Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The glory of the sandwich . . .

many layered sandwich

The Joys of Sandwiches*

There’s a discussion running on one of the Unitarian pages on FaceBook just now about the pros and cons of the Hymn Sandwich service.

It is, I should add for those of you not in the know, brought to you by the denomination who are also currently debating the relative merits of and the differences between the macaron, the macaroon, and the whoopee pie.  If we can debate cakes, believe me, we can debate something as central to our being as the form our worship takes. 

The hymn sandwich is that type of service with hymns, readings, prayers, music . . generally something along the lines of:  opening words – chalice lighting – prayer – hymn – story – collection – hymn – reading – hymn – address – musical interlude – address – hymn – prayers – hymn. 

If you were brought up attending a mainstream UK protestant church, or if you’ve attended church much, it’s probably the sort of pattern of worship you’re used to. 

Personally, I love it.

But some people think it sucks the inventiveness out of worship, that it becomes stale, and that it puts people off coming to church.

I think it’s true that it puts some people off.  If people aren’t used to all the standing-up-sitting-down-joining-in-listening-singing-listening stuff, I would imagine it can be a bit daunting. 

I also agree there’s a risk of it becoming a bit dull, a bit of a default position:  sometimes, when I’m leading worship, at the back of my mind I’m half-thinking “I’m not sure I have the energy to do anything different this time.  I’d like to just retreat back to my little safety net of the sandwich.”

Sometimes it’s good to do something new and different and to be invited to change a pattern.  Sometimes doing something in a different way is refreshing, and gives us a new way of approaching something.

But I still love it, and I still there’s a central place for it in our worship.  I definitely don’t think every service should necessarily be a sandwich.  Neither do I think the sandwich should necessarily be in the same order every week. 
But familiarity is comforting.  If I sometimes want to retreat to the sandwich-safety-net when I’m planning worship, I also very often want to retreat there when I’m just worshipping. 

Even if you’re brand new to attending church – and someone attending for the first few times is being braver than we often remember – I think turning up the second week having some idea of what will happen is also comforting. 
I like, a lot of the time, to know more or less what I’m getting (it’s also why I like having orders of service, but that’s another blog for another day). 

And the hymn sandwich has developed over . . . actually, I don’t know whether it’s developed over decades or centuries, and I’m sure some of my more ecclesiologically-minded friends can tell me.  But it’s developed over time.  

And it’s developed that way because it works. 

The overall pattern of the hymn sandwich gives the congregation a good balance of standing, sitting, listening, participating, speaking, not-speaking, singing . . . when the sandwich is made well, you don’t sit for so long that you get too cramped; you don’t listen for so long that you get bored (no, really); you have a variety of voices talking to you at different times; you get to stand and stretch and sing at regular intervals.

And while the format can be mundane and familiar and, yes, perhaps, a bit dull, I think the format is what gives us more freedom for the message to be more complex and challenging.

If I’m in worship and I’m distracted by the form of the service, or put off by being asked to dance,  or chat to a neighbour more than a tiny bit,  or express myself through the medium of drawing (ugh) or wash someone’s feet (these have all come to pass, trust me, though not all in Unitarian services), then I find it far harder to work out what the service is about

I prefer, personally, to remember a service as “that was the one that encouraged me to think about x” rather than “that was the one with the Morris dancing . . . “

I’m not necessarily right. I’m mainly rambling.  I am necessarily rambling. 

I just think ditching the hymn sandwich altogether would be a terrible shame. 

Also, I don’t much like macarons or whoopee pies, but I’m very partial to a macaroon. 

*Other forms of sustenance are available.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

What I want to do . . . .

 . . . is create a blog mainly for uploading my sermons, and possibly readings and prayers I've used in services.

Who knows, I may use it as a reflective journal.

And I'm about to start studying for the ministry:  maybe it'll come in useful for that.

I promise NOT to use it for shopping lists, to-do lists, passive-aggressive rants against people who annoy me, or to show off pictures of my breakfast.

I don't promise not to be a rampant show off.

I do promise that only on this one occasion (coming up shortly) will I ever use the following word:  blogosphere.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Ordinary Time, 11th August 2013.

The children’s story was 

Dr Seuss’s Great Day for UP!  And Bruce Chilton read it fabulously.  

The sermon went like this:

Part One.

So, who knows what today is, in terms of religious festivals?

Today is, unusually, absolutely nothing in terms of religious festivals.

In Roman Catholic and Church of England calendars, today is the 19th Sunday of the second period of Ordinary Time.

Ordinary Time.

Not something-special time. Ordinary time.

In church terms, Ordinary Time is those weeks of the year which, basically, aren’t anything else.  It’s not Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter.  It’s just . . . ordinary. 

This period starts on the Monday after Pentecost, and continues until the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent.

The website Catholicism . about . com tells us that Ordinary time is one of the most confusing seasons in the liturgical year.  They’re not kidding:  quite apart from anything else, Ordinary Time starts with the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.  And this is why: Ordinary Time begins on the Monday after the first Sunday after January 6th.  (So far so clear).  In most years, that Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  However, where the celebration of Epiphany is transferred to Sunday, if that Sunday is January 7 or 8, Epiphany is celebrated instead.  Epiphany would displace a Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Thus, the first Sunday in the period of Ordinary Time is the Sunday that falls after the first week of Ordinary Time, which makes the First Sunday of Ordinary Time the Second Sunday of Ordinary time.  

Sometimes I think it must be much easier to lead worship in a church with a fixed calendar.  Sometimes I realise I’m wrong. 

However, here we are in Ordinary Time. 

Having realised today was nothing special in the mainstream church calendar, I turned to the moon-phase calendar which hangs in my kitchen.  

As well as the phases of the moon – more useful than you might think -my calendar lists all the festivals and celebrations from the following traditions:  Baha’i, Balinese, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, Jewish, Mayan, Pagan, Persian, Roman, Sikh, Theravad Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist, Zoroatrianism, and various secular traditions, as well as national celebrations in a huge number of countries.  It tells me about gems such as Excited Insects Day, and National ‘Sorry’ Day, in Australia, International Mountain Day, and the World Naked Bike Ride day. 

And for August 11th 2013, my calendar lists Absolutely Nothing.  Not a single celebration.  All those cultures and traditions, and there’s nothing.  It’s one of not many days in the year where that happens. 

I actually found myself feeling a bit sorry for August 11th.  And then I realise it’s a day in the calendar, not a sentient being, so I pulled myself together.

But today, genuinely, is nothing special.  Just an ordinary summer Sunday. 

I bet you’re glad you bothered to get up and come to church, now. 

Just like in the shock ending of the children’s story – where, although it was, you’ll have noticed, considered to be a Great Day for Up, the main character thought they wouldn’t bother after all: we get days where it just seems a little pointless.  And today – 11th August – International Day of Nothing Very Special, International Ordinary Time Day, might well seem like one of those. 

But, actually, I’ve been a little disingenuous about Ordinary Time in the liturgical year.  The Anglican Liturgy Office website is at great pains to tell us that Ordinary doesn’t mean ‘boring’, or ‘normal’, it just means “weeks which are counted rather than named.”  You may think that’s much the same, and I might agree.  But it also goes on to point out that Ordinary Time is about celebrating the whole of creation, the whole – in Christian terms – of Christ’s work and ministry.  One Catholic website says this (I’ve adapted it slightly):

Ordinary Time is the season of the Church year when we are encouraged to grow and mature in daily expression of our faith outside the great seasons of Christmas and Easter.

Ordinary Time is a time to deepen one's prayer life, read the Scriptures, unite more deeply with God and become a more holy and whole person.

Ordinary Time is a period when average people like you and me strive to become the extraordinary messengers that we have been commissioned to be.

Ordinary Time is this day, this moment.  Now.

So, actually, Ordinary Time isn’t about nothing.  It’s not about not celebrating or marking nothing, it’s about celebrating and marking everything.

So it really was worth getting up for. 

Part Two:

You’ll probably all know that song “I wish it could be Christmas every day”? 

If I’ve just given you an earworm – and a very nasty one at that – I apologise. 

But you know that feeling, that if it was always Christmas, or always your birthday, or you were always on holiday, or, basically, it was always carnival, everything would be super and lovely and you’d never be bored or frustrated again.

It’s something we definitely think when we’re children, and I think at the back of our minds we still think it as adults.  If you’re having a particularly lovely holiday somewhere peaceful and your whole family is getting on well and you’re relaxed and happy and feeling healthy and you’re not stressed, of course you’re going to think ‘I wish this could last.  I wish I didn’t have to go back home.”  It’s normal.

But of course it can’t last.  And even if it could, it would soon stop being special. 

A few years ago, my then-partner and I were evacuated from our flat because of subsidence.  It was all terribly exciting and we had two hours to get out and no one in the block knew, for several days, what was going to happen.  But the powers that be handled it brilliantly, and we were accommodated in a rather nice hotel for the full eight weeks (apart from the two we decided to go to Spain).  And the first, maybe the first week or so, it was rather nice.  Meals were provided, someone else made our bed, our bathroom got cleaned, it was sort of like being on holiday – admittedly, a holiday where you’re waiting to hear if your home is going to be pulled down with all your possessions still inside it, but still, a holiday of sorts.  But after that first couple of weeks – the normal length of time of most holidays, we – and our other neighbours who were in the same block, all started realising that we wanted to go home and hoover something.  We wanted to make our own breakfast the way we wanted it.  We wanted to not bother with breakfast and not have anyone know. 

Nothing awful was happening.  In fact, lots of it was rather nice.  But it wasn’t ordinary.  And we need ordinary.  We all know, after all, that when the Chinese say “may you live in interesting times” it’s a curse, not a blessing. 

Does anyone know much about theory of carnival?  Carnival is about those ‘other’ times.  It’s about literal carnivals, but it’s also about festivals – Christmas, Easter, holidays – and about the fact that they only work because they are temporary. 

In a lot of classic carnivals things are turned upside down.  The powerful are made foolish, fools are put in charge, rules are deliberately and joyously broken, and there’s a licensed madness.  But that licensed madness is strictly limited.  Just like Christmas has Twelfth Night, carnivals have an ending. 

We have to go back to normality.

And more than having to go back to it, we have to learn to love it.

Psalm 118, verse 24 says (anyone?):  This is the day which the Lord hath made.  We will rejoice and be glad in it. 

That’s actually a good thing to wake up and think to yourself – and it does, actually, form part of my morning prayer practice.  Again, if you’re not that theist, just “oh good, another one!” will do.

But I think there’s another interpretation of that verse, rather than the one we tend to think of.  We tend to think it says “this day is glorious, this is another wonderful day which God has given us, and we will therefore, because it’s easy and obvious, rejoice and be glad in it.”

And on a glorious day – on your birthday, when it’s sunny and you’re only expecting good things and everything seems fabulous in your world, it’s very easy to wake up and be glad in the day the Lord made for you.

It’s not so easy when it’s the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time and it’s a bit overcast (or pouring with rain, or too hot to think) and there’s nothing to celebrate particularly and you’re probably going to have to pay a bill and everyone’s a bit grumpy with you and you with them, and it’s absolutely months til it’s next Excited Insects Day and even more months til World Naked Bike Ride Day. 

Those days, it’s a bit harder to rejoice and be glad in it.  We don’t tend to rejoice at the ordinary.

But the other way I think that Psalm can be interpreted is this, and it only needs a change in how you say it.  I find myself wondering if what the Psalmist meant was something less like “wow!  What a glorious day!  Rejoice!” and more like “Okay, this is the day the Lord hath made.  This one, this not particularly glorious one.  This slightly difficult one.  This very ordinary one.  This is what God has chosen to give us as our today.  So, we will rejoice and be glad in it.  Because we might as well.”

I was trying, while I was writing this, to come up with a far more elegant way of saying “this one, this day, this is the day the Lord made, so suck it up.”  But I sort of failed.

These Ordinary days are really important.  They’re also glories in their own right.  Whether you believe God gave them to us or not, whether you believe there’s any intention in there being a today, you can’t deny that today happened.  You can’t deny that you woke up and saw today. That there was food for you today, and clean water, company, if you want it.  That you are well enough to have come here, that there is a here to come to, that we are free to worship here together, that however Ordinary it might be, today is happening and you are here to witness it. 

Like the poem reminded us earlier:  there are people longing for an ordinary day.  For what we, in the pampered west, think of as an ordinary day.  There are people, close to us here and on the other side of the world, who are not having an ordinary day.  Who are having a terrifying and hungry and pain-filled day, and who would give a lot to be able to be slightly bored by the humdrumness of this one. 

So let’s not find this Ordinary Time to be too much of a boring nuisance.

This is the day which the Lord has made – or which, anyway, has happened.  So let us – however Ordinary it is, and however Ordinary we are – rejoice, and be glad in it. 


We sang:

The spirit lives to set us free
Now we sing to praise love’s blessing
The harvest of truth
For the splendour of creation

(this isn’t one really bizarre Unitarian hymn, by the way:  it’s the titles of four non-bizarre ones).  

Our readings were:

And an adaptation of Let Me Hold You While I May, by Mary Jean Irion:

It’s been a normal sort of day — common, like a rock along the path. Nothing about it would make one stop suddenly, pick it up and exclaim over it as one might do with a shell or a glistening piece of quartz.

What was it really, this normal day? It was routine mostly.

It was pleasant now and then.

It was irritating now and then.

It was deeply joyous now and then.

It was sobering and frightening now and then.

It was blessed with love throughout.

Just a normal day.

A normal day?!

Holding it in my hand this one last moment, I have come to see it as more than an ordinary rock.  It is a gem, a jewel. 

In time of war, in peril of death, people have dug their hands and faces into the earth and remembered this.
In time of sickness and pain, people have buried their faces in pillows and wept for this.

In time of loneliness and separation, people have stretched themselves taut and waited for this.

In time of hunger, homelessness, and want, people have raised bony hands to the skies, and stayed alive for this.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.

Let me learn from you, love you, savour you, bless you before you depart.

Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.

Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.

One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky, and want more than all the world your return. 

And then I will know what now I am guessing:  that you are, indeed, a common rock and not a jewel, but that a common rock made of the very mass substance of the earth in all its strength and plenty puts a gem to shame. 

The spoken prayers went like this:

Please join with me, now, in a time of prayer, and reflection.  Call it what you feel the most comfortable to call it.  This time is for drawing closer to the eternal. For communicating with that which you may call divine.

Be comfortable.  Be calm.  Be wholly within your own being. 

Let us think, for a moment, of the glories of the ordinary.

Of the minute, invisible, unthinking miracles that take place a million times even on this most mundane of days.

Let us think of the birthing, and the growing, and the flourishing and the developing and the showing.

And let us think of the love, and the companionship, and the community and the caring, and the praying.

And let us think of the air, and the light, and the breeze and the rain and the warmth.

Let us think of the talking, and the laughing, and the hugging, and also of the weeping and the mourning

Let us think of the seeing, and the touching, and the hearing and the tasting and the smelling. 

Let us think of the reading, and the learning, and the debating and the meditating and the thinking.

Let us think of these ordinary, commonplace glories, and the blessing that comes to us from ‘normal’.

And let us, too, think of those for whom these days are not ordinary.  For those who long for ordinary, as a break from heartache, and sickness, and misery, and imprisonment. 

And let us think, now, our own thoughts, and pray our own prayers, together, in the quiet of this sacred space and in the company of our beloved community.


And I think it was a good service . . . 

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Standing Firm, 28th July 2013

windblown tree.jpg

We lit the chalice to:

And now, in common with most Unitarian congregations across the world, we light our chalice candle.

We light it in the hope that its tiny flickering light will yet contain within it an almighty power to promote our ideals of freedom, reason, and tolerance, everywhere.


I stole the children’s story from Gillian Peel.  Grown ups acted in out, in the absence of willing children, and it went like a more hilarious and pantomime version of this:  

Once upon a time, only it was a real time, it was 1806, about two hundred years ago, and in a real place, called Padiham, which is in Lancashire, there were some Unitarians.

And these Unitarians met every Sunday in one of their houses, but because the houses were small in Padiham they decided they wanted to build a chapel to meet in.  So they looked round the town and saw a plot of land they could build their chapel on.

But not everyone in Padiham, back in those days, liked the Unitarians.  They thought they believed stuff they shouldn’t believe, and that they didn’t believe stuff they should believe.  So when they heard the Unitarians were going to build themselves a chapel, they all got together, and put their money together, and bought the land the Unitarians wanted, so that they couldn’t build their chapel there. 

And they didn’t only do this once.  They did it lots of times.  Every time the Unitarians found a piece of land they thought they could use to build their chapel, the townspeople found out about it, clubbed together, and bought the land.

But eventually, because the Unitarians were clever, they got a friend in the next town to buy some land for them.  They gave him the money, obviously.  So they had their land, and now they could build their chapel, and nothing, not a single thing, could stop them.

So the Unitarians got all the materials they needed and started to build their chapel.  They worked hard all day, and made a good start, and then they went home.

But that night, the townspeople came, and do you know what they did?

They pulled the whole thing down to the ground.
So the next morning, when the Unitarians turned up, all their hard work had been wasted.

But they’d come so far already, that they just started again.  Because the Unitarians were persistent.  They worked hard all day, and they got the building back to where it had been, and they went home.

But that night, it just happened again.  The townspeople came, and they pulled the building right back down again.

By now, of course, the Unitarians were getting despondent.  They weren’t rich, and they’d poured all their money into this building.  But they realised, because the Unitarians were sensible, that this just couldn’t go on, so they gathered together all the money they could, and hired some people to protect the building. 

So during the day they built.  And at night, the townspeople came, and were about to knock the building down again, when they were stopped by the people who’d been hired.  Probably in real life there was violence, but in this story, there was just a lot of booing, and the townspeople ran off again, ashamed. 

So the next day, and for many many days after that, the Unitarians continued to build their chapel, and after two whole years, they’d finally finished, and they had a Chapel they could worship in. 

And although that particular building had to be demolished a few years back, there is still a Unitarian chapel in Padiham, and Unitarians still meet there every single Sunday, and it’s all thanks to those long ago Unitarians who didn’t give up.

The sermon went like this:

Part One:

How many of you have been asked some variation of the question “so what’s this Unitarian stuff all about, then?”?

I’m guessing pretty much everyone who’s mentioned it in public has been asked it at least once in their lives.  I’m also guessing that you haven’t necessarily found it easy to answer quickly.  And I’m also guessing – there’s a whole lot of guesswork here – that no two of us will answer the same.

Does anyone feel like telling me – very briefly – how they tend to answer?

So having answered that question, have you always found that the response is a positive one? 

Because I’m assuming that – while you might have had one person saying “gosh, that sounds simply fabulous, see you there on Sunday, and what’s more, I’ll help in some way,” you’ve also had a few somewhat less positive responses. 

And those responses generally come from one of two sides:  the anti-religious sort, and the very religious sort.

The reasons anti-religious people might disapprove of us are pretty obvious:  even those of us who are humanist or atheist are aligned with a religious organisation. 

And there are, sadly, those people, generally connected with the more evangelical churches, who disapprove of us because we’re non-trinitarian. 

Of course, that’s not to say that as Unitarians we’re living on a constant knife-edge of disapproval and prejudice.  Most people, probably, don’t really care much either way what we do on a Sunday. 

But I do think telling people you’re religious is the new ‘coming out’.  It puts us firmly in a minority, and as Unitarians we’re a minority within a minority.  Hardly anyone in the UK goes to church regularly.  And of those that do, trust me, not many are going to Unitarian churches.

You can tell this, partly, by the reactions you get when you first tell someone that what you’re doing on Sunday involves church.  I’m sure you’ll have all noticed a slight shift in someone’s attitude when you do tell them.  It’s generally nothing bad, it’s just as though you’ve moved into a very slightly different sphere. 

And there are some fairly standard things that can happen:  I quite often find that once I’ve told someone I go to church, they apologise for the fact that they don’t.  I always find that really strange.  Then they stop swearing, and then they start looking at you funny.  It fades, after a while, but it’s a fairly standard response. 

Otherwise, of course, they can be prone to telling you why going to church is a bit stupid.  And, by extension, presumably, why you’re a bit stupid, or, at least, blinkered.

Or they can tell you why Unitarianism is not just stupid, but, actually, evil.  Trust me, I’ve had that. 

All that said, just imagine the reaction when you tell them you’re training to be a Minister.  Quite often the reaction is as though you’ve said either “I think I’m God, you see,” or  “Yes, yes I do sell crack cocaine to school children, why do you ask?”

It can be very tiresome. 

But, actually, facing that kind of tiresomeness is nothing at all. 

It’s only 200 years – well, 200 years and a week – since it became legal in the UK to profess to being a Unitarian.  I’m not going very far into that, because next week’s service is on that very theme, I believe.  But until the passing of the Unitarian tolerance Act in 1813, it would have been illegal for us to meet here like this. 

But the children’s story this morning was a true one.  The people of Padiham actually physically went and pulled down a building night after night after night faced with the prospect of Unitarians in their town. 

So, actually, having someone tell you that either you’ve been indoctrinated and need to have your sights cleared, or that you’re indoctrinating other people, isn’t that big a deal.

But this freedom that we’re celebrating right now, just by virtue of the fact that we’re here together openly worshipping as non-trinitarians, wasn’t easily won.  There was struggle, and there was pain, and there was heartache.  There were deaths. 

We should bear that in mind every time we tell someone where we go on a Sunday.  We should remember every time that the fact that we can say, with fear of nothing more than disapproval or boredom, that we’re going to a Unitarian church, that not very long ago at all, we couldn’t have said it. 
We shy away from evangelism, us Unitarians.  We’re definitely not in the conversion business, and you won’t find us trying to persuade members of other religious faiths – or of no religious faith – to give it up and join us.  At least, I very much hope you won’t!

But there are things we should be very, very proud of, and in the second part of the address, after some more music, we’re going to have a look at a very very small selection of them. 

Part Two:

So, Unitarianism has been kept going at a great cost in some cases, and we forget that at our peril.

But even once we became legal, even once we were able to build our meeting places and no longer had to build them down hidden alleyways, we still stood firm for things we believed:  we’ve never been a denomination, it seems, who are happy to rest about things which concern us. 

We don’t seem to have stopped fighting for causes we feel are right, pretty much since we came into existence and formed an identity as Unitarians. 

Who knows when the Church of England first started ordaining women?  It was 1994, less than twenty years ago:  as an aside, since 2010, more women than men have been ordained in the Church of England.

Nearly 80 years before that, in 1917, the Church of England started licensing females as lay readers, a role far inferior to ordination.

And 14 years before that, we Unitarians inducted our first female minister, on exactly the same terms as male ministers.  I’m sure many of you can tell me exactly who she was. Gertrude Von Petzold.  It’s a name we should all try and remember.  We hold Gertrude Von Petzold up as an example of our free-thinking and our bravery (not to mention her own), and rightly so. 

But let’s not pretend it was easy.  For almost all the time she was studying at Manchester College, Oxford, Gertrude ate her meals alone, because her fellow students – Unitarians, remember – refused to eat with her. 

But despite that, not only did Gertrude herself persevere, but so did the tutors and the denominational leaders, and when she qualified she was unanimously chosen by the Leicester church’s 150 members to serve as their minister, despite being up against seven male candidates. 

Gender is now simply not an issue in selecting people to train for ministry in our denomination and I think it’s fair to say it’s fairly low down the list of important things when a congregation is looking to call a new minister. 

It wasn’t easily won:  but it was won.

And not two weeks ago, there was another giant leap forward in equality, and one in which we, as Unitarians, can take some pride:  the Queen gave royal assent to the Same-Sex marriage bill, meaning that – with some confusing exceptions around some denominations – same-sex couples can now can married on exactly equal terms with opposite-sex couples. 
It is a huge, huge leap.  It’s not quite done to talk about personal stuff in an address, but sometimes it’s okay.  I first started to realise I was interested in girls at least as much as I was in boys, over thirty years ago. 

Until, perhaps, ten years ago, if not even fewer than that, it was hard to even imagine Civil Partnerships becoming real.  That recent, and no one really thought it would be possible for same-sex relationships to be made official. 

And even since then, I think it’s probably fair to say it’s really very very recently that people started to dare hope that equality in marriage might come along in their own lifetimes.  We watched the House of Commons debate sometimes in tears of both joy and sorrow, and sometimes in anger, but with huge tension not many months ago.  The relief when the debate was passed was tempered with concern that the Lords would overturn it.  But as we know, they didn’t. 

I had the privilege of being on a ministry students’ retreat at the Unitarian Conference Centre in Hucklow when the news came through that the Lords had passed the bill, and I don’t want to ever forget the ripple of joy that ran across the room when it was announced.

Because Unitarians didn’t just sit back and wait for other people to change the law.  As a national body we’ve been campaigning for over forty years for gender and sexuality equality in various spheres.  And we worked hard campaigning for this bill to be passed.  Our chief executive was called on to give evidence, and along with the Quakers, Reform Jews and more recently the United Reform church, we’ve been out there making it clear that not all faith groups feel the same way. 

We did that.  That huge change in society that just happened, and which Norwich celebrated especially yesterday:  we helped bring that about. 

And again:  it wasn’t easy. 

It wasn’t easy within the denomination, and it wasn’t always easy even within the congregation.  One of the things I’ve been proudest of about this congregation is the debates we held about applying for a Civil Partnership license.  Not even about the outcome of those debates – though, obviously, I was thrilled with that – but the process itself. 

We proved that we can take a difficult and sometimes painful subject, on which we certainly don’t all agree, and we can discuss it respectfully, and lovingly, and honestly. 

It was one of those times where you see how a church community can work when it’s working at its best. 

These are, truly, the things we should bear in mind when people ask us what this Unitarian stuff is all about.  This Unitarian stuff is about principles.  And it’s about sticking to those principles.  It’s not about inflexibility.  Neither is it about assuming we all think the same way. 

But we’ve persisted.  We’ve stood firm.  And we’ve changed things.

We truly are a part of something special, even if we sometimes find it hard to articulate that. 

We have a history to be proud of.  We have forebears to thank and to honour.

But our history is still ongoing.  We, ourselves, have done great things, and do great things.

And we should celebrate that, every time we wonder what this Unitarian stuff is about. 

We sang:

Enter, rejoice and come in.  
Forward through the ages
Let love continue long
One more step along the world I go.

Our readings were: 

It Matters What We Believe, by Sophia Lyons Fah, which can be found partway down this page: 


And, from Unitarianism, George Chryssides:

Unitarian leaders of a century ago would scarcely recognise present-day Unitarianism as the denomination to which they belonged.

Whether they would have welcomed the changes is anyone’s guess, but we can be sure that the next century will see developments that may alter it out of all recognition. 

I would hazard a few guesses.  The present interest in world religions, which has developed in recent decades, is likely to continue:  as is their practice, Unitarians will not seek to convert their followers to their own brand of religion:  that would be at odds with our principles, but Unitarianism can only thrive where there is a variety of traditions on which to draw. 

As far as evangelism is concerned, Unitarians are becoming aware that they are hiding their light under a bushel, and that publicising the denomination is no bad thing. 

Most importantly, Unitarian churches will continue to provide an environment for those who feel that they are inherently ‘religious’ but who have doubts which they are less able to share in other religious arenas.  For those who wish to develop their own religious view of life, Unitarianism will continue to provide the framework in which to do so.

For such people, at least, Unitarianism is certainly ‘a faith with a future’. 

The spoken prayers went like this:  

And now, please join with me in a time of prayer, reflection, and meditation.

You may like to put down anything you’re holding onto and which may distract you from this time of connection with that which you hold sacred. 

And settle comfortably in your seat.  Clench and then relax any muscles which need it, and wriggle if you need to, so that, as far as possible, you’re not distracted by physical discomfort.
And you may like to soften your gaze, or to close your eyes.

And just, now, for a moment, breathe. Just let your attention flow into your breathing, and feel it steadying gently as you do so. 

And be aware, that this bond, this breath, is common to all sentient beings who live now, and who have lived, and that it will be your constant companion.

And just settle.

And as you settle, become gently aware of the embrace of history and progress which holds you here, for this hour, in this place. 

Be aware of the changes our own beautiful building has seen.  Of the huge social upheavals those who have sat here have witnessed, and influenced, and been a part of.

And be aware of the strength of mind and of conscience and of faith which has held our denomination, our congregation, together, for so many years, and through so many trials.

And think, now, of how we still uphold those traditions of conscience and faith.  How we, too, have been, and continue to be, instrumental in bringing about those changes which matter the most to us.

And hold that precious kernel within your consciousness for the next few moments.

And very soon, we will enter into a time of silent reflection together.  A time for our own prayers, and our own meditations.  A time to hold in our minds those things which are most pressing on us right now.  For we all have great sorrow, and great joy, and great troubles.  We all need strength, and consolation, and we all have a longing, deep inside us, for something beyond. And now is the time to reach for that. 

So enter now, together, into a time of silence, bringing with you all that you yearn for. 


And the benediction like this: 


And then a small, coincidentally all-female, bunch of us went for lunch, where we discussed the choice of first hymns (child-friendly, or to set the tone of the service?); intimate waxing (generally we thought not); the heat (there was a lot of it, that day); and why it wasn’t insane of me to want a spiced apple warmer drink on a hot July day.