Sunday, May 22, 2016: Dissent, Heresy, and Innovation

Dissenter of Sidmouth

Prelude Galileo – Indigo Girls

Welcome The beauty of the whole – Meg Barnhouse

We gather to worship, our hearts alive with hope that here we will be truly seen, that here we will be welcomed into the garden of this community, where the simple and the elegant, the fluted and frilled, the shy and the dramatic complement one another and are treasured. May we know that here, each contributes in their way to the beauty of the whole. Come, let us worship together, all genders, sexualities, politics, clappers and non-clappers, progressive or conservative, may we root ourselves in the values of this faith: compassion and courage, transcendence, justice and transformation.

Chalice lighting In memory of all the flames – Amarette Callaway

In memory of all the flames that didn’t die—
in the midst of darkness,
in spite of the darkness,
we light this flame today.
“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5 NRSV)

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: The Blind Men and the Elephant – The Udāna

Offering and Response (Unison)
For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: from The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, by Theodore Parker

But the current notions respecting the infallible inspiration of the Bible have no foundation in the Bible itself. Which Evangelist, which Apostle of the New Testament, what Prophet or Psalmist of the Old Testament, ever claims infallible authority for himself or for others? Which of them does not in his own writings show that he was finite, and with all his zeal and piety, possessed but a limited inspiration, the bound whereof we can sometimes discover? Did Christ ever demand that men should assent to the doctrines of the Old Testament, credit its stories, and take its poems for histories, and believe equally two accounts that contradict one another? Has he ever told you that all the truths of his religion, all the beauty of a Christian life should be contained in the writings of those men, who, even after his resurrection, expected him to be a Jewish king; of men who were sometimes at variance with one another and misunderstood his divine teachings? Would not those modest writers themselves be confounded at the idolatry we pay them? Opinions may change on these points, as they have often changed – changed greatly and for the worse since the days of Paul. They are changing now, and we may hope for the better; for God makes man’s folly as well as his wrath to praise Him, and continually brings good out of evil.

Another instance of the transitoriness of doctrines, taught as Christian, is found in those which relate to the nature and authority of Christ. One ancient party has told us, that he is the infinite God; another, that he is both God and man; a third, that he was a man, the son of Joseph and Mary, – born as we are; tempted like ourselves; inspired, as we may be, if we will pay the price. Each of the former parties believed its doctrine on this head was infallibly true, and formed the very substance of Christianity, and was one of the essential conditions of salvation, though scarce any two distinguished teachers, of ancient or modern times, agree in their expression of this truth.

Almost every sect, that has ever been, makes Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world. Yet it seems difficult to conceive any reason, why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science on that of him who makes them known first or most clearly. It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority. (Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing-Emerson-Parker, p.128-129)

Lesson Dissent, Heresy, and Innovation: A Unitarian Perspective
Robert Helfer


In 1788, in a letter to a friend, Benjamin Franklin said

“Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend’s heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, ’tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic.” (Letter to Benjamin Vaughan, 24 October 1788)

Joseph Priestly, besides being a scientist of note, having discovered oxygen, was one of the founders of Unitarianism in the United States. As Unitarians we are generally proud of our heresies and heretics, of the heresies of our religious predecessors, and we find comments like Franklin’s comforting. And so, as I was gathering material for this talk, I was a bit surprised to find the words dissent, heresy, and innovation totally missing from all the prepared “words of worship” available on the UUA web site. It seems that we have no prepared welcome, chalice lighting, or closing words noting the importance of dissent.

Ah, but we do have our history, and it is full of heresy.

What follows is basically two short stories, plus an interlude of sorts, highlighting dissent, or heresy, or simply innovation. The stories are inherently flawed, too short to tell all, but I hope they are close enough to the truth for their purpose. The first story is set in a time and place very removed from us now. The second story is nearer us, but perhaps still somewhat removed from our experience. And the endings of these stories are very different from each other.

Movement 1: Francis Dávid

Francis Dávid was born in Hungary, in the area known as Transylvania, around 1510 or somewhat later. He was the son of a Transylvania Saxon shoemaker named Dávid Hertel and a Hungarian mother. And the world around him was about to change drastically.

The first event was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and over the next few years European Christendom passed from consistently Catholic to chaos. But this event wouldn’t have much impact on the young Francis until much later.

The next event, however, had much more immediate effects. In 1526 a great Turkish army defeated and killed the King of Hungary in a major battle at Mohács in southern Hungary. King Louis had no children, and the Holy Roman Emperor was elected King of Hungary. But the situation wasn’t as simple as that sounds. Half the country was held by the Turkish army, and in the small principality of Transylvania, another man, John Zápolya, claimed to be king. In effect, the Kingdom of Hungary had been torn into two pieces: “Royal Hungary” to the north and west, ruled by the Habsburg Emperor; and Transylvania to the south and east, ruled by John Zápolya as a vassal of the Turks. In 1540 John Zápolya died suddenly, and his infant son, John Sigismund, born the same year, was elected to succeed him. Ultimately, John Sigismund, with his mother Isabella acting as regent in his minority, obtained control over the parts of Hungary his father had held, calling himself “Prince of Transylvania and Lord of Parts of the Kingdom of Hungary”.

Francis came of age in this era of religious and political turmoil; and in fact, the turmoil never ended during his lifetime. Perhaps he thrived on the turmoil. Certainly he was invigorated by the religious ferment. He first studied to become a Roman Catholic priest, but the Reformation had caught his interest. In 1545 he traveled to Wittenberg to study, and converted to Lutheranism. He returned to Transylvania, and in 1557 he became bishop of the Lutheran congregations there. By 1564 his religious journey had led him further, to John Calvin’s teachings. That year he became bishop of the Transylvanian Calvinists. But by 1568 his emphasis on strict Biblical interpretation had led to his rejection of belief in the Trinity.

Francis was a great orator, and apparently a natural leader. He seems to have been near the center of every religious movement in Transylvania in his lifetime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 1564 he was appointed court preacher to John Sigismund. Together Francis and the court physician, George Blandrata, a long-time Anti-Trinitarian, gradually brought John Sigismund toward Anti-Trinitarian beliefs. In 1569 John Sigismund became the world’s first and only Unitarian monarch.

John Sigismund had issued the famous Edict of Torda in 1568, declaring freedom of religion in his realms:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that 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. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

There is much to be said about the Edict of Torda, what it was and what it was not, what it accomplished and what it did not, but all that must be for a different talk. For the moment, it is enough to know that it sanctioned four “received” religions in Transylvania: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Reformed (Calvinism), and Unitarianism. And thus, despite the history of his beliefs and non-beliefs, Francis Dávid’s preaching was protected by law. For a little while.

In 1571 John Sigismund died, leaving no heir. He was succeeded in Transylvania and the Partium (the “Parts of the Kingdom of Hungary” referred to in John Sigismund’s assumed title) by the Roman Catholic Stephen Báthory, who in his turn was succeeded in 1576 by his brother Christopher Báthory, and soon thereafter the Counter Reformation came to town. While the Edict of Torda remained in force in principle, it was effectively weakened: first in 1571 by extensive censorship of religious publications, and second in 1572 by the Law of Innovation. The Law of Innovation explicitly forbade any further religious reform.

From this point Francis’s fate was clear, but surprisingly his final conflict came from fellow Anti-Trinitarians. He disagreed with George Blandrata and the prominent Polish Anti-Trinitarian theologian Faustus Socinus on the practice of worshipping Jesus. Francis refused to change his position and in 1579 Blandrata denounced him for violating the Law of Innovation. Francis was tried for religious innovation in June 1579 and sent to prison, where he died less than six months later.

Intermezzo: Dylan

Think of this as a brief “musical interlude”, a story of innovation, or maybe a little different type of heresy, a secular heresy.

In the 1960s, Bob Dylan had made a name for himself as a major figure in American popular music. His use of traditional instruments – acoustic guitar and harmonica – along with his interpretations of traditional songs and new songs rendered in traditional styles endeared him to a wide audience among the fans of folk music. But by the mid-sixties he was ready to move on to something new. In 1965 he appeared on stage at the Newport Folk Festival with electric guitar and a backup group. Some say that after a very short set he left the stage amid boos from the audience; some say the audience booed because the set was so short. Whichever was the case, the folk music establishment was not pleased by his heresy. He was definitely booed at other concerts later in the year, and the folk music press (yes, there is such a thing) criticized him heavily for his new direction. Some people who had performed with him, had been his friends, during his early period were disappointed and angry, and Dylan was hurt by their comments. Shortly after Newport, Dylan released his rather bitter response to his critics, formerly his friends, in the form of a song, Positively 4th Street. Dylan’s use of electric instruments is said to have initiated a new musical genre – folk rock.

The fans’ reaction to Dylan reflects how important he had become, how much people depended on what they expected from him. Perhaps this wasn’t the same as a response to heresy, but I think there is some similarity in how his old audience reacted to the change.

Movement 2: Theodore Parker

A “heresy trial” seems to be such an unlikely event in American Unitarianism. In fact there has ever been only one, if it can be described as a trial at all.

Theodore Parker was a young, ambitious minister, possibly a rising star, in Unitarian ministry. He was just beginning his career at an obscure parish near Boston in 1838 when he traveled to Cambridge to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson’s groundbreaking Divinity School Address. The address had a dramatic effect on him. Parker aligned himself with Emerson and the more radical wing of Unitarians of the time, and became associated with the Transcendentalist movement (I’ve always thought of them as sort of the Beatniks or Hippies of the early 19th Century). He was also radical in social issues. He actively defied the Fugitive Slave Act, harboring escaped slaves in his church, and helped provide resources for John Brown’s attempt to foment a slave rebellion in Virginia. He was fiery, opinionated, and resolute, and apparently easily, as they say, “rubbed people the wrong way”.

In 1841 Parker delivered the sermon at the ordination of Charles Shackford at the Hawes Place Church in South Boston, Massachusetts. We heard part of that sermon earlier: The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.

Parker’s thesis was that some elements of Christianity were permanent and essential – the pure religion that Jesus taught – while others are accidental and subject to change with the passage of time. The basic idea wasn’t extraordinary among even the most conservative Unitarians of the time. But Parker’s examples of the transitoriness, as he called it, of Christian doctrine made many uncomfortable.

Parker challenged the doctrine of the origin and authority of the Bible.

“But the current notions respecting the infallible inspiration of the Bible have no foundation in the Bible itself. Which Evangelist, which Apostle of the New Testament, what Prophet or Psalmist of the Old Testament, ever claims infallible authority for himself or for others?”

Even further he challenged opinions of the nature and authority of Christ.

“Almost every sect, that has ever been, makes Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world.”

The conservatives, and even some of the more radical ministers, in the audience were far from pleased. Apparently no one knows how Parker came to be invited to deliver this sermon. He had no connection either to Shackford or to the Hawes Place Church, and his sermons and writings at that point had already shown that he was in the radical wing while Shackford tended to be conservative. Nevertheless, there he was, speaking startling words that challenged the foundations of Christianity.

Parker continued his challenge, and in the next few years many of his fellow ministers came to believe that he had gone beyond what was acceptable for a member of their association. In January 1843 at a meeting of the Boston Association of Ministers Parker was called upon to defend his membership, his right to continue as a member of the Association.

Now, since the churches and ministers represented by the Association were all non-creedal, there was an inherent problem with the idea of crying “heresy”. Nevertheless, the ministers did believe that they had to call him to account. In the meeting that followed discussion was hot, comments not always kind. Chandler Robbins, Emerson’s successor at Second Church, Boston, finally pressed the point: “Since Mr. Parker finds the feeling in respect to him is so general, I think it is his duty to withdraw from the Association.” Parker, however, declined, stressing that the “spirit of inquiry” was at stake. At that point the meeting switched to statements of support for Parker, and the issue dropped.

Conrad Wright, in his introduction to Parker’s Hawes Place sermon, summarizes it thus:

“Parker had been asked to withdraw; he had declined; and there was no way to exclude him without abandoning the principle of free inquiry. So several of the members said kind things about Parker’s sincerity; he burst into tears and left the room, where Dr. Frothingham [Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, minister of First Church, Boston] shook him cordially by the hand and expressed the hope that he would come to see him soon; and the closest the Unitarians ever came to a heresy trial was over.” (Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing-Emerson-Parker, p.42)

Of course, Parker continued to be a radical, and although he was still part of the Association his religious and social opinions continued to divide him from many of his fellow ministers. But the principle of free inquiry, the authority of individual conscience in the quest for truth, was reinforced. And thus it has generally continued for Unitarians.

Finale: Revelation is not Sealed

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a comment on a Unitarian-Universalist-oriented page on Facebook. The author was suggesting that UU churches have to some extent enshrined acceptance of liberal social and political attitudes as a test of welcome. I paused to think about this, but I have no answer. I lack the extensive knowledge of UU congregations necessary to determine whether this criticism is true, and so for the time being I’ll just leave the idea here.

The fourth of the Seven Principles Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote calls for “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”; in other words, Parker’s “spirit of inquiry”. This is not always an easy thing to encourage in others; it’s not always an easy thing to encourage in one’s self. The results might not be what one wants to hear. Perhaps we must trust that truths will be revealed.

Responsive ReadingCherish Your Doubts – Robert T. Weston (Hymns for the Celebration of Life 421)

Music: Positively 4th Street – Bob Dylan

Joys and Sorrows
(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)
If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing The Purpose of This Community is to Help Its People Grow — Erik Walker Wikstrom

If you are who you were,
and if the person next to you is who he or she was,
if none of us has changed
since the day we came in here —
we have failed.
The purpose of this community —
of any church, temple, zendo, mosque —
is to help its people grow.
We do this through encounters with the unknown — in ourselves,
in one another,
in “The Other” — whoever that might be for us,
however hard that might be —
because these encounters have many gifts to offer.
So may you go forth from here this morning
not who you were,
but who you could be.
So may we all.

The chalice has been extinguished.
Go now in peace.

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Photograph: “Dissenter of Sidmouth”, Old Meeting Unitarian Chapel, Sidmouth, Devon, UK