On 26th March 1866, a meeting was held, at which the Unitarian Book and Tract Society and the Birmingham District Unitarian Association amalgamated to form the Midland Christian Union, later renamed the Midland Union of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches, and finally the Midland Unitarian Association. On 26th March 2016, one hundred and fifty years ago to the day, over fifty Midlands Unitarians celebrated our 150th anniversary at Kidderminster New Meeting House.
Following our usual brief and business-like AGM, we adjourned to the church hall for a delicious buffet lunch, which had been provided by the Kidderminster congregation. Then it was back into the church for the President’s service. Jane Couper commented that we were in a liminal state, poised between remembering our past, and planning for our future.
She detailed lots of happenings from 1866, including the birth of future Unitarian Beatrix Potter. Then she turned to the future, saying that we are stepping out in gratitude to those who came before us, who have enabled us to be free in our now. She commented that we need to nurture and support welcoming, safe, hospitable communities with room for growth. She shared two metaphors about Unitarian community by Rev. Andrew Hill – that of a garden designed and tended together, where different plants need to be treated differently to thrive; and a box of chocolates – an extraordinary variety of folk, some soft-centred, some nutty – you can fill in the rest!
Then came the highlight of the day, when our Guest Speaker, Rev. Ant Howe, gave us an inspirational talk on sacrificial giving – the need to give of ourselves, in order for our movement to survive and thrive.
He celebrated the fact that we are celebrating our 150th anniversary, 150 years of the District Association supporting ministers, congregations, chapels and churches, and offering opportunities for fellowship and community. He commented that he himself would be celebrating his tenth anniversary as minister of Kingswood in a couple of months, and thanks God for the growth in that congregation.
But he also commented that the movement is struggling in some areas. GA President John Clifford has commented that we are “losing robustness, as many activists age”. We only have our movement, Districts and congregations because of sacrificial giving on the part of our forbears. People gave of themselves because they believed in their faith.
He commented that his time as a Unitarian has been the greatest blessing he has experienced in his life. It has given him a way of relating to the Divine, a place to worship, friendships, and a way to live. He is never tired of talking about it and sharing it.
Our numbers peaked around the start of World War One, and have been declining since. When Ant became a Unitarian, there were 4,500 of us in the UK, which he thought was enough to give people the opportunity to be and worship together, but still have room for individual conscience and belief. But sadly, numbers have continued to decline since then, in spite of the hard work and commitment of many. We have lost 1,000 members in the last ten years – one quarter of the whole. It is heartbreaking.
He shared one newcomer to Kingswood’s comment: “How did I get to the age I did without hearing about Unitarianism?” and reflected that we have not been successful in sharing our amazing faith with others. Overall, we are not growing. Many congregations are hanging by a thread – in a few years’ time, the movement may not be viable.
The District exists to support congregations – without the congregations, there would be no point in having a District Association. If Unitarianism were to disappear, the world would be robbed of such a blessing.
But there is always hope, which is one of the great messages of Easter. He commented that Unitarianism gives him hope – if we share it with others, we are offering them a chance to enhance their lives. It deserves defending and nurturing. He lamented that we seem reluctant to give people a reason for the hope that is within us – about our deepest beliefs, the essence of our faith.
He said that we need to go for it – promote Unitarianism – providing the best preaching, the best music, the most vibrant congregations should be our aim. He asked what is stopping us bringing in experts to help us promote Unitarianism passionately and coherently and theologically?
He acknowledged that change is scary. We might have to sacrifice our familiar ways to make Unitarianism accessible to others. He stated that our main problem is being afraid of offending current Unitarians. He would rather open the debate and say *something* in spite of disagreement.
He commented that our movement is fragile and needs defending. He commended the method of Jesus, who linked his faith to his tradition – he quoted sources, and got a conversation going, got people thinking. We can link to our history of free thought and free religion. We *have* to find a way of communicating what we believe in, and we need to do it soon. We have to articulate our faith clearly and lovingly. We shouldn’t be afraid of talking theology, of having a reasoned conversation about the Divine. We have little to lose by speaking with passion.
He agrees that social action and caring – the practical applications of religion, making Love evident, are important. But it is the combination of the two – both faith and action, love and community, which will get the message across. Individual Unitarians should be proclaiming what Unitarianism has done for them, and sharing the message that “This is what it could do for you.”
There is no one way of doing Unitarianism – there is room for us all. But we need to be able to articulate what we stand for and what we have to offer. We have to do it from a place of basic integrity. We need to be real and authentic. We have to speak a faith that is grounded, tempered by love. Our actions have to match our words, or our integrity will be lost.
He concluded by rejoicing in 150 years of this District Association, and in some of the great things our congregations are doing, but is still concerned about the future. Let us be more than just butt-prints in the sand.