“The Circle, Not the Centre”

By Rev. Brian Kiely

A sermon to mark the ordination of Rev. Frances Dearman at the First Unitarian Church of Victoria.
April 7, 2002 

We live in uncertain times. Our troops are at war in a land we barely know. The fuse has been relit in the Middle East. Our economy is on a a disquieting roller coaster ride. It seems there is very little we can take for granted these days. We live in uncertain times and we are members of an uncertain religion. That’s not necessarily a good combination.

I say Unitarianism is uncertain. To be clear I mean that our larger church has no creed, no central statement around which we gather, no acclaimed deity on whom we rely in times of trouble. There is no test of faith. But that does not mean we are faithless. Indeed not! In this room tonight on this special occasion are gathered some of the most faithful people I know. Each of us is fairly certain of what we believe. I know where I place my faith and I’m sure you do too. But they are likely not the same.

Some Unitarians and Universalists turn to God, some to Nature, some to Science, some to Community or to ourselves. But as the members of a national and international church, we have no single belief that fills what Sartre named the ‘God-shaped hole” in every human. Consider the person in front of you. Can you name their beliefs? Probably not.

Some might point to the UUA Statement of Principles and say, “That’s what I believe.” Indeed, I often say something in that vein. But if you have ever entered into a debate with another Unitarian or Universalist, you’ll know that those principles are vague enough to be used to shore up quite contradictory positions.

So it would be easy to claim in these uncertain times that this uncertain church of ours has no core – no centre.

Our current Edmonton Intern Minister Meg Roberts put a positive spin on this trait by suggesting that Unitarians are more focused on process than content, on journey and not goal. We tend to celebrate plurality and multiple approaches to truth. We are positively excited by the way time, space and context change seemingly immutable truths. More than most we are a religion willing to acknowledge that a church is a cultural institution. Unlike some, Unitarians prefer to adapt their beliefs and positions to keep up with cultural change and the advancement of knowledge. We don’t force culture to conform to our beliefs. Instead, we surf the waves of culture with joyous abandon.

Some say that the lack of a centre is a facet of Canadian identity as well. Canadians, like Unitarians and Universalists are better at articulating who they are not rather than who they are. We avoid bold claims about our country, preferring the satiric comedy of, “I’m Joe and I’m a Canadian”. With the exceptions of hockey games where the fans are often aided by Mr. Molson’s favourite product, we are not given to displays of nationalist enthusiasm.

A particularity of our nation and church is how we keep our pride quite secret. We work hard at finding bushels under which to hide our lamps. That doesn’t mean we are not a proud nation or a proud religion, we are. We just don’t admit it out loud. We go about our tasks quietly. We hide loonies under Olympian centre-ice marks. And sometimes with insensitive and passive aggressive remarks we make our American friends feel unwelcome and uncomfortable.

Our U and U reluctance to claim and name our centre comes with a price. It makes change even more unsettling. When the world and its challenges become burdensome, when we lose control of change, when we are faced with hard setbacks, we lack a collective theological post on which we can all lean. Most of us have long since abandoned the traditionally understood fall back positions of, “It’s God’s will,” and, “God will provide.”

Perhaps you experienced the unsettling feelings that accompany change here in Victoria as you have progressed through your search for a new minister. Certainly other congregations have noted how a church’s energy can ebb in such transitions, how the combination of grief for what is ending and dread of the hard work of the search can drain.

I am certain Frances has felt that discomfort as she has spent an uncertain year of preparing to earn her credentials and then entered the gruelling search process herself. I know she has been savouring her time in Victoria even has she has worked to prepare to leave again for an eagerly anticipated but somewhat mysterious future.

As a member of the Canadian Unitarian Council Board, I know that organization has struggled with the major change it faces. We are building a new national CUC. After several different consultations with our congregations and individuals, a vision of a distinctly Canadian association has emerged. Hundreds have participated in the debate. We are creating a completely new model for delivering services to congregations and for helping our churches relate to one another. And we are significantly changing the long relationship we have had with the continental UUA.

In each of these cases there is a ‘moving on’ quality, which means someone or something is being left behind. Names and relationships will change. The familiarities of the past will grow golden in memory, especially on the days when the present and future seem so difficult. It would be so nice in challenging times to feel the strength of a shared leaning post in our middle. But for Unitarians and Universalists, there is no centre.

Instead we are a faith that gathers in a circle – that is, in community. In the middle ground of that circle there are Principles, there are shared ideas and ideals, there is a common hymnbook. But there is nothing so solid as a pillar of faith. And if we look for it in the centre, we won’t find it. We may only see a hole and be cast into a crisis of faith.

But friends, I want to suggest a different way of seeing that hole. Now to look at me, it may come as no surprise that I consider Tim Horton’s to be our most significant national symbol. It may even be our greatest triumph since the completion of the CPR! And I am proud that the CUC office in Toronto has a branch of that great Canadian institution right in the same building! Now, a donut shop is full of holes. If you pop in and order up a double chocolate (my favourite!) you will note that in the middle is absolutely nothing, a complete void. But that’s not why you ordered it. You ordered up the circle that surrounds the hole.

In times of trouble and strife, I would suggest the solution to our crises of faith won’t be found in our centre, but in the ring of community which surrounds it. When the tragedy of 9-11 hit, Unitarians and Universalists all across the continent went to church. On that day and on the Sunday which followed we gathered in circles small and large, to mourn, to rage, to speak our fears, grief and pain. And you know, we found no answers that week. We didn’t bring the dead back to life or come up with a sure-fire way to stop terrorism. But we did find a reason to hope. We took comfort from the words and tears and hugs of others who share our uncertain faith. The hole in the centre did not matter. It was the circle that gave us strength, the ring of community.

For Unitarians and Universalists it is the circle that gives us power. Even in a ceremony like this, it is not the ministers or even the Board President who will ordain Frances. It will be you – the circle of the congregation who does the job, who will give the power.

In a few minutes you all we be asked to participate in a laying on of hands of the Reverend Frances Dearman, ‘founding toddler’ of this church. When that happens, friends, take time to feel the energy flowing in and out and around the circle, for that is the strength of our faith made tangible in a glorious single moment.

Fran, your transition is nearing completion. You soon will head up to Alaska and I have no doubt will be called to minister there. Victorians, you will soon meet the Rev. Jane Bramadat, an old friend and very respected colleague. I have no doubt you will be as enthusiastic about the match as the rest of Canadian Unitarians are.

And in July, Canadian Unitarianism will begin the next phase of its transformation. We have created a model for that change that builds on this philosophy of community. The RiNG plan will ask Canadian Unitarians and Universalists to join in regional communities in a way they have never done before. We will build that structure on the good relational work already done by the Pacific Northwest District of the UUA, and the BC and Vancouver Island Unitarian Councils.

We will have volunteers whose task will be to keep neighbouring congregations in relationship with one another. We will have other volunteers who will be trained in the skills you think are important to the good running of churches large and small. And some of those volunteers will come from right here in this room. And we will hire new staff people who will coordinate your feedback and your concerns and turn them into the kind of growth and religious education programs you say you need to continue as a strong and healthy congregation.

The ring of community is a fluid and flexible thing. But it is also one of the strongest shapes we know. The circle can survive great stress and challenge as long as we stand together, shoulder to shoulder looking inward at each other’s faces. It is in those faces that we find the courage to continue and to do what we need to do.

Feel the power of that circle when you lay hands on Frances. Frances, carry the power of that circle with you in every moment of your ministry. Trust it and rely on it and recreate it wherever you go and you’ll do well. Victorians, make room in your circle for your new minister, embrace her and welcome her and together you will make your circle that much stronger.

And if we take those two lessons and apply them with will to the recreation of the CUC’s RiNGS over the next few years, those circles within circles will all grow stronger.

We can thrive in an uncertain world with an uncertain faith if we keep building strong circles of community.

May we all be blessed with the wisdom to recognize the strength that our hole-y community brings us.

Click here for Rev. Brian Kiely’s bio.

Brian Kiely has served as the minister of the Unitarian Church of Edmonton since 1997.  Born in Montreal, Brian joined the First Unitarian Congregation in Toronto in 1981.  He began studies for the ministry in 1985 at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and was ordained in 1988.  He has served congregations in Blaine, Washington and Surrey, B.C. where he was the founding minister.
Brian spent three years editing the Canadian Unitarian and served as a member of the CUC’s Commission on Services to Congregations.  In 2000 he joined the CUC Board and became part of the team negotiating a landmark services agreement with the UUA.  For the last year he has chaired the Implementation Task Force charged with devising the plan for putting this agreement into effect.  The plan, “Of Regions and Rings” can be viewed at the cuc.ca website under ‘Business’.

Brian also served as internship supervisor from Fran Dearman.  He preached this sermon at her ordination in Victoria, B.C.  For more of his sermons please visit www.uce.ca