“Rebels with a Cause” – Anniversary Sunday – Mark W. Harris – February 15, 2009
“Rebels With a Cause” Mark W. Harris
February 15, 2009 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – Philippians 4:8 ; Galatians 5:22
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; If there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If we live by the spirit, let us also walk by the spirit. (Galatians)
Reading – from Jamesland by Michelle Huneven
Sermon – “Rebels With a Cause” Mark W. Harris
We are the direct ancestors of a Puritan group who founded Watertown and this congregation in 1630, but they did so on July 30, which as you know is not exactly prime church going time around here. Therefore in recent years, I have suggested we celebrate our church anniversary in mid-February, as this was the time of year in 1835 that we officially became Unitarian in the wake of the split with the Trinitarians, and the disestablishment of the Congregational state church of Massachusetts in 1833. Most of you now that I have more than a passing interest in history, and believe that we can understand ourselves better as people and as a community if we have a good grasp of our past. Where we have come from helps us understand why we are the way we are.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what we call congregational polity. This is another word for church government meaning how we settle ministers, elect church leaders and maintain our finances and buildings. I teach this subject online through the seminary I attended in Berkeley, CA, and have done so for the past 8 years. The subject of polity is much more than what I implied about electing church leaders, though. It also covers things like the whys and wherefores of rites of passage, and internal and external structures of membership, participation and authority. People have some vague idea that First Parish is governed by congregational polity. For some that means that this congregation holds all the power over our own governance, and no authority figures or structures are going to impose any hierarchal imperatives upon us. In other words, we are not only theological heretics, we are also anarchists.
I want to begin with a story from our Watertown Puritan heritage because it will give you a good sense of what our ancestors thought about Congregational polity right from the beginning. Who can read this line on the sign? (“It was the first church in New England to assert and apply the principle of Congregational independence.”) And then (“It was the first to protest against proscription for religious belief. Its refusal in 1631 to pay taxes without representation in a General Court led to the founding of representative government and marked the beginning of constitutional history.”) Wow. So, it is a bit grandiose, but certainly makes us seem important and worthy and good. But look again at those words – independence, protest, refusal. We may think democrats or free thinkers, but while we are cheering them on, what do they imply about authority? Are we likely to listen to those who claim to have some authority over us? The upside of our congregational polity may be a belief in democracy or the freedom to elect our officials, or decide religious questions for ourselves, but the downside is a tendency to be antiauthority.
Now the story – In early 1631, elder Richard Browne, a lay leader of Watertown preached a sermon where he asserted that “the churches of Rome are true churches.” What did he mean by this? It was really a statement of religious tolerance, not a common thing for a Puritan to believe in. Remember the Puritans have not only rebelled against the authoritarian Anglican church back in England that had asserted hierarchal control over congregations, but the Puritans were also quintessential Protestants. For a Protestant religious authority is primarily derived from where? (Bible), and for a Catholic, where is religious authority derived? (the Church). That’s right the hierarchy will tell you what the Bible says, and the idea of you reading the Bible and interpreting it for yourself is heresy. The interesting thing about this is that most Puritans would have said that their Calvinist understanding of the Bible, and the saving experience of God’s grace bestowed upon them excludes Catholicism and every other church except Puritan, from being a legitimate church. Puritans believed that only their pure religion was right, and of all the other wrong religions, Catholicism was most wrong. In fact Catholicism and Unitarianism were both outlawed in England until 1813. Yet Richard Browne said they were legitimate.
Browne’s statement produced repercussions with the religious authorities in Boston. George Phillips, the minister here in Watertown, agreed that Catholic churches were legitimate in the eyes of God. He and Browne were called to account for this variation in belief at a meeting in Boston, and eventually leaders in the Boston church came to Watertown for a second meeting to discuss the issue. In a letter the Boston leaders questioned whether Browne was fit to be an elder. Philips fired back that they would discipline Browne if they were told what was untrue about what he said. The problem is the congregation became split over the issue. Was Browne wrong doctrinally, and further was he wrong to have defied the counsel of the authorities? When the Court stated that Browne be dismissed, Watertown replied that that was a church decision. Then the Governor of the Commonwealth came. Phillips thought they were starting to interfere in what was a local matter, and instructed them only to come as visitors, and not as judges. The meeting ended peacefully, but because of the split in the congregation, Browne was eventually removed from his position as elder. This incident shows the difference between our modern understanding of Congregational polity and that of the Puritans. They assumed that congregational polity meant not the autonomy of each congregation, but the larger community of autonomous churches. By its very actions, the Watertown church set a precedent. It advocated religious tolerance and liberty, but it also refused to take the advice or support of their neighboring churches. They continued to reject authority when the Cambridge church was organized. In 1636 the leaders in Cambridge invited clergy and laity from every town in the Commonwealth, and they all went, except Watertown. Phillips said, “Every church is competent to act alone.” Then when John Knowles was ordained here in 1640, they didn’t invite anybody.
Did they have trouble with the idea of authority? Do any of you? (show of hands) We would expect that this would be true of most Unitarian Universalist churches. It is not just that we are children of the rebellious 1960’s. We can no longer sing My Generation, and intone, “hope I die before I get old,” because we are now nearly the old, and are hoping for a little more longevity. Let’s recall the history. We have already seen that even if most of the Puritans wanted doctrinal conformity, and wanted a more harmonious understanding between the churches than what happened here in Watertown, the Puritans were rebelling against an authoritarian government and church while affirming smaller more local communities that called their ministers out from among them, and elected their officers. While they did agree on harsh Calvinist doctrines, they were not creedal churches. Instead they followed covenants, which were commonly agreed upon statements based on how they would relate to one another, and further how they would look out for one another. So their reason for being was based upon relationships not doctrines. What this meant though was that they believed not in individual liberty, like us, but community liberty. What was best for the community as a whole always took precedent over the individuals, so for instance when someone wanted to join a church, they would not be able to join based upon their free choice, but instead the community would determine whether they were spiritually fit to join. We will come back to this question of whether or not we have spiritual responsibility for each other.
Many of us who join Unitarian Universalist congregations today come as a result of some negative prior experience with a more authoritarian religious denomination. We could not get married or have our baby baptized, or be a member of a particular faith community because they imposed some kind of rigorous rules on us, or expected some kind of belief that simply defied our intellectual curiosity or sound reason. So we came to this faith in rebellion, but not necessarily for any life affirming beliefs other than freedom from that fear, that dogma, that rigidity. I think this is also true for those early Unitarians who had to declare their independence from the congregational church here in Watertown in 1835. They wanted to keep a broad, diverse community without doctrinal restrictions as their reason for being a church community. They rebelled personally against doctrines of original sin, and predestination and the divinity of Jesus because they wanted their religious faith to be based in how they lived their lives rather than in doctrinal conformity. People sometimes quote me as saying that UUism is a faith grounded in deeds not creeds. People have a tough time explaining our free faith to others because they are always trying to define it in traditional terms. Most of us don’t care very much about religious doctrines or beliefs, but we do care about religious living and how we relate with one another in the world.
We know what we don’t like in religious authority – anything narrow, restrictive, dogmatic, or intolerant. The novel Jamesland presents us with a bit of a stereotype of our liberal religious response to authoritarian religious expression. In the reading the minister Helen Harland asks Pete, the former chef, who has had a mental breakdown, how he feels about his church going experience. He wonders why she just can’t say things, but instead needs to apologize every step of the way. Why this word “overarching spirit”, instead of just plain old God. Helen is afraid her congregation will freak out, and think she has gone Baptist on them. Do we have to apologize for any strong statement of faith or religious experience in this skeptical or overly sensitive environment? The issue for Helen may be in Pete’s question of whether she should hit ‘em a little harder. He is questioning perhaps that she does not challenge them to consider deeper powers of being, or be stretched in their comfortable church of no church. She mentions the traumatic experiences many of them have had, and seems accepting of their glorified social club, where, “They just don’t like religion.”
If some of us who are afraid of our experiences of religious authority, want to be free, we still might observe where even Helen’s secular group is finding its meaning. What do we like in religious faith, and how much authority comes with it? If some of the seekers after religious community come here to be healed as individuals from authoritarianism, then freedom helps them make this choice, but individualistic freedom does not help us become grounded in a new transformative faith, it only helps us get away from the old. Even our UUA Principles have this kind of individualistic grounding to them. Read #1 – the inherent worth and dignity of every person – you are worthy. Read #3 – Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations – you are accepted, now grow. Read #4 – a free and responsible search for truth and meaning – you should search for truth, be free. This is suppose to be a congregational covenant within our wider association, and even this, the most overarching covenant of all feels individualistic. Where is our responsibility to use this freedom to grow in faith together? What does it say about the we?
Maybe you would conclude that we ground our religious authority in the individual. Sure you have to discover what is meaningful for you, and yes, you ultimately make the choice about whether this free faith is right for you, and make the decision to join, but it is awfully lonely out there being an authority of one, and you could join a church of one, but it would be reminiscent of the women named Sheila, whom the sociologist Robert Bellah once described, who said she followed her own faith, Sheilaism. Her religious authority was herself. Well, frankly, I like more footnotes than that. The reason I became an authority on UU history is that I read all the books, and I engaged all the professors, and I learned from all the churches and all the people in those churches, who told me stories, and made me love this faith. In fact, long ago I learned about a young minister named Joel Foster, who was called to serve the First Parish of New Salem, MA, my home town. Foster was a liberal, and there were members of his parish who differed from him in religious beliefs. They only came to church on those Sundays when Foster exchanged pulpits with a more orthodox colleague. One Sunday, Foster mounted his horse, and rode down the Main Street of town making it appear as though he were leaving town in order to exchange. Then as soon as he was a safe distance from town, he turned his horse, rode cross country on back roads, and sneaked in the back door of the church. He hid until all of his opponents were seated in their pews, and then magically appeared in the pulpit. That is one way to force the issue of ministerial authority. You will listen to me whether you want to or not. On the other hand he was using his authority to say, you should listen to other perspectives then the one you are convinced is the truth, because by listening and stretching all the windows of your spiritual being you will grow as a religious person.
What Helen Harland’s congregation found, even if they disliked religion, was a meaningful community with each other. It was a start because at the least it recognized that there are larger authorities beyond the self we need to pay attention to if we are going to grow as people, as a congregation, as a denomination. Who are our authorities as a religious community? Can you name some? I always ask my ministerial students in the polity class, what are your sources of authority as ministers. We would usually name academic authority, denominational authority and personal faith, and the Bible would be traditionally woven into all three of those strands (perhaps now a loose leaf Bible). We could also look at sources of authority in the context of our community and echo those same strands restated – reason, the tradition, and the community. Our predecessors resisted the structure of congregational churches that had been set up. Perhaps their tolerance of Catholics shows they were far sighted, but we also have to consider where authority lies for us. Do we need an outside system of support? Do we need internal systems of structure where we help one another grow spiritually? If tradition is the authority we invoke, one member may tell the other member who wants him to consider a new way of looking at something, “No, we’ve always done it this way. Or what about community as the authority? Perhaps a new way of running a program has been successful elsewhere, and might strengthen our community, but we may tell the church in Boston the same thing we told them in 1631, “We’ll do it our way.” The problem with authority is that reason can cut off openness to new spiritual experiences, tradition can be the same old same old, and community can be a closed group of friends. Can we balance our minds, our traditions and our community that have been nurtured in individualism with a deeper sense of community? We need to nurture our greater connections if we are to survive and grow. For those who attended Mark Caggiano’s ordination in North Andover, think about how good it felt to be connected to something larger than ourselves.
How much authority does the community have? How much authority does the denomination have? How much authority does the minister have? I think our growing edge is a greater sense of the spiritual responsibility we must nurture in each other. People may come to us because they seek freedom from conformity or dogmas or intolerance. They find a common ground in this free faith, and they like to be together. They share values of freedom, and tolerance, and making the world a better place as they work for peace and justice. But they also need to grow a deeper faith through larger connections. They will use their reason to let everyone speak, and be heard, and share in building up the community. They will be open to new ways of faith, not merely the old easy ones. They will use their tradition so that they look out for one another and live that sense of Puritan covenant so that there is community liberty, and a deeper sense of relationship, so that love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. Finally, the community would be the authority over the individual, and we each would find security, solace, support and nurture here.
Long ago the Puritans had elders who took spiritual responsibility for each other. In recent decades our congregations have begun to look at the inappropriate behavior of individuals, and then create covenants of right relationships among members. In the long run we will have stronger congregations with stronger leaders rather than groups of individuals who worry they might offend someone, and thus fear acting collectively because someone may be offended, and thus do not develop a strong community presence as a church. For instance, we have a lot of wonderful individuals who are active in our community who happen to be members of this church, but there is little collective presence. We must speak our collective truth in a more powerful, honest, forthright manner. Think about when you speak or act here. How often does it reflect the needs of the whole community rather than your needs or your special interest? UUism sometimes grows in other parts of the country because the congregation has to stand over and against a culture that is unwelcoming. They are rebels from the cultural authority. I sometimes think that we New Englanders UUs are a little too comfortable in our reason, tradition and community. And maybe it is time to let go of rebellious individualism, and embrace rebellious community identity and have a true impact on each other and our community, because we would challenge each other spiritually to grow and assert a little community authority once again. This week one of my polity students quoted an African proverb to me, and it is something members of UU churches would do well to remember, “I am, because we are.” Let us say together: “I am, because we are.”
Closing Words #683 (unison) from Theodore Parker
Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.