Dissent

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Chalice lighting

Gathering here today
We are strengthened and comforted by being together
As in any other community
We will be drawn toward familiarity
Comforted when we are in accord
And made uneasy by difference
Let us work to be patient with disagreement
Curious about new perspectives
And able to be present to our own discomfort
Let us be people who welcome the creative power of dissent
People who know the richness that arises from the clash of ideas
May this illuminate the path to a more just and loving world

Reading: from David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College, on www.VictorianWeb.org

The term Dissenter refers to a number of Protestant denominations -- Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, and others -- which, because they refused to take the Anglican communion or to conform to the tenets of the restored Church of England in 1662, were subjected to persecution under various acts passed by the Cavalier Parliament between 1661 and 1665. Examples of the attempts which were made to discourage them were the Act of Uniformity, which required all churches in England to use the Book of Common Prayer, and punished those who would not comply, and the Five Mile Act, which prohibited ministers who were ejected because of the Act of Uniformity from coming within five miles of their former parishes or of any town or city.

After the Toleration Act was passed in 1689, Dissenters were permitted to hold services in licensed meeting houses and to maintain their own preachers (if they would subscribe to certain oaths) in England and Wales. But until 1828 such preachers remained subject to the Test Act, which required all civil and military officers to be communicants of the Church of England, and to take oaths of supremacy and allegiance. Though this act was aimed primarily at Roman Catholics, it nevertheless excluded Dissenters as well.

Message, part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

New Unity is the descendent of a community of dissenters. The people who came before us were trouble-makers. They were difficult. They thought they knew better. They wouldn’t follow the rules. And they suffered for their dissent.

They weren’t being difficult just for the heck of it. It was much more than that – much more important and more serious and more relevant to our own lives here today.

You’ve heard that what they dissented from was following the specific dictates of the Church of England. They didn’t want to kneel to take communion. They didn’t want to make the sign of the cross at a baptism. And – perhaps most awkwardly for them and for the Establishment – they didn’t think the trinitarian doctrine was correct. Although they generally believed in God, they didn’t accept the notion that God is comprised of three coeternal, consubstantial persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

More important is why they challenged these things. They had come to the conclusion that human beings – ordinary human beings – had the ability and the right to think for themselves. They lived in a time with an increasingly scientific worldview - the world could be made sense of and rational thought was the tool that could do it.

The state church was based on a different model – the idea that only certain people, like bishops and the ancient saints, could interpret their faith and decide how people should live.

And the dissenters were having none of it. They had the nerve to want to think for themselves.

Back in 1997 Apple - then known as Apple Computer - ran an ad campaign called “Think Different”:

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

People who are different. People who think for themselves, who don’t bow to the status quo, are often called crazy or awkward or bloody-minded or difficult.

Apple’s description fits. It fits the people who came before us and created the congregations that have come to be New Unity.

It fits Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Laetitia Barbauld who dissented against second class status for women. It fits Richard Price who dissented against hereditary rule and slavery. It fits the others drawn to this place and these people and dissented against cruel treatment of prisoners and lack of education. It fits our 21st century boycott of marriage – our vow that we would not marry anyone until we could marry everyone. It fits our self description as a non-religious church despite the norms of our culture.

Our New Unity forebears were daring rebels. They were misfits. They were vilified. And they changed the world. We are proud to be just as awkward.

Reading: from a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

[T]he field of psychology [has] given us a great word. It is the word maladjusted. [...] It is a good word; certainly it is good that in dealing with what the word implies you are declaring that destructive maladjustment should be destroyed. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence....


Message, part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a 20th century prophet. He called on people to be maladjusted in response to the things that are wrong with our society.

Being well-adjusted means being mentally and emotionally stable. It means being on an even keel – feeling calm and centred.

Being maladjusted is having a constant stone in your shoe, having a pain that you can’t ignore, having an itch that you just can’t quite scratch, having a thought that won’t leave you.

Being well-adjusted is peaceful. Being maladjusted is being agitated and unsettled.

Being maladjusted is being a dissenter.

I said that Martin Luther King was a prophet. The word “prophet” today is like some kind of honour – a noble status. But being a prophet was anything but. The prophets of the Bible were people – men and women – who said the things that no one wanted to hear. They were the ones who told the wealthy living in their palaces that the poor were their problem. They said that justice mattered more than power and wealth - that eating with a golden spoon when others had no food was evil and would destroy their very society.

Prophets were and are deeply unpopular. Martin Luther King’s home was fire-bombed. Eventually he was assassinated. Nelson Mandela spent decades in prison. Those who spoke out early about the climate crisis, those who fought for LGBT+ equality, those who opposed otherwise popular wars…

There are and were prophets in these struggles. They are often unheralded and beaten down until history later shows them to have been on the side of righteousness.

The dissenters were barred from university. They were unable to gain positions in civil or military service. Their ministers were forbidden from being within five miles from their former parishes. They were not allowed to be within five miles of any town or city at all.

Dissenters are the ones who change the world for the better, but they pay a great price for doing so.

If you are a dissenter today – if, for example, you challenge society’s value of money and property above all else – you will be poorer and less well-connected than you could be. Your non-dissenting friends will work in the City and drive Land Rovers and Jaguars, and you will still be riding your bike and taking the bus. They will have a house in Hampstead and a little summer place in the country or in France or Spain, and you will still be living in a shared flat.

I’m painting a bleak picture and it need not always be like that. But let’s make it just a bit more real. Being a dissenter is not only about being a dissenter toward the views of people far away or people we don’t know. Being a dissenter even means being a dissenter among the people close to us.

We humans are social animals. Like it or not, our relationships and the approval of people we care about are crucial to our happiness and our comfort. We long to be accepted and loved by our people.

Imagine yourself in a meeting. Everything is going nicely. You’re running on time and everyone is agreeing and then a topic comes up. You feel that stone in your shoe. You feel that itch. And as everyone else says yes, you say “hold on - no”. You speak up for trans people or about the fact that everyone making this decision is white or that there are not enough female voices or that we’re ignoring the impact on the climate crisis.

And it gets awkward. It gets uncomfortable. They’re all looking at you and you’re trying to find the words to explain why you alone disagree with everyone else. They don’t laud you for being a dissenter. They don’t praise you as a prophet. They think you’re a troublemaker. They look at their watches and are annoyed that you are going to make the meeting run over.

And even among the dissenters where being a misfit and a rebel is spoken of with pride, unless we’re incredibly thoughtful about practicing what we preach, no one wants the comfort of the shared thinking and values disturbed.

I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been the dissenter and I’ve also been the representative of the status quo who is irritated by the dissenter.

The dissenter can change the world but the dissenter often suffers for their good work. It costs them money and comfort and friends. It may cost them their lives.

So we are each faced with daily choices of whether to conform or whether to dissent. Whether to allow ourselves to be maladjusted or to be comfortable with a flawed status quo.

And in this community, we are faced with the challenge of living up to the lofty examples of our heritage – whether we are prepared to put aside comfort and time and expediency to make room for the dissent and the dissenters amongst us.

Let us be the people who have the courage to dissent for justice. Let us be the people who commit to making room for dissent even here at home.

Closing words

In every age, there are those who see what others do not
They are indignant about the injustice, the unfairness, the cruelty that others accept
And some speak out
They dare to challenge what most others accept without question
They suffer for this vision and this courage
But they were the ones who pointed us toward the good we have today
And will be the ones who show us the way to a better tomorrow