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.

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