On cottages, decay, barns, fire, Mt. Olympus and the moon – or the future of the liberal church . . .

Jesus said: When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming; and so it happens.’ And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:54–57 RSV)


The American Unitarian minister and theologian George Kimmich Beach begins his insightful 1995 essay entitled The Covenant of Spiritual Freedom with the following words:

The twentieth century is the age of the crisis of liberal democracy. The prospect of our liberal faith is intimately bound up with that crisis. We face this one question in many guises: Is freedom the right of individuals to think and to do as they please, or is it the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of human existence? (p. 99 of Redeeming the Time).

This crisis continues unabated into the profoundly uncertain and unsettling times of the twenty-first century and we, as an independent liberal religious community, are particularly called to articulate and model a workable and coherent solution to it.

Whilst it is clear that such times reveal to us key fundamental faults in our ways of thinking and life we must not forget that they are also times of unrivalled opportunity. They are, potentially at least, refulgent with possibility because the same fractures that open up and threaten the stability of our societies and institutions are the same as those that let in much needed light long excluded by design or, most often alas, simply by accident. This thought remains for me most memorably expressed by Edmund Waller (1606–1687) in the last verse in his Divine Poems written at the very end of his own life:

The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;

Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their eternal home:

Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,

That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Not unimportantly underneath this verse is a short quotation from Virgil’s Fifth Eclogue (line 56) ‘Miratur limen Olympi’ – literally meaning ‘he gazes with wonder at the threshold of Olympus.’ Mt. Olympus being, of course, the home of the principal Greek gods. In the editions that I own of the Eclogues ‘Olympus’ is translated as “Heaven’s gate.”

The Poet Masahide (1657–1732), wrote perhaps the most famous and terse poem about such things (trans. Lucien Stryk):

Barn’s burnt down –

I can see the moon.

The message of these two poems is simple, the cottage and the barn may well offer shelter and a place for storage but, left for too long and allowed to get too big and apparently permanent (only apparently of course), they also begin block from view things as large, vital and timeless to us as the moon and Mt. Olympus both of which stand, symbolically of course, for a central guiding vision in the life of the poet that has become obscured to them over the course of time.

But both poems attest to another very significant problem namely, that we are all too forced into a re-contemplation of the moon or Mt. Olympus – our guiding underlying visions – not because of our own innate wisdom and foresight, but because we are impelled to do so by contingent and sometimes distressing circumstances. So impeding death forced Waller to see Olympus through the cracks opening up in his “cottage”, and catastrophic fire forced Masahide to see the moon above the burnt out smoking remains of his barn. It takes great wisdom, foresight and courage to recognise that if we are truly to reconnect with some fundamental things in life we may have to pull down our own cottages and barns before age or fire gets them.

I want you to observe that lying behind all of this is the truth that all cottages will eventually fall; all barns will eventually burn down. Nothing lasts for ever including churches and religious communities such as us. But I believe that we, as a local community, can address this ongoing crisis in our culture and the continued demise of liberal churches well, and make the necessary changes to our structures without, ourselves, being thrown into homelessness, panic and distress by decrepitude or fire.

Part of my role as minister to this church is to spend a great deal of time looking at and contemplating the state of religion and spirituality in our own age and country. On the basis of this reflection, as Jesus taught, I am prepared to judge myself what is right, and it seems to me that the way most people have been “doing” liberal religion for at least the last century is fatally flawed and that it has obscured from view the vision that should be empowering us as liberals in the present age.

The cottage and barn we began to build from the sixteenth century had as its central design concept the idea that there must be within our communities freedom of thought in the pursuit of truth – whether that truth was labelled scientific, historical or religious. It was a design concept that flourished beyond all expectations especially when it was adopted by most European nation states and then the USA to develop in what we now call liberal democracy. But this soaring edifice slowly began to obscure the almost paradoxical fact that one can only learn what true human freedom means against the background of the limitations of human existence. In the beginning we understood this but for all kinds of reasons (none of which I will examine here – that has and continues to be done in other addresses) we began to mistake freedom to mean “the right of individuals to think and to do as they please.” Our present society and the liberal churches are at present crippled by confusion on this point. We need to relearn what individual freedom means in a true liberal society and church.

We begin by realizing that perhaps the most significant human limitation is, as Beach observes, that for us “freedom is only meaningful within a framework of purposeful action.” In other words we are not free from anything but only truly free when we are for something larger than our own self-interest.

In order to keep ourselves free and able to work for something we have to find ways to work with others in this task who can support us and whom we, in turn, also support. To do this properly we have to enter freely into covenants with each other. And, here we meet that paradox again, for when we covenant freely with each other to ensure our continued freedom of thought in the pursuit of truth and the freedom of others to do the same, we are no longer free to do just what we like. In liberal contexts - again as Beach observes - it is clear that freedom and necessity meet in what Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) called the “coincidence of opposites.” Our liberal freedom consists in the voluntary giving up of freedom within the context of covenanted communities.

So we are left with what feels to many the inconvenient truth that to be truly free as an individual to pursue truth we must ensure the freedom to do the same of an ever larger community and, to do that properly, we have to limit our personal freedom through the continuous process of covenanting. (It’s like marriage of course.)

In a society that seems today wholly unable to negotiate such covenants, our clear duty is to model such a society right here and right now. One of the best contemporary covenants that I know was written by George Kimmich Beach:

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We covenant: We freely commit ourselves to high and holy aims, aims that transcend us, aims of the Spirit. Not in freedom from obligations to others, but in freedom to enter into common endeavours for the common good. Not in freedom from the nourishing roots of our faith in ancient ages, but in freedom to give fresh interpretation to ancient symbols and stories. Not in freedom from being called to aims that surpass us, but in the freedom that springs from knowing that “we've caught a moving train” (Johnny Ray Youngblood), and, together, we're on our way.

We covenant in spiritual freedom. We find at the centre of our faith an energizing mainspring, a drive for meaning and dignity implanted in every soul in every land—the wonder of being alive and awakened to life, the grace of beginning anew. Not in the self-enclosing isolation of the self, but in the quest for a more inclusive covenant. Not in narrow-mindedness or in mean-spirited debunking of things cherished by others, but in listening for the spirit of life and truth wherever it arises. Not in fearfulness that life runs out and nothing can be done, but in the courage to turn every crisis of life into an opportunity for growth and spiritual depth.

We covenant in spiritual freedom for a new humanity. We seek a better world where all peoples can flourish, sharing in the resources of planet Earth and sustaining her natural ecology, a new humanity within the covenant of being. Not closing our eyes to the awesome tasks that stand before us, but committing ourselves to labour tirelessly for the physical, moral, and spiritual well-being of all. Not despairing of the human prospect, but affirming hope, and the sacredness of the image in which we are made. Not stonyhearted when we are called to make a new beginning, nor giving up when our need is to persevere, but affirming our quest for wholeness and holiness.

If, as a church, we are truly going to encourage and develop the human capacity to respond creatively to the possibilities and limits of human existence rather than continue to support a dysfunctional liberal culture that believes individuals can think and to do as they please we need to become much more than a few, admittedly interesting, but ultimately disparate liberally minded people who gather once a week (or less) for a couple of hours in a building that remains closed most of the time. That just ain’t gonna change us in the ways it should, and it sure as hell won’t change the world in the way it needs to change if it is going to survive the next century.

We desperately need to frame a covenant with each other that resembles Beach’s suggestion. In so doing we must also figure out ways to become a liberal community church that doesn’t just have a single minister and a couple of services a week but one which is open seven days a week and which sees everybody as involved in ministry – a ministry led church rather than a minister led one. We also need to be a church which uses its own premises to help people be together in community whilst engaging critically with spiritual, religious, philosophical, theological, scientific, historical and ecological questions. I’m talking about the creation of a genuinely liberal version of the dreadfully narrow, exclusive and judgemental Christian Institutes and so-called Community Churches (only 'so-called' because so many people are excluded from them) that are springing up at present.

We desperately, and I mean desperately, need to tear down our conception of a liberal church that meets only on a Sunday and go on to build something like a university or institute of liberal religion – and good lord doesn’t the world need it? And are we not smack dab in the middle of the right city to do it?

Whatever you think about this I idea I feel absolutely certain that if we stay as we are – just a bumbling along liberal Sunday church – then our decay and collapse is inevitable, we will even deserve to be razed to the ground. If, however, we take the many opportunities that are before us my bet is that we’ll get see the moon and Mt. Olympus once more and without having our church collapse of old age or burn down.

As to whether I am right in this prognosis it only as a covenanted congregation that we will be able truly to judge the signs of the times and come to some firm conclusions about what is the right course of action.