To Hold Our Traditions Fast — Or Not? (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 11 June 2017

Tradition Unitarian Church of Montreal

To clap or not to clap, that is the question. 

Many years ago, it wasn’t unusual for the congregation to clap after each piece of music, breaking the flow of worship. A lot of people began to feel that the clapping took away from their feeling of being in worship and moved things more into a performance. So, in 1999, when two of our members went to an organ concert in Davis, California, a solution was conceived.

The couple noticed a man in the pew in front of them who did not clap. “Instead he used one or a combination of hand actions. Sometimes he held both hands vertical, palm out, in front of himself and rotated them out and back in rapidly several times – this action, he said when questioned after the concert, is the International Sign Language for the Deaf sign for applause. 

At other times during the concert, the man rubbed both palms together in a rotary motion. He told the couple that “he believed that this was an old Thai manner of showing appreciation. If the audience is quiet, the multitude of rubbing hands makes a significant and pleasing noise. It is kinder than clapping, he said, on the bones of those with arthritis, while still letting the performers know they were appreciated.” 

The couple liked watching this man’s movements and they brought this action of softly, silently rubbing hands together back to the church. It became a tradition. 

For years, I would vigilantly remind people that here we rub our hands rather than clap our hands. When I didn’t remind people, newcomers would ask me, “What is this strange thing you do here? This rubbing of hands? What does it mean?” And of course, pity the poor person who didn’t know the rules and started to clap with enthusiasm. I’m sure there were moments when that lone visitor received a sharp glance.  “Who are you to clap in our sanctuary?!” It would take a brave soul to come back through our doors after that. 

To clap or not to clap, that is the question.
A number of years ago, I was asked by two friends to officiate at their wedding. The bride and groom were first generation Haitians here in Montreal. The bride asked me to co-officiate with the minister of her Haitian Baptist church. The ceremony would be held here in our sanctuary.

I began the ceremony in what you might call the traditional Unitarian way with poetry and blessings. I offered my loving charge to the couple and they cried with emotion. Then it was the Baptist minister’s turn to lead them into their vows. “On manque-là un peu de vie !” he said. “Let’s get some life into this celebration!” and he drove the gathering into a resounding round of applause. That’s when the party started. That’s when I started to reevaluate my feelings about clapping.

Now this seems like a pretty mundane topic for a service. But it’s a strong metaphor for the power of tradition here, especially as we face the challenge of living up to our desire to be a radically inclusive community. For many years, I was steeped in the tradition of New England Unitarianism, in Concord, Massachusetts, where you can be sure we never clapped in worship, or asked each other questions or, heaven forbid, held hands. The First Parish of Concord was home to some of the most famous Unitarians you can name. Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and Hawthorne. Ralph Waldo Emerson sat in First Parish’s balcony in 1838, not long before the Unitarian Church of Montreal was founded. While our ancestors here were recovering from the Rebellion of 1837, and just starting to re-gather into a Unitarian community, Emerson was listening to Rev. Barzilai Frost preach, formulating words that would become part of his famous Divinity School Address and change the course of Unitarianism forever.

“A snow storm was falling around us,” Emerson wrote. “The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession--namely, to convert life into truth--he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life— life passed through the fire of thought.”

There are times when you need to make some noise.

Consider our earliest history. We were finally and formally founded in June of 1842, but it would take another year before the congregation called the Rev. John Cordner as our first minister.  Cordner, without a doubt, would have had more affinity for Barzilai Frost than for Emerson. Cordner was aloof. He rarely showed any emotion and certainly, no aspect of his personal life would have made it into a sermon. Yet he was a firebrand of another sort. 

At the time of the church’s founding, Unitarian beliefs were considered dangerously radical. Cordner and the congregation thrived on being controversial. It was their mark in the city as they attracted many members from the merchant class who were drawn in by the idea that they —rather than God—could be self-reliant masters of their own destiny. The Molsons, the Workmans, and others chose to join a church that viewed them as free agents with “the image of God reflected in [their] souls,” as Cordner would have said. 

But over the course of the next 30 years, as Unitarian theological positions came to be accepted in the city, the congregation began to lose its spark. Born in contentious times, the Unitarians had been energized by the need to defend themselves. Now that their ideas were less controversial, the congregation was beginning to lose its sense of purpose. 

Cordner believed that God’s revelation to humanity was something that had happened in the time of Jesus, not something that was continuously transforming. Meanwhile, down South, the American Unitarians had begun to question the necessity of a Christian identity.  By 1865, the American Unitarian Association had formally voted down a statement of doctrine that would have claimed Christianity as the core of Unitarianism. 

Cordner was mortified. He feared that Unitarianism was being detached from God and that, without care, humanism would take over. He felt vindicated that he had pushed the congregation to adopt the name of the Church of the Messiah several years before. It was one way to ensure that the church in Montreal — alone and isolated — would never lose its central focus. Here was a man who had made his mark through controversy and now he was moving further and further into the position of traditionalist. 

But as they say, time stands still for no one. The desires of the younger members of the congregation were shifting with the times. As Cordner reached retirement, the congregation looked for a more modern minister who would bring inspiration from science and the arts, not just scripture. It was no surprise that they finally settled on a minister whose emotional temperature was far as possible from corpse cold — a term Emerson had used to describe the Unitarians in Boston.

In 1879, Rev. William Barnes agreed to fill in for a month while the congregation continued its search. Rev. Barnes would end up serving as minister here for the next 30 years. (You could say that he had one of those “Hotel California moments”. He checked in and never checked out.)

Barnes brought a theology of love and inclusiveness that reflected his very way of being in the world. He was a man who would often be found coatless in the middle of the winter because he’d given his coat away to someone he felt needed it more than he did. He drew inspiration from poets, writers and scientists for his preaching. And he moved away from Cordner’s narrow focus on a Unitarian Christianity toward a Unitarianism that embraced pluralism. He saw the whole world going the Unitarian way. He thought that, eventually, everyone would move away from creeds toward a more liberal spirit, focusing on character and life rather than on dogma.

Barnes brought warmth and restraint. He cultivated good will within Montreal. Over the course of his ministry, Unitarians became more accepted within the city. Members of the Board of Management no longer worried that they would face discrimination in their workplaces or neighbourhoods. At the same time, the church attracted an increasing number of new members who had belonged to other denominations.

There is much that remains in our DNA from both Cordner and Barnes. There is Cordner’s resilient, fighting spirit, and his rational coolness that shies away from emotiveness.  At the same time there is Barnes’ expansiveness that reaches out in love and warmth to the community within these walls and beyond. There is Unitarianism experienced as thought and Unitarianism experienced as emotion. 

Today, we live in a world that has both embraced and rejected the ideals of our founding generations. In some ways, Cordner was right. Unitarianism did become diluted and secularism would eventually take over the heart of the church as well as the heart of the city. In other ways, Barnes was right, the whole world was moving in our direction, and that was a triumph, not a loss.

Today, we live in times that call for the wisdom and strength of both Cordner and Barnes. Some of the world has gone our way, becoming increasingly open to difference, moving away from narrow interpretations of faith, responding to a call for us to live up to our natural goodness. But in other ways, it feels as though the world is moving backwards in time, returning to a more cynical view of humanity as inherently evil. It’s hard  not to fall into despair. Cordner would have told us to stand our ground. Barnes would have encouraged us to keep reaching out in love, no matter what.

So back to the central question in this sermon: To clap or not to clap.

We need tradition as much as we need innovation. If we are to become a truly welcoming, inclusive sanctuary, then we have to face the challenge that what works for one group of people does not work for everyone. Theodore Parker, another 19th century Unitarian from New England, would have said that the forms of what we do don’t matter. They will always change, but the ultimate truth that feeds our faith remains permanent. It never changes. These days, I’m not convinced that there is one truth that we will eventually find. But I do know that the form and shape of what we do is constantly changing with the shifts in our culture and the shifts in our desires to live out new aspirations. 

Both Cordner and Barnes came out of anglophone cultures. (I can’t say ‘English’ because Cordner was from Ireland and Barnes was from Boston.) Each expressed the Montreal anglophone culture in different ways. Today, we are no longer a congregation of wealthy merchants. There is no John Molson to write cheques when we run out of money. We are no longer only English speakers here, or only people who mostly come from English, Scottish and Irish backgrounds. Montreal has changed around us and we have changed within it.

So would you join me in an experiment? You can, of course, opt out if you don’t want to do join me in trying this. No judgement, no guilt.

I want to invite you to quietly rub your hands together, to hear the beauty of the sound as if it were rustling leaves in the forest. [Silent clapping]

Now join me in clapping with as much joy and enthusiasm as you can possibly muster. [Loud clapping]

Some of us come from cultures that clap. Some of us want our worship to be loud, bold and emotive. Some of us want our worship to be quiet and contemplative. There are times when I love the energy of clapping loudly with joy and appreciation. There are other times when I love the quiet. In my life, I need both. If I’m a visitor, please don’t glare at me if I don’t follow your rules. Smile at me and welcome me in.

There are traditions that we hold fast. There are traditions that we leave behind and traditions we constantly reshape. I know nothing we do will ever fully please everyone. But as we go, we can make space for our diverse expressions and needs. As Rumi wrote, 

This being human is a guest-house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor…
Still, treat each guest honorably.
[They] may be clearing you
out for some new delight.

The feelings that unsettle us may be exactly what we need as we move beyond our anniversary year and into the future.

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