BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Freedom of the Pulpit and the Pew

a sermon by Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak
preached on 21 January 2018
commemorating the 450th Anniversary of the Edict of Torda

Today we’re celebrating an event that happened a long, long time ago, in a country far away, within a culture very different from our own, in an age of great religious upheaval. But even though so much has changed in these 450 years, the essence of those Edicts and the small revolution they engendered are a large part of our heritage.
As the Reading reminded us, when we talk about Unitarian Universalist history, we often look only a generation or two back, to the time of merger. Or, often we’ll go all the way back to mid-19th century, to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing… and maybe Joseph Priestley before that. But 16th century Transylvania? The land of Vlad Dracul and the mysterious Carpathian Mountains?
Yes – and if you recall a sermon last year on Dávid Ferenc – Francis David – you might remember my affinity for and connection to those events and this heritage. This morning I bring us back to that again, focusing on this essential part of that heritage: our tradition of the free pulpit.
In the Letter of Agreement most Unitarian Universalist ministers sign when they are called to a congregation – or the contract as interim minister of this congregation that I have with you, it says something like this: “It is the basic premise of this congregation (or Fellowship) that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. The minister is expected to express his/her values, views and commitments without fear or favor.”
And the Guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association expand this a bit further:
1. Freedom of the pulpit is fundamental to the commitment of Unitarian Universalist congregations to the disciplines of persuasion in the presence of truth.
2. Freedom of the pulpit is delegated by the membership to the minister. The minister is accorded the freedom to speak the truth as she or he understands it when in the pulpit or when expressing views through other channels such as the parish newsletter or the newspaper.
3. The minister does not, however, necessarily speak for either the society or its members. It is the minister’s responsibility to do everything possible to make clear when she or he is speaking as an individual.
This freedom to “speak the truth as she or he understands it” is a hallmark of the Free Church – a tradition common to Congregationalists and Baptists as well as Unitarian Universalists. But for us it goes back these 450 years, to the kingdom of Transylvania and the days of vigorous religious debate – and the years of religious warfare. Religious persecution was rampant in Europe during the Reformation and Counterreformation. In a changing religious landscape, Protestants and Catholics took up arms against one another. Educated in the classical humanist traditions of the Renaissance, King John Sigismund believed in and practiced the art of free inquiry. And the Edict of Toleration sought to extend that to all (within a limited range, however) – as a way to end the violence perpetrated in the name of religious purity or truth.
I’ll read those words from the Edict again:
“in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.”
In this concise statement a tradition that would carry forward for centuries was established. Oh, it was soon largely forgotten by the most of the world. By the time our Unitarian and Universalist forbears organized congregations in this country, the events in Eastern Europe were, if anything, just a dim memory. And of course, the Edict did not go far enough in our contemporary sensibilities and values. There were “received religions” that were given particular freedoms and favor, and others that were merely tolerated. But stepping away from use of the sword – and other cruel measures of torture and death – as a means of religious persuasion was quite revolutionary! And I do believe that something of the desire for freedom and the need to formally make room for the light of reason and the spirit of truth in preaching and in worship remained in people’s hearts. It’s one of those things that is carried forward through generations and flowers again in another place, in another era.
And it is important to remember that this freedom extended beyond the pulpit to the pew as well. Within this edict clergy preached by the dictates of their intellect and their conscience – not bound to the authority of any dogma or other ecclesiastical decree. And the hearers of this word were not forced to agree with the preacher or conform to whatever it was he said (because, they were all men back then.). They, too, held their own convictions, their own opinions and views, their own questions. And added to this was the freedom of the church itself – both pulpit and pew – from external authority of governor or king or magistrate. The congregation had the right to keep or remove its minister.
These were radical ideas in the 16th century – when violence destroyed monasteries and churches, and people were burned and the stake and beheaded for holding contrary views. When a Catholic again ruled Transylvania and Hungary, Dávid Ferenc was imprisoned because he continued to preach freely according to his conscience even after the new king told him to stop. Dávid died a martyrs’ death in prison. Unitarian books and papers were burned and the presses that printed them were destroyed.
But the light of this freedom did not go out.This same freedom, thousands of miles and hundreds of years away, allowed the “Unitarian controversy” to blossom in this country in the 19th century. Then, none other than William Ellery Channing was denied access to the pulpit of his congregation. His offense? He had preached at the memorial service for his colleague Charles Follen who was an ardent abolitionist. That was the reason offered for this denial – but in truth the vote by the trustees of his congregation was inspired by Channing’s own growing support of the anti-slavery movement.
And later in New England, Theodore Parker’s radical views of Christianity led to new challenges to and a clearer definition of this freedom of the pulpit. Congregations and ministers in those days regularly observed the practice of “pulpit exchanges”. Ministers got to reuse those lengthy 2 hour sermons they spent days crafting, and members of the congregation got to hear a variety of opinions and insights as area clergy “traded” pulpits with one another for a Sunday. But the ministers who found Parker’s views too far beyond the pale cut him out of the rotation. He was denied the freedom of the pulpit and the parishioners were denied their right of the freedom of the pew.
This freedom is a long and noble heritage. It is liberating. It has been misused and misunderstood. It has been forgotten. And so it is good to revisit this tradition every so often. Certainly when a new minister is called to a congregation. As your Search Committee meets with prospective ministers, these sentiments and words will come up again – not only in the formal Letter of Agreement but also in the conversations a prospective minister has with a congregation. So it is good to lay out what this “freedom” entails and have a good understanding of our transition and our expectations.
The freedom of the pulpit and the pew is part of our American tradition. It is part of our spiritual heritage – embedded in the principle of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are proud of the liberty in our pulpits, and we fiercely defend our principle of individual conscience where members are free to agree, disagree and wrestle with life’s biggest questions – all in the spirit of fellowship, covenant and of love.
This is rooted in another historical document – the Cambridge Platform – crafted in 1648… this document is “only” 360 years old! It is the foundational document for the Pilgrim churches in which Unitarian Universalists are rooted, and it states that “there is no greater Church than a Congregation,” which consists of those who would join in voluntary agreement and covenant with each other to “worship, edify and have fellowship.” The authority lies with the autonomous congregation; but its strength rests in its covenant of fellowship… the agreements entered into freely that grant us this freedom and this responsibility.
Congregations so empowered ordained and called their own ministers without consent of bishop or other authority. Thus today, the heirs of these mighty documents, are free to worship, to wonder and discuss and conclude without the imprimatur of approval from any such higher authority. Today, rooted in this 17th century document, we are the direct heirs of those 16th century Transylvanians.
Our link to the Edict of Torda is more than sentimental or imaginary or tenuous It is imprinted in us in our Unitarian DNA. It is vital to our future as a liberal religious faith and tradition. Back in 2012 I visited several sites in Transylvania that are part of our Unitarian history. This pilgrimage served to remind me of how lucky we are to be here, now, today, Unitarian Universalists in 2018! The church where the Edict was attested to and signed is now a catholic church, but there is a plaque on the wall commemorating that event.
We were in the room where it happened, but it was all quite different now. And we stood where those momentous events happened 450. As some words were read commemorating King John Sigismund and Dávid Ferenc, I looked at the light streaming across the flagstones where they had walked… and reflected on the sacrifices they made.
The courage they exhibited – all in the name of truth, in the cause of religion, in the service of God. We are grounded in more than these old stories and commemorations.
This faith we claim did come at a cost, especially in those pre-Enlightenment years. And so today I remind us not to take these stories lightly. The faith and religious traditions we claim are made new in each generation – maybe even each year or week! We may be guilty of innovation, too, just as Dávid Ferenc was accused of being.
The cause of truth calls us and the need for religion to make sense and be relevant to our world is central to us. We still rely on the essence of that Edict and we should never be so self-satisfied that we forget that. We remain committed to this free faith that does not come without cost.
We remember, even as we bask in the light of the separation of church and state, that this Edict proposed that faith is a “gift of God”. That it is what we who name the Sacred or Holy, what we deem essential to our very being, is our authority – not some state or government or ruler.
Our tradition of the free pulpit and the free pew is what gives us the power to resist – to resist idolatries and authoritarianism. And to protect freedom and equality for all people.
So while this Edict of Torda was radical in its time, it is not a document that defines us today. We look back to it to see our roots and know our history better. And on on the anniversary the torch is being passed to us.
Who will we become in the 21st century? Will we make sure that this “toleration” continues to expand and evolve into deep acceptance and a true affirmation of difference and diversity? Will we continue to learn what freedom really means, and how we can live in a society that needs to be called back to its ideals of inclusion and democratic values?
This is a kind of never-ending reformation. May we have the courage and the stamina to carry on. So these words printed in our hymnal attributed to Dávid Ferenc remind us:
The most important spiritual functioned conscience, the source of all spiritual joy and happiness.
Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice.
We must accept God’s truth in this lifetime. Salvation must be accomplished here on earth.
God is indivisible. Egy as Isten.

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