and be your companions.” If this is not enough for that person, and it may not be, then as a Unitarian, I accept the right of all other human beings to find their own path, and for them, it may not be in my church. So be it.
There’s also a practical point here: such spiritual counselling would often be best done by a trained minister, as it would be in other churches. When many Unitarian churches and fellowships do not have or cannot afford a minister, is this something we can provide?
Nevertheless, there is a question here about whether we do offer those who are new to our faith, and perhaps to any organised religion, and who are seeking to explore their faith. Many of our current members have either been Unitarians since their early years, or were members of other nonconformist traditions prior to joining the Unitarian faith. I think we do need, as a faith, to review how friendly we are to those who are taking the first few steps on their path. David Usher’s book, “Twelve Steps to Spiritual Health”, provides a useful guide to one way this might be done. Should we review our services as well, and consider how much sense they would make to those who are new to our church or fellowship?
Rev. Bill Darlison appears to state that in every UK Unitarian church or fellowship, someone posing the questions ‘Who am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘Where am I going?’, ‘What’s the ultimate point of it all?’, “we can offer no answers beyond the dreary banalities distilled from Neo-Darwinism, that we are nothing special, that we got here by accident, that we’re destined for the grave, and that there’s no ultimate point”.
I don’t recognise this “rationalist dogma that dominates contemporary Unitarian thought” in my own church, nor in the national Unitarian faith. The answers I have found in both range from the above view, but also encompass “you are a unique individual who can grow and develop in fellowship throughout the whole of your life”, “you are here to become closer to the Divine Spirit – or to find value in your own sense of right and wrong, there isn’t a definitive answer except the one you find for yourself”, “we are here for each other” and “we don’t know for certain what the ultimate point of it all is, and we may all be destined for the grave, but we’ll find some meaning, enlightenment and fellowship along the way”.
To compare and contrast the growth of Mormonism with the decline of Unitarianism is one way to approach our declining numbers; another way would be to compare us with other nonconformist faiths in the UK, who have also seen a steep decline. Is the growth in Mormonism due to their focus upon “practising” religion, or because they may be better than we are at present at going out there and talking about their religion to those who might be interested?
My view that many people search for “certainties” in religion is not because I think they are simple-minded, but because that is what many religions offer, and that is why they thrive (interesting in this light to consider the rise of Mormonism in the UK!). We don’t offer that. I do agree with Rev. Bill Darlison that we need to be somewhere “where people’s imagination can be fed, where their deepest instincts can be satisfied, where their sense of transcendent otherness can be explored”. We need to get better at both being a place where that can happen, and at communicating to people that this is what they will find when they join us.
We can’t offer people the certainty of a single theological outlook, but we do, I think, need to get better at offering them the certainty that we know what we want to do and achieve within our churches and fellowships. Re-learning the meaning and importance of prayer and regular spiritual practice must, I agree, be part of this. In the truth, the core of my own disagreement with Rev. Darlison is that I believe we are a faith that matters, but that we are not always as good as we could be at making our churches and fellowships welcoming places for those who are new to our faith and to all faiths, and to whom our faith will matter, if only we can convey to them that we are where they can discover their truths. We must be that place – or indeed those places, for all Unitarian churches and fellowships will develop their own ways, and walk their own paths. That is the essence of who we are.