Thursday, 26 March 2015
Be Understood By The Public
The story of Britain over the last century is, in part, a dispiriting tale of the loss of faith in institutions of all kinds (the NHS being a possible exception) - and Churches have suffered at least as seriously as the rest. It is in this context that the word "Unitarian" today is likely to be met with blank looks or shrugs of the shoulders.
The challenge to communicate better is unarguable. But who are the 'public' by whom Unitarians in Britain should wish to be understood? It must surely be people living in Britain primarily - as this is the constituency that the General Assembly and its constituent congregations, fellowships, District Associations and Affiliated Societies serve.
There is a further stage required here, however, because to aim to be understood by the public is not as helpful as identifying particular 'publics' that might be interested in us. A communications strategy whose target audience is 'everybody' can more or less be said to be aimed at nobody! If multinationals with hundreds of thousands of pounds available to spend on advertising find it not only advantageous but essential to target their message to particular audiences (broken down by age/gender/income etc) this must be all the more true of organisations with limited resources. We ought to pick our publics! To give one example, it may be that setting up groups at universities is not so daunting a task but it's still essential to 'get the pitch right'.
Yet what does it mean for a religious community to BE 'understood'?
Success might be when a great number appreciate both our progressive values and our open tradition. Anything less and it may seem that there is nothing distinctive about us. We are not equivalent to a branch of the United Nations Association (UNA), worthy though that body is - we ARE religious. We must offer transformative and inclusive community that deepens a personal faith that is both human in its focus and open-minded to that which is beyond our understanding. Significantly, the General Assembly Object, though by no means perfect, is much underrated. If a Unitarian reads it again only to remind herself how unsatisfactory she found it first time round at least it can further a personal thought process about core principles and inclusive spirituality!
We want the 'public' to know that we are distinct - offering the milieu of a freethinking community that nevertheless values archetypal human story - how we make sense of our own lives within the panorama of a wider human drama that eternally resonates with Christian, humanistic and other themes such as love, redemption, equality, forgiveness, discovery of one's own potential and the healing power of being truly present to one another
This 'being understood' business is not primarily a matter of institutional survival; frankly, the continuing value of an institution cannot be assumed from its mere continuation up to today. Churches - including our churches - close their doors partly because they have stopped meeting a need. We need to be honest about that.
Instead of aiming at survival for no very clear purpose, a genuine Unitarian process of seeking to be understood assumes implicitly that there IS a coherent, worthwhile, transformative 'we' that can BE understood - that we collectively ARE coherent. Yet can we truly claim to be coherent? How do we justify such a claim? Similarly, can we currently say that we even understand our essence as a faith community in order to be able to present it to others? From my perspective, values and tradition both matter.
We can bemoan that we are less well understood than the Quakers, for example, but this is a direct consequence of our historically chosen view of religious freedom which has stressed individual conscience above all else. This has much to commend it but without a balancing commitment to learn from and be bound by ties of community - by the old Puritan idea of covenant in fact - we will not be able to give Unitarian collective vision and action the priority it deserves, preferring to operate by an implicit consumerist view of our personal religious involvement whereby anyone can duck out whenever they're not getting their own way.
It is in painstakingly exploring the human implications of making a reality of inclusive community shaped in conversation with our shared values - not infrequently laying aside personal preference and trusting instead at times to the common will - that we will have a stronger message to proclaim and, more importantly, live out. In this way we become at last worthy of being understood and gaining acceptance and influence beyond the church doors. Nothing is more essential if we are to make our contribution as Unitarian communities to the healing of the world.
[Note: The next phrase from the Manchester event speaks of connecting to people "everywhere" but can we recognise this as engaging across Britain with more imaginative and braver outreach
- NOT seeking to raise our profile abroad! Similarly the notion to "Tell the world we're here" could be problematic if understood to mean we can and should commit resources of time, effort and money in communicating here, there and everywhere].
Rev. Matthew Smith.