As we start a new year here at Westgate this Sunday I hope that the year ahead will see us grow and flourish as a congregation. The very reason for our existence as a congregation is that we continue something given many years ago and entrusted to those who follow on to continue: While year succeeds to year and our understanding evolves as we as humans also evolve we do not change into buffalo or into goats. Greater understanding and evolution does not lead to a change of species. We are still a congregation of those who are followers of a way of doing religion. That way has evolved into being a Unitarian and Free Christian Church here at Westgate Chapel, although historically we have evolved from free Christian Independent, English Presbyterians, Baptist and so on or indeed we may claim as once members of the Church of England and further back Old English Catholic.
A congregation has been meeting here for many, many generations and all of those generations have evolved to different theologies and teachings as the years progressed. The theme of all the former congregation members has been one of worship of that which is beyond humanity, a higher state of consciousness or a power that may or may not be called God. In our evolved Unitarian thinking we no longer have a singular interpretation of what the word God means. As the Minister of Seven Oaks Dan Costly puts this..
Now, for Unitarians, that G word can be tricky. For some it might be personal, for others the interconnectedness of all people. Or it may be a notion that really doesn’t work for you. But however it gets you, this notion of living for others, of living for the sake of compassionate acceptance of all, of living your life for the sake of others. That, I believe, is what Jesus meant by living every day with God.
Equally we no longer hold a singular interpretation of what it means to be a Unitarian for what was once a gathering of those who only saw one God rather than a Trinitarian God we now days are quite happy for a Unitarian to be a Trinitarian. Alongside of this we no longer expect people to be Christians in order to be members of what was once a radical way of doing Christianity following primarily the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth as opposed to the divinity attributed by those other Christians they stood out from.
As we start another year here at Westgate we are a congregation made up of those who identify as not Christian and those who identify as Christian. In a post enlightenment world we have opened the door here to all who seek a spiritual home and find more important perhaps statements such as this one by Sue Wooley a Unitarian Minister friend of mine on Facebook. She states..
I guess the ultimate question is – what do we care most about? Rejecting Trinitarian Christianity, or being open and inclusive and tolerant and loving? Surely there is room for all of us in our wonderful, uncommon denomination, our faith without a creed. Surely we can agree to differ on our theology, and get on with the important stuff, which is making ourselves “welcoming, inclusive and a blessing to the wider world.” A lot of instinctive gut reactions will have to be consciously overcome, but if Unitarianism comes to be seen as a haven not only for free thinkers and spiritual seekers, but also for disillusioned liberal Christians, and we can spread the word about it, this might even help to reverse the decline in our numbers that is so worrying everybody at the moment.
Each of us have our own personal interpretation of what we identify as, for myself I am at heart a radical follower of the Judaic Christian traditions. I find it hard to identify with a lot of things perhaps commonly attributed to Jesus for I see him as a unique leader of reform of understanding in his time. I want to quote a summing up about what we actually know as fact about Jesus from Dan Costly’s sermon..
The real Jesus, or as real as we can deduce, was not meek and mild. He could be impatient and angry. He displayed strength, iron character and determination. He loved children, welcomed women, felt pity for the sick and miserable. He looked out for the pariahs of Jewish society.
Personally I find in this quote the sort of Jesus I can relate to rather than the meek and mild suffering servant model so popular with more mainline churches. I also find myself relating to one or two other biblical characters. I see no exclusivity needed about following one or another particular avatar represented in one religion or another. I am happy to reflect the teachings passed down by Hindu, Muslim, Toaists or any way of reflecting on matters spiritual, but I do perhaps understand more about reforming Judaic and Christian thoughts and teachings. These are our roots historically and culturally.
Where we go as a congregation I believe has to be in line with our roots so you will not find me advocating we change into buffalos or goats, stop having worship as our priority and become a secular debating society. Equally we shall not become a Mosque or a Buddhist Temple, or just a humanist association. We are a Unitarian church lets not try and be something else. If we are not a Church then we are not inline with our roots.
I believe we are here to reflect what has gone before and continue to meet for worship. How we worship can be in a variety of ways such as meditation, sharing about our spirituality, readings from things that reflect spirituality, telling the stories of faith and Singing hymns and songs of faith. Dancing in the aisles even. All these things are constituent parts of being a congregation who continue the tradition of worship.
What we call ourselves after identifying as a Unitarian Church can be Christian or Progressive Christian, equally we could call ourselves Unitarian humanists or Unitarian Pagans, but our roots here are more Christian and our governance is probably best served by continuing a non conformist understanding of the Bible; because that is where this congregation started from. The culture of which we are all a part is mainly shaped from the biblical exegesis of times past.
More important than joining this or that association is that we work together, that we support the initiatives of one another and we meet together for worship and be a community. We have faith hope and ideas, but we need to concentrate on coming together for more than just our worship service. No matter what we call ourselves Christian or otherwise if we do not have commitment to being a Unitarian community here at Westgate we will not grow. We are at the start of a new year, traditionally a time when we make resolutions for the year ahead. Reflecting on the year past we did well with events like the late night shop here at Westgate. We have forged links with another Unitarian Church in Manila, we have raised money for two children’s charitable needs.
We have said we will do special events in 2012 and meet once a month for worship. I have invited you all to come and have lunch together and to meet with people from other Unitarian churches, having a bit of fun learning some new hymns. These events help build that community, without a community we shall not grow. Joining associations will not build a community of those who worship and are a blessing to the world.
Danny Crosby another Unitarian Minister likes to use the model of a flock of geese. He points out that a flock of geese fly in a V formation following a given leader. But as the flock continue on their long journey the leader changes, the leader moves down the formation and another goose takes on the lead. They do not change direction but follow ancient paths of flocks of geese over generations. Congregations are like flocks of geese to Danny.
I am not sure we as a congregation are reflecting his analogy, although I wish we did in many ways, instead we have not flocked together. We have tended to let one goose fly off on its own to get shot down and wounded. We need to rediscover the art of flying in formation again, following sometimes rather than going off at a tangent. If we cannot do that then the chance of a flock carrying on its journey from generation to generation will end. Will you make a resolution to be a part of the flock of Unitarians at Westgate Chapel who continue to journey, so others can see us and join our flock?
To me a Unitarian is a way of making a journey together some are Christian some are not some may find us from other more regulated flocks, the question is not where we started our journey, but when we will journey together. If we can do that then we have a chance of growing. I hope and pray 2012 sees us journeying together, not going off alone to find a different flock to join or living in isolation. Westgate Unitarian Chapel is for those who for a variety of reasons find worshiping here and being a part of it is where they are called to be. That is what is most important to me and I continue to work towards that objective. I hope that is also your objective for 2012, that together we make a resolution to be more like a flock of geese perhaps?
Let it be so..