Why Unitarian? – 16/01/22
Opening Music: ‘Cwm Rhondda’ played by Peter Crockford & Abby Lorimier
Opening Words: ‘Our House’ by Michael DeVernon Boblett
May the walls of this house be strong in the face of storms:
Whether of winds or of words,
whether of thunder or of tyranny.
May the windows of this house be clear to the world’s light:
Whether of dawns or of daring,
whether of sunsets or of stillness.
May the foundations of this house be firm upon the good earth:
Whether of soil or of sharing,
whether of bedrock or of behaviour.
May the doors of this house be wide to all that come from afar:
Whether poems or people,
whether songs or strangers.
May this house embrace, like a graceful chalice,
The flame it cannot define or limit,
as a heart enshrines hopes larger than its beating walls.
And today may this house, this community, this sacred space, reach out beyond the limitations of time and space – to include all those who join us this morning online and all those who will make a connection with us some time in the future through our video or by reading this script. We are living in an age where we’re creating new ways to connect and I welcome you all to this gathering of Kensington Unitarians.
Words of Welcome:
I bid you all a warm welcome to this Sunday service for Kensington Unitarians, taking place both here in person at our church in Notting Hill and also on Zoom, through which people are joining us from their homes. A very good morning to you all. For those of you I’ve not met before my name is Sarah Tinker, I used to be minister with this congregation until I retired nearly a year ago.
Our intention is to offer hybrid services so people can worship with us in person or online and in future services people at home will be able to speak to us and we here will be able to see and hear you. But the wiring for interactive services like that still needs a bit of work here in our beautiful but quirky building, so for now we are simply streaming this service. But if you are with us on Zoom today, be assured that Maria is your host and there will be chance at the end of the online service for you all to have a virtual coffee and chat time as usual.
Let me thank all of you here in person for doing all you can to keep one another safe in this on-going time of pandemic, by wearing masks and keeping a social distance from one another. Let’s take a pause now to bring all of ourselves here and now, wherever that may be, let’s breathe into this moment of Sunday worship here and now, as we move towards the possibility of people joining our worship actively from anywhere in the world. And let’s breathe out and release any niggles and tensions as best we can, especially any tricky journeys you might have had or any worries that are in your mind – let’s lay them to one side at least for a while, so we might fully experience this opportunity to be together.
And so I light our chalice flame, connecting us with progressive Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist communities the world over – its light reminding us of brave souls in times now long past, who fought for the freedoms we now enjoy, to worship as we wish and to hold our own beliefs of faith, part of a proud, dissenting tradition of non-conformity.
And may this shared chalice flame – seen here in Essex Church and by all those with us online – may this one flame symbolically bring together these two elements of our community together – Kensington Unitarians, together in person and online, one community, one congregation.
Candles of Joy and Concern:
Each week when we gather together, whether it’s in person at the church here in Kensington or 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 an opportunity now, for anyone who would like to do so, to come and light a candle and say a few words about what it represents. In the future we will be able to hear the joys and concerns of people at home on Zoom as well as here in person but we’re still awaiting the necessary bits of electrical wiring. But I do have some messages sent me in advance by ……. And now I invite some of you here to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for – do use the microphone so everyone can hear. We’re asking people to keep their masks on for this candle lighting today, given the continuing rates of infection. Thanks all of you for taking care of one another.
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 hearts, those aspects of our lives which we might not 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 glimpses into our common human condition and the life of the world we share, like the many threads of a richly patterned woven tapestry of life … and let’s hold these threads – and each other – in our hearts, with compassion. Thank you.
Shared Reading: ‘We Need a Religion That…’ by Scott Alexander (adapted)
In a world with so much hatred and violence,
We need a religion that proclaims
the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
In a world with so much brutality and fear,
We need a religion that seeks justice,
equity, and compassion in human relation .
In a world with so many persons abused and neglected,
We need a religion that calls us to accept one another
and encourage one another to spiritual growth.
In a world with so much tyranny and oppression,
We need a religion that affirms the right and
conscience and the use of the democratic process.
In a world with so much inequity and strife,
We need a religion that strives toward the goal
of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
In a world with so much environmental degradation,
We need a religion that advocates respect for
the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In a world with so much uncertainty and despair,
We need a religion that teaches
our hearts to hope, and our hands to care.
In a world where so many people yearn for connection,
yearn for acceptance, yearn for justice,
we need religious communities like ours to welcome people in,
to offer a place to belong, and to encourage us to be our true selves
and to work always for the greater good of all. And so may this be.
Time of Prayer and Reflection:
And so would you join me now in a time of reflection and prayer. You might want to take a moment to adjust your position, to ready yourself for this time when we can align ourselves with our inner light, align ourselves with one another, and align ourselves with that which we hold to be of greatest worth. Let us pray though we may stumble with the very idea of offering our thoughts to that which is unknown and nameless. Let us pray this day to all that is wise and true, both within us and beyond, that we might find that wisdom for ourselves and so align ourselves once more with that which leads to the greatest good for all.
May we who are free to follow the promptings of our own hearts and minds in matters of faith – give thanks for our freedoms – won by the struggles of our forebears in generations past. Their courage in fighting for what they knew to be right has bequeathed to us a precious legacy of religious freedom – religious freedom that many in our world can only long for. In a few moments of stillness I invite you if you so wish to think of the freedoms you enjoy.
And now let us pray for all those who are not free in our world – those who must hide their faith or their sexuality or their yearning for education ……… and commit ourselves to working towards freedom for all.
In a world that can at times seem overwhelmed by human difficulties, may each of us find ways to rise beyond the struggles of our times, to see a bigger picture. Let us help one another to re-discover our well-springs of hope and possibility, our sources of inspiration and courage and joy.
In the week that lies ahead may each of us find time to appreciate the small, unfolding moments of the everyday life: the quiet kindness of others, the flutter and chirping of small birds intent on living, those precious moments when we realise that there is more to this life than we can ever know, the great mystery of existence and of awareness, that calls us forward on life’s great journey. Let us remember that nobody need travel alone and that our church community provides companionship, however rocky the path may sometimes be. Our care for one another expresses our true humanity and may this be so, this day and all days, and to this aspiration let us say together, if we so wish, amen, so may it be.
Reading: ‘Theophilus Lindsey & His Bag of Half-Pennies’ by Rev Derek Smith (read by John Humphreys)
This story comes from the Rev Derek Smith – one time minister of the Mansfield Unitarian congregation. And it tells of Theophilus Lindsey – who was the founder of our Essex Church congregation – which was the very first Unitarian congregation, named openly as such, here in England. Opening Essex Church in 1774 was a daring act since laws against blasphemy made it illegal to speak in public about Unitarian beliefs. That was only changed in 1813 by The Trinity Act.
So back in 1772 a discouraged Theophilus Lindsey was about to return from London to his Anglican church in Catterick in Yorkshire. He had been part of a campaigning group called The Feathers Tavern Petition. Lindsey and his friends had campaigned against the requirement for anyone graduating from Oxford or Cambridge Universities, or those becoming an Anglican priest, to subscribe to the 39 Articles – the Church of England’s statement of faith. The petition failed but before leaving London, Lindsey had visited the Royal Mint and there he collected a big bag of new half-pennies. On his return to his parish in Catterick in Yorkshire, Theophilus and Hannah his wife gave the half-pennies to the children in their church to encourage them to be inoculated against smallpox.
Hannah Lindsey is described in a book called ‘Memorable Unitarians’, published in 1906:
‘Mr Lindsey always bears testimony that his wife was a woman of no common mind and no common moral courage. “My greatest comfort and support under God is my wife,” says Lindsey, “who is a Christian indeed, and worthy of a better fate in worldly things than we have prospect of.”’
Theophilus clearly thought he was about to lose his livelihood – the Anglican Church would not long tolerate a minister who spoke against the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet he and Hannah kept working to improve social conditions in their northern village.
Emily Sharpe, wrote, in her pamphlet ‘Four Unitarian Lives’, about Hannah and Theophilus’ work amongst the poor of their parish:
“The preparation that Mr and Mrs Lindsey were making for this coming event, his resignation, did not, however, prevent them from continuing the usual works of kindness and charity in the parish. Perhaps it rather quickened their zeal, and as the small-pox had been very fatal around them, they had during this last year the additional expense of inoculating all the children of the poor in their own large village and in the neighbouring hamlets. On most of these Mrs Lindsey attended in person, gave them their medicines, and was so successful that she did not lose a single patient.”
It’s intriguing to think of a minister of religion helping to inoculate children, and even covering all the costs, but apparently quite a few of the early Unitarian ministers were also scientists and were at the forefront of the scientific experiments of their day.
Meditation: ‘Pride and Disappointment – A Welcome to the Real World’
I’m part of the Interview Panel that meets prospective candidates for Unitarian ministry and we’ve just been in Oxford for these interviews. If you’re thinking of applying, one of the questions we always ask is ‘in what ways have you been disappointed by our Unitarian movement?’ Most candidates have plenty of positives to mention about Unitarianism. They often tell with pride their stories of their congregation’s founders – just as we heard the story of Theophilus Lindsey and his work to protect the youngsters of his village from smallpox and his bravery in standing up against the church rules of his time. But I always think it’s the sign of a healthy relationship – be that within a friendship or a religion – if we can honestly speak of our disappointments as well as our pride. Once the rose tinted specs have been removed there’s a chance for us to really relate. You might say that disappointment is a sign that we’re in the real world, not that we have to get stuck on being disappointed – simply that it’s part of any rounded experience. Disappointments that are clearly faced can perhaps then be moved on from.
So our time of meditation simply asks us if there are any disappointments in life that we feel ready to acknowledge, ready to face. And as in any Unitarian activity there is a pass option. Your own ideas are more useful than mine so do feel free to focus on what matters most to you in this time.
Let’s ready ourselves for a good three minutes of silence together,, a silence which will end with some music. Let’s find a comfortable position, have a wriggle and a stretch if that helps you to settle. And we can take one of those comforting breaths that settle us in the here in now, breathing down into the belly and as we release the breath, we perhaps feel our shoulders relaxing and lowering downwards away from our ears, our spines gently straightening, our feet anchoring us to the floor and to our planet earth home deep beneath us, gravity holding us in our seats as we soften our gaze or close our eyes, our attention turning inwards. And as we enter the fellowship of shared silence together I invite you if you wish to consider some of life’s disappointments that you feel ready to face.
Three Minutes of Silence Followed by Music: ‘Ariosto’ by JS Bach played by Peter Crockford & Abby Lorimier
Address: ‘Why Unitarian?’ by Rev. Sarah Tinker
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to explain this name Unitarian. It’s one of the pains of being a minister. Doctor friends tell me how grim it is to be cornered at a party by someone who wants advice about their grandson’s veruccas. Their pain is nothing to that experienced by a minister trapped in conversation who appears to be interested in religion, only then to reveal themselves as a rabid and militant atheist. Quite a popular faith position in our society at present I’d say from bitter experience.
Now personally I’m everso fond of our movement’s Unitarian name. And if I’m asked ‘why the name Unitarian’ I tend to do a less polished version of the quote on the front of today’s order of service from the ever eloquent Cliff Reed who writes: ‘The historic Unitarian affirmation God is One is what gave our movement its name. Today, this stress on divine unity is broadened. Now Unitarians also affirm: Humanity is One, the World is One, the Interdependent Web of Life is One.’ What do you think? Oneness sounds good to me – so if I can get away with that explanation of our Unitarian name I’m happy – Unitarianism encompass the oneness of everything. But the pain is magnified if my interrogator knows a bit of theology. Because of course Unitarianism developed in response to Trinitarianism – the Christian doctrine of God in three beings – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I honour this doctrine. I know how much it means to some people. But it doesn’t evoke strong feelings in me one way or another. In this day and age you’ll find some of us Unitarians rather like the Holy Spirit. But we don’t want to be renamed Duo-itarians, thank you very much.
For us to be a non-creedal religion – which really is one of the key features of Unitarianism – we do not have to subscribe to shared and specific beliefs in order to belong – yet our very name is a description of a faith position – surely this is a sign of a God with a wicked sense of humour.
And there’ll be people here today, loyal members of Essex Church perhaps – regular readers of our website maybe – who do not call themselves Unitarian. And that is your choice. There are many ways to belong in our world and taking on a name is only one sign of belonging. Personally I value more the signs of belonging – like showing up for services and being an active volunteer.
And yet there is something in a name isn’t there – something to do with identity. So I do encourage people to own our movement and to make it their own. One way to do that is to find out more about Unitarian history – tell proud stories of our founders Theophilus and Hannah Lindsey and their work to ease the suffering caused by smallpox. I do encourage people to get a sense of the diversity of our worldwide movement – spanning from the Khasi Hills in northern India to Transylvania and Hungary, to the North Americas – its intriguing to explore what connects us with such diverse faith traditions – because there is a tangible connection. I do encourage to visit other congregations here in Britain – and it’s so much easier to do that now we can watch and listen to services online – again you’ll find a great variety of faith expressions and activities. But in most Unitarian settings you’ll find an emphasis on the right for each person to explore their faith and beliefs in their own way; on the unfolding nature of belief – a Unitarian faith is not static but evolving; you’ll find an encouragement to put faith into action – to express our beliefs in our values that then shape our behaviours out there in the world.
A classic ministry student essay title is ‘can you be a Unitarian on your own?’ And it still makes me smile because again – it’s in the name Uni-tarian. Over the years I’ve had so many fascinating conversations with people in our church about our beliefs – so varied and ever-developing. And it’s clear that many of us were having these kind of curious thoughts long before we found Unitarianism. So yes, the short answer is, you can be a Unitarian on your own.
And the long answer starts with a ‘but’ – yes you can be a Unitarian on your own. But you get more out of it by being in community with others. It’s good to belong. We humans are mostly social creatures and we yearn to be with like souls, people on similar paths to ours. And in a community like Essex Church you’ll find like souls and you’ll also find challenge – healthy challenge. The challenge that comes from any kind of belonging in the real world. Our meditation earlier on explored our disappointments – church is a great place to get real – if you stick round long enough and be prepared to weather the storms.
So my encouragement to us all is to stick around and to learn more about Unitarianism. I was delighted to hear that Jane has 35 or so people in her online How to Be a Unitarian course at the present. At the end of each session there are some take-home messages – and I particularly appreciate the third take home from the first session which is that:
Unitarianism is Full of Contradictions!… as individuals and as a denomination we can be both rational and intuitive, humanistic and theistic, scientific and mystical (and we generally find it healthy to hold these in balance).
Unitarianism is full of contradictions. Life is full of contradictions. Humanity is full of contradictions.
So here’s my final contradiction – which came to me when I was reading the annual January news articles about this being the gloomiest time of the year. Church gives us a community, a place to belong. Social connection is a good way to banish the blues – reaching out to others, expressing our thoughts and needs, being there as a listening for others as they speak out. And taking a spiritual approach to life strengthens something else in us – those inner resources that will get us through the tough times, the times we have to go through alone. So why Unitarian? It’s a community, with spiritual depth, that encourages each and every one of us to live our lives as best as we are able. And it’s real – flawed, at times disappointing, but real – just like each of us!
‘Getting to Know You’ Walk this Sunday today 16th Jan – there will be another ‘Getting to Know You’ walk, led by Pat Gregory, straight after the service today. There’s room for more to join this if you have warm clothes and footwear for walking.
‘Heart and Soul’ – Even if you’ve never been to a ‘Heart and Soul’ spiritual gathering before you’re welcome to give it a go for the first time. Led by Jane Blackall, you’ll spend about an hour and a half exploring a chosen theme and praying together in a gently structured way. These groups are a great opportunity to connect more deeply with others in the congregation and in our wider Unitarian network. There are still spaces available to join Jane on Sunday and Friday at 7pm online for next week’s gatherings on the theme of ‘In the Night’. Email email@example.com to book.
Coffee Morning – There’s a church coffee morning online every Tuesday morning on Zoom at 10.30am and all are welcome to join the scintillating conversation.
West London GreenSpirit Group – Save the date for an Early Spring Imbolc gathering on Tuesday 1st February from 7.00 to 8.30pm on Zoom. More details to follow.
FUSE Online 2022 – Festival of Unitarians in the South East: The annual Festival of Unitarians in the South East (FUSE 2022) is almost upon us (on February 19th + 20th). This year’s theme is ‘The Pilgrimage of Life – Journeys of Spiritual Unfolding’ and the online programme will feature talks from Alastair McIntosh and Jennifer Kavanagh and workshops by experienced Unitarian facilitators from our district. To find out more and book your place for the weekend of events (at a cost of £25) go to www.ldpaunitarians.org/fuse2022
Not everyone perhaps knows that Jenny our live in warden is leaving us. The post is currently being advertised and there’s still chance for you sign Jenny’s card or make a donation.
And a big thank you to everyone who’s made a donation recently to help with church running costs – every penny is appreciated. And it’s heartening to see the increase in monthly standing orders – gives staff a boost to know how many people are prepared to give what they can.
Closing Blessing: ‘Take a Piece of this Church With You’ adapted from words by Rev. Andy Pakula
And so I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community – may it travel with you – an idea echoed in these closing words written by Andy Pakula, minister with our New Unity congregation in Newington Green.
As we prepare to leave this sacred space
Pack away a piece of this church in your heart.
Wrap it carefully like a precious gem.
Carry it with you through the joys and sorrows of your days –
Let its gentle glow strengthen you, warm you, remind you of all that is good and true,
Until we gather here again in this community of love.
And may this gathering, this sacred sanctuary of the heart, go with us all and help us work tirelessly to build a world where all people know freedom, freedom to be themselves in all their glory. Amen, go well and blessed be.
Closing Music: ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, ‘Tis a Gift to be Free’ played by Peter Crockford & Abby Lorimier
Rev. Sarah Tinker
16th January 2022