The National Unitarian Fellowship exists to promote fellowship and understanding and to provide a channel of communication between people who value a free and positive approach to religion, which sets no dogmatic limits to the individual's quest for spiritual truth.
It seeks to meet the needs of Unitarians and others who are in sympathy with this approach and who do not attend a Unitarian Church or Fellowship. It also offers to ministers and members of Unitarian congregations and Fellowships an opportunity for wider communication with others having a concern for religious values.
These aims may be fulfilled by such means as may be appropriate and in particular by any of the following:
- Keeping in contact with members by the regular distribution of newsletters and other material.
- Putting isolated members in touch with one another or other per sons or organisations with whom they might find a basis for fellowship.
- Circulating or recommending books, periodicals and other literature.
- Encouraging the formation of groups for study and/or worship.
- Engaging in publicity, seeking to make the Society more widely known and to extend its membership.
- Co-operating with other organisations having similar aims.
- Welcoming new inquirers about Unitarianism and helping to establish suitable contacts.
The National Unitarian Fellowship is a registered charity and affiliated as a Society to the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.
The above statement was written when the National Unitarian Fellowship was launched in 1945. The aims remain the same today but added to the distribution of publications by post, electronic communication plays a vital role in achieving the aims of the Fellowship.
Words from Revd. Tony McNeile
NUF President (2003-2008)
Most people I meet have never heard of the Unitarians. I am most often confused with the United Reformed Church or with the Unification Church - the Moonies. How I wish sometimes we had another name.
Having established that I am neither of these then ask, 'Well, what do the Unitarians believe in?' - and that is when I wish they hadn't asked!
It is very hard to define what Unitarianism actually is because there are so many possible definitions. In early Christianity they had what is known as an apophatic description of God. God could only be described in terms of what he was not - in those days there was no dispute about God's gender.
Basically God was not all the things we are - stressed, stretched, rude, weak, overbearing, uncertain, over emotional, irreverent, carefree, careless and so on and so on - including sinful of course.
Unitarians could also be described in an apophatic way - by listing all the things that are not quite us - not quite a Christian denomination and not quite an unchristian one, not quite definable as a faith but not 'not a faith', not having a set pattern of worship but not having one much different from any other church, not tied to a tradition but not quite letting go of one either. Not pagan or earth spirit orientated but not without those elements; not buddhist but not without those elements either.
I think of the Unitarians as people on a mystical bridge that spans a divide between two continents. On the one side is the continent of religious tradition and on the other the continent of spiritual evolution. The Unitarian Movement is stretched across that bridge. There are people at both ends. There are those who are happy not to cross. They want to stay within the liberal christian tradition. There are those nearly or already on the other side who are free spirits, no longer part of a tradition but spiritual seekers who enjoy the company of fellow seekers. How do you describe all that to someone who has just been introduced?
Let us not be afraid to seek meaning in our lives.
Let us have no fear to enter the spiritual dimension of ourselves and see where it leads.
At the beginning of 2005 the NUF published an extended Viewpoint for the Jubilee, which gave those unfamiliar with the NUF an opportunity to celebrate the first sixty year along with NUF members. This booklet proved to be so helpful to enquirers and new members that it has now been updated and published as an Introduction to the NUF.
Several items have been taken from NUF 50, which was published to celebrate the first half-century of the Fellowship. These have been chosen because they continue to be relevant now and in the years since its publication many members have joined to whom the material will be new.
Alan Ruston's The First Fifty Years is an excellent history of the NUF, giving a good background of how the organisation has developed over time and some of the personalities who have played key roles in that development. Joan Wilkinson's Moving into the Millennium (Ten Years On) brings that history up to the end of 2004 highlighting the crucial role of the Internet in communication and outreach. Following is a short piece which continues developments in the three years following the Jubilee.
The two other items are pieces taken from NUF Newsletters and are short personal reflections on the nature and value of the NUF. The first item was written in November 1948 and the second in 1995, yet both reflect the underlying aims and values of the Fellowship that have continued throughout its sixty years. Dorothy Tarrant writes at the beginning of her term as Secretary and stresses the spiritual nature underlying this faith community. In A Spiritual Community she highlights the unique make-up of this Fellowship that has always included members of Unitarian congregations as well as a 'wider society of the unattached'. The final piece appeared in the 300th edition of the Newsletter, which was published in May 1995, to celebrate 300 years of liberal religion. It is fitting that An Introduction closes with a personal message from someone who was a member of this fellowship for 58 years, until his death in 2003. John Elliott was a key figure in promoting the NUF from the very beginning and became its first Publicity Secretary in January 1946 serving in that capacity until the end of 1955. His very short piece, Founder's Message, is an encouragement, for those of us who hold dear the values for which the NUF has always stood, to continue and build on the work of those who have gone before.
An outline of the ongoing aims of the Fellowship and the revised version of the NUF Prayer are included to clarify those things which continue to underpin the ongoing life of this Fellowship.
Anyone wishing to join the Fellowship should click here now.
I would like to thank all those people who worked towards preparing the material for NUF 50 from which many of the items in this issue have been taken.
THE National Unitarian Fellowship
THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS
The fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the National Unitarian Fellowship (NUF) provides the opportunity to create an historical retrospect of its life and work. It is an organisation with an ever changing membership so it is safe to assume that only a small proportion of members have any knowledge of the reasons for its foundation and the way in which its present practices have evolved. This account, prepared from material in newsletters, annual reports and articles in the Inquirer, attempts to provide some background.
It can be fairly claimed that the initiator of the NUF was Rev. Leslie Belton who had been Editor of the Inquirer from 1932 to 1939. Speaking at the Unitarian General Assembly meetings in April 1943 he stressed the need for propaganda for Unitarianism after the conclusion of the War. He suggested, probably based on recent experience amongst Unitarians in the USA, that many might be willing to join a Unitarian society rather than wishing to take on church membership straight away. A national society was needed to enrol enquirers and maintain contact with them, with the hope that they might eventually join a local church. It could also be useful in providing a link with isolated Unitarians and others.
This was followed be a series of articles which appeared in the Inquirer in 1943 and 1944. The idea of a Unitarian Fellowship was not entirely new; an organisation was set up by the Central Postal Mission at Essex Hall in about 1920 to keep in contact with isolated Unitarians but this soon disappeared. Those who were interested were asked to write in to J K Montgomery, who can be said to be the midwife of the NUF. A selection of the letters received were published in a follow up article in the issue of 13 May 1944. Much of the article was taken up be a letter from Rev. Francis Terry, who from the very start became a major influence on the NUF and remained so for most of its first forty years.
He argued that the proposed NUF should be a catholic body to include "not only Unitarians, but also liberal-minded members of other churches, Liberal Jews, and Julian Huxleyites, as well as unattached individuals". This idea was strongly opposed by Montgomery and others who believed that membership of the new body should be wholly Unitarian, but the idea of Rev. Arnold Thomas that a postal mission should be included, emphasising the devotional aspect and the spread of Unitarianism, was warmly endorsed. Further support was requested, and the replies were sufficiently encouraging to justify forming the Fellowship. In August 1944 a provisional committee was set up at the instigation of Belton and Montgomery. The Preamble and Rules were then created by correspondence.
In March 1945 Leslie Belton, who became the first President, announced the setting up of the NUF, which he pointed out was taking place at the same time as the creation by the American Unitarian Association of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. He wrote to all ministers of Unitarian congregations asking for support and particularly the names of isolated members. Those who wished to be founder members were asked to write to Montgomery while C Winifred Dyer agreed to act as the first treasurer. She was succeeded by Maurice Limb in October 1945.
During the General Assembly meetings in London in May 1945, a public meeting was held at which the aims and objects of the NUF were explained, and it was clear that the new body had attracted the interest of many Unitarians. The provisional committee met the following day, which agreed that a full committee of twelve should be elected after 30 June, with a newsletter to be published as soon as possible with Rev. Arnold Thomas as editor. The subscription was fixed at the rather high figure of 10/- (50p) per annum. The new Rules were sent to members, which were confirmed, and it was agreed that the NUF should formally come into being at the end of 1945. However before the end of the year the first number of the newsletter had appeared in the July and the second in September. By the start of 1946 between eighty and a hundred members had joined. The NUF was seen by many Unitarians as one of their most positive initiatives to spread their faith in a nation newly at peace.
One of the main objects of the NUF in the 1940s was to aid the foundation of local groups for study or worship where there was only a limited or non-existent Unitarian presence. Local groups were set up at Swanage, Stafford and Brighton before the end of 1945. Within a few years Fellowships were formed in areas where there was no Unitarian activity, often with the aid of local NUF members. Later this aspect was considered to be a key part of Unitarian extension work and was increasingly taken over by the appropriate committee at the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches (General Assembly) who had greater funds to support this work. However it must be stated that the NUF was the most consistent and active supporter of the Fellowship movement within Unitarianism until the early 1970s.
It was in these early years that what have proved to be key aspects of the work of the NUF were started. The Newsletter appeared bimonthly from 1946 and from its commencement it contained articles contributed by members, news and announcements, names and addresses of new members and changes of address. Arnold Thomas remained the editor until the early 1950s when he was succeeded by Mrs E M Hellaby. In March 1956 Francis Terry took over the editorship and held the post with distinction until November 1971.
Another activity which started early in 1946 was the circulation of Books of Fellowship. The September 1955 Newsletter described how the arrangement worked:
Members wishing to take part in this scheme are divided into groups of about ten, each group with its own book, a loose-leaf arrangement, which circulates by post. On receiving the Book the member reads what others have written, withdraws his own previous contribution and writes a new one, so that the Book always contains one fresh contribution from each member, The Organiser is kept in touch with the circulation of the books by means of printed postcards, and receives them at the end of each round for checking and overhaul. The scheme was initiated by W K Robinson, who had experience of a similar scheme among the Esperantists. He was the first Organiser and was followed by Rev. A P Hewett, and then by G H Kellaway.
A Library was assembled which by 1950 consisted of about ninety volumes which could be sent to members by post. These chiefly consisted of books on Unitarianism that may not be available in local public libraries. This again was the brainchild of J K Montgomery who gave money in 1948 towards the purchase of books which formed the nucleus of the collection. The Library has continued to be a valuable adjunct to the work of the NUF, though of recent times high cost of postage has limited its use amongst members. At present it consists of about 220 books and is kept at General Assembly headquarters at Essex Hall.
From its earliest days publicity was a major interest which was taken forward by the Publicity Secretary, Dr John Elliott, who has played a key role in the NUF for most of its first fifty years. Advertisements regularly appeared in the Inquirer and other Unitarian journals, plus rather more surprisingly, The Countryman, though this activity was later limited by lack of funds. Letters to the local press by officers and others were attempted, as well as what became known as "correspondence watching". This consisted of writing promptly to all varieties of journals on religious and social issues as they arose, not only in newspapers, but also on radio and television. John Elliott summed up this effort in 1948:
Every small letter (possibly written on NUF notepaper), however seemingly unimportant, will swell our publicity and help to make it effective. The more our members become letter conscious on behalf of the Fellowship, the quicker will our ideas become generally known. It cannot be said that they are generally known at the moment, even among the better educated, and to remedy this – and to remedy this without delay – must be the constant aim of our publicity effort.
A different form of advertising which was tried was the introduction of NUF badges, though these did not prove popular as only thirty-one had been sold up to the end of 1948, and within a few years this idea was dropped.
By the end of 1946 membership stood at 113, rising to 126 at the end of 1948, and covering many parts of the world including Argentina, Syria and Uganda. "Only Scotland seems to remain untouched by our modest efforts", though this deficiency was soon remedied. It could be said that the limited membership after five years was a disappointment to the founders, who hoped for greater things. However the NUF was up and running efficiently, and was becoming an accepted part of the Unitarian movement. In 1948 it had even sponsored the Unitarian Fellowship of Australia through the activity of Rev William Bottomly. It has to be said that at least for its first twenty years the NUF was regarded with a measure of distrust by many Unitarians as it was not church based, and some thought its expansion could lead to the weakening of churches and their membership. However over the last twenty-five years this attitude has disappeared and the NUF is seen as an essential part of the Unitarian movement in Britain.
Membership has varied considerably over the years, and while the running of the organisation has rested on a few familiar names, the reasons for the rise and fall in numbers are not always clear. By the mid 1960s membership was over 200, but the real expansion came in the 1970s and 1980s. It was in this period that Mrs Di Simmons became almost a full time advocate for the NUF, and over sixty new members were added each year in the late 1970s. In 1979 there were 395 members rising to 413 in 1982. The membership in 1993 stands at 274.
An established organisation
By the early 1950s, the NUF had established a pattern of working and activity which essentially remains in operation today. However there were new developments in the next decade. A slot in the programme of the General Assembly Annual Meetings was gained, when the AGM could be held to be followed by a speaker or discussion on a topic chosen by the NUF Committee. The NUF gathering is now a recognised feature of these meetings.
In 1954 there came the first appearance of the NUF Prayer, which was printed in publications from time to time. The aim was to provide a devotional and unifying element in NUF activity. By the 1970s it had largely been forgotten, so it is repeated here as a record of what was once a regular feature:
O Thou, creator of light and life, we bless Thee for this day, for the pageantry of field and sky, the laughter of children and the hand of a friend. We thank Thee for the gifts of poetry and music, for beauty unfolded in the arts, for philosophers and scientists, and all who help us in our quest for Thee.
Kindle afresh Thy spark in every one of us; inspire us with courage and strength to seek and pursue Thy universal truth throughout the many and devious ways of this earthly life.
Amid conflict and strife enable us to discern Thy spirit working in the hearts of others. Join us with all who pray to Thee; join us with the unuttered needs and longings of those who do not pray; so that guided by Thy hand, mankind may rise in brotherhood from the darkness of ignorance and sloth, and come day by day nearer to Thee, the one God infinite and eternal.
A parents' circle for those members with young children was formed in 1959 by Kathleen Arcizewski, and by 1961 there were twenty families in membership. The young people up to the age of sixteen had their own Books of Fellowship and in the early 1960s there were four in circulation. The circle filled a worthwhile need for a number of years.
By the late 1950s, NUF activity had settled into a pattern, which some believed required some alteration. There was a belief that it had too easily accepted a minor role within Unitarianism, and that expansion was desirable. Six issues of the Newsletter were sent to members each year, and while there were Books of Fellowship in circulation there was little else. Norman Fieldhouse, who became President in 1959, contended that the NUF was too small and remote from the membership:
"There are two major anomalies which, in the nature of the situation, may be unavoidable but they should be faced squarely. The first is that we are a Fellowship which maintains itself almost solely by means of the printed or written word…it would be far more real and valuable if there were opportunities of members meeting one another in the flesh…The second anomaly is that we have a National Committee which apart from a short meeting before the AGM, is never able to meet."
It was also argued that the NUF should take a greater role in the affairs of the General Assembly, and the spread of Unitarianism. Many ideas were generated in the early 1960s, in line with changing views taking place within the Unitarian movement, of which the "62 Group" was an expression. The NUF was mentioned in many of them and there was a growing understanding of its potential. Monthly contact with members was created in 1963 when a duplicated sermon was distributed in alternate months to the Newsletter. Francis Terry not only edited this new development but at the same time became the first Minister of the NUF.
The NUF became more closely involved in the work of the General Assembly by being accorded a representative on the Publicity Committee, and later on the Fellowships Committee and the Religious Education and Youth Department. Later it was given a place on the Council of the Assembly which it still retains, demonstrating that it had become part of the mainstream of the Unitarian movement. However neither of the anomalies pointed out by Norman Fieldhouse were addressed.
There were also changes in the officers (who are selected by postal vote amongst members of the Committee), and it was at this time that the rule was introduced that all office holders should only serve for five years at any one time. Maurice Limb gave up the treasureship in January 1966 after nearly 21 years in office. Nora Gimson was secretary from 1953 to 1968, and "so closely identified with the NUF that it is difficult to think of us without her". They were succeeded by two people who had the most impact on the NUF in the second part of its half century – Frank Hytch as treasurer and Di Simmons as secretary.
Francis Terry played a leading role in the NUF up until the early 1970s, and his place was difficult to fill. His obituary in the Inquirer in November 1985 concluded:
His was a central role in NUF development, particularly during the years 1956-1970 when he was entirely responsible for editing and distributing the Newsletter and Sermons, as well as being NUF Minister, a position he continued to hold until his final retirement in 1980.
The Lindsey Press brought out a collection of his writings which had appeared in NUF Newsletters as a booklet in 1973, entitled "Finding a Language and other testimonies" which recognised his significant contribution. However it was Mrs Dora "Di" (as she was universally known) Simmons who provided remarkable dynamism and commitment in the 1970s and early 1980s.
She devoted much of her time to developing the work of the NUF, and it expanded accordingly, so that by the early 1980s there were over 400 members. Her presence at Essex Hall, fulfilling many tasks on a voluntary basis, meant that the NUF was brought to the forefront of denominational concerns. When she retired from NUF activity in 1984, after holding many of the offices, a collection from the membership was made, which she gave back for the benefit of the NUF. To date the NUF has not found such a devoted and inspired replacement to push it forward.
However, the 1970s was a period of change. The bi-monthly Sermon became "Viewpoint", and both in style and presentation became very different under the successive editorships of Peter Roberts (who became Minister to the NUF after Francis Terry), Alan Ruston, Angus Parker, Frank Hytch and Rosemary Goring. The Newsletter also changed style and presentation under the editorship of Bill Steiner, Vernon Marshall, Angus Parker and Judy Hague. Contact by audio cassette was started in 1976 when recorded tapes were made available to members from a central library. Their number grew slowly but by 1992 there were 108 available. They have proved most valuable in providing background to new members who wished to know more about Unitarianism.
The desire of some of the membership to meet together, projected from the 1940s, did not take place until the early 1980s when NUF weekends were started in Birmingham. The impetus for their commencement came from Frank Hytch, and his commitment to them (and the NUF in general since its earliest years), has ensured that they remain a popular and regular feature of NUF activity. In 1992 most of the Committee were present at a weekend so a meeting was held, one of the few to take place in the fifty year life of the NUF.
Towards the present
In the 1980s and early 1990s there were new initiatives. A Resource Register was set up, with a Registrar who collects and makes available information about the personal skills, interests and facilities which members may be able to offer to the NUF and the Unitarian movement in general. Details are obtained by means of questionnaires, and already the arrangement has proved of value in using expertise in the right place.
Over many years NUF members, and Unitarians more generally, have expressed their concern that their beliefs and existence are not made more widely known amongst University students, which should be their natural constituency. The NUF is seen by many as an excellent channel of contact, as students are often geographically remote from Unitarian churches and are believed likely to react positively to written contact. In 1991 universities were targetted, with help from the General Assembly, as part of a continuing programme and leaflets distributed extensively through 180 separate distribution points. Key contacts, generally well known local Unitarians, were recruited to cover selected universities. It is too early to evaluate the success of the scheme, which is now in its second stage, but it is likely to become a continuing feature of NUF activity. It was spearheaded by Dorothy Archer, Ann Gabell and Walter Bunting, another committed NUF member who has held several offices.
In the last half century there have been numerous willing workers for the NUF, and many of their names have already been mentioned. It would be impossible to chronicle them all, but I believe it appropriate that those who have made an input often over decades should be recorded. The following list is a personal one based on my examination of NUF records and is not in a particular order:
Phyllis Tomlin a regular committee member;
Joyce Watkins dealing with financial matters;
Kenneth Ridgway NUF Minister from 1984;
Ralph Denby, another regular office holder;
June Bell; Eric Shirvell Price; Frank Walker; Ann Edwards; Dorothy Harmon; Rosamond Barker; Colin Dence; Roy John; George Allen; E M Hellaby; Una Monk.
The NUF started out in the closing years of the Second World War with high hopes of what it might achieve in the future, based on a desire to see the rebuilding of the depleted base of British Unitarianism. It is unlikely that all these expectations could ever have been met. However, it does have to be said that the NUF has been a plant of limited growth, despite the considerable devotion of many of its supporters.
The reasons for this are several. In the early years there was considerable suspicion from Unitarian churches and ministers that the NUF was setting itself up as a new power base and would tempt members away from church membership and attendance. Sometimes this developed into open hostility which has diminished over the years as the NUF has been taken into the corpus of the Unitarian movement. There was a trend, understandable in the circumstances, aimed at recruiting members from Unitarian churches to demonstrate that dual involvement was mutually beneficial, though this probably negated the continuing purpose of encouraging contact between isolated Unitarians.
Problems within the NUF may also have limited its growth. Timidity and caution in action is a contributory factor, though not on the part of Di Simmons. The obituary of Nora Gimson in the Inquirer in 1977 reflects this point. Long associated with the NUF it stated she "brought a much needed steadiness". It is doubtful whether steadiness is an attribute that has best served the NUF as an organisation seeking to project the exciting challenge of Unitarians. There is also the continuing tension between those members who want to meet together and those who do not, which is probably unresolvable.
However, perhaps the largest limiting factor has been lack of finance to support and back various initiatives. This is in contrast to the Church of the Larger Fellowship in the USA where Unitarian money and support has been more plentiful, and in consequence its thrust more effective. The ambivalent nature of the Unitarian movement's view of the NUF has not helped money to flow from limited denominational resources.
The NUF stands today, as it has in the past, at the cross roads – it can carry on as at present and perform a useful task in contacting and recruiting Unitarians of every type, mainly through the printed word. In this activity it has increasing general support, but its size and role will not expand greatly, if at all. Alternatively it could try to break out of its mould, perhaps by securing additional finance and employing paid workers whose aim would be to emphasise Unitarian development, based on expansion and growth. The attitude of the General Assembly will be of signal importance in this regard. Strategic thinking is in vogue though its adoption is unlikely to be a universal panacea. However it may be that a closer definition of the NUF role and function, combined with a strong attempt to obtain wider support and significant amounts of additional finance, will be the best means of taking the NUF successfully onwards towards it centenary.
MOVING INTO THE NEW MILLENNIUM
(Ten Years On)
The anomaly that readers will immediately notice is that the sixtieth anniversary of the NUF was celebrated in 2005. The Golden Jubilee looked back to 1944 when a provisional committee came together to discuss the possibilities of forming a postal Fellowship and the spadework was done to set in place the necessary framework for the introduction of a new organisation the following year. This sixtieth anniversary celebrates the year when the first official committee came into being, members joined the Fellowship and the first issue of the Newsletter was produced.
Alan Ruston's history of the first fifty years highlights the input of key people over periods of time and the NUF for eight of the last ten years has been driven by the enthusiasm of its Secretary, Walter Bunting, who gave unstintingly of his time and energy. He was able to gather around him willing volunteers, most of who continue to quietly give their time and ability for the benefit of the Fellowship. The minister, Roger Tarbuck, introduced the custom of writing to welcome all new members and continued to provide a pastoral role. Margaret Phelan as President wrote energetically and constantly encouraged those who were to pick up the baton from these three dedicated individuals in 2002.
From the very beginning the NUF has had communication at its centre and the last ten years have seen a crucial development with the introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web. As we moved into the new Millennium this medium presented new opportunities for networking between members, with other groups of Unitarians and offered a means of outreach to those who knew little about the Unitarian movement. We are only beginning to explore the possibilities of this development. Sometimes it seems that the Internet has been around for a very long time. However, it is significant that Alan Ruston made no mention of it.
1997 is the first year we read in the Annual Report of the Internet. During the following eighteen months a very few members began to have email exchanges and these included the Secretary, Walter Bunting. Joan Wilkinson, organiser of the Books of Fellowship at this time, was also keen on using email as a way of extending opportunities for contact between members. Throughout 1998 several failed attempts were made to get a group together but there were too few members to make this viable at that time and for the most part it was left to a remnant of three or four to keep the flame alight. However, in the winter of 1998/99 John Wilkinson was persuaded to create an NUF website. At first this was considered an experimental exercise but skills learned then have been developed along the way allowing the website to be extended each year with www.nufonline.org.uk now linking the Fellowship to the wider Unitarian world, at the same time providing its membership with information and opportunities for participating in NUF activities and those within the wider Unitarian movement too.
It is still too early to assess how much the website has influenced membership numbers due to administrative changes in the renewal procedure and the tightening up of membership whereby members failing to send in their subscriptions are removed from the list after only three months of non-payment. However, it is clear that the Internet does encourage many enquirers to apply for information, visitors to regularly use the website without feeling obliged to join the Fellowship and the occasional enquirer who might find information available nowhere else. It wasn't long after the website was introduced that the Email Fellowship began to grow and has grown steadily ever since. Again there are contributors to this group who are not paid-up members of the NUF but who contribute to the diversity that is a hallmark of the Fellowship.
It would be wrong, however, to think that because the Internet has opened up new avenues of communication the regular written publications and activities have suffered. The new technology only served to improve the two publications that have remained the bedrock of disseminating information and ideas to the membership. The Newsletter and Viewpoint continue to be the unifying focus for NUF members. The Books of Fellowship continue to be as popular and valuable as ever with those members who share the pleasure of corresponding by letter.
The Publication Sub-Committee too have appreciated and used the new technology to produce publicity leaflets, which like the Newsletter and Viewpoint, exhibit a level of sophistication not possible for a small, voluntary run organisation like the NUF, in the days before the various computer packages became available. The website also offers opportunities for outreach not possible ten years ago.
However, there have been casualties since the Golden Jubilee was celebrated and these too are probably a result of living in an increasingly technological world with the opportunity to listen or watch what we choose on radio, CD or television with its many channels. The Audio Cassette Library that was started in 1976 continued to be popular and well used by members well into the 1990s but didn't survive in any viable way into the new millennium beyond the occasional request by non-members who had come across something of interest whilst visiting the website. Whether at some time in the future it will be possible to transfer this valuable resource into a useable form using new technology remains to be seen. It is interesting to note that within a few years of the diminished interest in the cassette tapes the Fellowship recognising the value of recording items that could be seen and heard on the website, produced three Statements of Faith from President Tony McNeile, Minister Chris Goacher and Newsletter Editor Mel Prideaux. Again it is too early to know how this new venture will develop but that the NUF will remain alert to possibilities of using new technology to extend communication opportunities is certain.
The Tapes of Fellowship whereby members recorded messages to be circulated amongst groups of four members each, failed to survive into the new millennium finally coming to an end in 1999. This too is probably as much to do with the increased use of the telephone. Members were not communicating less but in a different way. It is probably true to say that more NUF members are in regular touch with each other now than ever before. However, the Audio Cassette Fellowship along with the Books of Fellowship have laid down a pattern that demonstrates a desire by some members to experience fellowship within a small group without being part of a fellowship or congregation who meet together face to face. Small email fellowships are now coming into being taking the valuable lessons learned from earlier activities and making good use of technological developments.
The Book Library, now housed at Essex Hall, has become used less and less over the past ten years but there are now plans to revive and re-house this resource with the addition of a donated library from a member of the Fellowship.
The NUF membership has always consisted of those who are happy to receive its publications each month because they remain interested in, and value, what is being discussed and happening within the Fellowship without wanting further participation or communication with other members. Respect for the privacy of these members has always been a high priority. The Fellowship is as valuable to them as to the growing numbers who wish to be involved in maintaining and developing the opportunities within the organisation by voluntarily carrying out the many tasks necessary to ensure that everything runs smoothly. And many more members fall somewhere in between. Membership numbers are holding up and have increased over the past year and this is at a time when many other religious organisations are struggling to keep and attract members. However, it has to be acknowledged that although 30 to 60 new members have joined each year over the past ten years the overall membership count does not reflect this. Many find that the Fellowship does not live up to their expectations being considered by some to be too tolerant and for others not as tolerant as expected. And of course being a postal fellowship some members just fail to renew their subscription and then rejoin another year. That we continue to attract many new members demonstrates that there continues to be opportunities for Unitarian growth, but that the total membership figure does not reflect the number of new members who join each year must remain a concern and something to be seriously addressed.
Alan Ruston's perceptive evaluation to end his history of The First Fifty Years remains fundamentally true and the NUF remains dependent on the commitment of many volunteers who give time willingly to maintain the same ideals that were valued sixty years ago. However, due to generous donations and legacies the Fellowship is now more able to financially support those ideas considered to be worthwhile and for the benefit of the Fellowship with extra resources being available for publicity, which means the Unitarian voice can be heard all over the country, and elsewhere. We now have a presence at the GA Meetings having a promotional stand in the 'browsing' area as well as sending a delegate to the GA Meetings. It is envisaged that there will be a greater opportunity to have an input at national level following current discussions that are taking place within the National organisation. There is nothing to suggest from past evidence that the voluntary nature of the organisation should necessarily work to the disadvantage of present stability and future growth. There has been no sign, that as long as the NUF continues to fulfil the role for which it was set up, that members will not continue to commit their time, energy and enthusiasm to ensure it not only survives but survives well into the future.
The past three years have been ones of rapid change as the Fellowship has developed the opportunities offered by the Internet at the same time as participation to the printed publications, by both contributors and editors, has increased.
In November 2006 the NUF Forum was launched with easy registration directly from the website: www.nufonline.org.uk. Steadily from modest beginnings it has grown into a vibrant community with new sections of interest being added all the time. It offers open space for general discussion, a section for members to give feedback on publications, which ensure a link between our written and electronic activities, sermons and addresses, articles, notices, books, films and music, prayers and reflections and green responsibilities. A private section is available for the NUF Committee to meet in virtual space. The NUF Forum welcomes those who might be interested in Unitarian ideas but who do not wish to join the Fellowship. This allows the NUF to be inclusive of those who might wish to be in conversation with us but who belong to another tradition. It also gives space and time to those who are just searching with the result that some find themselves registering as NUF members or joining another church, fellowship or group in their area. It also gives the opportunity for those non NUF members belonging to various Unitarian congregations, fellowships and societies elsewhere, to share with and learn from what other Unitarians across the country are thinking and doing. Most of all though it allows NUF members to deepen their faith and understanding grounded in the Unitarian community but open to new ideas which newcomers can offer giving us the opportunity for both personal and community growth.
Through the Forum and website greater integration has been made possible for the NUF within the wider community. Notices from the General Assembly (GA) are circulated. Members are able to discover and access resources provided by the GA: www.unitarian.org.uk. News, information and material from the various Unitarian societies are now available at: www.unitariansocieties.org.uk. The NUF's own website now offers information for those wishing to find a celebrant to conduct namings, weddings, blessings and funerals: www.nufonline.org.uk.
In conclusion it would be fair to say that the NUF over the past three years has become more integrated within the wider Unitarian movement and more expansive and inclusive in its outreach to the general public whilst retaining the aims of its original founders.
A SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY
Our Fellowship was formed for the special purpose of linking together, mainly by the written word, a number of people widely scattered and not otherwise in touch wither with each other or with centres of Unitarian life and worship. A proportion of its members, and some of its most active promoters, do in fact belong to Church groups as well as to this wider society of the "unattached". Writing as a life-long member of one Unitarian church, I want to suggest that these two different types within the Fellowship have each something to gain, and also something to give, in its life and activities.
We are a varied set of people. As our Secretary has written "All of us have our individual reverences, our individual certainties and questionings". By reason of our basic insistence on freedom, such variety is found also within the closer and ostensibly more like-minded circle of a singe Church. Especially, perhaps, do we differ in our concentration on one of the possible aspects of religious life, to the subordination if not to the exclusion of others. Few of us have attained a final harmony between the intellectual, the devotional and the social motive and emphasis. In present fact, because of our differences in belief from other Christians, the intellectual interest often seems to predominate both inside and outside our Churches. But underlying it is a deep spiritual experience which is not always recognised by those who call our religion "cold".
Those members of the Fellowship who are cut off from attendance at services may sometimes envy us who can meet from week to week to worship God after our own manner. But to the "faithful few" in these days the Sunday services often carry a reminder of reduced numbers and of present difficulties, and indeed such thoughts may overcloud the hour which should be wholly given to worship. It is always a help to us, in our small group, to remember the wider circle of which we are also a part – not only our Churches up and down the land, but also and no less our scattered friends in the Fellowship.
I think we may all find special help in such realised community of worship. Whatever our individual bent, our religious life must rest upon the foundation of spiritual faith, and our power for thought and for service must come from that source. We have, as a body, a fine tradition of forms of worship which combine simplicity with reverence and dignity, and in our hymn-books and service-books is a rich store of aids to carry our thoughts upward when our own words fail and our own spirits are dry. We might all profit by rediscovering some of this richness for ourselves.
"The communion of saints" is a great phrase. We may not feel like applying it either to ourselves or to our own section of the Church Universal. But communion can be a very real experience between kindred souls; and thou we are not saints, do we not all know fellow-Unitarians who are? If we prefer to say "the fellowship of believers" let us not forget that it is still in and with the Holy Spirit of God that our human spirits mingle in our deepest moments of prayer and praise.
Now as I find myself the doyen of our fellowship, I can look back over the years to the time when the war was coming to an end, and as a demobilised, and somewhat disillusioned major, I was looking forward to taking up the reins of life in civvy street once again.
Right at the beginning when I was still serving in Malta, I was attracted to Unitarianism by its no-frills approach and the liberal interpretation of religious faith. I found its tenets, such as they were, intellectually acceptable and satisfying. I quickly decided the NUF was something I could relate to and actively support, and in it I found a love of humanity and a warmth that I hadn't expected.
The motto of my hospital (Guy's) is Dare quam accipere (Give rather than receive) so I volunteered as the first publicity secretary. Later I took on the Books of Fellowship, and finally ended up in the Presidential Seat.
I have in front of me the cover of the very first Book of Fellowship launched by the scholar, G H Kellaway. On it is a quotation in Greek, happily with a translation which runs – These are the stages of my torch-racers; thus in succession each from each fulfilled.
For me the caption epitomises the function and the purpose of the NUF. We do not stand still. We are not merely onlookers. We are the relay runners carrying our chalice from one generation to the next.
The message is of development and progress on the practical social scene as well as in the religious sense. Though our numbers may be small we can proudly say our commitment is concentrated and lasting.
In expanding our own horizon in religious concepts we become more tolerant of the other person's standpoint.
We do not stagnate, but with open minds keep flowing with the times.
Love to you all
THE NUF PRAYER
We give thanks for the light and life, for the pageantry of field and sky, for the laughter of children and the hand of a friend. We give thanks for the gifts of poetry and music, for beauty unfolded in the arts, for philosophy and science and all that helps us in our quest for meaning.
May the divine spark in each one of us inspire us with the courage and strength to seek the universal truth in the many diverse ways of our earthly life.
Amid conflict and strife may we be enabled to discern the living spirit working in the hearts of others. May we be joined in sympathy with the needs and longings of all, expressed or unexpressed, so that all may rise in fellowship from the darkness of ignorance and sloth and draw nearer to each other and to the Eternal.
As always your comments are welcome and with your permission they may be included in the NUF Newsletter.
Comments please to:- Tony McNeile