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The Possibilities of a Contemplative Universalism

"This was the attraction, the power, which inwardly affected me, to desire reward for my preaching, in these last days of great tribulation. And my reward is this: that each father and mother of a family, with all the children and domestics, may devote an hour of every day to the Lord our God, in assembling in stillness, side by side, as in the presence of God, and in humility waiting on the inward illumination of the spirit of grace in their hearts."
George de Benneville (1703-1793)
We often ask, "are church buildings necessary?" and in 2020 we have been given a definite answer: no, they are not. At least in extreme circumstances, they are not. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying all churches would be better off without buildings, I'm saying it is very clear today that the core of faith practice is something other than "going to church" because we haven't "gone to church" in four months and we're still "doing faith".

What is becoming clearer to me is that there is a significant need for the transformational practices of faith, though the structures of a previous era means most churches are unable to offer them.

My current thoughts orbit around the need for a practice-based faith. What I mean by that is that churches have defined "success" by the ability to persuade someone to come to a particular place for an hour every Sunday, whereas we should have been more interested in inviting people into daily personal spiritual practice. It is only daily personal spiritual practice that is actually transformational - that actually brings about the growth of the soul, the awakening of the heart. Every Buddhist group I know is really clear about this, and the Buddhist groups continue to grow, while the Christian groups continue to decline because they're not offering this.

I think churches put the cart before the horse. They try to get people to "come to church" and then as an optional extra, if you're lucky, there might be some clues for how to develop a personal practice. Whereas I'm starting to feel like it should be the other way around, that the primary invitation is to spiritual practice, and then the gathered church is seen as the community of people guiding each other into deeper practice. Community is still essential, but it is happening out of a context of commitment to personal practice.

I see the potential for this in Pietist Universalist origins. Pietism was a German Lutheran movement emphasising personal spiritual practice. It was an influence on early Universalist George de Benneville who was born in London and died in Pennsylvania. As quoted above he was interested in promoting daily prayer for one hour every day. This was never taken on as a core practice in the Universalist Church of America, and his style of Universalism, with an emphasis on prayer, mysticism, and visions never became dominant in American Universalism, which became much more an Enlightenment rationalistic faith.

But this might be such a time for a different kind of Universalism, a contemplative Universalism, a de Bennevillian Universalism, a Universalism about the personal and intimate experience of the universal love of God, a Universalism defined by a commitment to an hour a day of spiritual practice "waiting on inward illumination".

What could that Universalism look like? Influenced by the past, but plotting a new course primary rooted in the commitment to a daily personal practice of prayer, could such a Universalism be ready to be (re)born in a such a time as this?


Angela said…

I didn't come looking for transformation or salvation, and I'm still not. I came looking for communion. Sure, whatever good news we preach has and will surely shape my soul, but I'm not an improvement project for a church.

On the other hand, if the potential audience wants transformation then that's what we should offer if we want to survive.
Lucy Ann said…
The first trap for me to avoid in this consideration is to try to identify "the right practice" to promote. Instead, let's think together about what might be "a good practice" or even simply "good practice". What got me back on a track to God was reading; I read and read and read until I found words about God that thrilled me, and then I acted on them to build a personal daily practice. But I met an Anglican priest once who had found that her practice was yoga. I read on Twitter only a day or so ago that another Anglican priest I know prays best to the rhythm of cycling. Hinduism suggests there are broadly four paths of union: Rajah Yoga (emptiness/mindfulness/meditation), Jnana Yoga (wisdom/research/reading/study), Karma Yoga (justice/social/community), Bhakti Yoga (ritual/devotions/rites/mid-focusing activities). In "Everyday Spiritual Practice" editor Scott W. Alexander (Skinner House Books 1999) we meet a wealth of different practices that American Unitarian Universalists have developed personally over the years through which to explore and develop their relationships with God and each other. The book is divided into sections of essays on "The Basics", "Mind", "Body", "Heart", "Will", "Soul". For Angela, who commented above, the reason she engages with a community is not for transformation but for communion. Stand fast that for myself I have found that communion *demands* my transformation, because living with people is in itself a discipline: Angela's needs are different from mine. I have come across no end of different formulations put forward as a good set of practices, one of my favourites being Andy Pakula's U+ formulation found at So how do we progress the conversation? The options are so many and various, who gets to decide?

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