Worship should be broad. And deep. But broad.

It’s my day off after FUSE and I’m supposed to be working on the refresh the Inquirer website. (Which I promise I will do more on this evening.) But, I’ve spent an hour or more catching up on blog posts talking about the state of UU-ism (like this and this). And thinking that British Unitarianism is not like that. At least not for me.

I’m reading that in the States, atheist orthodoxyin UU congregations is stifling  other people’s expressions of faith. As an atheist, I really really hope no one feels that I’m doing that here. Because that would be wrong and un-Unitarian.

I do think that it’s quite acceptable to have an entire service go by without mentioning God (or any euphemism for god and gods). I prefer to do so if I take the service myself. But it would be unacceptable to have an entire service go by without the opportunity to worship. I do not come to church to listen to a lecture.

But then, I also think that it’s perfectly acceptable to base a service on the Bible. In fact, I desperately need to get round to writing a service about the Good Samaritan. (Which I will probably do without mentioning God.)

One of my favourite recent services was taken by Sue Woolley on feminine aspects of the divine. Because I didn’t need to believe in a specific idea to be enlightened and inspired by it.

The congregation I belong to enjoy ‘intellectual’ sermons from time to time. But, they also enjoy storytelling sermons. And sermons from personal experience. And sermons about how to live better and more authentic lives. And (something I’m never sure of) sermons about Unitarian history. I judge their enjoyment, by the way, by the discussion of it over tea and coffee afterwards.

We have a settled minister who is good at creating worship. Of course he has the beliefs he  has. For example, he is rooted in Christianity and inspired by Sufism and they shows in his services. This gives us depth and consistency. So when I get the pulpit filled on Sundays he is not there, I try and ask Unitarians who can offer other perspectives. They may not always be as popular with everyone, but I think it’s important to have breadth to complement the depth.

The great strength of Unitarian worship is its diversity. This is not because you can believe whatever you like as a Unitarian, and we need to cater to everyone in some kind of all you can eat spiritual buffet. It is because we are open to learning from a variety of sources. Which we will truly never do, unless we open ourselves to worship inspired by a variety of sources.

Spread the load

Too much of the work in our congregations and our movement falls on the same people.

This should come as no surprise – it’s always this way in any volunteer organisation. There’s always more work than people to do it, and once you start becoming known, you get asked to do more and more.

I was talking to a couple of people about this recently. Andy Pakula was a little surprised to see that I’d taken on a new project, given that I had previously told him that I didn’t really want to be over-committed to Unitarian activities. And another friend mentioned that she was trying to stand back from her chapel a bit, and reduce the impact that it had on the rest of her life.

Stacked chairs

by emilio labrador

And you know, it’s often the people who always clear away the tables and chairs that do too much work. Because it’s never anyone’s official job to clear away – so it’s the people that remember who are likely to be the ones who notice other things that need doing. And, it’s an accurate rule of volunteering that if you think something needs doing, you’re probably going to end up doing it yourself.

The ones to emulate though, are those who cajole others into clearing away the tables and chairs. What we want to do is make everyone feel involved. And just because other people haven’t noticed something needs doing, that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to do it. Sometimes people just need enabling, or suggesting. As long as everyone is clear that being asked to do something is not being expected to do it.

The more people we can spread the load amongst the better for everyone. It will stop the over-volunteers from being burnt out. It will mean that more stuff gets done. And it means that we can build better communities, for it is in giving to a community that it becomes our own.

What does it mean to have a vocation?

Nun at a waterfall

nun and waterfall by xinem

I’m never quite sure that I understand the difference between ‘vocation’ and ‘things I want to do and can do, that need doing’.

Except maybe in the context of music. People talk about making music your ‘avocation’. And by this they mean pursuing music as an amateur or semi-professional, but not dedicating your life to it.

Being a professional musician means coping with constant rejection, spending hours practising whether you want to or not, living an uncertain precarious life, all for little or no reward. There is no guarantee that just because you want to be a professional musician, you will get performing work, nor that it will pay a living wage. Received wisdom is that you should only make music your vocation if you can’t imagine doing anything else.

Is the same thing true of ministry? I’m not sure that it is. In Britain, there are marginally more vacant pulpits than active ministers to fill them. So, if you qualify, you will probably find a job. And it’s true that you will need to put your life on hold for a couple of years whilst you train – something that’s difficult for mid-career professionals, but is true of many career changes. Whilst ministry is not amazingly well-paid, Unitarian ministers earn more than about half the population (and less than about half the population) – so it’s not exactly like trying to make it in the arts.

Do we only want ministers who can’t imagine doing anything else with their lives? Or do we just need ministers who want to be ministers, and can (have the right skills and training) to be ministers? Does only imagining yourself as a minister say something more about your lack of imagination, than it does about some kind of calling?

Yet on the other hand, I could describe myself as being ‘called’ to be a Unitarian. Because saying that I’m a Unitarian is just describing a feature of me – like saying that I’m an introvert. Being a member of a Unitarian community is a way of owning and living my Unitarian identity. But I am Unitarian because I couldn’t honestly be anything else. Being Unitarian is simply how I should live my life.

And the best ministers I know, are the ones who just are. Whether they are official and trained or not, they do not minister because it is their job, they seem to minister because they can’t help themselves. I do not mean that they are all perfect people, just that ministry fits them like a glove.

Perhaps that’s what it means to have a vocation.

It’s not all about the inner journey

The otherCable car day, I travelled over 100 miles (in each direction) to attend a workshop given by Peacebang.

Was it worth it?

No. But then, nor did I expect it to be. It wasn’t at all billed as something worth travelling a hundred miles for.

It ended up as a three hour, well-facilitated discussion with interesting people, some of whom I am already friends with, some were new to me. Peacebang was much as I expected her to be. And since she lives in Massachussetts, I’m unlikely to get another opportunity to see her in action. It was worth it for me, because I knew that I would be annoyed with myself if I didn’t go. Besides, it got me out of leading Sunday school.

I stayed for the evening service at Rosslyn Hill chapel, where our loose theme was ‘pilgrimage and the inner journey’. In that service, there is a time for sharing – very loosely similar to Quaker meeting for worship, but with a stimulus, in this case two poems by Mary Oliver and a short homily by the worship leader. Various people made their comments on the importance of the inner spiritual journey, and how you can’t really travel to find yourself.

As frequently happens, I found myself disagreeing. Sort of.

You see, the inner journey is all well and good, but it’s not enough. I find that I can very easily spend hours, days and weeks on introspection and self-examination. But, that doesn’t help me live a fuller life. Because in contrast to some, I am naturally less inclined to connect with people. And so it’s something I need to push myself to do.

This means that it is worth travelling, even for something as slight as a short workshop led by a person I’ve long wanted to meet. Because it’s worth travelling to connect with people, and it’s worth travelling to think and talk about something you’re interested in with like-minded people.

Wherever you go, there you are. But the people you connect with may be able to help you find something new.

Worship that’s missing

Over the last few months, there has been some coverage in The Inquirer of the idea that we Unitarians do not do ‘joy’ in our worship.
Almost inevitably, this has lead to backlash from others who like our worship just the way it is.

I think that misses the point.

We do some kinds of worship well:

  • traditional non-conformist worship with heterodox Christian theology
  • sermon-based worship
  • alternative and inclusive communion services
  • Taizé worship
  • Iona community-inspired worship
  • contemplative and silence-focused worship

We’re distinctly lacking in exuberant worship. Or, more accurately, I almost never get to experience exuberant worship in a Unitarian setting. Something that’s loud and engaging rather than quiet and reflective. More like dancing round a fire to the sound of drums, than lighting a candle in silence and solitude.

But, I don’t think this needs to be ‘either/or’. I want loud to be available as well as quiet, not instead of. And for that matter, I happy with contemporary as well as traditional.

If nothing changes then everything stays the same. And if we only satisfy the people that are already here, we’ll only have the people that are already here.
But change doesn’t mean doing something else, it can mean doing more things in addition to the things we’ve always done.

Unitarianism is not just a refuge from the ‘happy clappys’ for former Anglicans. It’s also a vibrant living faith for people who aren’t welcome in any other box. And joining a Unitarian community shouldn’t mean that you have to swear allegiance to Victorian hymns, 20 minute sermons and a religious life of quiet contemplation. We can do more than this if we want to.

If you’re planning a lively, loud worship where the congregation are participants rather than audience, let me know. It’s what I’m looking for.

Linking up with local synagogue

I’ve just come back from our congregational visit to the nearby progressive synagogue.

It was an interesting experience. About 15 of us turned up, we went to their normal Saturday morning Shabbat service, there was a kiddush (blessing of bread and wine,  and then a spread) afterwards laid on by a couple celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary. Finally, the President of the synagogue took us back into their worship space where we looked at the Torah scrolls and he answered some of our questions.

The synagogue itself is incredibly unassuming on the outside, and beautiful but modern on the inside. (It is designed to look like an office block deliberately as a security precaution.) The people were very friendly and made us feel quite welcome.

Learning from others

I observed a few things.

  • Their service style is very liturgical, with lots of sitting and standing, and whilst in both English and Hebrew, it was probably about 70% Hebrew.
  • Aside from the larger number of children (who were mostly in religious classes), the demographic attending was much like ours – more likely to be older than younger, and more likely to be female than male.
  • The sermon was a good length (probably 5-10 minutes) and covered current affairs (Al-Qaeda, bin Laden), the (mixed race) anniversary couple, and the Torah reading.
  • The special prayers were in celebration of the founding of the state of Israel. They focused on the vision of its founding fathers, and that all its inhabitants and the surrounding region might live in peace and equality.

For me, I enjoyed the service. There were a few elements that would have fit right into Unitarian worship – particularly the opening words. The communal unaccompanied chanting of Hebrew was beautiful and occasionally familiar. There were times when I felt quite worshipful, which is something given the unfamiliarity of the service. Their attitude to the bible, and to ethics in general seemed to have many similarities with Unitarianism.

On the other hand, I couldn’t remain solely in a religious community that only took inspiration from one tradition. There was little space for non-God worship. It felt to me like there is a different emphasis between birthright and chosen faiths – and I feel that an explicitly chosen faith is the only way (for me) to go – and between faiths that seek to absorb strangers, and those that only welcome them.

Unitarians through others’ eyes

One of the things that was most interesting was how they seemed to view Unitarians. We were most definitely considered to be simply liberal Christians. We were implicitly expected to be familiar with bible stories in a way that I haven’t seen since I left my (Catholic) primary school. I found that a little frustrating, both because I don’t identify as Christian and also because our diversity is so important to how I view our faith communities.

I hope that even the Christian Unitarians don’t try to portray us as simply another branch of Christianity. It’s not that it’s given us a bad name, just an inaccurateone.

What do you think of campus ministry?

It’s funny when you investigate a new blog, you always end up semi-stalking them and posting comments on lots of posts. Or at least I do.

I’ve just been reading Boy in the Bands. He’s an American who’s recently been posting about our British Unitarian growth plans.

I think it started with Helping the British Unitarians and Free Christians. But there’s also:

One suggestion from a commentor,  is that we could do some campus ministry. And send some 18-21 years olds to the States to learn how to lead it.

I don’t know what I think of this idea. Certainly we do send people to the States to learn from their ideas (Buyan comes from Opus,  Summer School comes from Star Island) so that’s not a problem.

I think there would be some backlash in some quarters against an 18 year old taking on a leadership role. But that wouldn’t necessarily rule it out.

No, really I’m just plain not sure whether campus ministry would work over here. You’d need to be very self-starting to pull it off because you would essentially be building a Unitarian community from scratch – it’s unlikely that there would be other Unitarians at the uni who you could tap into.

I wonder whether it could be done or not.

Think about the audience

Audience in a lecture theatre

Facing the audience

It’s quite hard to be excited about January.

But, on the upside, I’ve started preparing my workshop for the UCCN weekend. I’m doing the Friday night session, which is all about audience.

I’m really passionate about audience. It’s something that I think needs to pervade our thinking whenever we communicate. Because communicating is not about us. We already know what it is we want to say. It’s about whoever we’re communicating with – our audience.

That’s true whether we’re communicating through letter to editors, posters, bumper stickers, sermons or our welcome at the door.

I think our potential audience is more varied than we realise. I think it’s broader than our current membership. And that means that we need to not assume that our potential audience thinks exactly like us, or has the same religious background as us.

We say that we want to grow. And we will grow if we fulfil a need for people. And they know that we fulfil their needs.

I think that means that we need to understand our audience – the people that we’re talking to – and meet them where they are. After all, they don’t know us yet why should they make an effort if we’re not willing to.

We need to tell people what we can offer them. I think this needs optimistic honesty. Of course we need to be truthful. If say we offer something (like great worship) we need to be able to deliver it.

But we shouldn’t undersell ourselves. We are a very human institution;  we have our flaws. And we are loveable anyway. We really do have the things that people are looking for. We just need to let them know.

Talking about God – and not god

I was at Buyan last month, and we had a Quaker visitor, Mark. He explained to us about Quakers, ran a listening activity and then helped us with a short Quaker meeting for worship. It was all excellent – he was a great ambassador for the Religious Society of Friends, and it was a calm, peaceful way to spend the morning.

Before we started the workshop, a few of us were chatting with Mark about the similarities and differences between Quakers and Unitarians. There seems to be the same kinds of diversity within Quakerism as there is within Unitarianism. And one of the similarities is a tension between Christians and non-Christians in our respective denominations.

I’ve not been a Unitarian for that long, so I accept at face value, someone’s
statement to the effect that the tension between Christian and non-Christian
Unitarians used to be more entrenched. What I think is healthy is that at least both sides can see that it exists and that they are pulling – and if we’re becoming more comfortable with who we are, then that’s awesome.

The conversation moved on to whether there’s a similar tension between theist and non-theist Unitarians – those who belive in God (however defined) and those who don’t. I think not. Sadly, not because everything is hunky-dory, but because we haven’t got to the tension stage yet.

It’s still true that a lot of Unitarians expect all other Unitarians to be theist. Whilst they may not say that you ‘have’ to be theist, there is a sense that being monotheist – believing in one God – is a defining characteristic of Unitarians. I feel strongly that whilst it is indeed the most commonly held opinion of Unitarians on the subject of God, it isn’t in fact a defining characteristic. Unitarians are better described by what they are trying to do, rather than what they believe.

But anyway. If we Unitarians manage to cling on to existence, I think that the tension between theists and non-theists will become more apparent.

Later in the evening, after our Quaker friend had left, there was a long discussion about the marginalisation of non-theists in Unitarian worship. I bowed out because I found people’s lack of understanding frustrating. These are people who are my friends, who I care about and who care about me too. I know that they ‘get’ Unitarianism.

Still, there was a sense that on one side non-theists are treated as if they are not present in Unitarian congregations and gatherings, and on the other side that non-theists can and should just translate God language as appropriate.

This suggests to me that it’s a tension that’s likely to increase. (For what it’s worth, unless I’m missing something crucial the Christian and non-Christian thing is not an issue between us, the default position seems to be that Christianity is a valid and beautiful flavour of Unitarianism with the strongest historical roots – there are other equally valid and beautiful flavours, people should have a choice.)

It is of course, perfectly possible to please both sides. (Not every person on both sides, of course, but then we are Unitarians!)

If we are talking about God in worship, then we should acknowledge that there are Unitarians for whom the defining characteristic of God is non-existant, as well as those who really, really, really don’t like the word ‘God’ at all.

But also, there are many Unitarians for whom the concept of God is central to their faith. Talking to God is one of many ways in which we worship as Unitarians. All Unitarians, including non-theists, should be able to translate words in worship that they don’t like or believe in, into words that they do

An authentic Unitarian theology

Shaft of light from the heavens

Talking about God

The theme of this year’s Summer School was talking about God. Which is a nice, plain English way of saying that it was all about theology.

Now, I’ve mentioned before (and I seem to mention it too often) that I’m an atheist. I’d like to state for the record that I was persuaded to go to summer school by a friend, who assured me that I would enjoy it, even if I’m not keen on talking about God (because I don’t think he/she/it exists).

Each day at summer school there is a talk on the theme. This year, five different speakers talked about aspects of God, as they saw it – David Darling, Yvonne Aburrow, Michael Dadson, Nancy Crumbine and Maud Robinson. (You can download MP3 files of the talks from the summer school website.)

Before I arrived, my expectations were that:

  • the talks would mostly be interesting
  • I would disagree with most of the ideas put forward
  • little would speak directly to my understanding
  • tolerance and acceptance of diversity in theology would be stated
  • atheist Unitarians would have at least a token mention
  • I would enjoy the talks because they would expose me to ideas I disagree with

Generally speaking, I was about right in my expectations. All the talks were interesting, there was much talk about diversity in Unitarian theology and a variety of different views on God were expressed, atheist Unitarians had a token mention in a couple of talks. I also disagreed with much of the content put forward with by three of the speakers (even though, I’d previously established that my views on God are actually fairly similar to one of these, Yvonne Aburrow).

On the other hand, Nancy Crumbine spoke about a God that calls us to act in the world. Whilst I essentially disagreed with the premise and argument, I found myself in complete agreement with her conclusion. I think it is our responsibility to act for justice in the world (because there is no God to act for us).

But, what surprised my expectations the most, was Michael Dadson’s talk. In it, he described God (or the Ultimate, or whatever you want to call it) as the spark that exists when two people connect with each other. It’s a metaphor that I’ve heard before and can live with, although I’m of the opinion that there’s just a spark of connection, and that’s enough.

What was much more interesting to me, was that in contrast to the other speakers, Michael suggested that God/Spirit/Ultimate/whatever was not everlasting and always present, but maybe only existed for us when we connected (with ourselves, with others, with nature).

I probably only agree with the theology Michael presented as much as I agree with Yvonne’s theology. (I’m not sure of Michael’s actual personal theology.) But I found his talk liberating. It proposed a constructive alternative to Unitarians’ current majority theology. Having someone else (a minister, no less) step outside that particular status quo encourages me to feel that my theology could also be considered an authentic Unitarian theology – even though it does lack God(s).

Image by Caio Basilio @ flickr