Sermon #29 (1st July 2018 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
Anyone who, like me, spends a fair proportion of their free time hanging out on the internet, particularly anyone who engages much with social media in its various forms, will know that it can be a pretty harsh and spiky environment online these days. And not so long ago, on Facebook, I witnessed what you might call a Social Media Kerfuffle.
This particular kerfuffle blew up in response to a news story about a special service held at the Unitarian Church in Chorlton (a suburb of Greater Manchester). This special service, which they called a “commitment ceremony”, was held to celebrate and affirm the relationship between a long-standing Unitarian, Mary Crumpton, and her partner John Hulls. Mary is polyamorous. This means that she is open to having more than one loving relationship on the go simultaneously, and (crucially!) it also means that everybody involved in these relationships knows the score and freely consents to the arrangement.
In Mary’s case, she already has a husband, Tim. Indeed Tim walked Mary down the aisle in her commitment ceremony to John (and John already lives with the pair of them anyway). Just for clarification, you can only be legally married or civilly partnered to one person at a time, which is why they needed to come up with an alternative “commitment ceremony” to honour this second committed relationship in a significant but different way. The person who led the service, Laura Dobson, said: “It was an honour to conduct the ceremony and a joy to see our church full of people celebrating love”. I’ve seen some photos from the reception afterwards and – to my eye – it looked like a very jolly occasion all round.
Now, the congregation weren’t naïve about it. Not at all. They knew from the off that there might well be a range of views about such an unusual event. They knew it might attract media attention, and not necessarily positive attention. So, when the request came in from Mary and John to hold the ceremony, they held a congregational meeting beforehand to talk it all through beforehand… (every Unitarian church, I should say, is autonomous and makes its own decisions about such things) At the end of the meeting, the church members voted unanimously in favour of holding the ceremony. So they did.
And then the papers got hold of it. First the Manchester Evening News, then the Sun, and Daily Mail. Oh dear. It seems that – despite being given the unflattering nickname ‘Mrs Crumpet’ in the resulting press coverage – Mary has tried to make the best of the situation, by speaking freely and generously to the papers about her relationships, taking the opportunity to try and to educate the public about polyamory. But – as you might imagine – not everybody is happy about this. Back to the Social Media Kerfuffle I mentioned to at the beginning. When the Manchester Evening News article about the ceremony first appeared online, someone shared the link with the Facebook Group for UK Unitarians, wishing Mary and John well. Most people, I would say, responded very positively and congratulated Chorlton Unitarians. I have to acknowledge that it’s quite possible there were others, looking on uncertainly from the sidelines, and choosing to stay diplomatically silent. And there was at least one other, disapproving, point of view, that got aired. It was strongly held and strongly expressed. This one person’s critical comments on Facebook inspired the title of today’s service: ‘Anything Goes?’
Just by way of background: the person in question makes reference to the slogan ‘Freedom, Reason, Tolerance’ – which you heard in our opening words today – a phrase which is well-known amongst Unitarians and has long been associated with our denomination. Many people still feel that this phrase encapsulates some of our key guiding principles… indeed we even have it printed on our mugs (raises mug)… at least some of them.
The critical commenter in the Facebook discussion said this:
‘I don’t think the “Freedom, Reason, Tolerance” strapline was ever intended to mean “anything goes”… Are you saying that we will agree with, condone… [or] support absolutely anything and everything?… Will we as a denomination never draw a line anywhere again as to what is right and what is wrong?’
That’s just a brief excerpt from the social media argy-bargy that went on over several days.
The thrust of this commenter’s complaint, of this line of thinking, seems to be that we Unitarians take our commitment to freedom (and reason, and tolerance) to mean that we must be totally open and accepting to absolutely everything. Maximally liberal – ‘anything goes’ – on principle. Is that really true? – both in the sense of ‘is that how we generally are?’ – and ‘is that how we should be?’ Do we perhaps over-emphasise freedom and, in so doing, neglect to think hard enough about responsibility?
This question of how to weigh up the demands of freedom and responsibility when striving to do right in life is, of course, the overall subject of our service this morning (and although I’m mainly focusing on one particular context – how this question plays out in liberal religion – for people belonging to communities like this one – it’s not just a question for Unitarians; balancing the calls of freedom and responsibility is surely part of the ethical tightrope-walking that goes on in any reflective person’s daily life). I wonder how the tension between these two directions shows up in your own life? Sometimes we’ll feel moved to assert our individualistic freedom, to live our own lives just as we wish; sometimes we’ll be more conscious of our responsibilities within the wider society, and our interdependence; more careful about weighing up the ethical rights and wrongs, and considering the impact of our conduct on other people, and creatures, and the planet.
In our first reading, by Scott Alexander, we heard a little about the particular tensions that Unitarians sometimes experience between freedom and responsibility in liberal religion. Everyone who comes to Unitarianism does so for their own personal reasons, of course, but it seems to me that many of us in-comers (by which I mean those of us who made an active decision to come to a Unitarian church, as opposed to the few people who were born into Unitarianism, or those who just happen to live somewhere that the Unitarian church is the only show in town, and acts as the ‘parish church’ where local people go by default)… but, as I was saying: us Unitarians-by-choice are often drawn, at first, to this church’s clear, central, and frequently-stated commitment to freedom (you know, it’s even printed on the mugs). Many of us who choose to come here have struggled with religion in the past, felt constrained by church, or conflicted about it, for any number of reasons… and we might well breathe a great sigh of relief when we find ourselves in a place where there’s no theological dogma imposed from above, no creeds we are required to join in with, and there’s – generally speaking – a socially liberal climate: ‘each to their own’, we might say here. Just like the man in Scott Alexander’s story, when we first arrive, we might find ourselves thinking: “at last! – a church where I don’t have to pretend to believe all that stuff I don’t believe in…” or “at last! – a church where I can do whatever I like and nobody will stop me…”
However, as the reading went on to say, this discovery of our new-found religious freedom is just a starting point, and we must take care not to get permanently stuck there: “freedom, like the air we breathe, is necessary for existence, but insufficient for nourishment.”
Now that we’ve found (religious) freedom, what are we going to do with it?
The pair of readings by Elwyn Davies that Jeannene and Sarah read for us earlier – these readings encourage us to fully claim our freedom, particularly our freedom of thought, and then be sure to use it well – responsibly – and in service of the common good: Davies counsels us to listen and learn from others… but ultimately to think for ourselves; he challenges us to stand up for what is true, right, and just – as far as we can tell – even when it means facing social and political pressure, perhaps even when it means standing alone; and he encourages us to truly recognise that each one of us has a unique – and all-too-brief – opportunity in this life to help create a better world for all.
Anything Goes? Not really. We religious liberals are called to use our freedom for a higher purpose. We must get used to exercising our conscience, individually and collectively, to discern our path, making the everyday moral decisions that cumulatively shape our life, and the life of our community, in accordance with our highest values… Just like Chorlton Unitarians did, I’d say, when they had their special congregational meeting, and carefully discerned that hosting Mary and John’s “commitment ceremony” was the right thing for them to do, regardless of the likely controversy and comeback. To quote another well-worn Unitarian slogan, I’d say, perhaps they are ‘Standing on the Side of Love’.
To close I’d like you to take a look at the words of the UU minister Jim Brewer which are printed on the front of your order of service. They’re a distillation, and a reminder, of the need to use our precious freedom for the greater good. And I invite you, if you wish, to join in speaking those words together now:
“Freedom demands responsibility to others and to life. It is not enough to be merely disciples of freedom, [we must also be] disciples of intelligence, sensitivity, understanding and love. It is not enough to be free from intolerable constraints, but to be free for what is good and true and beautiful. May we realize that freedom is not an end of our religion, but in reality only its beginning.”
Sermon by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: