Josh Johnston at GA|
Hilton Metropole Hotel, Birmingham Airport, March 2015
It was first suggested that I should attend the general assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in 2007. I had started as the organist of the church early the previous year ostensibly as “just the organist” but as my enthusiasm for the message and the movement was clear to see, our then minister Rev. Bill Darlison felt it would be a good way for me to meet other Unitarians and, in particular, Unitarian church musicians. I remember little about the conference other than that it was in a university during the Easter holidays so that the attendees were able to stretch out and use the full space of the campus. I also remember the Anniversary Service which was taken by Rev. Art Lester and which was wonderful. I met a number of members of the Unitarian Music Society (UMS) and, from then on, I attended their annual Summer meetings in Great Hucklow.
I have had a few opportunities to go to various Unitarian chapels in the UK and Ireland and this has made me very interested in how the movement works, what is being done to keep it fresh and interesting for everyone, and what is being done (or even considered) to keep it inclusive and welcoming for newcomers.
This year, I attended again as the Dublin congregational representative. I was also able to do some work in my role as UMS committee member as well as playing piano at two separate services (and an informal session in the bar).
The core of the GA is the plenary sessions of the business meetings which, much like all business meetings, are pretty borings but necessary. Motions are brought from various societies and special interest groups and different people attend different sessions after having eyed up the motions or reports that are going to particularly interest them. Some people feel obliged to attend all of them. I was not one of those people. The very last motion on the very last day was interesting for me - asking the executive committee to draw up guidelines regarding payment of church musicians as currently, in the UK, there are none. As Dublin don’t have a vote (we are not full members of GA), it was very interesting to listen, take on board lots of differing opinions and tease out the important points from all the contributions. They voted for the motion but after all the contributions, I couldn’t quite work out whether I thought this was the right decision. It is great belonging to a denomination where people feel free to say what they think and recognise that issues are complicated and not “black-and-white”.
In between the plenary sessions, there are “breakout sessions” which are almost as exciting as they sound. Within each time session (typically 90 minutes) are four or five workshops or talks hosted by a different society or group affiliated to the General Assembly. You have to choose from the list what you would like to listen to or participate in. Some were informative, some were provocative, some were funny. Paul Spain and I both went to the session on Unitarian TV where they spoke of sending a camera crew around to film services at different congregations and I look forward to hopefully working with them in the future on an idea for the Dublin congregation.
The Visibility Panel presented us with the notion of thinking of your church as both an advertisement for the moment and, to some degree, a business – both notions to which I fully subscribe but which I know a lot of our church members have some difficulty with. At another session, Jean Healy (a congregation member from Cork) and I attended a workshop on developing Sunday School programmes which was both terrifying and exciting as the facilitator involved everyone in his workshop and we all had to open up in ways we weren’t planning on prior to attending. Lots of this weekend was challenging and exhilarating and once you were open to the challenge, it forced people to think in new ways which can only be liberating. Speaking of exhilarating, the opening session of the whole weekend was a performance of “The Gospel Of Jesus: Queen Of Heaven” by Jo Clifford which ran in St. Mark’s Church, Edinburgh last year during the Edinburgh Fringe. Testing and entertaining at the same time – a wonderful performance. Hopefully it will come to Dublin.
There was time to relax as well but not much if you wanted to attend everything. This was no weekend to recharge your batteries. The meetings in the last few years have moved from university campuses to hotels and this is a pity in my view. The change is useful for a lot of the people who attend but I found the heavily air-conditioned and functional conference rooms difficult at best. That said, like the UMS weekend in August, it is a great opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones (Bill Darlison and Maud Robinson were both in fine form and say hello), be challenged in the way your church does things, find out how other congregations do the same things, and question commonly held truths about life and Unitarianism. I came home exhausted but with lots to think about. I look forward to discussing some of the ideas I came across with different groups and committees over the coming months and I would be very happy to go again if invited.
Dublin Unitarian Church