Representation and Local Government - How Should We Elect Our Councillors?

Service to an address by Lyle Allen, December 12, 2010

Opening Words

At the celebration in 1866 of the 250th anniversary of the organization of the First Church (Unitarian) in Cambridge, Mass., Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at that time a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, said: “The founders of this parish. . . and their fellows planted a congregational church, from which grew a democratic state. They planted something mightier than institutions.... Whether they knew it or not, they planted the democratic spirit in the heart of man. It is to them we owe the deepest cause we have to love our country—that instinct, that spark, that makes the American unable to meet his fellowman otherwise than simply as a man, eye to eye, hand to hand, and foot to foot.”


But is it true that a church can be founded upon individual freedom of belief and still possess a common faith? Will it not happen that the variations in belief will be so wide that no common faith is possible? The answer is, in the first place, that freedom itself is the basic precept of the Unitarian faith. Instead of people being bound together as a society of those who all believe - or are supposed to believe - the same things, Unitarians are united by their faith in freedom. This is a far larger faith than anything that is defined by dogma. What it means is this: that we can put our trust in freedom, both for ourselves and for one another, believing that we shall come closer to truth if our minds are unfettered.

What the churches of authoritarian belief are based upon - or if not based upon it, then restricted by it - is the fear that if people are allowed to think freely they will arrive at wrong and harmful conclusions, and therefore they must be told what they must believe. This certainly puts much less trust in human nature than does the Unitarian faith in freedom.

Perhaps, however, this trust may go too far. Suppose that in a given situation, an individual Unitarian insists that he is right and all the others wrong. The answer is that this can be a very healthy situation. Such a Unitarian is entitled to do all he can to prove that he is right - which, of course, he may be. It has happened frequently in history that one man has been right and all others wrong, as for example, in the case of Semmelweiss, or even of Copernicus. And if he is not so much right as eccentric, no harm will be done. Unitarians are not afraid of eccentricity.

A further commitment of the Unitarian faith is to democracy - not merely as a political system but as the just and brotherly way in human relations. We do not think that in a church some should command and the rest obey, as is the case with a hierarchy; we do choose leaders, but we choose them freely. And we hold that each individual has his own place in the councils of the society. We think that discussion - which Thomas Masaryk said was the essence of democracy - is the path to true agreement. We are educators one of another, and all can learn from each.

We are well aware that democracy can be a discipline - and sometimes a harsh one. But this is part of its value. We grow by learning to get along with other people. We grow even more when we learn to respect and like each other, to have a concern, each for all, in the words of the New Testament, to "love one another."

Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
The Unitarian Faith, April 4, 1954


Closing Words

Ask the powerful five questions

1) What power have you got?
2) Where did you get it from?
3) In whose interests do you exercise it?
4) To whom are you accountable?
5) How do we get rid of you?

Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one with power likes democracy. And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it - including you and me, here and now.

Tony Benn, 2005