I'm begininng to think we are in period of crisis for the trained Ministry in the Unitarian community in the UK.
I'm not talking about the fact that many ministers are retiring, and there's not enough left to replace them (although that is a relevant consideration). What I'm talking about is a crisis of identity.
Many professional Ministers seem quite concerned about "anti-clericalism" in the denomination and the blurring of lines between Ministers and the various forms of "lay" leadership. Whereas some Unitarians see it as undemocratic that Ministers get one vote at general assembly while congregations get one vote per 30 members, which leads some to calculate an algebra of 1 Minister = 30 lay people.
This tension builds up to an outburst here and there in a way that disturbs me.
A while ago I heard that the next Annual Meetings will have the theme of "Valuing Ministers" but I haven't heard anything about it recently. And I can't remember if it was "valuing ministers" or "valuing ministry" and we always get tied on knots over such definitions. The "future ministry" project is still looking at all these questions - and I hope manages to come out with something useful soon.
What I'd like to suggest is that this crisis is, first and foremost, an issue of theology. Unfortunately theology is often the last thing we look at when we approach these kinds of questions.
We've rather backed ourselves into a corner over this one. We don't really know what ministry is anymore. We have never had a sacramental model of ministry - believing in a priesthood specially commisioned to perform certain rites. But the protestant model doesn't really hold for us any more either. Do we believe in an educated and/or spiritually gifted clergy with the gift of interpreting scripture and proclaiming and teaching the Word of God? Well, no. Because we no longer hold to that model of revelation and gospel.
The American Unitarian Universalists have still managed to hold on to the model of educated clergy, not so much with the ability to interpret scripture, but the ability to give well-thought-out essays on political issues, sociology, culture and religion. And in the American educational system Ministers have a graduate-professional degree - something we don't exactly have in this country to the same degree.
So what is the purpose of our professional Ministry? What is it and what does it do?
Well, first let me say that I am a Quaker-Anabaptist-Unitarian. I have absolutely no time for the idea of priesthood. I don't believe that Unitarian ministers should wear special clerical garb, have speical titles, nor advertise their degrees after their name. We are a community that believes in radical equality, in democracy and congregationalism. We need to proclaim and practice a priesthood and a prophethood of all members that rejects the idea of a "more religious" class of people that does our religion for us. Spiritual hierarchy is unchristian and needs to named as such.
So what is a Unitarian Minister?
Someone who has the ability, calling and education to lead, and coordinate the ministry of a congregation;
Someone who is formally accountable (and ultimately sackable) by the congregation and denomination;
Someone who's gifts and abilities have been tested and confirmed at a local and national level;
Someone who is able to give more of their time to ministry than most members are able to do.
So here are my proposals for us then:
Ministry training needs to be tough: at least three years except in exceptional circumstances, and producing theologically, spiritually and psychologically articulate people;
Ministers need to always be involved in continuing education and training
Only Ministers actively serving a congregation should get a vote at the Annual Meetings
No ordination - we should not re-introduce ordination
In other words the response to anti-clericalism is not to build-in articifical defences such as ordination and the defence of certain priveleges and "honours" - rather the response is for Ministry to get better, which is primarily an issue of education and spiritual development.