What’s the Future of the Movement? Unitarians talk to each other in 2019

Liz Slade

As part of her work as the General Assembly’s new Chief Officer, Elizabeth Slade arranged a series of informal video discussions in summer this year, open to representatives of all Unitarian congregations in the UK. (The General Assembly is the national movement of UK Unitarians. The Chief Officer is the most senior of the small number of paid staff who work to support the movement – rather like the Secretary is for a church congregation.) The aim was “to listen to each other’s visions and perspectives …this isn’t about bringing a manifesto or a wish-list, but talking openly about what’s most important to us, and what we dream of for the future”. This was alongside a series of meetings in person held earlier in the year, one of which (in Edinburgh), was attended by Brian Robson on behalf of Newcastle.

As Newcastle upon Tyne Unitarians’ chairperson, I joined in the conversation on 28 August, along with Liz Slade, Jane Blackall (Kensington Unitarians), Mark Stewart (Bristol Unitarians), Sandie Finn, and Rev. Duncan Voice (Ditchling Unitarians). We discussed our ideas around the following main points: how do we invite more people into the movement, and how do we tell the story of what we stand for and protect the good things we’re already doing, while inviting those people in? How can we share our learning and principles, and what can we do differently to help us attract new people?

With six of us and only one hour, we didn’t have a chance to discuss this in great detail, but it was interesting to note that many of us spontaneously raised the same issues. In particular, we considered the challenges of moving from a ‘Unitarian Christian’ movement, where most members of a congregation would have held similar beliefs, to a more pluralist ‘Unitarian’ movement, in which views within the same congregation may range from Unitarian Christian, to humanist, to Earth Spirit beliefs – and many other shades of belief in between. We also talked about how we can convey this complexity of belief to people outside our movement who might wish to join us. I had a further email discussion with Liz Slade, in which I raised two points members of the management committee had asked me to discuss. This was her reply (slightly edited for length, full text available on request):

  1. Finance reporting – it’s not always clear at the GA just much the movement has available to spend, and what it is being spent on. Liz replies: “I’ve been conscious of how much of a spread there is in people’s interest in the finances …We want the GA to be transparent and so probably have erred on the side of sharing more detail – which perhaps doesn’t help for some people! I’ll bear this in mind as I work with David Joseph, our Finance Manager, in the run-up to the next annual meeting.”
  2. Breakdown of quota payments – what does each congregation receive from the national movement in exchange for the £35 annual quota payment per church member we send to it? Liz replies: “We don’t currently break down the accounting [of the GA’s finances] by role [or source of income], but this may change in the future. But I wonder if there’s a different question underlying this one – on how to show the value that the GA provides, and on what would encourage more people to donate more to their congregations, or encourage those that CAN afford more to give more in recognition of those who can’t.”
  3. Publicity – we would like to see the GA spend more of its funds on some form of national publicity campaign for the movement. Liz replies: “YES! This is a huge thing. When telling friends about my job, I’ve needed to explain to most of them what the Unitarian church is. And when I do explain it, most of them think it’s pretty cool. I’ve been working on a GA strategy: and two big strands are: 1) exploring publicly what we are and what we have to offer – for example, we might have a series of public events, and 2) revamping our website and leaflets so that they are clearer, more relevant and more up-to-date. I’m really conscious that we need to express ourselves to the majority of people in this country who don’t pay much mind to religion, and they have a lot of things competing for their attention that are a lot simpler to understand!”

We’ll continue to engage with the national movement on these topics. Watch this space!

Louise Reeve, Chairperson.