The biggest cynics are often always hopeless romantics

People are drawn to church by a longing for a place to feel fully at home - body and soul.
FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS

People are drawn to church by a longing for a place to feel fully at home - body and soul.

Once upon a time, before I moved to Nelson, for about 18 months, I attended a Unitarian church in Auckland.

Those of you who have remarked upon the atheism in this column might find this surprising. I was slightly surprised myself when, sorting through some old papers recently, I came upon the proof: a copy of a sermon - a sermon! - I had delivered at this church.

When one of the parish's itinerant ministers went on leave he invited members of the congregation - including me the non-believer - to deliver a sermon he would write for us. I agreed with the sentiments in the sermon he wrote for me, but I felt like a ventriloquist's dummy when I tried reading it out loud. So I wrote my own sermon.

HERE BEGINNETH THE LESSON: I want to begin by telling you why I shouldn't be delivering this sermon.

Firstly, I'm a woman and sermons are most often, in my experience, delivered by a man. Secondly, I've got no wisdom to impart and preachers are usually assumed to be wise enough to tell others how to think, and how to behave. Thirdly, the dictionary defines a sermon as "an address of religious exhortation or a serious speech, especially" - I love this bit - "administering reproof."

Well folks, I can hardly summon a reproof for my teenage daughter so I can't imagine telling you off about anything. And finally, I'm not a particularly spiritual person.

A friend once described me accurately, though perhaps not kindly, as a "spiritual pygmy". I had enough religiosity in my childhood to last a lifetime. My poor old Mum, a restless searcher dragged me from (Protestant) religious pillar to post.

Her hatred of the Catholic church inspired in me a morbid curiosity about virgin martyrs, scapulars and flagellation, but it didn't convince me that there was a God who had any interest in the human animal.

We've had a motley parade of ministers in this church. A husky-voiced Creole preacher from New Orleans, an over-bearing patriarch, one who was hopelessly shy and one who struggled with health problems. We even had a double act: a pair of elderly ladies. All of them seemed out of their depth here, unhappy with us and unhappy with themselves. We in our turn weren't very happy with them.

Disagreements flared into disputes, people acted badly, and people left the church hurt and angry. Those of us who stayed on wondered if we, as a group, were unlovable, a bunch of charmless misfits, an evil vortex in which no minister could survive?

But in spite of all of this, here I am delivering a sermon. How in heaven's name did this happen?

Asked to describe this church I say " It's a place for migrants and refugees where you can believe what you want to believe."

Theologians and historians of the Unitarian church wouldn't recognise their church in this description. But just as I am a refugee from other theologies, so are many of you.

Many of you were born in another country. You know that kind of dislocation. Many of the us who were born here, also feel dislocated, though for different reasons. I believe we are drawn to this church by a longing for a place we could feel fully at home - body and soul.

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There's some kind of promise in the air here, invisible and yet powerful, that makes us feel that perhaps this could be that place.

One of the characters in Nora Ephron's novel, Heartburn, says of her husband "l married him believing that marriage doesn't work, that love dies, that passion fades ... I became the kind of romantic only a cynic is truly capable of being."

I think a lot of us here are romantic cynics. We're cynical about relationships, about politics and about religion. We know it's hard to love, especially the people we are closest to. We know the world is random and cruel. We know the pleasures of life are ephemeral - glue them all together and how little they add up to!

And yet, deep in our hearts, we believe life could be different. We are the kind of romantics that only true cynics can be.

In spite of the fact that I am not deeply connected to any of you or this church, I continue to come along, hoping against hope that this is where I will find a home. I'm not searching for God, but for some release from what Kenneth Tynan called "solitary confinement inside our own skins." 

I also want, in spite of my own history and the strange recent history of this church, to believe in the ideals that Unitarianism stands for. I think we all do. Perhaps we romantic cynics are also what theatre critic Kenneth Tynan calls "Metaphysical Micawbers".

"Existence depends" said Tynan, "on those metaphysical Micawbers, who will go on waiting, against all rational argument, for something, which may one day turn up to explain the purpose of living". HERE ENDETH THE LESSON.

More from the Grey Urbanist at www.greyurbanist.com

 - Stuff

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