This year’s Annual Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Christian Churches were held at the University of Keele in Staffordshire. Nearly 20 Unitarians from 11 different MUA congregations were among the 300 or so Unitarians who had gathered from all over the United Kingdom. Winnie Gordon and I were there in our capacity as Ministry Students, so were kept busy counting votes during the plenary sessions. Alison Thursfield was there as a member of the national Executive Committee; Gavin Lloyd led the morning devotions on Good Friday (and was the only speaker who did not need a microphone!) and Angela Maher did a presentation in her role as Chair of the Visibility Strategy Group. And of course it was Lay Pastor of Kidderminster Kath Forder’s “moment of glory” as she was formally added to the Roll of Lay Pastors during the Anniversary Service. During the same service, it was good to note that Malcolm’s Sadler’s retirement as Lay Leader of Banbury was also marked.
The four days of the meetings were the usual mix of business and worship and break-out meetings by all the Unitarian societies, and general good fellowship, which is the joy of being with many Unitarians in one place. Highlights for me included the John Relly Beard Lecture, delivered this year by Rev. Peter Owen-Jones, presenter ofAround the World in 80 Faiths, in which he spoke about the importance of realising that we are all on this planet together, humans, animals and plants alike, and that there is a new spirituality emerging, which has at its core a creation-centred identity – “not to be perfect but to strive for wholeness and integration.”
Also the keynote speech by Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain (their equivalent of our Chief Officer, Derek McAuley), who spoke movingly about the future of liberal religions from a Quaker perspective. I would guess that most of those present identified strongly with the challenges he spoke about:
- to try to understand what is going on with our membership, in terms of age distribution etc
- being confident about who we are and what we offer and being able to talk about it to others
- how to answer the question “I’m a Quaker [Unitarian] – ask me why” in language accessible to new people
- living up to what we say and believe – putting our faith into action
- how do people know we exist – how to raise visibility
- making sure that people can find us, and that they feel welcome when they do
- being vibrant, effective communities
- recognising the variety of ministries within the Quaker [Unitarian] community – acknowledging what people bring and the service they offer
It was also good to learn a little more about the new Strategic Groups: Ministry, Local Leadership and Visibility, and about a new initiative, which was launched by Rev. Andy Pakula: the 2020 Unitarian Congregational Development Fund, which has grand plans for renewing existing congregations and planting new ones.
The food was good and the fellowship was better – what more could you ask?