Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Anniversaries - daring to change

I am one of an army of bloggers for Heritage Open Days and a month or two back wrote a piece about Anniversaries.

Then on Facebook someone asked whether anniversary services should always stay the same. This was a good prompt for me to think beyond what I had written, to think about how we actually commemorate anniversaries, about how we respect tradition whilst being true to our ethos of dynamic and emerging understanding and spiritual practice.

I responded (with grammatical corrections) ...Congregations and communities change over time as new people come in, people leave and people themselves change. The world changes and we learn new ways of doing things. One of the issues with tradition for me is that we do it because we do it, because we've always done it like that not because it works for us.

I think the question is, why are we doing this? There is timing, structure, content and setting - all of which can be varied. To say that we can't improve on what we've done in the past is a bit defeatist. To say that we have this tradition and we're sticking to it can be excluding of those who are new or who don't particularly like what is being done.

We may repeat some content and use a similar structure but I think that the service leader needs to look at it with new eyes each year - even have a different service leader or have other people involved. I cannot imagine that anyone's understanding and approach to any event will stay the same year after year. 

We are not a faith tradition which uses liturgy or standard services throughout the year. Ours is a creative faith which invites service leaders to reflect on a subject, express what it means to them, ask the congregation to reflect on the subject, and draw some conclusions about what it may mean to our Unitarian communities. It seems to me that in our spiritual communities one of our tasks is to develop our traditions because we create our services from personal reflection and learning. People should feel comfortable to add, to tweak or to completely alter an anniversary service. 

We believe that ours is a living tradition. And anything that is living is dynamic and changes. Living also leads to death - the death of parts - for the benefit of the whole. This is not to say that we throw away our traditions but that we respect them by reflecting on their value and building on them so they become ever more meaningful and moving.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Ministering to the individual or to the whole congregation

There has been a comment on Facebook which includes the idea that when you lead a service you minister to the needs of the whole congregation and not the individuals within it. Which begs the question about what the needs of a congregation are, if they are not the sum total of the needs of the individuals?

I was thinking about situations where we have people attending who may be a little unkempt, perhaps with poor personal hygiene. Should we have words with people about the way that they dress or their washing routines? Should we stop them attending if they fail to change their ways? Or people with learning difficulties or mental health needs - should we insist on certain abilities before they can get involved in anything. Or parents with children who cry or are fractious - should we ask them to leave their child with a relative or friend before they come to the service? Would we feel comfortable with supporting our actions by saying, 'We are meeting the needs of the congregation and not this individual?'

In society at large, at least in the UK, there is a general acceptance that not everyone fits into one box, that we are becoming a more diverse society and that people with a range of needs should be enabled to participate in mainstream society rather than be kept somewhere out of sight and out of mind. Shouldn't we be championing this? Shouldn't we be saying to people, within our communities we attempt to include all those who want to be included - it is part of our mission? Shouldn't we be reflecting on times in our lives when we have had significant difficulties and we feared that people would reject us or reject our family? And those of us who have never been in this place, shouldn't we be counting our blessings?

So when asked to make a choice between something that suits the theoretical 'whole' congregation or to allow for the meeting of individual needs, what might congregations say? I want flawless delivery and a slick production, I want to be assured that the quality of what I get is top notch. Or, I am here to experience the love of the eternal spirit, to feel that all are welcome here and to be actively supporting the participation of all who want to be involved in leading worship.  

I am glad that I am a member of a community which would, with one voice, say the latter.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Rocky roads

If we are truly taking the path less travelled then we are likely to hit some rocky situations. We are likely to trip, become tired and irritable, become lost and bewildered or just plain fed up. Perhaps we want to go back and take the other path, we're fed up with the challenges and the uncertainties. Except, of course, we can't. Living a life of faith means going where and when the spirit moves us.

When we are attempting to do this within a faith community we have to work out for ourselves how we deal with our frustrations - personal and community-focused. We are all called to have faith. Faith in the road - not necessarily any particular direction - but in the imperative to keep putting one foot in front of the other on this road.

However we deal with our frustrations we need to do this in love - with compassion for ourselves and our beloved companions. And with gratitude - because these glitches, these stumblings, these times when we say,'Hold on am I really in the right place?' or 'Am I really with the right people?' are times of grace. If we can hold to our authentic selves - if we can accept that usually (but not always) at least half of the problems stem from us - and if we can give ourselves time to travel within, then my experience tells me that the hard times and how they are dealt with herald real personal growth. For this we should indeed offer sincere thanks.

So how, within any group or community, do we make it OK for people to express their unhappiness without those hearing the words feeling defensive, hurt or helpless? I think that there probably are no rules apart from the need to accept as a community that this is OK. I have seen people walk away because of a piece of behaviour or one approach or some words said in anger or frustration. There are times when I have felt like doing this myself. And in some instances I have walked away from people and groups. But never in haste, never in anger and never without being certain that I get more pain than joy from the situation.

It is very difficult to deal with internal problems for communities which maybe only meet weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The storming can seem to go on for years when if we saw each other every day the storming would be over much more quickly. When I work with voluntary organisations experiencing difficulties I often advise them to go back to basics - to look at their governing document and their aims. In developing spiritual community we often need to return to our purpose - what we collectively and individually are within this community for. And perhaps sometimes we need to re-find our purpose. It can so easily get lost in the need to do things like looking after the building and focusing on growth in numbers.

There are times when we feel that our needs are not being met - perhaps we have changed or other people have. At this point we need to faithfully take the next step on the road, with our communities or not, as the spirit leads us, or in some cases as the spirit pushes us.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Communities as families

Sometimes communities can become like families. To some this can be comforting, to some stifling and to some exhausting. Those of us who seem to find ourselves effortlessly taking on a mothering role can find ourselves experiencing similar emotions to being at home. We value the role but could do without the added responsibilities. We can endlessly moan or we can do something ourselves to adjust how people perceive us and what we do. 

Some things are just simple little irritations. A small task force for an organisation that I chair has produced some papers for us all to read - one person is not on email. Thankfully I was not asked to print them out and send them but I was asked for the person's address. I have been sending out contact updates for the past three years and the last one was sent in February. Is it just easier to ask me than to look (echoes of having a child at home!) or can't they be bothered to file what I send them? Another example was with a planning application that will affect another organisation - I sent out the details asking others to comment directly to the council. Someone sent me their views asking me to submit them. Why? 

Some things are slightly more significant. Having just spent a congregational weekend alone - many people having originally been excited about the prospect and then one by one people dropping out - I have had a sharp lesson in how not to work within community. How not to go forward thinking that everyone is with you, thinking that because many people say that they are with you that they will be there at the end. Despite our communities being built on trust sometimes we need to formalise that a bit more. To make a commitment something that we sign up to. And in some cases something we hand money over to secure.

On Facebook a week or so ago there was a conversation about membership and one person seemed to be talking about it as if it was just one way - as a member you got something from your community. But in our communities membership is a mutual relationship - we take and we give. But they are not like families - there is no mother, no father - no-one is a child unless they are children. We must attempt to grow our communities as adults together - each of us experience difficulties in our lives and need a bit of help at times. But no-one should feel that they are only there to give, no-one should feel that they are only there to receive - it is about finding balance. Only then will all the flowers bloom in our metaphorical garden.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Divine stirrings

Last night we had our monthly Monday Gathering. It is attended by a small number of people - last night there were six of us. We have a theme and then the leader has music and words on that theme. Last night our Danny led us in 'that small voice within'. It was a great opportunity to consider whether we believe in such things which we may call divine guidance and eventually may lead us onto discussions about our conceptions of God/gods/the divine/ the non-material world. We had a discussion and one left and then another two. Three of us stayed behind and discussed further our own understandings and our own beliefs.

Sometimes it is such a relief to be talking about things of the spirit. Not everyone believes in a spiritual world in Unitarian communities and sometimes it is not a place that we dare to go to very often. Whilst it is great to spend time with people discussing how to behave, about social action or about inter-faith dialogue, sometimes, just sometimes I want to talk about spirituality. I want to experience the divine. The previous Monday Gathering had been just we three - all of us had concerns about our children - so we sat and focused on healing for ourselves and our children - it was powerful stuff.

It is this experience of something unknowable but very real, of connection and faith, which moves me and is what I came to church for. I use this term quite deliberately - church as a place to experience spirituality within community. I suspect that it is not possible to connect so profoundly in a larger group in particular as there are people who do not experience anything which may be called the divine. So we dilute our spiritual experience during the Sunday service - we need to ensure that all our comfortable. But we need to ensure that there are other opportunities to share more deeply with those whose understanding resonates with ours. 

It is this dichotomy - those who believe in the a divinity/a spirit world and those who don't - which impacts on my experience of religion and not the tensions between theologies which to me seem minor when we actually talk with each other about what we mean when we use the word God, or we talk of Jesus or Mary or the Buddha or whoever. Actually sharing a belief in the divine seems to me like a real bond. Although I think that it is probably when we talk that we fall out rather than when we take time to experience things together.

Long may my local community contain people who are moved by experiences of the divine. Long may it contain those who don't. And long may we continue to explore these things amicably together and amicably apart.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A sense of place

Local communities are about people. But is that all? 

It is interesting to note how many Unitarian websites have the picture of a building on their home page. I considered this for ours and decided against it - I wanted the community to appear to be bigger than just the building. I also purposefully chose the domain name 'staffordshire-unitarans.net' to denote that people came from all over Staffordshire (and some from Cheshire but that would make the name a bit long) and to denote a network rather than .org or .co for an organisation or a company. Perhaps people don't notice those things but it was important for me - I wanted the greatest flexibility and the greatest sense of inclusion.

And yet ... I was at the Meeting House yesterday with Barbara, cleaning up. We hadn't done it properly for a couple of months so although it was tidy it was a little grubby in corners. It looked lovely afterwards. I have to say that the Meeting House does make my heart sing and my soul smile. Some people are unemotional about buildings but I expect that the vast majority of us are very fond, perhaps even love, some buildings and not just our own homes.

Our Meeting House was built on a shoestring in 1717 so it is not per se a beautiful building. I am not a particularly visual person and cannot imagine any photograph could encapsulate what I feel about the Meeting House or the chapel within it. When we use the word 'home' we can feel a warm fuzziness full of emotional content. How would I encapsulate that for our beloved Meeting House? Perhaps I don't have to. Perhaps people have to experience it themselves.

So back to the original question - is a community just about people? I don't think so. It is about how humans and their sacred space interact. To some extent the building represents the continuity of the community. Whilst we may disagree about how much importance, time, effort and money we expend on our buildings, we recognise their importance to that thing that we call spiritual community.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

That multi-faceted jewel

It is often difficult to define what holds a local Unitarian community together let alone our national and international community. To be able to call ourselves a community we must share something.  As a faith community I would suggest that what we share is faith. But what does this mean?  

I recently read something which advertised us as a faith for all beliefs and none.  But does anyone exist without beliefs? Probably not - so is this about a belief in God? Either you believe in God or you don't (however you may describe God) - or you simply don't know. Is this statement saying that we are a faith for theists, agnostics and atheists? In this sense it is not a belief in God which identifies you as a Unitarian. But what does? 

The thing that communities share is the thing that not only includes but it also excludes. If not then we are describing humanity. As a Unitarian community we do not want to be there for everyone whatever their beliefs. There are clearly some beliefs which we do not accept - religious beliefs which we believe are inherently un-Unitarian. Which takes us back to an old chestnut - describing Unitarians by what we don't believe rather than by what we do.

If we are going to become more distinctive as a faith in these changing times we need to focus on what we are. The glue that makes the diversity of Unitarian experience, thought and belief coalesce into a meaningful whole. Whilst not all people who attend Unitarian services will call themselves Unitarians and whilst we have people with dual or multiple allegiances there is a core to our beliefs when we are in community. 

As I was sitting at our District Songs of Praise on Sunday, having been to my own community's Sunday morning service, I felt a real sense of community with people who I knew believed very different things from me. I sang hymns which I would not normally sing. Whilst singing the words I knew were meaningful to others I gave them my own meaning. I found great joy in being able to love what they loved.

As a glass half-full sort of a pragmatist I am aware that I see sun where many see shadows. Whilst I may not agree with people about Jesus' role in my own religious experience I can relate to the meaning that this gives to people's lives.  I can relate to hope, to love and to doing the right thing. I can relate to a sense of something more powerful than me.  I can relate to wanting to show reverence . 

This may not be enough for some people but for me it is what I value in our diverse community.  We try to find shared meaning and understanding - we try to find the ties that bind. We try to see past language and individual belief to the whole - that multi-faceted jewel of which we only glimpse a part.