Qualifications ... On being Organised

by RODDY MACPHERSON, a member of Glasgow Unitarians

Thank you for inviting me, a layman from Glasgow, to fill the first Sunday of your pulpit vacancy. A professional ministry is one of the signs that Unitarianism is truly organised. Glasgow has acquired something of a reputation for being, in recent years, minister-free. That state has not, I assure you, led to Unitarianism in the West being disorganised. The regular Sunday services provided by our group of over six lay worship leaders are much enjoyed. What variety is on offer: as we can say to visitors, if you don’t like what you hear today, come back next week. It will be completely different! But let me give you our happy news: at our AGM, the Glasgow members decided to invite the Reverend John Clifford to accept the office of Minister Emeritus of Glasgow Unitarian Church. This signal, historic innovation is offered as a personal honour; yet it reminds us too of continuity in a tradition.

The first service in St. Mark’s was held on 18 October 1835. I am indebted to the accessible scholarship of Andrew Hill for that date and for the next-mentioned fact: the preacher on that
occasion was the Glasgow Unitarian minister, the Reverend George Harris. Nowadays, the Glasgow congregation meets in a concrete office building, not a shrine of stone, like yours.
The last minister to preach in the pillared temple in St. Vincent Street was the Reverend John Clifford. And the first preacher, in 1856, was the celebrated Dr James Martineau (1805-1900).
From the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, I read this from Frank Schulman’s article on Martineau:
Martineau believed the church’s primary role is worship; otherwise, it becomes a club, or something like any other special purpose organisation. The fellowship of the church is a
community in historical continuity… Martineau insisted the church must be more than an association for free inquiry. A common bond, a consensus of purpose to worship, must unite worshipers… Worship [is] an end, not a means. He held that religion must be concerned primarily with individual regeneration. He opposed any utilitarian view that worship must have usefulness beyond opening the soul to divine inspiration. He did not preach doctrine, Unitarian or otherwise … Martineau spent much of his life training ministers. He taught that the minister’s task, the highest form of service to humanity, is to remind people of their divine promise.

John Clifford has been very generous in helping to train lay worship leaders in Scotland. I quote him, exactly, in a thought provoking remark he made to me after I had concluded the Father’s Day service at GUC in June: ‘Roddy, I wish you were more organised!’ Well, reflecting on this, I firstly thought that he was taking me to task in not paying heed enough to such advice as I find here in my old notes (from the Reverend J.J. Halcombe’s little book of 1859, The Speaker at Home):
I once had the following criticism retailed to me. Speaking of the sermons I had preached for two or three Sundays, a very intelligent working man had said: ‘Well, sir, I never can make out just what he’s driving at!’ On looking over the criticised sermons I confess that I was myself quite unable to tell really what I had been ‘driving at’.

Next, I wondered if, even if the points I had been making on that Sunday’s service were so clear to me – about my first supposing myself Unitarian because of a conviction that Joseph is, plainly, the actual father of ‘the Man Christ Jesus’ (look up at the façade of St. Mark’s pediment! Look up the genealogies in Matthew and Luke!) – had I misdirected my driving, and wearied my passengers, by talking too much at the wheel? A pulpit turned into chariot is no transport of delight. See the advice from the Reverend Hugh Blair, first professor of Rhetoric and Belles Letters in the University of Edinburgh: ‘There should be some one main point to which the whole strain of the sermon should refer. It must not be a bundle of different subjects strung together.’ The Rev Mr Halcombe puts it thus:
The man who shall strive after the simplex et unum in his style of preaching will have to curb his fancy. He must be content to lose in apparent brilliancy that which he gains in solid strength – he must often sacrifice the variety of colour and charm of contrast for the soberness of the single hue. He will be seeking to work conviction in the few rather than admiration in the many.

At this point in my self-examination, I felt a palpable outburst: I don’t want to drive home any point in a church! I’m not trying to convince! I’m talking about things which caught my interest; hoping that others catch some interest and are happy and comfortable in paying attention. And if you are happy and comfortable while I am speaking, I don’t mind if your mind moves on to something else… Is this something to do with the opening up, to the reminder of the mysterious promise in each of us that, so I had read, kept the great Dr. Martineau off doctrine?

I thought again on John Clifford’s remark. In what way had I failed by not being organised? It struck me: I remembered that John had spoken to us about how, for him, the high point of the responsibility in leading Sunday worship is in bringing the congregation together in meditation.

On that third Sunday in June, as I then remembered with embarrassment, I had indeed been so disorganised in addressing my home church that my busy talking left no time for a moment’s silence. In my visit to St Mark’s – and for your kind welcome I thank you so much – I hope I did better. Those lines of James Martineau (from The Sphere of Silence), and our time in silence to think just as we pleased, were, I thought, promising, truly, the high point of our gathering. I shall ponder more on pointless speech, remembering the very last line that follows:
All great things are born of silence… All beneficent and creative power gathers itself together in silence, ere it issues out in might. Force itself indeed is naturally silent, and only makes itself heard, if at all, when it strikes upon obstructions to bear them away as it returns to equilibrium again. The very hurricane that roars over land and ocean, flits noiselessly through spaces where nothing meets it… Silence came before creation, and the heavens were spread without a word.

This is an edited version of an address given in St Mark’s on 7 August 2016. Copyright Roddy Macpherson.