On Christmas Eve Richard and I sometimes visit a Catholic church. We were both raised Catholic and the bells and smells -- as they say -- around the holidays are comforting. There was one Christmas Eve that we both wish we hadn’t. We arrived and thought it was funny that the women all had veils on their heads and that we couldn’t understand a word that the choir was singing or what the priest was saying. We realized we had stumbled into a Latin mass. What could we do? We started planning our escape immediately. We both agreed that at the time of the offertory the congregation might be distracted enough that we could make a run for it. And so we did.
I later realized that in order for that worship service to happen none of us in the pews needed to be there. The priest who ignored us the whole time and who was speaking in such a low voice we couldn’t hear the liturgy — it was in Latin anyway. The choir sang the hymns. We didn’t even need to offer our voices.
In the National Catholic Review, Priest Peter Schineller writes, “During the celebration I felt very uncomfortable. It was strange and foreign. Even though I was very familiar with the Tridentine Mass from my childhood, it seemed remote and distant. The Mass seemed to focus on the priest whose words for the most part could not be heard and who rarely faced the people. The choir performed well and their singing overrode the priest, who had to wait several times until they finished singing. In my mind I could not but think back to the Second Vatican Council, and all that the Council and subsequent documents tried to bring about – active participation, emphasis on the important things, vernacular, elimination of repetitions, etc. It was sad and disheartening. What happened? Why would the Catholic faithful seek out and attend this older form of the Mass? After the Mass, I was tempted to talk with some of those present. But I decided not to as I feared I would have been negative and perhaps controversial. My feelings were still very raw. One thing I know: I myself will never freely choose to celebrate the Tridentine Mass.”
In our own tradition, Unitarian Universalism, we have had similar reactions to worship. Because Unitarianism was an intellectual movement you received a sermon that was more like a lecture and people were happy, and in the 1960’s humanism became the dominant theology of Unitarian Universalism.
But that's changing. More and more people that come to our congregations want to celebrate, be moved, be challenged and connect with their personal theology and have an experience of the heart and spirit. I know this because I meet with most of them and they all ask me how they will find spirituality here. I say, lectures are held at the Palm Beach County Library on Tuesdays at 11 o’clock. Here we arrive for sustenance for our hearts and our minds. We prepare one another for another week outside our sanctuary through spiritual practice, trusting people and sharing the joys and sorrows deep within us, we are transformed. This is not a Sunday adult program. It’s a place to reflect on life, to be vulnerable, and to examine our call to our free faith. That’s a big change for how Sundays in Unitarian Universalist churches were used decades ago.
Another change that is happening in our services is how the minister and the congregation connect on Sunday mornings. In our tradition we have what is called the free pulpit. The minister is expected to express his/her values, views, and commitments without fear or favor. It's not a polite courtesy congregations offer their clergy -- not a legal nicety. It's an obligation — and I take it as a spiritual and a moral obligation — that comes with the call to minister to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Expressing my values, views and commitments is not something I can do if I feel like it. It’s something I must do regardless of how I feel about it.
I confess I am not aware of the historical literature that directly addresses and explains the origins and development of the free pulpit tradition. I’ve been researching it over the past few weeks and I don’t see a lot written on it (which doesn’t mean it’s not there, just that my research hasn’t been successful). There are volumes and volumes written about freedom of and in religion. There are volumes written about the free church tradition. But the term “free pulpit” doesn’t show up in the indexes of the Unitarian and Universalist histories I’ve examined. It’s possible that it has evolved primarily as a contractual understanding between ministers and congregations, and hence it doesn’t get much play in the histories.
In efforts to explain the free pulpit tradition, one often-quoted document is the Transylvanian King John Sigismund’s 1568 “Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience,” an important precursor to the free pulpit in America. “In every place,” the Act explains, “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.”
Another often-quoted free pulpit reference is from the conclusion of Theodore Parker’s 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” That sermon is one of the most famous of American Unitarian preaching. He delivered it at the ordination of the Rev. Charles Shackford. His comment on the free pulpit came at the end of the sermon when he spoke to the congregation about how to relate to its new minister. He said truth “speaks in a thousand tongues, and with a pen graves her sentence on the rock forever. You may prevent the freedom of speech in this pulpit if you will. You may hire your servants to preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, It is peace, when there is no peace. Yet in so doing you weaken and enthrall yourselves …. But, on the other hand, you may encourage your brother to tell you the truth …. You will then have his best words, his brightest thoughts, and his most hearty prayers.”
In both quotes we see a turning away from a centralized and hierarchical reliance on doctrine and dogma, a turning away from the authority of the church over the individual, a turning away from complacency in thought and spirituality, and a turning towards freedom, towards conscience, towards integrity, towards the individual’s search. We see a recognition that “Truth speaks in a thousand tongues” and a desire to honor the truth as each tongue proclaims it.
Unitarian Universalists are not the only ones who lay claim to the free pulpit tradition. Baptists have their version of it. So do the Congregational churches. I do not remember ever having such a clause in any of my church calls, although it was always understood that I was free to preach on whatever I chose. While Unitarian Universalists are not the only bearers of the free pulpit tradition, it is nevertheless rare in the broad sweep of American religion. In a blog entitled Nagoonberry, a former Presbyterian minister named Heather, who is now seeking fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister, wrote these words about the free pulpit:
“The free pulpit is a long-standing tradition within Unitarian Universalism, in that we allow our ministers to speak their minds rather than be restricted by a particular tenet or creed. As I look back on my time as a Presbyterian minister, I do remember that there were limits on my freedom as a preacher. There were things one simply did not say. A preacher who consistently strayed beyond the borders of orthodoxy might find herself in a bit of trouble -- or a lot of trouble.”
Unitarian Universalist ministers are moving even further. They are democratizing their pulpits. Something I’ve been studying for a while now. Democratizing the pulpit is daring to poll the members of a congregation about issues that matter to them versus the minister solely choosing the topics preached in the pulpit. Getting the perspective of those in the seats opposite the pulpit, what are the moral issues of the time? What are congregants struggling with publicly and personally. When democratizing the pulpit the concerns of the people can be used to brush off the liturgical dust and cleanse the sanctuary of spectators and fill the seats with stakeholders. In Unitarian Universalism there is no higher authority than the gathered members. So democratizing the pulpit means that you will have a hand in what is preached from this pulpit.
In just a few minutes I will ask you for suggestions for sermon topics. I wonder what you will write? What are the moral, political and personal issues you want to hear sermonized? Another area to democratize is the board room, ever increasing the views from the congregation solicited by the board in order to close up a gap. There is a movement for boards of Unitarian Universalist congregations to ask the congregation more questions about who they want to be.
Democratizing the pulpit not only invites people to help choose the sermon topics but also invites them to participate in co-creating services. By democratizing the pulpit ultimately congregants change roles. The congregation moves from spectators to liturgical stakeholders. I believe that ministry does not only come from the minister. Each of us has the potential to minister and develop personal ministries in this congregation. Likewise I believe that the minister is not the only one who understands what we need to hear from the pulpit. So today I invite you to live our shared ministry. I invite you to become stakeholders of our liturgy. I’ve heard many times, “I wish CJ would talk about this.” Here is your moment.
Democratizing the Pulpit, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Jan 10, 2016.