“What Is a Church?  By Mark W. Harris

 January 28, 2018 –  First Parish of Watertown

 Opening Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. [In spite of] all the selfishness that chills like east winds, the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with.


We all have different understandings of what a church is. I remember how that boring minister talked and talked and talked. I couldn’t stand it. I would lie down in my mother’s lap. Then she gave me life savers, and pencils to draw with on the order of service. Yet even though I grew up to despise the sin laden theology of my childhood church, I found community there, and caring people.  I loved the building.  I could run around and find all sorts of nooks and crannies – dash upstairs, hide behind the pulpit, go out to the outhouse, (oops, didn’t want to stay there too long). It was a kind of home. I could ring the bell and feel like I was responsible for making all the people come to church on time. All ages sang together and had holiday celebrations, collections of clothes for the needy, helping hands around the world. Church was a place where I learned about Jesus, memorizing everything he said, and getting Bibles and pens and bookmarks as rewards.  School was a place to learn this and that, and stay in line. Church was a place to learn how to be good, and stay in line in a different way. We were supposed to be kind, whereas school taught us that we were supposed to be smart and successful. Church as home, church as community.  There were people who struggled with job loss and divorce, the three A’s – adultery, alcoholism and anger, too. Church accepted everybody for what we called sins.  It was like Plato said, “Be kind, because everyone is having a really hard time.” 

Soon I learned that much of the world was having a hard time.  This was the second way I understood church. I went to high school in the 1960’s and it seemed like the world was blowing up. Beloved leaders were assassinated, protest marches were times to vent anger and frustration with government lies, and cities burned. Churches often had young, energetic and radical clergy who told youth like me that we needed to change the world. There were sex revolutions and drug revolutions and we wanted to break down barriers to freedom.  And we did.  And some of those clergy led the way.  They said racism was wrong, and sexism, too. We want to listen to what you think and feel, they said. We want to teach you about sexuality so you make good choices and are responsible, and not just say to you, it’s bad or sinful, and then have you go all rebellious on us. We want you to learn about freedom, sure, but justice, too.

Finally, after college, I discovered church was a place to make friends, a meeting place for people, where we could learn from one another and nurture one another.  We did things together like baked bagels and played games. We found out how other couples handled conflict and communication and in laws who meddled.  We supported one another. All this in the midst of a living tradition I was learning about in graduate school. The history of the church I loved so much could come alive in community, in social change, and in personal friendships. At least that is what I thought, and so I felt moved or called to serve that church as a minister, trying to forge the church of my childhood, my teen years and young adulthood into a living, dynamic entity of spiritual community.

The other night at a meeting someone asked me, who is in charge of the church? The minister is in charge, right?, she said.  Well, not exactly, I responded. We usually say all the people are in charge together, and the minister is supposed to help them understand what they are in charge of. Going ahead in the coming years, you will need to consider what you want from a minister.  How can the minister help you carry out your vision unless you trust each other, affirm each other, and give the minister the authority to lead. I am supposed to be the expert on congregational polity, and in fact, the course I teach just started up again this week at Harvard. Unitarian Universalism comes out of the Puritan tradition, where each congregation was an autonomous institution governing its own affairs, electing its own officers and ministers, determining membership standards, and worshipping together in a covenanted community, where, as John Winthrop said, “we must be knit together in this work as one  . . . , we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities [our personal excesses] for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work; our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.. .” The Puritans based their belief on the Bible, which they felt said that the early Christian churches were small covenanted communities where the people took care of each  other and worshipped God. 

It was a lovely vision of what a church could be. But the authors of those words found it difficult to embody that vision in a living institution. They came here to enjoy freedom of religion for themselves, after being persecuted in England, and then proceeded to deny that very freedom to others.  People are people, we might way, and can sometimes make it difficult for others when trying to create a community where they are mindful of “the supply of other’s necessities.”  While the Puritans used the Bible as their institutional authority, this church they envision was grounded upon the idea of the free consent of the members and it ultimately led us to focus all authority in the individual, where each person is the final authority in matters of faith. But then what authority does the church have?  In 1945 the British Unitarians published, A Free Religious Faith, which stated that the Unitarians had long been “under valuing the work of the Church, and regarding people as isolated units, and so, being blind to the profound truth that we are members one of another.” The report suggested that “the highest development of conscience and soul for individuals only occurs within community,” which the church can provide.  Unfortunately, the history of affirming a radical,  individual faith “seemed to leave no vital place for the Church.  Experience has shown us,” they said, “the disastrous consequences of our mistake.” This faith based in the individual search of freedom to seek, failed to develop cohesiveness or a trust in each other.

Perhaps you can deduce from this foregoing that Unitarians have struggled with the concept of church, and with authority.  Can we develop strong institutions when we are suspicious of institutions to begin with?  Channing, the spiritual leader of the Unitarians said that associations injure free action, and accumulate power in a very few hands. Institutions encroach, he said, on free speech, and a free press. When he, our strongest leader, was offered the presidency of the American Unitarian Association, he turned it down. Can the community be a strong entity unto itself when we base so much authority in the individual to build their own faith, and discover truths for themselves while disregarding the power of being part of a larger community of faith?  Can we trust ministers to lead us when we are afraid of strong leaders? Is individualism the greatest strength or the greatest weakness of the Unitarian Universalist movement? How do we give everyone a voice when some people naturally speak often and forcefully, while others have quiet convictions?

Each of us comes here with an idea of what church is or could be. Can it be a place like those Puritans envisioned where we see the holy in every person, and are responsible to each other?  We come as individuals. Each of us has value and each of us has a voice, but we are not a church until we agree to find the sacred by how we relate to one another with respect and understanding. Can we listen to one another to find common ground?  Thinking of the church as a place where we come together as individuals to build something larger than ourselves we will briefly answer three questions today.

Three questions – Five minutes each – What is a Church?

We will spend fifteen minutes talking about issues raised in the sermon. It almost doesn’t matter what the questions are, as the conversation is the point.  But these are meant to help:

1.Someone once said, this is a place where I get my needs met. Is that a primary purpose of a church? Is it about affirming your own needs, or is it about having a vision for what a true community of faith can be?  What do you think is the purpose of a church, and what does it mean for you in your life?

  1. Someone once said this is a place where I can express my opinion. Does that mean you are speaking up to fulfill your own needs? What happens if you don’t get your way? What does it mean to have a voice in the context of church? How do you make sure everyone is heard?


  1. Is church a place where you are you trying to be a better person, or do you only want a community that affirms the person you already are? Do you want to feel better or be better? What do you do when someone is rude or unkind to you? What happens if the music director starts to say negative things about the minister in front of the choir?  Do you say anything, or keep quiet? OR do you say, “Remember, we want to treat others with respect and kindness” Is church a place where you try to live your values in community with others?



How do we create a church? Instead of getting what we want, we may consider what is best for the whole community. Instead of making sure my voice is heard, we make sure other’s voices are heard. Instead of making a judgement about someone else, or not saying anything, we think of all the pain each one of us endures, and we speak up and say, be respectful, be a listener. Think of the good of the whole.

Closing Words from Starhawk

We are all longing to go home to some place
we have never been—a place half-remembered and half-envisioned
we can only catch glimpses of from time to time.
Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion
without having the words catch in our throats.
Somewhere a circle of hands
will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter,
voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power.
Community means strength
that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.
Arms to hold us when we falter.
A circle of healing.
A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.

from Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics