Todd’s Thoughts – September 2019

“Freedom of the pulpit,” is a phrase I’ve been hearing much in recent weeks and want to discuss a bit about what it means and why it’s meaningful in Unitarian Universalism. Most everyone has heard of the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Catholic Church by posting his Ninety-five Theses to the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. Around that same time a separate reformation also began with a group initially known as the Anabaptists. They were called this because they valued freedom of choice so much that they didn’t recognize the legitimacy of infant baptism and began re-baptizing adults who freely chose to participate. That’s what Anabaptist means, “baptize again.” Neither the Catholic or Protestant authorities liked the Anabaptists and eventually persecuted them out of existence. Their remnants became Baptists, Mennonites, and Unitarians, all of which, to this day, have no higher church authority than the local church and practice freedom of the pulpit, meaning no church authority, or anyone else for that matter, can control who their preachers are or what they say. This is why our own church bylaws state, “The Minister shall have the freedom to speak his/her conscience even when in conflict with the official church position.” Today, the UUA has a system in place that effectively prevents ministers it hasn’t approved from gaining access to congregations in search, and congregations in search from gaining access to ministers it hasn’t approve of. This bothers me because I consider it violation of this founding principle. The “freedom of the pulpit” is important to me, and, I hope, to all of us, but, as a colleague of mine—another heretical minister—recently told me, “keep up your good work, just stay aware of the power of politics, and know that you’ll need the church behind you in your heretical moves. (I wasn’t always good at that.)” His admission enabled me to see I wasn’t so “good at that” either regarding the writing and distribution of my book, The Gadfly Papers. I’m very tardy in realizing this in a situation where “better late than never” doesn’t mean much. Though I don’t lament the writing and distribution of my book, I do wish I could go back and do things a bit differently, especially for those who have felt blindsided. I wasn’t “good at that,” but do promise to do better in the future.

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