Tuesday, 20 July 2010

ICUU Symposium Blog Part One

Ah, well, describing the symposium day by day just won’t work, although I will look at the themes of the papers later in this blog. And since life intervened in a way that means I am posting all the articles at the same time I will post them backwards from a blog point of view, which is to say in reading order.

Although the three day schedule looked much the same as for the ministers meeting in Rolduc a few days earlier, the content requires a different treatment. Collegial conversations about ministry and call were replaced with carefully researched and content-rich academic papers. It was neither better nor worse, but rather a different set of savoury dishes tabled for this event’s buffet.

Some 60 lay and ordained participants from 14 nations joined for three days of thoughtful reflection, debate and conversation on the theme, “Belonging: Our Unitarian Identities and the Nature of our Relations”. It was a great chance to learn about each other more deeply and more personally.
The papers will be available online through the Amazon.com in the near future, as soon as they are given final edits and delivered to us. I highly commend them to you, for they were of impressive quality and depth. We will spread word of their availability through all of our lines of communication as soon as that comes to pass.
So instead of a day by day account what follows are some observations grouped around themes.

Daily Worship

In some parts of the ICUU, most notably North America, even that word ‘worship’can cause a stir, but it is what we joined to do. The collection of shared worship services at an international Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist event is a most marvellous experience, as we come together to see what we can learn from and be moved by one another.

There were 30 minutes services morning and evening. Sometimes they spoke to the day’s academic theme, sometimes not. Sometimes they taught about how our friends worship elsewhere in the world, sometimse not. As the days go by a worshipping community developed that was real, marked by close connections and appreciation for what was offered.

This week we experienced Filipino and African worship (featuring leadership from three countries), a service by an American ministering in Germany, an American ministering in French Canada, a native Englishman now a Canadian citizen, and two UK ministers.

Within that we heard music from Africa, USA, the Philippines and Europe, enjoyed two sacred dance meditations, and lit the chalice in seven or more languages. We heard sermons and moving personal stories. We sang Scripture, and Gospel and Latin chants and simple popular hymns. We held hands and gazed into each other’s eyes in deep greeting. To follow a simple dance step while looking into another’s eyes gives room to go beyond any language barrier and any cultural difference, giving us the chance to meet as merely human beings.

And when the chalice light was extinguished and the flame was carried only in our hearts... well the whole world and the U*U world seemed just a little smaller, a little more friendly, a little less foreign.

Amen. Go in Peace.

Part Two - The Setting: Rolduc

So where did all this good worship and everything else take place? The ICUU Symposium met in the Rolduc Conference Center in Kerkrade, Netherlands.

Kerkrade is a small town in the southeast corner of the country. The town’s eastern limit is the German border town of Herzograth, and it’s only about 20 km north of Belgium. There was a strong debate among participants about whether the best ice cream was found on the German or Dutch side. (I liked the Dutch strawberry gelato!) The region, including bits of all three countries is Limburg, a hilly region a bit different from Netherlands’ usually flat geography.

The Rolduc site itself began life as a monastery in 1104. The abbey church, which dominates the site, was completed in the 1260’s and renovated (beautifully) in the 19th century. Built at the end of the Romanesque period it is surprisingly bright and airy with a second transept and an extra set of rose windows at the entrance crossing away from the altar.

For 700 years the monastery flourished until being closed after Napoleon’s invasion in the 1790’s. It would return to Catholic care some years later and become a small seminary and a prestigious boy’s school. Although a small seminary remains, the sprawling Rolduc site is primarily a conference center these days.

Our rooms are grouped around a delightful enclosed quadrangle that holds a terrace cafe. The south side of the square is dominated by the church and its cloisters and we often heard the organist practicing for one of the many weddings and concerts that are now the main activities.

The dining room is the old monk’s refectory (modernized, of course) but complete with the niche where a designated brother read Scripture during silent mealtimes. The food today is a great deal than that which the monks’ suffered!

Our meeting space and worship hall were across a cobbled yard from the church’s small external entrance. The monks, of course, would have remained within the walls and entered through another door. The room is bright and airy with tall round arched windows. We were told it was a former theatre and assembly hall for the boy’s school.

A long tree-lined road separates Rolduc from Kerkrade, and farms and forest surrounding the site. A wonderful variety of birds provided the score for the symposium. A deer park and forested set of ponds provided gentle walks and jogging trails.

Though some might think it odd that Unitarians and UUs were meeting at a Catholic site, as a ‘New Worlder’ I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of history and spirituality, nature and human enterprise. I have always found that any religious site has a certain something about it that sparks human imagination. It was an altogether lovely setting.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Part Three - New Friends

One delight of both conferences was meeting new friends from Dutch liberal religious communities. Two groups in the Netherlands share long ago historical ancestors and connections with modern day Unitarians and Universalists. People like Netherlander Jacobus Arminius challenged Calvinism in the same era as David Ferenc (Francis David) and Faustus Socinius. From these common roots arose the Dutch Remonstrant Church.

Brian Kiely with NPB Hospital Chaplain Diet van Dorsser

The liberal wing of that group has a great deal in common with us and some congregations have direct ties and partnerships with Transylvanian Unitarian churches.

A newer arrival has been the NPB (sorry the business card with the full name is in my checked bag. I am writing during a long layover at Heathrow. Mostly they call themselves NPB). Their communities (seldom called churches) seem to be liberal and humanist. While there are NPB ministers, many communities are lay led. I expect many North Americans would be very comfortable in the NPB.

Eric Cherry of the UUA enjoys the World Cup
Final with remonstrant minister Tina Geels.
Tina led a sacred dance workshop at the Symposium

The two groups are on very friendly terms with each other, often sharing work and projects. In one city the groups are so close that membership lines seem to blur. Each group has 5,000 to 6,000 members.

A total of seven ministers and lay folks attended one or both of the conferences including NPB Executive Director Wies Houweling. They were a pleasure to have on hand and gave invaluable local support to our events.

In between the two conferences, Executive Secretary Steve Dick, Program Co-ordinator Jill McAllister and I met with Wies Houwleing and Tom Mikkers Executive Director of the Remonstrant Church. We got to know each other and explored similarities and differences. It may be that we can take on joint projects on social justice or for youth in the future. As well, the NPB will be having an internal discussion about the possibility of joining the ICUU someday. Regardless of what may happen, new friendships were made and old ties strengthened by their participation.

One of the great joys of ICUU events is the chance to make new friends from around the world and learning about their culture and their faith. The presence of the Dutch – as guests and as hosts – guaranteed that this joy would come to pass.

Part Four - The Themes in the Symposium

href="file:///C:%5CUsers%5CBrian%5CAppData%5CLocal%5CTemp%5Cmsohtmlclip1%5C01%5Cclip_themedata.thmx">Belonging: Our Unitarian Identities and the Nature of our Relations” was the formal theme of the Symposium and the eight formal presenters took a serious look at aspects of that theme.

I noted that the collected papers from the event will be made available online from Amazon.com as soon as we can manage it, so I won’t summarize each one, but here are a few of the ideas.

A few months ago I hypothesized in a paper given at British General Assembly that we are not a global faith, but rather a collection of indigenous expressions of liberal religion. Apparently that simple proposition stirred some thinking. I was embarrassed at how many of the papers quoted those lines, but for several presenters it became a departure point for their own musing on the idea of belonging.

Paul Rasor (pictured below) disagreed with the hypotheses and argued that a common covenant was available to us. He took and interesting and useful first try at describing what such a covenant might look like.
The notion of ‘covenant’ with its historic and Biblical overtones (so ably and completely described by Claudia Ramisch) appealed in general to North Americans and Transylvanians, but much less so to others including the British and other liberal Europeans. By week’s end Paul stated that he gathered enough responses to make him want to rethink at least the use of that word, if not the idea that we can describe some common ties. Paul Ruston of the UK, was particularly clear and eloquent in his challenging of the term’s usage, although by the end of his formal response, Paul suggested they weren’t really in disagreement about the deeper theological points.

But a good debate was begun that was still a main topic of discussion at the symposium’s dinner tables two days later.

Belonging itself became almost a separate major theme as we moved into the second day. Maria Pap of Transylvania provided a bridge between the themes as she discussed ten years of Partner Church experiences in Transylvania. It is a history of responsibilities met and not met by partners on both sides of the story as the communities struggled to get to know each other and develop the tools of mutual accountability.

Fulgence Ndagijimana of Burundi followed with a discussion of the idea of belonging in Africa. He suggested that it looks quite complex, but that it is really quite simple. Africans draw their identity from groups: family, tribe, nation, community, gender and religion. Unlike the developed world, the self is defined and discovered in these relationships. Radical, isolated individuality is unknown. “If you want to make change in Africa, you will have to change the structures of belonging.”

Nihal Attanayake of the Philippines looked at belonging from a different point of view as he analyzed world religious tradition regarding our relation to nature. “I am one with Creation, and through Creation I know God.” The idea of this holisitic unity was exciting for some, but troubling for others who believe in a God separate from creation. We have some diverse theologies under our U and UU tent, and the friendly disagreements amongst them are always educational.

Gordon Oliver of South Africa echoed Nihal’s core ideas and challenged us to develop a new spirit of ecology as well as an active, living theology that calls us to live in right relation with the earth and not as masters of it.

On the final day, Eric Hausman, an American trained minister now living in Germany and working with Deutsche Unitaria, gave us a tour of German liberal religious experience and a sense of the historical theological debates. Not surprisingly, the shadow of National Socialism touches liberal religious history, leaving it far from simple and linear.

The final paper was offered by Hans le Grand (below left with Logan Deimler), a Dutch NPB minister who did part of his training at Starr King school in the USA. Hans used the tools of systematic theology to describe our faith. His model fit the North American religious experience particularly well leaving us with the delightful prospect of having a Dutch minister – not technically a Unitarian – explaining the Canadian and American experience of our faith to the rest of the world. Can you get any more international than that?

A Final Word
On behalf of everyone at the two conferences I wish to extend a big thank you to ICUU Staffers Jill McAllister and Steve Dick. In her programming role, Jill led the planning team that developed the theme and assembled some tremendous leaders, worship leaders and thinkers to guide our deliberations. Her efforts, supported by the team, gave both events a satisfying coherence. For his part Steve handled the considerable logistical load with grace and apparent ease. Whether it was the always complex topic of arranging visas, or coordinating local transportation (with a great deal of help from our new Dutch friends) to videoing our main sessions for future reference on our ICUU.net website, Steve made the life of participants easy. Well done!

Lay Chaplaincy Workshop offered in Rolduc

Following the ICUU Symposium nine members of the European Unitarian Universalist Union joined by Burundian Fulgence Ndagijimana took part in a day-long training on Rites of Passage (weddings, child dedications and memorial services).

Led by Brian Kiely (Canada) and Jill McAllister (USA) the program followed a well tested program offered by the Canadian Unitarian Council. For four decades the CUC has used Lay Chaplains to ensure services are provided in congregations where no minister is available or where community demand for our style of service is too great for the minister to handle.

During the seven hour session participants developed an understanding of the mechanics of such services and acquired useful resources. More importantly they got to explore the reasons and deeper meanings of these important services. Brian noted that being with people during these meaningful moments is a gift, for we are invited in when people are ‘most’... most happy, most sad, most thoughtful, most confused, most afraid and most importantly most vulnerable. In these times officiants are invited to walk with them and assist them in making these transitions. It might be the best ministry any of us (lay or ordained) gets to do.

We even had a practive wedding rehearsal (pictured at left).

Jill describes how the job is to use the service elements to build a container that holds all the dreams, hopes and emotions associated with these passages.

Much of the material is available from www.cuc.ca .

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Minister's Conference - Final Day

“Good ministry is good ministry wherever it is practiced.” With this assertion former ICUU President David Usher began our final day together. He acknowledged how local context shapes our ministries but added, “Despite the limits of local context, there is a fluidity, openness and possibility to share these skills of ministry between us. I want to encourage the possibility of more fluidity in all trained ministry.”

We had learned much about our differences, in education and formation, in the practice of ministry in different lands, in theology and in the expectations placed on the minister. This would be the day to seek solutions or perhaps reconciliation. This would be the day to discuss what we had to offer each other, and how we might overcome the limits of educational expectations and credentialing processes. It is a tall order, of course. This would be but a first conversation.

The most important factor at this turning point was unspoken: we were colleagues. None of us had checked each other’s credentials on the way into the meeting. There was an assumption from the first moment that we were all ministers no matter what our country and no matter what our church (considering we had a few representatives from the Dutch Remonstrants and NPB groups – not ICUU members.) We treated each other with respect and sought to learn about each other ministries. I have never experienced a collegial gathering quite like it.

Very quickly in the day one theme emerged. Nihal Attanayake of the Philippines and an ICUU Executive member was the first to give it voice. We want this connection we have discovered to keep going in some form. Later in the day Sara Asher of the US would suggest the creation of an International Minister’s Association. Several people volunteered to work to make that happen (taking the responsibility off the shoulders of the staff and Exec of the ICUU – very generous!) Who knows what will come from the process, but something new is starting.

In the afternoon leaders in education and professional associations presented. I expected to learn only of barriers, but instead these colleagues spoke in terms of solutions and in terms of cooperation. Where I expected rigidity (a bias on my part, I suppose) I found creativity.
We had already noted how in many developing countries, ministry is organic and entrepreneurial. That is to say ministers emerge from communities. They are recognized for their natural abilities and faithfulness. That spark is then nurtured and allowed to grow. Their training is largely done through an apprenticeship model, learning by working with an older minister. There may or may not be formal education as well, sometimes only coming after ordination.

As someone who grew up in the ‘go to school to become a minister’ model, I confess to not understanding this way of doing things and being a bit suspicious of it...which is funny, because I have never been much of a scholar or academic. I learn better by doing and then learning from my mistakes.

Then Lee Barker and Qiyamah Rahman stood up from Meadville/Lombard Theological School in the US and outlined a new educational model called “Touchpoint”, now in effect. It is based on keeping the student in their home communities and more importantly keeping them connected with both home church and other placements where they may serve. Throughout their three years they do field placement work while taking course work in intensives and connecting with students and professors through conference calls and other technological means. In other words, they are borrowing some of the best elements present in the organic models found in developing countries.

Lee Barker was delighted hear from the Africans and Filipinos and noted that the developed world and North America specifically could learn a lot from this.

Alex Bradley of Manchester College outlined the UK model which has always had a more direct connection and noted how a changing student body –more often older persons pursuing second careers - is requiring a similar shift to training in home situations.

Perhaps the best thing about the Minister’s Conference was that planners were not aiming for a particular outcome. They believed it would be enough to simply give us time to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others. It was a format that worked.

So what is coming out of this? One group wants to think about an International Minister’s Association. Another wants to explore partnerships between churches that are similar to each other, for instance, congregations in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, partnerships of mutual cultural and theological support. Interesting idea. There is a willingness to share and translate resources and to share them through the ICUU.net website.

But the biggest surprise for me, and one that was a little humbling for this citizen of the developed world, was how my western colleagues came to understand how much the developing world churches had to teach us about growing ministry. In places where there are no theological schools, they still develop liberal ministries.

The ICUU Minister’s Conference ended Monday evening with a great deal of warmth and passion, a little dancing and a pleasant party in the downstairs bar. A former vaulted brick store room from the days of the Monks, the bar is dark and cool. There is a grand tradition of meeting in the bar at ICUU events whether one drinks or not. Without a doubt the highlight of the last evening came when the energy and goodwill bubbled over into song. As usual the Transylvanian’ began singing their traditional folk songs, but soon there were responses from the rest of the world...American folk and Gospel tunes, “Land of Hope and Glory” from the Brits and even a few Canadian tunes. It was a lovely, warm finish to a good event.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

ICUU Minister’s Conference – Day Two

Sunday morning worship was led by the Transylvanian contingent of ministers who briefly shared their story of call to ministry. For some it was a family tradition, for others – the first women to enter the ministry – it was a pioneering challenge. Hearing their stories and singing Transylvanian hymns was a rich beginning for the day.

The day’s focus was ministry in the service of justice and
oppression. The first session was led by Rev. Kinga Reka Szekely sharing the experience of Transylvanian Unitarianism. These Unitarians are Hungarian in ethnicity, but various treaties placed their lands under Romanian rule. It has never been an easy situation, but it became worse under Communist rule and especially under the rule of Nicolai Ceacescu (whom Kinga only called “The Dictator”). In those difficult times the church lost its lands and school and had severely restricted activities. Ministers were intimidated and responded to that intimidation in very different ways.

She related the story of the 1989 revolution that happened suddenly and how life began to change so quickly. Nevertheless healing and the rebuilding of trust has come very slowly. She concluded, “The biggest teacher is the experience of being defeated,” and then added a statement of mission for colleagues, “Ministers have an irrational view of life, driven by faith and love.” That view of life gives us both a unique set of tools and a unique responsibility.

During the afternoon sessions Rev’s Ann Peart and Tina Geels gave us the chance to share stories of the role of gender in our culture and churches, and room for a discussion of same sex issues and efforts to make justice and – to borrow a UUA phrase – To Stand on the Side of Love.

Rev. Rebecca Siennes of the Philippines described the particular issues facing her community where domestic violence is a significant part of culture in that country and is certainly part of the village life where the churches are. She told how she started a non-governmental organization for women called “Do it!” to try to help them build solidarity around social issues and how the church sponsors two different microloan programs.

In Uganda Mark Kiyamba briefly described how his congregations educate impoverished and AIDS orphan children for free using volunteer teachers, but then spent most of his time discussing the resistance to anti Gay legislation in that nation. He spoke of the quiet and yet courageous organizing of a rally for Gay rights in Kampala. Their organization managed to garner such international media support that the government has, for now at least, buried the proposed legislation which would have seen serious jail terms for homosexuals and even terms for those who did not report them.

But after a day of good justice work, conference participants paid due homage to the Soccer/Football Gods. It turns out that this was World Cup Final day, and that the Netherlands was playing for the cup. About 20 of us went to the square in Kerkrade and joined the local citizens in their sea of orange as they cheer on the ‘Oranje’. In fortunately the home team lost in overtime. Ah well, at least it was a wonderful way to experience the local culture.

Brian Kiely