Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Listening to Hear about Unitarian Ministry


Notice: due to vast numbers of nasty comments relating to a supposed Liberal Catholic ordination posting some months ago I put on the need to moderate comments after three days. This has now been extended to 6 days. Before this period, comments made will appear directly with just a human being check.


Within the Unitarian denomination, ministers are made by training and not by selection. I wrote recently in a number of places about Liberal Catholicism (that with origins its in 1916) where the emphasis is on selection and ordination. People with all sorts of haphazard religious education, or none, might find themselves ordained into minor orders and later on major orders (deacons, priests, bishops). Unitarians, however, no longer ordain professional ministers. So although a personality might be selected, the real deal is in the training.

There is an ambiguity in a (claiming to be) Catholic Church, in that rules may be followed regarding selection processes and training, but any bishop who so wants can just ordain as wishes, to sprinkle some of the magic dust about ontological difference. Such ambiguity is reduced the lower down one goes in a theology of ministry. It might be inconsisent and impractical for a group of ministers to just select new ordained ministers in a meeting of a Presbytery, but when you don't actually ordain, it becomes impossible just to select and make a minister - or, rather, for the denomination/ Church to select.

Yet Unitarians have a Lay Person in Charge as well as having a Minister. This means there is some distinction. What's the difference? Well, the level of recommended pay is one difference, but such is a difference of training. There is recognition by the General Assembly, but a congregation can ignore the General Assembly in who it selects (which, therefore, is a selection process that can still function - and of course a minister can find other ordained ministers to do an ordination!).

Now I found it interesting that in the Church of England training has become more flexible. After selection, an older candidate might stay at home and in a home church, meet at weekends and other times for collective activities, but otherwise do the required essays and tasks at home. They become unpaid Non-Stipendary Ministers and might be limited to local base. The younger people, those for stipendary ministry, go to theological college and undergo 'formation' until the point comes that they are tapped on the head or waved over and acquire the Deacon and then priest orders.

There isn't this distinction in the Unitarians. If you are a minister, you should be paid. If you train, you do it within the college system, and almost everyone goes through a stronger sense of 'formation'.

Except (there always is!) you have ministers of other Churches who transfer. They are recognised as selected ministers, and tend to do more in the way of distance education (but with the colleges) for courses that teach about Unitarianism (but they ought to know about it already: like why they want to transfer, what are they letting themselves in for?).

Now I shall discover if any locals in my Unitarian congregation read this blog, because what is here I have discussed with no one. And in making a revelation here, I shall also introduce a comparative and potentially bizarre situation.

I was going to share a lift to Manchester for a Ministry Inquiry Day, for either people to apply quickly or just thinking about it, with my bishop-elect friend of a Liberal Catholic Church. She also hoped to be a Unitarian Minister. The General Assembly doesn't accept ministers who would also be ministers outside in another body, and anyway she meets none of the requirements listed (I meet them all, but some only technically - for example, I attend my church more regularly than perhaps anyone and I do all about the music but I am not a member and I am not a Music Officer! I was a member for long enough in the past, and as a 'desirable' I have been a Publicity Officer twice when a member).

So, revelation, I'm going on my own. Some people are going simply to enquire to be a lay leader and the like, but I'm going to find out about the full thing. And of course I did once intend to be the full thing when over twenty years younger and living residentially in college when they concluded after a year that I might only suit a corner of British Unitarianism.

Since I was at Unitarian College, I have acquired a Contemporary Theology MA and a PGCE in Religious Education. This matters because when I did a Social Theology degree alongside my ministry training, aspects of that overlapped with my Sociology of Religion PhD. I was actually told to write a less complicated essay - the result of which I left the course and did a psychology of adult education course instead (and very useful too - directly useful for church meetings and discussions!). People saw that as a form of disloyalty and of intention to do another kind of job.

I spent a lot of college time doing sod all, even to the point of asking for something to do. My main crime was to go to what was called a student service, address students with the most radical of theology, and find members of the public walk in. I did this whilst the Buddhist orientated principal at the time later on went to the same gathering and gave them a straight down the line Lord's Prayer God fearing hymn sandwich. I pointed out the lack of so called 'freedom of belief' in his duplicity of voice. Also a chapel which wanted a pastor on the cheap didn't want me with my absence of liberal Christianity at that time and the Principal then refused to let them have my more supposedly flexible colleague.

We also had a 'Pagan' tutor, who encouraged the idea of religious dress. Indeed I had one made, with various faith symbols on it, and I think I frightened some Protestants to shiver behind their long pews.

Others have said I should have gone to Oxford and that college, to have done some writing as well. But my Marxist mate Andreas was chucked out from there (pictured with me before our ejections). We both had friendly connections with the Minister at Kensington, himself a transferee from Anglo-Catholicism (he did his final Eucharist one Sunday, and Monday began as a Unitarian Minister) and he thought it a disaster all round that both of us, being of the radical end, were removed. Andreas went on to do a radical social/ political theology course at Sheffield.

Now that I also have a theology MA, I am very wary of repetition. I am looking for flexibility, and I am not sure the 'contextual theology' approach since adopted in Manchester is necessarily right. It is likely to be heavily Christian in assumptions, and I would want to translate that towards religious pluralism at the very least, contextual too.

I'd hope that many of the Unitarian chapels are less stuffy, and many people have died in the twenty plus years since. A lot of cliques in committees have vanished. I sniff more plurality about, but I have to say that my time in Manchester was an eye-opener because I had thought everyone in Unitarianism accepted a basic position of freedom of belief without test for minister or member.

Since the time I was at UCM I have enjoyed being a Western Buddhist for a time (but that organisation went belly-up) and tried to be a non-realist Anglican, but it didn't work.

The Unitarian movement is smaller still, but hasn't crashed out of existence, and has a USP, and strangely there is not a lack of jobs for ministers but a lack of candidates. I personally know more about the tradition now than I ever have, and some of its connections outward. I bet I compete with many a minister in terms of knowing about its tradition, but I also know about many others and make connections. I've taken services and now understand more than before about its hymnody and its liturgical changes (I've not just read the booklet by Duncan McGuffie - who transferred and became an Anglican priest, now retired and not far away - but I've actually followed it up in my own liturgical writings). I also have fresh and new ideas and strategies about the future. I wrote about ministry, not as a priesthood of all believers (we don't have 'believers') but as facilitators in an educative sense, in which ministers should be 'bishops' in the overseeing tasks.

But I'm going to listen, and participate and I am not rushing. I think I cannot see the flexibility needed for the training to work, and, as before, there might not be a role for someone like an intellectual, as it became obvious in 1989-90 that there was not then in a congregationalist system where the intellectual side has pretty much died out (a Church of many school teachers, for example, mainly retired, does not constitute towards having an intellectual Church - the myth of Unitarianism as a thinkers' Church is misleading!).

The point about suggesting to my bishop-elect friend that she attended was because of the need to encourage and use flexibility, in a non-denominational Unitarianism that is a legitimate Unitarian tradition. It is (or should be) about difference coming together. Without flexibility, things stop functioning when the environment shifts. Where resources exist they should be used, and ways and means found to use them.

5 comments:

Louise said...

Hi Adrian,I certainly agree about the lack of Unitarian intellectual debate. It's not that we can't but as far as I can see there's no place for it and the ministerial role has changed. I guess that the most public debates I get into are in the blogosphere and there isn't much there and we are marginal to mainstream Unitarianism.

These are the issues I think are important - first ministers, lay-leaders and active Unitarians seem to be consumed with keeping the boat afloat. In days gone by the ministers job would have been more routine with a good-sized congregation wanting fairly standard fare - there would then have been time to read, to ponder and to write. Now we expect more active engagement and the development of relationships. Which must be good, to my mind. But then who takes up the mantle to read, ponder and write?

The second is is where do such things get published and debated? Our publications do not have a clear purpose - for example are they for us, for them, about news, about debate or about connection? This is not the fault of the individual publication boards or editors but our own ethos. Where individualism and autonomy are promoted without reference to the whole. I used to like Counterpoint but for some reason that was pulled. We need a much more strategic approach to our publications - real and electronic.

And third we need to invest in higher education - masters and PhDs. We need to build a dynamic Unitarian body of thought - we need to engage young minds (and old!) in thinking and developing their thoughts. Whilst I am no lover of theology I am a lover of how social action is the manifestation of personal values and principles. Investing in higher education would both extend and expand our understandings of a myriad of issues and potentially make a real impact on the world. xx

Anonymous said...

Just a little warning.... I understand they will only train people under 50 for the full time ministry

Things may have changed.

But don't raise your hopes if this is your aim and things haven't.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes I puzzle about The Inquirer and whether the effort goes in to gather or have gathered the news, alongside a haphazard set of articles.

There is something to be said for the older model of ministry, of the off-centre person reflecting and looking over all, and co-ordinating with others over this.

I can (re)write my theology of ministry - I was so bored and unoccupied at UCM that I knocked out a long paper examining the approaches. The paper went nowhere. I could do a quick summary for The Inquirer and longer for Faith and Freedom.

If they don't rigidly accept over fifty, then the conveyor belt moving on will deprive of ten to fifteen years worth of service. Look at the C of E - candidates have got older. On the other hand, if this is a means towards flexibility, then it can be useful, as long as there is flexibility.

tony mcneile's unitarian sermons and writings said...

Ministry seems to have changed its form. Now ministers are treated as employees and that time for reflection is seen as procrastination. A minister now is also expected to be the chief exec and the janitor -

Jenny said...

Unless it's changed VERY recently, I don't think it's true to say that all older candidates for ministry in the CofE train part-time and take on non-stipendiary roles, while the younger ones train full-time and look for stipendiary posts. While it's true that the Church will only pay for full-time training if the candidate expects to take on a full-time stipendiary post, there are plenty of people who take up stipendiary ministry after training part-time. And, while it's also true that candidates for stipendiary ministry are, in general, younger, there are also middle-aged and older candidates for full-time ministry.