Saturday, 12 May 2012

1662 and all that

The sermon for Sunday's service at Wakefield.

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” 
That’s my sermon. That’s it.
You need not think alike to love alike.
You expected more, didn’t you? Really. That’s it. Easy! (or as a very popular TV advert says “Simples”).
All right. I’ll admit it isn’t easy. I know it up here, in my head. You know it, in your heads, and in your hearts, in your gut instinct, but it’s often hard to put into practice.
Jesus said everything he was saying was about love. Love your neighbour. Love yourself. Love life. Love God.
Love, he said, is the Universal. If not, “God is Love,” then surely, “Love is God”-the holy of holies, the spirit of life. 

Recently I was asked by a door-to-door Religious Salesperson whether I believed in Jesus, who was very concerned for the state of my immortal soul. I thanked them for their concern. After a pause I replied that, no, I do not believe in Jesus. This caused some consternation on the part of the questioner, so I continued “No I do not believe in Jesus. I’m pretty sure he existed as a real flesh and blood human being, living in 1st century CE Palestine You don’t have to believe in someone who existed.” Or, as Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax said, like believing in the postman, but given the current state of the Royal Mail, I find the postman rather harder to believe in than Jesus! (joke)
Therefore, I don’t believe in Jesus; I certainly do not believe in much of the mythological Jesus figure created by the Christian religion but I do have faith in Jesus. I have faith and trust in the things he said and did. And you know I think that is what marks us out as Unitarians and Free Christians: we do not necessarily believe in the mythological Christ but we certainly have faith in the teaching of Jesus.  Or rather, we try to follow the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus. We recognise we don’t have to think alike to love alike. Now some would argue that in order to be a Christian you have to have faith in and believe in Jesus. Having faith in Jesus, or God, is not enough: you have to believe the right things about him.  And I don’t think that’s helpful, and I think it’s a mistake the Church, and other organised religions, have made, conflating faith and belief. It created a situation where belief, and not faith, became a “test of faith” and there were dire consequences for those who failed the test because they did not believe the right things.  And I think having to believe the right things is rather putting the cart before the horse, putting the organisation before the people and runs contrary to what Jesus taught: the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. Religion was made to serve our human needs, we were not made to serve it.

350 years ago, on the 19th May 1662 Parliament passed the “Act of Uniformity” :
“An Act for the Uniformity of Publique Prayers and Administracion of Sacramentes & other Rites & Ceremonies and for establishing the Form of making ordaining and consecrating Bishops Preists and Deacons in the Church of England.”

Any holder of public office and minister of the Church was required to adhere to this Act, which resulted in what was called the Great Ejection where 2,000 clergymen were ejected from their Livings, because their consciences would not permit them to conform to the 39 Articles and/or the Book of Common Prayer. Conscience became important: for example, when the Rev. Henry Newcome of Manchester was ejected from the Collegiate Church, 400 townsfolk sent an unsuccessful petition to the King to have him re-instated. Indeed Newcome himself hoped and prayed the CofE would, in time, become a “broad church”, the same hope shared a century later by Rev. Theophilus Lindsey who was something of a reluctant dissenter in establishing the first avowedly Unitarian place of worship. The conscience of the Puritan Rev. John Angier of Denton  allowed him to remain within the Church of England, and indeed St Lawrence’s Church, Denton, maintained the Presbyterian form of Communion until the 1850s and lacked not only a Chancel but a Communion Table to put in it until a Victorian “restoration”. Gamaliel Jones at Chadkirk also stayed within the CofE but was ejected from his living in 1706 when the CofE claimed back Chadkirk Chapel, and a new Presbyterian congregation was started in Gee Cross in 1708, which is today Hyde Chapel, and a Congregational Church built at Hatherlow.  The Act of Uniformity was just one part of what was called the “Clarendon Code” which was designed  to restrict the activities of non-conformists to the Church of England, and because the King was Head of the Church, non-conformity to the Church also equated non-conformity to the state: The Blasphemy Act of 1696 “An Act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness” made non-subscription to the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity a capital offence and indeed a young man was hanged in Edinburgh in 1780 for his denial of the Trinity. The death penalty for not believing the Trinity was not lifted until 1813, although it was still illegal for a minister or other duly appointed persons to deny publicly any part of the Christian religion as revealed to and understood by the CofE. “Not believing the right thing” led to the persecution of our Unitarian forebears; Joseph Priestly had to flee to America; Rev. Benjamin Flower was imprisoned in Newgate Prison, leading to his daughter Sarah to pen “Nearer my God to thee”; the deportation of Rev T. Fyshe Palmer, fellow of Queens College, Cambridge, to Australia or the hounding of Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War for her supposed heterodoxy.

 “Not believing the right things” is not just an historical issue: many Christians, particularly of the more Evangelical persuasion would argue that not only believing the right things about Jesus is important but also about our human condition. Within the last ten years the dividing line between Liberals and Conservatives in the Church have been issues of sex and sexuality; believing the right things about the role of women or homosexuals, believing in Creationism versus Evolutionary Theory, usually in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, which often leads to those groups holding onto their beliefs all the more tenaciously. It can also lead to religious extremism, to purges and progroms, including its most recent manifestation as suicide bombers.

This conflation of faith and belief has caused and causes religious chaos across the whole world.  It’s no wonder that the Church is becoming more and more marginalised and religion as a whole distrusted. James Martineau suggested that this conflation was a moral evil, the “ascendancy of Might over faith” and “profligate selfishness” over the revelation of God.

But where do we go from here? Well, I think, 350 years ago we Dissenters got it right. We put the “protest” back into “Protestant”. We recognised that you do not have to believe the right things, say the right things, so long as you have the right relationship with God, and above all, love. Our rejection of creeds and imposition of prayer books whilst not only a rejection of Episcopal Hierarchy and a State religion, is a statement of belief in itself. We do not believe that anyone should have to believe something that they don’t. We do not believe particular forms of prayer, or worship or doctrinal tests are important or should be imposed because religion is a personal, private matter, a matter of conscience; it is based on a personal relationship with God, a dynamic, loving, changing relationship that cannot be summed up in and by an authorised set of words.  James Martineau said that the final arbiter of the religious truth is the conscience.  Martineau described belief in God as an external force, as the maker of all things, as an intellectual activity, an activity of the mind. To Martineau, the revelation of God the creator was manifest everywhere: God was “seen in natural and physical law…presented its intellectual affluence of purpose and resource”. But the inner God, “our spiritual nature”, the true reflection of God and of ourselves, was and is much harder to discern. Martineau said therefore that “conscience is his [God’s] interpreter” and thus God transcends “forms of our own making, aims and prayers.” “Conscience” says Martineau, “takes the place of the anointed Priest” within us; Emerson termed it “that God within the breast”… “as a child is connected to the womb of its mother by a chord from the navel. So it seems to me man is connected to God by his Conscience”. From the conscience argues Martineau, an “anxious scrupulosity of the mind” arises rejecting dependency on outward forms of religion and divine offices, and becomes our life-guide:
Conscience, in which the ends are taken, not as we like, but as we ought; Faith in which the conflict is transcended between what we like and what we ought, and duty becomes Divine.”; “ Conscience, then, in its struggles, represents what God is for, and what he is against, no less, in its heavenly calm, does it bespeak the living unison of his spirit with our own…devout faithful persons in all ages... habitually sustained and kindled by a Divine communion, exalting and transcending their own personal strength… related spirits, joined by a common creative aim, intent on whatever things are pure and good, liv[ing] in the presence of each other…the love which subsists between them.
Faith needs to be seen as much more than just belief.  Belief is an intellectual activity of the mind: faith is a commitment of the heart.  Faith is better understood in terms of TRUST; and so there will always be an element of risk about it, rather than certainty.  Martineau said that
“[Faith] is uppermost in consciousness…Faith is inspiring. It sustains one in the work of life, when one would otherwise lose heart.”
Jesus never lost the same conviction of doing what was right, saying what he thought  was right, what his conscience told him was right, in the face of persecution from members of his own religion and community, paying the ultimate price for his faith in humanity. So too did our own “martyrs”,  Servetus, Socinus….Priestly, Flower……..If you have faith in someone or something, you don’t have to believe in them nor just believe in their existence, you trust them.  You trust that they will be true to themselves, and live up to the highest claims their own conscience makes upon them.

Faith is a creative energy or power.  It creates relationships.  First of all, it invites you into a relationship with yourself (or rather with your Better Self).  Faith will encourage you to believe in yourself and trust yourself; and even to love yourself, because love is the highest form of this relationship. Emerson suggested that faith in Jesus, because he was a man, was ultimately about faith in mankind, faith in the self, faith in the “highest nature” of mankind, our “intimate union with the Divine”; “the external shrinks away, and is not the lasting object of faith, but rather the point of departure.”

Having found a healthy and wholesome relationship with yourself, you will then want to reach out to include others: and this will eventually lead you into the experience of being embraced by the love of the universal Other, that we call God.

Faith is not saying that you believe in the existence of someone called God (as if that would make any difference!).  Nor is it saying that you believe in any so-called ‘statements of faith’.

Faith is not a statement: it’s a commitment – trusting that in spite of all, life has meaning and purpose.  Faith means taking a risk, and living in the light of it; loving yourself and loving others; and as a result, experiencing the love of God who, it seems, is also trusting us to be true to ourselves.    
I’d like to end with words by the liberal theologian Alan Watts:                                                
"Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."
As people of faith, then, it seems as if we have a clear responsibility. It is very simple. Our responsibility is to listen and to seek love, or to believe in it, in spite of all else to the contrary.

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