Women, men, and others

Tuesday is International Women's Day. At a time set aside for honouring women, their rights, and the tremendous contributions they have made, we here today will be quick to call to mind the name Mary Wollstonecraft who worshipped at our Newington Green church. Wollstonecraft was a pioneering champion for women's rights. 

In her writing and in the way she conducted her own life, Mary Wollstonecraft raised up the truth - now widely recognized in many parts of the world - that women deserve as much right as men to choose the paths their own lives will take.

In the years since Wollstonecraft's time, women have made enormous strides in education, in politics, in business, in achieving greater wage equality, and in the equalisation of domestic relations.

The struggle is not over by any means. Full equality has not been reached even here. Women are still denied access to the political and financial power that men enjoy in larger part. 

And worse, in many parts of the world, the struggle has scarcely begun, as we know all too well. 

Today, I would like to go from the story of the advancement of women to the broader question of inclusion and equality - and bring that question right down to the very specific focus of the people in this room. 

Unitarianism here and in the US once had an all-male ministry. That began to change several decades ago and the inclusion of women in ministry – first slow – rapidly accelerated. Now, the British Unitarian ministry is 40% female. In the US, the great majority of our ministers are female.

Look around. Consider the people who are here. Consider their ages, their genders, their colors, their national origins... What have you noticed? 

There are many groups who are not nearly as well represented here as they are in the population around us.

Now, this is not meant to be an occasion for feelings of guilt. We have not chosen to exclude them. We have not written bylaws that make it hard for men to attend. We have not enshrined in our constitution a provision to keep Asians away. We do not write in bold print on the cover of our order of service "teens, keep out."

But there are ways of keeping people away that are more subtle and perhaps even more effective than overt rules. 

Looking around our British Unitarian movement, we can see that most of our congregations effectively exclude young adults

We find that many of our congregations exclude working class people

In a previous congregation, a newcomer arrived one day. And though a bit anxious like newcomers usually are, he seemed fairly keen. I noticed someone who had just finished speaking with him as the newcomer went off to speak to another member of the congregation and I asked about this seemingly enthusiastic new visitor. "Oh, don't bother talking to him" I was told. "He won't stay. He's a plumber."

That congregation had an unstated but well understood assumption that we were a congregation of and for highly educated middle class people. No one ever said this aloud... it was written nowhere, but anyone who didn't fit got that message pretty quickly. It was in the language we used, the way we dressed, the cars we drove, the literary references we used, and the items that were entered in our annual auction, such as weeks in someone's vacation home or use of their sailboat... 

And this was what is fairly called the culture of that congregation. It need not be overt, it need not even be discussed. Culture is simply defined as "the way we do things around here." To the people immersed in and comfortable with that culture, it can be quite invisible – a whale is probably completely unaware of the water in which it swims. But add a mouse into that environment - the mouse certainly notices the water and he can't get out fast enough.

Every group has a culture. Every congregation has a culture. Examining that culture can be hard work because it is invisible to the people who are comfortable with it. But it is there, and whether or not one chooses to change it, it is important to understand just what that culture is. 

As Amos and Boris communicated during their weeks together after Amos’ rescue, they began to do that very hard work of recognizing first their own cultural perspectives and then the culture of the other. That interaction would never have happened had fate not thrown them together. It could easily have ended with Amos’ exclamation: “are you sure you’re a mammal? You smell like a fish.”

Having more women than men involved in a congregation is a common phenomenon in religion, although not – for the most part – in Judaism or Islam. Congregations like ours can expect at least two thirds of the attendees on a given Sunday to be women. 

The relative infrequency of men in this congregation says something about our culture. We may not typically use the word culture to describe differences between the ways in which men and women interact, but whatever word we choose, the average man and average women have different interests, ways of communicating, likes, and dislikes.

Perhaps you've read "Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus" - the popular 1992 book that claims misunderstandings between men and women come from our very different expectations of each other. And again, whether or not we term this culture, there are differences that are real and have real implications for the way men and women respond to their experience of life - and for our purposes here, how they respond to the experience of this congregation.

I suspect that most of you would be eager to understand more about how men and women respond to this congregation. You would probably want to a step further - to do something about it - to make this a place that is more inclusive in that way. 

You might be willing to see modest changes to our services. You'd probably be happy with the initiation of programmes and events that appeal more to men. Even if it meant some slight loss to you, most of you would probably think it worthwhile.

But following this line of thinking takes us eventually to more challenging places.

Examining our existing culture and considering who it might exclude or repel forces us to be deliberate about the thorny double question: “who are we?" It is a double question because it asks first who are these people that make up the congregation today? What are their assumptions, their tastes, their ways of communicating, their values? What is the subtle, unspoken, and usually unnoticed "way we do things around here?" In short, what is the culture of these people? 

And the second part is “who are we?” in the sense of what and who is this community for? Congregations without a clear sense of purpose in the world - congregations without a strongly felt mission - tend to default to the purpose of making themselves comfortable. 

All too many of our congregations think about what they do only in terms of whether they themselves like it. I know that this congregation, more than most, takes into consideration the others... the people who have not yet arrived, the people who could and perhaps should be here by our sides. The people who - like us - have a commitment to a more balanced life and a more just world. 

And so we must ask ourselves, who are we now and who is it that our culture includes and who is excluded.

To bring this into our very real current situation, I want to bring up generational differences. There can be no question that there are cultural differences associated with our age groups. These correlations are not perfect - some young people only like classical music and some older people love hip hop, but we can easily make some pretty reliable conclusions.

When this congregation began to grow from a tiny remnant 10 years ago, there were no young adults. Today, at least half of the congregation falls into that younger category. What has happened to our culture? It has changed, of course. And now, we have to ask ourselves - just as we might for any other cultural differences, who are we?

It is probably fair to say that at this moment we are struggling a bit with an uneasy cultural mix. Do we like the older hymn tunes or the newer ones? Do we like things more sedate or more lively? Do we want programmes and sermons that focus on the challenges of early, middle, or later adulthood? 

The generational and gender cultural differences are not ones to be politely ignored. We have committed to being an intergenerational congregation and I think it's fair to say that we want to be a congregation that is also equally inclusive of men as it is women. 

The path forward in these areas begins with deep dialogue to create understanding. It is only when we truly understand the differences between us that can hope to do something about them.

And then we can do something about it. 

Size here is an advantage. Larger congregations can be more inclusive. While a tiny congregation can not hope to do more than put on a Sunday service and try to keep their building from falling down, with increasing numbers, there need not be a one-size-fits-all worship, one-size-fits-all programmes or one-size-fits-all events. 

We are large enough now to create programmes geared to meet the needs of more different kinds of people. We can create services that better meet the needs of men without failing to meet the needs of women. We can create events that are more elder-friendly, we can create events that include music that appeals more to younger people.

The reality though is that there is no environment that can satisfy the needs of mouse and whale. We can not create one event that meets everyone's needs and tastes. There isn't a service possible that is all classical music and all contemporary music. We can't create a single culture that everyone is happy with. There is no monoculture solution that can do that. We are who we are and our only possible solution is to combine cultures - allowing them to remain distinct - that is, to become multicultural.

In a multicultural congregation that strives to speak equally to different generational cultures and and different gender cultures, we create a place with greater diversity to stimulate and challenge us all, and a place that can include and help and heal a greater part of our world's diversity.

I have deliberately left some far more challenging questions for last. Talking about gender-based and age-based cultural differences stretches us, but only so far. What about cultures that are very different from who we are today? 

For the most part, this congregation's culture has tended to be western and middle class. To the extent that skin color correlates with cultural, we tend to be white. 

The people who feel different from these norms recognize them and notice them far more than the rest of us. For them, coming here may include a certain fear of being found out, of not fitting it. It involves an exercise of squeezing to fit the dominant, though unstated culture.

I have had conversations with several people in this congregation and elsewhere on this topic. One thing that many people say is "well, we can't be the right place for everyone." They are absolutely right. Unitarianism is a faith for people who are prepared to approach religion with an open mind, to approach one another with an open heart, and to approach the interconnected web of our world with a helping, healing hand. 

Unitarianism is not for everyone. This congregation, similarly, is not for everyone. I am very comfortable excluding people who are convinced that their way of thinking is the only right way and that everyone else is wrong – or worse, that everyone else is damned. I am comfortable excluding people who believe it is OK to hate people because of the color of their skin, their national origin, or because of who they love.

But, in a world where inclusive religious communities are few and far between, I am saddened to think that we must exclude people with open hearts and minds who long to join together in spiritual growth and in the pursuit of a just, ecologically healthy earth. 

I think the truth is that - at the current size and stage of our congregation - we will and must exclude some - not deliberately, not in a mean-spirited way, but just as certainly as if we had big burly door men keeping them from entering. 

The larger we become as a congregation, the more broadly multicultural we can become, with more groups, more events, more programmes, more services. As we grow in number, we can also grow in the diversity of the people who can find a home here. 

In the meantime, what I would ask of you is to be increasingly aware and increasingly conscious of this thing called culture. We are different and the many ways in which we are different mean that we will invariably have different tastes, different needs, and different wishes. 

We have a dominant culture in this congregation that is comfortable to some and less so to others. We can not be everything to everyone - nor should we try. What we can and should do is to be deliberate - taking clear steps toward the multicultural community that is possible for us at each stage of or growth and being fully aware of the people who we must - for now - exclude. 

My friends, we have come far. We have become a place of spirit, a place of great diversity, a place of principle and depth and deep care. 

In the future, let us find ways to open our doors, our arms, and our hearts to still more people of still more variety. This is the people we are. This is the way we can help and heal a world of people in need.