How British Unitarianism Compares to American Unitarian Universalism (Guest Blog Post)


My friend and former seminary classmate, Bob Janis-Dillion, Partnership Minister of the Merseyside Unitarian Ministerial Partnership in Northwest England, serving congregations in Warrington, Bryn, and Chester. He recently attended the annual meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. I asked about to reflect upon how the British Unitarians’ annual meeting compares to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. He was generous enough to put together this guest blog post:

Colin asked me if I might compare and contrast the UK Unitarian General Assembly and the UUA General Assembly in the US, as one of a number of people who has attended both. It’s a good question, and I’m happy to do so, with apologies to all my non-Unitarian/UU friends for who this will surely be boring shop talk. To spice it up, you might try randomly substituting words like “Donald Trump”, “The X Factor” and “enthusiastic bouts of uninterrupted joy” for words like “lead workshop” “Executive Committee” and “plenary”. But I’m not sure even that will work.

So the short answer is that the two General Assemblies are pretty similar. It’s the same mix of earnestness, ideas, grumbling, wondering, and coffee. It features the same rather disheartening revelation that you haven’t been outside in about three days, and the same thrill of seeing old friends that you only see…well, to be honest a few of them you see quite a bit, but it’s always a pleasure. The structure of the week is much the same: a banner parade and opening celebration, assorted worships and workshops, hours and hours of plenary-palooza, and mostly mingling. The ministry day before the main conference was almost identical in form to its American counterpart. Also, as someone remarked to me, it’s roughly the same cast of characters at both General Assemblies. Once you’ve been there a while, you pretty much know what the person walking up to the yes-, no-, or non-sequitor microphones is going to say.

Differences? Well, there is the fairly obvious difference in size, as the English version boasts hundreds, rather than thousands, of attenders. UK Unitarianism is small enough that many are audibly wondering whether – and how long – it will survive. So from this dicey predicament, there’s a tendency to look at the UUA as a bastion of strength and organisational power. Which feels rather odd, after attending so many UUA General Assemblies where people voice their own concerns about the future of the movement. I get a lot of, “your congregations out there in the US are quite large, aren’t they?” and those sorts of invitations to boasting (note to Americans: you’re supposed to politely demur at this stage, of course, but if you want to have fun go ahead and say, “you bet they are, they’re huuuuuge.”) There are advantages to the small size: you get to know everyone fairly quickly, and conversely you get known fairly quickly. Unlike the US, there are relatively few complaints about someone being “left aside by the powers that be” because pretty much everyone gets chosen for leadership sooner or later – in fact, it’s hard to avoid getting signed up for some role or another. It’s close to the feel of a UU District, in that regard. The GA is small enough that everyone eats together in the same room for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner, by the way, is three courses and lasts well over an hour. This whole American concept of scarfing down your food in five minutes, then rushing off to answer a few emails? Not so much. England is much more European in that regard. I hear the yearly Greek Unitarian General Assembly is just one four-days-long meal. And yes, I just made that up, and no, I don’t mind being a founding member of the Greek Unitarian General Assembly on that basis.

Before I crossed the pond, I was warned that the Unitarian GA could be a bit doom and gloom, and yet also lacking in solutions. But I’ve found there has been quite a bit of energy and enthusiasm, both this year and last. There are a lot of amazing people in this movement. Some have been Unitarian for seventy or eighty years and are not only open to new ideas, they’re actively empowering others to lead them. Stalwarts and renegades share a pint at the bar, and decide that the future of the world is what’s really important. Amongst my beloved colleagues in the ministry (for whom I pledge my admiration for their support, continued inspiration, rather bizarre career choice), there is a good crop of some really talented folks who have qualified in the last few years. I really do feel providence’s hand that I get to be here at such a time, and consider myself much luckier than I deserve.

Other random observations: the British, supposedly so reserved, will get up and dance in the middle of a worship service, if prompted (and it was a big group, so they can’t have ALL been the Welsh). There also is a relatively light-hearted streak; it’s the first time I’ve heard someone boo one of the hymns (we hadn’t sung it well, to be fair). The conversations around God-language, our Christian heritage and identity, and our theological core are very familiar from a UU standpoint, yet also made very different by a very different history and context – give me a year or two, and maybe I’ll try to delve into this further. Finally, the Brits drink slightly more tea, and slightly less coffee. I’m not sure how important this one is, but the Department of Transatlantic Tropes would surely haul me in for questioning if I didn’t mention it.

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