Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Unitarian Ministerial Formation

Back in 1990 when at Unitarian College I wrote a long essay to justify professional ministry in Unitarianism. People ask what happened to it, and although "nothing" is the best answer it did get transferred across from my Amstrad PCW to my first PC computer via CP/M to DOS on a 3.5" disk and subsequently ended up on my website. I have not read this recently, and having found it I have decided not to read it now either! I am simply blogging on the matter of ministry and training, and wish to keep my thoughts here loose and creative. I am motivated in part by an article a number of bloggers have highlighted about American seminary training. The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. argues for residential formation set against the cheaper training methods available. We know that more and more Church of England training is non-residential and that older clergy and NSMs come through this way: an older and volunteer caste of ministers maintain the well established trend towards frequent Eucharists avoiding the once talked about more radical lay-led options.

Unitarians have a bizarre situation now for a tiny movement. You would think there would be too many ministry candidates and not enough pulpits to fill. Not so. You can't get the candidates. More candidates need to be trained to be full ministers, and this needs more training flexibility. I disagree with Rev. Dr. Schmidt.

The Unitarians still have two training colleges, one in Oxford in the Liberal Arts Harris Manchester College and then Unitarian College at Luther King House. They each reflect a defunct bipolar disagreement about Unitarianism - the ecumenical one being the more sectarian in background! A handful of students still attend both. Any Welsh students have variable provision. I once got into trouble (again) over thinking ministry students should all attend at Great Hucklow.

Unitarians have maintained residential formation even for older students. There isn't the same paid/ NSM division. In Unitarianism, professional ministers are paid for their labour. I understand the attractions of academia at Oxford and of ecumenical links as at Manchester. I wrongly chose the ecumenical links one, when (as Tony McNeile says) they should have locked me in a tower at Oxford and told me to think. That would have been a different kind of ministry, and Unitarians don't have different kinds of ministry (except as additional tasks).

Sorry, but the time has come to close both colleges, or at least leave HMC in Oxford as an address for Americans who want to say they studied at Oxford (etc.).

Ministry students should stay and meet in one place, and that is indeed at Great Hucklow (SK17 8RH on a map). Being there, they could learn from all the groups that use the Nightingale Centre and indeed give their physical support and presence. The libraries relating to Unitarian material could go to Hucklow, but let's be honest much can now be Internet based, and there are many Unitarian resources Internet based. It makes as much sense for a Unitarian researcher to be based at Dr. Williams's Library in London than in Oxford, and again much can be done online and in the post.

But students do not need to be at Hucklow all the time. Some will want to do courses at universities and these could be at Sheffield, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham and Leeds as the nearest. These might have distance learning characteristics in part or full. I also suggest courses relating to theology, education theory and management.

I remember writing against the 'priesthood of all believers' regarding ministry in that essay, because Unitarians are not coherent as believers but are searchers, so my model was rather based on radical education theory such as that which overlaps with liberation theology (Paulo Freire). In other words, training is about ministers being facilitators of other lay leaders in congregations. Ministers should be more like bishops: trained into understanding the Unitarian tradition and pushing out that trained insight to others.

Even if we consider a minister in one congregation (that can afford such, or is successful enough) the minister should be building others to do what he or she can do, and he and she should regularly go out and support weaker churches.

Such courses in universities could take place before doing more Unitarian based courses located at Great Hucklow. There is no need to do full theology degrees, or other subjects, but rather let's take people after they have done degrees in theology, education or management. They might do an MA or do a diploma for a year. In this time their Unitarian work, including work based at Hucklow and elsewhere, would be more practical and flexible.

The point about Hucklow is that it can be a busy, supporting centre, with in residence students coming down from the Derbyshire hills into the conurbations all around on Sundays. Students would be in residence, and then not in residence as they go and sample chapel life all around in placements. A student might spend several weeks in Scotland, say, and then come back to join others coming back from all around. They would still get plenty of formation with one another, as well as experience observing and assisting church life. Tutors at Hucklow could be many and mixed, when coming in for those weeks and weekends of activity (like music, publicity, spirituality, age-based, even lounging around and out walking to talk). Plus we are talking about people just meeting people.

At Great Hucklow I would base courses on Unitarian History, Unitarian Spirituality and Unitarian Ideas. Ministers need to know the tradition from the earliest non-Unitarian Calvinist days through to the present. Unitarian ideas? They need to be able to understand Liberal Christianity, neo-Paganism, Religious Humanism, Eastern perspectives (yes, using Religious Education perspectives), rationality and romanticism, modernism and postmodernism, and how Unitarians relate to near neighbours in other denominations and beyond (such as in the PCN, Modern Church, Sea of Faith).

People who had transferred from other denominations would thus be better inculturated into the denominational folk. After all, so many Unitarians know each other and there are going to be lay people and ministers from other denominations transferring across who really ought to meet other Unitarians. Unitarians do not 'grow their own' now - they take their new friends from other denominations and new blood is always good blood.

So let's save a lot of money, cut the duplication, move to Great Hucklow and redesign how students do the whole thing on the basis of making servants to the denomination. Each year old students would be returning to Hucklow on those weeks and weekends of activities, many with congregations.

Next thing is to put the headquarters there as well!

1 comment:

Robertson said...

What Unitarian ministers need to learn is how to communicate a liberal faith effectively to those occasional visitors who wander in to our chapels,seeking an alternative to either their present religious home or a 'home' for the first time.

Having returned to fairly regular Unitarian attendance after a long absence,I know how important that first service is ;had the first that I attended (incidentally taken by a young lay person )not impressed me, I might not have bothered to make a fairly long journey there again.In the year that has passed, it has,on average, been the services led by lay persons that have left an impression on me.The denomination has suffered for many years in my opinion from the presence of too many persons bearing the title 'Rev, whose main effect has been to diminish the size of congregations rather than increase them.Where the training is done is to my mind of secondary importance to the content of it - it needs to be undertaken by ministers who have a proven 'track record' of increasing congregations rather than emptying them.