British Unitarian and Free Christian numbers

Blogger and Unitarian minister Andy Pakula divided church giving by the standard capitation to make a working — if by his own estimation, highly inaccurate — census of inland churches affiliated with the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.

I think it becomes somewhat less inaccurate — particularly to those who may have an accurate count — if these are seen as a jumbled quantification of membership numbers, wealth, institutional capacity and warm feelings towards the general fellowship. Or at least this is based on my experience in the United States when I review Annual Program Fund giving. In particular, I would love to know how the Christian Unitarian and Free Christian churches stack up. (It seems the Welsh-language churches have problems in fact or in relationships.)

And in my scant experience in London. When Hubby and I honeymooned there in 2003, we bypassed the usual tourist church options and attended Sunday services at the Unitarian church in Brixton. A wonderful welcome, and a delightful service with a significant congregation, but now registers with zero members.

Now, for the numbers, as a mental exercize: assuming these numbers were correct, most of the 169 British churches would be ineligibly small (under 30 members) to join the Unitarian Universalist Association, and many would be too small to join under the old rules (10 members). Only one — Rosslyn Hill Chapel in American-expat-heavy Hampstead — is bigger than “small,” or having 150 members or fewer. This makes me doubt any significant numbers of foreign ministers can be tempted to settle there, and I’d say the same if every membership value was doubled. (That said, Rosslyn Hill has a vacancy, and it has had American ministers.)

I’ve also made the data into a handier spreadsheet, though be sure to note corrections at the original post.

One Reply to “British Unitarian and Free Christian numbers”

  1. My experience of the Unitarian church in Britain – an experience I stopped around 3 years ago – is that they are generally elderly congregations of around 20, inhabiting very old, often formerly grand buildings. Well-meaning but quite dispiriting for young people looking for an inclusive Christian fellowship. There are a few exceptions, such as Cross Street Chapel Manchester which occupies a more modern setting, but the denomination is now a long way down the road to extinction.

    I heard one minister once say that although the denomination officially puts figures at 6000-8000, the reality is there are only 1500 full committed week-in, week-out.

    I think this is sad but also inevitable because the movement has for a long time lost a sense of mission. People in our multi-racial, multi-cultural and often multi-language are looking for identity, community, a sense of purpose, a place to explore our existence, and an alternative to a purely materialistic existence – but it’s not the Unitarians that offer this. In Britain, it is groups like the emergent churches, Buddhist centres and some Pagan groups that are growing through ‘conversion’ type recruitment. Islam is often cited as the fastest growing religion in Britain but this is largely due to higher birth rates amongst poorer immigrant communities rather than large-scale conversion.

    Standing now as an outsider looking in, it seems there have been some positive developments within the Unitarian denomination to try start growth – the UCA did become a little more active around 2005/2006 time and there are ministers like Stephen Lingwood who seem to have energy – but it’s perhaps too late for a wholescale revival.

    Also, it’s interesting to note some Unitarians presenting themselves as ‘UK Spirituality Network’ – – perhaps this points to some already thinking one step ahead of the extinction of the GAUFCC, consciously or unconsciously.

    I think the lamp of ‘Inclusive Christianity’ will continue in the UK as the Quakers are still active, and there are many churches scattered across the Anglican, United Reformed, Methodist, Baptist spectrum that offer such a Christianity. In these you’ll find non-Trinitarians and other dissenting types.

    It’s a shame to see the explicit Unitarian voice go but for me, I’ve long been at a ‘Free Christian’ position – Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis helped me get over the Trinity and other doctrinal issues, by arguing that they are ‘springs’ that can help you jump further into a relationship with God (but also might not) – that they are flexible and able to bend. Of course, not all Christians would accept this but I think many churches in Britain these days do take a similar position.

    I think at ground level, England in particular has long been a place where religious fervour doesn’t exist, more of a quiet personal sense of spirituality. The Unitarians could have tapped into this had they had the foresight and resilience to stick to some of their key principles during the ‘hippy years’ of the 60s and 70s when many things were questioned and critiqued. The 80s Thatcher generation which has now reached adulthood / prominence in our society is very different I feel – looking more for answers, rather than endless questions.

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