Does Church Mean Christian?

Sermon by Mr. Arthur Thexton

The Oxford English Dictionary, devoting over 4 full pages to the term, says that the origin of the word, including its Gaelic form "kirk," is uncertain but it clearly is, in historic times, a description of a Christian place of worship. It has been later extended to cover non-Christian groups: first the biblical Hebrew congregations and as a translation of the Latin and Greek words ecclesia, originally meaning "to call out" and meaning a regularly convoked assembly of citizens, especially in Athens where it referred to the meeting of citizens to conduct city business. Then, to apply to any group with a religious tone, including Humanists and Mormons (!).

The Encyclopedia of Religion, the authoritative work edited by the great scholar Mircea Eliade, agrees that "church" means a place of Christian worship, and that the translation from "ecclesia" is one of those retrospective deals.

UU minister Mark Bellitini, traced "church" back to the Sanskrit "Khurkh,"
which means "place of strength." A much nicer image, I think you’ll agree!

The OED says that "synagogue" like ecclesia originally meant an assembly, and only later came to mean the building for it. We are told that Roman Catholic abbeys were sometimes referred to as synagogues after the Reformation, often disparagingly.

"Temple" on the other hand, has always meant a place or house for worship, originally as a dwelling place for a deity. As they put it:

"Historically applied to the sacred buildings of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other ancient nations; now, to those of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and the ethnic religions generally."

Also, places of worship for Jews, and for Christians. And:

"In France and some French speaking countries, a Protestant as distinguished from a Roman Catholic place of worship (the term "church” (église) being usually confined to the latter)."

It's a struggle to arrive at a label of comfort. Witness the struggle of those brought here in bondage to find a label acceptable to all: colored and people of color, black and Negro (Spanish for black), Afro-American and African-American.

Of course, I was not present at the founding of this congregation. I was a part of the founding of the James Reeb congregation, in Madison. There was a strong feeling in that steering committee that we wanted our ecclesia to be an expressly spiritual and religious home, and we considered many alternatives for nomenclature: I particularly remember Prism Community Church as one alternative. We discussed being Universalist, and leaving Unitarian aside, as a call to the more earthy side of our history. We knew
we did not want to be a "society" or a "fellowship." I wonder if you had a
similar discussion, at the time of your founding.

But we had no one on the steering committee of Jewish heritage. It's a struggle to forgive hundreds of years of cruelty and discrimination: witness the pogroms and the holocaust, the ghettoes and Inquisition. Anti-Semitism has, over the past 2000 years, been a specialty of groups calling themselves Christians, and who said that they were acting in the name of Christianity, and it is entirely appropriate for the objects of Christian oppression to be alert to any signs of rebirth of this odious and deadly form of ethnocentrism. Notwithstanding the good will, and the sincere repudiation of anti-Semitism, by modern Christians and their denominations, you can’t expect people to forget such a history. Words have power, and one's choice of words says volumes about what thinking is behind those choices. Liberal religious persons of Jewish heritage want to meet liberal religious persons of gentile heritages halfway, but there is nothing wrong with insisting that halfway means halfway, and no more!

We UU's have had it easy in the United States. We came from WASP stock, we have roots in respectability. We have never suffered the persecution of our Transylvanian cousins, and don't think about Michael Servetus being burned alive, with his books, by John Calvin's Presbyterians. We are amused by being called a "cult" by the Pat Robertson crew, and are merely annoyed at being confused with the Universal Life Church, otherwise known as the Moonies. We are fat in our comfort, and forget the pain of others that benefits us.

When our Jewish members say "we haven't forgotten what the Christians did to us, and we don't want to call our “place of strength” by a name that is Christian to the core," we need to listen.

We are a movement of converts; apparently the current statistics are that over 80% of adult members of our congregations did not grow up UU. Now, there aren't very many UU's of Jewish heritage, compared to the number of those of us from generally Christian, especially Protestant, heritage. I am somewhat of an exception: I’m a lifelong UU whose parents were themselves raised unchurched and are 100% humanist atheists. I never attended a Christian church other than as a visitor. When I was going into sixth grade, we moved and I attended a new school in a new state, and was informed on the first day of school that we began the day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer, the leadership of these to be rotated around the classroom alphabetically (this was one year before the Supreme Court decision outlawing compulsory prayer in public schools). I had never heard the Lord's Prayer before, and did not know what it was. Fortunately for my 12 year old sensibilities, my last name starts with a T, late in the alphabet, so I heard it 20 times before I had to start it off.

Even I had a great deal of Christian cultural heritage: Christmas and Easter were the holidays at home (entirely secular: Santa Claus and presents, and the Easter Bunny, with eggs and jelly beans being the operative principles), but this is not the same as being a secular Jew who does not "do" temple but whose family still attends Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, builds a Succoth in the fall and has a Seder for Passover in the spring!

We UU's want to grow our numbers, spread our message, heal the recovering.
We can do it by concentrating on those who, like me, are just not religiously Christian, but are culturally so. There is much work to be done among these folk, as all of you can attest. Or, we can do the even harder work of including those with whom we have little in common culturally:
Jewish folk, black folk, Hispanic folk, native American folk, and so forth.
I don't know what the limits to cultural tolerance are: I'd like to include cultural Islam in my circle.

To really have diversity, not just to tolerate it but to welcome it, to seek it out, to pull it in and embrace it, requires that we let go of the easy ways, the comfortable, the familiar, the normal. But I know we can't do that all the time, because we need the recovery time, and we need it frequently. We can't recover in the unfamiliar: we need home for this rest.

Does having this be a familiar home require any one item or feature? No, of course not, we could let go of any one piece of familiarity, if that was the only one, or two, at stake. But, we cannot let go of all of them at once.
We must keep some. We don't know where the tipping point is, when we have lost the one symbol or token too many and become a stranger to what we built; at least, we don't know until we have crossed that line, fallen off the edge. So we shy away from that area, and try to keep the familiar and comfortable close at hand. We call ourselves a church because it's comfortable to many of us who grew up with the heritage of the majority Christian culture, because it does not resonate with centuries of murder and viciousness to us. Let’s put that shoe on the other foot: can we envision going to the UU Synagogue of the Lakes, or the UU Mosque of the Lakes?

Is there a limit to how inclusive we can be, even if we have a clear vision of what we stand for? Can we feel welcoming to everyone who has those ideals, from whatever background? Is there ever going to be a place where cultural Inuits and Mexicans and Arabs and Ibos and Irish and Australians and Pakistanis and Japanese all feel comfortable? I surely don't know! I do know that we want to try to make such a place, and to stretch that welcome as far as we can, without sacrificing our commitment to our goals.

So, what does that mean with our name? We do come from someplace, with a heritage and with roots. Those roots make some feel comfortable, and others uncomfortable. Can we restate our roots in a language, with a vocabulary, that keeps the comfort for those who are already comfortable, and extends it to those who are not?

This is your work.

Good luck!

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