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Why Unitarianism? Three Ministers Reveal All

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Photograph courtesy of New Unity, a nonreligious Unitarian church in London, whose congregation is one of around 170 congregations belonging to The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

1. Personal Inspiration

What personal experiences, authors, speakers and so forth, inspired you to train for ministry with the Unitarians?

Maria Curtis

I discovered Unitarianism in my mid-fifties, having been an atheist for most of my adult life.  I was familiar with my local Unitarian church as a concert venue where my singing group had rehearsed and performed. I started to look at the information leaflets and writing on the walls, noticed the absence of crucifixes, and thought, “What sort of church is this, where ‘all are welcome regardless of beliefs’?” At the time a difficult long-term relationship had come to an end and I was experiencing a sense of freedom. I had always been interested in spiritual approaches to life but was intellectually unable to adhere to irrational beliefs. The Unitarian church aroused my curiosity and I felt I had nothing to lose by attending a service. The service was led by a female minister who managed to combine a sense of irony with a prayerful seriousness; what she said was interesting, inspiring and uplifting.

I was hooked and have never looked back. I very quickly got involved in the life of the church, doing readings, setting up for services and making teas and coffees etc., and became a member and sat on the Committee. When the minister left, a group of members kept the church going. I was an experienced teacher and was working as a psychologist in education. I co-led some education programmes (engagement groups) and started taking services. There was no particular moment when I felt a calling – it was more a feeling that I was already ministering and wanted to train in order to make a better job of it. It was the ethos of the church that inspired me –  the fact that it was congregational; that the community was based on shared values rather than shared beliefs; that it was open-hearted and open-minded.

Claire MacDonald

Ministry mediates between the world of everyday experience and our hopes and dreams. It’s very cognisant of desire and disappointed hopes. I came to it through my childhood experience in a deep way, a way in which I also felt called to transformative theatre work in groups and with communities, which I did for many years. I was an eldest child in a fragmented, cash strapped family in which my siblings and I had to care for a dying parent in a family in which the other parent had left. That kind of experience brings the exigencies of life very close and invites you to ask big questions.

As an adult the calling was expressed to me by Rev. Elizabeth Birtles when I took a course in how to lead a service with two impressive Unitarian women — Sarah Tinker and Jane Blackall. Liz Birtles articulated for me the way in which a minister operates in a space between, a place where energies can be called forth, ragged hems mended and hearts stilled — through a practice of doing and being. That just called me to it. Unitarianism and Unitarian ministry has been the only ministry wide enough, deep enough and liberal enough to hold me personally. It has allowed me to draw on the Christianity of my childhood and deepen it with other religious and philosophical insights and a political commitment to justice and equality across race, class and genders.

In terms of who has inspired me as writers and thinkers — that too goes a long way back — Ivan Illich, the great Catholic liberation theologian and social thinker in his book Tools for Conviviality, which I read first in the 1970s has always been a spiritual presence, as has the theologian Mary Daly, brave, wild, radical, feminist, wordsmith and counter cultural thinker that she was. Karen Armstrong’s diligent attention to religion’s history, Nicola Slee’s Christa imagery and ritual sensitivity; Kwame Anthony Appiah’s commitment to conversation’s centrality to human flourishing; Mary Wollstonecraft’s prophetic imagination, and, personally, the great Unitarian speaker, minister and hymn writer Rev Andrew Hill, as well as Rev Andy Pakula who mentored me in ministry at Newington Green, Rev Ana Levy Lyons, my minister in Brooklyn, composer Meredith Monk who asked the great question for me as a performer — what is the difference between an audience and a congregation? Letty Russell for knowing the value of a round table — when I think of it there are just so many thinkers, writers, encounters, friends whose spirituality and political theology has informed me I can’t list enough of them here.

Andy Pakula

I do not fit the mould. I never have. I grew up in a liberal and rather secular Jewish family in New York. We celebrated Hanukkah (mostly for the presents) and Passover (the celebration of freedom), but we also had a Christmas tree, and Santa came and filled our stockings every year! I did not take to religion as a young man. Indeed, I was vehemently atheistic and anti-religious. I am still an atheist and, depending on definitions, I might still be called anti-religious; at least I am ‘anti’ the kind of religion fosters homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, that promotes ‘us vs. them’ thinking, that insists that it knows the right answer – as if there is just one – that tells us what we should think, believe, and do, and dangles rewards and threatens punishment to get us to behave.

I chose to study science, earning a PhD in Biology and a Master’s in Business, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I went on to have a rewarding career in the biotechnology industry. As a scientist, I wouldn’t entertain any ideas that couldn’t be proven in a well-designed, objective experiment. So, when I found myself in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Lexington, Massachusetts, it was a bit surprising to those who knew me, and to me as well!  My wife Miriam and I had decided to give it a try, but only for our young son’s benefit – or so we thought. Over the subsequent years, ever so gradually, that congregation helped me to recognise the potential beauty and power of people coming together to create community and to make a better world. Indeed, it started me on a path that led me to leave biotech and become a non-theistic Minister.

I began studying for the ministry at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts: several years of academic training, followed by a year-long internship under the supervision of an experienced Minister. I was in the late stages of setting up my internship at an American congregation when Miriam announced that she’d been offered an exciting job (as the CEO of an internet retail fashion company) that would be a great step forward for her. Naturally, I was delighted – until I found out that this new job was based in London. ‘London? We can’t go to London! I’m preparing for the American UU ministry!’ I feared that it would be impossible for me to transition my ministerial preparation to the UK. However, the expected barriers fell like dominoes before me. We packed up and moved to what we expected to be our very short-term home – London.

The London Unitarian congregations of Newington Green and Islington asked if I’d be willing to fill in for a year, upon the departure of their shared minister. I was told that it would be considered a success if the congregation numbers were maintained. Happily, the congregation grew that year, and the church Committees asked me to stay on a bit longer. Two more years passed, with continued growth, from 35 members to more than 100. In 2009, when I completed my British Unitarian ministry training, the congregation formally welcomed me as their Minister. It had become clear to me that even though I hadn’t foreseen the fascinating twists and turns my life path would be taking, I was in the right place, at the right time, in the right vocation; and so looking forward to the challenges and joys to come. I do not fit the mould, and I don’t think any of us are meant to be shaped and manipulated to fit a mould – of belief, perspective, sexuality, or ability. We’re meant to be treasured as the people we are, and to be accepted, loved, and supported as we grow as individuals and join together to create a more just society.

Perhaps the most important experience for me was of truly deep and vulnerable community. This took place in various settings in and around Unitarian Universalism (UU) in the US. This experience is to me the most profound and even perhaps ‘sacred’ of encounters. My disenchantment with the world of business inspired me in the sense that it provided a clear example of what I did not want to do for the rest of my life! There have, of course, been many other experiences.

2. The Meaning of Ministry

What does being a Unitarian minister and spiritual leader mean for you, in terms of your personal beliefs, values and goals?

Claire MacDonald

Being a minister and being a Unitarian are two related but distinctive things for me. Ministry is a practice and a calling across faiths and contexts. It’s not defined by denomination, it’s a practice, a way of doing and being. I try at it, I fail, I fall, I try again. It is at the same time deeply joyful and scarily uncertain — it calls me to find resilience and to learn to swim when no resilience is possible.  It’s without goals in its best sense. It feels very connected to caring for the earth, to countercultural ways of thinking and doing outside conventional notions of ‘success’.

I try to ask the questions, value experience and not depend on established narratives. And yet, I think we are looking for the best models to live by, models that allow for the most generative kinds of human flourishing. So I am not a liberal in the classic sense — not all paths are equal for me. Spiritual leadership is simply two things, one is always being prepared to say that the ‘buck stops with me’. I am the backstop. And I simply try to walk the path, to walk with, not to fix or solve but just to be there.

Andy Pakula

I am committed to creating more love and justice in the world. This begins with community and works through community, so building healthy, loving, justice-seeking community is my highest priority.

Maria Curtis

I spent years of my professional life putting labels on children with special educational needs as a route to acquiring resources. I am very much against labelling people. One of my fundamental beliefs is that we should encounter “otherness” with curiosity and compassion. It is important to me to acknowledge that we all have prejudices – we all project our perceptions onto others – then we can work to counter them in an attempt to see the other as a human being like us. I believe we are all “equal in the sight of God”, but we find it very difficult to behave as if this were the case; we are all guilty of valuing some people more than others. Through our spiritual community we endeavour to support one another in seeing the divine spark within everyone.

One of my tasks as spiritual leader is to acknowledge human frailty and still maintain hope. We are not in denial about human stupidity and evil, but we know that is not the whole picture. I support my congregation in avoiding despair and retaining their capacity for joy amid the gloom and doom. For example, we can easily experience despair in relation to climate change but despair does not lead to action; we need to tap the wellspring of joy and gratitude at simply being alive amid beauty and loving relationships. This is the world we want to preserve for future generations and it is our responsibility to act to make the world a better place, rather than being mere bystanders.

3. Study and Training

What did your training involve and how do you continue to reflect on and develop your practice?

Maria Curtis

We used to have a Unitarian college in Manchester which was part of a federation of colleges of other dissenting churches. I did a two-year full-time course in Contextual Theology, alongside Unitarian Studies, which was taught separately. Because I was academically well qualified, I was allocated to courses from the MA programme although I had no background in Christianity. I enjoyed the courses but felt uncomfortable learning in an academic environment where one’s Christianity was assumed. I do not identify as a Christian and soon realised that the sort of philosophical discussion I had anticipated was only possible with my Unitarian colleagues and not the other students (and only some of the staff). We have recently created a new Unitarian College which is completely independent and can tailor courses to individual needs, a much better model in my view, and I wish it had been available when I undertook my training.

By far the most significant aspect of my training was the placements, the first under the supervision of an experienced minister and the second where I was the minister-in-training. I learned so much about congregational life and was able to reflect on my practice through my contextual theology assignments. I continue to reflect on my practice through a covenant group (a form of peer supervision), my District support group for ministers and my own minister’s support group in my church. There are two national meetings per year when all Unitarian ministers in UK can gather to reflect on and develop their practice. We also have an annual General Assembly where we meet with the wider membership.

Claire MacDonald

My accredited training took several forms. Firstly, I took a course in how to lead a service which tuned out to be much, much more than that. It was an opportunity to reflect and connect in ways that were transformative and allowed me to bring my existing practice as a performer, teacher and writer into an emerging context and share with others the experiment and experience of allowing what ministry might be to change us. It stayed with me and the people who did it with me stayed with me. I have Sarah Tinker and Jane Blackall to thank for that. Secondly, I was incredibly lucky to be invited by Rev Andy Pakula to spend a year at New Unity in Islington as his assistant and trainee. It was a wonderful year. I learned from him about family systems theory, and about how to be in a congregation, where your role is to be slightly set apart. I took services there monthly and I loved and love that congregation. I then trained for two years at Harris Manchester College Oxford in ministry. The focus was on formation, in an intimate conversational setting in which we wrote essay length pieces of writing on a variety of topics and shared those, reading them aloud and then through discussion. The afternoons we spent in discussions were very deep indeed.

At the same time, I undertook a pastorate in Oxford and led services monthly as well as a book group. I also studied in London over two years for an MA in Abrahamic Faiths at Heythrop College, a Jesuit foundation, which was among the deepest and most challenging and interesting intellectual contexts I have ever taken part in. I already had a PhD in a different subject. I was a university teacher and was also running an MA while I was training but this was very challenging. The MA focused on the violent impact of modernity on the three Abrahamic faiths and the ethical, political, spiritual and cultural questions which emerged from that. I had teachers from all three faiths.

In terms of continuing reflection – yoga, prayer, getting myself out of the way, trying, failing, listening to God, finding God in the small things. There’s nothing special. My practice is everyday life. In a sense it’s the heightened awareness of life’s brevity, of that very short horizon, of living with insignificance. I am a yoga teacher and writer. I still work in the arts. It is very important to me though that the MA aspect of my training was so intellectually deep. It gave me strength and depth and connected me to the the writings of others through history. I felt as if I was being taken by the hand from somewhere very deep down and just hauled to the surface of the water, learning to swim.

Andy Pakula

I was trained both in the US and the UK. In the US, with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), I was required to do a Masters of Divinity degree which was 30 modules. It covered theology, history, preaching, ethics, scripture, world religions, pastoral care, community systems, and much more. I was also required to undertake three hundred hours of Clinical Pastoral Education, which I did in a hospital, and to carry out a yearlong full-time internship in a congregation. In the UK, I was required to learn more about British Unitarian history and theology. Ultimately, as an atheist serving a non-religious congregation, I found much of the theology and history to be not very relevant to my practice of ministry. I have learned far more doing ministry than I did learning about it.

4. Liturgical and Reflective Practices

What liturgies, rituals and reflective practices feature in your church’s services and events?

Claire MacDonald

As I understand it, liturgy originates in the order of things, the way we do them. Simply meeting weekly for reflection and sharing is a practice that has become essential and which is at the heart of community and congregation. That Sunday morning hour is an expansive moment. Its a pause between one week and the next, a collective breathing in and out, a point of recognition of who we are. We do some meditation, we sing at times, we read poetry, we light candles for the world and our own lives and we share the joys and hopes and losses and pain quite formally, and in a context that is confidential. We do that to recharge and support our commitment to change. That change is an essential aspect of ordering our daily life on ethical principles and values. Everyone matters, we commit to love and kindness, we admit to failure, we appreciate what we dont know, we use and value reason, we accept and value difference.

At my own community meeting house in south London we embrace many paths to spiritual growth and we do it in a strong and questioning way. We experiment with ways of connecting through arts and poetry, song, meditation, story telling and practical work gardening, cooking, sharing meals, going camping together. We also try to work/walk through the seasonal year and its festivals, which are often tied to the big Abrahamic faiths as well as older, earthier insights and practices. The road is made by walking, as the poet Antonio Machado said. This Sunday we are doing a water gathering service using the bringing and mixing of waters to tell the stories of our summer and our hopes for what is next. Artist Amy Sharrocks, who created the Museum of Water, is joining us. Personally, I also lead and design rites of passage, and conduct weddings and funerals in which I help people to create those in appropriate ways for them. I am also interested in rituals as effective acts, or performative utterances. I am leading a weekend workshop at the Live Art Development Agency at the end of September on blessing and cursing for art practitioners. I like that cross-over.

Andy Pakula

We don’t do much in the way of liturgy to the extent that this is meant to mean a repeated set of words and phrases. We do have rituals. There are those (such as candles of joy and sorrow, lighting of a candle, and rising in communal song) that we repeat weekly. There are others that are infrequent and some that are devised for specific situations. Our meetings begin with a ritual check-in with the prompt ‘how is your heart.’ The meetings end with a check-in of ‘likes and wishes’ to express what each person liked about the meeting and what they wish could be different in the future. The meeting finally closes with a ritual where each person in turn takes the hand of the person to their left with the words ‘I place my hand in yours that we may do together what we cannot do apart.’

Maria Curtis

Services begin with the lighting of the chalice, the symbol of our free faith. I often incorporate candle lighting ceremonies in my services where individuals from the congregation can light a candle (tea light), offer a silent prayer or speak to the theme of the service. I sometimes have mini-discussions where people can share their experiences in small groups. We have very little in the way of a set liturgy, but my services generally follow a structure that I’m comfortable with, sometimes known as the “hymn sandwich”. Every service would contain hymns, readings, prayers and silence/meditation. I have also used film clips occasionally.

An example of a recent District Meeting that I hosted: A service – plus – workshop on a theme of Active Hope, based on the ideas of American Buddhist and eco-warrior, Joanna Macy. We sang, we prayed, we gave thanks, we lamented, then we discussed what we had done that had actually made a difference, however small, to the welfare of the earth.  Contributions took the form of lighting a candle and speaking and sharing in small groups. All who attended (about 35) made a contribution and I believe felt empowered by the end of the ceremony, which took about two hours. Once a year, I lead a service to which members of the local community are invited. A couple of years ago, this took the form of the Great Get Together on a theme of Unity to commemorate the life of murdered MP Jo Cox. This year, the theme is Food and we’ll be looking at the recent UN report on farming and climate change; food poverty; food waste; recycling, etc.

5. Matters of Identity

Would you describe your ministry as Christian? Or, in other words, how does the Unitarian church’s Christian heritage feature and inspire current Unitarian communities and yours in particular?

Andy Pakula

No, not Christian. My own background is secular Jewish. My congregation is mostly agnostic or atheist. We draw wisdom and inspiration from secular and religious traditions. Christianity is no more important in this way than other major world religions.

Maria Curtis

A small minority of my congregation would describe themselves as Christian; most would not, but there is enormous variation in theology and beliefs among Unitarian churches and chapels. Having come from a very humanistic church in the south of England, I had quite a shock when I went to train in Manchester and encountered congregations which were predominantly Christian. I certainly do not identify as Christian; I can make no sense of Jesus being the son of God.  I find some Christian ideas such as Original Sin and the Atonement abhorrent.  I am not interested in claims about Resurrection. However, I am attracted by the ethics of Christianity, as conveyed in the gospels.

I sometimes describe myself as a follower of Jesus –  the radical who stood against hypocrisy and was committed to social justice – but I am also inspired by the Buddha, Socrates and many other mystics, philosophers and poets who seek the truth. I cannot assume that everyone in my congregation believes in God. I regarded myself as an atheist for years but would not do so now.  I no longer find it helpful to think in terms of belief or disbelief in God. In the course of a service I may use many paraphrases for the concept of God, eg, the Divine, That which is of highest worth, Love, Creative Spirit, etc.  At the beginning of a service I would always explain our Unitarian stance, saying that we respect the Christian tradition from which we emerged, but glean insights from other faiths and philosophies, as well as from literature and science. Above all, we are open hearted and open minded, and that means we must be ready to change our minds in the light of new evidence.

Claire MacDonald

My ministry does not look for Christian answers, it doesnt use the Christian story or the Christian message allegorically but it listens to what ancient stories have to tell us, and I am moved and creatively charged by them. I share with Christians a sense of the strange, essential, resilient mystery of Christianity. Christianity is a conversation, and a process, and a spirituality the institution of church is quite another thing. Unitarianism began in a moment of political dissent from the established church and I value the way in which it has moved towards a conversation between reason, science, knowing and unknowing, and an embrace of wider spiritual traditions. I also appreciate its commitment to ministry as a dynamic practice though I see that as in a sense more a rabbinical role than a priestly one — since Unitarianism is non sacramental.

For me, it’s more a question of culture than belief. Being married to an American Jew I have spent many years as a participant in Jewish liturgies, seders and practices, which I have come to love and appreciate. I have also come to see more clearly the ways in which I remain culturally, and in my heart, Christian. It has me emotionally — I know its stories, I know its part in my personal development from childhood, I know its shape and its depths. I have also been affected and informed since my teens by liberation theology. That movement, to always walk towards the margins, to always side with the poor, to side with those for whom the world is in a state of collapse, that is Christian in ethical practice and it takes a deep, steady sense of the worth and value of Christian theology to go there, and I have also learned from women practitioners and theologians across faiths — Ana Levy Lyons, my Jewish Unitarian minister in New York, the writings of Jerusha Lamptey, who is a muslim theologian at NYU, and, very recently, from the Palestinian scholar and activist Liana Saif who is taking part in my blessings and cursings workshop. In recent years the beauty and insight of Islam has been instructive for me. That is an ongoing journey.

6. Building Community

How do you build local community and accommodate a range of personalities and beliefs?

Claire MacDonald

This is huge question. By doing, listening, modelling, respecting, embracing… Ministers have a place at the table that is unique. It allows us to take part in a very wide range of community activities and spaces. That is very important. I think we need to offer respite, space, pause, and I think we need to be very clear about our values. Building community in times like these is very challenging indeed. Accommodating people is not what I see community doing, its more to do with finding ways to allow and enable people to ‘just be’ but also providing a strong sense of what we side with and commit to — people can be with those values as process and engage with them as part of a journey.

I am reminded all the time that Unitarian communities and congregations are ecological systems and I am thinking about what the ecology of a community means in difficult times, how resilient a small system can be. Religious movements encourage people to bring all the baggage we carry with us into the space. We don’t just bring our dressed-up selves but ourselves in pain and need. I find that challenging and I find it breathtakingly honest at times. We bring our grief and upset to the table, and in the current political spiritual ecological crisis I have begun to see that they are not negative, they too are tools we have to work with. The trick is to keep breathing, to learn to step back, not to judge, to accept where we are. I don’t find it easy at all. I find it extremely challenging at times. I have to remind myself that failing and falling and making fools of ourselves is all part of how we find new growth in the world we live in. Religions accept that we are broken, and that we strive for wholeness. At times, in a mosque, in a synagogue, in a temple, in a church, I feel we can breathe, let down, as if we step into shallow water together with bare feet, just to be here. That’s the challenge, to be here. As Tich Nhat Hahn says, our true home is in the present moment. ‘The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment / to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now. It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.

Andy Pakula

I came to the conclusion some time ago that it is better for a congregation – and especially a minister – to be one thing well rather than try to be all things to all people. The Sunday Gatherings at New Unity are non-supernatural. They don’t deny the existence of supernatural forces and entities but speak to the core religious message of love and justice. Our words and practices place responsibility for the world and for our relationships upon human beings. This is not to say that other people and views are not welcome or included. All are welcome. Many who hold supernatural beliefs find much that is inspiring and sustaining at New Unity and – since we don’t try to deny or disprove their beliefs – they feel free to read their beliefs into our message.

Maria Curtis

We are a welcoming community which offers hospitality to all. We model respect in our interaction with one another, including tolerance of difference in our relationships, which then radiates out to the wider community. What holds us together as a spiritual community is our shared values. These are reinforced through regular worship, where we gain strength from participating together, and through shared activities where we extend our hospitality and charity to other groups. Together we share our joys and sorrows, leading to cohesion as a community.

7. Rewards and Challenges

What are the greatest rewards and challenges of your work?

Maria Curtis

The rewards far outweigh the challenges. Compared to life as a professional in the public sector, my life as a minister is pure joy. I have the autonomy to focus on what I feel is most important without having to worry about resources or statutory deadlines; I used to be part of a bureaucratic special needs machine, whereas now I have considerable freedom. True, there are deadlines, and one loses weekends, but apart from the work around the Sunday service, I can prioritise where to focus my time and effort. It is a real privilege being able to serve a congregation and focus on what really matters in life; a big responsibility, too, as people share their deepest feelings with their minister.

I am very comfortable in the role of “holding” the congregation during services as well as holding individuals and small groups. I bring transferable skills from my experience as a teacher, psychologist and counsellor which I enjoy using, but, beyond expertise, it is the use of self, just “being there” for others, which gives me great satisfaction. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of coming up with ideas for services, choosing readings and structuring the service for maximum impact. I am someone who enjoys writing and researching but my perfectionist streak means that I probably spend too long on these activities. Too much time spent sitting at the computer is one of the downsides of this line of work but the pressure is coming from me, not anyone else.

This may seem a strange thing to say, but I really enjoy conducting funerals.  I feel at my most therapeutic when I am supporting people in coming to terms with their loss. I think it is very important to make the funeral ceremony a positive experience. By that I do not mean denial of the finality of death or sharing fantasies about the afterlife.  It’s all about acknowledging the pain of loss and working towards acceptance of death. I endeavour to convey the personality of the deceased in a way that rings true for the mourners so that they can celebrate a life and say goodbye to their loved one. It is such a privilege to conduct funeral services for people when they are at their most vulnerable and be able to offer them comfort and support.

If I had to summarise ministry, I would say it is about bearing prophetic witness – to injustice, dishonesty, hypocrisy, etc, – while acknowledging with gratitude and humility the sheer privilege and joy of being alive.

Claire MacDonald

There are so many kinds of rewards in community. Being in there, in what I call the dirty water of passionate commitment to human flourishing, connected to where people are in vulnerability and resilience is rewarding. There’s a lot of fun involved, a lot of letting go of what doesn’t matter, a lot of attention to where we are. The challenges are also very big. Some of them are the usual — funding, making our spaces beautiful and safe, offering gatherings that are connected and meaningful, not making it a to do list, not overdoing it, listening. There are others patriarchy and unconscious sexism, the passing off of privilege as liberalism, the lack of real diversity in liberal congregations, the challenges of race and class, the need to meet emerging sexualities and identities with authentically and actively, all of that.

There is also a fear of taking responsibility that is very challenging, a desire not to rock the boat, an aversion to risk, a narrow minded clubbiness. Shall I go on? Church hurts. I am in a ministry group across denominations and its the same everywhere. The trick is to keep breathing, to learn to step back, not to judge, to accept where we are. And yet to hold to values and principals. I’m also prepared for failing and falling and making fools of ourselves, in things not going well, and in tears and temper and falling out — because this is how we find new growth in the world we live in. We bring our pain, grief and upset to the table, and in the current political spiritual ecological crisis they too are tools we have to work with. I am reminded all the time that Unitarian communities and congregations are complex ecological systems and I am thinking about what the ecology of a community means in difficult times, how resilient a small system can be, what makes it special, what gives it shape, makes it distinctive, gives it life? Churches are very challenging places because we bring our whole selves, and that is really powerful. We don’t just bring our dressed up selves but ourselves in pain and need. I find that challenging and I find it breathtakingly honest at times.

Andy Pakula

The challenges are few and the rewards many. The challenges for me really come down to my own passion. I want to do more each day than can fit. This comes from the fact that the work is so rewarding and important. Ministry is the best possible job. My work is to help people and help them make a better world. It is to help people to love one another. It gives my life meaning and purpose and aligns with my personal mission.

8. Unitarian Visions

In your view, what should the Unitarian vision and practical emphasis be, going into the future?

Maria Curtis

Our priority should be to engage with others who share our values, with people of faith but also humanists and anyone else who takes life seriously.  There are so many big issues to confront that we need all the help we can get. I am less interested in putting energy into preserving Unitarianism than in gathering like-minded people of compassion together to make the world a better place before it is too late.,

Claire MacDonald

Living it. Caring about an enriching spiritual life as everyone’s right. Not worrying about growth. Not getting into bed with the remaindered business model that churches are finding so appealing at present but siding with ecological, counter cultural thinking, how to collaborate, how to let go of old systems, how to model in the way we work together the kind of society we would like to be.

Andy Pakula

I believe Unitarianism should be a diverse collection of congregations. These congregations will have distinct perspectives, approaches, and diverse beliefs. Each would be authentic and avoid the pitfalls of trying to please everyone. Each congregation would be outwardly focused – intent on meeting the world where it is and providing what the people of today need.

9. Working with Others

What organisations with similar values and goals do you collaborate with?

Andy Pakula

We collaborate with Extinction Rebellion, Citizens UK, Humanists UK, and dozens of small non-profits.

Maria Curtis

Local, national and international interfaith groups. Local ecological groups. We have created a South-East Climate Alliance group.  GreenSpirit, a national group of which I’ve been a member for a while, brings together people from a range of backgrounds who care about the earth. Society of Friends (Quakers). Ironically, the group we have least contact with in my area are Christian churches; Churches Together will not collaborate with us because we don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. Greenpeace.  Amnesty International.  Local Refugees group.  Extinction Rebellion.  Local recycling/repair groups working against waste.

Claire MacDonald

I am committed to internationalism so I collaborate with, visit and partner with Unitarians across the world. That includes feminist Unitarians in Transylvania through my friend Reverend Eniko Ferenczi, and with friends and fellow Unitarian ministers Meg Richardson and Gabriella Lettini at Starr King College at Berkley, who teach counter cultural pedagogies based in transformative inclusive theologies. I am a writer and arts practitioner as well and am part of the Culture Declares Emergency movement working on the climate crisis. I am in LIF, the Lewisham Interfaith Forum. I am a committed arts activist and work with arts organisations such as the Live Art Development Agency. They are based in an old Unitarian mission in Bethnal Green and create collaborations across all kinds of groups. I work with SimpleGifts, the Unitarian social action centre, also based in the same building in Bethnal Green. Actually, I will pretty much collaborate with anyone. At the moment I am planning to collaborate with Magic Me, which is also an arts-based organisation in Bethnal Green.


Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald

Claire MacDonald is a Unitarian minister with Lewisham Unity in Catford, South London. She is also a writer, with a background in performance, who is committed to what she calls ‘writing beyond belief’ working in social change and art contexts to explore new ways of doing, being and meaning through conversation and collective practice. As an activist, she is committed to the idea that radical change originates in culture, and that art, like religion, operates at the moving edge of experience, always edging into what is just beyond what we think we know. Claire has recently joined the Secular Liturgies External Advisory Board.



Rev. Dr. Andrew Pakula

Andy is a Unitarian Minister at New Unity, a Unitarian congregation with two centres in north London. Under his leadership, the church has hosted a series of annual lectures by prominent public figures, to address “a topical or important aspect of liberty, reason and ethics”. The Richard Price Memorial Lectures have invited Evan Davis, the economist and BBC presenter, to speak on media and dishonesty; psychotherapist Susie Orbach, to describe “Frankenstein’s Bodies Today”; and literary critic Terry Eagleton, to analyse “The New Atheism and the War on Terror”.

It may interest readers that Andy was involved in a controversy when he was invited to appear on the Today Programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning show, at the request of guest editor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian himself. Berners-Lee had wished him to present the segment within the programme known as “Thought for the Day” but the BBC hierarchy claimed this was not appropriate, since Andy describes himself as an atheist. Instead, he was allowed to deliver his message an hour earlier, as an “Alternative Thought for the Day”, with a theistic Unitarian minister appearing in the actual TFTD slot.



Rev. Dr. Maria Curtis

Maria has been Minister of Horsham Unitarian Church since October 2014, after training at Unitarian College, Manchester. Prior to ministry, she worked in social work, teaching and academic research, and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist.

Maria is shortly retiring from congregational ministry but will continue to serve the Unitarian movement with a focus on ministry training. As leader at Horsham Unitarian Church, Maria developed a Green Spirituality group, which is open to the community, with the aim of “bringing people together to celebrate life and consider how best to nurture the earth and all her creatures”.

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