Accessibility: A fruit of the harvest sowed by the Radical Reformation & Radical Enlightenment

READING: The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few (Matthew 9:35-38)

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’


Accessibility: A fruit of the harvest sowed by the Radical Reformation & Radical Enlightenment

Before I properly begin this brief Harvest Address which centres upon our newly completed accessibility project I want to start with an important caveat. It is to note that we must neither absolutise, nor fetishise, accessibility. Not everything is accessible to everyone everywhere. The work of many scientists, philosophers and artists are not easily accessible, they require  inclination, time, patience and hard work if we are to engage, work with and understand and appreciate them; neither the summit of Everest nor the bottom of Mariana Trench, neither the top of the Eddystone Lighthouse nor the bottom of the Three Counties Cave system in the Yorkshire Dales, are easily accessible to any but the fittest and most courageous people who have been highly and specifically equipped for the purpose of ascending or descending these heights and depths. So let’s not forget that some realms, things and places, by their very nature, and also because of the structural mental and physical limitations of even the most astonishing human being, simply remain highly or even definitively inaccessible.

However, with this caveat in mind, we can say that an important driver of the liberal Christian, Radical Reformation, Radical Enlightenment traditions to which this church belongs has always been the desire to achieve in key areas of life maximum accessibility for the maximum number of people. I would argue that one of the richest fruits of the harvest of this complex tradition is accessibility in the broadest sense of the word. 

In the first instance it was accessibility to “God” (however this always tricky word was interpreted). Our forebears strongly objected to the way hierarchical and authoritarian forms of Christianity had placed countless impedimenta between the individual human-being and and the source of all being, not least of all the many obscure and complex doctrines, beliefs and rituals that the Church had come to think were essential, as well as the many officials (priests, bishops and popes) who were appointed to police and enforce those same doctrines, beliefs and rituals. In a variety of ways we said “Up with this we will not put” and proclaimed instead that the relationship between a human being and the source of being (however defined, and whether called God or not) was in principle — and in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s memorable words — something available to everyone everywhere, “without mediator or veil”.

Edict of Torda (click on the picture to enlarge)
Affirming this we also came strongly to believe that people everywhere needed to be given access to a public context which allowed them the freedom of conscience and belief to develop their own ongoing relationship with God. This public context first began to become accessible in 1568 in the “eastern Hungarian Kingdom” ruled by the Unitarian King John Sigismund Zápolya who issued the “Edict of Torda”, the first edict of religious toleration in Europe. The toleration it allowed was narrowly conceived at the time but it was an vital seed of the much wider religious toleration whose first great flourishing was marked in 1893 in Chicago by the first “World Parliament of Religions”.

In the second instance we became increasingly concerned that the latest scholarship, knowledge and information about things divine, human and the natural world should be made ever more accessible to more and more people and so access to a good general education for all — and over the years this really did develop into the idea that it was for ALL people — became, and remains, an enduring concern of our tradition. In connection with this we should note that it was the Unitarian engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee who invented the World Wide Web in 1989. The web, for all its many problems, has been an astonishing tool helping to make human knowledge and learning accessible today to a previously unimaginable number of people.  

Related to education was our developing concern to create a genuinely secular space not ruled or overseen in anyway by the authority and strictures of religion so that proper, free, unhindered historical and scientific research and questioning about anything and everything was made possible. The modern university is clearly the most recognisable and enduring such secular space. In the mid-seventieth century our own tradition’s development of the system of Dissenting Academies, where one could take and receive an degree without taking the religious test required at the time by the Church of England, played a key role in the development of a secular system of education free from all religious strictures.
In the third instance we also developed a concern to give all people access to political power via the development of various forms of democracy. Our congregational systems of governance were important laboratories in which democracy was trialed, developed and nuanced. Over the years, this access to political power, in our own neck of the woods anyway, has slowly been enlarged to include more and more people, most notably, one year short of a century ago, women over the age of 30 although it took another decade before this age restriction matched that of men.

In the fourth, and most recent high profile instance we, along with our brothers and sisters in the Quakers and in Liberal Judaism, led the religious side of the campaign to make the institution of marriage accessible not only to heterosexual couples but also to same-sex couples.

Each of these instances, and many more besides, have been vital to the creation of the secular world we know and value today and, although much work undoubtedly still needs to done in each of the areas I have mentioned we should, I think, be quietly proud of the modest role our own radical religious tradition has played in bringing them about (in collaboration, of course, with many other liberally-minded fellow travellers).

However, throughout our history we have had an unfortunate tendency to privilege the spiritual, the mental, the ideal, the theoretical and the abstract over over things concrete and physical. This occurred because European and North American religious culture has been wedded to the Christian-Platonist idea that the physical world is somehow merely a passing, imperfect shadow of some other, eternal, perfect world of either the God/the gods or of Plato’s Ideal Forms. In other words for our culture the “really real” was not this physical world but another, spiritual, transcendent, mental, ideal and heavenly one.

Now I realise that most people aren’t as passionately positive about Nietzsche as I am but we can all, I think, be profoundly grateful to him. This is because it was he who helped speed along the end of this problematic privileging of another, transcendent, supernatural, ideal world which, in turn, allowed us to focus more and more clearly on the importance of THIS life. He played a key and even saintly role in making a this-worldly, naturalistic conception of the divine and the sacred accessible to more and more of us.

Now you might be tempted to think that although this is just the thing you might expect to hear from me, a highly skeptical, agnostic Unitarian minister, it is not something you are going to hear from any mainstream Christian or other religious source. But consider this, even a well-respected mainstream and relatively orthodox Christian organisation such as “Christian Aid” chose a few years ago to run with with the powerful slogan, “We believe in life before death.” They asked their members whether they believed in life before death and they said they felt they had to ask this question

“Because many Christians will answer ‘No’. Many understand Christianity in terms of getting to heaven when we die and life being mostly about getting saved, and getting others saved, to populate heaven after death. That why it’s life after and not before death that is often the focus.”

So, lastly, thanks to Nietzsche and, of course many other less well-known figures, we may say that our radical religious tradition has slowly became more and more concerned to focus upon giving people the fullest access to the joys and possibilities available in THIS extraordinary life, here and now, the life we have before we die (one which, of course, many of us—myself included—think is the only one there is).

But, as we all know, this life as well as being extraordinary is also often perplexing and difficult and it brings with it all kinds of difficulties connected with being the kind mortal, finite, physical creatures we are. We get sick, are prone to the outplaying of complex genetic conditions, have accidents, become frail and get old.

Thanks to the institution of the NHS founded in 1948 and the associated development of the Welfare State — although the continued existence of both is increasingly under threat — great strides have been made with regard to the accessibility, free at the point of use, to medical care for all and also financial support for those who have found themselves for all kinds of reasons falling into unemployment, poverty, hunger and homelessness. Again, clearly much much more could be done in this realm but, despite many setbacks, the potential foundations of a better world are still present among us. 

But one aspect of accessibility we are still only just beginning to address is the physical access to our buildings, buildings in which we have been meeting to promote our intellectual, spiritual and democratic ideals, in which we have been investigating our history and the natural world, and in which we hang-out convivially together afterwards to talk, to eat and drink. They remain to too many people as inaccessible as the Eddystone Lighthouse or the bottom of the Three Counties Cave system and about this we should be deeply ashamed. Think about it, all our grand talk about accessibility to God, ideas, freedom of thought, education, democracy and all the rest and yet, for generations, we’ve failed to make the buildings in which we (I) have pontificated on accessibility actually accessible to many members and potential members of our community. It’s been a very poor show and for it profound apologies should be given.

So, today, on behalf of this church, I apologise from the bottom of my heart for our repeated failure to extend accessibility to our buildings any earlier than today.

But apologies alone do not make for a good and better world — they do not themselves help to usher in the republic of Heaven. Apologies need to be turned into spurs for action and thanks to the hard work of many people both within this community and from other supportive people, communities and funding bodies our buildings are, today, accessible in a way they never have been before. In a short while these important people and bodies will be properly named and thanked by Andrew Bethune, our church chairman. I thank him for taking on this most important role.   

Of course, perfect accessibility has not been achieved by our project but, today, I hope we have begun to show the same commitment to enabling accessibility to THIS physical, concrete life that we have long shown when it comes to enabling accessibility to more abstract, ideal, philosophical and spiritual realms of human existence.

The harvest of accessibility and of tolerance, freedom and respect, the seeds of which were planted by our liberal Christian, Radical Reformation and Enlightenment forbears, remains plentiful even if, alas, the labourers to bring it in still remain few. However, today, we can genuinely celebrate the fact that by making our buildings more accessible than before we can now be joined by even more labourers willing and able to do the blessed, holy work of making the riches of life and existence ever more widely available to all people in all their glorious diversity.