Presbyterians and Unitarians

This church is affiliated to the Non Subscribing Presbyterian church of Ireland.
          The word Presbyterian refers to how a church is governed; not beliefs. Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are governed by a hierarchy of priest, bishop and Archbishop.
          In the Presbyterian system, each church is responsible for its governance but local churches come together in a group or presbytery for mutual support. Ministers are appointed by the Congregation and church affairs are managed by a Managing Committee or a Session on behalf of the members. Presbyterianism is a democratic system of governance.
          There are thirty two churches in the NSPCI. There is a broad spectrum of beliefs within these churches. Some are liberal others are conservative. All of them abide by the principle of “Freedom of conscience in matters of religion”
          One obvious difference between churches within the NSPCI is that some of them use only readings from the Bible in their services. The service will have a reading from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament with perhaps a psalm. It is the familiar prayer, hymn, sermon sandwich type of service; the same as our service except that over the past thirty or so years we usually use readings from sources outside of the Bible.
          This format of service is almost as old as Christianity itself. There is a document in existence referred to as the 2nd letter of Clement. The document is dated between 95 - 140 CE; the very early days of the Christian Church. The 2nd letter of Clement is not a letter nor was it written by Clement. It is the earliest known account of a Christian service of worship.
          The service begins with words of the prophet Isaiah (54) which are reinterpreted in the light of the new Christian beliefs. Then the leader goes on to quote and then explain the words of Jesus to the congregation. The service leader exhorts the congregation to live their new faith every day not just on Sundays. It is not OK to just be a Sunday Christian - sounds very familiar. The congregation also sang hymns.
          I find it moving to think that for more than two thousand years people have gathered as we do on Sundays to reset their thinking and hopefully to find comfort or inspiration for how to live better. But are we wrong to look for our inspiration outside of the Bible? Many Christians would say that what we do is heresy; I disagree with them. I believe that like every thing in existence religion must evolve to remain relevant. 2nd Clement is evidence of how Christianity has changed.
          When the author of Clement quotes the words of Jesus he is not quoting from the Gospels that are familiar to us. Nor are the quotations from Paul or James in the Epistles. Clement is quoting from the Gospel of Peter and from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. These documents and other Gospels and Epistles present a different version of the Christian story than the one we are used to hearing.
          The Gospel of Peter has an account of what happened the night before the Resurrection. We know that guards watched the tomb in which Jesus was laid; they were told not to interfere to watch and report. The Gospel of Peter says that during the night two individuals entered the tomb; then three men emerged “two supporting the other”. A short time later another person was seen to enter the tomb. This is a different account the Resurrection.
          The Coptic Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus some of them are very familiar others are unknown some are cryptic. Saying 12 is an account of when Jesus appointed his successor.
          Saying 12 The disciples said to Jesus “We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?”
          Jesus said to them. “Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous for whose sake heaven and earth came into being” Jesus was referring to his Brother James the leader of Christians in Jerusalem. Jesus did not mention Peter or Saint Paul no rock or church no keys to the kingdom of heaven.
          The writings mentioned in 2nd Clement are part of a huge number of documents that were never adopted as the official canon of the Roman Church. So from the beginning there were very different “Bibles.”
          Of course Dublin was not the first Unitarian church to make use of resources outside of the Bible. Two hundred years ago in Presbyterian churches in the Boston area there was hot debate about the place of the Bible in Christian worship. The debates were led by William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. When they questioned the doctrine of Trinity their ministers were excluded from the pulpits of more traditional churches. These ministers went on to form the nucleus of American Unitarianism.
          These ministers were influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of Thomas Paine and Joseph Priestly. Joseph Priestly the scientist insisted that religion must conform to “Conscience, Science and Reason”. This group went on to form the Transcendental Club. Among other things the Club advocated life long learning. So in addition to insisting that Religion must conform to Conscience, Science and Reason they wanted educated congregations; people who would practice their faith from conviction.
          Rev. Theodore Parker differentiated between what he called the permanent truth of Christianity and the words and traditions that developed after the death of Jesus. So Jesus said that we must “Love God and love our neighbour as ourselves”. Jesus said that our neighbour is all mankind these teachings are eternally true. This is how we are meant to live.
          Everything outside of the teaching of Jesus connected with the Christian religion is of human origin. Creeds and dogma are manmade. Hierarchical structures are manmade. The Bible is the creation of humans. The Bible has mistakes, contradictions and all the problems that come with a work that has been translated between multiple languages. This book has been used to inflict cruelty and cause suffering.
          Parker wrote that “The books that help you the most are those which make you think the most.” I wonder has anyone has ever been inspired or provoked into changing how they live from their reading of the Old Testament?
          To day in mainstream christen Churches the Old Testament reading is from the Book of Numbers 21: 4 - 9. It is the story of the Israelites in the wilderness. They are discontent because of the tough conditions. They rail against God and Moses and god sends snakes into the camp and many Israelites are bitten by the snakes. Moses prays for them God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Those who are bitten and look on the bronze snake will live. I wonder if a single Christian will be inspired by that reading.
          Ralph Waldo Emerson did resign from active ministry but continued to write and speak publicly about religion. For Emerson, God was not found in a church or in books, or words or discussions but in spending time close to nature.
          There is a risk for Unitarian congregations. When we live by the words “Conscience, Science and Reason”; Or when we are critical of the origins of religion, we run the risk of confusing talking about religion with nurturing the spirit. The two are very different. We must remain clear sighted that Reason guides us. We must also remember that finding our full humanity is about nurturing the soul. There was a lovely piece in Saturday 13th March Irish Times. The writer referred to a picture of a lovely misty lake with a person sitting in a kayak. The caption read:

“Religion is someone sitting in church thinking of kayaking.
Spirituality is someone sitting in a kayak thinking of God”.

Our Challenge is that we find a balance between religion and nurturing the spirit.

Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church                     Dublin 14th March 2021


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