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Politics and The Pulpit

by Stephen H. Fritchman Berry Street Essay, 1963, and delivered before the Ministerial Conference 1963

“Blessed be the hour that gave me birth between two eras!”  from The Odyssey by Nikos Kazantzakis

I HAVE a greater respect now than ever before in my life for the role of the liberal minister. While a few are bland in their message, a few abrasive in their temperaments, and some alert to the main chance, the overwhelming majority of Unitarian and Universalist ministers I have known have been compassionate without being sentimental, courageous without being exhibitionists, and proudly aware that theirs is the freest profession in the land today. Without hesitation I would say that the Unitarian or Universalist minister and his wife are often the two most valuable people in a community in the second half of this twentieth century. They have, in Dr.Paul Tillich’s phrase, “the courage to be.”

With decent humility, which is rarely sycophantic; with a confession of ignorance which grows apace with reading each new issue of The Scientific American (my own monthly hair shirt), the Unitarian or Universalist minister can and does say out loud what he thinks is true and necessary to be said. He is a privileged person in our society, since this same candor, or even a suspicion of it, can cost many another American his livelihood and his professional future. While the liberal minister may at times feel himself to be an amalgam of Sisyphus and Amos, he knows that he often becomes a tower of strength to his congregation, and even to the larger community, simply by standing erect on Sunday morning and saying: “The Emperor is naked.” And beyond the spoken word is the startling impact of his example. He is a man who means what he says, who is what he advocates, and who does not find this mode of life remarkable, except that he meets too few friends who are infected by his example.

I plan for a few minutes to speak with some candor, with some passion, and possibly by grace of your identification with my concern, with a little light. The unique thing about the Berry Street Lecture is that it is given to an audience that knows the ground as well as, or better, than the speaker, which is both a terrifying thought and a vast comfort. If you react as I have some twenty times at this annual lecture, you will welcome the nihil obstat of a fellow worker as he discusses matters of familiar concern and of the gravest importance. Dr. Channing wisely intended, I think, that once a year we should recover from any prevailing sense of isolation or singularity as we tamper with the universe. There is even something to be said for the ancient therapy of comparing our scars gained from the unending battle with the powers of darkness.

One major change in the presuppositions of the Berry Street essayists in the past fifty years is the shift to a broader base for our concept or religion. As I talk with my fellow ministers and study the sermons and news bulletins of scores of our Unitarian and Universalist churches today, I am persuaded that we no longer think of ourselves as primarily within the Protestant orbit; that we are indeed, as the Report of the Committee to Study Theological Education suggests, finding a synthesis of what might be called natural religion, or religious philosophy, and speculative theology. This surely is a definite trend, an accelerating one, however real may be the resistance and dissent on the part of some. We have been deviants from Judeo-Christian orthodoxy for the length of our existence as a Unitarian movement since the sixteenth century. In recent decades the shift to naturalism and humanism has been conspicuous to all careful observers. We have always been and frequently advocates of heresy.

I would accept the formulation of Harold Taylor in the Report just mentioned, that for a great number of our liberal churches today “to be religious means to be tolerant in one’s recognition of human weakness and to encourage the development of human strength, to entertain the views of life inherent in other religions, philosophies, and cultures; yet to work continually toward the achievement of personal belief which can express itself in a coherent philosophy and humanitarian action.” To some this may seem too little, to others too much, but after thirty-three years in our liberal ministry I believe it represents a fair assessment of our prevailing conviction.