Chief Officer's Christmas Message

Coming to the end of 2020, it feels like there is the need to reflect on all that has happened, all that has been thrown at us this year. And yet, while we are still in the thick of pandemic, it hardly feels the time to reflect just now. There is still a lot more learning ahead of us.

The life of every congregation, and of every member has been turned upside-down this year, and people have made extraordinary things happen, large and small, while deep in uncertainty.

It’s clear that after such big changes this year, whatever emerges in 2021 won’t be a return to how things were before March. There is an opportunity to let go of the things we want to leave behind, and take forward some of the new things we have discovered in 2020.

This will be the case for us as individuals, for our congregations, and for our movement as a whole. It may be that with the wider reach of online worship, more new people have taken part in their first Unitarian service this year than for many decades. We also know that many congregations have lost significant income, and that for some the challenges of pandemic have increased the likelihood of closure. And we have seen collaborations spring up that would have felt constrained by geographical boundaries back when meeting in person was the norm; no doubt the Zoom genie will not be put totally back in the bottle, and we will continue to weave virtual connections across our movement.

As we all start getting vaccinated, and can begin to imagine being with loved ones safely, the shapes of our lives will be shifting again. I miss so much that I took for granted before March (sometimes I even miss travelling on the Tube) but I know that the future won’t involve turning the clock back. It’s clear that the impact of this pandemic will be felt for a long time to come, particularly through the economic hardship that it is bringing to so many people, and the deep-set social inequalities it has highlighted. It has also shown us how deep the need is for connection and community, and how the material comforts and distractions in our lives can fall short in the face of deep challenges, while spiritual practices can bring us strength. As we look to 2021 and beyond, I am thinking about how we can help make these sources of support that are central to what we do accessible to more people.  

Looking back on 2020, amid the challenges, there have been many things to be proud of. In February, the GA supported 40 leaders from across the movement to take part in ‘The art of hosting spiritually healthy communities’, where we learnt and practiced techniques of holding the conversations that matter, and explored questions about our future. In April, three weeks after we cancelled our in-person Annual Meetings, hundreds of people gathered online in Being Together – our first virtual assembly. We had workshops, worship, meditation, discussion – including our keynote speaker Alistair McIntosh on ‘The revolution will be spiritual’ and a Lindsey Press launch event for Stephen Lingwood’s book ‘Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian mission for our times’. In May, we gathered again for Ministry in a Time of Pandemic, where we had expert practitioners speaking about online worship, we explored self-care for spiritual leaders, imagined our post-pandemic future, and learnt about tending to grief in our communities. Following a ‘family ministry’ workshop during Being Together, Gavin Howell, our Youth Officer has worked with congregations and youth leaders to support new local initiatives, and develop a forthcoming online gathering for families. He has also worked with a group of teenage Unitarians to help them develop Bad Coffee Club – an online space for young people to connect.

Rory Castle Jones, our Communications Officer, and I have been working with a design agency throughout the year, with a steering group of volunteers from across the movement, to develop a new look to help us welcome new members and communicate clearly about what we stand for. The design work has been centred around our diversity, in recognition of each congregation’s unique identity. We will be launching a new GA website in the new year, and making a set of tools and templates available to congregations so that they can choose how to apply elements of the new look to their websites, noticeboards and newsletters. More on this soon!  

We were also excited to welcome Rev Stephanie Bisby and Rev Michael Allured to the ministerial roll – and recognised the important milestone of Stephanie being the first ministry student to graduate from the new Unitarian College.

We are also grateful to the many ministers and other leaders who have been providing ‘Glimmers of Light’ throughout December – ranging from videos of poems, reflections, stories, and even animations, to live online gatherings for reflection, prayer and dance. These were all created with a not-yet-Unitarian audience in mind, and are a beautiful showcase of the diverse spiritual sustenance we can offer.

Looking ahead to 2021, for the GA, much will be about strengthening our roots, in order to find the way forward for our movement in the long term, through these changeful times. We won’t be able to hold our annual meetings in person in April, and so will be holding some elements as an online AGM – more details on this in the new year. One advantage of not being able to gather in person is that we are not limited to a few days of gathering together, but can create opportunities of connection throughout the year. We are glad that the year will start off with gatherings of change-makers and leaders – in Wales, an invitation to conversations about the future of Welsh Unitarianism, and learn participatory leadership skills with the Art of Hosting practitioners we worked with in 2020; and across the country with those who will be taking part in the new online course in the new year ‘Leading change in your congregation’, led by Rory Castle Jones and Andy Pakula. We have also an appetite for spaces to gather to explore the big questions together, and how we can shape our movement for a thriving future, particularly in these changeful times, and we look forward to inviting you in to those.

In the meantime, all at virtual Essex Hall wish you a restful Christmas and a hopeful new year.

Liz Slade

Chief Officer