Monthly Archives: July 2010

We are all different, in the same way

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about a problem that I’m finding difficult to describe.

Goths at Disney, lots of them

It started when I attended a discussion group in my congregation fairly recently. Nice group of people, interesting conversation, reasonably well managed (a couple of people – including me – talk too much). The discussion centred on our ideas about God. We were given a list of prompt words and asked rate them on a scale from most useful/correct/relevant to least useful/correct/relevant.

In people’s answers there was a tendency to dislike the idea of a personal or vengeful god, or that god is non-existant and like the idea of god as spirit, or truth or something similar.

This is fine – people believe whatever it is they believe. I’m an atheist, so my ideas were different. I was/am more in favour of the idea of god as a figment of people’s imagination. Again, this is fine, and is hardly likely to cause a problem amongst Unitarians.

No, the issue was that when we were commenting on which words we’d each picked, near the end of the discussion – a little after I’d said what I’d thought – someone stated that they thought the same as everyone else in the room, God is a bit like a spirit, not a vengeful God and not a figment of people’s imagination. If you’ve been reading carefully, you’ll see that’s a direct contradiction of what I think, and I was most definitely in the room. It felt like whatever I thought didn’t count because I wasn’t in the majority.

And I have had similar experiences before and since, that leave me with the impression that some people think that ‘real Unitarians’ share particular beliefs and the rest of us will one day become more enlightened beings and agree with the ‘real Unitarians’.

I don’t know what exactly the problem is.

I don’t know if it’s that people aren’t really exposed to the diversity of Unitarian beliefs. The beliefs in question are close enough to the beliefs held by worship leaders at well over 90% of our Sunday services each year. And it’s not like we present much in the way of alternative religious experiences to broaden the mind by doing (rather than thinking).

Maybe it’s that although people know that Unitarians have diverse beliefs,they haven’t thought through the implications. That it’s likely to mean that people that they actually know, in their own congregation might well believe the exact opposite of them on a subject, and that can be as acceptable a Unitarian belief as their own.

It’s not that I want people to agree that I’m right, I just want people to celebrate our diversity of thought – I think that we should disagree about important things if we want to be a vibrant and radical liberal religious community.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare

If I were a minister (which I won’t be); I wouldn’t use the honorific ‘Rev.’ as my title. For thesame reason that if I were married (which is not completely impossible); I wouldn’t use ‘Mrs’. Or if I had a degree (which I actually do); I wouldn’t put letters after my name.

I live in a pretty informal world. I don’t use titles at all in my normal life, and it seems slightly odd or old-fashioned to do so. It would be even more bizarre to change a title when I don’t use titles anyway.

I get that ministers have trained in theology. And that they worked hard to do so. And that ministers’ training is a bit more than just getting a degree in theology. And that convention and tradition allows them to thus describe themselves as Rev. Joe Bloggs. But, I think it’sinteresting that almost nobody chooses not to do so.

Is it about the status?

Partly, I think this title changing thing is status-seeking. I’m off the market (and possibly better than you) because I’m married. I’m clever because I have a degree. I’m more committed to religion(?), my ideas about theology are moreimportant than yours, because I am a minister.

It’s marking a difference between ministers and ‘other people’. One that I don’t really think is all that valid. And the difference it’s trying to mark is that ministers are superior, or moreimportant, or more special than ‘other people’. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of this. Don’t tell me that you deserve respect, show me.

I can see that there are times when additional status is useful – when it helps to get the job of being a minister done. But most ministers don’t use it only when it’s helpful, they use it all the time.

Or is it more about the theology?

Whilst I’m sure that there’s a bit of a status thing going on (I worked hard to train for ministry, I deserve this title!) I guess though, that ministers use ‘Rev’ as much because of their theology of ministry.

I’d describe this theology as ‘minister as person’. It’s the idea that people are called to become ministers, and that this marks an almost irrevocable change in their identities – like becoming a parent.

Identifying with your job (whether it’s as a minister or not) in this way has its upsides. It gives you a sense of security and it means that you’re never really off duty which is sometimes helpful for the rest of us.

On the other hand, identifying with your job is not normally seen as a good thing. It can cause you to become too attached and not see when it’s time to move on. It can stop you developing as a whole person, but instead becoming too one-dimensional. Being ‘on duty’ all the time leads to burnout.

In the case of ministers, I think it leads to ‘GA retired minister syndrome’ at the annual meetings, where retired ministers can often dominate the
discussions – possibly because they have few other outlets to express their ministry – which then accidentally disenfranchises those of us with less time on our hands.

Joseph Priestley, famous for having discovered oxygen (also a Unitarian minister)

I’m more in favour of the theology of ‘minister as role’. That being a minister is just one of many roles that people undertake, and that even if it is a role that you hold for the rest of your life (and not everyone does), its importance can shift.

It’s probably better for your mental health to see yourself as more than just a minister. And it will probably make you happier if you are more rounded.

Thinking of ‘minister as role’, also validates the idea that there are many different ways to minister as a Unitarian, and that none of those ways are restricted to professional Unitarians. And the idea that it’s the
congregation or organisation that calls a minister to serve them – and that they can call whoever they like, trained or not.

And the idea that it’s about doing ministry, not being allowed to use a special title.