Easter sermon with the UCA

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the online Easter service for the Unitarian Christian Association on March 31, 2024 using a lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 16:-8) and a meditation from the works of George Lander Perrin.

I would like to thank the Rev. Sheena Gabriel and the Unitarian Christian Association for having me speak today, and as a board member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, I hope the UCA and UUCF can continue to build trans-Atlantic ties of faith, fellowship and cooperation.

It is a particular honor to speak on Easter Sunday, the high point each year for Christians, when we celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over evil, death and the grave.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom preached his famous Paschal Sermon, which will be heard in Orthodox churches when they celebrate Easter in May, and which included:

If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!

If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.

Yes, Easter is the great festival, the high point — theoretically and theologically at least. But for generations — more than living memory, at least in the English-speaking world — Christmas has taken the first spot. Christmas has the warm family feelings, the feasting, the stimulating consumerism, and promises of peace and joy that overflows a particular religious interest. In fact, I’ve known several Jews over the years who absolutely love Christmas as a warm, generous and family-centered celebration without conflict over Christmas as a religious celebration. That’s perfectly reasonable, and perhaps the majority position. However, you can’t do that with Easter, the chocolate eggs notwithstanding. Easter comes with theological demands that can be addressed, modified or dismissed, but will surely come back each and every year.

For religious liberals and Unitarians in particular, Easter comes (let’s say) with concerns with those familiar theological maxims: Christ died for you; Christ died and rose again on the third day; Christ rose from the dead, and has gone before us to make a place for us; Christ will come again, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. Christ’s kingdom will never end.

Honestly, how many of us think too hard about these acclamations? Perhaps spending a moment to translate the thought into something more approachable, mentally editing them or even flinching when hearing them. And if you have negative former religious associations, these acclamations can take on a disturbing note.

Never mind that these rather conventional statements of Christian faith are now counter-cultural, and we liberals stand in a middle ground of discussing and appreciating the Easter mysteries, without conceding much, and without mental reservations or the caveats that Unitarians past once made. Or perhaps I was wrong before: Easter might drift away into chocolates and bunnies and a ham dinner. But as long as we’re Christians, we will always have to think of it in theological terms.

Now, I’m a bit out of my element. Unitarianism in Great Britain and North America have much in common, including some shared points of history and certain figures like Joseph Priestley. But our cultural, religious and legal histories are distinct. We had another liberal movement, Universalism, my primary tradition, which has been long extinct in Britain, and we never had something institutionalized like Martineau’s Free Christianity. I assume we have much in common, I don’t want to assume similarities that don’t exist.

My point is that I may say something that falls flat, and perhaps even causes offense and if that happens please accept my apology. But I have been in the Unitarian Universalist orbit for nearly forty years, and a minister for twenty-five, and like many of you have a lot of experience in the faith which both invigorates and infuriates me.

So let me dive in.

I think Unitarianism’s great strength is also its weakness. Its impulse is to be honest in matters of conscience, truthful in facts and clear in action. If something seems wrong, misguided or superstitious, it will be called out as such, with varying degrees of front parlor manners and tact. It is both proud of its intellectual honesty, but is sometimes undone by its application. Having put so much into being right, not far behind is a fear that we might be wrong. Wrong in ethics or abstract concepts or (God forbid) wrong in ordinary fact. And even more, not be seen as a fool.

That makes Easter a hazard. So much of it seems unbelievable or naive or mythical. Thus it has to be carefully managed, over-managed, I think. True: we understand so much that the ancients could not, but I also suspect they could appreciate wisdom we cannot. They seem very far removed. Little wonder it’s a short step from pushing back against outmoded theology to rejecting the essentials whole cloth. How many Unitarian and Universalist Christians have you known who either end up practicing no religion, or holding a naturalistic philosophy, or returning to a more orthodox church? It’s a difficult balancing act, but one worth maintaining. We are called back to this current yet ancient faith and texts because they have something to say to us. Let’s let it speak. Like scripture itself, a lot of thought about God, humanity, the created order in the relationship between these was a solution sought to better understand what exists. Theology, in this sense, functions as a theory and is subject to revision. When it gets hardened into dogma, we have a different problem but that’s outside the scope of the sermon.

So Easter has become a commemoration of the original event and centuries of interpretation of it. Some of that is understandable. Each generation builds on what came before. If we had to start from scratch in all of our human pursuits we would have nothing… except frustration. But if we go astray we have to correct our course.

Let’s look back at the text from Mark, surely the earliest of the hero-tales we call gospels. There’s no concern about atonement, vicarious or otherwise, Christ’s place in the economy of the godhead, the fate of particular individuals, or the end of creation. And to celebrate Easter today, we don’t need to introduce them. The women — at the cusp of becoming the first witnesses — asked “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

But the stone had already been moved. It was not a problem for them. Likewise, let’s not invite unnecessary problems. Easter is to be enjoyed, to be delighted in.

Easter celebrates life over death and the connection of heaven and earth without explanation. The answer was there all along. God sought us out before we were, or anything was. The bond between beings — human and divine — is to seek understanding, and (in the old Universalist profession of faith) is a result of God’s nature being love. To be the creator means to be the savior. It is not in God’s nature to abandon us, which we have seen unfolded through the prophets, through Christ and to the present day. But there I am building up theology again, and a particularly Universalist one. That’s not the only way.

Another approach, keeping with our tradition, is to stay optimistic, highlight the poetic and engage with our religion in a spirit of everyday practicality.

Take George Landor Perin (1854-1921), the Universalist minister who wrote today’s meditation. Shockingly little has been written about this nineteenth and twentieth century figure or his wife Florence. They were missionaries to Japan (a story for another time), and later he was a popular preacher in Boston, while she prepared anthologies and calendars of uplifting religious literature. Together, they can be seen as the forerunners of influencers and self-help gurus, while also having an active role in Boston’s relief work. What sets them apart — and this is conjecture — is that they spent little time rehashing the Universalist theological distinctives. Distinctives that made less and less sense, as the paralyzing fear of hell was losing its absolute grip. The Perrins’ work was unabashedly optimistic, both in practical and spiritual terms. Whom did he address? Those of a sensitive nature. How did he couch the “deeper meanings” of Easter. Not with straight-forward teaching, but ideas that point to what Easter evoked: “Victory from the ashes of defeat;” “Hope born from the soil of despair;” “Immortality crowning the grave.”

For us, this may mean we can worry less about Easter, and enjoy it more, for the rejoicing, opportunity and relief it brings. Easter is difficult if we wish to make it difficult.

And may I suggest one more thing? This attitude comes with a little dose of selfishness, but that’s not wrong. If Christianity, and Easter particularly, is not good for you, why should you care? A rich Christian faith should uncover the joy in life and lift you up in times of trouble. It should be better to have it than not have it, or at the very least give you the resources to survive and thrive in order to help others.

My point is that Easter is not something you have to be right about. It’s deep and glorious, reflecting the love from God and dignity to the whole human family. We can worry about the details later. On Easter Sunday, there is room enough for all. Like the father of the prodigal son telling his older brother: “we had to celebrate, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

Or as St. John Chrysostom preached: Christ is risen, and life reigns!

May God bless us this glorious Easter Day.

My first comment about the North American Unitarian Association

My first comment about NAUA — and possibly my last — is in response to a comment made on an old article about the Rev. Todd Eklof.

What is NAUA?

The North American Unitarian Association (NAUA) is a service organization for Unitarians, Universalists, and others.

  • We welcome individuals, churches, and other organizations throughout North America who are united by their belief in the value of liberal religion.
  • The NAUA requires no adherence to any theological creed as a basis for membership.
  • We are dedicated to courageously fostering and protecting the principles and practices of liberal religion: reason, tolerance, democratic process, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and expression, and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

Love Unrelenting: documentary and video channel

About a year ago, Steven HAuse interviewed me at Universalist National Memorial Church as part of his project to make a documentary — Love Unrelenting — about the theology and history of universal salvation. He gave me a head’s-up when he separately published the clips that didn’t fit into the documentary and then the film itself. But being sensitive about how I sound and look on video, and knowing that I would be sharing airtime with some of the leading figures of a revived universalist work, I just couldn’t watch it.

But I owed it to him to watch it, and used the cold weather to pull it up on YouTube; I’m glad I did. HAute set out the three usual Christian doctrines of human destiny: the “traditional option” eternal conscious torment, conditional immortality (also know as annihilationism) and universal reconciliation, and let proponents of each speak from their convictions. But the goal was to highlight universal reconciliation and so wrestled with the biblical, theological and ethical dimensions, introducing them in an approachable manner.

The audience is not Unitarian Universalists, or even our remaining Universalist Christians, but potential members of new generation of believers in universal reconciliation, many of whom come out of Evangelical backgrounds, and may or may not be interested in particular Universalist churches. (None I’ve seen express an interest in the UUA, and they often make the point to distinguish themselves from it.) The arguments and approaches are very familiar to any student of pre-1920s Universalism, which makes perfect sense as so many of those long-past Universalists would have walked the same path. Plus, it’s heartening to me to hear the same affirmations that God has both the desire and the power to save all; it can be lonely in this part of the vineyard. Like Simeon (today’s lectionary gospel), I know that this hope will never perish.

Also, I was cheered to see friends, colleagues, a seminary mate (not then universalist) and others I’ve corresponded with over the years. I saw for the first time footage and interviews from the Doujin (Dojin) Christian Church, Tokyo (Japanese language site): the last survivor of the Universalist Japan mission. In the extra clips, I saw for the first time video and interviews with Primitive Baptist Universalists. I am so happy and cheered. HAuse has made an incredible document; you should subscribe to his channel and watch these videos.

Reviewing Unitarian College

I’m trying to understand the new Unitarian College, formerly a residential ministerial training college in Manchester and now (2019) a non-residential and broader training college for the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain,  and perhaps others. My interest is in the ministerial training role, and in the institutional and economic sustainability of the venture.

This is not an analysis of it, but only my “open notebook” of details I’ve found: mainly their new website and notes taken from a video of an introductory lecture, given at the Unitarian and Free Christian annual meeting, back in April.

First, the website, but also the ministry training student handbook (PDF) and the list of thirty-two required competencies from the General Assembly website (PDF). Their application is also helpful (PDF).

I’m also referring to the video “Unitarian Ministry Training” presented by the National Unitarian Fellowship; I have not watched it in full; rather, I read the auto-generated transcript and made notes of what I think are the interesting parts.

  • 8:45. Is non-geographical
  • 9:09. There are residential lessons
  • 11:42. Program will take two years full-time or up to five years part-time
  • 11:55. There is a required academic theological qualification
  • 12:02. Two required placements in Unitarian congregations
  • 18:48. “Ministry Strategy Group” for the GA: how lay leaders are trained, which can build on the one before it
  • 26:26. Dr. Rob Whiteman is helping with two modules: Unitarian history, and the other legal and government
  • 28:15. “Placement assessor” to observe ministry students in their placements, perhaps a retired minister
  • 33:32. £150,000 a year to run the college; more if it grows
  • 33:54. Generous giving, “pump priming” from General Assembly; possible NSPCI students
  • 34:34. Online history module based on Len Smith’s book
  • 37:50. Training related to the National Youth Program
  • 41:22. One-third of the churches in the GAUFCC have fewer than ten members and two-thirds have fewer than twenty
  • 42:18. GA selects ministry trainees; growth is possible.

Universalist Christian site from the Ukraine

Saturday afternoon, I got a short email from the editor of a site called Тринитарный библейский универсализм (Trinitarian Biblical Universalism) at universalist.org.ua. It’s all in Ukrainian, of course.

It would be a lie to say I didn’t weep a little. It’s gratifying to know that time and time again, God speaks to the people and calls them to a complete Gospel. Note the reference to Paul Dean, one of the last of the leading squarely Trinitarian Universalists (though they never completely disappeared, or should I say we?) and Edward Mitchell, who led an independent stream of New York-based Universalists early in the nineteenth century. Google Translate got me a little ways (it’s not so good for theology) but the other Ukrainian books the editor publishes are beyond me; perhaps they’ve been translated.

Unitarian Theology papers online

Just boosting a post by David Steers, a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister and the editor of two journals, Faith and Freedom and the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society. When he promotes two collections of papers on Unitarian theology, I listen; you may also download PDFs of them there.

The papers were presented at conferences in 2016 and 2017.  Why the conferences?  Answered in the introduction of the first volume by convener Jim Corrigall:

The idea for a Unitarian Theology Conference arose out of discussions among ministers-in-training and newer ministers, who  were all concerned by the lack of serious theological discourse within  our Unitarian and Free Christian denomination. It’s fair to say we felt frustration over the inability of our faith community to give a coherent answer to such basic questions as: who are we as a faith community? and: what is our purpose?

The papers may also be seen as videos at ukunitarian.tv.

I look forward to reading those, and wonder aloud why our larger denomination on this side of the Atlantic hasn’t done something so useful.

What shape the communion cup?

Talk of the Annual Meeting of the (British) Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and noticing the communion service there this morning, put me in mind of an quaint old book.

Covered, handled chalice from Norwich, Octagon Chapel

The 1897 Vestiges of Protestant Dissent is something of register of British and Irish Unitarian, Free Christian, Non-Subscribing and kindred churches, with — and this is the part that amazes me — a listing of their communion plate. Much was then-new electroplate, but other pieces were quite old and noteworthy, so much so that several engravings were executed.

What fascinates me is the use of porringers, posset-cups, “loving cups”, mugs and tumblers (beakers), and not just the accustomed chalice: that inverted bell on a stem, sometimes a knop, and foot we all know and associate with the Eucharist. Posset-cup communion cup, Chichester

Many long-time readers know I have an interest in found communion ware, and lament the division of the communion ware market into the unaffordable and the tawdry. Which will bring me to what I think is an ideal communion cup for our days, and particularly for Unitarian and Universalist ministers — and indeed at least one in Vestiges — who have to bring their own. For next time.

Policy updates at British Unitarian General Assembly

The annual meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian churches isn’t over yet, but they did pass (or seem to pass, if I read tweets correctly) two measures I think are noteworthy.

The first gives the vote to the class of small congregations, (see measure 4) of which there are exactly two. Until now, a church with at least 8 but fewer than 12 members could could be recognized, with voice but no vote. What might have been called a mission church in another setting. Because there are full members of the denomination that have fallen below 12 members, members of the Bangor church — one of the two “small congregations” — sensed unfairness and petitioned the executive committee for a bylaws change. Eight and twelve members may not seem so different, but in a denomination with so many very small churches, it may mean the difference of encouraging more groups to organize, or not.

The other measure shortens the annual meeting from 72 hours over four days to 48 hours over three days. Cost is the main stated reason, but I imagine time away from home or work is also a practical concern. The sample schedule is tightly packed, but seems feasible when it’s hosted at an all-inclusive conference center, as it is this year. It also means tightening up the legislative process, which we’ve also seen (to the good) on this side of the Atlantic. If I read correctly, the plan will be reviewed in three years.

Non-subscriber history site up

The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is an interesting church of 4,000 or more souls in Ireland (the island), mostly in Northern Ireland (that part of the United Kingdom) but one that’s hard to get a lot of current information about. I’m sure its status contributes to this: “kindred” to Unitarians (as the formula went a century ago) but distinct from the Unitarians found across the Irish Sea. But some good news today.

Davis Steers, a NSPCI minister and writer, has put together a site about the church’s history and I look forward to reading it.

  • The History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland