The Purpose of Community
We gather in a place of worship to remember. Religion is really made up of rituals and practices to help us remember; help us to remember our identity, our true identity, as children of light, as conscientious individuals, as seekers of love and justice. As we come to remember, we make a choice, not once, but every time we are drawn into this building. We may trick ourselves into thinking that our being here is just the way things are, but really, we choose, and choose again. We commit ourselves, weekly, daily, to the ideals which make us who we are. Given this regular choice to gather in an old Meeting House, we affirm over and over again essential components of ourselves. Why do we do this? Why have conscientious individuals been drawn to this place of worship for over 300 years?
This week I have been reading about the Rev. Joseph Ketley, who was the minister here for three years, from 1834 to 1836. He made the choice to turn his back on our Unitarian community, and resigned his post. He did so not in a compassionate and gentle way, but in such a way that highlighted his new found abhorrence for our Unitarian ideals, very much to the embarrassment of this community. Soon after he took up this post, he became friends with the Rev. Piers Butler, who was at the time the curate up at St. Margaret’s Church. Over the course of many conversations, Butler was able to convince Joseph Ketley that his Unitarianism did not hold up under scrutiny. It’s difficult to assess the debate they had in our present day, as they were both operating under a priori assumptions which I would not accept – most notably the inerrancy of the Bible, which both men took as a given. Nevertheless, Joseph Ketley having been thoroughly convinced resigned his post, but not before entering this pulpit to give a final sermon. The sermon followed the standard Calvinistic formula, that we are blind, perverse, and our hearts are depraved. That we stand on the brink of hell, and that as such we require the blood of Jesus to wash away transgressions. We require the atoning sacrifice of Christ to pay the debt of Adam’s sin. He declared his prior views to be heretical, and by extension he declared all those sitting before him to be heretics. It is difficult to imagine this space filled with as much anger as must have been then. I can’t imagine Ketley standing at the back, shaking people’s hands as they left. As soon as he resigned the trustees issued a report in which they slandered Joseph Ketley and declared him quite deranged.
As I said, it is impossible today to defend either credulous position. Though Unitarianism of the early 1800s was of course of a more progressive ilk when compared to other Christians of their period, when compared to the Unitarian spirit of today their positions show up as naively literalistic. I think today, as a Unitarian, it matters far less what one believes, and far more the sense in which one believes it. Even Trinitarian theology, or the Atonement, or the divinity of Christ, show up as incredulous only in as far as it is believed that such doctrines elucidate an historical reality, and not a mythological reality. As myths, it seems me, such doctrines can still elucidate “truth”. My trouble then with Joseph Ketley is not in what he came to believe, but in the way he felt it necessary to insult and embarrass his congregation before his departure. I think he did this ostensibly to protect his own ego. Upon leaving this post in 1836, he worked as a Christian missionary in the Caribbean, and South America, for the rest of his life.
In community then, we gather because this place, these people, confirm within us an essential aspect of our reality. When here, we know who we are, for the stories we tell each other, and this physical space, confirm our place in this world, and confirms to us our truth. This community being not just those gathered here today, but those who have gathered here for 300 years, people we agree with and disagree with, we are joined with them all in the peace and gentleness of this space. A web of community stretching back through time, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in freedom. Unitarianism drew me in because it was a faith in which people were asking and talking about the things that no one else in my world was asking and talking about, in ways that no one else was. It was a place, and still is, to sing aloud words of hope, in a world which takes a pretty cynical view of hope. It was a place in which walls could come down, in which one could say what they really meant, without fear of reprisal. “I disagree, I don’t understand, I think on that point I would differ”, never put me outside the bounds of the community. A place where we can ask what we should do with, as Mary Oliver put it, ‘this one wild and precious life’. A place where we might be pressed into answering foundational questions of our life for ourselves. It’s a place that asks us to live into our truth. If we compartmentalize this world from the other worlds we inhabit, we are failing ourselves. This place asks us to look at our selves seriously, and strive to live up to the best version of our self all the time. Fundamentally, Church, or religious community, is about gathering together, and practicing doing/enacting the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is a speculative reality in which lions lie down with lambs, and swords are beaten into plowshares, and love and justice reign, where milk and honey flows, and none go hungry, or unloved, or forgotten. The picture you have on your order of service is of a man beating a sword into a plowshare. The blade of a plough, that we might make food and not war.
Our talk is important. Our words are important. Our ideals are important. But it’s really the living of it that matters most. Theoretical enquiry, reading about historical figures, historical controversies - you all know I like that stuff. I’m willing to have an argument any time you want. But without love, and kindness, and justice, and living into those Kingdom ethics, it is all worthless. To practice this is our most essential purpose as church, as gathered community. It’s like our training ground; it’s easier to practice living these values alongside others trying to live these values. We tell stories of our saints, our martyrs, and even perhaps our villains, that we might learn from them, grow by their example. Our faith is the commitment to risk in the goodness of humanity, which cannot always be seen, whispered in the stories we tell. A people who promises to be together in good times, and bad, who learn together through trial and error. And of course, what we learn here, we carry out with us. We carry our lit chalice into the world, to bless the world. For we have gathered to remember what we are, to be reminded our purpose, the purpose of community.