Monday, 10 December 2012

The Worshippers Part 8: Visit to Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church

The Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church held its harvest celebration service the Sunday I attended on October 14th.  This is a lovely small church located in the historic area of Richmond in the road behind the Odeon Cinema.

Though I hadn’t been to a Unitarian service since we attended Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in Hampstead eighteen years ago, the readings and hymns of the service were all very familiar to me.  I also recognised the flame and chalice displayed on a banner hanging on the raised platform at the stained-glass end of the church.

There was a choir composed of around 10 men and women who elegantly and sonorously led the 25 congregants and guests through the hymns.  There was also a child's naming ceremony during the service.

The minister, Linda hart, told a story to illustrate some of the principles of the Unitarian faith.  It was the story of some crows who stole the entire harvest away from some animals who had painstakingly sewn, grown and planted it.  When the crows had come back to do some more scavenging, the animals didn't scold or reject them, but rather welcomed the crows and allowed them to share in the next harvest, for which the crows were surprised, but grateful.  I think the point of the story was to illustrate the aims and purposes of the Unitarian church which are these:

We are a congregation with open hearts and open minds.  We gather to celebrate the blessings of life, to support each other and to join with others who follow a spiritual path.  Our purposes are to promote spiritual enquiry in a welcoming, fellowship based on non-discrimination and care for others and to help people of all religious traditions and none find their own spiritual path based on exploration, questioning, insight, intuition and reason.[1]

The key themes of the sermon were to do with inclusion, tolerance and a non-judgmental attitude.  Which seems very mature and reasonable.  But I think there's something vital that's missing.  What about wrong-doing and justice?  The crows seriously ripped off the animals.  And though it's a beautiful thing to welcome them back to the table, to just forget the misdead isn't the same thing as to forgive.  It's forgiveness which wipes the slate clean.  I got the impression that, as in the Christian Science faith and some sects of the New Age, the concept of evil is sidestepped; it's presented as an illusion, therefore no foregiveness is necessary.  Can life work like that?  Certainly not in the secular world, which is why we have courts and prisons.  In the  Christian Kingdom, a price must be paid for sin and this was accomplished through the atonement at the crucifixion.  This is how some people are able to forgive seemingly heinous crimes, because they know that they've been forgiven.  Sotierology is totally absent from many faiths that claim Christian heritage.  The gospel isn't the focus of that heritage for them; I think they look to Jesus as a good teacher.  But as Tim Keller has said many times, the gospel isn't good advice, it's good news.  That's the meaning of sotierology.  In the reverend’s story the theft isn’t acknowledged at all; instead we skip straight to a fairy tale conclusion that all will be well. 

After the service, I was able to talk to some members of the church who were genuinely warm, helpful and candid.  I told them about my project to which they expressed support and interest.  They said that their service often included guests from other faiths such as Buddhism, as the notions of loving kindness and compassion were tenets that the two faiths shared in common.  I was also told that some members are interested in Buddist practices such as bhavana meditation.

Places such as the Unitarian church and the Quaker meeting house I visited earlier in the month are the churches in which I really sense that anyone would be welcomed and – crucially – would not feel intimidated or judged.  People should feel that way about Christian churches but, sadly, many probably don’t.

[1] The Flame, Richmond & Putney Unitarian Church Newsletter, October 2012.

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