British Unitarians rally to save faith from extinction

British Unitarians rally to save faith from extinction

‘Growing Unitarianism’ movement seeks to reverse decline and promote excitement.

Donald E. Skinner
Unitarians in London gathered next to an image of 18th century Unitarian writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

Unitarians in London gathered next to an image of 18th century Unitarian writer Mary Wollstonecraft. The image was created recently on the side of the Unitarian Chapel in Newington Green in north London, where efforts are underway to raise money for a statue of Wollstonecraft. (© Andy Pakula)

© Andy Pakula


The Unitarian faith in Great Britain has a long and storied past, dating to Joseph Priestley and the religious dissenters who preceded him. The challenge now is to ensure that it has a future.

Unitarian congregations in Great Britain—and they are all Unitarian, rather than Unitarian Universalist—have dwindled to a point where their survival will take a major effort, maybe even a culture shift.

The average Unitarian congregation in Great Britain has 21 members. There are only two congregations with more than 100 members. In the whole country there are 3,600 Unitarians in 173 congregations. Compare this to the time around World War I when there were approximately 50,000 Unitarians.

There are many reasons for the decline. Some of them will be familiar to North American Unitarian Universalists. People are comfortable with their small intimate societies. There’s a lack of visibility for many congregations. There are too few ministers. Worship services can be uneven. Then add the fact that religion is just a much smaller part of the common culture than in North America, even though Great Britain has a state-sponsored religion, the Church of England. An estimated 6 percent of people attend church regularly in Great Britain compared to around 40 percent in the United States.

Fearful that the once thriving Unitarian movement might literally die out in Great Britain, a group of Unitarians, including the Rev. Andy Pakula, the minister of a London congregation, has launched a movement, called 2020—Growing Unitarianism in Great Britain, to draw people into the faith. 2020 is on a mission to raise money, which will be used to fund individual applications that may lead to growth.

Pakula believes growth is possible, and that it starts with Unitarians themselves. “Our intention is to get people excited. And creative,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid thinking there is one single good model for growth. We want people to create projects that fit in their local context. Each project has to figure out how to reach an audience.”

He adds, “If Unitarianism means something to us shouldn’t we share it with as many people as we can?”

There is reason for hope. His own congregation, New Unity, in North London, was down to six people with no money and no prospects a few years ago, according to Pakula. Then it brought in a student minister who asked for a free hand.

Said Pakula, “By the time he left there were 35 people, in part because the minister was an active leader in the Iraq antiwar movement.” Pakula was called by the congregation in 2006. Since then it has grown to more than 100 mostly young adults.

“In a secular culture there’s a very strong appetite for finding meaning, creating a better world, and supporting each other,” Pakula said. “That’s how we present it. The word church is a big turnoff, keeping a lot of people from even considering religion. But a vast number find what we do appealing when you get past that boundary.”

Growth potential

Pakula said the movement is in a “chicken-and-egg death spiral. We don’t have enough ministers, but also not enough congregations to pay them. And without ministers we’re getting smaller and smaller.” He said there are 40 to 50 active ministers, many serving multiple congregations.

He believes the greatest growth potential may be in starting new congregations and in “substantially renewing” others. He emphasized that 2020 will also serve and support existing congregations.

2020 began a drive early this year to raise £100,000 ($152,000) to fund a first round of growth projects. With £50,000 already in hand from the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the organization of congregations, it took two months to raise another £50,000. It is now raising even more money.

Pakula said that preliminary proposals for growth will be accepted immediately, with full applications due next summer or fall. He said 2020 hopes to fund the first growth project by next January. He said 2020 will be happy to accept American dollars, but the fundraising campaign is being conducted primarily in Britain.

Congregations in urban areas would seem to have more potential for growth, Pakula said, but the money will go to “any applications that make sense.” The 2020 vision calls for applicants for funding to propose “a compelling vision,” including plans for leadership, visibility, outreach, events, and worship. Funding is intended to be sufficient to start a congregation, including possibly paying leadership and renting space.

The growth of one congregation in a semi-rural area outside of Birmingham illustrates what’s possible, Pakula said. The area has an elderly population, and the minister of the Unitarian church is reaching a lot of people through funerals. “If you want a liberal Christian funeral, he’s your man,” Pakula said. “He does four or five a week. Every time he does one more, people find out about Unitarianism. They’re also involved with groups for children and women and scouts. They get 70 people on a Sunday now.”

Social justice is a big part of what attracts people, Pakula said. Unitarianism can offer a dramatic counterpoint to positions taken by Great Britain’s state-sanctioned religion, for example. “The Church of England is always giving us opportunities to say something quite different, for example, than, ‘There should be no female bishops.’”

He said his own congregation has had great success in attracting young adults by “saying yes when people want to do something new, not forcing them onto committees, being relatively informal, minimizing time spent on process and speaking out for causes like feminism and marriage equality.” And being active social media users. Pakula said he has 27,000 Twitter followers. His congregation has 6,000. “We share a lot, especially about social justice,” he said.

And just as in the United States, there’s more to growth than getting people through the doorway. “This is about us preparing to do things differently in our congregations,” Pakula said. “When a visitor shows up will he find a service that morning? Will there be a minister? Will a visitor be welcomed, and will she see someone like herself?”

He acknowledged that while many Unitarians support 2020, some do not. There are some who are reluctant to see any money going to anything new. And some that might like to see their congregation grow by five, but not by 50. He said he’s comfortable with what he’s doing, even if everyone may not be on board. “I’d rather rock the boat than let it sink,” Pakula said. “Our main message is the British Unitarian movement was a glorious, wonderful, important thing, and now it’s in very dire circumstances. But there is life in it and here is a real chance for it to come back to life in a real and relevant way for the 21st century. And there may be something for the U.S. to learn in what we do.”

Entrepreneurship needed

Some North American UUs have taken notice of the British situation. The Rev. Dr. Fred Muir, senior minister of the UU Church of Annapolis, Md., noted it in his Berry Street Essay delivered to ministers at a conference before General Assembly 2012 in Phoenix, Ariz. He wondered if British Unitarianism might be the “canary in the coal mine” that North American congregations should pay heed to. He suggested that without changes British Unitarianism might have about three generations before it dies. He asked, “How far are we North Americans from teetering on this point?”

The Rev. Jim Robinson, now minister of the Unitarian Church of Sharon, Mass., served the Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in London for six years prior to his call to Sharon in 2010. While there, he did a number of workshops on growth. “I think what British Unitarianism needs for growth is a stronger sense of entrepreneurship, which is what the 2020 campaign is encouraging. I found that people would get excited about small ideas, but not big ones. There is a fear of losing their close-knit communities, just as there is here in this country,” Robinson said.

In Britain the average membership fee is about £35 ($53) annually. Many congregations get by through renting out their buildings and with endowments. “I don’t know of many congregations there with a pledge campaign. Without a stable financial base it is hard to grow,” Robinson said. “On the other hand, British Unitarianism has so many wonderful strengths and talented members that with some new ideas and funding it could double its membership in the next 10 years. 2020 is definitely worth a try. Everyone hopes it works.”

Bunker mentality

The Rev. David Usher, District Minister for London District & South Eastern Provincial Assembly, said he is hopeful that British Unitarianism can reverse its long period of decline. He noted there was an earlier “but less ambitious” initiative in the 1980s, The Development Commission, which had limited success. “2020 is more likely to succeed because the groundwork being done and the conditions being set for congregations to qualify are more rigorous,” he said.

Congregations will need to change, Usher said, and that is difficult for some. “Many British Unitarians, while saying they want growth, are deeply fearful of making the changes necessary to make it happen. Instead, they have adopted a bunker mentality of clinging on in the hope that something external will reverse their fortunes.”

Usher said that the British congregations that are growing and thriving are doing so for specific reasons. “In all cases, this is because there is competent leadership (sometimes ministerial, sometimes lay) and a vision for something greater in the future than mere acceptance of what is. Congregational growth is a learned skill, and British Unitarians are capable of learning new skills.

“Having ministered in the U.S. as well as in the U.K., and therefore being aware of the cultural differences, I know that it takes twice as much work in the UK to achieve half the results than it does in the States, so the results might never be spectacular. But I remain convinced that if and when British Unitarians rediscover their sense of mission to the world, and shun the notion that a congregation is no more than a cozy gathering for the comfort of the few, it will return to a position of health and strength,” Usher said.

Spiritual hunger

The Rev. Bill Darlison, a retired Unitarian minister who on April 14 became president of Great Britain’s General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, supports 2020 and he believes a majority of Unitarians do as well. He also believes they are willing to do the work necessary to grow.

“We need to look at our fundamental message to see how it could be made more appealing,” Darlinson said. “We’ve become a kind of fringe political body taking up liberal causes like gay rights and animal welfare. The people outside the church who agree with us either have a religion or don’t care to have one. They don’t need to go to church to hear a preacher tell them gay people should have the right to get married.”

Darlison was minister of a Dublin congregation for 14 years. He said it was “rather small” when he began, and grew to a membership of 300. In part that was because religion is more a part of the culture in Ireland, but beyond that the church grew because it focused on religion, not politics, he said. “When I arrived there I quickly realized I didn’t know anything about Irish politics and so I talked about other things. To some extent that’s what worked.”

He added, “Is there spiritual hunger in Great Britain? I’d have to say yes. Over Easter 700 people became Catholics in one diocese despite the terrible press the Catholic Church has gotten. When some of them were interviewed they said they wanted depth. That’s the answer. It’s no good becoming as wide and broad as we can. We have to find a way to go deep so people will gain insights into their own lives. And they don’t want to just be told they’re free to find it themselves. They want to know where we stand on things like prayer—how and why one does it. What is meditation and what does it achieve?”

There are ministers who are showing success, Darlinson said. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to do what is required to have a successful Unitarian movement. I honestly feel the mechanisms are in place to make a transformation.”

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