On Saturday I made the journey over the Pennines from Stockport to Mansfield for the Unitarian Christian Association’s Autumn Gathering. I have had a connection with the UCA for nearly a decade although my involvement has for the most part been that of a silent member, picking up the latest edition of The Herald and keeping in touch with one or two members online from time to time.
Prior to setting off, I recalled to a friend how the last time I had visited Mansfield was to run a half-marathon, during an early summer when temperatures were hitting 32° celsius. The lasting memory from that day was how eight miles in, believing I was approaching the mental and physical breakthrough of nine miles and being over two thirds of the way to the finish, I somehow hit another eight mile marker and immediately slowed to a walk, head down dejected. It was the sheer heat, I had become dehydrated and confused. I completed the route that day with a time of just over two hours dragging myself across the line with a fellow runner who – on seeing my plight - had put his arm around me at eight miles and got me running again. We had ran the last third together, helping one another overcome points of difficulty and doubt along the way. Retelling this to my friend, I rounded the story off with, “…and I was sick for three days after that, and swore never to go back to Mansfield again!”
It’s funny, no matter how strongly we say ‘never again’, it tends to somehow often mean ‘probably again’. Maybe that’s simply human nature or maybe that’s an indication of living under a God of surprises, a God of return. Either way, I couldn’t help smile at one of the first sights as I entered Mansfield – the very field in which I lay in agony after the trials of the previous visit!
The Unitarian Christian Association’s theme for the day drew on the ‘Embracing an Adult Faith’ course by Progressive Christian scholar and popular author Marcus Borg, with a further focus on how we – as Unitarians, as Free Christians – understand the place of Jesus in our lives. The challenge put to us, during the Taize-infused service, was to answer Jesus’s reported question to his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” which I tend to read in a more demanding tone, as “WHO do YOU say I am?” It is, of course, a difficult question that has challenged - and enriched - Christians from Paul of Tarsus to the present day.
It is a question, if we are to be frank, which has in recent years – as British society has become more of a marketplace of religions whilst simultaneously more demanding of hard evidence – resulted in some Unitarians replying to with ‘pass’ and from there, proclaiming themselves to be ‘Post-Christian’ and so on.
During the discussion session which followed worship, it was interesting to sit and simply listen as fellow UCA members attempted to explain why and how they related to Jesus, not in intellectualised, overly-elaborate language but in simple, everyday terms. The general feeling was that for many of us, the ‘Pre-Easter Jesus’ – the guru Jesus of the Parables, of the Sermon on the Mount, of the Great Commandment, of the Healing and the Footwashing as portrayed in the New Testament alongside the revolutionary Jesus of Ancient Judea under the Roman Empire as portrayed by ‘Historical Jesus’ scholars – was perhaps easier to set our hearts upon and articulate for than the ‘Post-Easter Jesus’. By ‘Post-Easter Jesus’, we mean the belief many Christians hold to – and sometimes vividly experience - of Jesus as an immanent deity, literally walking beside them.
As I took part in conversation, what struck me was the healthy eclecticism at the heart of the Unitarian Christian Association, the depth and breadth of Christian understanding it can draw upon. Sat to my left was a lady who could trace her Unitarian ancestry back over 350 years, sat opposite was another lady who had left her childhood Catholicism to become a Unitarian during university whilst to the right side of me sat a long-serving Unitarian minister who had eventually come to serve the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. And there was I, an Anglican and Methodist by child, now in my thirties and something of a Quaker-Unitarian hybrid.
There was no conclusion to the discussions. The conversations finished distinctly unfinished. No epiphany or eureka moment. No ‘great, let’s bottle this up and sell it’ answer. Jesus remains too complicated, too messy, too paradoxical, too faded around the edges for that. Yet there was a real sense from the gathering, huddled together in this ancient chapel encircled by well-ordered traffic lanes prescribing one route or another, car parks with clearly-defined spaces and shopping centres offering an array of get-now-feel-goods, that this continued ambiguity does not render the great archetype of Western society irrelevant and worthless.
As I drove back through the Hope Valley and up into the peaks, with the radio deliberately switched off to allow for a period of silent reflection, my thoughts turned to the famous Quaker picture ‘The Presence in the Midst’. The question I always have with this piece of art is whether the Quakers within it are portrayed as meditating on Jesus’s teaching and example or somehow being subject to Jesus’s ethereal presence in the room?
The picture offers no easy reading but it does, I think, signpost to why Jesus continues to have a hold on us, even when we feel confused and doubtful – and perhaps even ready to say something along the lines of ‘I give up’ and ‘never again’. The idea behind the practice of stillness amongst Quakers is to allow for the Holy Spirit to descend, for God to be realised – but this is quite an abstract concept and process to get your mind around. However, as Marcus Borg says, by centering our focus on Jesus, we often find he acts as a mirror reflecting our deepest dreams - our divine potential - as human beings, and a glimpse into the wider, holier realm of that we call God. With our ever-changing lives, set within ever-changing times, what we come to see may well also change in terms of those things that emerge to fore and those things that fall into the background - but the figure of Jesus remains a gateway to Spirit and Truth; the figure of Jesus continues to provide a Light during periods of darkness, the figure of Jesus continues to map a Way forward for the lost, the figure of Jesus endures as a Friend on the long, winding road of life.
We may not be able to fully say who he was or is - but we can speak fully of what he offers.