Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 6 May 2012

United we stand, divided we . . . ?

John Donne (adapted)
No one is an island,  entire of itself; everyone is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were;  

From Roman’s 12: we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

Story – Problems on the Ark - Pedro Pablo Sacristán

Reading 1:  1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 26 Common English Bible

Reading 2:  Quarrelling Quail (The Shortest Distance – Bill Darlison)

When I am preparing a service I tend to give it a name, a title that conveys something about the nature of the service so that when I look back through my archives on the computer I have something to inform me about what I have covered.  Today’s service could have had a choice of title; maybe that was why there were three different opening sentences.

The first by John Donne, would have given me “No one is an island”, suggesting that we need each other and each other’s talents to make a success of what we do.  That if we are alone then we cannot achieve as much as if we work together.  And indeed, the two stories reflected this idea.  The animals on the ark could not have mended the hole if they had not all worked together and that included the least of the creatures and even those who were not on the ark itself.  And the quail could not have lifted the nets that were capturing them if they hadn’t all pulled together.  Life in church is a bit like that – it needs all of us doing whatever it is we do, to keep the church going.  No matter if all one does is attend on a Sunday, because if people didn’t attend on the Sunday then where would we be? But however good a title this was it was not quite right.

The second opening sentence was a quotation from Romans and it set the scene for the first reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  That title would have been “one body, many parts”.  Here is another apt description for a church, or a community.  We all know, I hope, that each person in our Community is important and that we need each other if the community is going to survive or flourish.  It echoes the no one is an island thought and yet once again this title did not really seem right.

Maybe it is because at the moment, although I see the evidence of a loving community here in Rochdale in our own congregation where we value each other, I don’t see it echoed within the wider movement in the same way.  I suppose a lot of this stems from the recent General Assembly meetings and some of the things that were said there.  In her very inspirational Anniversary Sermon, Rev Celia Cartwright said:
For a denomination not based on required doctrine, we do a lot of bickering about the rights and wrongs of the spiritual beliefs of others in our midst. Without a common enemy to overcome, we have devolved to internal bickering and lost sight of our original purpose - to be free to worship as our own conscience dictates, with a tolerant understanding that this freedom belongs to all. I sometimes wonder what's happened to our much-vaunted 'tolerance' when we, don't all acknowledge the equal rights of the entire spectrum of Unitarian and Free Christian faith.

And I think this begins to sum up some of my disquiet and is why I chose my third opening phrase by Maya Angelou, who speaks of a tapestry of diversity and yet each thread of the tapestry being needed.  Celia’s remark about internal bickering highlights the fact that there are some people in our movement who are not prepared to recognise the value of our diversity.  This was not only made evident by things said at the GA but also it has crept onto that popular social networking site ‘facebook’.  Only a few weeks ago it was a pleasant forum where I could engage with friends and relatives in a relaxed and informal way, but recently one or two groups have been created, there is the ‘Unitarian group’ the ‘UK Unitarian group’, the ‘2020 vision’ group, ‘British Unitarian & Free Christian’ group, etc – and there are some quite disturbing arguments or discussions that appear on them.  I am beginning to think, along with Celia that we are becoming less and less tolerant of each other.  I think this is dangerous for the Unitarian movement and its future.  It is a bit like those quails in the second reading.  When they worked together they managed to raise the nets and escape, but once they started bickering, arguing amongst themselves they found they were trapped once more.

So here is the title I came up with for today’s address,  “UNITED WE STAND. . .” – I didn’t complete the phrase, because I am sure we all know how it continues – “. . . DIVIDED WE FALL.”

The phrase is illustrated in one of Aesop’s fables:
A LION used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.     

United they stood – divided they fell!

The phrase also appears in the New Testament, albeit in slightly different language. Mark 3:25, "A house divided against itself cannot stand"

Returning to Celia’s sermon, she says:
My congregation in Kendal includes, Unitarian Christians, Pagans, Agnostics, a couple of Atheists, a Unitarian Sikh, a couple of lapsed Catholics, a humanist or two and a fair number of people who simply relish the idea of the spiritual journey that does not require them to wear specific label. I have my own theological understanding yet I need to speak to all these people, where they are, in order to fulfil my role as their minister. This does not compromise my beliefs. It allows me to explore my faith in the light of others' faith, and in the light of new wisdom. It is not in agreeing with each other that we become strong, but rather in the agreeing to be different, while remaining interested in each other's spiritual and religious journey.
For a recent service at Kendal Chapel, John Pickering wrote a reflection on the idea of 'Individual Spiritual Journeys' in which he concludes, 'Doctrine and dogma have divided people throughout history - but when our focus is on shared values: compassion and understanding, we do not need to fear other beliefs for they are all part of the rich diversity of humanity's spiritual journey. Once we understand this, we are free to be who we are; free to build bridges between people instead of walls. '

Wise words, these words from Celia and John, but for me the question is when. 
When will we begin to recognise, once again, that we are a diverse group made up of many parts? That we are one body?  Surely this was what Unitarianism was all about, recognising the worth of the individual and yet embracing it within the fold.
In one of the groups on face-book, Barry Bell wrote:
A thread in the closed group "Unitarians" asked us to express our hopes and vision for the Unitarian movement. The relatively small input caused one Unitarian to ask whether the lack of input suggested a lack of hope and vision.

This was Barry’s reply -

I have extremely high hopes for what can be achieved when more people out there can adopt the uniting Unitarian approach to the challenges of being human and responding to our spirituality, but have already expressed them - in various different forms, hoping that at least some will resonate - all over various Unitarian (and wider) forums. Here's one way of putting my vision and hope.

I would love to think that Unitarians, Universalists, Unitarian Universalists, Unitarian Christians and Unitarian Anythings are aware our unity comes from seeing our different personal faith and beliefs as being different responses to the same innate spirituality which is a part of being human.

The challenge is to help others comprehend that this lies at the heart of a much-needed and more uniting way of enabling spiritual growth than the divisiveness inherent in seeking spiritual growth only with others whose response to their spirituality involves faith-based belief in one set of speculative answers to the big spiritual questions.

I see Unitarianism as having moved beyond being a small part of one religion, and even beyond being a separate religion, to being a broader and far more uniting approach to being human.

It is an approach which seeks to enable spiritual growth - becoming less selfish, more caring human beings - by allowing every human being to respond to our spirituality in their own way through the holding of personal faith and beliefs which drive them, but in the company of others who are responding in different ways and so learning how to avoid division and to find unity in the Good which is within and around us.
At the moment this general malaise has not found its way into our church, but there are churches within the denomination where internal bickering is beginning to be evident and this trend deeply disturbs me.  I came into Unitarianism to celebrate difference, not to question it and certainly not to alienate through it.

Returning to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he was speaking to a group of people who were undergoing their own period of disagreement and intolerance, the essence of his letter says that:
As in the natural body of a person, the members should be closely united by the strongest bonds of love; the good of the whole should be the object of all. All, in our case, Unitarians are dependent one upon another; each is to expect and receive help and respect from the rest. 

I do not want to define people with different titles such as, Unitarian Christians, Unitarian Pagans, Unitarian Atheists, Unitarian Humanists or Unitarian Universalists.  I do not want Unitarian Anythings, I want just Unitarian – recognising that we are all different and that it doesn’t matter that we are, in fact that it enriches us because we are.

So let us then have more of the spirit of union within our religion once again. For surely, no matter how diverse we are, “No one is an island” –we, whoever we are, are part of one body, and as Aesop said:
And I don’t want us to fall, do you?