Whose church is this, anyway? Whose would you say it is?
One answer is, It’s mine. It belongs to me, the minister. If ever you are having a really slow afternoon, I mean, a really slow afternoon, you might be tempted to read a church history, and if you do you will discover that they often read as if the minister was the only person who was of any importance, the only person who ever did anything. Chapters will be delineated according to the time-spans of the different ministries. That is, of course, a convenient way in which to mark off the years, and it certainly flatters the fragile sense of self-importance of us parsons. To add to our vanity, lots of churches have honour boards in a prominent place which list all the ministers they have had and the years they have served, and it is noticeable that they don’t list the chairs of the finance committee, or the person who devotedly arranged the flowers every Sunday for years, or the person who could always be relied on to say the kind word, or lend a hand, or do whatever small task might be asked of him or her, the people who, let’s face it, are the real glue in any congregation. Furthermore, and this is the clincher, it is my name and not any of yours which appears at the top of UUCM’s letterhead. I rest my case. This congregation is mine.
If only. But, there is an element of truth in that. I do regard this congregation as mine because, for these two years while I am here, it is this congregation to which I am devoting my energies, this congregation to which I am bringing whatever I have of experience, of knowledge, of wisdom and of skill in the arts of ministry. It might be that I am “only” an Interim Minister, and you and I know that my time with you is limited, but even so, while I am here, I am yours and you are mine. It might be that I am in the twilight of my brilliant career, and after Grass Valley I will probably retire to spend my time sitting on the porch and looking vacantly into the middle distance and therefore have nothing to prove, no resume to garnish, but I want this ministry to be successful every bit as much as I have wanted all of my previous ministries to be successful. I want to believe, and I want you to believe, that when we part in June next year, this will have been a fruitful time that we have spent together, that you, and I, have grown not only in numbers, but in our personal spiritual maturity, in our collective organisational efficiency, and in our effective shared social agency.
But even as all of that might be true, you and I know that we ministers are nomadic souls, we come, we stay a while, and then we move on. Whereas some of you are made of more adhesive stuff. You stick around. And as I might say, “This congregation is mine,” so might each of you say the same thing, that it is your congregation. Indeed, I hope you do say that. And what would that mean? It would mean that this is the congregation to which you have committed your heart; it is the congregation where you have found a place in which to be your authentic self, where you can search for the theological truths that resonate with your intelligence and the aesthetic truths which nurture your spirit. It is the community in which you have found fellow feeling with others, whose friendship you enjoy, whose perspective on the world chimes with yours. When you come here, you are coming to the place which is your spiritual home. It is in this community that the coals of your individual faith are kept warm and alive, where the flame of your yearnings for peace, justice and the life of the spirit is enkindled.
And of course that is important. If you did not feel that this congregation was yours, then why would you come? If UUCM did not feed you, challenge you, comfort you, inspire you, you would not be here. You would not come back. You would seek elsewhere, or perhaps you would give up on religion altogether and spend your Sunday mornings reading the papers or mowing the lawn. The fire would cool and finally go out. Each of you wants to be able to say, “This is my congregation,” and to know deep in your bones that it is true.
But, but, when you or I say, “This is my congregation”, we each must do so in recognition that others are saying it too. Yes, this is My congregation, and it is yours, but it is also Ours. If you catch yourself, or somebody else, always saying “I want this, I like that, I preferred things that other way and I plan to keep complaining that things are not exactly as I want them, then I invite you to pause and consider this. I invite you to consider the idea that the very fact that you do not always like everything about this congregation or about the way things are done is, in fact, a wonderful thing, a thing to be grateful for. Why? Because it means that somebody else does like things that way. It means that this is a truly diverse congregation in which we are each learning the subtle but not straightforward art of being a community together, learning how to give as well as take, how to be gracious and generous in how we treat each other. And it means that none of us has the power to dictate everything, to demand that we get our own way, and are learning how to be humble about that. It is fine for each of us to say “I don’t like that”, if we are also open to the possibility that what I don’t personally like is actually for the greater benefit of the larger congregation, and therefore ultimately better for me too, as we each are learning not to place ourselves at the centre of the congregational universe.
The practice of consensus is usually misunderstood. People think it means unanimity, that nothing is decided until everyone agrees, and that everyone therefore has the power of veto. And some people love that, the stubborn, the ornery and the self-centred in particular, because then they can block anything they don’t like. But that is not what consensus means. Consensus, properly understood and practised, means that after full discussion, those who are in a minority recognise that they are in the minority and willingly agree to consent to the will of the majority.
Yes, this is My Congregation, it is also Your Congregation. And together, we make it Our Congregation. This congregation belongs to us, together. The etymology of the word “religion” is from the Latin word, religare, meaning to bind together. Religion is what unites us, makes us one. We congregate, we come together. Without others, it would not be a religion, it would not be a church, we would be lonely and isolated individuals who, like the embers removed from the fire, would soon discover the warmth of our faith fading. We belong to each other because we need each other, and particularly in this faith tradition, we belong to each other not to reinforce our own pre-existing prejudices but to be in authentic conversation with each other, learning that our way of seeing and interpreting the world is only enriched by the views that others have.
A little vignette. In my third year of ministry studies at Oxford, I was joined for two terms by my elder brother, also studying to be a Unitarian minister. There must be a defective family gene somewhere. He came from Sydney to Oxford with his wife and two young children, and lived in a charming college house. One February morning, heavy snow was falling. It was the first time his children had seen snow, and understandably they were excited. They rushed to a window and were peering out at the magical sight together. The younger one, aged three, moved to a different window and gasped. “Andrew, look!” she exclaimed excitedly, “it’s snowing outside this window as well!”
Each of us is looking at the world through our own window. The view might be affected by the shape and size of the window, but the world we are looking at is the same world. We would do well to marvel together at the world, sharing our perspectives, rather than arguing about the supremacy of our own window, rather than insisting that the world can be seen only through our window.
So this congregation is mine. And it is yours. Together, it is ours. But that is not all. It is also theirs. Who are the they? It is several people.
This congregation also belongs to those who have gone before us. We are not constrained by tradition, but we are indebted to it. This is an organic congregation, it grows and evolves as new people arrive and bring their own talents, preferences and enthusiasms, but we are also shaped by what has gone before. We honour those who have preceded us, not by slavish obedience to their ways that were relevant and meaningful to their times but, in the same spirit of openness, freedom and curiosity as theirs, forging our own ways relevant and meaningful to our own times.
And this is also their congregation, those who have yet to find it. As we were glad that others had preceded us, doing the work to ensure that this congregation was here for us to find, so may others be glad that we preceded them, keeping our doors and our hearts open to welcome them. May we be mindful in all that we do of the seventh generation. May the legacy we hand on to the future be that we were true to the calling of our own time, that they may be true to whatever is the calling of theirs.
There is someone, or something, else to whom this congregation belongs. Unitarian Universalism. UUism. Each Unitarian Universalist congregation is independent and autonomous. That this congregation chooses to be a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the national organisation, is a voluntary choice and can be rescinded at any time by a congregational vote. But we do proclaim the UU name, and certainly I do so with pride, and as such we are a shop-front to the world of UU principles and values. We must hold ourselves accountable to those principles and values. We must take them seriously, or we should abandon the pretence of subscribing to them.
So this congregation is mine. This congregation is yours. It is ours. It is theirs. And it is Unitarian Universalism’s. All of those. The emphasis will change from time to time, but all of those stakeholders need to be kept in mind in all that we do together.
And there is one other who lays just claim on this congregation. God. This congregation also belongs to God. Now, I suspect that some of you have just broken out in hives that I should say such a thing. Don’t worry, tubes of soothing ointment will be available immediately after the service. I say it belongs to God without apology. No, I do not believe that there is A God, a being separate from time and space who presides over all and to whom we owe our obedience and obeisance. God, for me, is the best way I know of expressing that which is Other, that which is beyond and beneath and betwixt the compass of our human world, the magnet ever drawing us to mystery and miracle which our human reason cannot ever adequately explain or ultimately refute but which, if we are wise, we simply acknowledge to be so and gratefully acquiesce in the presence of.
This congregation stands not only as the shop-front for a denomination, a paltry claim if that were all, it stands as witness to what has been true of us humans since we first raised our eyes to the stars in wonder and awe, since we first felt a need for each other that went beyond carnal lust or communal safety but which spoke of love and deep connection, since we first heard the call of conscience that would not allow us to do what seemed immediately advantageous. In other words, this congregation stands for the eternal human quest to be in communion with the divine.
As we celebrate this morning the generosity with which you good people have pledged yourselves to sustaining the coming year of this congregation’s worship, work and witness, I want to say to you that your giving is to more than just the tangible, visible fabric of this congregation. Your giving of self is a recognition that we each are more than we seem, we each are better than aims and ambitions that end with self. We each are called to that which is ever beyond us, beckoning. We each are called to be part of the generosity of Life, we are called to share the abundance which is all around us and deep within us. And we each are blessed when that call is answered.
So may it be for us all. Amen.