Monday, May 24, 2010

What do you tell primary-aged children about Unitarianism?

Last week we had about 60 children from primary schools passing through our Unitarian chapel. They were visiting us as part of their religious education, and had also visited a mosque and a Hindu temple before they came to us.

So you have 60 primary-aged children, of all faiths and none, sitting in front of you, and it's your job to tell them about Unitarianism. What do you say to them?

This was my challenge. I also had to keep in mind that they were visiting us as a Christian church. The idea was to visit a church, a mosque and a temple, Christian, Muslim Hindu (the main religious communities in Bolton). So essentially, it was also up to me to tell them about Jesus. If I had just talked about respecting all faiths, then I would have been failing to give them something concrete. The whole ethos of the day is about respecting all faiths, they had come to us, specifically, to hear about Christianity.

So this is roughly what I said:

Hello, welcome to Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, my name is Stephen Lingwood, and I'm the Minister here.

This is a Christian church, but a special kind of Christian church called a Unitarian church. And we are a particular kind of Christian church.

This place is a place for the worship of God. But we Unitarians believe that God has many names. There are many different ways of talking about God and understanding God, and we celebrate that there are lots of different ways of knowing God here.

We believe that God has sent many different prophets to tell the world about God's ways and to tell people how to behave with one another. We recognise many different prophets like Muhammad, who was the prophet of Islam, the Muslim people, and Krishna, who was a special teacher for the Hindu people. And because we want to hear from all these different prophets we read from all the different books that tell us about the prophets. So we read from lots of different books here in our worship.

But the most special prophet for us was Jesus. He is the prophet of the Christian tradition. And the most important thing Jesus told us what to love God and to love one another. That's what we're about here, we want to love each other and love God. That's very important to us. And because we want to love the people in the world we have been involved in lots of different things here to make the world a better place. This chapel has been here for over 300 years, and in that time lots of the people from this chapel have served the world and worked hard to make the world a better place. We've worked hard to make sure every person has a vote, women as well as men. We've worked hard to make sure that people who worked in mills and factories had good working conditions, and were treated well. And we've served this town in lots more ways too. In fact the first two mayors of Bolton were members of this chapel. So that's what we're about here, loving our neighbours by serving.

(I then went on to talk about what worship is like by getting them to point out things they can see: chalice candle, organ, pulpit etc.)

Maybe it's not perfect. Is there anything else you would, would not have said?

7 Comments:

Blogger Paul Oakley said...

Fascinating! Being put in the position, qua Unitarian, as being a representative face of Christianity to anyone! Totally ignoring what I would say in such a situation, I have to wonder if the school children were taken to similarly "outlier" mosques and temples to represent those religious traditions. Or was recognizing dissenting communities at the edges of the larger traditions the actual aim of the fieldtrip? Wow! You've blown my mind at the start of my day...

1:18 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Paul, the mosque and temple were not "dissenting" in any way as far as I am aware. The reason they visited us on that day was basically that I said "yes" we could accommodate them on the days they asked. And perhaps because we're a historically significant church.

In a lot of my ministry dealing with local government and faith communities we are put in the "Christian" box by people. This has its own challenges indeed. A lot of the time people don't realise that being a Unitarian is different. I need to do a lot of educating.

7:24 pm  
Anonymous Mel said...

Sounds like a very good way to do it. I'm sure Lauren would enjoy giving you her opinion. She is very keen NOT to be considered a Christian at her CofE school, and recently took in Unitarian leaflets for her teacher. She gets VERY cross when the assembly leaders make sweeping statements about the children in the room of the 'Jesus loves you' variety, or when hymns are not to her theological taste. She has a big problem with people assuming they know what she believes because she goes to a Chapel. In my experience, children can cope with considerably more theological nuance than we give them credit for. In general though, I'm not sure we're great at giving them any theological content and I suspect that's at the heart of some of our 'retention' issues!

7:53 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's nothing to tell primary children - you and other churches (conservative and liberal alike) will likely be extinct before they reach adulthood. That's what happens when you throw the baby out with the bathwater.

9:05 pm  
Blogger Tim M said...

Interesting observation from Mel about how Lauren copes with being Unitarian in a CofE school.

The most difficult part for adults and children alike is explaining our own diversity, with the many theologies that Unitarians accomodate (I don't think you can refer to "Unitarian theology" in the singular).

For example, some Unitarian congreagations wouldn't take kindly to the notion that Jesus is more important than other prophets, but I can understand why Stephen may have explained things as such during his talk.

If it was me, I'd probably explain some of the different beliefs my congregation had (briefly) and then go on to say what we held in common, such as a commitment to exploring religion together and helping each other. I wouldn't want to say whether my idea is better or worse than the exmaples above!

6:35 pm  
Blogger Yewtree said...

I think you did a great job, Stephen. After all, didn't Jesus himself say that there are two great commandments, to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. So you were true to the Christian tradition (the real one) as well as to Unitarianism.

Maybe I would have said something about not believing that God is a beardy bloke on a cloud - hey maybe you should have told them the story of God's Hat ;) and believing that everyone is born with the potential to do good (er, trying to come up with a positive & child-friendly way of saying we don't believe in original sin).

@ Mel: Lauren rocks. It's official.

7:43 pm  
Blogger Unitalian said...

Well done. In a difficult circumstance I think you did a good job - from a Unitarian perspective (for kids) surely the key thing has to be that we believe we all share the same God (albeit that some of us wouldn't call it that).

It's a personal thing I suppose, but if I wanted to distinguish Unitarianism from other faiths I would emphasise the importance of Truth - being true to ourselves, the "God inside us" if you like - over any one religious perspective. That's one of our USPs I would say, and paradoxically what we have in common.

9:51 am  

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