Thursday, 28 January 2010

Avoiding clerical errors

I enjoy noting similarities – and the occasional striking difference – between the way things are done here in Budleigh Salterton, and across the Atlantic in our sister-town of Brewster, Massachusetts.

So, knowing that the vicar of St Peter's parish church will be retiring in April this year, I was interested in an item that I came across in the November 2009 newsletter published by Brewster's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, part of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

In Brewster, it seems, they've been looking for a new minister for some time now, and it's a quest which has involved much heart-searching.




Above: Brewster's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church



"Our survey and small group meetings showed that we are fairly open to our next parish minister being from any category of gender, race, age, class, sexual orientation, religion, or other classifications (with the exception of political conservatives)," state the members of their Ministerial Search Committee.


http://www.firstparish-brewster.org/MonthlyAngle.PDF

I'll return to that matter of political conservatives in a few minutes.

I'd say that the field is not just "fairly open", but wide open thanks to the approach taken by the Committee. On November 8, they invited church members to attend a sponsored programme which included the Sunday service, lunch, and an three-hour afternoon workshop. The aim was to persuade the congregation to move "Beyond Categorical Thinking" in the search for a new minister.

For it seems that "a surprising number" of members questioned in the survey had revealed some narrow-mindedness. "One survey respondent honestly reflected, 'Wow – I must say I need to look at some leftover prejudices I still may have...'" noted the Committee.

The newsletter itself contained a questionnaire with the following introduction. "Ministers come in different shapes and sizes and with a variety of characteristics," it explained. "The search process should be as free as possible from biases. However, sometimes we find it difficult to accept or feel comfortable with ministers with certain characteristics."

Respondents were asked to consider the list of characteristics and reflect on their feelings about having a minister with this characteristic, and then to consider what the congregations's response would be.

The characteristics covered just about everything.

How would you feel about having a white male minister aged between 30 and 55? people were asked. Or from a different age group? Or female? Or a male/female of color? Or an individual with a visible physical disability? Or blind/with a speech impediment/deaf/or with hearing impairment? With English as a second language? A married/single/individual who has been or is in therapy/on anti-depressant medication/recovered or recovering from an addiction? A gay or lesbian, partnered or otherwise? With Christian/Humanist/Muslim theological perspective? A smoker or obese individual with long hair and earring(s)/with visible and/or multiple tattoos? From a moneyed/blue collar background? Even "an individual not in UUA ministerial fellowship"?

And, more surprisingly, even a minister with a "conservative political perspective," in spite of the Committee's earlier expressed distaste for such an individual. For it's pretty clear that this church is proud of its open and friendly attitude.

The 'rainbow' flag for gay/bi Americans
Respected by Brewster's UU church
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

It has, according to its website, a Welcoming Congregation Committee (WCC) which is "committed to maintaining First Parish Brewster's unique status as the first church in the Unitarian Universalist denomination to be officially recognized as a congregation intentionally welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) people."

Seeing the splendid building in which the UUs gather for their services and meetings, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is a church of neatly ordered theology, conservative outlook and rigidly enforced rules.

I learnt from the Wikipedia article about UUs that this religion is far removed from the rather illiberal Roman Catholicism in which I was brought up, which included suffering at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers.

"There is no single unifying belief that all Unitarian Universalists (UUs) hold, aside from complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. They believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs from a variety of cultures or religions.


Above: The Unitarian Universalist Church logo

Concepts about deity are diverse among UUs. Some believe that there is no god (atheism); others believe in many gods (polytheism). Some believe that God is a metaphor for a transcendent reality. Some believe in a female god (goddess), a passive god (Deism), an Abrahamic god, or a god manifested in nature or the universe (pantheism).

Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the "spirit of life" that binds all life on earth. UUs support each person's search for truth and meaning in concepts of spirituality."
I also read that the English clergyman Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), more widely known as the scientist who discovered oxygen, became a leading figure in the founding of the church in the US. That was after he was forced to flee from England when his anti-establishment thinking and support for the American and French Revolutions led to his home being burned down by a mob in 1791.




He settled in Pennsylvania, on America's East Coast, where so many refugees settled after fleeing from prejudice and persecution in Europe, hoping for freedom to practise their various religious beliefs.


The statue of Joseph Priestley in Birmingham UK. The city was obviously trying to make amends for having ill-treated him during the 1791 riots.


Picture credit: Ian Britton - FreeFoto.


Brewster's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, with its idealistic desire to leave prejudice behind in its search for a new minister, is clearly inspired by that liberal tradition which was part of the same centuries-old search for freedom.

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