Religious scholar Prof. Charlie Hallisey tells this story about what it means to live a religious - and thus, compassionate life. He writes, "There was a Protestant village in France during the Second World War that got involved, at great risk to themselves, in protecting Jewish refugees. The people who participated were extremely inarticulate when asked why they did what they did. They said, 'Someone knocks on the door, you open it. You don't think about it. You open the door.' How did they become so good? They said, 'I don't feel so good. I didn't decide to do anything. I just opened the door.'
It is a striking illustration. I have only one problem with this "parable of the open door" and that is with the idea that the villagers, "...didn't decide to do anything." I disagree; I think they did decide to do something. They decided to live a religious life in religious community. Unlike many in today's rapidly secularizing world, the French villagers were guided not simply by their own personal spiritual promptings. They lived in covenanted community: that is to say, their individual spiritual journeys were tempered in the flame of group devotion and reflection and emerged on the other side stronger and more purposeful than if they had gone it alone. It was in no small part this communal religious life that made their actions during the Holocaust seem almost second-nature. Of course we will open the door. How could we do any other?
It seems to me that we Unitarians and Free Christians sometimes stumble when facing similar, if far less stark, decisions. Our community ought to remind us - if it is to deserve both the title "religious" and "community" to open our doors, again and again, even when it is not comfortable to do so, even when we have other things that fill up our church calendars, even when we are small or primarily elderly or under-resourced or whatever it is that keeps us stuck in our own safe, small house. We speak a great deal about freedom of conscience; being a Unitarian/Free Christian also means that a deep theological claim is made on each one of us within our congregations to hone our communal conscience as well. "Slavery is bad. Stigmatising immigrants—not allowed. Loving our neighbours, even ones we don't quite understand or struggle to appreciate—that is good." We may differ on who or what makes this deeper claim on our souls, our minds and hearts: God or our basic humanity or some other universal impulse we sense deep within. Where I would hope we would not differ is in agreeing that it is within the sanctuary and support of our chapel "home" where that community conscience is made flesh. Doing social action as individuals is important and honourable; thinking that it supplants or makes up for justice-making congregations is to misunderstand why liberal religious congregations exist in the first place.
There is good news out there as well of course. Some have been quite keen to poke our heads out (together) and welcome in the larger world. Send a Child to Hucklow is in its 60th year of providing holidays to disadvantaged children; the Penal Affairs Panel and its work continues to remind us of our commitment to treating even the most outcast with humanity and basic dignity, and within the GA and the outside world we have collectively taken a stand on gay/lesbian/bi and transgender dignity and equal marriage rights.
I like to think that SimpleGifts: Unitarian Centre for Social Action (for which I work) is a part of this ongoing effort as well, both at the community centre in East London and through "The Road Ahead" congregational coaching programme to help chapels become more effective, creative and collaborative places in which to act on their communal conscience.
We at SimpleGifts are working hard to help congregations and our movement to think larger thoughts, to move together in common pilgrimage towards a more peaceful, more just, more compassionate UK and, ultimately, world. Of course we are not alone in this effort. All the same, many agree that the collective "we" can be rather tentative when it comes to taking common action.
"The Road Ahead" coaching programme is only one suggestion for becoming more dynamic and proactive from being a group adept at making motions (which undoubtedly have their place) to actually moving as a group in order to make the change we hope to see in our hurting, hopeful world. If we cannot or will not do that, then in my view we neither deserve to be called "religious" nor a real "community."
On the other hand, we have made common cause in the past, and there is no reason why we can't "up our game" again in future. It is my hope that social action/social justice making will no longer be a sideline within the Unitarian/Free Christian tradition, but instead a cornerstone of the engaged liberal religious life in 2015 and beyond. Here we are, still together, unwilling to be either museum curators or religious patients on life support. We live together, you and I, in a safe and welcoming house. Before us is the door, and the knock, and the need. Why not open it together?
Rev. Rob Gregson
Director SimpleGifts Unitarian Centre for Social Action