Our congregation has been very busy transitioning, focusing on where we are headed in the twenty-first century. As we think about our future, your Borrower Bee has been wondering about how the future UUCL might be able to make use of our collective past. One of the most striking realities of our congregation is its physical home, a beautiful space purpose-built, for its then Unitarian congregation, by a respected local architect (with family connections to our church?) and planned, and adorned, thanks especially to the financial and spiritual investments of one devoted leader, Milton T. Garvin. Our woodwork was executed by a woodcarver who was also an actor in the Oberammergau Passion play. Our wooden pulpit was commissioned by the Shippen family (of Lancaster, Philadelphia, and Meadville), one of whose members, Dr Eugene Rodman Shippen, was our minister; in later years it was embellished with carvings representing, either as statuary or by name, renowned faith leaders who literally or figuratively spoke from other pulpits. They led the ministries of congregations not only within the Unitarian traditions of America and Europe but also from other world religions: Mohammed, the Buddha, and Zoroaster make the list of names, and the figures include not only William Ellery Channing but also James Martineau, Theophilus Lindsey, and Michael Servetus. The minister’s chair is adorned with a likeness of William Tyndale, who gave the world its first English-language Bible, spoke out against abuses, and was martyred because of it. And, of course, our stained glass windows, representing famous men and, in the women’s parlor, famous women, whose actions and attitudes we take as exemplars today. And looking at all this, we may or may not think of the attitudes that made it possible to reconcile all these diverse contributions with one another – or of the attitudes that can make it possible to reconcile ourselves with the different kinds of faith that they represent, both in themselves and as embodiments of the Unitarian religion that was embraced by the people who placed these works of religious art where they now stand.
There is, after all, hardly a figure among all those depicted in our windows that we now think of the same way as the congregation did in the 1920s, when the windows were installed.
- Thomas Jefferson, who promoted religious freedom in his home state of Virginia – and owned, used, and abused human beings.
- Christopher Columbus – who discovered a World New for Europeans, but well enough known to the people then living here, and who paid for his venture far more dearly than the government of Spain ever did.
- Woodrow Wilson, promoting the League of Nations and the Balfour Declaration, which would establish Jews in Palestine, and not, he hoped, in America.
Our church, it turns out, can be viewed as a veritable museum of racial prejudice and imperial expansionism. It is helpful to know that someone can perceive our church like that even if we realize how distant that perception is from the intent of the people who created the windows or made them ours, a part of our congregational identity. Thinking about that may turn us to our church covenant, with our agreement that we will trust “good intentions”. In our UU religious world, intentions matter.
If we agree to trust the good intentions of one another in the congregation today, how much more should we trust the good intentions of those who gave us the church in which we gather, and how much more fully must we understand the limitations of our own vision, surely no less imperfect? The lessons we can learn from our historic church building include also the lesson that our history can also be our teacher, helping us recognize the dignity and worth of those who went before and hoping that those around us now and those who come after will view us with similar tolerance.
Shippen Pulpit: James Martineau and Michael Servetus