Freedom in Faith
We held one of our monthly Heart and Soul evenings last Thursday here at Essex Church. We describe them as alternative spiritual gatherings and it’s lovely to gather a small group of people together in a quite deep spiritual way for an hour or so and then to have tea and cake and chat together. On Thursday we had visitors from two other Unitarian congregations, and two newcomers who’d never been to a Unitarian activity before. Towards the end of the evening I heard one of them ask the person next to them ‘so what is Unitarianism – I’ve always wanted to know’ and all the conversation stopped and everyone looked at me, clearly thinking I would have the answer.
You’d think I’d have got this sorted by now wouldn’t you. What to say in response to this question. But can I have some sympathy – have any of you found yourself struggling to answer this simple query? If you’re not sure how to answer well I’ve got a book here that says it much better than I’ll ever manage – Unitarian – What’s That? – and there are some free copies if you’d like to keep or borrow one.
And how I answer depends on where I am and who I’m speaking to but at some point the word ‘freedom’ comes into it. Because freedom matters greatly to me as it probably does to most of you. Unitarianism is a free religious faith, we have no fixed creeds, no doctrines that we all must hold to. We are about to invite people to renew their membership of our congregation – there is no test, no shared statement of faith to agree to. We simply ask that you are in accord with our Unitarian ethos of free inquiry and respect for the beliefs of others.
For us who live in a modern western society such freedom is no big deal now. But I’m ever aware of those who came before us, who in our lands lost their livings, their access to education, their liberty and even their lives in the struggle for freedoms that we now take completely for granted.
For we Unitarians were at the heart of the Nonconformist tradition, the struggles of those who could not agree to the 39 articles of faith of the Anglican Church, established to settle the controversies of the English Reformation. Our Essex Church congregation established in 1774 by Theophilus Lindsey an Anglican minister who found he could no longer accept these articles of faith and who bravely started this the first Unitarian congregation when it was still against the law to express a Unitarian faith, to deny the Trinity of God as three in one.
Hard for us now to imagine how passionately people felt about all this. I’ve been reading recently about a young Scotttish medical student called Thomas Aikenhead who in 1697 was executed in Edinburgh for blasphemy. Reading his words now, he sounds like a rebellious and intelligent young adult reading the Scriptures and finding their flaws and inconsistencies. We don’t take people’s lives now for expressing atheist views – in this country at least – yet the issue of freedom of speech and its limitations is a very current issue that we have to engage with.
So freedom of faith is important for Unitarians but with freedom comes responsibility. We have to live thoughtfully – deeds not creeds it’s sometimes described as. The very construction of our name Uni-tarian is a helpful reminder to me that we are all one, that the whole of existence is connected. I think our current government has stopped using that slogan – we’re in this together – so I’m going to reclaim it – because it’s at the core of my faith. I do really believe that. And that’s why I’m going to share with you any profits I make from any offshore accounts that may be held in my name or in the name of any of my family members.
Luckily here at Essex Church we do believe in sharing what we have. Because of those who came before us we have the custodianship of this building here in Notting Hill. I wish you could have been here yesterday and seen the steady stream of people coming through our doors – our liberal Jewish community Beit Klal Yisreal, the One Spirit Interfaith Foundation who train Interfaith ministers, some of whom are also members of our congregations, the Eritrean Cultural Support group that we have been supporting for over ten years now, Seicho No Ie (meaning Truth of Life) a non-denominational movement based on the belief that all religions emanate from one universal God.
Sharing our building helps pay the bills, but just as importantly it makes a clear statement that as Unitarians we respect the faith of others, we view life as a path of exploration and we support one another on life’s journey.
We live at a time when much that is wrong about religion is painfully obvious. Religion can clearly bring out the best and worst in us humans. But I don’t think the answer is to imagine a blissful happy-ever-after life without religion – which is the simplistic message of some vocal atheists. Get rid of religion and all will be well? I don’t think so. Because of course the problem is not religion it’s us, us humans. For we are both the potential trouble makers and the potential peace makers. We are the ones who have a choice.
We are the ones who have a choice and we are the ones who have a voice. I think it’s one of the things we do well here at Essex Church – we create spaces in which we can become more articulate about our own faith and allow one another chance to explore beliefs and how to live life well in a safe space. Earlier on we heard of the Golden Rule as a guide to living – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Many a student essay has been written on the issues of such a rule, the problems of finding any one way to govern the complexities of human existence. But behind Jesus’ version of the Golden Rule was a greater demand – to stay aware of our inner life as we engage with the world – to be awake to ourselves as we relate with others.
In our 21st century global community, our willingness, and our capacity to stay awake to the diversity of all that is, is, I believe, life-saving work. And it’s work better tackled together.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 19th April 2016