Creating temporary, loving, edgeland communities


Epistle of James 1:6–8
But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

The Dalai Lama in his introduction to The Epistle of James (Canongate Books, 2000):
The epistle [of James] begins by underlining the critical importance of developing a single-pointed commitment to our chosen spiritual path . . . because lack of commitment and a wavering mind are among the greatest obstacles to a successful spiritual life. However, this need not be some kind of blind faith, but rather a commitment based on personal appreciation of the value and efficacy of the spiritual path. Such faith arises through a process of reflection and deep understanding. Buddhist texts describe three levels of faith, namely: faith as admiration, faith as reasoned conviction, and faith as emulation of high spiritual ideals. I believe that these three kinds of faith are applicable [in this passage] as well. 


Last week, in response to one of the points put to me after giving my address, I mentioned a work by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck called “A God of One’s Own”. In it he makes a powerful case why, today, we in the European context at least, are really now all choosing a 'god' of our own. Even those who end up holding orthodox, traditional and/or fundamentalist religious positions (and who would deny the truth of Beck's claim) have, to some extent, chosen to adopt (or maintain) their positions in the sense that today we all know, to repeat some words of Charles Taylor, that:

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" ("A Secular Age", Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 11).

Anyway, at the beginning of the week my intention was to write something which would introduce you to Beck’s basic thinking about this. However, one particular event this week afforded me with what we might call a case study connected with Beck’s point and the consequent, highly plural nature of our current culture which shows something of how this affects my own work as the minister of this liberal church - a church, which, because of its well-known liberal stance is often approached to help out people who, for a variety of extremely complex reasons at key moments of their lives, especially at times of birth, marriage and death, find themselves in what we can call a liminal, edgeland place and in various conditions of doubt and anxiety about how best and honestly to mark these moments.

The question for us is always, how we as a liberal church are to minister well and appropriately in this edgeland but without, at the same time, loosing or giving up on our own core identity? That's always been a real difficulty for us. I hope this little case study helps us answer (or at least helpfully think about) this question in some way.

So . . .

Through my interfaith work over the past thirteen years I have got to know many members of different faith communities including one member of a local Buddhist group. That group has held a number of meetings in this building including a couple of largish ones which centred on talks given by members of the Dalai Lama’s immediate circle. Naturally, because of our own positive stance towards other religious traditions we have happily made the building available for those meetings - and very interesting they have been.

Next, you need to know that in my non-ministerial life I'm politically active and am, myself, a life-long, committed socialist, albeit of an explicitly Christian communist variety (click on this link to my "About" page and scroll down towards the bottom to get a better idea of what I mean by this). Now, last year, I wrote a piece for a national newspaper, The Morning Star, that was, in part, about this Christian/Socialist mix. It was seen by a remarkable lady in her late nineties called Ruth Wallis who had just moved back to Cambridge from Newcastle to be with her family. She was a mathematics undergraduate at Girton College and had joined the Communist Party here during the Munich crisis of 1938. She had grown up in an orthodox Jewish family but her philosophical and political thinking during the 1930s meant that, by her early twenties, she had moved wholly away from religion and become a convinced atheist. The family with whom she was staying was that of my Buddhist acquaintance who felt able to contact me to ask whether I would go and speak politics with her and perhaps take her to a political meeting now and then. I gladly agreed, not least of all, because I learnt that she had been taught at Cambridge by one of my own intellectual heroes, Eric Hobsbawm. Over the course of this last year I had a number of very interesting and rewarding conversations with her both about politics and our own, very different, life-journeys with regard to faith, belief and unbelief. When she died last week the family asked whether I would conduct a non-religious funeral service for her. My immediate response was, I'm sure you’ll be happy to hear, yes.

But, today, I want to take some time analysing this immediate response because my “yes” - and I hope, therefore, also the “yes” of this church - was most certainly not born out of a carelessness about its own religious tradition but rather, a yes born out of a faith that, at certain highly symbolic moments of life, such as funerals, in the edgelands of our contemporary culture, it is sometimes possible to help reveal (and to some extent weave anew) a meshwork of reciprocal responsibilities and rights that always exist between very different political, philosophical and religious positions.

To show you what I mean the first thing to say is that, despite occasional, apparent philosophical indications to the contrary I'm a deeply religious person and consider myself very much to be a Unitarian and Free *Christian*. The basic point to note here is that when someone dies, even when they are non-religious and someone whom I liked and highly respected, I cannot personally but deal with their death in terms that are deeply rooted in the liberal Christian tradition. I have a deep existential commitment both to the covenant of this local church and to the object of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Since I have already mentioned the Dalai Lama I cite in my defence his introduction to the Epistle of James that we heard earlier in our readings, which stressed the importance of "developing a single-pointed commitment to our chosen spiritual path."

So how does this square with me agreeing to conduct a non-religious service, surely this would seem to cut against my claim to be religiously committed?

Well, thanks to the longer term personal inter-faith connections that existed with the family I knew they held and practised their Buddhist faith in a similar liberal and open-hearted fashion to the way they knew I (we) hold and practise our liberal Christianity. I also knew from first-hand experience that they also deeply loved Ruth who held, as you have heard, her own distinct and very different, non-religious position. So, when the family asked me to conduct a non-religious funeral for Ruth the first thing I knew was that we were not in a polemically doctrinal and anti-religious realm but rather in the very human realm of needing to find a way together of responding as honestly and truly as we could to a much loved and respected person whose needs and beliefs were at various key points very different from our own. We were all clearly gathering together in what we might call a liminal, edgeland realm that required us all to do some ad hoc thinking and acting. This is, for all kinds of reasons, a situation that is becoming increasingly common in our general culture.

Thanks to the collective experience of our church tradition upon which I could draw I was able to prepare a service which, even as it was clearly non-religious (in the sense that it did not referencing God) it was simultaneously able to create a space for the people present to talk openly in their own terms about their relationship with Ruth. (Click on this link to download a copy of it). I was honoured and touched to be invited to contribute a few personal words to this space as well and I chose to speak about our last conversation together. One thing Ruth wanted me to do was to pass on a single important political point she thought was of great importance and, in my words on the day, I fulfilled that promise. What that political point was I need not rehearse here today, but what is of concern to us now was something Ruth and I talked about connected with religion. What follows are the my concluding words spoken the graveside; the basic theme will be well know to those who regularly attend this service (or read this blog) but here it can be seen to be doing its work in the public space:

L. to r: Rob Griffiths, Ruth Wallis,
Frank Liddiard, Andrew Brown
“Ruth knew, of course, that I am a Unitarian minister and religious, albeit in a very unconventional way. I knew, too, that she was, herself an atheist. In my own liberal Christian tradition this difference is far from being a problem not least of all because one of my sixteenth-century Hungarian forebears, Bishop Fenenc David memorably taught us that 'we need not think alike to love alike.' By her bedside the matter of religion came up because she took time to tell me something of her own life story including her Jewish family upbringing and how her own thinking eventually took her completely away from any kind of religious belief. It was a journey made with complete integrity and she told it to me in a powerful and memorable way and so I am pleased to be able to honour her heartfelt conclusions by conducting for her today this non-religious service. In so doing I find that Ruth, right here and right now, has given us a wonderful gift, namely, of showing each other in a very concrete way the truth that, yes indeed, we do not need to think alike to love alike. Thank you Ruth, both for your long life of service and this, precious, parting gift to us all.”

In their own distinct and beautiful ways the two family members who also spoke by Ruth's graveside were able to offer up their own honest, loving and grateful words. No one pretended to be speaking FOR Ruth but all were able to speak honestly about their own personal relationship with her and all of us, because of the basic sturdy, non-religious, temporary framework of the service, were also able to honour Ruth's desire for a non-religious burial service.

From my own perspective (both personally and as minister of this church) I feel confident in saying that in facilitating this non-religious service for Ruth, and in being able to contribute my own heartfelt words about her that did not deny or ignore my own deeply held faith, I was most certainly acting in accordance with what our religious tradition calls “the spirit of Jesus” and that this was a way of appropriately upholding the "liberal Christian tradition."

In sum, in the service and in our time together afterwards I think that we managed to create a temporary but very real and valuable, loving edgeland community. What we did together on Friday was unique in the sense that it could never simply be reproduced and repeated for every funeral. For it is clear to me that the next such service, and the next, and the next, will always have to create its own temporary, ad hoc structures that are tailored to the actual needs of the moment and the people involved. They are not, and clearly are unlikely to become themselves, permanent, substitute forms of community but they can, instead, help all of us involved gain a more liberal and liberating understanding of the complexity and richness of our shared human life that we can take back into our more formal, defined communities whether they be religious, secular or political.

It seems to me that it is in just such temporary, cosmopolitan, loving communities that gather together in the edgelands of our culture at times of birth, marriage and death that the seeds of an appropriately diverse and more loving civic society are often being sown and nurtured. What form the seeds' flowering will eventually take we cannot yet know. Our duty (in this religious community) is simply to sow, water and then patiently and faithfully wait:

I Corinthians 3:5-7
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.