An address given at Frenchay Chapel on 7th March.
What exactly is a spiritual community? People have defined it differently in different circumstances and in different religious traditions. To me the word community suggests communing and commonality: sharing at a deep level and having or holding something in common.
The word congregation means a flock, implying that the members are sheep and the vicar, representing Christ, is the shepherd. I don’t think Unitarians make very good sheep, and rightly so. We are proud to be individuals. But we do have something in common: our values of freedom, reason and tolerance – or perhaps to couch these in slightly more modern parlance: individuality, thinking and inclusivity. We also have a shared passion for social justice (one of the many reasons that I was attracted to Unitarianism) and openness to new ideas. Many Unitarians are worried by the diversity among Unitarians, and wonder how the denomination can possibly hold together; but I see (from the perspective of a newish Unitarian) remarkable similarity in the views of most Unitarians. Because we value reasonable religion but do not shun mystery; because we enjoy listening to the ideas and stories of others and don’t feel threatened by them – the most Pagan Unitarian and the most Christian Unitarian still have a lot in common, even though the mythology that inspires them is different.
So we are not a congregation; what about a network? Well, networks tend to be small clusters of like-minded people of similar age, social class, and level of education; they form and dissolve; and they do not tend to gather in larger groups on a regular basis.
For me, the most appropriate word for what we are is a community. We share our spiritual journeys; we gather in the chapel and for social events, and gradually get to know each other; and everyone offers their unique gifts to the community in a spirit of loving service. Sometimes we don’t get to know each other, and that’s OK too; we are still aware of the other person, and would be there for them if they needed us. Sometimes we annoy each other, and this is the real test of the sense of community. I’ll never forget the first time I saw two Unitarians having an argument. I was so impressed at the way they didn’t shout at each other, or even raise their voices. They just both stated clearly what was getting on their nerves, and left it at that. And when I have rubbed people up the wrong way, which has happened occasionally, I appreciated the calmness and humour with which they let me know about it, and even if I disagreed with them, I hope I responded in kind. And it is the process of rubbing up against each other, like pebbles on the sea-shore, that rounds us and shapes us as human beings.
Traditionally, Protestant Christianity has promoted the idea of the ministry of all believers (which is also a key concept in Eastern Orthodoxy). The Quakers call it giving ministry when anyone gets up to speak in a meeting. But ministry can be something really simple like smiling at someone, or hugging them, or listening to their problem, or making them a cup of tea: all things that let the other person know that they are cared for and held in beloved community. Each of us is unique and special and has their own gifts and talents to bring to the table. You never know when something you say or do will change someone’s life for the better.
In Buddhism, the community is called the sangha, which means ‘refuge’. When a Buddhist takes their vows, it is known as ‘taking refuge in the Buddha’. This does not necessarily mean that they become disengaged from the world, because they still practice mindfulness and compassion; but they have a safe place to stand from which to practice these virtues.
I certainly do experience Unitarian life as a safe space: a place where, for the most part, you can say what you really think; where all of life is celebrated; and where there are people who hunger and thirst after righteousness – real righteousness, not the po-faced sex-starved nonsense that passes for it in mainstream Christianity. No, the righteousness that Unitarians hunger and thirst after is a world where everyone has enough to eat and the Earth is not ravaged by industrial pollution, and where the body is celebrated instead of being denied.
So we are a people with a shared vision, shared values, and a shared history, and for the most part, agreement that we should treat mythology as a life-giving metaphor, even if some of us prefer different mythologies. It is our shared values that unite us, as many Unitarian authors agree. But is this enough to create community, or do we need to work at it?
What is it that makes a beloved community? Surely it is learning more about each other, sharing our life stories and our insights, caring about each other. If the same bunch of people stands at the front each week, we are not doing that. Of course some people find it uncomfortable speaking in public, but that is why having a circular space can sometimes makes it easier – there isn’t the fear of standing up at the front to speak. As you will doubtless be aware, I am not backward in coming forward. I used to be a teacher, and I have been leading covens and spirituality groups for about a decade – but I still felt nervous doing services to start with – partly because there was such a high standard to live up to, and partly because it involved standing at the front facing everyone.
The small engagement groups that we have on weekday evenings are an excellent way of getting to know people and discussing some of the issues that arise from the spiritual journey, and certainly contribute to the sense of community. Safe space is created in them by starting off by agreeing a set of ground-rules, formulated by the group.
The pub group has been good for giving an opportunity to chat for a longer period of time. Of course we must also be careful not to create cliques of those who take part in activities like this and those who don’t. That’s why Bright Lights is such a great idea, because it’s inter-generational, and has included people who wouldn’t normally “do church”.
The thing that creates community is doing things together. One of the quickest ways of getting to know people at Pagan camps is to take part in digging the fire-pit: there’s something about shared physical work that really creates community. And of course doing ritual together creates community too. When I say ritual I mean any intentional gathering in a sacred place – when Unitarians say ritual they tend to mean doing something other than the hymn sandwich format – but the usual church service is a ritual too, just one of a different kind. Going to the pub together, washing the dishes together, being on committees, doing the garden, fixing the chapel door, the Women’s League, Bright Lights, chatting over coffee after the service – all of this creates community. There’s always more that we can do, but we’re doing pretty well – let’s not forget that.
One of the most moving expressions of Unitarian community is the flower communion, first devised by Norbert Capek in 1920s Czechoslovakia. At this point in time it was dangerous and radical to be a Unitarian, and by actually saying that you were one, you risked persecution. So taking part in the flower communion at that time meant that you were willing to risk persecution for the sake of the beloved community. (I would like to thank Andrew Brown for this insight, as I got the story of the origins of the flower communion from his blog.) The other significant and moving thing about the flower communion is that each person brings a different flower, and someone else takes that flower home with them. This symbolises celebrating diversity and learning to live with other people who are different from us – in other words, true community.