Once upon a time…
These are the magic words that begin to unlock a world of imagination and image. Stories are not just fantasy. They are not just for fun. In fact, stories play a pivotal role in how we make sense of our world and how we understand our place in it.
Once upon a time there was a Unitarian congregation founded on the basis of a radical devotion to freedom in religious belief. Persecuted by the established church, they boldly began their own free religious community in the wilds of Stoke Newington.
Or, consider another version:
Once upon a time, there was a group of malcontents and nere-do-wells who could not understand or appreciate the well-established religious traditions. Unable to fit in, they at last ran to the wilds of Stoke Newington where their eccentricities were not as troublesome.
The facts are the same. The way we make meaning of them is what changes.
Stories have power to comfort, to create understanding, to inspire, to ease suffering. They also have the power to create animosity, to divide, and to cause suffering.
In our religious lives, stories play a central role. As George Bernard Shaw said:
“All the sweetness of religion is conveyed to the world by the hands of story-tellers and image-makers. Without their fictions the truths of religion would for the multitude be neither intelligible nor even apprehensible; and the prophets would prophesy and the teachers teach in vain.”
It is the stories of religion that are compelling and powerful – that our minds turn to for inspiration and our hearts turn to for guidance and comfort.
An enslaved people is saved from a pursuing army bent on their destruction by a miraculous parting of the seas.
A young man armed with a slingshot defeats a gigantic warrior
A bereaved mother learns compassion while seeking mustard seeds from her neighbours’
A leper is healed through his faith
An Indian prince learns of suffering and finds enlightenment
Stories from modern times also inspire us and teach us. There was Martin Luther King – the African-American leader whose insistence on non-violent means brought the plight of his people to public attention and helped to bring about their greater equality. There was Ghandi. There is Nelson Mandella, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi.
There are, of course, many millions of stories, but we choose just a few of them to elevate. Just a few to guide us. There is much to be learned from the choices we make – either as individuals or as communities. The stories we are attracted to speak volumes about who we are. They can reveal the complex motivations and beliefs within us.
When it comes to stories of inspiration, Unitarianism is different from most religious traditions. While most select and honour only the stories from their own history, we – as Unitarians – deliberately look to many sources. This is an essential part of our open and inclusive way of being religious people and communities. And so, in many ways, all stories can be our stories.
Do we not have stories of our own?
Indeed we do.
Our Unitarian history is rich with its own stories – stories that can inspire and teach us. And exploring these stories can tell us a great deal about who we are and what is important to us.
This morning I will introduce to you or remind you of four Unitarian stories of old and we will explore what these stories may tell us about what we hold to be of value.
We begin with the story of Katherine Vogel, who lived in Krakow, Poland in the early 16th century. As an elderly woman, Vogel came to believe that Jesus was fully human – a heresy according to the established church. For her crime, Vogel was confined to a small chapel until she would recant. She would not. After ten years of confinement, at the age of 80, when she still refused to accept the doctrine of the trinity, she was taken from the chapel into the village square and executed – burned at the stake. Her last words speak powerfully to a portion of what has come to be central to a Unitarian view of life: “Neither in this life or the next can anything evil befall the soul of one who stands loyal to the truth as one is given to know it.”
The second story is of a better known 16th century figure who also denied the doctrine of the trinity. Michael Servetus was a pioneering Spanish physician. He was the first to publish a description of the circulation of blood in the lungs. Having read the New Testament and finding in it no explicit mention of the trinity, Servetus came to doubt this doctrine. He wrote several treatises questioning it and the theory of salvation that is based on it. Servetus believed that all people – including non-Christians – had the potential for good. Captured in Geneva, John Calvin had Servetus put to death – again by burning at the stake. To the last, Servetus refused to deny his beliefs.
Also from the 16th century, comes the story of the only Unitarian King in history. John Sigismund, the King of Transylvania, became a Unitarian and issued a revolutionary declaration of religious tolerance – the edict of Torda – in 1568. Sigismund’s Unitarianism and tolerance owed much to the influence of Francis David – his court preacher. After Sigismund’s death however, the monarchy returned to Catholic control. Francis David was put in prison for refusing to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus and – as a result of deprivation and mistreatment – died there.
Moving into the 17th century, we encounter a Unitarian hero from these shores. John Biddle has been called the founder of English Unitarianism. He was headmaster of a grammar school in Gloucester and was required to teach his pupils according to the Catechism of the Church of England. In his personal studies of the Bible, Biddle came to the independent conclusion that the doctrine of the trinity was not supported. For publishing his beliefs, about the trinity and opposing the doctrines of original sin and eternal punishment, he was imprisoned and eventually exiled. Upon being allowed to return to England, he was imprisoned again, became ill, and died at the age of 47.
Four stories. Katherine Vogel, Michael Servetus, the Unitarian King and his court preacher, and John Biddle.
Of all the stories of these times, why do these, in particular continue to capture our attention today? What do they tell us about who we are? Yes – they speak of an anti-trinitarian perspective, and that is important, but it is only a small part of their meaning for us.
It has often been said that the Unitarian stance revolves around three core values: the use of freedom, reason, and tolerance in religious life. Unitarians and their ancestors were people who rejected established dogma and doctrine, insisting on the use of reason in religion. They were people who wanted to be closer to their God – who rejected the distance imposed by what they found to be lifeless creed. And they were tolerant. When Unitarians have had the chance to make the rules rather than have them imposed upon us, we have offered freedom of belief and insisted on tolerance of those whose free and responsible use of reason led them to different conclusions than our own.
In our four stories, we find these values written and spoken clearly and powerfully. On its own, this may be enough: the stories of lives lived and given in the cause of religious freedom, reason, and tolerance. And yet, many others have stood for freedom, reason, and tolerance. Why these stories?
Certainly, each story is exceptional in some way. The first established Unitarian thought in England. The only Unitarian King in history. Two who were martyred because of their denial of the trinity.
I personally find these four stories tremendously moving and powerful. But I find that their hold on me is not simply because I believe that freedom, reason, and tolerance are important in religion. I do believe this firmly, but much of our world has caught up with the thinking of these religious pioneers. 95% of people in this country no longer attend religious services. Unquestioning belief is at an all-time low. We are accustomed to the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, living as we do in one of the most pluralistic cities on earth.
And yet, there is still an emotional power in these stories. For me, this force centres on the adamant refusal of four heroic individuals to compromise their beliefs and values. More than anything else, these are stories of integrity. When I hear the stories of Vogel, Servetus, David, and Biddle, it is their absolute insistence on living in a way that is completely consistent with their values that I find so striking.
In a time when many of us feel compelled to compromise our beliefs, these stories speak of a level of integrity that we may find almost impossible to comprehend.
But, such integrity is not confined to ancient history. The stories of Nelson Mandella, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Ghandi, and Aung San Suu Kyi – stories that also touch many of us very deeply – are similar stories.
You may not know of a modern Unitarian hero whose story is of this kind. It is the story of Rev. James Reeb. Reeb was active in the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s. In 1965, he was one of twelve white Unitarian ministers who went to Alabama to support Martin Luther King’s efforts. While in Alabama, Reeb was brutally beaten by a group of white racists and died a few days later. James Reeb knew the dangers of acting according to his values, but a deep integrity impelled him to act nonetheless.
We live today in a world that asks – that demands – painful compromises of us every day. At work, we must often betray our values to preserve our position or to get ahead. In public, we may be afraid to act or to speak out for fear of verbal or even physical assault.
Even within our own hearts, we may feel divided and torn – afraid to be ourselves for fear of being unloved or unlovable.
The stories of Katherine Vogel, Michael Servetus, Francis David, and John Biddle offer us a powerful lesson. Their lives and suffering remind us that our integrity is never to be given away lightly. They teach us not simply that freedom, reason and tolerance in religion are important, but that some things are worth fighting for, and that chief among these is our own integrity.
And so, let us hold these stories and all of the stories that move and inspire us. Let us allow them to seep into our beings to strengthen and embolden us against the pervasive influences that would lead us away from our best selves. The stories we keep and the stories we tell can change us and change the world. Let us choose wisely and tell a good story.
So may it be with you.
Once upon a time…