Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Dedham Decision

Two weeks from now I will be delivering my final sermon until August.  I’ll leave the pulpit and travel directly to Columbus, Ohio where I will be at General Assembly for the week.  If you don’t know about General Assembly, it is an annual gathering of thousands of Unitarian Universalists.  It never fails that as I make my way to General Assembly each year my mind wanders and I begin to think about our roots, our beginnings.  I mean Unitarian Universalism didn’t just show up, here, in Florida.  We have a rich American history of Unitarianism and Universalism.  A history that I love, explore, and like to tell.

I’d like to tell you a story.  It’s a love story of two people, Connie and Bill. It’s a love story with an interesting twist.  Connie and Bill were Europeans who fell in love at an early age.  They were inseparable.  They had so much in common.  Everyone knew that when they married it was a match made in heaven and certainly was a happily-ever-after bond.  Connie and Bill couldn’t have been happier.  They were blissful in their new marriage.  They settled in a small English town where they could be close to both families. Connie opened a yarn shop while Bill worked at an iron shop. Both were content yet they both felt that they might be better off out from under the thumbs of their families.  Connie and Bill decided maybe they just needed a vacation; time away from their day to day lives.  They chose to travel to the Netherlands.  While enjoying life on the canals of the Netherlands Connie and Bill realized how much they enjoyed being alone to share their new love without their families.  They met another couple who they befriended and this couple convinced Connie and Bill to sail to New England in North America.  Connie and Bill were excited but understood how this would change their lives.  Would they dare make such a bold move?  Connie and Bill did go to New England. In fact when they arrived they both found jobs in the yarn and iron business and eventually moved into the sweetest lodge in the town of Dedham with the best thatched roof.  Connie and Bill never dreamed that they could be so happy and lucky.

Years passed and Connie and Bill had become involved in town business and had made lots of friends. They had been going to the town church.  In fact the town was organized around the church and everyone in town paid a poll tax to support the church even if they did not attend.  Bill especially made lots of friends and Connie was growing unhappy with how much time he was away from her.  Bill would come home late from parties, the number of fishing trips increased, and Connie had even heard that Bill was seen around town with Alvin Lamson -- the town liberal.  Connie knew Bill was changing but couldn’t quite put her finger on how, until she realized he was becoming more tolerant, open-minded, and growing more liberal in belief.  She knew this was the influence of Alvin Lamson.  One night Connie waited up for Bill and when he arrived home she confronted him.  She was so angry she even blurted out that she almost never married Bill because of his liberal uncle Harvard who was a liberal, not orthodox, teacher.

Bill gasped in disbelief.  For weeks after, many assumptions were made, accusations were slung, and Connie and Bill decided to get divorced.  Connie was to move in with family that had also come to New England.  With her she took all of the books, the money, and the silver -- which was a wedding gift from Bill’s mother.  When Bill realized what Connie had done he went to his attorney.  Should Connie be allowed to take all of the property acquired during their marriage?  Eventually Connie got her own attorney and the case went to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  It was a bitter battle.  Neither Bill nor Connie would budge.  The jury and judge had finally come to a decision.  The judge declared that the property should remain with Bill because it was acquired during the marriage and Connie was not entitled to all of it especially mother’s silver.  Connie moved down the lane joined by her family.  They built a larger house than Bill’s and declared that none of Bill’s friends, especially Alvin Lamson, would ever cross the threshold.

Let me share some Unitarian history that is very similar to the story of Connie and Bill.  In Puritan New England, each town was organized around its church. The members of the church were those who made a confession of Christian faith, while members of the parish were those who lived in the town and paid the poll tax that supported the church, but hadn't had a religious experience of conversion in the church. Reflecting this two-tier arrangement, the minister was the spiritual leader of the church as well as the teacher of public morals to the townspeople. These were the Standing Order churches — church and parish in the same institution, with a religious leader and public preacher in the same person. In Dedham, Massachusetts, a controversy about theology became an ecclesiastical, political, and legal battle — one of the first to challenge the Standing Order system. In 1818, the Dedham parish invited Alvin Lamson to be its candidate for the ministry. A majority of the church members, being orthodox, rejected Lamson's liberal views. They voted their refusal to have him as minister. By custom, the church members decided who the minister would be, but in Dedham, the parish — which was more liberal than the church membership — went ahead and called Lamson as the minister.

The church members weren't going to stand for that. So they left, taking the church records, the communion silver, and the financial assets with them. That's when Deacon Baker — of the liberal camp in the church membership — sued Deacon Fales — of the orthodox camp — for the return of all the church property. Fales and the church majority claimed that the assets were the property of the church, and since the majority of the church was leaving, the assets were theirs to take. Baker and the liberal church minority maintained that the assets belonged to the parish, and as the parish majority was staying put, they would like all their assets returned.

The liberal minority -- the Unitarians -- prevailed. A jury ruled that according to the law, the church was built and run at the parish's expense for the benefit of the whole parish, and the minister worked for the benefit of the whole parish. Therefore, the parish owned the assets, and what's more, the parish had the right to call the minister. Some cried "foul," noting that the presiding judge, Isaac Parker, was himself a Unitarian. But when all the appeals were finally over in 1821, the ruling stood and the orthodox, the Congregationalists -- now UCC -- moved down the street.  The decision rocked the Standing Order churches, many of which had already started to come apart. In some towns, a liberal minority left to establish a new church. In others, an orthodox minority left to found a congregation of their own. The reverberations went on for decades, with a quarter of Massachusetts Standing Order Congregational churches becoming Unitarian within the next twenty years. Three of the churches chose to become neither Unitarian nor Congregational, but Universalist.

Our Puritan ancestors made a new start in the New World. A new life. A new church.  Or a new kind of church.  Perhaps you remember this from your high school history class. Or perhaps it is new information to you: back in England in the 1600s, disallowed from listening to the new and creative preachers who were being precluded from serving their own churches, but were preaching in town squares and giving Thursday evening lectures, the Puritans decided to leave in order to create new churches -- ones without bishops.  They came to this continent, not wanting a change in theology, but a change in authority and a change in how the church, which they understood to be the body of Christ, was structured. They wanted to create a church – free (they hoped) from the hypocrisy of hierarchical leadership and censorship that they experienced in England.  They called it a free church. Many of these churches were formed by people who knew each other back in England and who had already spent time figuring out what it is they wanted to create in this new beginning. In Dedham, Massachusetts, people gathered nearly thirty years earlier.  They gathered to create a new church and did not know each other so well – they came, as the record shows, from “divers parts” of England. Since they were starting anew, creating a free church without a blueprint from the Old Country, they spent time -- lots of time -- imagining the church.

They talked -- lots of talk -- developing their vision. One member, John Allen, kept copious notes. Though other churches forming in that era might have gone through a similar process, the records that Allen kept are, to say the least, ample, and have survived.  So what we know, we know about Dedham.  I want to express my modern day gratitude for these Dedham ancestors. Not only for this thoughtful, considered process, but also for the other thing for which they are perhaps more famous: they are that church where the “Dedham Decision” was made, which led, eventually, to the separation of church and state. From their history, we can tell that the good people of Dedham talked for months and months in the years 1637 and 1638. Anticipating the needs of his future spiritual descendants, Allen wrote a narrative of the efforts of his people in building an animated, relevant religious community. He thought that such a project would not end, but would continue, and that future people -- that’s us -- might benefit from knowing what came before us.  For those of you whose thankless responsibility it is to take notes at all our various meetings, may you be gladdened that your efforts may serve future folk of this Congregation and others. I sometimes find myself in this Congregation's archives captured by the minutes and decisions made. And for those of us who do not take minutes, but benefit from them, let us be sure to express our thanks to those who do.

Allen did not record his church’s decisions that we might stay loyal in letter.  He was not trying to grasp with an iron fist from the past into the future. His gift is one offered as an act of affection.  I remember when I first learned that we Unitarian Univeralists are descended -- particularly through the first U -- from the Puritans. It made no sense to me. Those people, as best as I could remember from my high school history class were theologically conservative. In modern parlance, we might call them “judge-y.” Weren’t they responsible for the Salem Witch trials? (The answer is yes, but that is another sermon.) It was hard, and still is, to see the family resemblance.  I’m pretty sure that if any one of them, including our new friend John Allen, were to be alive today and see what has happened with their congregations they would feel similarly.

This is where the brilliance of UU minister and historian, Alice Blair Wesley, comes in. She combed through all the historical documents related to the founding of the church in Dedham and -- you might have to take my word on this -- presents them in a way that is enjoyable to read.  For example, she discovered that even though we might suppose “our 17th century free church ancestors talked mostly about original sin, predestination and hellfire” she found that “not one of those topics is even mentioned in the record of the founding of the Dedham Church.” Ah! The inkling of a resemblance: theology – traditionally defined as what we believe about the nature of god – may well be important, but it is not the central measure for why we gather. She goes on to note that they elected their officers – a snub to those bishops back in England – and so we see ourselves again in this historical mirror: we choose our leaders, not leaving it to some outside hierarchy.  As Wesley culled those ample historical records, she noticed that there was much use of “these words: reason, reasons, reasoned, reasoning, …” So we see the beginning of the inclusion of reason, not just tradition, as the authority for making religious decisions.

We take this for granted now, but there was a time when reason was not the primary tool within religious communities, be they Catholic or Protestant. Tradition. Scripture. Not reason. But here it is beginning to show itself. Another new beginning. The biggest surprise of all? The most-used word by these judge-y, conservative, Original-sin infused peoples, appearing 32 instances within the first 24 pages? Love. And affection.  They, too, began again in love. They laid the groundwork so that we, and other Unitarian Universalist congregations across the land, might rightfully claim,

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law. This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

These words by James Vila Blake, which you will find in the gray hymnal (#473), are so resonant with our past, our present and our hopes for the future, that many UU congregations across the continent claim this not just as their birthright, but recite it as a part of weekly worship. Those lay folk (and possibly a few ministers ordained in England and needing to be re-ordained in the new free church) in Dedham began anew, began in love. With the end of old church must come some new way to accomplish the worthy tasks of being a religious community – they knew they needed a new way to structure their church, but they also knew that it could only be true, only be authentic, could only be real, if they began anew in love. May knowing the aches, pains, and triumphs of our ancestors and our living tradition inspire you to live our affirmation over and over again.  May it be so.

Text of sermon entitled The Dedham Decision, delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, June 5, 2016.

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