Today we celebrated the 295th Anniversary of our Meeting House. The congregation is a little older, but the Meeting House first held a Service on the 'First Lord's Day of December, 1716'. Today being the 'First Lord's Day of December, 2011', gave us good reason to celebrate. 295 years of dissent, 295 years of standing up for the right to worship as our conscience dictates.
Yet today is also, in the Orthodox Christian world, the feast day of St. John of Damascus, the man who successfully restored the use of 'icons' to Orthodox worship, in 700. Another who is rightly celebrated for his willingness to stand up for the right to worship as his conscience dictated.
In our Service today, we considered both the history of our building in the pursuit of religious freedom, and the values we might learn from other traditions who have pursued the right to worship in ways very different from our own tradition.
An MP3 of the spoken sermon can be downloaded by clicking the link at the top of this post. The following is the text of the same:
I shall open our Sermon this morning with a reading from the Pevsner Guide to West Kent and the Weald, written by John Newman:
“On the A25, 200 yards East of Bessels Green, is the Unitarian Chapel, of 1716, in a churchyard full of tombstones. The chapel, of red and blue chequer brick with segment-headed windows with casements, is appended to the south to a two-storeyed house. An avenue of limes leads to the door. The scene is complete, an embodiment of the gentle, familial spirit of 18th Century Non-Conformity.”
That is, of course, a description of the building we are currently in. The Meeting House. A building, this building, which first held a Service by the congregation, this congregation, on the first Sunday in December. 1716. 295 years ago.
‘An embodiment of the gentle, familial spirit of 18th Century Non-Conformity’.
And although the article in Pevsner refers to the building as a Chapel, it is also, and perhaps more correctly, known as the Meeting House. A title given to many non-conformist buildings that were built to house worship services and, on regular occasions, other meetings of the congregation. 1716 was a time when non-conformity was in many places illegal. By then tolerated, but still illegal. In 1715, just one year before, at least 30 Dissenting chapels were destroyed in the ‘Church and King’ riots were sparked by a continuing conspiracy of a connection of dissent to treason.
Many of you will know that the members of the congregation that met in 1716 were General Baptists – a liberal wing of the Baptist movement – too liberal to be tolerated by the growing hardline Calvinist Particular Baptists – and this congregation, like many other General Baptist congregations, turned toward Unitarianism around 100 years later.
These heretical people, as your predecessors undoubtedly were, would have seen this building as a sanctuary for more than just Sunday worship. This was, and is, their building – a second home for its members. A place to meet like-minded souls for social time as well as worship. Just as it remains today.
But it is just a building. Or is it?
We heard in our first reading this morning a piece by Robert Walsh. Robert wrote about the way in which Unitarian churches might be known as the churches without icons. Traditionally, we do not adorn our Meeting Houses, our chapels, our churches – whatever you wish to call them – with pictures or symbols. The plain and simple character of the setting in which we sit is typical of our non-conformist past. Quakers, Puritans, General Baptists. All emerging from the Protestant revolution – the Reformation – and the image-destruction that was associated with the anti-Catholic fervour of the time. The Roman Catholic Church had adorned its buildings with images and symbols for centuries – but now they were banished.
The style of this Meeting House is much the same as other Dissenting chapels and Meeting Houses across the country at that time. A style that declares its values; symmetry, simplicity, exemplary workmanship devoid of ornament. This is a building that announces the modest and private place in society of its congregation. Commissioned and built by ordinary people.
There would have been box pews, and the pulpit, in 1716, was on that wall over there (in the West), and there was a gallery added in 1749, only to be removed in 1882. The clock, now on the west wall, dates from 1718. How many members of the congregation have sat looking at that clock, willing that single hand to move a little faster?
This simplicity, this lack of images, was also a return to an earlier time. The new Dissenters were firm in their belief that the Bible provided the answers to all questions, and guidance in the way of life. Of course, different denominations read the Bible in different ways – but the principle is there.
In the Hebrew Bible, there are very clear instructions on the use of images. The Second Commandment, for example, way back in the Book of Exodus, commands:
‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them’
And in the books of the prophet Isaiah, there are whole chapters on the futility of worshipping idols, concluding:
Some interpreters of the Bible see these verses and commands as a direct challenge to the use of pictures or symbols in houses of worship, churches or chapels. The thrust of the argument is that there is always a danger that symbols or pictures become the focus of worship, whereas the true focus of worship must be God, and God is by definition completely indescribable. You cannot capture the ineffable, multi-dimensional, intangible presence that is God in a picture. Hence, the reasoning suggests, it is dangerous to tempt worship of something tangible by placing pictures or symbols in your place of worship.
There is, of course, also the point about distraction. A plain Meeting House will enable the congregation to focus. Not on a picture, but a focus on the internal, on speaking to God, to listening to that still, small voice inside.
However, this is of course, just one approach. And as Unitarians we are perhaps open to a wider variety of paths to the truth. Of means to connect to the Divine. Of helping our worship of God.
Yet, today, as we celebrate the history of this Meeting House, and recognise the importance of its simplicity, there will be many thousands, if not millions of people celebrating the feast day of St John of Damascus. The 4th December. It’s not often that, as Unitarians, we might remember a Christian saint, but on this occasion I wonder whether there may be a parallel worth considering.
John of Damascus is a very important figure in the history of the Orthodox Church – the church of the Eastern Christians. The Russian Orthodox, the Serbian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, and further East. Churches that celebrate worship in a very different way to Unitarians. Churches filled with incense, thousands of candles, elaborately painted floors, walls and ceilings. And a host of small, beautifully painted, icons. Very different to the simplicity we adhere to in this Meeting House.
St John of Damascus is remembered in the Orthodox Church as the man who saved the icon. The man who fought for the right to place icons in the church as an aid to worship.
The word, Eikon, is simply the Greek for ‘image’, but in Orthodox tradition it refers to much more than a simple image of a religious subject. On the reverse of your Orders of Service today is an icon of Mary with the infant Jesus. An image of Mary and Christ. An icon of Mary and Christ. You will recognise the style. It is the icons in this style to which I am referring today.
Over the centuries the debate around the use of images has been constant and, at times, violent and tragic. In the early Christian church, it is thought that images or, in Greek, icons, were not used until around the year 200. But from then, the spread of icons, small pictures depicting Christ, or Mary, or a saint, or a Biblical scene became commonplace in churches across the Christian world.
However, as holy icons became more and more important in worship in the Byzantine Church, a series of Roman Emperors, beginning with Leo III in 730 began to fear God’s wrath as a result of this supposed idolatry, and the first great Iconoclasms began. This involved the removal and smashing of images. Defenders of the use of holy images, especially monks, were imprisoned and tortured in an attempt to eradicate their belief in the importance of icons. So sad is the history or religious persecution.
And in the same way that our predecessors here in the Meeting House stood up to authority for the right to worship in the way that would bring them closer to God, John of Damascus stood up to the Byzantine authorities for the right to use icons in worship. A very brave stance at the time – which was around the year 700.
I shall not go into the detail of John’s theological defence of icons, nor suggest that we might break the simplicity of our Meeting House with icons, but suffice to say John managed to convince the authorities that icons were not idols. People could not worship icons since they weren’t gods or God. They were, and remain, pictures, images, to aid Orthodox Christian worship.
So how might we approach this as something with which we, as Unitarians, might engage?
Well, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury - not a Unitarian I admit, but a friend to us none the less - wrote a book around 10 years ago called ‘The Dwelling of the Light, praying with Icons of Christ’. It is as you might expect fairly Trinitarian in its approach, but Williams reminds the reader that the point of an icon is to look beyond the immediate. The icon is an image of something earthly. In strict terms, it is supposedly God Incarnate in Jesus, but the point, I believe, is that the image is seen not as the object of devotion, but rather a gateway to a deeper reflection. A door through which one might travel in order to reach a spiritual goal.
Or, to follow the lead of Forrest Church in our second reading, these are images that might provide a way of seeing the windows of the cathedral. Both from within, and without.
The point is not the image itself.
Finding God can be hard. Making contact with that indescribable something, whether you call it God or not, can be frustratingly difficult to achieve. A picture, perhaps, can help focus not just the mind, but also the body, and the soul. A method of transporting ourselves, our whole being, in prayer from the everyday, the immediate. To the timeless.
And it is this transformation of our minds that can ultimately help us to participate in the great transformation of this world we seek. From a world where division and distrust is commonplace, to a world where we might celebrate the diversity of our community, and seek to learn from other paths, other traditions, other lives.
The prime purpose of the builders of this Meeting House 295 years ago was perhaps not to seek division and separation from other churches. They driving force was to support community, and the opportunity to worship according to their own conscience and reason. They had far more in common with the established Christian church than perhaps we do today, yet they were seen then as heretics and potential troublemakers.
Similarly, the Orthodox Church, and the teachings of the iconophiles within it, has been the subject of mistrust and suspicion – both within the broader Christian church itself and, more obviously, with the wider world. Persecution from Roman Emperors to Communist Dictators has been the fate of the Orthodox Christians.
The builders of this Meeting House sought the simplicity of a modest movement, not wishing to draw attention to itself. Seeking a more personal approach to worship and togetherness. They may not have considered images appropriate – but they did provide the clear light of reason through these windows. And an image of tranquil beauty on which to gaze and, perhaps, meditate.
The Orthodox Christians meanwhile will see icons as both intensely personal, and part of the public glorification of their own path to God. Whilst the collected beauty of the images may appear gaudy to many, the personal connection that individuals feel to particular icons is very strong.
We are not Orthodox Christians. And there is much in Orthodox Christianity that will not align well with a liberal Unitarian approach to life and faith.
However, as we celebrate today the 295th Anniversary of this Meeting House I hope we can do that in the spirit of openness, in the spirit of co-operation, and in the spirit of true brotherhood and sisterhood with all the peoples of this world. St John of Damascus might help us to remember we are not unique in seeking a religion that works for us. We have much to give others, and there remains so much to learn from them too. The hope for our Anniversary is not to celebrate our separateness, but rather to remind us of the need to give our support to all who seek to worship their God in their own, peaceful way.
I finish with a quote from Doug Pagitt, the author of a book called 'Church in the Inventive Age':
“The past is not our standard. It is not the test of whether something is right or good. But it's also not an albatross we need to shuck off as quickly as possible. The past is our constant companion. It is always with us. The question is what do we do with it - return to it, let it rule, or take its best efforts with us into the future?”