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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.

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.

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

Recycling as a religious imperative

Recycle can

Recycling in the forest

As I mentioned before, this summer I travelled to the States to attend Opus 2010 – the continental Unitarian Universalist young adult conference.

Unsurprisingly, I had a great time. I made several (attractive) new friends and took part in a variety of workshops and activities. I wouldn’t say that I was likely to be one of the more memorable characters at the conference, but hey, I contributed and I got lots of ideas.

One thing that struck me particularly was the general underlying commitment to the environment.

The camp took place in Kankakee, Illinois; a town which does not recycle. This doesn’t mean that UU young adults will then not recycle at their conference. No, we still sorted our trash and collected our recycling. It just had to be hauled out at the end of the event.

People had t-shirts espousing environmental causes and sometimes talked a good talk, but it (probably) wasn’t just window-dressing, and nor was it necessarily a deep ideological commitment. It was a bunch of regular people integrating some simple stuff into their lives – even when it caus logistical issues.

Unitarian Universalists respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association

One corollary of this principle is that Unitarian Universalists should recycle, as a religious imperative. And we don’t need to have adopted specific principles to think that perhaps we should too.

Image by Finding Josephine @ flickr

Building beloved community

I’ve been at Opus – the North American young adult conference. There were many fine workshops, environmental action helping to restore prairie, fun,  and inspiring worship. One thing in particular stood out in my mind. It was around symbols and expressions of Unitarian faith.

Out in the parking lot, most of the cars had Unitarian Universalist bumper stickers. One car had, as an expression of faith and identity, a Darwin fish – a satirical parody of the Christian fish symbol.

In the workshop on the history of the flaming chalice symbol, we created our own designs. One of the participants created a beautiful chalice which used the Christian fish symbol as its integral part.

Both of these people are equally Unitarian and each of these views of the Christian fish symbol – the parody and the inspiration – are equally Unitarian. Within the Opus community, these different people did not merely tolerate, or accept each other, but recognised each other as new  friends, whose opposing views form part of the tapestry of our shared faith.

This is what it will take for us to build beloved community.

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.

Being really here, now

Flaming chalice fruit pie

Things aren't what they used to be

I like being a Unitarian. Like many converts, I’m Unitarian because I am. I found out what Unitarianism was, realised that it fitted me, and then I turned up to a service.  I didn’t come as a blank slate. I came with expectations.

Expectations of Unitarianism are formed online

I happen to be an atheist. I knew when I first attended a service that proper Unitarians were comfortable with atheists. I just assumed that the nice friendly people at my local congregation had read that memo.

I also expect Unitarian congregations to be fairly comfortable that Wicca, paganism and new age stuff is no actually devil worship. I expect this because CUUPS the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans exist, and can easily be found on the internet.

People that have a narrow view of Unitarianism have already lost the information battle. Given that Unitarians with wide open views exist vocally online, not accepting ‘other’ spiritual interpretations just makes you look closed minded and out of touch. There’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle and go back to a Victorian Unitarian church or chapel.

New people coming to a congregation will probably have read stuff about Unitarians online. Given the somewhat limited British Unitarian presence online, they will probably have read UU stuff online. And the UUA is more radically inclusive and plural in its literature than Unitarians are on this side of the Atlantic.

People have less of a Christian centred background

Not only is the Unitarianism that people encounter before they meet a congregation quite diverse, so are the people themselves.

For a long time, like at least 20-30 years, children have mostly not been going to Sunday school. Most schools these days do not teach the Lord’s Prayer, but they didn’t teach it 25 years ago either.

What does this mean?

Most people under the age of about 40 do not have the same religious cultural background that older people have.  For Gen X and Gen Y (born after around 1960):

  • bible stories are not familiar.
  • traditional Christian doctrine is not well understood (nor is it easy to understand).
  • just because a hymn uses an old tune, doesn’t mean anyone will know it.
  • reciting the Lord’s Prayer from memory is not a skill people have

We need to take this into account and more when designing our worship, when welcoming new people. And it can be a good thing. Being made to look at familiar things with new eyes gives us insight.

Adapt or die out

Adapt or die out. That is the over-riding message of evolution.We have to be relevant, because if we aren’t then we will cease to exist. And being relevant means taking into account changes around us, and adapting to them.

It means embracing the borderless online world, and the wider varieties of Unitarians and Universalists.

It means embracing the lack of cultural Christianity in society at large, and the space that provides for vibrant Unitarian religious communities.

It means embracing the present and being really here, now.