Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Flower Communion - publicly expressing our liberal religious commitment in contemporary Europe

Symbol of the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians
Readings: 1 Corinthians 13 and some words by Norbert Fabián Čapek:

My conviction is that my life has meaning and purpose if I live in God and for God . . . Anytime I want something only for myself, and anytime I hesitate to forgive, tolerate, suffer for truth, or sacrifice for goodness – it is me in separation from God. But anytime I want only truth and goodness and enjoy goodness and truth wherever it appears, and anytime I roll up my sleeves to start work that will serve the human whole and the world to progress so that everybody will live and breath in a better way – it is God in me, who is in all other people in the same way. Then God’s spark glimmers in me which is connected with all others in the whole universe as the source and substance and manifestation of the eternal fire, the fire of God. (Doláck, P., "The Theology of Norbert Fabián Čapek", Faith and Freedom 54, part 2, no. 153, London 2001, p. 129-130).

For interested readers below is a link to various English language resources made available by the Religious Society of Czech Unitarians:


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The Flower Communion service, because of its superficially pretty qualities, is one which can all too easily (at least in the British context) become a dreadfully sentimental affair which expresses little more than a vague, ungrounded and unstable desire simply to get along with others and a somewhat vacuous expression of the beauty of nature. This danger is particularly acute against the backdrop of current events connected with Syria.

In consequence, whenever I have conducted a Flower Communion, I have found it necessary to preface our celebration with some words which can help understand the hard particularities of this service which are, in fact, grounded in the underlying durable, liberal, religious-humanist hope which grew to maturity in the extremely difficult historical context faced by our sister church in the former Czechoslovakia during the early years of the twentieth century.

Although the founder of the Unitarian community in Czechoslovakia, Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942), felt that in his sermons and prayers of the 1920s he had successfully begun to articulate an effective, contemporary liberal theology, he realised that his community in Prague needed a service which embodied this theological stance in a more tangible, concrete way. Because traditional forms of Christian communion had all kinds of problematic resonances for many of his community's members, Čapek realised it was insufficient for him merely lightly to revise the Christian communion service, he began to devise the Flower Communion service which was finally introduced to the congregation in Prague on 4 June 1923.

Čapek asked members to bring to church a flower of their choice and, when they arrived, just as you were today, they were invited to place it in a large vase or basket. This simple act was understood to be symbolic of each individual’s free desire to join with others in a voluntary, liberal religious community. The vase that contained the flowers was itself understood to represent the church community itself (this, in turn, was represented by the "U" in their church's symbol - see photo at the top of this post). Speaking of the vase in which the flowers were gathered Čapek said:

"For us in our Unitarian brotherhood the vase is our church organization. We need it to help us share the beauties and also the responsibilities of communal life. In the proper community by giving the best that is in us for the common good, we grow up and are able to do what no single person is able to do. Each of us needs to receive in order to grow up, but each of us needs to give something away for the same reason" (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 145).

There followed some hymns, a reading of 1 Corinthians 13, a sermon, a prayer of consecration and one of blessing. At the close of the service each member was invited to take with them a different flower, as Čapek said, ‘just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents’. The taking of a flower also stood as a public confession that they accepted ‘each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a human and wants to be good.’ (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 144).

Now it is vitally important to realise that the situation in Czechoslovakia during the 1920s was far from easy as the new state had only been founded in 1918 and everyone was engaged in the extremely difficult and highly fraught process of articulating what might meaningfully become its distinctive political and religious identity. If you publicly attended and took part in this Unitarian service you were, therefore, saying something with real risk attached to it, not least of all because it was openly to challenge the orthodox Christian status quo of the time and to commit to a radical, alternative religious and social movement that promoted an inclusive and tolerant approach to life and religion that was markedly absent from the majority of churches of the time, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

So you have a clearer idea of the kind of religious community to which people were committing when they participated in the Flower Communion during those first years, here is how Čapek defined it:

What kind of religion is this Unitarianism? It is humanity lightened by divinity. It is humanism and theism combined. It is not the kind of humanism without God and without a soul, but the humanism of those great men who from time to time called our nation to a new life. When John Hus appealed to reason and conscience against the authority of the pope, it was work for humanity. When Comenius conceived school as a workshop of humanity, it was the continuation. I specially quote his words: “man finds himself best in his own innermost, nowhere else, for then in himself he easily finds God and all.” What else is it but to begin with man when seeking God? The opinion that religion is outgrown can be held only about the religion that was not human enough, that remained [either] under the level of humanity or remained, so to say, hanging in the sky, and could not answer the needs of men in their daily life. . . . While worshipping the liturgical Christ people could not hear the human Jesus who asked for love to men. Unitarianism is the religion of humanity in the best sense of the word. It has rejected the inhuman and barbaric conception of God and by this brought God nearer to human understanding; it has established a more intimate relation of Jesus [by emphasizing] the value and sovereignty of man. Today it looks as if mankind was on the crossroad not knowing in what direction to move. . . . Our age calls for watchmen who would stand on the crossroad and warn people not to go back to barbarism and bestiality, but to go from views only terrestrial and selfish to cosmic views, from Humanity to Divinity (Henry, Richard, Norbert Fabián Čapek – A Spiritual Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston 1999, p. 195-196).

But we make a terrible mistake if we think that by just putting a beautiful flower in a vase, saying some nice liberal sounding words about community and inclusivity, and then taking one out later, our own lives will be transformed in the way they were for Čapek and his church members. No! The service can only help bring about such a transformation in us if there is some real connection between the original hard particularities of the service, the hard particularities of its celebration since 1923 and the hard particularities of its celebration amongst us now in a highly secularised United Kingdom in the 21st century.

You have heard something about the original particularities of the service but before we go on it is important to remember in the years which followed its introduction there came first the Nazis (who arrested and killed Čapek as an enemy of the regime in one of their so-called 'medical experiments') and then, when that unimaginable nightmare finally ended, there came a further one under a highly oppressive Communist regime. Today, of course, as a separate independent Czech Republic, our brothers and sisters face new and still extremely challenging particularities as a new member state of the European Union (2004).

(For those interested, in connection with this last point, in 2007 I contributed a chapter called "The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the Construction of Czech National Identity" to a book entitled "The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity." My paper argued that the RSCU offers us all a powerful model of liberal religious community which balances the need in Europe to develop a corporate identity whilst still allowing for a variety of very particular regional/national identities.)

But what of our own twenty-first century British particularities to which we must carefully relate this service if it is to be truly transformative for us? I'll restrict myself today to but one example which relates to the dangers facing all of us across Europe living as we do in highly secularised, neoliberal dominated societies which, as a whole, are increasingly losing any corporate understanding that there is something creatively ultimate about existence of ourselves and the world that is neither in the gift, nor power, of humankind; that is not a commodity than can be traded or bought and sold. The traditional placeholder for this "ultimate creativity" in our culture is, of course, the word "God". Here are some words by a leading contemporary Czech Unitarian minister, Jaroslava Dittrichová, which she offered up to a Unitarian and Universalist theological symposium I help arrange in Oxford during 2000 just before becoming minister here in Cambridge. Dittrichová words (and her own personal example) made a profound and lasting impression upon me that has, without doubt, significantly shaped my own concerns as a minister in our tradition:

[B]elief in one God - is certainly the main Unitarian principle from the historical point of view. We think that this principle is also one of the main principles in contemporary Czech Unitarianism. Many of you are of [a] different opinion. Perhaps those of you who are non-theists do not find language about God useful. You may think the word God is much abused, and often used to refer to a kind of personal God. You may believe that the fruits of our life matter more than beliefs about God. This may be partly true, but there is a possible, hidden danger in this idea. We who lived under the communist brand of totalitarianism were able to see and experience the consequences of a system without God, a system that considered man to be the centre of the world, without responsibility to something higher than himself - or even without a sense of responsibility to "the order of being." [. . .] We believe together with Vaclav Havel that in our contemporary world, we should respect what is beyond us. It seems to us that it is not important whether we call it the order of nature, the absolute or God. We are not afraid of the word "God." We use it because Dr. Capek and [his successor] Dr. Haspl used this word in their sermons and books, and because the word "God" is used in other churches in our country which are close to us more now than at any previous time. We believe that a humanism which considers human beings the centre of the world without respect to something higher allows humans to be driven by their particular interests rather than governing their behaviour in a way that takes account of general interests. This results in the plundering of natural resources and other dangers existing in our civilization. What we have told you does not mean that we set belief in God against humanism. What we want to emphasise is that humanism should be open to transcendence. Such a humanism may be called religious humanism" ("A Global Conversation", A. Hill, ICUU Prague 2002, pp. 197-199).

Flora in Calix Light by David Jones
So, should you chose to take a flower from this vase today, as I will invite you to do as you leave, it is not to engage in some pointless piece of nice, liberal, fluffy-bunny stuff and nonsense but to bear public witness to your real intention to work for the success of the kind of open-hearted, liberal religious humanism articulated so well by Dittrichová and our Czech Unitarian brothers and sisters. Also, it is to signal your intention that, like Čapek, you are willing to become watchmen and women standing on the crossroads of our own age warning people *not* to go back to the barbarism and bestiality still espoused by so many forms of religion and politics today and, at the same time, to offer people a visible and, I hope, beautiful and uplifting expression of how to be compassionately and intelligently religious in our own place and age.

Čapek's prayer consecrating the flowers:

Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us, amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another's talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. Amen.

Čapek's communion prayer:

In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the tree and in the human heart the longing for people to live together in love; In the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother and father, the brother and sister what they are; In the name of sages and religious leaders who sacrificed their lives to hasten the coming of peace and justice; In the name of all these, let us renew our resolution – sincerely to be real brothers and sisters regardless of any bar that might estrange us from one another. In this holy resolve may we be strengthened, knowing that we are God's family, that one spirit – the spirit of love – unites us, and may we endeavour for a more perfect and more joyful life. Amen.

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