(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills
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Most who have attended a Unitarian Universalist church are familiar with the story behind Flower Communion. Its history is inspiring. But a more in depth look at how it began as a ritual provides insight into the unity and diversity of Unitarian Universalism.
The Reverend Norbert Capek began Flower Communion at the Unitarian church of Prague, Czechoslovakia on June 4, 1923 – 95 years ago tomorrow. He and his wife had moved back to their homeland after spending several years in the United States where Capek became closely affiliated with the Cambridge, Massachusetts Unitarian congregation. They encouraged his return to Czechoslovakia to found a Unitarian church – which he did and which quickly grew in size to over 2800 members.
These members were mostly disaffected Catholics who rebelled against the controlling power and superstitious beliefs of that faith. The new church also attracted liberal Protestants and Jews. All members thrilled at Capek’s eloquent sermons which people likened more to lectures than to religious preaching. As a result, however, some members began to complain the services were not spiritual enough. They began to support introducing rituals from their former religion – particularly bread and wine communion which they said provided a sense of community and common love for one another.
On the other side, however, were members strongly opposed to anything that smacked of theological oppression – an oppression that said the only way to understand God, or capital ’T’ Truth, is through Christ and bread and wine communion.
As Minister to both sides of this discussion, Capek was torn. He understood all congregation members were spiritual liberals. He also knew that those who wanted communion did not connect the practice to a belief in Christ. As some of those people likely said, what is the problem with bread and wine if consuming them is a ritual only of togetherness?
But Capek also understood the feelings of those who were adamantly opposed to the ritual. They deeply felt the bread and wine ritual was based on superstition that the elements literally become the body and blood of Christ, and that such ancient beliefs are unacceptable in a free-thinking, progressive church.
In his wisdom, Capek came up with the idea of Flower Communion. He would both preserve a ritual that celebrates community while abandoning old symbols and inventing a new one. He established the common ground on which both sides of that congregation’s debate could stand.
Most importantly, he originated the use of flowers as meaningful symbols both of unity and diversity. Many different flowers of various size and color come together to form one bouquet of great beauty. As he said in a blessing at that first Flower Communion, in each flower is a seed of love that unites people as brothers and sisters – regardless of any barrier that divides them. From the rancor of division, Capek created and offered a new symbolic ritual, a compromise for all. Flower Communion thus celebrates the paradoxical truth that despite differences, people can, in selfless love for one another, discover ways to preserve their unity – and thereby prove the enduring benefits of diversity.
As the title of today’s message suggests, my series theme for June intends to celebrate Pride month. Over the last several years, June has become identified with LGBTQ Pride celebrations because it’s the anniversary month of the New York City Stonewall Inn protests of 1971. Homosexual men and their allies marched in defiance of police actions to arrest men who simply visited a gay bar. Those protests are marked as the beginning of the gay rights movement.
As a gay man, this month and the anniversary of the Stonewall protests have great personal meaning. Pride celebrations, including the one to be held here in Cincinnati on June 23rd, help me remember and honor my own coming out. That was the most frightening decision I’ve made in life but it was also, forgive me my pride, a courageous declaration of who I was made to be – something that every human being has an innate right to declare. We must each be proud of who we are as crafted by god or the forces of nature. That declaration of pride is, I believe, an eternal human right.
My pride is rooted in being able to simply love whom I wish – a freedom that is both good and natural. It is our natural right as humans to romantically love whom we wish – as long as they are consenting adults.
A man named Clive Baker is credited with designing the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag. It first appeared at the San Francisco Pride parade in 1978. Harvey Milk, a San Francisco councilman and supervisor who was assassinated only months later, rode in the parade under the first rainbow Pride flag.
Baker said he was inspired to create the rainbow flag by Judy Garland’s famed song “Under the Rainbow.” The song reminded him of scientific fact. When the sun shines through a prism of raindrops or a crystal, multiple colors emerge on the other side – proving that light is not one color but many. For Baker, that was and is a perfect symbol for humanity – one human family comprised of many beautiful variations. No matter how we were formed, how we appear, how we love, what we believe or think, every individual is a part of the wide range of diversity – a shining human rainbow.
Implicit in Baker’s Pride flag is the truth that one color, by itself, is nothing. Light is not true light unless all colors combine in a complimentary way with other colors. And the same is true for humanity. The human species is nothing, it simply does not exist, unless it comprises ALL variations of people. This speaks to the seemingly ironic title of my message. There is a oneness, a unity, in diversity.
Clive Baker knew that when he designed the rainbow flag. June Pride celebrations are an emphatic assertion of that truth. And Norbert Capek’s Flower Communion and our celebration of that today are further claims that there is strength, vitality and eternal spiritual meaning in this ideal of unity in diversity.
The history of the last hundred years has a been a long and painful fight for acceptance and celebration of human diversity and human rights for all. And we must continue that work to purposefully reject the fear, tribalism, and prejudice toward anyone who appears, acts, loves, believes or thinks different. As long as we adhere to the Golden Rule – to treat another as we want to be treated ourselves – there is no restriction, no barrier, no law of nature that should divide us.
Not surprisingly, science, sociology, and history all prove that there is strength in diversity. Whenever different groups of people come together to cooperate, share, serve one another – and yes, compromise, they thrive all the more. Clans, tribes and nation-states that cling to a particular identity or ethnicity may prosper for a time, but long-term they inevitably end up on the ash heap of history. The same is true of movements, spiritualities, ideologies and philosophies. Diversity in opinion and thinking are crucial to longterm well-being. Recent research has shown this is true. Businesses comprised of diverse workforces – by gender, race, sexuality, political belief and lifestyle – do better than those that are mostly homogenous. Professor Katherine Phillips of the Kellogg School of Business and Management, who initiated the study, says that homogenous groups feel overly confident in how they think and act. Diversity, on the other hand, creates tension and awkwardness. But it is in that tension, that difference of background, opinion and approach that creates more successful decision making.
As she says, “People would prefer to spend time with others who agree with them, rather than disagree with them. But this unbridled affirmation does not produce the best results. When you think about diversity, it often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information. New ideas emerge, individuals learn from one another and they may discover the solution to a problem.”
Another interesting analysis by the investment firm Credit Suisse has shown that out of 2,400 major global businesses, those that have at least one female board member yield higher profits, income growth and net return on equity. One seemingly minor form of diversity and a business does better. When businesses increase their diversity, they thrive even more.
As Professor Phillips implied in her study, differences put a stop to group-think. Much like the proverbial lemmings who collectively run off a cliff to their deaths, mostly homogenous businesses, nations and organizations do the same. What prevents that way of thinking is diversity of thought and the resulting necessity to cooperate and compromise. Decisions that work best, that produce tangible long term good results, are those that emerge from a crucible of give and take, of listening, and of sublimating individual ego for the good of the whole.
Rev. Capek clearly knew this. The debate over communion in his young church was potentially lethal to its survival. It’s doubtless that both groups thought their way was right and most principled. But Capek provided common ground for those who opposed communion and those who felt enriched by it. Most importantly, he saved the Unitarian congregation of Prague which still exists today. The dilemma that church faced in its earliest years was solved not only by a wise Minister, but also by its members who did not give up their core principles, but gave up their demands for how they would be expressed. Each side accepted a good enough solution. That good enough option, Flower Communion, has stood the test of time proving its original value.
I believe most of us struggle with the notion of compromise. As a I said in my message several weeks ago, compromise has a bad reputation. It’s often seen as a sell-out. We need only look to some members of today’s Congress to find persons who firmly believe in their ultra conservative or ultra liberal principles and will not forsake them to compromise on various pieces of legislation this nation needs. As a result, little is achieved by Congress and legislation that does pass, does so very narrowly – signaling to the world that Americans are not united and cannot effectively come together to rule themselves.
Because of my support for compromise and congregation unity, some people have accused me of selling out and of not being true to what I believe. “Be a leader for what you know in your heart is right,” they tell me. I humbly disagree with their opinions. While I hold several core beliefs – the foremost of which is in full equality and respect for all people – I also believe in getting things done – even if they are incremental steps. Partial justice is better than none at all. Indeed, I recently learned that the former Northern Hills rejected flying a rainbow flag several years ago. Personally, that would have hurt me a lot had I known about it. But that former congregation then hired an openly gay Minister and it proudly displays a rainbow quilt and flag in its sanctuary. Those are important compromises which nevertheless created real progress.
As a Minister, I believe my most important role is to be a protector and defender of congregations I serve. Their ongoing well-being is of paramount importance – not for the sake of mere survival as an organization – but for the essential sake of continuing their good and important work for justice and compassion.
As a Minister, my role is to also foster unity. Being united as loving people is a spiritual ethos all world religions proclaim. Humans must continue their work to exist in peace with each other. How can that be done when people hold different opinions, thoughts and beliefs? My wish for Americans and, indeed all humanity, is that they remember their common bonds – the eternal values most people and most forms of spirituality share. We might disagree on how to achieve those values, but we ought to then come together in goodwill to resolve our differences. No group gets exactly what it wants when differences are resolved, but each gets something. And both groups achieve the title of my message – unity in diversity. When people cooperate, they achieve not only practical results, they engage in what is spiritually good and right – that of selfless love and cooperation with others. Personally, I know I am not perfect in how I believe things should be done. And frankly, nobody is. That demands even more that I listen to and compromise with others.
Dear friends, as Minister here I know that every member is a good person – someone who holds all of the values and principles of this congregation and the UUA. We each want to do our part to spread equality and compassion in this world. What I ask of you now may seem contrived, but I trust us all to make it heartfelt. I ask that right now, while Michael plays some background music, each of us walk or reach over to someone we might disagree or be angry with, offer them a hug or handshake of peace, and say to them, “I love and respect you. Let us work together.”
Let’s do that in the spirit of Flower Communion and of June Pride. Let’s not just say we are a beloved community, let’s live it and let’s work together in cooperation and, yes, compromise.
I wish you each much peace and joy.