Thursday, 26 March 2015

Be Understood By The Public

It's not much fun being ignored by society and it's not much fun being misunderstood either; yet indifference and incomprehension have been the predominant Unitarian experience over many decades. This problem needs to be approached from a wider perspective.

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.


  1. Indeed it is not fun being ignored and misunderstood. When I say that I’m a Unitarian, I often think it would be easier to say I’m a Quaker (although when I say that, I get equally blank looks).

    I absolutely agree with Matthew: a target audience of everybody is pretty pointless. It’s just being all things to all people before they come through the door. But it’s hard, at the same time, to target specific groups. Do we target the LGBT+ community, so often disenchanted with the mainstream churches? Do we target university students at an age when one is so often looking for a liberal place to explore one’s spirit? Sadly, we can’t target any particular group, which makes it difficult to get attention and difficult to be understood.

    On the back of the June issue of The Unitarian, there is an advert that says 'Sometimes we just have to take a leap of faith. Unitarians. The spiritual explorers.' I mentioned in my comments on an earlier section how the UUA at least used to take out full page adverts in the newspapers. This is precisely the sort of advert we need to put in the papers. Then we target everyone, specifically, those who are looking for change or specifically for a liberal faith like ours. I haven’t read Alain de Botton’s book on religion, but I have it on good authority that the religion he describes as the missing piece in the tapestry is, in a word, us.

    We have to be beyond survival. We’re not just going for growth or worrying about our numbers. We have to be more concerned about being: being understood, yes, but more importantly being who we are. Knowing who we are. Celebrating who we are. We are less understood than the Quakers by some but Quakers, however much this phrase may rankle, are proud to be Quakers. We must be proud to be Unitarians. We have to be proud of what we can offer those who seek and offer it with joy to everyone who we meet. We have a faith that can change the world.

    Tristan Jovanović (member, Kensington Unitarians)

  2. Matthew Smith highlights an important point, namely the role the Object of our General Assembly could play in helping us to be better understood. As Matthew suggests, we have tended to underrate the Object, despite it embodying ‘core principles and inclusive spirituality’.
    After the Object was adopted at the General Assembly Annual Meetings in 2001 (almost unanimously, after years of consultation and debate), a booklet was produced for the General Assembly (authored by the late Keith Gilley), ‘Building Our Identity’, which aimed to foster understanding of the new Object. It carried on its front page a quotation from Thomas Merton: ‘If you do not know your identity, who is going to identify you?’
    This remains a timely warning! I was pleased therefore that in its introductory summary to this 2015 document, the EC highlights this statement: ‘We need to re-establish an identity, a unique spiritual position. No creed does not mean no belief’.
    The task of explaining our identity still seems the main challenge facing us today, a task perhaps made more difficult by our tendency not to use the Object to explain ourselves.
    Let’s recall key points of the Object. But before we do so, it’s worth recalling an important distinction Keith Gilley makes between personal credos and corporate credos, such as the Object. The Preamble of the Object in fact emphasises the centrality of freedom of belief and of conscience within our tradition. Then it goes on to acknowledge that the Object of our denomination (the Purpose, not a creed of course!) is as follows:
    ‘To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition.’
    It’s often said that the clauses ‘the worship of God’ and ‘upholding the liberal Christian tradition’ were included to satisfy the requirements of the Charity Commission. But two main architects of the Object, the Revs Keith Gilley and Cliff Reed, told me (separately, in conversation) that these two clauses above all reflected congregational opinion and will.
    The adoption of the Object followed widespread consultation with members and congregations. It’s worth noting that subsequently, in the biggest opinion survey of membership in recent times (in 2003/4), our General Assembly found that more than 60 per cent of members defined their personal theology as ‘liberal Christian’ (Inquirer, 29/05/04). (Around 2,000 members responded to this written questionnaire, half of the membership at that time). One could argue that this percentage would be lower today, but there are also fewer of us!
    The Object provides a basic framework for explaining our principles and beliefs (historically and in the present). It helps explain who we are. It can be built on – and of course we can teach more than Christianity, but perhaps we should heed the warning of the American Unitarian Universalist scholar John F. Hayward, that equally we should not teach less.
    In my view, the Object provides a much clearer explanation of who we are than the response we currently tend to give, namely that we have ‘no shared theology or beliefs, only shared values’. As I suggested in my earlier Response to Bill Darlison’s submission, this statement is usually presented as a neutral piece of ‘common sense’ that requires no philosophic justification, and yet when examined, its premises are questionable.
    We are left with the question: can we Unitarians and Free Christians re-establish our corporate identity, our unique spiritual position, on the basis of the one democratic expression of our faith in modern times: the General Assembly Object? I certainly hope we can. Perhaps the EC might even consider supporting a reprint of ‘Building Our Identity’?

    Rev Jim Corrigall
    Lancashire Collaborative Ministry.

  3. Happy indeed is the congregation that has a settled minister who can give coherence to the worship of the congregation . A large number of our chapels have no settled minister and rely upon a weekly succession of lay worship leaders of varying competence. It's possible to attend a Unitarian place of worship for a long time and still not to be able to describe clearly to others what is the Unitarian identity. Newcomers often arrive out of a dissatisfaction with their previous church affiliation but often also fall away for lack of any identity that they can grasp .A pleasant Sunday social gathering that doesn't require much in the way of commitment may sustain some people but would it provide comfort and solace for someone for whom life was proving a real struggle - mentally or physically ?