Monthly Archives: April 2010

Unitarian learning

At the recent annual meetings of Unitarians, a number of people expressed an interest in furthering their religious education and training. Let’s have a look at what’s currently available.

Worship studies course

This is ostensibly training for taking services. Once you pass, your name can be listed on the roll of lay worship leaders. You have to complete 3 stages, which involve 4 one day group work sessions, writing about 20 services (or rather sermons, plus choosing hymns), and having 8 worship services assessed. There are some free choice service topics, and some guided choices.

  • You need to find your own assessor for the worship services. (This is where people often get stuck.)
  • You are normally reliant on your district, or one near to you, providing the group work sessions.
  • You are supported in writing sermons by 3 distance learning tutors who are all ministers.

I’m currently taking this course, although I expect to find it difficult to find assessors as I only get to take services when the minister is on holiday.

Unitarian studies course

You have to complete 2 stages, which involves writing a total of 20 essays. The topics of the essays are in:

  • Unitarian history
  • Unitarian thought
  • Bible studies
  • world religions

I’m not sure what you get as a result of completing the Unitarian Studies course. Maybe the President will award you with your certificate?


Training for people leading religious education. This is a new course, which involves one long weekend, and 4 one day group work sessions. I think it costs something like £250.

Summer school

This is religious education for adults. It’s a week in August at The Nightingale Centre, and is usually an intensive exploration of spirituality and religion, run and led by and for Unitarians. I don’t think it’s meant to be an academic course.

You can find out about all the above courses from the Education & Training Commission.

Higher education

There are Open University courses in religious studies, and there is also a distance learning degree in Theology and Religious Studies offered through Oxford Brookes University. Either of these would be open to Unitarians.
One of the Unitarian ministerial training colleges is affiliated with an ecumencial group of theological colleges. This ecumenical group offers an MA in Contextual Theology which you can study via weekend / summer school / evening classes. I’m not sure whether it is definitely open to Unitarians – but it might be worth a try.

Ministers might be able to get support for any masters or doctorate in religion from their congregations, and you might be able to access courses via either of the ministerial training colleges.

Congregation based

Some congregations run regular courses for their members. These are not always well advertised externally, but there’s probably something going on somewhere in London and Manchester. They tend to be quite informal, meeting weekly in the evenings. One of the best known courses is ‘Build your own theology’ which was originally developed for the UUA, but many courses are custom written.

Some district associations also run courses and training sessions. These are most likely to be in one day sessions at weekends and are often open to people from around the country.


Some learning goes on at Unitarian society meetings. Many of them run lectures at their one day gatherings, and full programmes of workshops, discussions and lectures at weekend events.

Other denominations

Of the top of my head, both the Quakers, and the Progressive Christians run courses or events that might be of interest to Unitarians. I’m sure that there are others, that would work, depending on your personal flavour of Unitarian.

Ministry: lay vs pro

Hands in circle

The congregation is its people

One problem I tend to have with Unitarian ministers is the importance that they place on professional ministry. It’s not that I don’t appreciate ministers, it’s just that I’m not sure they’re all that.

A Unitarian minister, who I know slightly, was telling a group of us about the new choir in their congregation. In an ever slightly so patronising tone, the minister told us that the choir members felt that the music they provided was ‘their ministry to the congregation’. Ah, bless. Lay people who think they can do ministry.

I think the patronising tone was unintentional, but in any case, music has ministered to me more than any actual minister ever has. From my point of view, that choir can do more ministry for me, than their professional minister ever could.

Maybe ministers are not as important as they think

I’ve really got two things against ministers being gung-ho about professional ministry.

Firstly, I’m never quite convinced that they are acknowledging their own bias. I will admit that I’m not perfect in this respect either. But when called on it, I quite accept that part of the reason that I think that lay people leading worship is good, is simply because I am a lay person, and I enjoy leading worship.

Ministers stressing the importance of professional ministry within a congregation, always seems a bit in their own self-interest. I hope that the ministers I respect would acknowledge that they have some bias, or at the very least, there can be perceived bias.

Secondly, I think that in stressing the importance of professional ministry, it’s easy to miss the fact that without lay people, there can be no professional ministry. Congregations with ministers are more likely to grow and attract new members. But, those new members aren’t going to stay if the only person worth talking to is the minister.

Contribution of lay people

Lay people pay almost all of the bills – even our current investments were generally originally donated by lay people. In worship, it is the gathered worshipping congregation, not the service leader, who create the worship.

Lay people are almost exclusively the religious educators of our children. (Unitarian children’s education mostly takes place at the same time as the Sunday service.)

Lay people provide most of the organisational and administrative power of every congregation, and district association, as well as the national denomination.

Aside from congregational leadership roles, lay people are usually at least as qualified (if not more so) to take on professional roles as Unitarians – partly because ministerial training does not particularly equip ministers for non-congregational roles.

I guess I’m lay inclined

Should I ever get married or have a baby, I wouldn’t want the minister in my congregation to think they were entitled to lead the appropriate rite of passage. I’d actually prefer to have a service led by a bunch of people – who might be lay people or ministers – probably coordinated by an order of service. I’m more than comfortable with choosing and defining my own services and rituals. (If it was my funeral, I wouldn’t care, because I would be dead.)

And, at this stage I’ve been attending my congregation for more than 3 years. I’ve heard a lot about what my minister thinks on various topics. I’d like to know how the guy that I always discuss and disagree with thinks about things – I think that will be inspirational.

It’s helpful to have a professional minister in your congregation, because it’s really helpful to have someone who can dedicate themselves full time to the congregation. And it’s good to have someone that’s been vetted by the national denomination – assuming that the Interview Panel do their job reasonably well.

It’s good to have someone who can help a gathered group create good worship. It’s good to have people to provide pastoral care. It’s essential to have someone with vision. I just don’t think that professional ministers are the only people who can provide these things.

But then, I’m biased. I’m lay.