An Assembly of Presences — A short address for the church AGM and my brief remarks written for the annual report

The Memorial (Unitarian) Church
Readings: Genesis 1:27: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

From “The Coming Insurrection” by the Invisible Committee (Semiotext(e), MIT Press, 2009)

The need to assemble is as constant among humans as the necessity of making decisions is rare. Assembling corresponds to the joy of feeling a common power. Decisions are vital only in emergency situations, where the exercise of democracy is already compromised. The rest of the time, “the democratic character of decision making” is only a problem for the fanatics of process. It’s not a matter of critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them. We just have to see that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness. If we manage to set aside the fantasy of the General Assembly and replace it with an assembly of presences, if we manage to foil the constantly renewed temptation of hegemony, if we stop making the decision our final aim, then there is a chance for a kind of massification, one of those moments of collective crystallisation where a decision suddenly takes hold of beings, completely or only in part. [. . .] There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on it. [. . .] As for deciding on actions, the principle could be as follows: each person should do their own reconnaissance, the information would then be put together, and the decision will occur to us rather than being made by us. The circulation of knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalises by raising up. 



Inside the Memorial Church
We meet today for our own community’s AGM. Around this time of the year, all over the country, many of our congregations do likewise. Also, just a few weeks ago, there was held the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Now is the season for our AGMs and General Assemblies.

Given the formal, legal and financial structure we have, AGMs and GAs are inevitable and required. They are important meetings that should be taken seriously and I’m absolutely sure we will do this today.

But there is in play in our general culture a deadening air around these kinds of meetings. At the mere thought of them otherwise brave hearts sink, and the fear of entering the dullest and most pointless of all meetings on the planet begins to loom ever closer on the horizon, a horizon for us now only half an hour away. Why is this feeling part of our general culture? Why is it that people are so keen to avoid them?

Well, it seems to me to have arisen from having in our culture too many organisations that have lost the ability to be anything else but organisations and who now seem only to have meetings about meetings about being an organisation that meets.

I have spent most of my life involved in some way with left-wing politics. Although they are very far from having a monopoly on this, the left are notoriously prone to engage in the most pointless, procedural hair-splitting nonsense, something brilliantly parodied by Monty Python in their “Life of Brian”, especially in the scenes concerning the “People’s Front of Judea”. The PFJ, you may remember, remained vehemently opposed to their rivals the “Judean People’s Front”, the “Judean Popular People’s Front”, the “Campaign for a Free Galilee”, and the “Popular Front of Judea”, calling them all “splitters”. The last of these groups, the “Popular Front of Judea”, consisted simply of one old man which was, for those of us in the know, a marvellous piece of mockery of the size of some actually existing revolutionary Trotskyist factions. One man and not even one dog, and you could almost guarantee that this single man, were he to get a dog, would continue to have with it pointless procedural meetings. Now, if this is a representative informing picture of what an AGM and a GA is like then it is no surprise that they fill us with dread.

Although by a very long chalk I’m far from agreeing with everything they say, I am with the Invisible Committee when they want strongly to push against this state of affairs, not “by critiquing assemblies or abandoning them, but of liberating the speech, gestures, and interplay of beings that take place within them.”

I understand this to mean for us that when we meet together in half an hour, we need to ensure our AGM is about releasing us to do together the things we both need and want to do, and not about stopping us from doing them in a morass of pointless procedure. An AGM must not be an end in itself but, instead, an initiating, liberating event of releasement (gelassenheit).

When we attend an AGM fully aware “that each person comes to an assembly not only with a point of view or a motion, but with desires, attachments, capacities, forces, sadnesses and a certain disposition toward others, an openness” then we begin to meet as a living people and not as a pointless expression of process.

If we succeed in this then spending a short, but focused time together ensuring that the buildings, finance, governance are in sufficient and good (enough) order then we become, not merely a General Meeting, or a General Assembly, but rather an “assembly of presences”.

In such an assembly of presences we can see that we are freed to bring our own genuine reconnaissances about faith and order (and life and work) into conversational play with each other and that, when all the information our reconnaissances contain is properly put together, the decisions required will occur to us rather than being made by us. As the Invisible Committee suggest, “The circulation of such knowledge cancels hierarchy; it equalizes by raising up”.

This cancellation of hierarchy and equalisation is something absolutely vital for the kind of radical, liberal, lay-church community we aspire to be because, as one of our greatest twentieth-century theologians, James Luther Adams (1901-1994), said: “Liberalism, in its social articulation, might be defined as a protest against ‘pecking orders.’”

We may have begun “as a protest against ecclesiastical pecking orders” but we quickly also extended this protest against to political and economic pecking orders and, as Adams makes crystal clear:

“This protest often found its sanction in the basic theological assertion that all are children of one God, by which is meant that all persons by nature potentially share in the deepest meanings of existence, all have the capacity for discovering or responding to ‘saving truth,’ and all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfilment of human destiny. These religious affirmations are thus the basis of the liberal’s belief that the method of free inquiry is the necessary condition for the preservation of human dignity. This method of free inquiry and persuasion is the only one consistent with both the dignity and the limitations of human nature, and it is the method that yields the maximum of discovery and criticism” (From “Guiding Principles for a Free Faith” by James Luther Adams in “On Being Human Religiously: Selected Essays In Religion and Society”, Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1976)

So when we gather for our AGM may we all remember that we meet, not merely as a formal, procedural body but, primarily and fundamentally, as an assembly of presences open to the infinite, creative possibilities that may be found in each other and the world. Nothing less is equal to the task that faces us.


Inside the Memorial Church
Over the years in this report I’ve often gone back to something said by one of our own great theologians, James Luther Adams (1901-1994), namely that what people want in a liberal church is “ultimacy and intimacy”. In other words people want both to have a place where, in an open-hearted and appropriately critical way, they can address the deep theological and philosophical questions of life and where, at the same time, they can find the intimacy of friendship and support that should come with any genuine community. The former is always easier to provide and sustain than the latter. The former can be sustained by just a few people whereas the latter requires that everyone gets involved in some way.

Without doubt, for me the great joy of the past year has been to see how just such a more intimate community has begun to develop here. We see it together most noticeably in our monthly bring and share lunches, the fourth Wednesday lunch-club, the Christmas Day meal, the Wednesday Evening Conversations and in the other tea parties and social get togethers we have been having. But, as your minister, I also see it in the many personal connections and friendships that are being made between various individuals within the community.

It is these more intimate bonds of friendship and support that help all of us address better and more consistently the always difficult, ultimate questions of life. A church such as ours can survive (just) by only addressing questions of ultimacy, but it will never thrive until it takes care also to address questions of intimacy.

In this task of providing ultimacy and intimacy we need, of course, to remember some people are going to be particularly good at one and less good at the other and this, in turn, means that we should always looking for ways appropriately to share the load among us.

Which point leads me to something else I have often mentioned in my annual remarks, namely, the idea that the modern liberal church needs to move away from being a minister-led organisation and increasingly towards becoming a ministry-led one. That today, everywhere I look, I see a much greater sharing of the load of providing ultimacy AND intimacy to ourselves and the world gives me real hope for the future of this local liberal church community.

Thank you to you all for making this possibility ever more real.