What does it mean to be Unitarian today?
When people ask what is Unitarian some people start into a history lesson about dissenters and make claims about famous people who they think were Unitarians.
Others start off with a list of things that they say we don’t believe, such as a creed, or the trinity. I feel that neither of these responses gives the person asking much of a clue of what it means to be a Unitarian today.
The response of citing things we do not believe, can lead to people saying, ‘oh – so you can believe what you want’? This is not the case. To adopt the Unitarian faith is to take on a challenging and demanding spiritual practice.
The first song in the book, ‘Sing Your Faith’ (UK Unitarian General Assembly, 2009, p. 11), the song called ‘A core of Silence’, it is emphasised that silence is important in striving to understand what it means to be human. There are several reasons why being still and listening to your inner voice are important. The first is because at least in the cities today, silence is a rare commodity. But even in the countryside, silence is rare because nature is not normally silent. However, you can train your mind to be relatively still, and within the pauses between the breath there is a self-awareness that can emerge for which there is no name, much less God (UK Unitarian General Assembly, 2009, p. 11).
At the beginning of November our meditation group insisted upon meeting in the rear garden, while a play was rehearsing in our building. We were fortunate that it was a relatively mild day. We were all taken by the sound of the chattering birds. For most of us the traffic noise faded and the bird chatter filled our hearts, and we were at peace with ourselves and all around us. We may well repeat the experience next summer.
Many religious practices recognise the value of stillness. Silence is important I believe because an inner awareness or consciousness is very hard to put into words. I think it was Freud who described a successful breath meditation as an oceanic experience of floating in a void. Once you encounter this experience, as some of us do through meditation, one’s awareness of life and all around you changes.
Returning to the claim that the Unitarian faith tradition is a challenging and a demanding spiritual practice. One of the reasons is that we rely upon many sources to inform our spiritual practice.
In most of the faith traditions of the world, at least in the present times, there are sources of wisdom which inform practice. What of the wisdom sources of Unitarianism? It is sometimes said that we do not have a wisdom text, but it is better to say that we do not rely upon one faith tradition as the only source of wisdom, and this is why a Unitarian faith is a challenging and demanding spiritual practice.
In the USA, our spiritual cousins, the Unitarian Universalists, have identified, and many agree on, six sources of wisdom (UUA). It sounds easy if you just run them off your lips without too much thought, but therein lies the problem. If you think about the rich and diverse sources of wisdom from which we draw, you will realise that the challenge to develop a Unitarian theology for the 21st C is considerable, indeed it is daunting.
Read the six sources slowly, with a pause after each one, and contemplate the task of gaining a deep insight into each of these sources.
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
PAUSE – for example, it takes a long time to develop a daily meditation practice
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
PAUSE – even following the teachings of one prophet, Jesus, requires much reading and thought. It is fortunate and also reinforcing that in the wisdom available in diverse cultural traditions, we can find common ground.
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
PAUSE – Let us start with the Buddhists who have a vast array of texts including the Sutras which are believed to be, either literally or metaphorically, the actual words of the Buddha. And there are commentaries on canonical texts, other treatises on the Dharma, and collections of quotes, and histories.
In Hinduism the Upanishads which are widely influential among Hindus, and on occasions accessed by Unitarians, are just one of multiple historic texts.
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
PAUSE – Our own cultural origins lead us to draw upon the wisdom texts of the Jewish and Christian religions, as taught in synagogues, and churches. We can and should expand these sources to include the wisdom in the Q’Oran and other Islamic texts, much of it shared with the other two Abrahamic religions.
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
PAUSE – Unitarians are responsive to rational thought and to the evidence of science. This leads us to pay heed to the explosion of knowledge about the universe and about life on our planet in the past 40 years. Keeping up with such a growth in our understanding across all aspects of life, and making sense of how that impacts on our moral and spiritual practice is daunting. Yet that is but one of the sources of wisdom that we acknowledge.
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
PAUSE – In the past we have under-estimated the depth of spiritual awareness in the teachings among first nation peoples.
In the Unitarian song, ‘bring flowers to the altar’ (UK Unitarian General Assembly, 2009, p. 33), we are asked to bring many things to our worship practices, and this captures a little of the complexity of the challenge that we set for ourselves. This includes the invitation to include love, hope and a commitment to social justice.
We can acknowledge all these sources of wisdom, but how do we make more than a token effort of utilising any of these sources, let alone all of them? That is where fellowship can play a part. If we seek the company of others who accept that faith is a journey, we can draw upon what each of us has learnt to enrich our understanding.
When the people who founded this chapel in 1672 decided not to hold to a prescribed creed, they perhaps unwittingly, opened the door for Unitarian thought to emerge. As thinking in the congregation evolved over time to become Unitarian, the initial intention was to interpret the bible from the stand point of understanding Jesus to be a prophet, but our theology has evolved and changed and we have accessed and sought to embrace a much wider range of sources of wisdom.
Our Unitarian faith tradition is in a constant state of evolution as new insights and understandings are accessed, and as cultural, economic, and technological conditions change. As individuals, we tend to have periods when we plateau in our spiritual journey, and times when we gain new insights and further develop our sense of awe and wonderment.
At times, we may put aside our faith journey to concentrate on immediate challenges, or to simply let things be. Some people may stay in a moribund faith state for a long time, but life has a habit of giving us a nudge when something we relied upon breaks or changes. It could be a relationship, or a job, or our health.
As a Unitarian community, we have people who are approaching this notion of a faith journey from different starting points. For some, this is the faith of their childhood. If religious attachment had originally been accepted in a childlike manner, then there may be some resistance to the spiritual journey that other Unitarians are following. Some of those who we call ‘cradle Unitarians’, try to retain unchanged the faith of their parents. Other Unitarians come as refugees from dogmatic Christian practices where the fear of God was drummed into their psyche. Like all who have escaped oppression, they are very clear about what they reject, but may need time to articulate their new faith as a positive force for good in their lives. Some have sought for enlightenment in Eastern religions, and value those sources but want also to access their western cultural tradition. Yet others approach a notion of being spiritual as atheists. I wonder that people from these different backgrounds are able to move toward a common understanding of faith. Perhaps some are either stuck in their past experiences, or are moving along different spiritual paths in the same physical space offered by their church. Those who attend Hull Unitarians regularly are likely to have been exposed to many faith traditions, and hopefully are gaining understanding in a context of mutual respect.
If we accept and recognise all the sources I quoted above, then surely Unitarianism is not a faith where we can each believe what we choose, but rather one in which we seek to share and enhance our understandings. This is a challenging and demanding spiritual practice and one that requires us to be open always to new ideas and new information. I cannot hope to command the depth of knowledge that I need from within my own resources, which is why I am open to other people seeking faith, within our congregation, in the broader Unitarian community, and beyond, including input from people from all faith communities who are willing to share in a spirit of mutual respect.
Unitarianism is challenging but can be rewarding and a way of life that is enabling and responsive. So, next time someone asks, Unitarianism – what’s that, how will you answer.
UK Unitarian General Assembly. (2009). Sing Your Faith. London: Lindsey Press.
UUA. (n.d.). Six Sources. Retrieved from https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles
Exploring the Vast Reaches of Our Minds and Spirit
Martin Gienke (2007) asked ‘how much does our previous experience and culture shape our current view?’ In one sense, it is a question to which the answer is obvious. How can we not be influenced by our life experiences? As Unitarians, we encourage people to form their understanding of their spiritual being through reliance upon experience, rational thought and shared dialogue. But to what experiences and cultural influences are we exposed?
You have a choice in these matters. Are you willing to explore opportunities when they arise? For example, we recently had the opportunity to attend the Reformed Jewish Synagogue in Hull. There we partook in their Friday evening worship, which ends with a ceremony of breaking bread and drinking wine. It is all well and good to know of this Jewish worship tradition, but when you experience it, the source of inspiration for the story of the last supper in the Bible becomes real.
A few years ago, I accepted an invitation as a Unitarian Pastor to attend a celebration of the birth of the prophet Mohammed (blessings be on his name) in a Mosque. They were a Shia community and had invited a Sunni Imam to address them. He talked of his fear in coming into the mosque! It reminded me of the antagonism among Catholics and Protestants when I was a youth in Australia.
How can people hope to explore the vast reaches of our mind and of our spirit, if we are frightened to even observe how another person worships or experiences the spirit of life that is within us all?
Could it be that we are afraid to explore other ways of experiencing the spirit within, because we have not explored our own awareness enough to be confident in what we believe? Are we afraid of learning something new about ourselves? Are we scared that someone might ‘convert’ us to their way of thinking? If so, can we truly aspire to exploring the vast reaches of our mind and of our spirit?
Some people are so scared of letting what they believe change that they deny the notion of spirit and insist that only those things they can see and test empirically exist and the rest is our imagination, as though having an imagination is a bad thing.
In the service from which this reflection is drawn I invited people to let our imaginations run riot with crazy animals. Children are often incredibly inventive and seem able to imagine things with ease, but we adults seem to be less flexible. Why is that so?
I also presented a picture of a very strange animal and asked if it is real, or made up? When people in England first received a specimen of an Australian platypus some believed that it was a clever fake stitched together by a prankster. It is easy to see why.
Our Hull Unitarians community has adopted an aspiration which includes the phrase, ‘to explore the vast reaches of our mind and spirit’. I think it was wise to agree to our statement as an aspiration, because it is possibly beyond any of us to always be open to exploring the vast reaches of our mind and spirit. If that is so, is it OK to aspire to be what we may not always achieve?
In the service from which this reflection is drawn, we also sang a song called, ‘when our heart is in a holy place’. Can we learn to trust the wisdom within our self? Can we share the silence and allow our self to be aware of the spirit of life within each of us? I suggest that in gathering together we can share the challenge of imagining the power of faith, and this can liberate our spirit and enrich our daily life.
Reference: Gienke, Martin (2007) Viewpoint, From With Heart and Mind, Pioneer Press, Skipton UK. P80.
Address: How are we doing?
February 25 2017 was the second anniversary of the start of my ministry to Hull Unitarians. In that time, I have witnessed change in the culture of this community. I think that we are now acting in a more caring and understanding manner toward each other than was always the case when I commenced. There were some tensions at the start arising from past unresolved differences of opinion. People seem far more open to understanding the cares and concerns of each other. As we sang in our first hymn, ‘may all who seek here find a kindly word’. By kindly, I do not mean an acceptance of whatever others do, but rather a caring commitment to do what is right in a way that considers the needs and feelings of those around us.
We have started to broaden our services to our community. I started a meditation group about 5 months ago, and for several weeks I meditated alone. Then two new people came and liked the experience and came back, and after that others who joined felt safe and secure. Last Thursday we had 7 people attend, five of whom are new to our church. When I count how many people have come to meditation, or to our Friday gathering, or to Worship on Sundays, the total is about forty. So, we have an increasing attendance overall.
There have been changes too in the composition of those who attend our church on Sundays, and on Fridays. People who are not members of this church who come on Fridays have said to me that they come because we are such a friendly community. There is a genuine love and respect for all. We have accepted many people who are different from the long-established members of this church, and yet we seem to all get along.
We have lost some regular attendees of our church. I mourn the lack of attendance of two former trustees, although I understand the other pressures in their lives. I admire all they have done for our church over the years, and I hope that in time they will be able to join us regularly again.
However, I find hope in the character and commitment of new comers. They are always willing to help, are thoughtful and open to new ideas, and I know have found courage to make changes in their lives. I think we all delight in the joy of having a family with young children among us as well. I think also we treasure long term members who give us a sense of continuity with our heritage.
I had a joyful afternoon recently sitting with two old and frail members of our church as they chattered about their shared memories going back 70 years. One had a wonderful photo of Revd Ernest Penn, our former minister in her bedroom and told me he was a wonderful man. She also insisted that her main motivation in attending our church was social, and was very pleased to know that our Friday Gatherings go from strength to strength. We have agreed to meet gain and to invite another old and frail friend to join us. I think of this as potentially a new fellowship group, and hence a further growth in our active members and friends. I see this as a further manifestation of our aspiration to become a caring spiritual community.
Looking ahead, I believe that we should continue to support and strengthen the social dimension of our community, and hence I hope that we can find a person to become a trustee to help lead us in our social activities.
I think also we have strengthened our commitment to social action in Hull by our commitment to supporting local charities. We are very welcome for what we do with the Hull Veterans Support Centre, where I am the honorary Padre, and where Barry offers a hand. Likewise, we are seen as good friends of the Open Doors Refuge Centre. By supporting others in our community, we are demonstrating our commitment to social action.
I am please also to report that the Findhorn Unitarian Network event in January has sent reverberations of spiritual renewal around the UK Unitarian community. Hull Unitarians provided the drive and the administrative support to make this happen, and this has changed the way we are seen in the UK wide Unitarian community. We are now seen as progressive and a positive force in Hull and beyond.
In our first reading, today we heard from a letter from St Paul to the Ephesians. Paul was an evangelical Jewish convert to the teachings of Jesus, and he was a Roman citizen of high standing who, like many converts, strove to proclaim the good news as he saw it across the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. He wrote letters to the congregations he had founded in many cities, to try to enthuse them and rally them to his cause. We heard the words:
grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit
We are in very different times and circumstances, but the gist of this message is that we too can be optimistic about our future, provided we have the faith to commit to self-renewal, and to the renewal of our church and our community.
The words from John O’Donohue will I hope give you inspiration for the way forward.
May this be a home of discovery, where the possibilities that sleep in the clay of your soul can emerge, to deepen and refine your vision for all that is yet to come to birth’.
We have possibilities that I think were beyond the imagination of many in our community when I commenced. There is every reason to be positive and to look forward with high hopes. We can realise a change within Hull Unitarians that can reverberate in Hull, across the UK Unitarian movement and beyond. We face some challenges as we negotiate the necessary changes to our building, but as we sang in our second hymn, love will guide us through the hard night’; and … we can change the world with our love.
I hope that just as the Ephesians took courage from Paul’s words, that you will be encouraged and inspired by our joint achievements and by our vision for the future. May we continue to stand together and support each other through the coming year. Please support our community by your attendance, and where you are able, by your contributions in kind and in financial terms.
Revd Ralph Catts, Pastor, Hull Unitarian Church.
A Reflection on the affirmation words: “The quest for truth is our sacrament.”
Some Unitarian churches in the UK including the Hull Unitarians, and many UUA churches in North America, have adopted an affirmation to encompass the values that inform the congregation as a faith community. At Hull, we are reviewing whether an affirmation is appropriate, and if so what it should contain.
An affirmation is a form of ritual, and in worship, elements of ritual can help to bring us together to engage with our sense of the sacred (Arnason & Rolenz, 2008). However, for ritual to be of value it needs to be meaningful, and therefore if we are to say an affirmation, we need to know what it means to us individually, and as a community.
The phrase ‘The quest for truth is our sacrament’ often appears in Unitarian affirmations available on-line. At first sight, it may seem to be a reasonable element to include. However, unpacking the phrase raises some interesting questions, such as what do we mean by ‘sacrament’, is it a ‘quest’, and what do we mean by ‘truth’.
Read more:- A-reflection-on-the-affirmation-words
Revd Dr Ralph Catts, August, 2016.
What’s God Got To Do With It?
In this address I have drawn on a thesis submitted at Duke University in 2009 by Robert Brown.
Based on this thesis I ask a question that you may not normally hear asked in a church. For most believers in traditional religions, God exists and we accept this by faith alone.
That is why asking what has God got to do with it, will come as a shock for most people who say they are religious. This is true of all three Abrahamic religions namely Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
If we question the existence of God, does that take us beyond the boundaries of religion?
Read more:- Whats-god-got-to-do-with-it
Revd Dr Ralph Catts, March, 2016.
Lessons From Findhorn
Back in 1962, Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy McClean had worked at the Cluny Hill Hoteland were thrown out of work when it closed. They moved to the Findhorn Caravan Park with three children and started a garden in which they grew amazing vegetables on sandy soil. They attributed their extraordinary success in producing vegetables to their practice of co-creating with nature. This attracted others and was the start of the Findhorn community. From the beginning there was a commitment to living in a sustainable spiritual community.
Read more:- Lessons from Findhorn
An address delivered by Revd Dr Ralph Catts at Park Street Unitarian Church, 18 October 2015.
Spiritual – not Religious, by Pastor Dr Ralph Catts
Over the past two centuries Unitarian Universalists in the UK, the USA and other countries have been evolving from dissenting Christian origins into a distinct spiritual community who recognise and appreciate what we can learn from Science as well as what we can comprehend through spiritual practice. Dr. Geoffrey Berry said to Melbourne Unitarians in April 2015, ‘Worshipping the sacred without religion should not be a problem in a secular pluralist society’ [ CITATION Ber15 \l 2057 ]. I suggest that this is a rational way to live.
Read more:- Spiritual-not-religious
An address delivered by Revd Dr Ralph Catts at Park Street Unitarian Church, July 26 2015.