Palm Sunday

From Richard Sym's The Ferris Wheel. He is an Anglican priest who, however, works in the theatre.

The Gospel accounts remains....that they can be made to come true, if man cares to do so (Syms, The Ferris Wheel, 1989, pp. 35-6)
The service theme is about a time to stay and a time to move on, and that in our journeyings of all kinds we give life shape. With my mother and I moving on the church will again lose some people, but I have no doubt we will be replaced as long as this church does not lose sight of its essential message: that we are all worthwhile potential human beings, and the fullness of humanity can only come through with liberty. Much of the Islamic world may have forgotten it or not realised it, but scientific and general progress is made in fact through a critical spirit: and that needs liberty to assess, remould, reform and produce what is relevant for the current generation. That is what this Unitarian movement is about.
Liberty was gained because in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the person and the event. Judaism interpreted events, and Christianity is about the person of Christ. The sources are varied and have been from the beginning interpretations. And Jesus was an ironic person, and irony and parable always requires us to see the point for ourselves. So, unless a synagogue or Church does the hard work for us, and acts as fixer of tradition rather than simply as institutional carrier, then we must all be the reinterpreters. So the Reformation and the Enlightenment had to come along, and humanism as well. Our denomination in this had and has its full role to play; and, have you noticed, at this time when an author of creative imaginary literature is under attack, many British Churches are re-emphasising liberty.
Liberty is essential to a true journey. A true journey is about freedom to take one road rather than another, to make good decisions, also to make mistakes. Children, I am told, grow up as much by making mistakes as by getting it right. And this process of journeying through life gives shape, gives meaning. And not only to ourselves as individuals. The three minute culture may shrink our social selves, as we each become individual zombie-like consumers of flashing images, like in the world of the cartoon Bible (which, incidentally, seeks to limit reinterpretation as much as to aid it), but in fact the nature of our selves as selves is not just individual but social. In other words, we use our individual life journeys to reinterpret not just who we are as individuals but the nature of the world around us.
Maybe it leads to a heavy sense of agnosticism about the nature of the world. Now I may present a clear view of what I believe - that's because these days presentation is everything, but behind my views is a great deal of doubt. A bit of personal history! I was attracted to the idea of ministry at Essex but there my stay was a personal failure. So I came back to Hull and initially used social Methodist contacts to begin what was to become my doctorate. As I read theological works I realised that their's was not the only interpretation of Christianity. But they did not like mine, and so I was confirmed at University in 1984 and from then I began serious thinking about ministry. I was looking for a summer vacation church but the Hull ones were fundy, but I happened to go for a walk with my neice and dog along the railway track from Sutton to Swine and by chance Roger Pickering was walking down the village road. That became my church and, as you all know, from then until now I have enjoyed a very strong friendship with both Roger and Cynthia there. So the idea of divine initiative in all this did cross my mind, slightly (!), despite my modernity, although then by chance via the Bahais I found this Unitarian church which had the potential to serve my modernity, and I slowly made it my main church and then even more slowly considered ministry within this denomination.
The Anglican priest Richard Syms, who I quoted earlier in reference to Jesus on the donkey, says this about God:
        Let us be clear what we....see his revelations in more places and situations than we would have thought possible... (Syms, 1989, p. 25)
Richard Syms notes how he found himself in the right place to attend to his mother's death and later see his father live. He saw God intervening, rather than random chance, to allow him to be at these events. But I'd say that although it is credible to use this old Judaeo-Christian model we must not mix subjective desire with objective reality, and such a view of divine intervention cannot just be imported when it feels nice and looks good. Let us be agnostic about it, I say, but more so look at it another way. The value of the events of a journey is in the events themselves. My mixing with Swine and being here is by chance, but its value is that by journeying we give shape to our lives, make the next move possible, and the value is in the events themselves. It so happened that it did not rain on that day of walking to Swine; it so happened that I went to Hospital Radio and so did the Bahais, that I therefore met them, found a book they did not like and so came here in order to to ask some embarassing questions to their regional meeting. So events develop and meaning and value comes from them.
And really, I prefer what Richard Syms said about Jesus on the donkey. Here was no supernatural intervention: rather the meaning was in the event itself. Of course Jesus grounded himself in the tradition and made himself the object of the prophecies, and this was seen as in his day as supernatural. But when it came to predicting that the Kingdom of God would come in before his generation passed away, well then his external God rather let him down. No, things are meaningful not because things are plonked there by an outside force, but because we make events and both the expected and the unexpected are shaped by us. We, as Don Cupitt has said, are like artists: we shape our destinies, and the emphasis is on the continuous act of shaping.
Jesus wasn't the only one to get it wrong. Now if you independently investigate the truth about the Bahai faith, as Bahais themselves say, you can come to the same kind of conclusion about Bahai history as about Jesus waiting for the Kingdom. Back in 1845 the prophet known as the Bab believed that the hidden twelfth Imam would return to Persia at Karbala on the 10th January 1845. Crowds gathered, and - guess what? Nothing happened. So the Bab then said that he was himself who he'd said would come, and then he next said he was greater than Muhammad. So the Bab gives us no confidence in supernatural prophecy, and perhaps that and the violence of the time is why the second Bahai leader Abdul Baha declared that the Bab was beyond the Bahai faith. However, since the time that Abdul Baha's successor, Shoghi Effendi, rehabilitated the Bab, Bahais now say that their faith started in 1844 rather than simply 1863.
In 1863 the Bahai founder, Baha'u'llah, declared to some friends that he was 'He whom God shall manifest', in other words the next manifestation after the Bab, also after Mohammad, Jesus, Moses, and those they since included like Buddha, and so on. Now, the Bab had said both that in 7000 to 12000 years he would be succeeded by a manifestation but that no one could untruthfully claim to be 'He whom God shall manifest'. Well, of course, many did claim just that, but Baha'u'llah's was the most successful. But was this supernatural?
The Bab appointed a leader to look after his movement. He was Sub-i-azal. Sub-i-azal, like the Bab, was secretive, but his aristocratic half-brother, Baha'u'llah, was a keen administrator and he rebuilt the shattered Babi movement, and thus gained loyalty and became the next manifestation. Sub-i azal also claimed to be the next manifestation too, but he did not succeed. So in 1868 the two men and their followers split, full of violence too.
Now the Bahais claim supernatural infallibility for Baha'u'llah, and also the words of Abdul Baha and Shoghi Effendi cannot be questioned. But lets look at Baha'u'llah. He said that he would be succeeded by Abdul Baha and then Mohammad Ali. But he got that wrong because Muhammad Ali accused Abdul Baha of changing Baha'u'llahs teachings. He set up a fringe group called the Unitarians, and thus Abdul Baha excommunicated him and so could not be his successor. So Baha'u'llah wasn't very infallible was he? And yet the Bahais won't question the exclusion of women from the Bahais highest legislature because Baha'u'llah said so, incidentally a legislature intended to be that of future world government.
I cannot believe that Baha'u'llah ever "succeeded" Jesus. But Bahaism gave shape to its own tradition, a shape I would say is somewhat in conflict with the Western critical tradition. Our tradition allows a true journey to be free and make mistakes as well as advances, which allows for diversity and plurality. Anyway, at least the Bahais have no Ayatollah Khomeini, and they will not try to kill me: they've suffered enough from him as it is.
Now, I have been fortunate that I have been able to do a doctorate on the sociology of English Christianity. I want to use it in the context of ministry. Our denomination needs to use sociology of religion, perhaps more so than theology, to know our place in the religious world and develop it, also how we can both use and get around the three minute culture which does create a shorter time span for sermons, increases images and ritual, demands jollity, privatises religion and, yes, makes it more agnostic and this-worldly. We have to against the trend protect quality, but we must not look over-bourgois. So I throw into the Unitarian pot a post-Christian humanism based on libertarian radical missionary purposes. And I hope to work to potential. What I'll want to be doing is fleshing out our faith for the present time. I hope we will all try to be reinterpreters for our day.
I don't say I'm right, and pluralism demands real arguments, real debate, and no forced unity like the Bahais. Richard Syms reinterpreted his faith his way, and we have to reinterpret our faith too in different ways. And we have to find ways of presenting the essential, the ever relevant, the ever needed, faith of the free.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful