A Ritual to Read to Each Other: being some thoughts about apples and elephants and remaining a distinctive Unitarian and Free Christian place of worship.

A picture showing many of the important religious
symbols I mention in the address 
The picture on the right shows the candle on our communion table, a light shining in the darkness, which we kindle at the start of every service using the following words:

Divinity is present everywhere; it fills the world but, in certain places and at certain times, we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.

READINGS: 



If you don’t know the kind of person I am 
and I don’t know the kind of person you are 
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world 
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star. 

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, 
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood 
storming out to play through the broken dyke. 

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail, 
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park, 
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty 
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact. 

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, 
a remote important region in all who talk: 
though we could fool each other, we should consider— 
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark. 

For it is important that awake people be awake, 
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep, 
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— 
should be clear; the darkness around us is deep. 

—o0o—

ADDRESS

I want to begin by pointing to two ever-present pressures on a small, independent, liberal religious community such as our own. This is not a complaint, it’s just the presentation of a couple of facts. They are, of course, not the only pressures we face, but they are the only two immediately relevant to what I’d like to say this morning. 

The first pressure is the need to maximise the returns we can get on our buildings — not to make a profit (for we are not an arm of capitalism) but simply to ensure that we can continue to balance the books and fund the church and it’s basic ministry — as you know we don't do a bad job at this but it remains somewhat touch and go for us and we cannot merely bumble on.

The second pressure comes thanks to our tradition’s principled openness to other religious and philosophical ways of doing things — as it says on every one of our orders of service, "We need not think alike to love alike". We value the highly plural nature of existence and we most certainly don’t want to engage in anything that cuts against seeing that plurality flourish.

OK, with both these pressures very much in mind a few weeks ago I took the decision to let the church for a wedding conducted by a humanist celebrant. I have no principled objection to humanist ceremonies  and, after meeting the couple briefly prior to saying yes to ensure that there were no hidden issues, it seemed to me worth seeing how it played out and felt. But, key to today’s subject, it was a service with which I had nothing at all to do.

In retrospect I’m genuinely glad I allowed it to go ahead because it helped me see clearly — and feel viscerally, deep in my bones — why doing it in the completely hands-off way I allowed was not a good idea. Even though I've been in the professional ministry for fifteen years I think that this will count as one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt about how appropriately to promote and protect our liberal religious tradition. (I think that what I talk about in this local context also has something to say to our wider liberal political and social culture which is also in great need of being protected and promoted.) 

To help show you why I think this we can turn for help to Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) writing about Spinoza. Deleuze writes:

“When a body ‘encounters’ another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two relations sometimes combine to form a more powerful whole, and sometimes one decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts [. . .] we experience joy when a body encounters ours and enters into composition with it, and sadness when, on the contrary, a body or an idea threatens our own coherence” ("Spinoza: Practical Philosophy", City Lights Books, 1988, p. 19)

Now, the reason I read you the story of the apple in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-7) is because Deleuze points out how Adam hears God’s command not to eat the forbidden fruit as a prohibition — “Thou shalt not eat of the fruit. . . ” But what if God’s command is to be heard as alerting us to “an instance of an encounter between two bodies whose characteristic relations are not compatible: [for] the fruit will act as a poison”? If the story is interpreted this way then we may understand God to be teaching us the vital lesson that the fruit “will determine the parts of Adam’s body to enter into new relations that no longer accord with his own essence” — it will destroy Adam in some important way (ibid., p. 22). Deleuze continues by noting that, “because Adam is ignorant of causes, he thinks that God morally forbids him something, whereas God only reveals the natural consequence of ingesting the fruit.” Deleuze notes that Spinoza is categorical on this point, that “all the phenomena we group under the heading of Evil: illness, and death, are of this type: [i.e. simply] bad encounters, poisoning, intoxication, relational decomposition” (ibid., p. 22).

Now, I think that my letting the service take place without any proper relationship being set up between us as a distinct religious community on the one hand, and the couple and their chosen humanist officiant on the other, was a classic example of such a “bad encounter” and it certainly caused some “relational decomposition” in which I experienced a temporary, but thankfully minor and ultimately educative, “poisoning”. Most of you won’t have had an inkling of why I say this so let me tell you.

The service took place on a Saturday whilst I was working in my study getting ready for Sunday and I saw absolutely nothing of the event except for a few guests whom I had to redirect to the lavatories as they accidentally ended up in the back garden or trying the door of my study. I finished my service preparation at 5pm (long after the wedding had ended) and went over to the church to leave there the orders of service and put up the hymn numbers and generally get the church ready.

As I walked into this, for us sacred, space I was hit by a totally unexpected wave of existential sadness. What did I see? Well, it was primarily what I couldn’t see that struck me. In the space of just a few hours almost everything in the church that spoke of it’s current, distinct, living, community story had been utterly hidden from view and effectively erased. 

The candle which we light each week and which reminds us that divinity is present everywhere — the source of life and light which we are minded to call God — this had been hidden completely from view and thus silenced. So, too, were hidden away the candles which grace our old communion table. All the kneelers which are memorials to past members had been removed from view and were thus, silenced. Our blue mouse, friend to our young children and the homeless and who is the subject of some beautiful children’s stories by Sabrina, was hidden away and thus silenced. The small font, made and given in memory of our minister Stewart Carter (1905-1966) upon which it is written: "The water used in this service is a symbol of the purity God desires in all his children", it too had been hidden away and thus silenced. All our hymn books which contain the songs of aspiration and hope we sing each week and which try to encapsulate something important about our liberal religious tradition had been taken out, hidden away and thus silenced. Our food-bank table and box, which symbolises in a small way our desire to help vulnerable people in our wider community, that too had been hidden away and thus silenced.

In short, I walked into a space that was no longer that of the distinctive one-hundred and eleven year old liberal religious community to whom I have been called to minister. If ever there was a case of relational decomposition this was it. This, in turn, caused in me an unexpected, surprisingly rapid, and I have to say, disturbing, sense of personal relational decomposition. As I stood there it really felt like I’d been poisoned and I genuinely felt a sickness unto death in that I could see with utter clarity how quickly this delicate, living body of a community could die if I, we, weren’t intelligently very careful about what we allow ourselves to ingest .

You may, correctly, say to me, “Well it’s your own fault — you chose to ingest this event, so don’t complain.” You would be right in thinking this and, although I could cite the mitigating circumstances with which I began, I will here simply take it on the chin and say, “Yes, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” But, let me be clear, I’m bringing you this story today not to seek any sympathy from you but only to encourage in us all a better deep collective understanding of an important issue that is always facing us as a liberal community that is both financially vulnerable and open to others in a principled way.

Now, before I continue I need to be absolutely clear that I’m not making any moral judgements here — none at all. It is not that I think that the humanist wedding in the church was wrong in any moral sense (to use the classic moral binary opposite of “evil” rather than “good”) — clearly, from the point of view of the couple and the celebrant, it was good, very, very good. Indeed, had I been a guest with no connection to this community it would have been very good from my point of view too and I unconditionally wish them well. I do not, repeat, do not, cast any blame on them at all.

Instead, it’s vital that you hang on to the fact that I’m simply trying to help us clearly see why, as a modern liberal religious community, we can, and should, say “No” to certain things, not on the basis of ideas of good and evil and their opposition, but on the rather more practical basis that there exists, to quote Deleuze, “qualitative differences of modes of existence”. That is to say we need clearly to see that for every body (whether an individual or a corporate one) some things are simply good for it, and some simply bad. I am saying today that, as far as this liberal church is concerned, ingesting a humanist service (or any other religious or quasi-religious service) with which we have no connections at all is not evil (and to be condemned), but it is, potentially, simply very bad for us (in a non-moral way). 

Now to help me frame my concluding remarks let’s turn to the poem by William Stafford (1914-1993) that we heard earlier called, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”.

The truth is that the couple and their celebrant did not really know the kind of person I am nor the kind of community we were and I, of course, did not really know the kind of persons they are; and because of this, for us here, “a pattern that others made” came, temporarily, to “prevail in the world”. As I stood in our symbolically emptied-out church I saw first-hand how easy it was to follow “the wrong god home” and to have missed “our star”.

The “small betrayal” I made in my mind was my “shrug”, that is to say the all-too-easy thought that the church might be able to be let commercially without there also being a real, deep conversational connection to us. This, in turn, “let the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke” — I’m thinking here of my own, childish, angry and despairing utterances that I made to myself as I stood alone in the church when I realised our history — our "fragile sequence" — had (temporarily) been silenced thanks to my careless "shrug".

The event helped me see with utter clarity that when I, we don’t continue to hold each other’s tails like elephants in a parade, then I, we won’t find “the park”; that is to say, we won’t find the place where we can be meaningfully together in community and able publicly to perform our liberal religious faith well and effectively.

But, as Stafford says, it would be “cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty” for me, as your minister, not publicly to admit making this mistake, this shrug,  and to bring it’s valuable lessons before you all. So, along with Stafford I, too, “appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, a remote important region in all who talk: [that] though we could fool each other, we should consider” this salutary experience, this bad encounter, poisoning and relational decomposition “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” 

I do this because I can see and feel, as never before, how important it is that “awake people be awake” because “breaking line” — that is to say losing touch with each other’s tails as a liberal religious community stretching across geography and generations — may discourage us back to sleep  as if nothing mattered, and that would be a tragedy, it would be the beginning of our end. Stafford is right, “the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe — should be clear” because “the darkness around us is deep.” 

So, let me be clear now. If we wish our distinctive liberal religious light to continue to shine helpfully in the deep darkness — small though this light is, and though we know it is not the only light available to light the way for humankind — then I, we need ways, confidently, and non-morally (this very important), to say “No” to certain things that, though neither evil nor bad in a general way, are bad for us, very bad, and that there exist things which, carelessly ingested, could cause our own “relational decomposition” — a true sickness unto death.

For my momentary folly — and even though no lasting harm was done, and no one would know anything about it unless I had told you — I ask your forgiveness. For what, I hope, is my honest and good teaching born of my folly, I invite you, my fellow elephants, to share with me your considered thoughts on the matter.

But lastly let me wish the couple who married here a very happy and fulfilled married life. I will forever remain in their debt for helping me to see something vital to our well-being as an effective  and distinctive liberal religious community.   
1 comment