A Church of the Free Spirit — a brief address for the renewal of my contract and the giving of tenure

Opening Responsive Reading

Each of us brings a separate truth here.

          R: We bring the truth of our own life, our own story

We don’t come as empty vessels but as full people,
each with our own story and our own truth.

          R: We seek to add to our truths and add to our stories.
The room is rich with truth, rich with experience.

All manner of people are here:

R: We all bring our truth with us.

May we recognise the truth and the story in other lives than our own.
May we hear and honour the truths we all bring as we gather together.

          R: Together we have truths

Together we have a story.

          R: Together we are a community.

(Penny Hackett-Evans)

In the service itself four members of the community came to the front and shared their reasons for coming to this church and why they have stayed. I was touched and moved by their insightful, kind, funny and supportive words.

The congregation on Sunday morning

Lionel Turner (1923-2011)
In 2011 a member of the congregation, Lionel Turner (1923-2011), died. He had had an extraordinary life including a spell as a pilot-engineer in Lancaster bombers, flying over thirty ops during World War Two. For those of you who know the figures, his survival, unharmed, was something of a statistical miracle.

We were very fond of him and, I'm pleased to say, he was very fond of this church and he continued to attend right up until his death even though, by then, he was suffering very badly from alztheimers. Anyway, one day he turned up and announced, “I love this church . . . what’s it called? . . .” — he hesitated for a second before saying, “St Andrew’s, that’s it, St Andrews”.

Of course, I was deeply touched that in his increasing forgetfulness he should have renamed this Memorial (Unitarian) Church after me but, hiding inside this lovely, affirmative utterance (which I will always hold in my heart), there is a common problem faced by every independent free-church that, on the day you have been so kind as to renew my contract with you as your minister and to give me tenure, really should be acknowledged.

It is something that, in part, I explored with you last week, namely, the vital need to concentrate upon (and to reject or accept) the teaching rather than the man or woman who offers up the teaching.

Naturally, I have my own deeply-held philosophy of life which, for the record, and in the smallest of nutshells, is a kind of Christian inspired religious naturalism that, for me, draws most strongly on the insights of Tolstoy, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Ernst Bloch, James Luther Adams, Henry Nelson Wieman, Paul Wienpahl and John Schellenberg. In my opinion — and only for those who are really interested! — the best general overview of the kind of position I hold has been expressed by Charley D. Hardwick in his “Events of Grace: Naturalism, existentialism, and theology.”

But it is absolutely vital to understand, in the context of this local church and my ministry, that this philosophy is simply my considered, personal philosophical and theological input to our ongoing collective, congregational conversation at this moment in time. Unlike most other church traditions (with the notable exception of our friends, the Quakers) my personal beliefs as your minister are, in an important sense, completely besides the point because mine is only one voice among many and one that must never, repeat, must never become THE dominating voice, THE orthodox philosophy of this church. If that were ever to happen the church would have slipped into teaching (or following) a particular religious/philosophical doctrine (in this case mine) and we will have become St Andrew’s. This, God forbid it should ever happen, would reveal that I, we, will have utterly failed in our collective task to be a living, genuinely free-religious community. Of course, what is true of my voice is also true of any other single voice among us. We must strongly guard against any person who comes here and who wants their voice and philosophy to dominate and, in so doing, reveals they wish to introduce some kind of a pecking-order in which they are to be the chief pecker.

(James Luther Adams was particularly strong on the importance of avoiding pecking orders. His words about this can be found in his short but important essay, "Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism". This piece was hugely influential essay for many Unitarian ministers including, of course, me.)

So, with all this in mind, what is our collective task? What is it that this church is all about (or should be about) whether or not I am here as your minister and aside from my own deeply held personal philosophy of life? What is to which we are offering our commitment and loyalty when we formally join this congregation? To answer we need briefly to be reminded about our history.

At it’s inception in the mid-sixteenth century in Poland and Transylvania the Unitarian movement offered it’s adherents a positive, dogmatic Christian doctrine. Reading the Bible critically it came to promote the idea that God was One and that this divine, all-seeing, all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving creator being had intervened in this world by bestowing authority upon the man Jesus who, through his teaching and example, was able to lead us all to eventual salvation (however salvation was understood). Between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries the Unitarian movement slowly developed and nuanced this doctrinal Christian view in accord with what became it’s three leading principles; as expressed by one of our most important twentieth-century historians, Earl Morse Wilbur, these were:

“. . . first, complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds or confessions; second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition; third, generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity.”

I think it is reasonable to say that by the mid-ninetieth century you could still easily have believed that the principal meaning of the Unitarian, Universalist and Free Christian movement was a purely doctrinal one and that, as Wilbur put it, “the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another” — i.e. some kind of Unitarian or Universalist Christianity.

But, by the mid-nineteenth century these three, leading ideas had worked upon our own doctrines to such an extent that we began to realise no single set of doctrines (no matter how well-developed and nuanced, and by whom) was ever going to be capable of adequately mapping or describing reality — that most multifarious of things. We began to realise our faith was in something much larger, more-fluid, allusive, intuitive, dynamic, unfolding and non-doctrinal; indeed, some Universalists amongst us sometimes began to describe it as, “the larger faith”.

This larger faith genuinely freed us to see that the doctrinal aspects of our movement were, of necessity, simply temporary and that our once cherished Unitarian and Universalist Christian doctrines (however modified and nuanced) were, again as Wilbur observed, in the end “only a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom.”

So we entered the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries better able to see that this kind of disciplined, carefully nurtured, spiritual freedom is the form of life that, potentially anyway, should be found lying at the heart of a free-religious community such as our own. All I, as your current settled minister, can ever hope to do is add one, strong, intelligent, critical and faithful voice to the winding-out (verwindung) of this ongoing movement of spiritual freedom and, at the same time, and in same free-spirit we have always sensed was in the man Jesus, to encourage and help you to develop your own disciplined, reasoned and authentically lived-out religious faith — your own expression of this “larger faith”.

So, let us never forget that here we are members, not of the church of St Andrew’s, nor any other saint (living or dead) but, instead, members of the universal church of the free-spirit. Our loyalty is to that never ending quest for spiritual freedom.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for trusting me enough to renew my contract as minister of this church and to give me tenure. I promise to continue to do my very best.


The service also included a responsive reading of James Luther Adams' famous words, I Call That Church Free:

I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence,

          R: That sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands. 

It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.

          R: This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life. 

I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship,

          R: That protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom: that yearns to belong to the church universal, 

It is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship.

          R: It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit. 

The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.

          R: It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit “that bloweth where it listeth and maketh all things new.” 

(James Luther Adams)

Signing the contract today in church
Left to right, me, Shirley Fieldhouse (treasurer) and Andrew Bethune (chair)