Fairfax’s Inaugural Sermon: a reflection

 John Fairfax (1623 - 1700)

John Fairfax (1623 - 1700)

Anniversary services, I think, are about exploring the tone of one’s community. They’re perhaps a little more inward looking than a normal service, or at least, they’re about our calling as a community. It’s a reflection upon what we’re trying to manifest here, what we see as our purpose. Despite all the busyness I mentioned, I did get around to reading John Fairfax’s opening sermon that he delivered from this pulpit 318 years ago. It reads in this way, as a mission statement, as a proclamation of intent. And yet even from that opening sermon, Fairfax calls us not to put an undue focus on this space per se, upon this material building, beautiful though it is. He says, ‘Let us not satisfy ourselves that we have built this House for God, for his Solemn worship, where his name may be recorded. This is not our whole duty. No, tis but a small part… God expects that we prepare him another habitation, within our very hearts’. Fairfax asks us to put things into an appropriate perspective. We have this building, buts it’s not about this building; we have our rituals, but it’s not about our rituals. These things only have value in as far as they enlighten our hearts, and enable a spirit of love to make its home within us, and within this community. In as far as their admiration frustrates this end, we have lost sight of their value.

When I think about ultimate concern, my thoughts turn to nature, my thoughts turn to Spring. When I think about ultimate concern, my thoughts turn to the normative state of humanity’s suffering; my thoughts turn to pain. When I think about ultimate concern, my thoughts turn to community, to Thy Kingdom Come, to a hope made manifest in community, not as a destination, but as a way of inhabiting our fragile world. When I think about ultimate concern, I think about who we are, and who we are called to be – not a social action group, but a faith, seeking earnestly after the sacred in our lives, exploring the ineffable, the mysteries which drive us on, that we fail or struggle to name.

Fairfax talks about a ‘speciality of presence’, that through the sacred, though God is everywhere – in all heaven and earth - he is felt in some places more present than in others. In some places there is a ‘speciality of presence’. Fairfax is constantly linking everything he says to passages in the Bible, as if there is one single unfolding narrative from the Hebrew Bible to these gathered people. There is, for example, a ‘speciality of presence’ upon Mt Sinai when Moses received the Law from God. A ‘speciality of presence’ which is not arbitrary or random throughout this world, but for the benefit of the assembled people. For it is (Fairfax says) a ‘matter of God’s promise, and therefore must be some good and spiritual profit to the Church’. A space where we are ministered to by the angels of God, by the very spirit of God in our midst. For as Jesus said as he was to leave this world, he told his disciples that he would send another comforter to be with them, the Spirit of Truth.

 Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House

Ipswich Unitarian Meeting House

And talking of places with a ‘speciality of presence’, last week on Sunday morning I was in Belfast, and so I attended All Souls Church (one of the non-prescribing Presbyterian churches) in Belfast. For anyone who doesn’t know, the non-prescribing Presbyterian church is like our counterpart denomination in Northern Ireland. It was my first time going to an actual service in a non-prescribing Presbyterian church. I found the service (which was led by Chris Hudson) familiar, in a weirdly uncanny way. There was some synchronicity at play. The service, the structure, the sermon were so very familiar to me; his theme was the scapegoat mechanism, something I’ve spoken about here before. Honestly it felt like I’d fallen through time and walked in on one of my own services. There were only two things which stood out to me as different: the prayers were directed to God our Father the Lord Almighty, traditional language I rarely, if ever use; and, of course, there was no chalice. But the same character of Spirit was present there that I discern here, the same ‘speciality of presence’, which again Fairfax describes as a communion between me and thee. An uninterrupted communion is the happiness of Heaven, a degree whereof is to be enjoyed on earth, in as far as we enact here a communion of love, the Kingdom of God between us. Here where we pray, worship, sing, listen, share a meal or break bread, we practice enacting this Kingdom in our midst. This communion with God. Despite our efforts though to grow God’s domain of love, our efforts seem to be often thwarted, misunderstood or twisted, or knock up against ills we can do little to address. Fairfax puts this in a way that I wouldn’t. He says that blessings and curses belong to God; life and death, good and evil, are in his hands. There is a certain sense in which I would agree with this, but I think it has its problems. Whereas I would affirm most of Fairfax’s language, I do so taking it as a symbolic representation, pointing us towards an unconscious domain which we lack the language to speak of adequately. Hence the necessity of invoking the language of the divine. I suspect though, or I more than suspect, Fairfax is using a lot of this language in very real, concrete terms. That when he speaks of Evil by the hands of God, I would think he means that quite literally.

If we, for a moment, think of God in these realist terms, in the terms Fairfax suggests, I cannot believe that in ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven’ that ‘Thy will’ could ever be to cause or do evil. I see such ‘evil’ (if it is even appropriate to call it that) as an outworking of humanity’s lack, or a random consequence of our naturalistic world. There is a more mystical sense that all the world, its good and troubles alike, are a united whole. But to the subjective self (and most of time we can only experience the world as the subject self), there is no cosmic unity of this kind, there is only the dualistic nature of reality. And as that is the way we experience the world, its seems wrong to speak of the ills of this world in such grandiose cosmic terms, as they’re not very cosmic when they befall us. Indeed, if you fall down that particular Heffalump trap, you can get into the domain of one’s suffering being part of God’s plan. A dangerous idea to invoke. It’s far truer to state that God works for the good in all, as God is made incarnate in our efforts to invoke the domain of love. That this place of meeting might be the very gate of heaven.

In the second half of Fairfax’s sermon, which, incidentally, would take over an hour if you were to preach it in its entirety, he moves into the application portion of his address, where he talks about the simplicity of this space and how that simplicity should help us keep our focus upon what really matters. There’s a line I like in which he talks about the stately Temples, which are the Anglican churches, and the “meaner” places of meeting. This is “meaner” in the old English sense, meaning common or humble. And then he says, “Whether the Altar be of Earth, as here, or of stone, or of Gold as in Solomon’s Days, all is one to God.” A very universalising sentiment; whether you’re worshiping as an Anglican, a Jew, or here in this place, we all look to God. This certainly points to the liberal tendency within the congregation from day one. And I like that naturalistic image, that here our alter is of the earth. He goes on: do not judge spiritual things by the carnal eye, it’s about working upon the hearts and spirits of humanity. And then comes his criticism. As Christianity became the adopted faith of the Roman Empire, he says, when the Emperor became Christian, they greatly encouraged Christian Religion, and built Temples and endowed them, so the Church grew rich in the world, leading to the corruption of man, leading the church to prejudice, pride, envy, and ambition. This is his justification for the ways in which the big church out there, whether Roman or Anglican, has lost its focus upon what truly matters, which necessitates this place of worship. But he tempers this sentiment by asserting that it is not our choice to cease worshipping in such places, but rather because we find the doors of such places shut against us. Then, he praises the construction of this place of worship, ‘I must commend this congregation that they have at so great charge erected this large, spacious Meeting-Place, and adorned it both without and within’, before finally turning to his final sentiment, which I begun this morning with: yes, we have this building, buts it’s not about this building. Yes, we have our rituals, but it’s not about our rituals. As I conclude this anniversary address, I join with Fairfax in reminding us to keep the main thing, the main thing. “Seeing that this House is built for God, for his solemn worship, and dedicated to religious use, it is surely a question worthy of serious consideration whether for any reason which may hereafter fall out, you may alienate it and convert it to common use… We have a solemn charge here, do not turn your attention to mundane considerations, or matters of worldly interest. For, we are now in the Tabernacle of Meeting, where we meet not only one with another, but all with God.”

Amen.