What are ten things that all Unitarian Universalists need to know about their faith community? Ten things that are distinctive and unique? Each month we’re counting down, from Number 10 all the way down to Number 1, as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in May 2011.
This month, we’re looking at two items, numbers 8 and 7, both of which are responsible for how ministers and congregants relate to each other in Unitarian Univeralist congregations today. Number 8 is “the priesthood of all believers” and number 7 is “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew.”
Both of these ideas are gifts from our spiritual parent, Christianity (or, to be more specific, from the 16th century Radical Reformation wing of Protestant Christianity, led by people like Michael Servetus in Switzerland, Francis David in Transylvania, and Faustus Socinus in Poland).
The essential and revolutionary idea of the Radical Reformation (besides “separation of church and state” and others) was that people are always already connected with God and don’t require church or priest to create the connection for them. Church and priest can help people’s sense of connection grow stronger and clearer, yes; but they don’t create it. It’s there already.
The message here, which continues to guide us roughly 400 years later, is that, in religious community, everyone’s gifts matter. Everyone has a contribution to make, professional minister and congregant alike. It’s not just ordained clergy who can do important things, and serve. If everyone has a connection with the Holy, then everyone has a gift to give. Everyone has a role to play (1) in bringing comfort to the suffering, (2) in making the key decisions of the community, (3) in helping create love and justice in the world; and (4) in teaching the key ideas and beliefs of our faith. Even as ministers are “ordained” or “set apart” so as to contribute to the work of religious community in unique and special ways, they fulfill their special calling in partnership with congregants. Ministers work side-by-side with their people, to the good of the whole. It’s just as a Hopi wisdom saying puts it: “one finger alone cannot lift a pebble.” Everyone is needed, because everyone is a channel for love and wisdom.
The next item, number 7, is “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew,” and it’s also been critical in forming the relationship between pastor and congregation in contemporary Unitarian Universalist congregations. Consider this quote that comes from a remarkable man known as King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the first and only Unitarian king in history.
In 1568 he said, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.” That’s what King John Sigismund said, a radical statement in a time when preachers were supposed to preach only the company line, and congregants were supposed to take it in, without question. But King John disagreed. King John said that ministers must be free to communicate their Gospel, whatever the particular topic: religion, politics, where the congregation is going, where it needs to go. As for “freedom of the pew”: that’s every congregant’s assurance that they belong even if they disagree with what the minister says. It’s their reminder that though what’s communicated in the pulpit always comes with force, and can feel like a summary of what every good Unitarian Universalist is supposed to believe, it’s just not so. Congregants are ultimately accountable only to the dictates of personal reason and intuition and conscience; they are free to believe as the Spirit leads them. With “freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew,” both minister and congregant alike are able to do the work that is their to do. The minister can preach out of his or her integrity, and the congregant can receive (or not) out of theirs.
“The priesthood of all believers”; “Freedom of the pulpit/freedom of the pew.” Both ideas came out of the Radical Reformation in Protestant Christianity 400+ years ago, and they continue to shape and form who we are today. These are the gifts of our Christian past, and knowing about them helps us understand ourselves in our post-Christian, more-than-Christian present.
Numbers 8 and 7 in our UU Top Ten!
Rev. Anthony David