A community standing, perhaps, on the cusp of becoming “freethinking mystics with hands”
|The Cambridge Unitarian Church, taken from Christ’s Pieces in February 2023|
For many years now, in my annual report prepared for the AGM of the Cambridge Unitarian Church, I have talked about us being in a transitionary time between old and new ways of doing church. This is still true today but, and it is a vitally important “but,” we are now clearly right on the cusp of beginning whatever the new way of doing church is to be.
In the late nineteenth-century, the founders of the Cambridge Unitarian Church began to develop their own local vision of what a Unitarian community, and its associated buildings, could be like in their time and place. It’s important to realize that they articulated this at the height of Liberal Christian power and influence, when it seemed genuinely possible that the kind of Liberal Christianity the Unitarians offered was only going to become more and more popular and prevalent in British culture. Although they always realized their vision was a work in progress, and would need further development and nuance, they were also very, very assured that, in time, they would succeed. Here, for example, is what the most influential Unitarian theologian of the time, James Martineau (1805-1900), wrote in 1890:
“Unitarianism, we think, must avail itself of more flexibility of appeal, must wield in turn its critical, its philosophical, its social, its poetical, its devotional powers, before it gain its destined ascendency over the mind of Christendom” (Essays, Reviews and Addresses, Vol. 1, London, Longman Green and Co., 1890, p.14—emphasis mine).
With this (to us, astonishing) belief in the destined ascendency of Unitarianism firmly in their heads, hearts and hands, by 1904 the local congregation had been formally founded, by 1923 the hall had been built, by 1924 the congregation had its first full-time minister, J. Cyril Flower and, by 1927/28, our fine and beautiful church had been built. It’s vitally important fully to appreciate that they designed their buildings to be useful for the culture in which the community found itself. This was, remember, the golden of age of clubs and societies of all sorts, all of which needed buildings in which to hold public meetings, lectures, dances, and evenings of amateur musical or dramatic entertainment and so on.
But as those sensitive to dates will realize, between our forebears’ initial vision and the building of the hall and church, the First World War had taken place. Although it would have been hard to see as clearly as we can today, this horrific event marked the beginning of what, by the mid-1960s, would be the catastrophic decline of Liberal Christianity, and also the end of the kind of culture that wanted and needed to attend church on a Sunday. The 1960s also marks the beginning of the end of many of the clubs and societies that met mid-week in halls such as our own.
But despite this decline, our founders’ vision was remarkably and, indeed, admirably strong, and so, between 1904 and the beginning of my own ministry here in Cambridge in 2000, the job of the congregation and the minister was understood to be all about maintaining in some fashion, not only our founders’ initial religious vision and practices, but also their business model based on regular hall hire and loyal, long-term congregants who gave not insignificant amounts of money each week.
But today, post two World Wars, post the Cold War, post the end of the Soviet Union, post Christendom, post the digital revolution of the internet, post the financial crisis of 2008, post Brexit, and now, post the COVID-19 pandemic, we have moved into a world marked by many new, and often very severe religious, political, geopolitical, economic, financial and environmental crises.
This means that the people who we are, and the people whom we seek to serve, are simply no longer the same as those our forbears were, knew and sought to serve. The specific needs, hopes, fears and desires of all of us are radically different from those which drove us to found our local religious community 119 years ago. We are, today, a people who, even as we genuinely wish to take forward the best of our Liberal Christian heritage, wish also to weave into our religious community the many rich insights of other philosophies and religious traditions we have met and become friends and collaborators with over the last 119 years.
To recast a very famous sentence by Marx and Engels, my basic point here is that we can no longer play the maintenance game because all that once seemed so solid to us has by now melted into air, and we are today being compelled to face with sober senses our new conditions of life and our new relationships, not only with each other, but with the whole of nature.
Consequently, I cannot but feel that what we must to do now is to embrace the central gift given to us by our religious tradition, namely, the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today, and to change explicitly into the relevant and vibrant free religion I know we can be, that values equally the disciplines of critical, rational thought and meditative practice. These disciplines are for us our alternating steps as we walk together into the future. The former is the step of reason which, as the Unitarian Universalist minister, Tom Owen-Towle (Free Thinking Mystics with Hands, Skinner House Books, 1998) notes, “brings a clarifying, steadying influence in a world that prizes the impetuous and flamboyant” so we are not “tempted to glide on the wings of the latest mindless fad” (p. 2) And the latter is the step of the heart which knows there is “so much we do not know that remains mysterious” and that we “are sustained by processes and powers that we can neither fathom nor do without” (p. 3). Absolutely importantly, this freethinking, meditative, yet hearty walk is designed, not to wander around endlessly in an abstract garden of thought, but to be “consummated . . . through the employment of our hands” (p. 4) in acts of hospitality, justice-building and peace-making. Taken together, these disciplines serve to make us what Towle calls, “freethinking mystics with hands.”
It’s the kind of free religion I have often spoken about with you (see, for example, HERE & HERE & HERE & HERE) and which was wonderfully articulated by your committee when they produced the new set of objects we had hoped would be accepted by the Charity Commissioners as we sought to become a CIO. That the Commissioners neither liked, nor understood, our liberal, free religious vision, matters not a jot, because this is how we have decided we interpret what is meant by the phrase upholding “the Liberal Christian tradition” that they insisted we used. In this church we say, and know we meet for:
The advancement of a free and enquiring religion based on the Liberal Christian heritage which draws also on Radical Enlightenment philosophies, religious naturalism, other religious traditions and humanism;
The celebration of life through service to humanity and respect for the natural world;
The promotion of religious and racial harmony, inclusivity, equality and diversity.
I hope it is clear that all I have said means we also now need radically to adapt our buildings so they can be used to support and sustain this free religious vision over the long term.
In short, I think that, today, we stand in a place analogous to the place our forebears stood in 1904 when they founded this church. We, like them, must boldly re-vision and re-form ourselves in a way suitable for our own time and place, or we will simply not continue to be any more.
And so, as I say each week at the very end of our new Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation, it’s time for us to go boldly into the unknown because, frankly, there is nowhere else to go.
Cheers,and Happy Easter!
Thank you for taking the time to write to let me know this. It's genuinely much appreciated. Likewise, I wish you a very Happy Easter.
Every best wish,
Next in this seemingly innocent call freethinkers are asked also to be mystics. Is this not what is already happening with the early experiences of meditation? And are there signs of joy, flashes of insight, experiences of connection and union with life and the cosmos, discoveries of self-deception and mistakes to be one’s teacher and guide? And perhaps some signs of energy, power, and awakening?
And finally the “Hands” for a liberal practice are “acts of hospitality, justice-building and peace-making.” As any worker knows, three hands or more are needed for any complex task. Together we can become free religionists through the complexities promoting “religious and racial harmony, inclusivity, equality and diversity.”
My Japanese post-Unitarian teacher, Shin’ichiro Imaoka, would have leaped with joy, even at 106, to have learned of you and heard this manifesto for free religion.
Thank you! Yes, indeed, as I know you know, the spirit of Imaoka sensei very strongly inspires my hopes for free religion expressed here. Thanks for all your help and encouragement along the way.
Warmly as ever,
Regarding the Charity Commission ... insert rant about the narrow-mindedness of that body. The Pagan Federation applied for charitable status and were repeatedly turned down. It's like the Charity Commission actually wants to promote closed-minded religion.
It'll be interesting to see what you do with your buildings. That chapel is a beautiful interior but I can imagine that it is not very versatile.
And finally - I think that the success of what you do is very much about the way you invite the presence of the Divine / the numinous / the ineffable wossname into your services.
I strongly suspect that the reason Unitarianism didn't become the dominant mode of religious thought was because it was too dry/rational back then, not mystical enough; and because it was trying to be "all things to all men".
Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words. Much appreciated.
I'll resist joining you in another rant about the Charity Commissioners, tempting though it is! All I'll say is they not only want to promote closed-minded religion, but they clearly want to put an end to open-minded religion by making it impossible to articulate it in any official, legal way.
And re: Unitarian(ism). In churches that come from this tradition (such as Cambridge) it strikes me that the task is not only to become post-Christian, but also post-Unitarian. Unitarian(ism) now seems to me to be, in it's own way, as problematic as Christianity.
Lastly I hope your book launch went well and that people are beginning to read and appreciate it. Bravo! for getting it finished and published.
And, for anyone other than Yewtree reading this comment, the book is called and you can preview it at the following link:
”Changing Paths” by Yvonne Aburrow
And. here's my personal recommendation of Yewtree's book, found in the publication itself:
“The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus once insisted that 'panta rhei' (everything flows) and many centuries later the Roman poet Lucretius, echoing this insight, wrote that 'omnia migrant' (everything moves). Both of them in their very different ways understood something that contemporary physics in our own age is also now fully recognizing, namely, that all things are always-already flowing and fluxing and, therefore, always-already becoming.' In other words, each of them is reminding us that what it is for anything to be the thing it is is to be something in motion. But so much of religion-especially the prevalent kinds found within British and North American culture-finds movement, flow, flux and becoming frightening because it cuts against the idea that that which is of ultimate value is something which, as the writer of the Letter of James once put it, must be without 'alternation or shadow of change (1:17).
“In thoughtfully and insightfully tracing their own moving, flowing and fluxing movements of becoming the kind of religious person they are today, Yvonne Aburrow offers us a helpful book which opens up to the sympathetic reader many practical ways by which they, too, might come to understand and gently embody the truth that all paths are always-already changing paths, and that changing paths may well turn out to be the most fundamental and authentic way of being religious in our own, or any, age.”