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Friday, April 3, 2015

Freedom of the Pulpit, Freedom of the Pew

The very bedrock of our Unitarian tradition is the free practice of religion, first articulated in the Edict of Torda in 1568.  If people ask you when Unitarianism started, that is as close to a solid inception date as can be offered.  It was a doctrine of radical tolerance of religious diversity, and a bold way forward in the context of the blood-soaked Reformation. Here's the crucial bit of that edict:

Tweet-able form" We need not think alike to love alike.:

"...in every place the preachers shall preach the Gospel according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well.  If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, and no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone..." 

And so from that time, "freedom of the pulpit" and its corollary, "freedom of the pew", have been among the most hallowed traditions of our faith.  In our tradition, no one is compelled to preach any particular doctrine, nor is anyone compelled to accept what is preached.  What prompted this radical commitment to freedom was nothing less than a maelstrom of factionalism and the blood of countless martyrs.
There are many ways of roasting someone alive. This is the old-school method.
Five hundred years later, this Unitarian's admittedly limited experience of our congregations here and abroad, as well as the history of our movement, suggests that this deep foundation of freedom is little spoken of, and thus is poorly understood. And that's probably because, like most deep assumptions, we haven't looked closely at it for a long while.  We should.  We should look at this, to better understand our unique identity and institutional power as Unitarians.  And we should also look at this to minimise the body count of our own internal martyrdoms, the blood on the hands of those who fell them, and the trauma of those who happen to witness it.
Every martyrdom leaves traumatised witnesses.
This I do know:  When we don't like what we hear, Unitarians, for all their intellect, are not above eating our own, even when our own happen to be persons of actual acknowledged genius.  For example, William Ellery Channing, the most prominent Minister in America and famously called the 'Father of American Unitarianism', whose sermons packed public halls and parks, was unceremoniously kicked off the pulpit of the Federal Street Church in Boston.  His offence?  Vocal support for the abolition of slavery.  Likewise, Theodore Parker so offended the Boston upper-classes with what today would be seen as a non-literal reading of the scriptures, that they blocked him from the preaching rotation of Boston churches.  His offence?  Just not Christian enough.  How times have changed.
Abolish slavery, Channing?!? Get the firewood!
And haven't changed...the common parlance among my UK colleagues for ministries that end up in a shunned heap is a 'failed ministry'.  But if Channing's and Parker's ministries were 'failed', where does the failure truly lie?  In these ministers?  In those congregations?  Both?  Or maybe there's something inherent in the twin freedoms of pew and pulpit that tends to make us fly apart?

My own sense is that many of us still have 'the bends' from previous experiences of dogmatic, hierarchical religions.  Like scuba-divers who have surfaced too quickly, our systems convulse when confronted with preaching that is not in our spirit.  We can feel as bitterly oppressed and shamed by that free expression as by a papal edict.  But also, as free beings in the pews, we are free to unburden ourselves of these difficult feelings without fear that our expression of dissent will put us beyond continuing fellowship (as in an excommunication).  The result of this can be--and has been--carnage within some of our churches, ironically replaying the darker side of our Reformation past.

Let us, at least, assume the best intentions of the pulpit and of the pew.  Let us assume no one takes the trouble to ascend the pulpit with anything other than the intention to speak the truth as he or she sees it, and does so with hours of thoughtful preparation and with an open heart.  Let us also assume that no free person in the pews of a free church should be the denied the truth of their own experience, and the right to express it.  Let us now imagine a scenario in which the truths of the pulpit and the pew point in different directions.  So what would be your default reaction when you hear preaching you don't agree with?  Button-holing the minister in a rage during coffee hour?  Secretly gathering a cabal of dissent, with the intention of exerting pressure to silence such preaching?  Inwardly seething?  Slipping quietly away?
What would be the appropriate forum for the expression of profound disagreement with preaching?  Certainly not in our public worship, which, since it is open to all, is not an ideal place to lift up the burnt offerings of a church's internal disputes.  Many UU churches have stopped the 'Candles of Sharing' part of the service for this reason.  Coffee hour?  Again, probably not.  Why should a few hijack our one weekly opportunity for large-group, celebratory fellowship? Where then?

I'm just a minister, so my answers to this will probably sound like hackneyed answers.  But for me, a first stop-off point before expressing defiant dissent might be... prayer--a private, internal conversation between you and whatever is your highest thought, deepest feeling, noblest aspiration, most peaceful hope.  Call it reflection, discernment...whatever.  During that time of inward reflection, it's not uncommon to feel fears and angers 'dial down' somewhat.  And who knows?  Without the big feelings, a sense of equanimity may result--an opportunity to remember that no one compels you to accept what you've heard, and the confidence to 'live and let live.'

Having prayed about one's disagreement with a preaching, but still troubled by it, a pastoral dialogue might be the logical next step.  After all, any pastor will want to know of things troubling the hearts and souls of those in his or her spiritual charge.  With immediate post-worship feelings dialled-down, and without an audience to play to, both the minister and the member can speak more calmly and openly.  And who knows?  If not a meeting of minds, certainly a mutual respect for each other's positions becomes more possible in such a context. If no such meeting of minds or mutual respect results from pastoral dialogue, there is then a tough choice to make.  
Our pulpit can't be both free and coerced.  And no one can, or should be, compelled to listen to more of what one finds offensive to one's spirit.  The pew is indeed free, and that means free to leave it altogether, for a while or for good.  What makes such a choice more difficult is the fact that people may come to church for more than their spiritual lives; they also come for community.  And it would be hard to leave a place where you'd found that.  Truth-telling or harmony?  This can be a vexed choice.

In some cultures, like China, social harmony is prized over truth.  In some cultures, like the USA, individuality is prized over social harmony.  The 'downsides' to both these extremes should be obvious.  Is it too much for us to imagine that BOTH the truth of the individual’s experience AND their need for social harmony can live together in a perpetual tension?  Like the yin and the yang, like Kali and Shiva, like Jacob and the Angel, they have wrestled for all time.
Spoiler: The Jacob v. Angel match was a draw.
And that means our challenge as a truly free church is to accept that we live within tensions created by our mutual freedom which never resolves one way or the other, and knowing that, to still covenant to bear each other up nevertheless.

            Maybe that's not such a hackneyed answer after all.