Tuesday, 26 June 2012

ICUU a Minister

Sunday was an interesting service prior to the Hull church Annual General Meeting. It was conducted by John Midgley, one of the senior ministers of the samll Unitarian denomination, and of course conducted with expression and confidence that many other service takers can yet learn. Celia, his wife, who gave a reading, is of the same acquired status. However, there is no such thing as a 'senior minister', but we know who they are; but, in clarity, there are such things as ministers.

The theme of the service was the story of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), a new worldwide body that was formed to give assistance to such liberal groups around the world, and I would say of the different traditions of the confessional Unitarians of central Europe and the evolving Unitarians/ Unitarian Universalists elsewhere. The And Something Else Happened chapter of the story was what happened after this grouping set up the obligatory website. What happened was that people around the world started reading the principles of individual religious liberty and congregational freedom, and started getting in touch to form new groups, sometimes in parts of the world hostile to the principles, and who cannot get visas to come to the ICUU meetings. In each case, as possible, ICUU people go out to meet new folk and give advice. The effect of the ICUU was to give seed to more Unitarianism worldwide beyond the ex-colonies and central Europeans.

I am minded to compare this with Anglican facilities to meet worldwide, which started on the same advisory and assisting basis; but whereas the ICUU can never be any more than this (because the General Assemblies of denominations are themselves advisory), the Anglican tendency to hierarchy and some Catholic theories of bishops, as well as a Protestant view of a fellowship of common believing, took hold and started creating a communion that made resolutions that some people took as more than just authoritative.

We know that Unitarians around the world are in different places regarding religious expression. Fortunately the east Kenyan group with the polygamous and homophobic bishop has now wandered off elsewhere, so there is at least an ethical consistency in Unitarian radicalism. The differences are wide: the Africans joining up dance as part of their religious expression; the Romanians (of Hungarian ethnicity) keep to the simplicity of 'God' while other Europeans and Americans think of other words for spiritual depth, and some are very Protestant and rational while others light candles and look into postmodern Paganism, or hold a place for dissident Baha'is. Unitarians are relaxed about diversity, and indeed diversity is all.

But as the Anglicans started to centralise, so their differences started to impede on one another. As those who were most authoritarian in the West asked for overseas support in increasing the authoritarianism, different Anglicans started to concede and compromise, even tried to incorporate. It was never going to work, and the Anglican Communion Covenant as an attempt at Protestant and Catholic process was crippled as the high-ups assumed it could be almost forced into being.

In terms of a Christian background, the Unitarians are very low church. Even where it is most Church it has Overseers called Bishops that are decidedly non-Apostolic. They are elected, oversee, and retire - but they are ordained. I have made contrasts between this approach and the Liberal Catholic one, where diversity of belief started with Theosophy and Hinduism but they retain the magic of continuous apostolic ordinations and indeed the magical interpretation of Eucharist; Old Catholic tends also to be broad but its looseness of ministries means that some delve into the Pagan and magical whilst the official view can be more ecumenical and ordinary (and thus not necessarily a magical view of Eucharist). The difference is that Liberal Catholics select and make a minister but Unitarians can only train for a minister to become one.

But, unlike some Anglicans, one cannot imagine the Liberal and Old Catholics sacrificing their independence. Others concelebrate but by invitation, as each holds to their own interpretation about what is universal about ministry and about parameters of ritual and belief. If Unitarians share practices, it is by pure diversity and individualism, and not by any kind of sanction. Nevertheless, these Catholics, once they recognise due process as having taken place, recognise their ministry titles even if they don't have concelebrations. For Unitarians, it ain't necessarily so.

But the Liberal and Old Catholics have, with their hierarchy, and yet their different understandings, a tendency to split and divide into ever smaller pieces. In Great Britain, the original Open Episcopal Church split when the Scotland diocese as was became its own Church, and thus the OEC as was replaced the Scottish diocese. Such developments should not surprise.

Unitarians do also have group mentaliites as people form around particular emphases, but the diversity helps keep people together; in this case, however, the different structures come from outside. This was true when the evolutionary Unitarians and confessional Unitarians discovered each other. It is true now too: thus we have Unitarian Ministries International coming on the scene, making ministers of its members, and because it pursues a unitarian theology, attracts the support of the Unitarian Christian Association, which is principally attached to the British General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches and forms its most conservative movement. The 'threat' of the UMI is that it forms a wholly different structure, even outside the ICUU, and produces 'ministers' that are not recognised as ministers elsewhere. There are people acquiring the title 'Reverend' when they haven't been through the selection and training procedures of the General Assembly, and it potentially undermines ministry as a unifying body of the denomination (even though there are no reserved areas for ministers: everything they can do other folk can do too). So there are UMI Reverends that take services in Unitarian churches in Britain, but (it seems) don't use the title Rev. when they do.

There are also people who have acquired the title Rev. from selection and training in another denomination, and (unlike most) have not been through a process of transference since becoming Unitarian, and still call themselves Rev. even when operating in Unitarian circles. I suppose the toleration of that difference, between UMI and others, is that the others have a legitimacy that the closer competitor UMI, of a largely Internet existence, doesn't have. Anyone can call themselves Reverend, but it ought to mean something in each place.

Personally, I'm not too worried about the UMI. It is founded on a historical view of Unitarian Christianity and it isn't the basis of the GA (other than the adoption of that nuisance Object, in and amongst the freedom stuff, and the history, to 'uphold' Liberal Christianity). The problem is not the Romanians, who stay with the ICUU and related bodies, but others and individuals, such as the revived Scandinavian group that is as much with UMI as is the British UCA, and usually on a maintenance of Christian identity argument. This is where the confusion can start.

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