Saturday, 30 August 2014

Breadth and Depth

Last Saturday was a first for Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham, as we conducted our first same-sex marriage. In fact it was a first for the whole of Trafford as it was the first to be conducted in a religious building in the Borough. I attended the do afterwards and as is always the case many people wanted to discuss the service and as well as ask questions about the Unitarian faith tradition. Of all the things that were said to me my favourite had to be “I am not a church going, but I really liked that service”. I was also involved in many other conversations with a variety of people as we ate and listened to the speeches. It’s amazing what people tell you about themselves their own faith or lack of faith, their frustrations with previous wedding service that they had attended, whether religious or secular ones held in hotels etc. What touched me the most though was that people were able to connect with what they were witnessing on a deep, deep level whether they were “religious” or not. The service was deeply religious, in a very real sense and yet it was able to touch those hard to reach places of folk regardless of what they believed, or not. The service had both breadth and real depth. I left feeling that I had done my job and done it well.

We say all are welcome here, come as you exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition…That was certainly achieved…I offer thanks and praise for this…

For me in many ways this is what lies at the core of the free religious tradition I serve. This coming together as we are, exactly as we but not expecting to always stay exactly where we are or as we are. There is a real openness and humility in this, which I believe are essential requirements for the corporate transformative experience that ought to lay at the core of a free religious tradition.

People constantly ask me what a Unitarian is, they are always trying to pin me and our tradition down. For some this is curiosity and for others I suspect it is in an attempt to be critical, to pick holes. By the way there are many holes and personally I’m very pleased about this. I would hate to feel I am a part of something that looked at itself and believed that it was the perfect embodiment of anything. I do not believe that anything in life is perfect and therefore must be incomplete. I’m aware every week that I am an imperfect minister, but one I also know is growing.

One criticism that people often make of the tradition I serve is that it is seen as being too broad and as a result shallow. They say yes there is plenty of width, but no real depth. That anything goes, we accept people uncritically. Do you know what there may well be some truth in that, but it’s a truth that I see in a positive light and not a negative one. I certainly want to welcome people exactly as they are, warts and all and beauty spots too. I want to welcome their whole selves, even if I’m uncomfortable with some aspects of them. To me this is not shallow at all, actually I believe that it encourages depth. To me this is real depth and not some shallow imposed depth. That said regardless of what I believe many do still see the Unitarian tradition as wishy washy, shallow, and empty.

This brings to mind a story my brother loves to tell of he and his wife being driven around Dallas in a taxi and the driver pointing to a church and saying “That church is a Unitarian Universalist church and those folks can believe whatever they like”, my brother recounts that this was said in an utterly bemused tone. My brother’s response was oh yes “My brother is a Unitarian”. I think for the first time in his entire life the taxi driver went silent.

By the way as a kind of counter to this thought I have heard many Unitarians say "We so not beleive waht we like, we believe what me must."

I also remember seeing an episode of the cartoon series “The Simpsons” in which the church pastor Rev Lovejoy offers the Simpson children a bowl of Unitarian ice cream. When one of the children replies that the bowl is empty his response is that this is the point. The bowl is empty. He is saying there is nothing in it. It is an empty vessel which will not feed or sustain you.

Now I don’t believe and have certainly not found this to be true, but it is certainly how others view the Unitarian faith. Why is this? Well I believe it is because we find it hard to articulate exactly what our faith is about. We can say what it isn’t far more easily, but find it hard to say what we are really about. I know I find it a challenge from time to time. In fact there has been times when I have done all I can to avoid the question.

There are those within the Unitarian tradition who say the same thing by the way, claiming that we need a clear coherent message, so that we can market ourselves better. The problem of course is that no two people can agree entirely as to what that might be.

Now while there are a variety of views as to what it is to be a Unitarian there does seem to be two distinct themes that emerge and re-emerge as to the direction we ought to be taking in articulating what we are about and the way we should move forward in order to grow. The call seems to be either a return to our roots, a more Biblically based Unitariansism and the other to do away with the past completely as if it never happened and to embrace an almost secular kind of religion, an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one. I have heard this described as the ABC approach. I remember hearing this phrase quite frequently a while back and asked someone what they meant by it. They said ABC, anything but Christianity. The ABC approach is one that says we embrace anything, well anything but Christianity.

My own personal view is that neither of these two approaches necessarily breed depth as opposed to width, they can both easily become shallow. I believe there is a real depth the Unitarian heritage, in where we have come from and I believe it points to an openness that comes from our natural humility that grows from our traditions faithful uncertainty.

You see I think that real the depth of the Unitarian tradition doesn’t come from becoming tied by our roots or by the rejection of it completely. Instead it comes from our approach. This I believe is found in that simple statement “Come as you are, exactly as you are, but not expect to leave in exactly the same condition”. I believe it comes from the humility and openness that is at the core of this approach.

At the core of the Unitarian approach is the principle of none subscription to imposed creeds and dogmas. We claim that the seat of authority lays in the enlightened conscience of the individual and not an external authority? When I first heard this sentiment expressed and first came into contact with the ideas of the Great Nineteenth century Unitarian theologian James Martineau it spoke to me right down deep in the marrow of my soul. The “Seat of Authority” rejects all external authority in matters of faith whether of Church or scripture. It set Unitarians apart in the nineteenth century from mainstream Christianity. Now of course our tradition has broadened and has widened since this time, but I do think that today it is this that gives the Unitarian tradition its depth. For me this is the essence of the tradition. To me this is our unique selling point, to use marketing jargon for a moment. I believe that there is both breadth and depth in this approach.

I believe that the Unitarian tradition is both broad and deep. This is because it encourages people to include all that they are, all their experiences, all that has brought them to place they find themselves at this moment in time. I believe it is a mistake to reject any aspect of our experiences. There is always a temptation to reject the past, both personal and collective, but it is what has made us who we are today. We need to embrace it and see it fully for what it is, warts and all and beauty spots too. We need to share these experiences with one another in order to bring depth to our kaleidoscope of experiences. For no two experiences are exactly alike.

In the four years I have served the beautiful people at Dunham Road Unitarian Chapel Altrincham and Queens Road Unitarian Free Church Urmston I have discovered that one of the greatest gifts of this work I have been blessed with is that people tell you things, they share their experiences. All kinds of people tell me where they have been, what an honour to be blessed with such conversations, they are precious beyond measure, pearls of great price.

I believe there is real breadth and depth in the free religious tradition I have chosen (or did it choose me?), and that this is to be found in the personal experiences of those within our communities and those who came before them. The past should never be rejected as it can reveal so much to we who live today. To find the real depth in life you need to listen to the whole of life, you must let it speak, past, present and future. You must learn to listen to all the voices, for they are voices just like your own. You must be open to all the stories of life both ancient and modern and those of prophesy too, for they have so much to teach. You must be open to all experiences that are available to you. How can this be done? Well it begins with humility, this is the very key to openness, I believe.

Once again I say to you and I say it to myself too…”Come as you are, exactly as you are, but do not expect to leave in exactly the same condition”…For I believe that in these simple words you will know both the breadth and the depth of life...a breadth and depth found in the beautiful free religious tradition I am blessed to serve.

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