Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The expression of joy

You may have read Sue Woolley's article in the Inquirer at the beginning of February about her visit to a Baptist church which led to her assertion that many Unitarian services lack joy. On our walk last weekend one of our community mentioned this and said, 'She should come to visit us'. The weekend before we had had visitors who remarked afterwards in an email to me, 'You've got an interesting, lively group at Newcastle, haven't you?' I responded, 'Yes we do lively rather well in Newcastle'.

I know that lively does not necessarily equate to joyous and I also know that we are not always lively and full of energy. However I would say that we tend to be more joyous than less most times that we meet or communicate. We don't raise our hands and shout 'hallelujah' but we often participate in services and we value emotion as a means of experiencing the divine - however we conceive of this.

I remember a discussion once in some Unitarian forum and the issue of clapping the organist was raised. One person said that it was inappropriate to do this. I said that it was not for any of us to say what happens in other people's communities - each community must decide for itself. We don't routinely clap our organist but if he delivers a particularly vigorous performance at the end of the service many of us are moved to show our appreciation and warmth towards him - he has after all been separated from us, sitting on the balcony throughout the service. This may not suit everyone but it suits us. We also sing happy birthday to people with birthdays coming up in the next week or two (we have two weeks between services). I like this but many would not.

One thing that I particularly value is how our community can go from joyous participation to quiet reflection in no more than a few seconds. It is as if we are attuned to the ebb and flow of the service and respect its rhythms and our part in making this 'heartbeat'. Silence is all the more noticeable after a period of boisterous communication.

Sue's article has reminded us that we should be mindful about how we are as communities. How do we know that we are being the best communities that we can be? Is laughter and active involvement of those sitting in the pews to be frowned on or welcomed? How do we balance the need for quiet and the need for words, music, singing and discussion? I suppose like many of us have already done, we look to other traditions and see what we can borrow and how we can shape that to suit ourselves.

We need to take a few more risks - perhaps? To try new ways of worship and to allow people to miss the mark. In a loving community which seeks to develop there must be courage and trust and the understanding that unless we try things we might not know what works and what doesn't. We must then be honest enough to say if something doesn't work for us. But also to have the commitment to others by appreciating that some approaches, which may not suit us, actually do suit others. We give a little and we take a little.

May we go forward with a little more adventure in our souls.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Thinking about the other

I had a phone call today - couldn't quite make it out, something about rents and housing benefit. It was a young woman - she did not introduce herself, she just launched into asking me this indistinct question. On second hearing it still made no sense so I asked her who she thought that she was talking to - thinking she'd got the wrong number. So she asked if I rented out properties and when I responded, 'No,' she said, 'Well you should have said that in the first place' and put the phone down.

I shouted an expletive to a dead line. Who on earth did she think she was? On calming down and after having said a silent apology to my neighbours, I reflected a while. I imagined that she was a young woman in a job that she didn't like, phoning up strangers and feeling less than confident. I began to feel sorry for her and perhaps a little empathy. I have certainly done jobs that I wasn't very keen on and felt that I didn't have the confidence to carry off the tasks I was charged with doing. Especially in my younger days. I was beginning to feel a little motherly towards this woman whom I had had the briefest of telephone encounters with.

Perhaps this was just a story that I had made up and perhaps it was far from the truth but the issue is that we often don't know the story of the person that we are interacting with. We don't know how much we have in common and we don't know what we might feel for them if we did know their story. And often we don't even know our own motivations.

In my fifties I now have a sense of being a bit of a mother hen - trying to look out for young people. It is a persona that I have grown/am growing into and feel comfortable with. I remember as an 18-year old on a rag (charity) hitch around the country with a friend, being picked up on our first night - a Friday - and taken back to lodge with our kind driver. He and his wife must have been in their sixties (or perhaps fifties - most people seem older when you are 18). Their children had left home - they had ample room for guests and it sounded like they were used to accommodating a houseful of young people. They fed us and looked after us like we were one of theirs - and we'd only just met them having begged a lift.

Now I have a sense of how they felt - they were parenting all the young people that they came across because they liked doing it - being with young people gave them a buzz and perhaps made them feel useful. Again I am making up the story. But that's how we understand the world through stories - real and imagined. I now feel a sense of kinship across the decades with these generous people and hope that I can show similar love and concern to complete strangers.

And so I wonder still about the young woman at the other end of the phone and hope that she can find a way to making phone calls which don't upset people, don't leave a sour after-taste and also don't elicit sympathy. Perhaps feeling sorry for her was not the best feeling but for me it was the best that I could do. That is the real trick to respect - turning feelings of sympathy to feelings of real connection and respect. To do this I think that we have to get to know one another.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Strangers and familiars

Current debates about multi-culturalism remind me that the growth of the community that we call the UK is not just people soaking up knowledge about what it is to be British but is also about recognising that they come to our country with their own identity and culture. Our own culture changes over time and this development is made richer by people with different cultures coming to live in the UK. Multi-culturalism should be about confidence in our core British culture which is enriched by the cultures of the people coming in from the rest of the world.

In Unitarian communities it is easy to see newcomers as empty vessels coming to us to be filled. It is almost as if their lack of knowledge of Unitarianism and/or of the local community reflects their lack of knowledge full-stop. Rationally we know this is not the case. I would hope that we really don't think this but when people are new and soaking up the newness of the experience, we do need to remember that they are already full - full of all sorts of other things.

Perhaps it's a timing thing - perhaps in the early days it's about feeding the hunger to find out about Unitarianism and the local community. But as people become more comfortable and confident in their Unitarianism we should be asking them, 'What uniquely do you bring to us and what would you like to see developed and changed?' - this is not a one time question but a continuing conversation. I also think that this is not just with newcomers.

When we talk about being hospitable and compassionate towards people we are usually talking about how we are with strangers. Those of us who have had problematic relationships with our families know that being compassionate with strangers is a breeze compared to being compassionate towards some of our family members. And so it is with our communities - listening to the needs and concerns of newcomers can be much easier than doing the same with established members.

Developing communities is a finely balanced approach of recognising the needs of all, the different stages that we are all at and that we all need to give as well as receive. Our culture as a faith community should, I think, have a common thread running through time which reflects our values. How it develops is down to us all - may we all have the confidence to participate in this and the confidence to embrace change.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


When we have a fifth Sunday we do something different - it may be a discussion or it may be trying out a new way or worshipping or it may be a workshop. We borrowed this idea from Martha's Vineyard UUA church where their fifth Sundays are musical events - well they were a few years ago when I visited. There tend to be many fewer people at ours but it is good for those who do attend to have a more intimate experience to explore some aspect of their spiritual lives.

Last Sunday was a fifth Sunday and I led a discussion/workshop on personality using the Myers Briggs Inventory (MBI) with insight from others who have written on personality. The MBI takes four personality preferences -

* where we primarily direct our energy and where we get our energy from - the external (E) or our internal (I) worlds;
* how we process information - through concrete and observable facts in the here and now (S) or through internal reflection with more of a focus on the future and possibilities (N);
* how we prefer to make decisions - through logical and rational thought (T) or based on feelings and values (F); and
* how we organise our lives - in structured way with clear decisions (J) or in a flexible way discovering things as you go along (P).

No one is completely one preference or the other - it is all shades but most of us have a preference. These four preferences E or I + S or N + T or F + J or P gives us a four letter personality type and there are 16 in all. No one personality type is better than any other and research has shown that the best groups are made up of a variety of personality types. Sometimes if we are fairly balanced in our preferences it can be hard to decide what best describes us but that's why a group is good to discuss how we are each experienced by others.

We discussed what our personality type meant for us as individuals and how we approach our spiritual lives; how we might design the services that we may deliver to be more inclusive and then the danger of trying to be all things to all people and losing ourselves in the process; the 'grip' experiences when we are stressed and whether we can learn how to deal with stress a little better; and the ways that we might try to bring more balance to our lives.

We then looked at our own community and whether we could determine what sort of 'personality' the whole community may have and what this meant in times of stress for us all; how we might overcome such stresses and how we may become more balanced.

Whilst there were only six of us we had a good go at doing this and began to appreciate how we are as a community. It gave us some pointers as to how we might try to move things forward - we decided that we definitely needed to be better at making decisions.

Whilst it is not a perfect tool and some may be sceptical of its use with groups it was a good way to get discussion going, to appreciate what we do and what we don't and to pinpoint, in a non-blaming way, what may need to change if we are to become a little more balanced. We also decided that in some areas there were some clear strengths which we wanted to protect and promote.

Ultimately doing anything like this is about group rather than personal responsibility and taking 'corporate' responsibility for the weaknesses that may be observed. It is about being open to using different tools to move forward as a faith community - putting faith in the active processes of people interacting much more than the particular approach that is taken.

Referring to the thrust of the blog - this is about community development. To develop anything it is necessary to know what that thing is - I don't think it matters how we do that but it does matter that we do do it.