Few Persons of This Persuasion: Melbourne, Australia

by BC

This sermon was delivered to the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church in Melbourne, Australia.  A podcast of the service can be found here.

There’s this great story from the early days of Unitarianism here in Australia. Some of you may know it. I believe it tells us of the power of freethinking souls who seek each other out in the unlikeliest of places. It concerns a man named William MacDonnell and his efforts to ascertain just how many Unitarians there were in the Colony at the time.

He understood that certainly there were people that believed as he did – in the Unitarian view of Christianity. He had arrived in Australia at a time when several opportunists were also arriving with hopes of industry and enterprise on their minds. Surely, Unitarians were amongst these people, MacDonnell thought.

But he was also aware that his fellow Unitarians were spread throughout the Colony, feeling lost and alone as he did. And so on May 18th, 1850, MacDonnell inserted an advertisement into the Sydney Herald. The way this account is worded,

I imagine Mr. MacDonnell sneaking into the press room late at night and inserting heretical Unitarian leaflets in the papers. I’m sure the actual unfolding of events was by the book and ordinary. Nonetheless, an advertisement appeared and read as follows:

A few persons of this persuasion, feeling the great want of a place of worship, where they could honour God according to their consciences, are anxious to meet and co-operate with brethren of similar views, that they might by mutual aid and counsel make a beginning in carrying out so desirable an object. For this purpose communications are solicited from Unitarians who reside in Sydney or are scattered throughout the Colony, with such suggestions as their wishes or experience may dictate; and, as this step is but preliminary, those who feel interested in advancing the great truth of the strict Unity of God, will please, for the present, address ‘Alpha’ at the office of the ‘Herald.’

You have to appreciate that the advertisement included codewords for a proper response. Address ‘Alpha’ at the office of the ‘Herald.’ To MacDonnell’s surprise, over thirty people responded. Thirty people that represented professions and ways of living that he had come to expect of his fellow Unitarians – doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, surely some academics.

This gathering of people would go on to contact the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, who would select the first Unitarian minister to serve a church in Australia, the Rev. George Stanley.

The rest is, as they say, history. It is interesting to note that at this time of Mr. MacDonnell seeking out his people, Unitarians across this continent were engaging similar quests to find the “few people of this persuasion.” Shortly after the Sydney congregation was established, you saw congregations popping up in Melbourne and Adelaide.

Fast forward to today and you find 15 congregations across Australia and New Zealand associated with either the Australia New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association or the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston.

I share these things with you not because you do not know them – but instead to highlight that to this day, being a Unitarian Universalist still carries with it the tagline, “few persons of this persuasion.”

Especially here in Australia but so, too, across the world. Your numbers today here in Australia and New Zealand hover around 450. In some places in the world, it is fewer and far between. We are a religious tradition that has never quite caught fire as many of our most idealistic ancestors would have hoped.

In the United States, one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, wrote of his hopes, or perhaps his fears, that during his lifetime that, “not a young man now living in the United States…will not die a Unitarian.” If only his prophecy had been correct. Today, just around 800,000 people worldwide identify as Unitarian Universalist.

That number is nothing to scoff at, however, as it is increasing, not by much. But truly, in the scope of humanity we are still a peculiar albeit storied religious tradition. I happen to believe that is our greatest strength. Small in numbers, misunderstood by many, but storied and present throughout history. It is interesting to note, however, that there are indeed places in the world where we Unitarian Universalists are commonplace.

When I served, as an intern, one of the largest American congregations in Concord, Massachusetts – the hometown and home church of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, it was an eye-opening experience. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the United States, nearly every town center has a Unitarian church in it.

Most of them are still functioning, have ministers, and still have piles of old Puritan money to keep their endowments going in perpetuity. It is a startling thing to encounter your religious tradition in every single town. More importantly, people in Massachusetts actually knew what a Unitarian was!

In many ways, the uniqueness of being a Unitarian was lost in Massachusetts, but I grew accustomed to not being a member of the “weird church.” This was all going to change, of course. When I was in search for a congregation to serve on my own, several months of travel and interviews led me to serve the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, Kentucky.

I dare not ask if news of Kentucky makes it all the way here in Australia because the only time we make headlines is for the worst of events and politics. But for those of you unfamiliar with Kentucky, I’ll lay it all out: It’s in the American South. It is reliably Republican, poverty levels are astronomical, the mortality rate is abysmal, and the opioid epidemic is ravaging the state.

I also serve one of the only Unitarian churches in a 115 km radius. We are the largest in Kentucky and we certainly could be larger. I went from serving in reliably liberal New England where Unitarians were in every town square to, again, joining the ranks of being a “few persons of this persuasion.”

Instead of being the church in the center of town, we are now the cult church, the witches on a hill, the weirdos in the forest. It doesn’t help that our building is mid-century modern and looks like a spaceship just landed on a hillside.

Now, I serve a relatively isolated congregation by American standards, though I’ve come to learn that outside of the second Unitarian gathering here in Melbourne – the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Melbourne, whom I spent time with – they are lovely people and it is my greatest hope that your two congregations share in the good news of this free tradition, but, yes, outside of the two of you, the closest congregation to you is over 600 km away.

I cannot fathom such distance and I recall the isolation felt by William McDonnell in the 19th century. And yet, here you are. Gathered. A congregation of Unitarian Universalists, “few people of this persuasion,” continuing the legacy of that first advertisement in a newspaper.

What great wonder should such a thing be possible and, I cannot help but ask, what possibilities await you all? It is a peculiar thing to admit, but I am grateful to serve a relatively isolated congregation. I am thankful that few people know exactly who we are, why we exist, and what we value and believe.

I give thanks for these challenges because it allows us to more readily amplify our message. Like the Universalist preachers of old, being few in number allows us to enthusiastically ascend our soapboxes and proclaim loudly to those around us a simple message: You are loved, you are enough, you are not alone.

In the American South in the 19th century, Universalist preachers would roam from town to town. They’d hitch wagon rides, hop on trains, or find themselves suddenly in port.

Oftentimes they’d travel to nearby schools or churches to preach their message but more often than not they’d find themselves in a train station, grab a milk crate or box, stand atop it, and begin preaching their message of universal and unconditional salvation for all people – no matter what. It was a counter cultural statement of belief in the United States at the time.

I’m sad to report that it still is counter cultural. I’ve taken notice that the history of Unitarian Universalist here in Australia is heavily Unitarian. This is not a terrible thing. It is your history and yours to claim. But in associating with ANZUUA, the Universalist side of our shared history is equally yours to claim.

That relevant message of hope for the here and the now – that story that tells us people seeking out free religion will indeed congregation generation after generation – that promise that our work as Unitarian Universalists is not yet done, is perhaps more relevant today than ever.

You may have noticed there are some peculiar, baffling, and oftentimes tragic things unfolding in my home country. But I highlight this knowing that there are radical shifts and changes across the world – and in many cases, they are changes rooted in the culture of fear that you see in the States. But rather than despair, I am certain there is an indwelling hope amidst the weeds of discontent and despair. You need only thrash it away.

This is where promise rests within our tradition here in 2017, as Unitarian Universalists. The impulse to find people of our persuasion as those early Australian Unitarians did or the impulse to stand atop a soapbox and bring people not just a message of intellectual stimulation, but a message to carry into the week that will sustain, enliven, and inspire.

My colleague, the Rev. Rob McPherson, who serves the congregation in Adelaide, recently spoke at your biennial conference. In speaking, he challenged Unitarian Universalists in Australia and New Zealand to do several things.

First, he challenged us to get over any notion that we are especially exceptional in the religious world. Surely, we are radical, progressive, and have good news to share with the world. But we are not the stewards of enlightenment. Secondly, he challenged us to take risks and not hoard the riches of Unitarian Universalism.

I have no doubt there is a depth of heart to this community, why else would you gather week after week? Rev. McPherson asks of us in taking risks to let loose the inspirations of our hearts with those around us. Why is this place special to you? Why does Unitarian Universalism matter?

Ask those questions every single day, because, thirdly, religion is changing but the desire and seeking out of life affirming and life enriching communities will not cease. Human beings seek out the joyous. We seek out the affirming. We seek out ways to create meaning. One day it may not be in churches, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be religious – that is, the wondrous, the awe-inspiring, and that which nourishes community.

I happen to agree with my colleagues’ challenge to those of you here in Australia and New Zealand – because it is a universal challenge for any Unitarian Universalist across the globe.

We few persons of this persuasion, Unitarian Universalists, still carry with us the heart of what inspired this tradition to take hold here in Australia. We carry it whether we’re in the Unitarian mecca of Boston, the bluegrass of Kentucky, here in Melbourne, or wherever our Unitarian siblings are far from our sight – still the essence of that gathering together, that seeking out, rings true.

We need one another. We need like minds, we need support, we need community. But also, there are those in our world for whom our message is still vital and relevant. The burning center of our Unitarian and Universalist heritage still has minds to inspire, hearts to change, and lives to uplift, soothe, and heal.

Our principles upon which we unite – those aspirational and difficult statements of hope, not reality – are not yet actualized in the world. I dream of a world where we not only affirm worth and dignity but everyone knows they have worth and dignity. The distances between us may be far indeed. However, the shared flame, the symbol of this tradition, reminds us that we are never truly isolated. Wherever a questioning heart is found, therein lies a kindred spirit.

The work before all of us, no matter where we are from or where we are going, as Unitarian Universalists, is immense. At once we must meet the challenges of a changing religious world and still, should we want to continue to exist, find ways to provide that life-affirming message to those in search of meaning, but also we must continue the good work in seeing our shared principles come to fruition.

I hope your heart is still singing from the marriage equality vote. I pray the government affirms the voice of the people soon. And yet beyond this, I need not elaborate for you, but you know there is good work yet to be done in Australia. Some of it is baffling, tragic, and heart wrenching. But it can still be good. And so, are we ready?

Are we, the few persons of this persuasion, Unitarian Universalists, ready to, as my colleague asked, be innovators of this tradition? I would add, are we ready to share the heart of Unitarian Universalism with the world? What good work will we embark upon now, in this moment, with, as the poet reminded us, the breathing respect that we carry? May we ask these questions today and in all days. May it be so. Amen. Blessed Be.