Why Are We Here? pt 1 – 27/09/20

Opening Music: ‘Shibumi’ by Murie Johnstone (Sandra Smith – 56s)

Opening Words of Welcome: Good morning everyone! and welcome to all who have gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in Kensington Unitarians’ online Sunday service. Welcome to members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today, and to all who may be listening to our podcast, or watching this service on YouTube, sometime in the future. My name is Jane Blackall and I’m a member of the staff team at Essex Church, I’ve been part of this congregation for 21 years now, and I’m also a ministry student in my third (and hopefully final) year of training with Unitarian College.

Anyone who was already a regular at our services in the time-before-Zoom can testify that – when I’m not leading worship – I’m very much a lurking-in-the-back-row kind of person – so you’ll know I’m being sincere when I say: please do feel free to quietly lurk if that’s what you need to do. Of course it’s lovely to see everyone’s faces, as it helps us get a sense of being together in a gathered community, albeit virtually for the time being – and there will be opportunities for us to join in by speaking or singing as we go along too – but if you feel like keeping your head down and your camera off this morning that’s alright by us.

This morning’s service is the first of a two-parter considering the question: ‘Why Are We Here?’ I’ll be introducing the theme this week and then several members of the congregation are going to share their own perspectives and wisdom on the topic next Sunday. I should say – please don’t go all trades-descriptions-act on me for false advertising! – this is not ‘Why Are We Here?’ in the existential sense of ‘Why Do We Exist At All?’ – instead we’ll be pondering the more everyday (though no less vital) question of why we, each of us, are here at church. This church. This beloved community known as Kensington Unitarians. What is it that has drawn you – and me – to gather together here as a Unitarian congregation; what hopes and dreams, values and needs brought us here in the first place; and perhaps especially what keeps us coming back here even in these strange and turbulent times when being ‘here’ means something quite different than what we’re used to.

But, nonetheless, here we are. Together. In this moment. And perhaps we could still do with taking this moment to fully ‘arrive’; to Be Here Now. So let’s pause to breathe (—pause—) and intentionally set aside, at least for a while, some of the mind’s hubbub, all those demands on your time and energy. They can wait. I don’t know what sort of week you’ve had; life seems hard going for many of us right now. But whoever you are, however you are, whatever state you’ve woken up in this morning – even if you’re still finishing your cornflakes – you are welcome in this gathering, just as you are. Whether it’s your first time here, or your thousandth, I welcome you with these words by Kimberlee Anne Tomczak Carlson:

It is not by chance that you arrived here today.
You have been looking for something larger than yourself.
Inside of you there is a yearning, a calling, a hope for more,
A desire for a place of belonging and caring.

Through your struggles, someone nurtured you into being,
Instilling a belief in a shared purpose, a common yet precious
resource that belongs to all of us when we choose to share it.

And so, you began seeking a beloved community:

A people that does not put fences around love.
A community that holds its arms open to love’s possibilities.
A heart-home to nourish your precious soul and share your gifts.

Welcome home; welcome to this time of worship.

Chalice Lighting: And now I’ll light our chalice, as we do each Sunday, and at other times when we gather. This simple ritual connects us with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proudly progressive religious tradition of which this gathering is part.

We light this chalice for all who are here, and all who are not;
For all who have ever come through the doors of Essex Church
(or indeed through the digital doors of our Zoom waiting room),
for those who may yet find their way to this spiritual community,
and for all those new ways of doing and being church together,
of touching and transforming lives, that we can’t yet even imagine.

For each of us and for us all, may this flame burn warm and bright.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church in Kensington or here as an online congregation, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve got a good few minutes now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle (real or imaginary) and say a few words about what it represents. When you’re ready to speak, unmute your microphone so we can all hear you, and then re-mute yourself once you’ve finished. If you are going to speak, please be aware of how long you’re speaking for, so that there’s time for others to say something too. Let’s leave a pause between one candle and the next, so we can honour what’s been shared. And don’t worry too much if two people end up speaking at the same time, or there’s a technical hitch of some sort – these things happen on Zoom – please do persevere! At this point it’d be nice, if you can, to switch to gallery view so we can all see everybody.

I’ve got one more candle here and – as we often do – I’m going to light that to represent all those joys and concerns that we might be holding silently in our heart today, those stories which we don’t feel able to share out loud this morning. Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns we have heard expressed… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world we share… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness for a moment or two. And let’s take those joys and concerns into an extended time of prayer now.

Prayer: based on words by Kyle Johnson

This prayer is based on some words by the Unitarian Universalist lay minister Kyle Johnson. You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that larger presence which holds us all.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love,
in whom we live and move and have our being;
as we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy, holding presence within us and amongst us. [pause]

It is said that you make the sun rise, and the life-giving rains fall,
on both the just and the unjust, and in that way,
yours is an abounding, generous grace.
We give our thanks for life’s many gifts.

But it is also true that none of us are ever really spared –
neither the just, nor the unjust – for try as we might,
we are still all subject to the challenges
of pain and anguish, death and separation –
to the unavoidable impermanence of our material existence.

And yet – the very fact that no one is spared,
suggests that none of us is ever truly alone,
since we all partake in this passing reality,
stumbling from triumph to disaster and back again,
and dealing with what life throws at us the best we can.

So, may the unavoidable fact of our shared human condition
foster empathy, compassion, and mutual loving support.
May the stories of all those who have gone before
– ordinary flesh and blood people just like us –
remind us of the deep reserves of courage and strength
that lie within each and every one of us, vulnerable as we are, here and now.

And may the transient nature of life
compel us to savour every precious moment,
While also reminding us, particularly in our most trying
and precarious times, that “this, too, shall pass.” [pause]

Let us take a moment now to focus our loving thoughts and prayers
on all those who are suffering in our world right now –
through oppression, injustice, ill health, or perhaps sheer bad luck –
and let us also pray for those who care;
who act and speak out to improve the lot of those in need.
Indeed, all of us suffer, and all of us can attend
to the suffering of others, one way or another.
In a moment or two of stillness let us call to mind
a person, or situation, in need of prayers [pause]

And let us take another moment to focus our thoughts and prayers
on all that we have to be grateful for right now –
all the kindness, beauty, and pleasure we have known, and witnessed.
In this moment of stillness let us call to mind
something we feel moved to give thanks for. [pause]

Spirit of Life – God of all Love –
as this time of prayer comes to a close,
we offer up our joys and concerns,
our hopes and fears, our beauty and brokenness,
and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen

Reading: ‘Why Do You Come, John?’ by Victoria Safford [read by Antony Bunsee – prerecorded]

We’ve got a reading now – our very own Antony Bunsee kindly pre-recorded it for us a few days ago – it’s a piece which you might well find rather poignant because it refers to so many of the aspects of the church life which we’re missing at the moment – but more on that later. It’s by the Unitarian Universalist minister Victoria Safford – ‘Why do you Come, John?’

I knew a man once who came to church every Sunday. You may find nothing remarkable in this. But think of it – a man who came every single Sunday, and it was not that he lacked other things to do. I knew him only in the last years of his life – a birthright Unitarian, a retired geologist who, when he was not at church, was a volunteer for Amnesty International, for the local food bank, for the Civil Liberties Union, for the family planning clinic, the AIDS project, for the Unitarian Universalist district we were part of, for [nature conservation], and for a splendid community chorus. Busier than any of us still holding full-time jobs, he was committed, effective, clear about what he could and would and, by his own standards, should contribute to the causes he cared for, the world and people that he cared for. But what him set him apart from all of us was that he came every single Sunday and (because of hearing loss, I think, more than any sense of his own importance) he sat in the front row.

“Why do you come, John? In all kinds of weather, when you’re well and when you’re not, when you like the guest speaker and when you know you won’t, why do you come every Sunday?” I asked him not long before he died. His answer was straightforward, just like the man himself. “I come,” he said, “because somebody might miss me if I didn’t.”

He said it in a way not arrogant at all, but generously, and honestly. He was the kind of person who saw it as his duty and his privilege to welcome newcomers on Sunday morning – not because he needed more friends himself (the man was eighty years old, with a lifetime of friends and colleagues and acquaintances to spare; he had plenty of friends already, more than he could handle). He did it not because he especially wanted to evangelise the visitors or grow the church (in truth, he loved and missed the tiny congregation he’d joined in 1955, and he felt a little lost with so many new faces, a little sad at all the changes he’d seen down the years). Yet he greeted people as they came, and steered them towards the minister or the coffee pot, the Sunday school, the guest book, the standing order forms, the sign-up sheets, because he felt it was the right and only thing to do. When people come into your home, you welcome them as if nothing in that moment matters more. He worked hard on Sunday mornings, he got up on Sundays expecting to work hard to make others feel at home; he came with that in mind. And he was right – after he died, we missed him when he didn’t come.

And do you know what happened? The Sunday after his funeral, someone new (who’d never met John and now would never have the chance) walked right in and sat down in his empty place in that front row. A whole family just sat right down as if they owned the place, as if they had every right to be there, as if we were glad to see them – two women new to town, and their toddler and their baby. They came hoping there was room, and there was, and John himself would have been delighted.

Meditation: ‘What Meaning and What Value?’ by Phillip Hewett (adapted)

We’ve come now to a time of meditation. You might like to have a wiggle and get as comfortable as you can in your chair (if you’re in a chair!) – put your feet flat on the floor to help ground and steady yourself – maybe close your eyes or gently focus on the chalice flame.

There’ll be some words adapted from a piece by Phillip Hewett, a much-loved Unitarian minister, who served in the UK and Canada, and who died a few years ago; his words (on meaning and value) will take us into a good few minutes of shared stillness, and the silence will come to an end with some lovely gentle music from Sandra. As ever, you are free to think your own thoughts, and meditate in your own way.

So let us share in the spirit of meditation and prayer. Let your body settle. Let your breathing fill you with the energising power of the spirit, as body and mind become quiet.

Here we sit – in our separate rooms – but in spirit we are side by side.
Each of us unique, and here for our own reasons,
but our shared intention brings us together,
to celebrate those values that enlarge our lives with meaning
in ways that have drawn us from many places
to gather here for these few brief moments. [pause]

Albert Schweitzer wrote:
‘in religion, we try to find an answer to the elementary question
with which each one of us is newly confronted each morning:
namely, what meaning and what value is to be ascribed to our life?’

My life? Your life? Our life?
Individually and together
we celebrate our questionings and hopes and commitments.
We look to the coming days seeking the resources to meet all challenges
with resilience, enterprise, and mutual support,
drawing together on the deep wellsprings of the spirit.
Beneath our agreements and our disagreements,
our fads and our facetiousness,
we would feel ourselves responding to the rhythms
of a community which was there before we came
and will be there after we have gone:
rhythms through which the perpetual call to ongoing life
inspires our work and our worship, our discussions and our decisions.
Let us be faithful in heeding that call.
Let us be thoughtful in our planning,
wise in our acting, steadfast in our love.

Much can be expressed in words.
There is more that lies beyond all words.
Let all voices be stilled as we seek together
the insights and meanings and intentions
that can flow into us through the silence.

Silence: [3 minutes silence]

Musical Interlude: ‘The Salley Gardens’ by Britten (Sandra Smith)

Sermon: ‘Why Are We Here?’

I’ve got something a little bit different for you in the sermon-y bit this morning. A few weeks ago, as part the requirements of my ministry training, I had to give a short presentation on the history of this congregation. I’m about to give you a very abridged summary of it (in about 6 ½ minutes, I think) and afterwards I’ll tell you why. I think at least a few people here today will be familiar with the story of Essex Church (otherwise known as Kensington Unitarians) but in truth – London being what it is – and given our newly broadened ‘catchment area’ since we’ve been meeting on Zoom – the turnover of people coming to our services is pretty high and it’s likely many of you haven’t heard the story before. I’m going to show some slides of our illustrious forebears and their impressive hair and beard arrangements to keep it lively! But I will also keep it brief.


Let me introduce you to this fine fellow (and his bouffant hair): Theophilus Lindsey. He’s a very significant figure in the history of this congregation and Unitarianism in general. He started out in the Church of England, was ordained in the 1740s, but over the decades that followed his conscience began to nag at him, particularly in relation to the requirement that all clergy subscribe to the Thirty Nine Articles, a statement defining Anglican (i.e. Trinitarian) doctrine. He’d started coming round to a unitarian-ish position, and though he tried to reform the church from within, by 1773 he resigned as vicar of Catterick (Yorkshire) and came to London. This was a big deal! He was giving up his livelihood to do something pretty radical at that time. His friends egged him on to start a new congregation of like-minded people down south. He rented a room from an auctioneer in Essex House, near the Strand, and held the first service in 1774.


This is approximately what it would have looked like (though this picture is of a later event). There were 200 people at that first gathering, including Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, and a number of other big political and legal names of the time, even though at this point openly anti-Trinitarian preaching was still technically against the law. Supposedly government agents were present to keep an eye on things but the press generally reported sympathetically. Theophilus Lindsey’s well-off supporters chipped in to buy the freehold of Essex House and a chapel – the Essex Street Chapel – was built on the site and flourished for the next half century. However, over time, the demographics of the city changed, and people moved to the suburbs. By the 1880s the congregation was in decline and they were thinking about closing altogether.


But there’s more than one strand to our story! Meet Robert Spears (less hair; more beard). Another very significant figure in Unitarian history. He came from the north-east, was largely self-taught, started out a Trinitarian with the Methodists but became convinced that the Bible was thoroughly Unitarian and went about vigorously spreading this bible-based Unitarianism. He also ended up down south and founded several congregations including one in west London. The Kensington congregation started off meeting in rented rooms in 1867 and moved around a bit but within seven years they’d picked up enough momentum to move to a settled site.


James Clark Lawrence, later Lord Mayor of London, bought some land in what was known as the Kensington Gravel Pits and a temporary ‘Iron Church’ made of corrugated iron was put up. By the 1880s the congregation was well on the way to raising funds for a new, larger church. And – this is where the two strands of our story join together – this is the point where Lindsey’s original Essex Street Chapel was shrinking due to the population moving out of central London. So to cut a long story short, the two congregations decided to merge on the Kensington site, which hastened the move to demolish the old Iron Church and build a fancy new gothic building.


And from this point the congregation became known as ‘Essex Chapel’, later ‘Essex Church’, as a way to assert continuity with the first Unitarian congregation that Lindsey had started. Only bits and pieces of records from this time have survived but in his book telling the history of our congregation Raymond Williams looks back to the 1880s, and makes a significant comment: ‘it appears that most lived within walking distance of the church… but it is equally evident that, even in those years, many left the district after a few years, and the area was even then assuming its modern character as a dormitory for birds of passage.’ Not many of us live in walking distance any more but I was surprised to hear that even ~150 years ago the turnover of people was high. Still, they expanded their activities in the early 20th century, and had a huge Sunday school, but after the war the numbers started to decline again, and the building started to show its age. The church was a bit too big for the congregation so they decided to demolish and redevelop in the 1970s. For a few years the congregation met in hired rooms again. The theological centre of gravity started to shift – not quite so Christian-centred – gradually more humanist influences.


And here’s the present-day building which many of us know, and love, and currently miss. It was opened in 1977 and is a beautiful, flexible, quirky space, with an annoyingly leaky roof. Now to squeeze this story of our history into 6 ½ minutes of course I’m going to leave a lot out. From being here 21 years myself, I’m already conscious of all the history of the church that has unfolded before my eyes, all the devoted and influential figures who’ve passed through this congregation over the years and given so much of themselves to keep the show on the road. And that made me start to think a bit about all that doesn’t get written down for posterity.


We had a jolly good party back in 2017 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the building. But that’s one of the things I found strange when I was reading up on our congregation’s history: So much of it was about the buildings. And a fair amount about ministers and notable figures. But on the whole, I read that list of names, and didn’t feel that I knew much about them really. It’s harder to get a sense of the real people, the congregational life, the deeper stuff that actually draws us together, and which has presumably drawn people to Essex Church for 246 years now. Because as much as we love our church building – that’s not primarily what we come for, is it? And we can say that with some confidence now, having been mostly ‘in exile’ for the last 6 months.


So I really wanted to include one more slide. To affirm that even while we’re not meeting in our beloved building we’re still in continuity with that first congregation from Essex Street, and the Iron Church, the Gothic Church, and the rented rooms. This is part of the same story. Us mucking about with our comedy vegetables on Zoom last week for our virtual harvest festival.


Now, you might wonder why I’ve given you that whistle-stop tour of our church’s history. Here’s why. In today’s service we’re just beginning to explore the question: ‘Why Are We Here?’ And it occurred to me that one significant part of the answer to this question is: ‘We are here because, when we – each of us here today – when we went in search of a spiritual home, this church was just sat there waiting for us. Ready for us to discover’.

Someone founded this congregation – Theophilus Lindsey broke away from the mainstream to gather that very first Unitarian chapel on Essex Street – and a continuous chain of hands has sustained it ever since, kept it alive over the last 246 years, most of them not recorded in the history books, they remain unheralded and anonymous, but faithful stewards all the same. And because of them – their vision, their labour, their care – the congregation has survived so that when each one of us went looking for a progressive religious home, whether that was 40 years ago, or 40 minutes ago, or somewhere in-between, it was still here for us to stumble across. For some of us – me, at least – that’s been a life-changing gift, a treasure handed down the ages. And now it’s our turn. It’s up to us to be custodians of this church, this congregation, this Unitarian tradition, and keep it in good nick for the generations yet to come. Like ‘John’, the character in the story that Antony read for us earlier, it’s up to us to show up and be here to welcome the next person that needs us – that needs this progressive religious community – and whose life might be changed by it.

The church hasn’t stayed the same over all that time – of course it hasn’t. We’ve been through all those church buildings – and times without a building. The emphasis of the theology has shifted – and although we’ve kept the name ‘Unitarian’ – we’ve come to draw on a much wider range of sources than the bible-based faith of our forebears. The shape and the style of the worship has changed radically – and it is still evolving. Despite all these changes, though, there’s something constant and enduring that remains. If you look back through our story, some key values emerge, some principles and purposes. Many of those values are directly inherited from the Christian tradition we came out of, even if the religious language we typically use has changed a bit over the intervening years.

Maybe we don’t make reference to the commandment to ‘love God and love our neighbour’ – but I’d suggest that the spirit of this commandment, the Spirit of Love itself, is still at the very heart of all we do – even if some of us might prefer to substitute ‘Good’ for ‘God’, and talk about the very human acts of kindness and solidarity that are an expression of our faith. Maybe – in this congregation, at least – we Unitarians don’t talk about the ‘Kingdom of God’ so much these days (though personally it’s still a phrase I love) but we might speak instead of the ‘Beloved Community’ when referring to the better world we dream of, a better world which is ‘at hand’, we can catch glimpses of, whenever acts of love and justice are carried out.

Why Are We Here? I could summarise with three ‘Ps’: Place, People, and Purpose. When I say PLACE I mean: there was somewhere – either a building or virtual space – for us to gather. For you and me to walk in, or log in, to for the first time. A place that was waiting for us. When I say PEOPLE I mean: there has been a continuous community of those who were willing – like that faithful chap ‘John’ in the reading that Antony gave for us earlier – to give their hearts to a particular community – offering care, and mutual support, and keeping the show on the road. And when I say PURPOSE I mean: the church is more than just a social club for ‘people like us’. There is something we are called to do in the world, values we share, a love that we embody. Personally, there are reasons why I came here, and not to the Anglicans, or the Buddhists, or a Philosophy class (worthy as all those gatherings are). It matters what we stand for, what our particular mission is. And each week, when the PEOPLE are gathered in the PLACE, we call each other back to this greater loving PURPOSE.

There’s a lot more we could say about why we’re here – as individuals and collectively – and as this is just part one of a two-parter I’ll leave you to ponder that question for yourself in the week ahead (before we hear more from Jeannene, Charlotte, and Roy next Sunday). But for now I’ll end with an echo of our opening words by Kimberlee Anne Tomczak Carlson:

It is not by chance that you arrived here today.
You have been looking for something larger than yourself.
Inside of you there is a yearning, a calling, a hope for more,
A desire for a place of belonging and caring…
And so, you began seeking a beloved community:
A people that does not put fences around love.
A community that holds its arms open to love’s possibilities.
A heart-home to nourish your precious soul and share your gifts. Welcome home. Amen.

Hymn: ‘Forward Through the Ages’ (Unitarian Music Society)

Time for us to sing – together-but-apart! – a stirring old traditional hymn tune for us today. ‘Forward through the Ages’ – a hymn which affirms our part in a much longer story – a story of faithful spirits being called, inspired, over the years to come together for a greater purpose: using whatever gifts we have to help bring about a better world, a ‘reign of love and light’. Don’t worry – Jeanenne’s going to make sure we all have our microphones muted for this bit – so you can belt it out safe in the knowledge that only your neighbours will hear you. If the technology behaves itself the words will appear on screen shortly and you can sing along with a recording by the Unitarian Music Society – or feel free just to listen if you’d rather.

Forward through the ages in unbroken line,
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine:
Gifts in differing measure, hearts of one accord,
Manifold the service, one the sure reward.
Forward through the ages in unbroken line,
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

Wider grows the kingdom, reign of love and light;
For it we must labour till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,
Poets sung its glory, heroes for it died.
Forward through the ages in unbroken line,
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

Not alone we conquer, not alone we fall;
In each loss or triumph lose or triumph all.
Bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole,
Move we on together to the shining goal
Forward through the ages in unbroken line,
Move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

Announcements: Thanks to Jeannene for hosting today, Antony for our reading, Sandra for the lovely music. There are a number of opportunities to connect in the week ahead: Coffee morning at 10.00 on Tuesday (note early start). Heart and Soul – few spaces tonight, Friday. Don’t forget we’ll have virtual coffee-time afterwards, chat in small groups, if you’d like. And if you can bear it we like to take a group photo after the closing music so stick around. Back again on Zoom next week at 10am for part two with Jeannene, Charlotte, and Roy. Bring your friends! It’s fine to share the link with trusted others and this time while we’re online makes it easier for those who are curious to try us out in a low-pressure kind of way. We’ve just got some brief closing words now, followed by some more lovely music to end. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point so we can all see each other and get a sense of our community-and-connectedness for this closing.

Closing Words:

Our time of worship draws to a close.
Soon, we will turn our attention back to
the everyday happenings of our individual lives,
and this gathered community will disperse for another week.

So whatever we have found of worth in this shared hour
– maybe a sense of comfort or connection, inspiration or insight –
may we carry a little of that good stuff with us as we go on our way,
and see if we can pass it on, share our blessings with others.

And in the week ahead, whatever it brings our way,
may we remember that we are part of a larger story:
each of us ‘faithful spirits’ following ‘the call divine’
towards that ‘reign of love and light’;
builders of the beloved community,
that better world we all dream of.

Stay safe, everyone. And see you next Sunday, if not before. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘The Whole World in His Hands’ arr Margaret Bonds

Jane Blackall

27th September 2020