Watchmen and women - A Flower Communion Service

(This is a slightly revised version of an address I gave last year during the Flower Communion Service)

As I tried to explore again last week those involved in liberal religion have had a long love affair with the idea that it was possible to express religious faith through certain 'essential and universal principles' hoping that, in so doing they could articulate a kind of pure, ‘neutral’ religion that would suit all and offend none. It is a project which, though once admirable in many ways, has failed and the continued decline of liberal religion as a vital force in our contemporary culture is extremely worrying, especially at a time when as a major political and social influence religion is back with a vengeance and when right-wing political forces across Europe are once again gaining ground.

The reason I begin this address with these remarks is because without a real understanding and sense of how the Flower Communion's hard particularities can connect with our own community, time and place it can quickly become a dreadfully trite and sentimental affair which expresses little more than a vague and desperately ungrounded and unstable desire simply to get along with others coupled to a somewhat vacuous affirmation of the beauty of nature.

But this was a service which was consciously created by the Czechoslovak Unitarian pastor Norbert Fabián Čapek (1870-1942) with a quite different aim in mind.

Although in his sermons and prayers of the 1920s Čapek felt he had begun to articulate well his developing liberal theology he realised that his community in Prague needed a service which allowed these ideas to be expressed in a more tangible, particular and concrete way. Because, for a variety reasons, traditional forms of Christian communion had problematic resonances for many Czechoslovakians, Čapek realised he could not simply do a light revision of a Christian communion service and so, on 4 June 1923, he introduced the Flower Communion.

Čapek asked members to bring a flower of their choice and, when they arrived at church – just as you have been asked today, they were directed to take it inside and place it in a large vase. This simple act was understood to be symbolic of each individual’s free desire to join with others in religious community. The vase that contained the flowers was itself understood to be symbolic of the church community. 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 I Corinthians 13, a prayer of consecration, one of blessing and a sermon. At the close of the service each member was to leave with a different flower from the one they brought taking it, as Čapek said, ‘just as it comes without making any distinction where it came from and whom it represents’ 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).

(Excursus - although Čapek might seem here to be suggesting he desired the 'one-size fits all religion' I criticised at the outset what he is really saying is that by being *this* kind of Unitarian congregation – and see next Čapek quote below – this is to be one thing and not another. By being something, not nothing we can extend radical hospitality to other ways of being – we are inviting people into our circle as respected guests not potential converts to our way of thinking. Though, if any guest finds amongst us a way of being religious liberally that they wish to follow then we will not, naturally!, turn them away.)

Now it is important to realise that the situation in Czechoslovakia and Europe during the 1920s was by no means easy and if you put your flower in that vase you were saying something with real risk attached to it as you were openly committing to a movement that was prepared to face up to the significant challenges that faced this new country (Czechoslovakia only having some into existence as a political and social entity in 1918).

So you have a clearer idea of to what kind of religious community people were committing when they participated in the Flower Communion in those first years here is how, in 1924, Čapek defined what he understood Unitarianism to be:

"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 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).

So, we make a terrible mistake if we think that just putting a flower in a vase, saying some nice liberal sounding words about community and inclusivity, and then taking one out later will help transform our lives in the way it did for Čapek and his church members. No! The service only has bite and traction 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 the United Kingdom in the 21st century.

You have heard something about the original particularities but in the years which followed its introduction there came first the Nazis (who arrested and killed Čapek in one of their so-called 'medical experiments') and then, when that nightmare seemed over, there came further vicissitudes under a Communist regime. Now as separate Czech and Slovak Republics they face, of course, new and still challenging particularities.

But what of our own twenty-first century British particularities to which we must carefully relate this service if it is to be for us anything real and substantive?

Well, as I said at the beginning of this address, nationally we are facing the real prospect of the demise of our liberal religious tradition at the same time as we are seeing an increase in the number of extremely illiberal religious voices in our culture. Coupled to that is the re-emergence of active and extremely effective right-wing political parties across Europe. There are more examples I could add at this point but these two will suffice for me to make the claim that, just as taking a flower from Čapek’s vase in 1923 entailed risk and courage, taking one today, if you really understand what it means, still entails risk and courage. Taking a flower from this vase is not to engage in some pointless piece of nice liberal fluffy-bunny stuff and nonsense but to witness to your real intention to stand up to and face down the fascists, racists, religious and political bigots and extremists that are increasingly finding a place in our European societies. To take a flower is to signal your intention, like Čapek , to become watchmen and women standing on the crossroad warning people *not* to go back to barbarism and brutality and, at the same time, offering them a new way to be religious in our own age.

This is for us the hard, present particular reality of this service but, as you take a flower I ask you to understand that we also touch something strong and gentle that is nothing less than the hope and vision which lay at the heart of Čapek's faith, those of the Czechoslovak (and now Czech) Unitarians and, I hope, the faith I try to encourage this local community. I can do no better than conclude with Čapek's own words on what this vision was for him and, I hope is for us today:

"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 those interested in following up something of the contemporary relevance I see in the Czech Unitarian experience see my chapter The Religious Society of Czech Unitarians (RSCU) and the construction of Czech National identity in The Religious Roots of Contemporary European Identity: Faltin, Lucia and Wright, Melanie J. (eds), Continuum Press, London 2007.


Anonymous said…
1 -People of committed religion are not necessarily right-wing.

2 - It is a secular centre-right force rising in Europe, in reaction to centre-left dominance. It is part of our naturally cyclic democratic culture, and nothing necessarily to fear. Oppose maybe, fear no.

3 - The rise of religion, particularly a re-emerging Christianity, New Age Paganism and Buddhism (which all attract the most 'converts', as opposed to Islam which is based primarily on birthrates), is nothing to fear. It is Europe once again searching for meaning. Liberals such as your self may try to paint a picture of threat, but that is simply because your own project has (temporarily) failed and you wish to devalidate those successful projects.

I wonder, how much social action does your own church involve itself in?

Soup kitchens?
Helping renovate social housing across your town/city?
Outreach to refugees?
Youth groups taking more than 100 kids off the streets and working with them on performing arts and fundraising projects?
Counselling services?
A free 'school of theology' organising public speaking each weekend to get people engaged in deeper thought?

There's a scary right-wing church up our road doing all that - probably whilst the lovely left-wing church nearby picks and plants flowers, and pats itself on the back.
Yewtree said…
This, and its predecessor, are both excellent.

While we're on the subject of what it means to be a Unitarian, I think we need to do something more significant and particular for the membership service (maybe a flower communion emphasising the hard particularities which you elucidate here).
Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. I'll respond point by point.

1. Absolutely - but then I never said they were.

2. You maybe right - it is nothing we need *necessarily* fear but being alert to the significant rise in organised right wing politics and religion should be something that concerns us - don't forget fear can have useful payoffs if it gets people off their buts and doing something. There is a long history of liberals not being fearful until way, way too late. The trick is to ensure that this fear doesn't turn into projecting onto another group views they don't actually have or espouse. We encourage people to meet directly and talk with them.

3. I don't wish to devaluate any of the projects you point to. Far from it.

4. Social action in this community. Well we have a long history of working with the homeless and have organised soup kitchens ourselves. My wife was involved in this area herself.

Outreach to refugees - our most recent engagement here (still current) was to help a young Palestinian Muslim refugee to follow a course of study here in Cambridge and then Ruskin College Oxford as well as assist directly in his asylum claim. A successful one I'm pleased to tell you.

Working with kids. As a professional musician and educator myself I have worked with many communities in this area.

Also each week on a Wednesday evening we hold an open conversation for just such a deepening of thought. Additionally I am active in promoting various public lecture/conversations to do the same kind of thing.

Additionally I would add many of our church members are personally active in the areas you mention. We're not perfect, haven't got all the answers and could do better but we're not just planting flowers and patting ourselves on the back.

Sufficient unto the day - almost certainly not . . .