as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, September 18, 2022
“Choose a beginning,” Emily Warn advises in her fine poem meditating on the inceptions of alphabets, languages, and maples.
Choose a beginning.
See what God yields and dirt cedes
when tines disturb fescue, vetch, and sage,
when your hand dips grain from a sack,
scattering it among the engraved furrows.
The language might be theistic but, I suspect that you will agree, the observation is universal. All things, all lives, have their starting points, their moments of inception. Some moments of genesis are cultivated intentionally, in “Seeding an Alphabet” the poet sows purposefully. Other times, beginnings are accidental or the result of pure chance.
Every dawn contains its own infinitude of mystery. “Feel glory in the sight of new life beginning,” encourages Sophia Lyon Fahs in her reflections, in our hymnal, on parenting.
“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” runs an old English idiom. At the moment of planting, at the time of sprouting, when birth comes, it is impossible to know how the tree will develop–which directions branches will twist, the shape of the crown, or even whether the new tree will survive.
Yet, for all the secret forkings and bifurcations waiting to be revealed, there are certain patterns that are contained within each beginning, each seed. A sapling will always shoot upwards towards the light. Its roots will stretch down, seeking moisture, entwining with mycelium, and incorporate nutrients–nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium–into tree’s wood.
On my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to study and think about the significance of the origins of Unitarian Universalism and the patterns that are contained within them. This is not a simple subject, all the more so because our tradition cannot really be thought of as having a single origin point. The beginnings of the Unitarian church in Transylvania are different from those in England. The English Unitarians do not share a singular fount with their Transylvanian cousins. In the United States, the Unitarians and the Universalists had separate origin stories prior to the formation of our Association in 1961. And so it goes, across the globe, with each region’s portion of the global Unitarian Universalist movement coming from a distinct seed. Or better, seeds, for in some places there is not a single movement but several which can claim kinship with our worldwide communion. In India, to offer you but one example, there are three distinct strains of our tradition–each with their founding members and impulses and with their own distinctive threads of theology.
Unlike the majority of our religious tendency, the Brahmo Samaj do not claim descent from Christian institutions. They arose instead amongst the Hindu community. But they recognize kinship with the two other Unitarian communities in India, those in the Khasi Hills and those in Madras. All are theistic, devoting themselves, in the words of the Brahmo Samaj’s founder Raja Rammohun Roy, “the Eternal Unsearchable and Immutable Being.” The Khasi Unitarians use similar language for the source of their religion, describing their commitment as that which is “the ultimate cause of everything and around whom the lives of all human beings revolve.”
It might be that this theistic language does not inspire you or reflect your theology. Nonetheless, I suggest, that it is reflective of a shared tradition. Some of you, I think, know of what I am speaking. Since arriving in Houston, I have had several conversations with members of the choir who visited our sister congregation in Arkos, Transylvania. Their reflections on our friends in Romania have all expressed a similar sentiment. Though the Unitarians there are explicitly liberal Christian, those of you who have spent time with them have come away with the impression that though their religion is somewhat different than ours “they are clearly our cousins.”
They are clearly our cousins… The seeds from which each of the institutions which compromise our global movement have grown share certain common characteristics. In some places, those shared traits are more pronounced than others. There is a certain amount of clarity to be gained by looking at the edge cases, the examples farthest on the margins.
Curiously, in the case of our tradition, England provides an instance of Unitarianism in perhaps its most extreme form. This might just be in keeping with the nature of the country itself.
Extremism is not a word that many people typically affiliate with either Unitarianism or England. However, if you have been following the spectacle of the Queen’s death and the accession of Charles III, you might agree that extreme is an appropriate way to describe the predominate English institutions.
I find it astonishing that, in 2022, Britain’s titular head of state is a man who inherited the position from his mother. I find it even more astonishing that in recent days anti-monarchist protestors have been arrested or censored. In Scotland two people were detained. One for holding up a sign reading, in part, “Abolish Monarchy.” Another for shouting at Jeffery Epstein’s friend Prince Andrew that he is “a sick old man.” In Oxford, a third man was apprehended after he yelled, “Who elected him?,” as the new King went by.
Twitter deleted at least one tweet from Uju Anya, a Black professor at Carnegie Mellon University (note that is an academic institution in the United States), after she named the truth that Queen Elizabeth II “supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half of… [Anya’s] family.” The tweet was a reminder that whoever the Queen was, if she was Queen, which is to say the head of the British government, at all, then she was the head–even if only symbolically so–of an institution that in the 1950s and 1960s had suppressed anti-colonial movements with breathtaking brutality. It was, and in some ways still is, an institution that was for many hundreds of years the leading purveyor of global white supremacy–a dynamic testified to by the royal family’s deplorable treatment of Meghan Markle. In Kenya alone, while Elizabeth was queen, British forces or their allies executed thousands, tortured tens of thousands, and forced hundreds of thousands into concentration camps. Some elderly survivors of her Majesty’s armed forces recall being brutalized underneath photographs of the Head of the House of Windsor.
Abolish monarchy… I might remind you, at this juncture, that the English sovereign is also the supreme governor of the Church of England. In England there is no formal separation between church, crown, and state. There are bishops that sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament. The British royalty is supported and secured, in part, by taxes.
The Church of England is an established church. It is the official church of the entire country. And while I was on the other side of the Atlantic I learned things about this dynamic that I found almost as astonishing as the endurance of the monarchy into the twenty-first century. If you want to get married in England, you must get married in a registered religious building. And you must be married by someone who is formally affiliated with that building. Anything else is a civil union, which has a slightly different, and arguably lesser, status than a marriage.
Just as troubling, not all religions receive equal recognition in the eyes of the British law. I spoke with one Unitarian minister who reported that certain kinds of chaplaincies are withheld from our co-religionists because of our lack of creedal confessions.
An established church, an unelected monarchy … it is in the rejection of these things that we find the seed of British Unitarianism. Before we examine it, I want to share with you a disturbing realization I had as I returned to Texas from Europe. I left the United States on June 9th. I came back on August 20th.
I left the United States on June 9th. I came back on August 20th. It is a simple linguistic construction. Two sentences that together provide the temporal bookends of a journey. But is simplistic composition obscures a fundamental and frightful reality. The country I left and the country I came back to were not the same country. The country I left was a largely secular one. The country I returned to is a much theocratic one.
Theocracy, you may recall, is government by priests or religious figures in the name of their gods. In a theocracy, religious rules supersede all secular ones. Theological doctrine, not community deliberation or scientific discovery, is the determining factor in the creation of the legal order.
While I was gone, the United States was transformed into something of a theocracy. Perhaps my statement may not apply to the entirety of the country. But it certainly applies to the state of Texas. And I suspect that you all know what happened. The Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women Health Organization. The majority, by a six to three vote, overturned Roe v. Wade. Their opinion claims that the “Constitution does not confer a right to abortion” and “the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
Numerous legal scholars have written about how the opinion is an instance of terrible judicial reasoning. Laurence Tribe has observed that it does not contain “any coherent legal analysis.” Linda Greenhouse has succinctly noted that the result of the case can be summarized as, “They did it because they could.”
I will leave the legal commentary about how the case was decided there. Instead, I want to shift our attention to the idea that the regulation of abortion has been “returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
Abortion is a medical procedure. And like all medicine it requires some degree of regulation. If anything, the nation’s opioid crisis or the insane price of insulin should remind us of what happens when certain aspects of the health care industry are not regulated. So, I am not disputing the idea that there should be some regulation of abortion. Like all medical procedures, I believe that it should be provided in as safe a manner as possible.
But here we get to the rub, the challenge in whole debate and the way in which the Supreme Court decision has rendered, at the very least, the state of Texas, if not the entire country, something of a theocracy. The exact nature of abortion and what the medical procedure entails contains within it numerous matters of theology.
Abortion opponents claim that it is the murder of an unborn baby. As you might recall from an earlier sermon I preached, they offer dubious interpretations of biblical passages to claim that life begins at birth. At the same time, they ignore other passages that clearly warrant abortions in some cases.
Despite the confidence of opponents of abortion, the beginning point of life is not an easy thing to ascertain. Nor is it facile to define what human life even is. Does life begin with conception? Does it start with a heartbeat? Or with the first breath? Does life end with the last breath? The last heartbeat? When brain activity stops? These are all theological questions and searching the world’s religious traditions we can find many different answers. In some religions, human life is thought to begin at conception–a view I find somewhat strange given that a large number of pregnancies end in natural miscarriages. In others, it is understood not to even really start until some days after the baby has been born.
Now, here, in Texas, the Dobbs decision means that one theological understanding of human life has been enshrined into law. It is now illegal to, “cause the death of an unborn child of a woman known to be pregnant.” And unborn child is defined as an “individual living member of the homo sapiens species from fertilization until birth.”
This is a religious assertion. There is not particular scientific reason why life should be defined as beginning at fertilization. But now, it does not matter if a doctor and her patient have a different theological understanding from the Texas legislature. The majority in the state’s government have imposed their theology upon the rest of us–the very definition of theocracy.
It is actually a more extreme form of church and state collaboration than the one found in England. In that country, despite the presence of an established church, abortion is not regulated on religious grounds. Nonetheless, it is to England that we return to consider the kinds of seeds from which our Unitarian Universalist institutions spring.
In England Unitarian congregations name themselves as part of the dissenting tradition. They are not part of the established Church of England. Their origins lie in their rejection if its religious authority and seventeenth century British theocracy.
Travel to London and you will notice a pattern amongst many Unitarian buildings. They are small entities set in what once were out of the way places. The oldest of them are inconspicuous with basic edifices. The walls are a simple white. The pews bare wood. The objective seems to be to hide in plain sight rather than to make a showy proclamation of faith.
Another pattern that is apparent is many of the congregations trace their plantings to a singular date, 1662. That is the year that what dissenting congregations call the Great Ejection took place. It is not a term that is likely familiar to many of you. I only vaguely knew of its existence before I went on sabbatical.
To understand it, you need to know a little bit of British history. The Church of England was established under the reign of King Henry VIII when he rejected the authority of the Pope and made himself supreme governor of the church. The church largely kept Catholic doctrine for the first hundred years or so of its existence.
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, as Protestant Reformation gathered strength, a group within the church arose who were called the Puritans. They viewed many of the accretions of Catholic theology to lack scriptural or theological warrant. They objected to elaborate ritual and sought to, from their perspective, purify the church.
For a time, some of them managed to exist within the bounds of the Church of England. And some of them left it, forming independent congregations that lacked state support, resided outside of state control, and led a precarious and often semi-legal or illegal existence.
Then England had a Civil War. King Charles, first of his name, and his supporters were defeated. The king lost his head. The control of the Church of England by bishops was abolished. And for a few scant years, a great deal of theological innovation and diversity was, if not embraced, tolerated by the government. Some clergy preached unitarian sermons–arguing for the humanity of Jesus–from their pulpits. Others offered universalist doctrines and proclaimed universal salvation.
All this came to an end when the monarchy was restored, and Charles II came to the throne. The bishops were suddenly back in power. And they demanded that all clergy subscribe to the Trinitarian creeds. No more proclamations of God’s universal love on Sunday mornings. No more propagations of a gospel in which Jesus was not the unique child of divine, but rather a person who had found the divine spark within and sought to stir it in others.
The non-subscribers, and there were some 2,000 of them, who dissented from the reimposition of Trinitarian confessions objected. And so, they were ejected from their pulpits for failing to teach the state religion.
This is a simplified telling of a complicated history. I conclude with it because it clarifies the seeds of our faith. We are a people, we Unitarian Universalists, who dissent from theocracy. Our religion is one which calls for a separation of church and state, most especially in the words of Gil Scott-Heron, “between that church and that state.” It asks that matters of conscience and matters of theology, to the greatest degree possible, be left to be religious communities and to individuals and not codified into law.
Our seeds are in dissent. At this time, when the US Supreme Court has approved the incorporation of theological doctrine into state regulations, the seeds of dissent are some that we should widely spread. And, perhaps as a reminder, that the dissent of our friends in England arose from their religious convictions, let me close with words paraphrased to a Jewish peasant and child of undocumented migrants in an ancient scripture. May the seeds of dissent fall into good soil and come up and grow and produce a crop with a yield that is “thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold. … If you have ears to hear, then hear.”
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.