Pinot Noir flavoured ice-cream - a "Sideways" look at our Unitarian, liberal Christian tradition before our AGM

Today is, as you know, our local church’s AGM. On this day we take the time briefly both to review the past year and also to take some opportunity to look towards the future. It can be for us a moment to refocus attention on our basis and core beliefs.

But this can be difficult for us to do with any confidence because, as a leaflet from the 1960s that used to be given out by this church says: “A feature of Unitarianism is that it is hesitant about speaking of its basis and beliefs. It has found that spiritual experience and growing knowledge lead to growth and change in religious outlook, and it therefore claims the right to be tomorrow what it is not today.”

Amen to that say I, and I’m sure many of you will say likewise. However, although openness to change is a generally good thing and certainly central to our liberal religious self-understanding, in order to have meaningful change you first have to be something real and substantive - you cannot only be change! You have to be something that can change. To rewrite an old proverb: “All flux and no substance makes Jack a nonexistent boy.”

So every now and then we have to make some conscious effort to remind ourselves of what we are. When we do this any changes that have occurred to us, and may occur to us in the future, can be understood meaningfully and creatively. What we are looking for in this critical and reflective process is a sense of continuity with the past rather than identity with it. This is not a complex thing to grasp – just think of yourself. My ten-year old self was Andrew Brown and this forty-seven year old man is still Andrew Brown. I am meaningfully continuous with my earlier self but I am not at all identical to it – thank God! My changes over the years mean something because I remain something substantive –  I’m not just all change but an individual human being who incorporates all those changes into a still living life. As with ourselves as individuals so, too, with this church.

But the trouble is we are sometimes tempted to over-emphasise or even fetishise our openness to change and to forget all about our substance. The best illustration of this I know turned up many years ago in an episode of the Simpsons.

Homer and Marge’s children, Bart and Lisa are going to a church fete at which the Revd Lovejoy is to serve ice-cream. Lisa asks: “Ice-cream at church?” Bart immediately adds, “I’m intrigued, yet suspicious.” When they arrive at the stall Lisa looks at all the different ice-creams and says, “Wow, look at all these flavours, black-virgin berry, command-mint, bible-gum . . . “ but the Revd Lovejoy quickly interrupts and says, “Or, if you prefer, we have Unitarian ice-cream” and immediately hands Lisa a bowl. She looks confusedly into it and then back up at Revd Lovejoy and says, “There’s nothing here.” The Revd Lovejoy crosses his arms and simply says, “Exactly.”

It’s a very good joke and every now and then it returns to haunt us. Back in 2005, there was a national flurry of concern in the UK about the implications of this and my own minister Cliff Reed, who was the primary influence upon me becoming a Unitarian and Free Christian minister, addressed the denomination on this matter in a letter to our national periodical, The Inquirer. He wrote:

Fans of “The Simpsons”, TV’s best and most perceptive cartoon, will know that Unitarians get the occasional mention there. It is, perhaps. the only peak-time. mass-audience, non-religious TV programme . . . where the word “Unitarian” ever crops up.
     How other people see us is both interesting and important. What does the empty bowl mean? Is it a Zen thing? ls emptiness the absence of mind-numbing dogma and soul-clogging superstition? Is it openness to truth and enlightenment? That would be a nice interpretation! Exactly how accurate – well, that’s another matter!
     Less comfortable is this. Our bowl is empty because, having discarded our intelligent, rational, humanist, liberal Christian faith, there's nothing left. With the original contents gone, what have we tried in their place? Nihilist post-modernism? Flaky, self-indulgent, New Age “spirituality”? Pick’n’mix eclecticism? But these lack any substance. So does the empty bowl represent spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy?
     That is a bleak view, but as [St] Paul warned: “We are no longer to be children, tossed about by the waves and whirled around by every fresh gust of teaching, dupes of cunning rogues and their deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 42:14). 
     And [what] about [our] children, though we rightly reject ideas of indoctrination, do we give our own youngsters a full bowl on which to build personal faith?

Cliff concluded his letter by asking: “Do we tell [our children] about the riches of our faith? Do we connect them to the roots of our tradition?” And, today, I would add do we, or rather, do I, tell you all enough about the riches of our faith and connect you with the roots of our tradition?

The answer is here, sometimes, yes. (You can find three examples HERE, and HERE, and HERE). But  I feel I do not do this as frequently as I should and I certainly do not do it in any systematic way. At the moment the best current general summary of what we are about is to be found on every order of service which you have in your hands right now. But this document can only hint at our tradition’s deeper, substantive riches.

For the truth is we do have a profoundly rich faith tradition and I’d like to ask you, here and now, how you would like me better to introduce you to it? I have to say that I think sermons are generally not the best place to do this because that would be to turn them into history lectures – but, perhaps, that wouldn’t matter every now and then. Would you like me to write some short pieces for the newsletter or perhaps put on a few evenings a year where I run through the basic heads of the tradition? I could even prepare an online course for you to work through at your own speed?

(Connected with these questions for the moment I have put up the following web page to give people a brief, good, general overall picture of our history It was written by Earl Morse Wilbur and is entitled The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History.)

The potential upside of doing this would be that people will come to have a clearer idea of the religious tradition and basic philosophy and theology that makes this liberal church distinctively what it is. Knowing this will help them better to decide the level of commitment and loyalty they may, or may not, wish to make to this small community.

The potential “downside” of being clearer about what this church is “all about” is that it will quickly become obvious that it cannot be all things to all people and that, for all the will in the world, it cannot be a catch all, completely open and empty bowl that can be filled with whatever a person who walks through our doors fancies filling it with. It’s is to discover that there is, in fact, sizeable dollop of ice-cream in our bowl and that it is not orthodox Protestant or Catholic Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Taoist or New-Age flavoured, but distinctively Unitarian and Free Christian flavoured. All the aforementioned flavours have their rightful place on the world’s ice-cream stall and in an individual faith community’s own bowl but they are not Unitarian and Free Christian flavour. I think it is clear that a more accurate description of what our ice-cream contains (the usefulness of which the recent horse-meat scandal has eloquently revealed) will mean that some people will be attracted to try a taste of our flavour but others won’t and some of them may well be repelled by even the mere thought of it. But that’s OK, that’s simply the way the world works and anyway, as I have reminded you only recently, we are clear that one key ingredient that makes up our distinctive flavour includes the deeply held belief that “We need not think alike to love alike.” This is where our liberal spirit is, perhaps, best articulated and displayed.

Now, before I close, I want to say something additional about our flavour that history seems to tell us is likely to remain true. It is that ours is an acquired flavour and the fruit from which it comes is a difficult one to cultivate. It is also true that this fruit is one that has never been suited to mass cultivation and general popular approval. But this is not, necessarily a bad thing and I cite, as an illustration of what I mean via my favourite exchange in the film “Sideways”. Maya and Miles have met on a wine-tasting holiday and this piece of dialogue about Miles’ favourite grape variety, Pinot Noir, marks the real beginning of their love for each other. Miles’ answer is, of course, also a metaphor for the kind of person and relationship he is seeking. The dialogue takes place on a veranda on a hot summer’s night . . .

Maya and Miles
Maya: You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?

Miles: Sure.

Maya: Why are you so in to Pinot?

Miles: [laughs softly]

Maya: I mean, it's like a thing with you.

Miles: [continues laughing softly] Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.

Pinot Noir grapes
The kind of complex flavour our particular liberal Christian tradition represents is a very hard one to achieve and, just like the Pinot Noir grape our fruit needs constant care and attention to achieve it. It, too, seems only able to grow in really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world – like us in this very small church on the corner of a city’s backstreet. It is also true that only the most patient and nurturing of growers can succeed in this and, even then, only those growers who have also really taken the time to understand our tradition’s potential are able to coax it into its fullest expression.

We are those people and so in addition to reminding ourselves to be patient and nurturing we must also make a real effort to understand both our tradition’s history and potential.

Now, I cannot claim that our fruit and it’s flavour is as ancient as the Pinot Noir grape, we are, after all, only some 450 years old. However, I am going to claim that the flavours of our liberal faith remain to me, and I hope to you and to a significant number of others, just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle . . . on the planet.

So, as we enter our AGM and another year of church life please remember that our church does not offer the world merely an empty bowl but actually something substantive, rare and truly wonderful – something which, for rhetorical purposes today, I have called Pinot Noir flavoured ice-cream.


Yewtree said…
I think Pinot Noir might work in a sorbet...
Ha! An excellent observation . . .
Anonymous said…
Very interesting post! And of course, great Simpsons clip. As always, way ahead of their time. I work for a new social blogging site called, and was hoping you would consider sharing your posts there with us? It wouldn't affect your blog in any way, and I know our community would love to read your work here. Let me know what you think!

All the best,