Upon This Rock

A sermon marking the commissioning of the Board of Trustees- Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 15, 2019

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

This is the great commission by Jesus of Peter, formerly known as Simon.  Petrus, is of course the Latin word for rock a language that Jesus and the Apostles probably did not speak. But that’s beside the point.  Those words recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew became a powerful statement.  This sentence effectively created a religion meant to live beyond the life of Jesus.  By renaming Simon and commissioning Peter as the next leader, Jesus was grounding the continuation of his mission literally and metaphorically in the hands of his chosen successor. 

And so line of succession was created that leads directly to Pope Francis in the Roman church, and a host of Patriarchs in the various Orthodox churches. However those words came to be written down, whether Jesus said them or not is irrelevant.  The line was created.

If you are a lover of tradition, there is something poetic and even noble about a line of succession stretching back 2,000 years. On the other hand, a more detailed examination of that supposedly unbroken line reveals the many flaws and foibles in some very flawed and very human popes and patriarchs who have held high office.  

Grounding the power of the church in the hands of a single person creates a clear line of authority.  And it was the custom in a time of kings and queens and emperors. But such a structure comes with several flaws, starting with the character of the leader.  Some have been wonderful, some have not. And the structure itself is prone to political maneuvering and Machiavellian machinations.  The quest for power has more than a few times combined with moral flaws to create a wide array of abuses and criminal activity.

In the late Middle Ages a lot of people noticed and grew restive.  Absolute authority and the accompanying corruption was challenged politically and religiously.  And like all revolutions, some groups wanted a small change and others wanted a great deal more.

When the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation came into being about 500 years ago, they protested both the authority of the church hierarchy and the theology that had been devised to support that structure.  They had new and challenging interpretations of the Scripture.  Remember, Guttenberg’s printing press had only recently made the the Bible available to a much wider audience of scholars, priests and wealthy individuals.  Getting to read the whole Bible instead of carefully selected portions opened new realms of thought and debate.

First, there came a rejection of the authoritarian structure of Christianity.  That included, in some quarters, a rejection of the iron grip clergy held on the doctrine and dogma that justified their power.

The sects that sprang up at that time, sects that included the Mennonites, the Anabaptists and yes, Unitarians, rejected the idea of priestly authority being divinely ordained.  And here they did not mean just the pope and the bishops.  They came to believe that there was no Scriptural justification for the privileged priestly intermediary placed between a person and her or his god.  There might be learned guides (you know, like ministers), but they should be called up from the community and not ever be given the absolute power over belief.  They were not the judges of who would gain heaven, only God had that power.  And people had to have direct access to the divine.

This resistance was not well received by Church authorities.  One Bohemian priest, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake for challenging priestly authority and privilege.  His crime?  After giving out the bread of communion, he also passed out the wine cup, a ritual hitherto reserved for priests alone.

That simple passage from Matthew’s Gospel, “You art Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church,” had spawned an immense institution.  Human foibles would cause the cracking of its foundation 1500 years later.  

But I think there is a greater significance to the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation.  The radical religious leaders began the first halting steps towards civil democracy as well as religious.  The age of royal authority would not disappear easily, it would last another three centuries, but in reclaiming the right of religious authority for the people, the inevitable slide away from authoritarian rule began.  A new model was available, one where people had a increasing say in the shaping of belief and in defining their church community.  They now a significant role to play in creating new models of leadership

In church terms, from that Radical Reformation sprang a new organizational philosophy eventually called congregationalism.  It would have as many different expressions as there were new religious groupings.  There would be episcopal models where authority would be vested not in a single person, but in a council of bishops (episcopos in Greek).  There would be models where congregations would elect councils of elders sometimes called vestries, who would then elect regional councils etc.  

So from out on the fringes of radicalism came congregationalism.  Each religious community, though it might be bound in association with other similar communities, was to be free and independent.  The people, the members, would elect their own leaders and choose their own ministers.  No authority from the denomination could impose decisions or doctrines on local communities.  There might be wise counsel offered, and attempts to negotiate unified positions, statements and teaching materials, but no congregation could be forced to accept them.  People chose to join religious communities based on the idea of covenants made between people instead of commandments handed down from on high.

That’s a long way from “Thou art Peter and upon this rock…”

Congregationalism is the model of “church polity” -that’s the technical phrase – embraced by Unitarian Universalism.  In my career I have had the honour of serving as the President of both the Canadian Unitarian Council and the global International Council of Unitarianism and Universalism.  I can assure you with 100 percent authority that the holders of those offices have zero percent  authority over the lives and decisions made in congregations!

And that’s the way we think it should be.  Within Unitarianism we have Principles, which I discussed last week, but we also have six Sources of inspiration.  These sources name the tools and resources every individual can bring to bear on working out their beliefs and values, effectively shaping their understanding of the Principles.  The first…the first is “Direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which inspires us to create and uphold life.”

In other words, the first source of your beliefs and your religious outlook is you.  What you feel, think and experience in this life is the greatest influencer on the shaping of your personal beliefs.

So when you walk into a place like this and decide this is a place where you feel at home, you arrive with control of your right to believe.  Perhaps you feel a need to formally join the community.  Great!  You accept the covenant that binds us together.

The polity of a community like this is a build-up, grass roots model.  We have often said it in our invitation to the offering.  This church belongs to its members.  Quite literally.  The members of this church are the highest authority within Unitarian Universalism.  Members are effectively shareholders in this property.  Members decide the budget and the expenditures.  Members will also decide in the not so distant future, what kind of ministry you will have and which qualified minister will be called to serve this position.

No Pope.  No patriarch.  No Bishops.  Nada.

Here’s the ‘but’…, well perhaps two of them.  

First, with membership comes responsibility.  We are a small bunch.  We need to hear all our voices as we make decisions, and we need you to contribute time and energy as you are able to the running and weekly operations of this church.  There is no pope to do it for you.  UCE is yours to make wonderful or to let slide.

Second, we all know, I think, that absolute freedom is as poor an idea as absolute authority.  Without some principles of organization, without some agreement as to how people will live together in community, we quickly descend into anarchy.  We need to have some organizing principle.

And so we have this church.  It is a legal entity registered under the Alberta Religious Societies Act.  That means we have a set of By-laws registered with the government.  They affirm that every member has a right to vote on all major decisions.  But that can be quite cumbersome in everyday terms.  And so there is a provision for us to elect a Board of Trustees, congregational members to whom we lend a measure of our authority.  We ask them to manage the finances, pay the bills, design policies that manage the work.  They look out for the hiring of staff and contractors, the preparation and management of the annual budget.  We ask them to figure out how ensure we have a sufficient supply of volunteers.  This year they have also been tasked with taking the first steps in managing the multi-year ministerial transition process.

It is quite a load of responsibility and for all my time here the various Boards have done an effective job.

Today, we commission this new Board.  We elected them at the Annual Meeting in May, and they have been in charge since July, but today we take on the ritual aspect of recognizing them, sending them forth on their work with our blessing.  

Essentially we are doing that same ancient thing.  They are our Peter, and upon these rocks we build our church.