At a recent Service we considered the importance of coming together as a community. Recognising our differences, accepting the diversity of our views, and welcoming the opportunity to strengthen ourselves through open acceptance and exploration of another's ideas. The following is the text. With apologies, there is no MP3 download to accompany the Sermon this time.
I would like to repeat the opening line of our second reading.
See, how good and pleasant it is, when pilgrims dwell together as one.
The translated words of a psalmist from perhaps 3000 years ago. Maybe longer.
See, how good and pleasant it is, when pilgrims dwell together as one.
I’m not sure the age of these words is of any significance whatsoever, other than to signal the universal and everlasting nature of their sentiment. For it is ‘very good and pleasant’, when kindred, strangers, neighbours, former foes, brothers and sisters, can live together in unity.
The writer of psalm 133, the psalmist in fact, brings some wonderful descriptions in his work. He talks of the precious unity of people as being like the ointment that runs down the body. This refers to the use of aromatic oils that have been used in the Middle East for centuries for hair and skin care. A sweet-smelling soothing and refreshing oil. This was also used in religious services as a way of anointing Jewish priests – the oil representing the smooth and soothing effect of God’s holy power. The writer refers also to the dew of Hermon – a phenomenon on Mount Hermon where very heavy dew forms and runs down to the parched valley below, bringing nourishment and refreshment to new life.
The wonder and beauty of a unified community.
A call, surely, that must accompany all religious quests.
We gather here in this Meeting House, as part of a community of fellow travellers on our spiritual paths. As Unitarians, we are comfortable with the notion that each of us is one a separate path, a path of our own choices and choosing. Yet we meet together in community for the love, support and encouragement we all need, deep inside us, to help us along our paths.
Some of you will be aware of Earl Morse Wilbur’s three-word summary of Unitarian values: Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. It is the latter, Tolerance, that best describes our hopes for unity and understanding – but I wonder if Tolerance alone remains a sufficient description of the underlying need in this area.
Wilbur coined his summary around 100 years ago. And as a religion or denomination that prides itself on evolution and continual renewal and progression, I wonder whether we might need to update this.
For me, tolerance suggests a grudging acceptance. If I tolerate something, it is often with which I am ‘putting up with’, ‘despite everything.’
Over Christmas, there was some discussion on the UK Unitarians Facebook page on how Unitarianism might be described in one word. There were a number of suggestions. But the one that caught my eye was ‘inclusive’.
And I liked that. As Unitarians we strive to be ‘inclusive’.
All are welcome here.
But why? What purpose is there in being welcoming to all? Isn’t it a bit of a burden to do so?
All good questions.
In his book ‘What’s the Point of Being a Christian’, Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican Friar, talk of the importance to the Dominicans of thinking in the plural. These are his words:
When I joined the Order I learnt to say ‘we Dominicans’. I can say that we arrived in Oxford in 1221 even though I was not born until several centuries later. I can also say we are founding a university in Ethiopia, even though not one English Dominican is involved. Being a member of this community may sometimes demand that the story that I tell of myself will not evolve as I hoped and anticipated. [However,] this is what is means for me to accept that I am one of the brethren”
I suspect this is one of the great calls and holds for friars and members of other religious communities. It is an identity, a way of placing ourselves in the world.
I wonder if this community approach, a formal and everlasting ‘We Dominicans’ could just as easily be read as ‘We Unitarians’.
‘We Unitarians’ are, I hope, indeed believe, a wonderfully inclusive community. We welcome people from different spiritual paths. ‘We Unitarians’ welcome people regardless of sexuality, race, or social background. We welcome all.
‘We Unitarians’ have been around for around 400 years. ‘We Unitarians’ believe in Reason, Freedom and Tolerance’
‘We Unitarians’ like coffee and biscuits.
Ah. Stop right there.
‘I don’t’. Will be a voice now being heard. Some of us don’t like coffee. And some don’t like biscuits.
‘We Unitarians’ are always open to new ideas.
‘We Unitarians’ prefer the Green Hymn Book to the Purple Hymn Book.
Ah, another point of difference.
And so it could go on.
Now, so far, the areas on which we differ, in my list, have been, I suggest fairly trivial. ‘We Unitarians’ agree on some weighty things, but there will always be differences on some less important things.
And that is really important to acknowledge.
But, does this mean that simple ‘toleration’ will be sufficient. Let’s think a little further around that.
I’ll take the hymn book example – never has there been a religious movement so willing to divide itself over hymnbooks. Some Unitarian congregations define themselves by the hymnbooks they use. Other ones, obviously. Not us.
Or should I be saying – ‘We Unitarians are happy to identify our differences through the medium of hymnbooks’. I hope not.
Anyway, back to the books.
The first congregation I was involved with, my first Unitarian community, used two hymn books. The Red One, and the Green One. The Red One – Hymns of Faith and Freedom. And the Green One - Hymns for Living. For those that are unaware of the Red Book – we don’t have any here.
A little history for those that are unaware:
The Green Book was first published in 1987 and was for, I quote: ‘those who seek in their worship to blend with the traditional, contemporary concerns expressed in a modern idiom’. A member of this congregation, the former Minister Gabor Kereki was one of the team that compiled it. It was, in short, an attempt to produce a ‘modern’ hymn book that was not as ‘churchy’ as previous ones.
In most churches the Green Book replaced ‘Hymns of Worship’, which was originally published in 1927, but revised in 1962. It was very ‘traditional’.
As soon as the Green Book emerged, the splits began. It was too modern, it didn’t contain old favourites. In some hymns the words had been changed. Dreadful Book. Of course, others welcomed it with open arms.
But, such was the opposition in some quarters, the Red Book was produced. A self-declared revision of ‘Hymns of Worship’, it contains almost twice as many hymns as ‘Hymns for Living’, and was far more liberal Christian in its outlook.
And for many years, you could – I suggest wrongly – attempt to assess and judge each congregation on the Hymn Book it used.
So, modernists Green. Traditionalist, Red.
Now let’s fast forward to 2009. Here comes the Purple Book. In its preface, it claims –
“[existing books] have served the denomination well and will continue to do so. However, much new material has become available in recent years which needs to be made available for contemporary Unitarian worship.”
A lot of people I speak to are firmly divided on the Purple Book. Perhaps you are. Many think it is too modern, it doesn’t contain old favourites. In some hymns the words had been changed. Dreadful Book. Of course, others welcomed it with open arms.
So, modernists Purple. Traditionalist, Green.
The hidden story in these debates is of course is how the Green Book has become the book loved by the traditionalists. Possibly, the same people that complained about it when it first arrived.
And what does that tell us? I wonder whether it might in some small way demonstrate the value of opening ourselves to others’ ideas and thoughts. It warns us of the dangers and missed opportunities if we are unwilling to look and listen to others.
Tolerance, allowing someone else to express their views, is often seen as the right thing to do, because, in the words of the Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’. So, be nice to people, because it’s a morally right thing to do.
That’s quite right and good.
Yet, I wonder whether there is more to this. Can we gain a spiritual depth from our inclusive welcome to new people, new ideas, new light on old ideas?
I suspect we can.
Are we not building a community of trust when we do this? Trust in each other and ourselves.
In our second reading, the psalmist reminds us that the unity of pilgrims, the unity of brothers and sisters, is like a soothing balm. The very notion of unity and trust, of togetherness and support, can reduce tension and bring a sense of calm. The aromatic oils are poured on troubled waters. A sense of ease and tranquillity.
And such a sense will undoubtedly support our own individual spiritual journeys and explorations. A sense of community, trust, ‘joined-up ness’ must nourish our souls.
In our separate spiritual explorations – our journey to God, to that ineffable something, however you might understand or experience the Divine, our sense of purpose will be all that more focussed if we are held in the loving support of our neighbours and friends.
It is perhaps this sense of understanding, this sense of trust, this sense of safety that Timothy Radcliffe is speaking of when he talks of ‘We Dominicans’. This isn’t to say that religion can’t be risky, that our journeys themselves will always be smooth. Rather it is a hope that we can provide a place of trusting safety for each of us. Long-term Unitarians, recent visitors, those who are here for the very first time. If we cannot provide a safe refuge – and if we cannot trust others to provide a safe refuge for us – then we are failing in our commitment to one another.
We value diversity. It is through our diversity and our differences that our true strength comes. It is by sharing and celebrating life’s high points together that we can share and multiply joys and happiness. It is by sharing and supporting each other through our difficulties that we can ease one another’s burdens.
‘We Unitarians’ would be a pretty dull community if we were all the same. And the chances of learning, developing, evolving and growing would be pretty hopeless.
No, our strength lies in the way we are able to work together with each other, and for each other. The way in which we can bring new ideas and new experiences to our community. And how we can learn from the new ideas and new experiences of others.
We are feeding each other with those long-handled spoons of heaven. Nourishing one another by trusting our neighbours.
See how good, what pleasure comes, when people live as one.