General Assembly Impressions

Elizabeth Welsh and Kate Foggo were among a group of Edinburgh Unitarians who attend the General Assembly Meetings in Birmingham in April. Elizabeth attended for the first time, while Kate is a seasoned attender! The photograph of Kate with Ross Hartley in the GA Zette office was supplied by Kate. As Elizabeth explains, because of her surname, there was a bit of confusion when she checked in. The photograph of Unitarians Wales presenting the story of Unitarianism in Wales is courtesy of the GA photography team.

ELIZABETH WELSH reports


My first impression of the General Assembly Meetings was walking up to the check-in desk, and being asked my name. My reply, ‘it’s Welsh’, turned out to be ambiguous for those behind the desk, who were waiting for the arrival of a large contingent of Welsh Unitarians. Indeed, something I’ve taken from attending the GA is a sense of St Mark’s being part of a much wider movement: nationally, and internationally too. I learnt about the work of the Unitarian Peace Fellowship (something I wasn’t aware of before), and the work Unitarians have supported through organisations such as the British Red Cross. There were also emergency motions to communicate united condemnation of the Coptic Church bombings on Palm Sunday.

Workshops and plenary sessions took place throughout the day, starting with morning worship at 07.30 (I only managed one of these!) I learnt about preserving Unitarian documents in archives and, on the opening night, the Welsh Unitarians put on an impressive musical-theatre-style performance of Welsh Unitarian history: again, something I previously knew nothing much about at all! However, the main focus was on the future: for example, projects to update and improve ministerial and community training; the creation of a new portal website; and ideas for ‘rebranding’ the chalice logo.  Although some ideas were controversial, there was a lot of energy for growth and change.

Being amongst 300 Unitarians all at once was quite overwhelming (in a good way), and I enjoyed meal time, coffee-break, and Jacuzzi conversations with people from all sorts of Unitarian backgrounds across the UK and Ireland (oh, and Rev Petr Samojsky, the Czech minister who led services at St Mark’s in November last year, was there too). Perhaps typically, people were expressing slightly different perspectives on how Unitarians should move forward. For example, do we need a new language for terms like prayer, congregation and pulpit? Is language a barrier for people, or a connection to our past? Beyond semantics, something else that came across strongly was Unitarianism as a faith of action, ‘deeds not creeds’. As the new GA President Rev Charles VanDenBroeder asked us in one of the final speeches: if Unitarianism became illegal, would you be arrested? In other words, what do you do in the world that makes you a Unitarian? So, happily exhausted, I had that to consider on the train back to Edinburgh.

KATE FOGGO reports

When I was preparing to go to my first Annual Meetings in 2013, Ann Sinclair told me ‘There will be people trying to sell you something called the Zette, you might want to buy it, but you don’t have to’. Little did I know that five meetings-in-a-row later, the people I meet and do the Zette with are basically the reason that I attend the meetings. The Zette is a magazine supported by the FOY society (Fellowship of Youth) published five times during the approximately seventy-two hours the meetings take place. The first edition is made of articles submitted in advance, but the rest are created and printed on the spot during the small hours by a group of young(er) adults who mostly all know each other from coming up through the Unitarian Youth Programme. (I really recommend that parents check out the Youth Programme as these people are the most welcoming, truly grounded Unitarians and considered thinkers that I know). The co-editors for the last four have been Mattie and George, and then there is a whole host of others submitting pieces and causing the editors a headache when it’s 03.00, the Wi-Fi has broken down, and Joe is still writing a piece that turns out to be six pages long.

The Zette aims to cover as much of the meetings as possible, in particular the workshops and motions that not everyone gets to. If you have been to a workshop and it inspires you to write something then this is encouraged, and is a great way to reflect on the meetings and Unitarian movement as a whole whilst being the most engaged I will be with it all year.

It’s only seventy-two hours long, over four days, but the General Assembly is now looking into shortening the Annual Meetings to forty-eight hours over three days, which could jeopardise the future of the Zette as it might not be viable to do all the set up for just one full day. The main reasons given to shortening the meetings are around costs, and not being able to get enough time off work. Next year they will bring forward a motion to formally instigate this, and I am not sure I can support it. I feel it would perhaps be better to re-arrange the programme so that the business parts happen in one day, and the rest in the other two. So it would be easier to attend for one or two days, and also to encourage parents to use the Youth Programme that runs alongside so that everyone has the opportunity to be inspired.