‘The Centre and the Circle: The Challenge of International Ministry’: the John Relly Beard lecture by Rev. Brian Kiely, President of the ICUU
Review by the Rev Feargus O'Connor
This year’s John Relly Beard lecture, delivered by the President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), Rev. Brian Kiely, minister of the Unitarian congregation in Edmonton, Canada, was challenging, lively, informative, full of good humour and very warmly received by his hearers.
In his lecture, given under the auspices of the Ministerial Fellowship, Brian surveyed our Unitarian Universalist movement worldwide and considered the diverse and contrasting manifestations of what he argued was not a global faith but rather a ‘collection of indigenous expressions of the liberal religious spirit’. It was this that, taking into account the varying economic and educational conditions in these countries, made Unitarian ministry, viewed from a global perspective, so challenging.
As an active Irish Canadian minister with close ties to his American colleagues, he was, he quipped, appointed President of the ICUU in the knowledge that he ‘could explain the rest of the world to the UUA and as a Canadian I could explain the UUA to the rest of the world’! This he has been able to do with notable verve. Judging from this enjoyable and humorous lecture, he performs his role as international ICUU ambassador with relish and infectious enthusiasm.
Brian contrasted the traditional liberal Christian forms of worship seen in, for example, Britain and Transylvania, with the ecstatic enthusiasm of African worshippers and the indigenous Unitarianism of our Khasi co-religionists, influenced not by Hinduism but rather by the Nature-based worship inspired by their ancestral beliefs.
Whatever these differences, rooted in the cultural and environmental contexts in which each national Unitarian movement arose, Brian detected ‘commonalities amid the differences’. Among these were a devotion to free religious thought, a ‘positive and loving faith’ and a commitment to ‘live well in this world instead of worrying about the next’.
Having considered the varying patterns of Unitarian ministry and ministerial training in Britain and North America, Brian went on to reflect on the work of the ICUU itself and its important role in bringing together in close co-operation the various national Unitarian movements.
The ICUU’s mission is indeed an ambitious one: to foster communication, relationships and understanding within the international UU community; to build networks and partnerships among member groups, their congregations and institutions; to identify and nurture emerging groups throughout the world; and join together for mutual inspiration, development and growth.
Though working to help build understanding across continents and develop resources that will help emerging Unitarian communities, the ICUU, Brian stressed, was not a missionary organisation imposing religious and cultural norms and not a credentialing body. Any attempt to impose such uniformity in worship and structures would be ‘unworkable, unwieldy and remarkably unpopular’ and doomed to failure. There could be no ‘one size fits all’ in theology, worship or ministerial credentialing.
This was a matter of contextual theology and, by extension, contextual church building. ‘Religion is and must be an indigenous expression that melds belief with local realities and needs’, he said, and leadership must necessarily spring out of that local context and tradition. Though any attempt to impose such structures and practices from without ‘would not be true to our free church dissenting tradition’, the ICUU provides channels for sharing ideas and best practices internationally. But, Brian argued, there was no moral or organizational justification for imposing a Western model on emerging Unitarian movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The ICUU provides ‘a pretty big tent managed with a great deal of goodwill’ and does all it can to extend educational opportunities to the many groups around the world seeking advice, access and assistance in whatever form needed.
A particularly enjoyable part of Brian’s talk was his detailed survey of the distinctive histories, faith practices and diverse ministerial leadership of our fellow Unitarians in North America, Britain and Ireland, Transylvania, the Khasi Hills, the Philippines, Kenya and Uganda, where Unitarians are taking a courageous stand, supported by the ICUU, against the iniquitous homophobia being stirred up in that country.
Brian concluded that, as an ‘ex-Catholic field leveller’ and ‘white, male, middle aged, middle class, mostly agnostic social liberal’ from North America, he finds the privilege of serving as ICUU President a challenging and ‘mind stretching experience’. In facing such challenges he was fortified by words of his fellow Canadian Unitarian Mary Bennett: ‘I don’t have a solution, but I can certainly admire the problem!’
But problems are opportunities and, with the cultural sensitivity advocated by the new UUA President, Rev. Peter Morales, and the spirit of mutual goodwill (in those hallowed words of Francis David ‘We do not need to think alike to love alike’) it works so hard to foster worldwide, the ICUU has a vital role to play in bringing us together and building our Unitarian Universalist international community as a force for good in the world.