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.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Leadership as service

Many of our problems in life come from how we communicate with each other - the giving of opinion and information and the receiving of both. Having just had a fairly controversial piece (on the 2020 Programme concerned with congregation planting) published in the Inquirer, it is fascinating to observe how people have interpreted it. The views that worry me are those who think that I am (a) being negative and (b) against change. 

It is always easier to make a sweeping judgement - we do these things all the time. I say 'we' because I see myself doing it. It is always easier to label the person that we don't agree with as 'other' - to give them characteristics that we don't consider ourselves to have ... being negative, anti-change, conservative, old-fashioned and so on. What this does is close down debate - if there is one.  On the issue that I have written about there has been no debate outside of the General Assembly's Executive Committee and staff, or if there has it has been carried out in private.

I could go on about this particular issue but this is not my point.  My point is about how we develop spiritual community. I will re-post a section from my other blog, Governance4Unitarians

The Charity Commission identifies six key principles for good governance. The last of these is being open and accountable. It says this

An effective board will provide good governance and leadership by being open and accountable.  The Board will lead the organisation in being open and accountable, both internally and externally. This will include:

  • open communications, informing people about the organisation and its work;
  • appropriate consultation on significant changes to the organisation’s services or policies
  • listening and responding to the views of supporters, funders, beneficiaries, service users and others with an interest in the organisation’s work;
  • handling complaints constructively and effectively; and
  • considering the organisation’s responsibilities to the wider community, for example its environmental impact.

Whilst, as someone remarked to me, we do not need to be driven by the Charity Commission in all that we do, I do think that as Unitarians we should welcome and promote open and accountable governance. In co-creating spiritual community we need to hear what people are truly saying; we need to try not to label them, as a way to argue against them, but engage with the issues;and those of us who lead our local or national communities need to be accountable.

As leaders, we are not just accountable for a bit of what we do, we are accountable for all of it. We are not at war with those that we lead, we are serving them.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Pastoral care

I visited one of our old members on Saturday.  I have not seen her for ages.  She was 99 the next day and has severe dementia.  She did not recognise me or even remember the Meeting House. I felt very sad as I sat with her, holding her hand, barely speaking.  She had a TV guide in front of her and was trying to make sense of it. The dates which were in the previous week did not help. I had written out a card and put her address on the envelope in case I hadn't had time to visit. She kept reading this and knew that the place was a home but did not recognise that that's where she lived. I slid it into my bag.

I have worked in social services and within communities but I have not come across dementia very much. I was concerned at my lack of knowledge and my being stumped in terms of how I might be able to help. Sometimes, probably most times, we just want to make things better. It seems to me that if we are to offer pastoral support that sometimes we need professional support. I thought that next time I might take some photos of when she attended the Meeting House but will that help?

I am moved to ask how we respond as communities when people are unable to connect with us, not because they don't want to but because they can't? Do they ever stop being one of us? We are fairly lucky although we only have a very part-time minister he does do pastoral visits and several other community members keep in touch with those who can no longer get to us. The National Unitarian Fellowship provides an opportunity to make links with others but that is perhaps a little impersonal for some. It is the human contact between people who have shared a worship space and a loving community.

Can all communities and congregations provide support to all its members that cannot get to services? What do we know about the needs for support at home or in residential care? Sometimes the support we are called to provide is to relatives. And then there is the sticky question of the funeral - although we all need to think about this I suppose. I would like to see us provide much more help in supporting the giving of pastoral care. I don't know what training ministers get but I haven't seen anything for lay people.

Pastoral care is love in action, often it goes unnoticed in the larger scheme of things, but always it is valued and very much appreciated.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Looking out or looking in

There has been a discussion on the closed Unitarian Facebook about whether our spiritual focus should be on us as a community or should have a more outward focus. I guess that my most fundamental question would be - if I belong to a faith community and I am expected to nourish others then where do I get my spiritual nourishment from? I write this as a compulsive giver. A compulsive giver who is worn out. A compulsive giver who reckons that she has to stop and accept nourishment from others - to be self-focused.

Maybe I should channel all my giving through my faith community but I don't.  I have been involved in volunteering for over three-quarters of my life.  It is a well-embedded compulsion! I probably spend two days a week on voluntary activity - as a minimum.  I write business plans, newsletters, maintain websites etc etc. What I want my faith community to do is to give me permission to stop - to walk with me as I recognise a harmful pattern of behaviour, as I try to change my approach to one of greater balance.

And here's the key - it's not about looking outwards or looking inwards, it's about the needs of the community and achieving balance. My experience of Unitarian faith communities is that they are full of doers.  Those people who volunteer, work unpaid overtime, care for family friends and neighbours, give their money to charities and generally try to be good citizens. It is not always about outreach sometimes it really is about healing ourselves. That may be seen as selfish. When we eat our dinners do we eat guiltily and nervously thinking that we should be feeding a hungry person rather than ourselves?  This is what it feels like.  It feels like I should feel guilty about wanting spiritual nourishment.

We cannot function as a faith community if everyone in that community is malnourished.  The function of a spiritual community is to provide spiritual nourishment. This world has plenty of opportunities to give of ourselves to others, sometimes it is perfectly OK just to do things for ourselves.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Learning to say, 'No'

I had a phone call yesterday from a member of our community asking me if I'd booked him a place at the Annual Meetings.  I hadn't.  The last discussion at a meeting at the end of January was for him to discuss with someone else about sharing our delegate allocation and for them to get on with it. A previous treasurer had done Annual Meetings bookings some years ago - but I am not the Treasurer.  He asked if I would now do the booking if the days were sorted out with this other man - I said that I wouldn't as they were perfectly capable of doing this themselves. The conversation then went onto general things - how was I? - tired - you always look tired, you do too much, you have to learn to say 'no' - well I have done that in this conversation haven't I?  The irony was not lost.

The previous week I had been at a sub-committee meeting as a visitor - it focuses on the building and I have avoided full-time involvement (because I do too much!). Anyway I had found it quite difficult to follow what works needed doing, which needed planning permission and which pots of funding could be used for what.  So prior to the meeting I had put my understanding of the work to be done in tables and emailed these to people asking people to amend them to accurately reflect the situation. One person printed them off, wrote his comments and sent the documents to me. At the meeting I said that this really wasn't very helpful as the expectation seemed to be that I would have to type this person's comments in.  I have already had similar conversations when I get handwritten stuff for the newsletter. The best bit was when I was told that I was now the only person who had these tables with these comments as if somehow I had engineered this.

Last year we had a meeting when someone suggested that we send a letter to support a campaign.  I then asked who would do this. Someone said that as I was secretary that I should do this.  I responded that just because I was secretary did not mean that everything that needed writing was my job and that I already had enough to do. No-one else came forward so the letter wasn't written.

On Sunday at a brief after-service meeting we had an issue with minutes. Although I am the secretary I am not the minute secretary and she was away. No-one said that they would do them so the chair agreed to note agreed actions. In the longer term we said that we would get a minute book.  Someone volunteered to take notes during the meeting if the minutes secretary was not there. I volunteered to scan the notes in and send them round. Someone else suggested that we do this for three months to see if it works better (including being quicker) than our current system. This might not be ideal but it might actually work for us.

And the point of all this? If there is someone(s) in your congregation that you are concerned about because you think that they do too much - don't expect them to give up something that doesn't impact on you to make their life easier. Encourage them to give up something that does impact on you. Take some of their burden away or at the very least don't add to it. And if you are the one who does a lot do try very kindly but firmly to tell people that you won't do whatever it is, that either they can do it, someone else has to do it, you pay someone to do it or it doesn't get done.

At some point I want to identify the work that needs doing to run our community and to detail who does what and when. It is difficult in small communities which have no paid administrative staff. At some point this may become a problem and if it does it needs working through - like our minute book.  We need to find solutions, which may not be ideal, but have a chance of working and of saving someone a job.

Ultimately if we are building community then we all have our overalls on at times - we all have to put some time and effort in. We also have to appreciate that somethings might not happen because although we may have the will, we don't have the wherewithal - not enough time, energy or ability. As ever we have to recognise that we are all in this together. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


It just so happens that it is St Valentine's Day today - whatever that may mean. I am a cautious supporter of commercialism as it provides jobs for many people. However commercialism can over-shadow thought and reflection about different seasons and special days. I have been mulling over this post for some time it just so happens that I am writing it today.

There has been some talk on national forums about the rights of existing congregation/community members and those of new people as if a rights-based approach is what guides our actions. Even if it did I am not sure who could define the rights of anyone within a congregation without also talking about people's responsibilities. New people coming into any group cannot have the same 'rights' as those who have been here a long time - what have they invested in the community? Our 'old timers' have spent years in service to their community washing dishes, cutting lawns, doing the accounts, attending hours of meetings, donating money, visiting sick people, writing newsletters etc etc. It is because of them that we are here, now with a spiritual community to belong to.

But this really is not the point - the point is love.  When we are in spiritual community with people we are creating right relationship with all of those we find ourselves with.  We are moving in the direction of love - sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is harder - but it is always the right thing to do. Can we say that we love people who we have known briefly or those we do know not at all (the closet Unitarians located somewhere near our building) as much as those people we have committed to loving over some/many years? If we truly love people then we want the best for them not just the sub-set of people who believe what we believe.

If we want to change and modernise and if we want to reach out as well as in then we must surely decide to do this together.  If we decide that the majority has it and we are going to make significant changes without taking people along with us, then are we really prepared to wound those people that we love, who love us and who love our community? There are ways to gently challenge, there are ways to ensure that we provide a range of spiritual and social offerings, there are ways to make our love real.  These things may slow down any process for change but they are fundamental - because love is fundamental.  I would not want to join a community which behaved otherwise.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Love, understanding and a supportive hand

The Unitarian spiritual community extends beyond our own congregational or local boundaries.  All local communities are part of a wider district and are all members of the General Assembly.  We take our place within international networks like the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.  What allegiance do we owe to any of these? Should we be compassionate in our actions and our words towards those we would call our spiritual bedfellows (or such like!). 

Facebook is a means of discussing issues with fellow Unitarians and those who are interested in it.  You might be forgiven for thinking that what goes on in the UK Unitarian Facebook group is a reflection of UK Unitarianism as it has 315 members but there are probably no more than 30 active, regular commentators.

In recent months we have lost some contributors because of the way that discussions have gone or what particular people have written.  Sometimes it is difficult to keep the faith when people make quite pointed or judgemental comments towards individuals - in particular if that individual is you.

I awoke this morning to find one particular post entitled 'This is the *rubbish* Unitarians say' thread. What should be in it?'  The word wasn't rubbish but let's gloss over that.  A fairly high profile Unitarian was inviting others to be critical of their fellow Unitarians. What was the purpose to this?  Was it to build community?  Was it to express compassion to our fellow Unitarians? Was it to explore what people think, to try to understand?  Was it a marketing ploy to increase the number of people attracted to Unitarianism?

It appears that what a question like this does is create a Unitarian universe where there are us and them.  Us - we - are good, forward- thinking, the saviours of Unitarianism in the UK today.  Them - they - are the ones who have questionable ideas, say bad things and are driving Unitarianism into oblivion.  This is a dualistic world.  This is a world of conflict.  This is a world where we look at the mote in everyone else's eyes but do not look at the mote in our own.

Thankfully only six people participated in this thread. One actually said, 'Every point of view is valid in its own way, whatever size.'  However this is an open group - anyone who has a Facebook account can see it.  Is this really what we want to be showing to the world - is this how we want to be 'marketing' Unitarianism?  'Hey, come join this group of people - some of whom talk rubbish and others who like to think that they don't and point the finger at those who they think do.'

I believe that I have said some startlingly daft things in the past and continue to do so.  I believe that I am full of contradictions and prejudice.  I believe that working in community I can become a better person.  Because I believe that about myself then I believe that about other people.  I do not grow by being sniped at or put down.  I do not grow by people picking on one thing that I have said and rubbishing that.  I do not grow by having those who consider themselves better than me lecturing me.  I grow when people show me love, understanding and a supportive hand.  

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


There is something about history that either turns people off or turns people on. I have to say that it intrigues me. Not the big stuff but the little things about how people lived, their relationships and the influences upon them. It makes me wonder how much of what I am is because of when and where I was born.

But like it or not some of us have to take account of history because we own historical buildings.  As ever I think that if you have something then you have to make it work for you.  History works for us because it brings people into our building.  We participate in Heritage Open Days and we have a link with a very popular local historian who has done talks in our building.  We are currently working on a service about the Titanic.  

There are local connections, Captain Smith was born in Stoke-on-Trent which is down the road and Thomas Andrews, the designer who went down with the ship, and many of the directors of Harland and Wolff who built the ship, were Unitarians/Non-Subscribers. Some of us will find this intrinsically interesting but others may just see it as an opportunity to get some media coverage and to potentially have new people visit our building.

I think that history has lessons to teach us.  One of the problems with the Titanic was its size - this was celebrated as a wonderful feat of engineering but captains and their crews were not used to steering such large boats.  Captain Smith had already had one accident in a previous boat that he had captained - but apparently this was not unusual.  So does innovation always come with increased risk? I suspect that it does.

The other thing that strikes me about the Titanic disaster was the way that the lives of those with money were thought to be more valuable than those without.  I hope that things have changed and that this is less so these days.  It has not completely disappeared and I expect that we can all think of cases where this is not true. But this is one of the things that history usually does, it makes me feel gratitude.  Grateful that I was born at a time and in a place of plenty and comfort.

I suppose then we have to ask the question,'If I have so much, what must I give in return to those less fortunate?'  From those that have to those who do not. Which brings me round nicely to another debate that we are having about our charitable giving.  But that is food for another blog post.

Access - the larger picture

We are currently debating the use of our building, and its accessibility.  With a few modifications the physical access would be considerably improved. But of course physical access is not the be all and end all of access. In the main physical access is less important than communication access - if you don't know what's going on then you are not likely to try to get to the place. As a community which attempts to be inclusive we need to ensure that we make ourselves aware of a range of needs and how we can best help people.

I have worked in social care and in community development so have some understanding of the range of needs that we may experience ourselves or encounter. Apart from direct physical access they include

  • Having the correct information in a timely manner;
  • Having the information in accessible formats;
  • Having transport;
  • A nearby bus-stop;
  • Clear signage;
  • Times of services;
  • The language used;
  • Support from people with children;
  • Having hymns in large print;
  • Good lighting;
  • Having a loop system; 
  • Having an accessible toilet; and
  • Specific dietary needs. 

We already do things to ensure that the place and our community are accessible. This ranges from helping people with lifts; to ensuring that everyone gets information, at times putting that information onto CD; printing out large print hymns; and generally trying to ensure that people are included. Often people with specific needs are most affected by attitudes.

If we as a community are to be committed to accessibility then we must look very broadly at what this means and then commit, every one of us, to doing something about it.

Here are a few websites which might be helpful



Monday, 9 January 2012

New Year - reality hits!

Our first service of the New Year and we were exploring what we do as a community to make our faith real in the world.  I guess one of the questions that we have to ask is, 'Do people join a faith community to take part in social action?'  There has been some discussion on the comments of a UUA (Unitarian Universalist in the US) blog with some saying they did. And some saying that what they do in terms of social action is quite separate although they would be happy to share what they do with their fellows.

I certainly didn't join a faith community to get involved in social action - this was one area of my life which was well developed.  I have been volunteering since I was 12 and I'm now 57.  Apart from maybe three years I have been actively volunteering my whole adult life. I have been a Unitarian for 12 of those years. This is not to say that we shouldn't participate in social action as a community but for me my personal choices about where I give my time volunteering are already well-established and currently difficult to change. 

The question then might be, 'What do we define as social action?'  Is it always about what we do outside of our communities or is it also about what we do within our communities?  We have had a difficult few years with many people experiencing significant bereavements and health and disability issues. Much of our attention has been within rather than without. We have been living out the tenet that charity (love) begins at home. Although 2012 looks a bit brighter there are still some issues - and some of these can be dealt with by working on the building to make it more accessible.  But more of this later.

So social action/witness can include to my mind how we help each other.  It may include how we use our non-human resources - our building and our money. It can also be about how we use our human resources - our skills, our time and our compassion.

I then want to ask the question, 'What does our community have to offer which is particular to a faith community, to our faith community?' We did find our way to this and came up with

  • Our building
  • Our open faith and belief in religious tolerance
  • Our willingness to make alliances with other, like-minded organisations - we have already had an approach from the regional worker for Friends of the Earth via Facebook
  • Our connections which already exist for example with the inter-faith forum and the IARF
  • Our ability to influence our district and the General Assembly
  • Our connections with other Unitarians elsewhere in the country
  • Our skills, abilities and experience for example we have a registrar within our community who is going to find out about registering our building for civil partnerships; and we would like to start offering healing services
  • Our existing approach to charitable giving
  • Our goodwill 
Driving home I reflected that we had drifted into a solutions focused approach.  Whilst I felt that I needed to put a marker down to say that I was unable to commit much new time to anything.  As one of the people who lives closest, who handles the lettings as well as all the secretarial duties, I am aware of the work that goes into just keeping us going let alone taking on something new.  I am also aware that if we commit to something we have to do it which often takes more time than we at first estimate.

So focusing on what we have and being honest about what we don't, we have come up with some suggestions.  Perhaps we have not come up with something as big and as bold as some of our local faith communities but we have continued a debate that we started last year and come up with some real actions. We will also keep talking about this.

So to our building - we are hoping to make it more accessible and to make a second lettable space.  This will impact on the lives of those who use our building as a member of our faith community and those who just want a cheap place to hold meetings. It may be seen as a distraction but our physical space is a key element to our community.  it reflects us and our values.  It always takes much longer than anticipated to get these things done.  

I am glad that we started 2012 looking out but recognise the reality that the sum total of what we do in 2012 will be very similar to what we did in 2011. 

May 2012 bring us renewed commitment and patience to achieve our goals; the will to achieve these goals together; the will to achieve these goals together in good faith with good will; and a renewed commitment to a life serving others - our loved ones and strangers, who as they say, are just friends we've yet to meet.