“The Church That is Free” by James Luther Adams

This statement was written by Unitarian Universalist James Luther Adams for a presentation at the First and Second Church of Boston on May 25th, 1975, marking the sesquicentennial of the founding of the American Unitarian Association.

It is the postscript to his book “The Prophethood of All Believers”.

I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ground of freedom, that sustaining, judging, transforming power not made with hands. It protests against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority. This covenant is the charter and joy of worship in the beauty of holiness.

I call that church free which in covenant with that divine community-forming power brings the individual, even the unacceptable, into a caring, trusting fellowship that protects and nourishes his or her integrity and spiritual freedom. Its goal is the prophethood and the priesthood of all believers the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing. It therefore protests against the infringement of autonomy or participation, whether it be in the church, the state, the family, the daily work (or the lack of it), or in other social spheres.

I call that church free which liberates from bondage to the principalities and powers of the world, whether churchly or secular, and which promotes the continuing reformation of its own and other institutions. It protests against routine conformity or thoughtless nonconformity that lead to deformity of mind and heart and community.

I call that church free which in charity promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity. This unity is a potential gift, sought through devotion to the transforming power of creative interchange in generous dialogue. But it will remain unity in diversity.

I call that church free which responds in responsibility to the Spirit that bloweth where it listeth. The tide of the Spirit finds utterance ever and again through a minority. It invites and engenders liberation from repression and exploitation, whether of nation or economic system, of race or sex or class. It bursts through rigid, cramping inheritance, giving rise to new language, to new forms of cooperation, to new and broader fellowship. The church of the Spirit is a pilgrim church on adventure.

I call that church free which is not bound to the present, which cowers not before the vaunted spirit of the times. It earns and creates a tradition binding together past, present, and future in a living tether, in a continuing covenant and identity, bringing forth treasures both new and old. God speaks, he has also spoken.

I call that church free which is not imprisoned in itself or in a sect. In loyalty to its own historic character and norms, it is open to insight and conscience from every source. The church that would be free yearns to belong to the church universal, catholic and invisible.

But the church is never wholly free: It tolerates injustice, special privilege, and indifference to suffering, as though it were not accountable to a tribunal higher than the world’s. It passes by on the other side, thus breaking the covenant. In the midst of this unfreedom the congregation comes together to adore that which is holy, to confess its own brokenness, and to renew the covenant.

I call that church free which does not cringe in despair, but casting off fear is lured by the divine persuasion to respond in hope to the light that has shone and that still shines in the darkness.