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

Summer school quick notes

I’ve just been at summer school. Things that happened that I thought were brilliant:

  1. sado-masochism as spiritual practice was (briefly) defended in a talkback session
  2. a couple of kids came to sit at my table one lunchtime
  3. an onion formed the basis of one of the epilogues [end of day worship]

I’m glad I’ve got the bank holiday to recover.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

Why does it always have to be spark of the divine that makes people brilliant, why can’t it just be that people are brilliant?


I’m currently at Summer School at Hucklow, where the theme is ‘Talking about God’ and this was a comment that someone made in response to some of the initial theme talks. It really struck a chord with me. Not that you need to agree with me, just that you might, if you felt like it.


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.

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.

Where have all the young people gone?

I’m not really talking about attracting young adults to our congregations, although as a young adult, I think that would be a good thing. I’m talking about the transition between childhood and adulthood, including the teenage phase.

Some congregations are fortunate enough to have a Sunday school, or other organised activities for children. I wonder how many of those children will consider themselves to be Unitarians as adults. And of those that are self-described Unitarians, how many will become members of congregations.

It’s difficult to tell, because there are never any figures published, but I think that provision for children, young people and young adults goes a bit like this:

  • under 3 years old: may also be a room where crying babies can be taken, some toys may be available, but no guarantee will be suitable for this age group
  • 3 to 5 years old: may be quiet toys to play with during the service in the worship space, occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable
  • 5 to 8 years old: often have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, otherwise may be quiet toys to play with during the service in the worship space, intergenerational activities or stories will normally be suitable
  • 8 to 12 years old: often have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, intergenerational activities or stories will normally be suitable
  • 12 to 14 years old: possibly have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable
  • 14 to 17 years old: occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable, likely to be expected to either help with the younger ones or enjoy/endure the main service, no age appropriate activities
  • 18 to 35 years old: likely to be expected to either help with the children or enjoy/endure the main service

At the congregational level provision focuses on children, the 5 to 12 age group, and pretty much stops there. But those children grow up, and fast. What happens to them then? How does their Unitarian experience continue?

I suspect that many of the youth (11-17) that identify as Unitarians have been persuaded to attend national events, where they seem to find a vibrant community to connect with. This is a good thing. But, how many congregations take advantage of this connection and try to learn from the experiences that their youth have?

National youth programme events contain interesting and innovative worship created by participants. How is this trickling down to worship in Unitarian churches and chapels?

If their peers are the most important influence on teenagers, how are we helping them keep their Unitarian peer group at the local level?

If teenagers enjoy the experience that they get at through the national youth programme, and find the congregational experience completely unappealing, why will they suddenly choose to become members of a congregation when they hit 18?

Many Unitarian congregations want to attract younger adults. But we need to think about what we’re doing to keep the homegrown ones and that starts with looking at what we offer people who have grown out of our children’s programmes.

Worship leaders: create your own learning opportunities

I mentioned that I recently took a service. I’m extremely grateful to my congregation that they offer me this opportunity. As I’m currently working on the Worship Studies Course, I need to have my services assessed by a suitable person. But I think that any congregation deserves a worship leader who is interested in continuous improvement – everyone would benefit from having their services assessed from time to time.

The feedback that you normally get from a congregation once you have finished a service is usually polite and generous, if you’re lucky enough to get some feedback. People will tell you about the bit they enjoy or remember, they tend to gloss over the elements that were less good (although if you’re unlucky, you’ll hear about it on the grapevine). This is all nice stuff, but it doesn’t help you to improve.

What’s helpful if you want to improve is detailed feedback on the whole service – which is why it’s so useful to be on the Worship Studies Course where you have to have a total of 10 services assessed over a few years. They’ve actually got a form and instructions for the person assessing you, so it’s not too much work for them.

I’m sure that there are lay people who are not currently taking this course but who are committed to providing good worship to congregations. Perhaps they would be interested in asking someone to assess one of their services, purely for their own personal benefit. And it’s even possible that ministers themselves might want to improve their own worship leading once they’ve finished their training and are on the GA roll.

I’m not sure whether the service taking assessment forms are the same for the Worship Studies Course and ministerial students training, but if they’re not they should be. Perhaps the Joined Up Education Panel could make them available for anyone to use for their own personal development. And UALM, and the relevant ministerial body could encourage their use, as they should encourage their members to take all opportunities to learn and improve.

When you’re standing in the pulpit you have a very different view of what your service is like, I think it would be helpful for all worship leaders (lay and ministers alike) to find out as best they can what the view is like from the pews. One way of doing that is to ask someone you trust for honest feedback on the service.

What’s your personal spiritual practice?

‘What’s your personal spiritual practice?’

Possibly my least favourite religion related question, particularly if a minister asks it.

That’s because I don’t really have a personal spiritual practice. I’m learning to play a second musical instrument, and at best I would say that sometimes when I’m practicing scales or long notes it’s similar to meditation. I’m concentrating on sustaining a breath, repeating the same actions over and over. I can (and probably should) spend about 20 minutes at a time on things like this.

I’ve vaguely considered doing actual meditation every day, but it’s enough trouble trying to remember to do my music practice, and I actually enjoy that. Meditation for me is kinda dull. It’s not to say that I don’t get anything out of it, but that the upside doesn’t seem to outweigh the downside of actually doing it.

In my congregation we have a midweek service that currently mostly consists of sitting in silence ‘meditating’ for about 20 minutes (there are other elements, but they are secondary). I quite like this because I find the meditating experience better when I’m in company, rather than on my own. But I can’t honestly say that I can meditate for 20 minutes. My current record is probably about 10 minutes, before my thoughts really, really start to just wander. I have what’s been described as a ‘rich mental life’ or less politely, I daydream a lot. I spend an huge amount of time on my own, and I’m very good at occupying that time with random thoughts. It’s very easy to fall into doing this when I’m trying to ‘meditate’.

Our minister is quite keen on members of the congregation developing their own spiritual discipline, and would be more than happy to help anyone who expressed an interest with suggestions. Trouble is I’m not the sort of person that takes easily to direction.

I also don’t share the same sense of spirituality as the minister. I’m a happy atheist, but I get the strongest sense that they’re in the John Buehrens and Forrest Church school of thinking about atheism – that we’re just people who haven’t thought long enough about God yet. For this minister, the point of a spiritual life is to get closer to God and nothing they’ve done so far has persuaded me that they can come at it from any other mindset, and its not a mindset that I find helpful.

Most of the time, I’m very comfortable with translating from someone else’s worldview to my own. I can pick out the bits that are likely to be relevant or helpful to me and leave the rest alone. I’m sure this is a common trait amongst Unitarians, since we don’t exactly share the same approach to everything.

But, with spiritual practice, I’m so lost on what to do that and find both traditional prayer type practices, and new age-y type practices so alien to me that I not as able to pick out the good bits from the stuff that I just can’t take seriously. I’m all too liable to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If anyone has any ideas for spiritual practices that would suit a skeptic who feels that skepticism is the right approach to things, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my music practice.

Worship is like The Cave

Today I took the service in my congregation as our minister is on holiday. I used a service that I submitted for the Biblical Studies section of the Worship Studies Course. The Worship Studies Course essentially assesses your sermon writing abilities, plus picking appropriate hymns and readings so the service I did was quite a traditional mix of hymns, readings, prayers and a sermon. The exact elements are listed below:

  • Lighting the Chalice
  • Hymn
  • Prayer
  • Prayer of Jesus
  • First reading
  • Hymn
  • Second reading
  • Musical Voluntary
  • Spoken Meditation
  • Silent Meditation
  • Prayers of Intercession
  • Hymn
  • Address
  • Offertory
  • Notices
  • Hymn
  • Benediction

Everyone in my congregation is supportive, so they all said nice things afterwards. And I think that most people actually enjoyed it as they made comments that suggested they were listening – someone told me how the topic of the service related to the Sufi tradition (which I know is their special interest), another person told me how some of the examples I’d used had rung true to them in their own life.

One of my Unitarian friends – who has never seen me take a service before – commented that it wasn’t exactly the kind of service she’d imagined I’d do. I think, but I don’t know, that she was hoping for something a little less traditional, something with more ritual maybe, or more interactivity, or possibly a little livelier.

The thing is, it’s much easier to do the same kind of service that everyone else does. And I need to get some assessed services in, for which this kind of structure is practically mandatory. But, those excuses aside, she’s right.

I don’t think that 20 minute long addresses are really a good way of worshipping. It’s too long to concentrate, and too easy for the speaker to drift. But, that’s exactly what I did.

I don’t think that the congregation should be treated like an audience, I think they should be actively involved in worship. Aside from singing, and laughing at me when I had to get the box to stand on so I could see over the pulpit, the congregation weren’t really involved in the worship at all.

I love ritual in worship. I never actually use any when I’m trying to create worship though.

What I am trying to do when I lead worship is to draw threads together, to make space for ourselves, to make space for each other and the wider world, and to explore humans and who we can be.

Ideally, for me worship creates the same type experience that I get when I’m listening to something like this:

What I actually produced today was genuine, it was deliberately inclusive and straightforward to understand, it was thoughtful and all the elements fitted together.  But it was cerebral and the only active participants were the 3 women that gave the readings and me.

I think I’m miles away if I don’t include anything that allows the whole congregation to experience worship rather than passively listen. (Some people like the passive listening elements, I wouldn’t remove them completely.)

Back to the drawing board. I expect that I’ll next take a service in 6-9 months time. I will do better.