Rev. Phillip Hewett: A Personal Memorial


As I began to think about what I might say during this address, I went back into my archive to see when in the past I had mentioned Phillip Hewett. I found an address I gave nearly two and half years ago on ‘David & Goliath.’ It was the third or fourth address I gave here, in which I talked about some problems with postmodernism, and I was critical of a model of Unitarianism which Hewett proposed back in the 50s. The model was a Venn Diagram, of three overlapping circles. Hewett argues that Unitarianism pulls, as it were, in three directions: towards Christianity, towards humanism, and towards seeing the essential value in other religious traditions (which he terms Universalism). His argument was that we must hold that tension and stay within the middle space, and not allow any of these forces to dominate the conversation. My concern with that approach was that by elevating this neutral centre ground you in effect inadvertently create a community which is intolerant towards people who want to actually affirm a particular position. You create an ideal of nothingness, which evades all commitment. I suggested that a far better approach was not trying to conform or mould yourself into some pluralistic wishy-washy ideal, but rather, to be authentically present to the spiritual life as we find it, or inherit it, affirming a commitment to self-integrity in the spiritual life we lead in each present moment. Though of course, what I was doing in that address was not having a dialogue with Phillip Hewett, but rather critiquing something he wrote over sixty years ago, something he wrote when the world showed up very differently, and this Unitarian movement showed up very differently.He was obviously responding to problems as he perceived them then, as I am responding to problems as I perceive them now. So, to that end I made a good straw man of him. Because one must speak, one must have an opinion, one must come down one way or another, and by doing that, by playing your cards upon the table, we mask the true depth of ourselves. As Walt Whitman said, ‘I contain multitudes’. What we outwardly claim to revile, for example, we at different times and in different worlds may well manifest what we claim to stand against. We are always far more than meets the eye. Within Unitarianism we question. We question things as they stand, things as they were, and the direction in which we move.

Hewett and I

Back in January, in the Inquirer, Phillip Hewett had a short article published. It was to mark his 75th year as a Unitarian. He said he, like many of his peers, felt himself turning away from the normative Christianity he grew up under – the faith of his parents. But unlike his peers, he was drawn towards finding an alternative. He read through reference books and came upon Unitarianism. I find that interesting, as I too read about Unitarianism before I experienced it first-hand. He enquired after the closest Unitarian minister. This was in 1942, during the Second World War, when Phillip was 17 years old. He sat down to talk with this minister. After an hour of conversation Phillip asked how he could become a Unitarian, and the response came, ‘after listening to you, I can tell you, you already are a Unitarian’. The article goes on to highlight an enduring view Phillip had come to after all these years (a view which strikes me as wholly at odds with the 1950s Hewett I argued against in that address); he states that at the centre of faith must lie particular persons, stories, poems, and/or places. That we must gather around a flowing stream, the roots of which flow from Christianity. He decried where America had failed to do that, where after 1961 it, in effect, jettisoned its past. He puts front and centre the person of Jesus, and how we respond to the person of Jesus. He says this question of how we respond to Jesus is the most important question within Unitarianism. This attests to something quite remarkable in Unitarianism. That in all our musings and exploration, in this community we are first and foremost for loving acceptance, and as such, in all our ambles through ideas, all our trying on of perspectives, in all the changes we go through, and should go through, we remain at home within this faith. We remain welcome. Phillip Hewett was certainly an example of that – a Unitarian who had traversed a lot of intellectual space in terms of how he viewed himself, this world, and this movement. And yet a Unitarian to the core.

Harris Manchester College, Oxford

I met Phillip just twice. Training for ministry at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, as he did, and I did, he was keen to return for old student association days. I met him at that event two years ago, and then again last year. As I’m sure that any of you who met him know, he was a very warm and kind person, full of a joy for life. He was keen to sit down with me and talk about Ipswich, and the direction of Unitarianism. He gave me copy of his book, ‘The Unitarian Way’ which he saw as his final piece of advice to this movement of ours. In this religious tradition with no creed and no hierarchy, it is sometimes hard to see what it is that binds Unitarians together. And then in 20 chapters he talks about different threads which weave through our tradition. In one chapter, ‘Wider Horizons’, he addresses something of the problem I highlighted: Unitarianism can all too easily become the religion which doesn’t believe certain things. We can easily become a religion which defines ourselves in opposition to mainstream Christianity in particular. Confronted with some of the exclusive claims within mainstream Christianity, we overreact, and deny far more than we affirm. He talks for example about the word ‘Christ’. A Unitarian cannot believe in ‘Christ’, can they, believing the term to point us towards the supernatural dimension of Jesus and the exclusive claims of Christianity, about salvation only being through him, etc.? But to make such a move is to misunderstand and misrepresent how the term ‘Christ’ has been understood in liberal Christian scholarship, pointing as it does not to exclusivity but rather to the conscious embodiment of the universal spiritual nature: a path open to us all. This means there is a higher consciousness at play in Jesus, which finds poetic expression in the sayings of Jesus, like, ‘I and the Father are one’, or ‘I am the way and the truth’... And so, we are tripped up by vocabulary.

We may in this space, in this building, on this cold morning, repeat Jesus’s words that ‘no one can come to the father except through me’, but we will understand such statements as coming through Christ-consciousness reaching for some poetic expression, for words beyond what our vocabulary can capture. But if it’s just kept as an amorphic ideal, a concept in space, it’s very difficult to grab on to. But personified in an individual, in a story, we can see it, and we can get it. And so, Jesus remains central. To quote Hewett quoting Emerson, ‘The Universal does not attract us until housed in an individual.’ Then we get it, when we can see it being lived out. And yet even then, when it comes to Jesus, as the chapter title suggests (a ‘wider horizon’), there remains ever present in Unitarianism an openness and receptivity to recognising ‘the way’ as it manifests in other traditions and people. Ultimately then I don’t think it's overstating it - Phillip Hewett’s love of this movement is what directed his life’s work – he ultimately wanted Unitarianism to succeed, and it came down for him to our efforts to manifest together the sort of community we want to see in this world. Navigating that difficult path between individual and shared beliefs; it is a tension. There is something very shared at play here. Phillip Hewett talks a lot about that in his book, and yet to put that unity into words seems to cause problems, for obvious reasons. A spirit of consensus lies beneath a bed of contradictions and paradoxes. A bond of love, of hope, shared experiences and ideals. Nevertheless these unite us together as Unitarians. But community lived out needs to be more than shared beliefs, but rather a shared way of life, or indeed ‘The Way’. Through shared memories, sentiments, and aspirations we are bound together into one common life. As Philip points out, the diversity of outlook causes a real problem within communities, but it need not. If openness to one another is a central expression of our community, we find that oneness together which is beyond categorisation. To quote Philip, ‘an exclusive, rigid, totalitarian person cannot claim minority rights in an open, free, inclusive organisation. The principles of inclusiveness automatically excludes such a person’s exclusiveness’. Somehow a meta-expression of us as a whole family does and can find form and shape. One people worshipping a shared sense of the sacred. This is the kind of loving, generous Unitarian community Phillip wanted to see take shape. It was a privilege to have met him, and I hope we here can carry on and manifest this vision amongst us. Go well brother.