Mayflower Celebrations? – 11/10/20

Opening Music: Purcell’s Trumpet Fanfare

Opening words: Hello everybody, it’s Sunday morning and we Kensington Unitarians, plus friends from near and far, are gathered once again here on Zoom. It’s lovely to see you all there on my laptop screen. I’m Sarah Tinker, and I’ve had an interesting and educational few days finding out a bit more about our theme for today – a recognition that this year is the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the ship called The Mayflower from England to the east coast of America, carrying a group of pilgrims seeking a new world where they could follow their religion in freedom and peace.

I welcome you here today into this inclusive community – whatever your religious beliefs, whoever you are, however you are feeling this morning, whatever is going on in your life. And a message of welcome also goes out to those of you listening to a podcast, or watching a video of this service on YouTube some time in the future. It’s great that we can connect with you in this way and I hope this recording is of value to you, has some relevance to how your life is at present.

Taking part in a Unitarian service such as this won’t earn you a place in heaven, we aren’t offering to save your soul. But what we do offer is a chance to go deeper, to reflect on some of life’s key issues, a space for us to be honest with ourselves and one another and to remind ourselves that we are not alone on this journey of life.

And I hope we feel able to bring all of ourselves to a time such as this, we don’t have to hide our difficulties or uncertainties or vulnerabilities – this is a time and a space for the whole of us to be here, together in community one with another, aligning ourselves once more with that which we hold to be divine, the god of our hearts, the love that guides us, the passion that inspires us – I invite each of us to connect with that which is of ultimate worth to us in silence for a moment as I light our chalice flame.

This flame connects us with Unitarian individuals and communities all around the world, and reminds us that as this flame burns freely so too must we value our freedom to worship as we choose – may such a freedom be a reality for more people around the world. May we join in solidarity with all those persecuted for their beliefs, with all those who must hide their true selves for fear of retribution. May everyone feel safe to be who they truly know themselves to be.

Candles of Joy and Concern: Each week when we meet in our building in Notting Hill or here in our online congregation, we share candles of joy and concern, where we invite one another to light a candle and share something that is in our heart. So here in our Zoom service we’ve a good few minutes for some of you to tell us of a joy or a concern, and to light a candle, real or imaginary – visitors you are most welcome to join in. When you are ready to speak you can unmute yourself and speak out so everyone can hear and then re-mute yourself when you’ve finished speaking. Do give it a go if you’d like to, as it’s good to hear some other voices and perspectives, and let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for so others have chance to speak too. And I suggest we each now switch to gallery view on our own screens so we can see everyone. Our hosts Jane and Jeannene will do their best to spot if someone wants to speak and can’t unmute themselves. These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Prayer and Reflection: Let’s bring the joys and concerns we’ve heard expressed today into our time of reflection and prayer, along with all those issues we carry quietly in our hearts. At several points in this prayer I will invite you to cover your face with your hands – if that feels ok for you – or choose any other gently expressive movement.

Spirit of life, god of all compassion, be with us now and help us to settle ourselves in the here and now, open and receptive to your guidance and your love. Today as we remember the journey of pilgrims across the ocean, seeking lands where they could worship freely – may we quietly express our gratitude for the freedoms we may too oft take for granted. This freedom is a privilege still denied too many of the world’s inhabitants – if you wish I invite you now to join me as we cover our faces with our hands – and admit how privileged our lives are, how rarely most of us give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy……….and as we release our hands let us commit ourselves to examining our privilege regularly in life.

Once again I invite us to cover our faces with our hands as we acknowledge the truth that so much of the wealth of our country has come from the oppression of people in other lands and the theft of resources which belonged to others not ourselves.

And as we release our hands let us commit ourselves to remaining conscious of the shameful history of colonialism which is such a significant part of the history of Britain and many other European countries. May we never forget that much of our society lives still under illusions of a great and magnanimous past, the myth of ruling the waves.

And I invite you to cover your face for a third and final time to acknowledge the dominance of white Eurocentric culture and the suppression of cultures other than our own – acknowledging the denial that colonialism requires in order to function – denial that other cultures, other religions and other systems of health, education and governance – not only exist but may be far more successful and appropriate for their circumstances than our own…….

And as we release our hands for this final time in prayer, may we forever remain aware of the trap in thinking that we and our societies are in any way superior to those different from us.

And let’s take a few moments in stillness now to speak our own prayers of love and concern for ourselves, for others, for our world…..

And may the work of our hands match the aspirations of our hearts this day and all days, amen.

And now Julia is going to tell us of her own personal connection with a passenger on The Mayflower that set sail from England to the Americas back in 1620, 400 years ago.

Reflection: Miles Standish/John Alden: The Mayflower

When I read that the theme of today’s virtual Sunday Service entitled ‘Mayflower Celebrations?’ I shared with Sarah my own history linked to that famous ship and voyage. I am a direct descendent of John Alden who came along on that journey, not as a Pilgrim looking for religious freedom, but as a cooper or barrel-maker. I briefly recounted the story of John Alden’s courtship with Priscilla Mullins on the Mayflower. Hence, the connection to today’s theme and my short presentation.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a very long, rather legendary poem depicting the story of a love triangle with John Alden, the ship’s captain, Miles Standish and a young girl named Priscilla Mullins. The story goes that Captain Standish was going to ask Priscilla Mullens to marry him once they arrived in America and revealed this to John. He asked John to go to Priscilla and request for her hand on his behalf. However, John and Priscilla had fallen in love on the ship during the journey. Alden was fearful of confronting Standish and decided that he could not marry Priscilla. Priscilla challenges John in her lines made immortal in Longfellow’s poem called The Courtship of Miles Standish, “Archly the maiden smiled, and, with eyes overrunning with laughter…said, in a tremulous voice. “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” He does and this leads to their courtship and marriage.

Of course, most of you have not heard this story or these lines that are well-known to Americans. John and Priscilla did marry in a small town near Boston where they stayed for the rest of their lives. John had an active life in local government and in business affairs. There is a historic home still standing near Plymouth Massachusetts.

Was Longfellow’s poem fictional? Seems so. However, this story is securely etched in my memory. It’s a challenge for me to believe it didn’t happen this way. I’ve heard that story so often. However, it is probably not true. Many years ago, I visited a Mayflower museum in Leiden, Holland and saw an exhibited document saying that John Alden had been trialled for murder in Boston! Oh dear, how could that be possible? I needed to preserve this perception that my ancestors were of high integrity. It was years before I could face finding out. I did finally learn that he was cleared of all charges.
Don’t we tend to see events in history as they have been portrayed…until we begin to think and challenge them…to find out the truth? I have been consistently guilty of this. Much of the Mayflower history has been represented by the celebrating of our freedom and endurance and we do this around the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the celebration of the survival of the Pilgrims in the new land. Just like the probable myth of ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish, we say that we are also honouring the Native Americans who worked so hard to help the Pilgrims in that harsh, harsh first year and how they were invited to sit together at the first Thanksgiving table. The truth is that their kindness during that first harsh winter would later be met with cruelty from the Mayflower settlers and from the thousands of others who arrived from Europe seeking a new world of freedom and prosperity. There is, however, some hope here, I think. When we now sit down together at the Thanksgiving tables, I believe that it is one very real moment where we can create a new truth, a new story. A moment of unity and of coming together as one.

Meditation: A Buddhist breathing practice

Thank you Julia. And now we move into a time of meditation, this is a simple meditation technique – which I learnt from a recording of Buddhist breathing meditations – so you might want to get into a comfy position where you can relax for 6 minutes or so – the meditation is based on following the breath gently in and out, that will lead in to 2 minutes in silence and our silence will end with a lovely piece of piano music played for us by Sandra Smith and called Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar. Feel free to switch off your video for this section if you prefer, and remember that you don’t have to follow these suggestions at all – they are just suggestions and you may have your own way of relaxing and going deeper. But if it works for you, you might close your eyes or soften your gaze and take one of those lovely breaths that go deep into the belly and as you release the breath you can imagine a wave of relaxation spreading down from the crown of your head, over your face and neck and shoulders, that wave of relaxation working its way down your hardworking back, helping to straighten and find ease, down through your legs and feet and toes and out into the ground, releasing all bodily tension, enjoying that sense of your feet on the floor, your tummy and shoulders and face softening, your back naturally straightening. And these are the words for meditation:

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.   …      In 

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.    …    Out 

Breathing in, my breath grows deep. … Deep
Breathing out, my breath goes slowly. … Slow

Aware of my body, I breathe in. … Aware of body
Relaxing my body, I breathe out. … Relaxing body

Calming my body, I breathe in. … Calming my body
Caring for my body, I breathe out. ….. Caring for body

Smiling to my body, I breathe in. Smiling to body
Easing my body, I breathe out. Easing body

Smiling to my body, I breathe in. … Smiling to body
Releasing the tensions in my body, I breathe out. …. Releasing tensions

Feeling joy (to be alive), I breathe in. ……. Feeling joy
Feeling happy, I breathe out. ….. Feeling happy

Dwelling in the present moment, I breathe in. … Being present
Enjoying the present moment, I breathe out. ….. Enjoying

Aware of my stable posture, I breathe in. …. Stable posture
Enjoying the stability, I breathe out. ….. Enjoying


Music: Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar played by Sandra Smith

Address: Mayflower Celebrations?

I was delighted when Julia told us of her family connection to the Mayflower and its passenger John Alden whose surname she shares. And then I discovered that more than 30 million people can trace their ancestry back to those 102 passengers and 30 crew who set out from various ports in the Netherlands and here in England in a wooden sailing boat that wasn’t in best condition and at a time of year when sensible sea-goers would not choose to cross the Atlantic. It turns out you are one of many Julia! The pilgrims were hoping to reach the already settled communities in Virginia or at least the River Hudson but the winds decided otherwise and they landed further north. Their settlement would become known as Plymouth – after the town in England they had finally set sail from. These people, who sought a new life, many of them had been oppressed and threatened for their religious beliefs. They wanted a separation between church and state, they disliked all hierarchies and they sought simple expressions of faith rather than elaborate rituals and sacraments – you can find the roots of Unitarianism in some of their beliefs. But in the early 1600s such views were enough to have you imprisoned – no wonder the pilgrims sought a new world where they could be free.

But of course we now know that the land we call North America was already populated – and had been for some 12,000 years by indigenous peoples who lived in complex and well-ordered societies with a rich culture of their own.

The land that the pilgrims stepped foot upon belonged to the Wampanoag people and history had already dealt them a serious blow by the time the Mayflower arrived. Between the years of 1616 and 1619 the Wampanoag nation had lost an estimated 80% of their population in what they called The Great Dying. The Wampanoag traded with Europeans and are thought to have caught a disease from them to which they had no immunity.

The pilgrims found a deserted Wampanoag settlement and started to build there. They were observed by the remaining Wampanoag people – who apparently found the settlers particularly interesting because it was the first time they had seen European women and children. In the United States today the Thanksgiving celebrations are still a hugely important public holiday and remember the first harvest the pilgrims celebrated in 1621 when they ate together with their Wampanoag neighbours – who had saved their lives. Over half the pilgrims had died in that first harsh New England winter.

The rest as they say is history. The settlers, who had left Europe because they were oppressed, became oppressors in their turn. They stole land from the indigenous people, they imposed their legal systems and their religion on those they lived alongside, they misused the land and the animals. It’s a story repeated the world over isn’t it. It’s the story of colonialism and colonialism is an experience that many of us are only just waking up to, only just starting on our journey of understanding. The people on the receiving end of colonialism’s damaging actions – they’ve been awake to its effects a lot longer and to the insidious ideas wrapped up in the term white supremacy.

I’m involved with a campaigning group called Survival, which works alongside indigenous peoples to ensure that their voices are heard. Their website states:

‘We are Survival, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. We’re the only organization that champions tribal peoples around the world. We help them defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.’

This year Survival has been running an educational campaign called #MayflowersKill – to educate us all about the terrible effects of colonialism to this day on indigenous people. The ship The Mayflower was of course just one of thousands that set out to seek new lands. Rather than celebrating the arrival of settlers from other lands indigenous people mourn the loss of their ways of life, the loss of their freedoms, the loss of their health and of their tribal ways of educating their young. It’s an upsetting and shameful history. But it won’t always be the last chapter for tribal people. In New England today there are an estimated 4 to 5 thousand members of the Wampanoag tribe –who describe themselves as a ‘strong and vibrant community’. They have been fully involved in the international events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s journey and their message ‘we are still here’ is emblazoned on all the materials that have been produced.

Let’s remember and honour the rich tapestry of indigenous peoples the world over – tribes, societies, cultures – a complex and varied groupings of peoples who still have much to teach us all about living in greater harmony with the earth to which we all belong. And let’s do all we can to be better educated about colonialism and the damage it has done to people the world over – and the damage it has done to our own, often still unconscious, thinking.

Hymn: ‘To be a Pilgrim’

There’s an opportunity to sing a hymn now but if you would rather just read the words that are going to appear on the screen soon that’s fine. We’re inviting you to join in singing the old favourite Pilgrim’s Hymn with words based on John Bunyan’s writings in Pilgrims Progress. We’re using a recording of one of our own services from a few years ago and I must say we sound great. And if you like singing, here on Zoom you can join in with full voice, safe in the knowledge that we will all be muted and no-one will hear you. A few things to mention – I hope you notice that we Unitarians have done what we often do and tweaked the words of this hymn – we can forgive John Bunyan back in the 17th century can’t we for implying that all pilgrims were men – but we can be more inclusive in this day and age. And don’t be concerned at the start of this recording when you hear me anxiously suggesting that we all remain seated for this hymn – it sounds as if the congregation were over frisky that day and in danger of standing up and dancing. Now we’re all at home feel free to dance and sing to your heart’s content.

Announcements: My thanks go to Jane and Jeannene for such professional background work of hosting today and to our pianist Sandra Smith. It’s good to spend time with you here today. We’ll be back again for next week’s gathering at 10am here on Zoom, and you’re also welcome to join our 10.30 coffee morning on Tuesday. Thank you everybody who has made a donation recently to help our church finances keep afloat and everyone who now donates by standing order. Your generosity is much appreciated by both staff and trustees and it’s helping to keep our progressive religious voice out there in the world for others to hear about. We have a virtual coffee time to chat after the service in small groups if you’d like to join in – and we’d like to take a photo of us all as soon as the music ends, so do stick around if you don’t mind being in a photo. We’re going to have some closing words in a moment followed by A piano version of John Lennon’s famous song Imagine – in recognition of the fact that if he was still with us it would have been his 80th birthday this week – I invite you to select gallery view on your screen now so that we can all see each other for the closing words and enjoy a feeling of connection in community.

Closing Words: I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. And I send the light of this candle out into the world that all those whose lives have been adversely affected by colonialism might have the strength to help re-educate us all and that we who have benefitted from the theft of other people’s lands and resources may at last admit the true source of the many advantages we unconsciously enjoy. Let us all imagine a more just and equitable sharing of the earth’s precious resources.
Amen, go well all of you in the week ahead and blessed be.

Closing Music: Imagine by John Lennon

Rev. Sarah Tinker

11th October 2020