Freedom of Pulpit, Freedom of Pew
Unitarian Universalism and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Waynesboro proudly uphold a pair of religious freedoms that are essential to the living tradition of our liberal faith:
FREEDOM OF THE PULPIT
This freedom is the commitment that neither denomination, nor ministers association, nor congregation, nor community will prevent a minister in our tradition from speaking their truth in every setting.
FREEDOM OF THE PEW
This is our tradition’s guarantee that the person in the pew – member, friend, or visitor – will never be required to agree or profess agreement with the minister.
A Bit of History
These freedoms have a long and august history going back to Transylvania under the reign of King John Sigismund, the only reigning European monarch who was Unitarian. In 1568 under the leadership of Francis David, a Unitarian minister, King John Sigismund promulgated the “Edict of Torda.” This edict of religious tolerance was not a perfect document, but it specified religious freedoms for Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians in broader terms than other emerging European edicts of tolerance undertook to promote.
Regarding Freedom of the Pulpit, the edict stated: “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it…. Let no superintendent or anyone else act violently or abusively to a preacher. No one may threaten another, on account of his teaching, with imprisonment or deprivation of office.” The edict expressed Freedom of the Pew like this: “If the parish willingly receives [the minister’s truth], good; but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so.” And the congregation’s absolute right to choose its own minister was expressed thus: “Let each parish keep a minister whose teaching is acceptable to it.”
In 1819, as Unitarianism was coalescing as a separate religious denomination in the United States, William Ellery Channing preached a famous sermon “On Unitarian Christianity” in Baltimore at the ordination of Jared Sparks. In that sermon he charged the younger minister with the responsibility always to speak his truth rather than preaching words that did not accord with his truth in order to satisfy the congregation.
In 1841, in his sermon titled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” delivered in Boston at the ordination of Charles C. Shackford, Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist Theodore Parker similarly charged the congregation with this caution: “You may prevent the freedom of speech in this pulpit if you will. You may hire you servants to preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, It is peace, when there is no peace. Yet in so doing you weaken and enthrall yourselves.”
These freedoms require that ministers commit to preach their truth in the light of love and that congregations not merely seek agreement from their minister but also accept the minister’s responsibility to challenge them – all in the context of the individual’s right of conscience and the mutuality of love.
This complex and living set of commitments is part of how our local congregation comes together each Sunday. The congregation weighed and evaluated the minister before calling them. The minister speaks the truth as the minister knows it. And the congregation listens, accepts this freedom, without giving up the individual right to make up their own mind. With these mutually supportive freedoms, grounded in love and service, we are open to hear from each other.