How to be a Unitarian (part 1) – 03/04/22

Opening Music: ‘Sonata for Two Cellos, mvt 1’ by Barriere performed by Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu

Opening Words: ‘Right Here, Right Now’ by Ella Boyer (adapted)

As we create and share this sacred space together,
let us take a moment to reflect upon what brings us here.

We have all come here for different reasons,
as a result of different decisions and cosmic hints,
we have faced different challenges and shared different love.
And yet all of our differences have led us to this space, right here, right now.

Some believe we are here for a greater purpose,
others hold fast to a claim of complete coincidence.
Others’ perspectives will still lie somewhere in between.
There are so many differences and potential sources of division,
it might seem as though the odds were stacked against us becoming one whole,
as we believe different things, live and experience different things,
and value and even hate different things. And yet.

We are the children of God, the children of the earth and the stars,
or fully grown adults here as a piece of the ongoing cycles of the universe.

We all have different definitions and explanations to who or what and why we are.
Perhaps all hold some fragment of truth we can treasure. Our revelation is not sealed.

Despite all that is different, there is one thing that is certainly the same.
Somehow, in some sense, we are all right here, right now.

We are growing and changing and discovering all here, all together,
sharing this sacred space we have shared for years, across generations,
though our gatherings have moved and changed in form as the world has turned .

Constantly evolving. Constantly changing. Let us continue.

Let us change together, let us adapt together, let us grow together.

And this morning, just like every Sunday morning, let us worship together. (pause)

These opening words by Ella Boyer welcome all those who are gathered on Zoom this morning to take part in our Sunday service. Welcome to regular members of the congregation, to friends and visitors with us today, and also those who might be listening to our podcast, or watching on YouTube, at a later date. For anyone who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, I’ve been a part of this congregation for 22 years, and I’m Ministry Coordinator with Kensington Unitarians.

If you are here for the first time today – we’re especially glad to you have you with us – welcome! I hope you find something of what you need in our gathering this morning. Please do hang around afterwards for a chat or drop us an email to say hello and introduce yourself if you’d like. Or you might try coming to one of our various small-group gatherings to get to know us better. If you’re a regular here – thank you for all that you do to welcome all who come each Sunday. Even on Zoom, we have a part to play in co-creating this sacred space, this sense of community.

As we always say, feel free to do what you need to do to be comfortable this hour – it’s always lovely to see your faces in the gallery and get a sense of our togetherness as a congregation – but we know for some it will feel more comfortable to keep your camera mostly-off and that’s fine. Similarly there’ll be opportunities to join in as we go along but there’s no compulsion to do so.

This morning’s service is the first of two linked Sundays on ‘How to be a Unitarian’. Earlier in the year we held an online course of the same name, and quite a number of us gathered on alternate Thursday evenings from January to March (I think we peaked with over 40 of us at one point), to do some in-depth reflection together on our faith. And this week and next I’ve invited some of those who participated to share their thoughtful reflections with the rest of the congregation. Today we’ll be hearing from Charlotte Chanteloup and Patricia Brewerton. It’s important to acknowledge that the range of our Unitarian experience here this morning might span 4 minutes to 40 years… but, however long you’ve been coming, it’s always worth thinking about our religious faith, and why we’re part of this congregation, if it’s more than just a habitual thing-we-do-on-Sunday-morning. It’s not just about (virtual) bums-on-seats after all; it’s about changing lives and changing the world.

Chalice Lighting: ‘The Chalice is a Symbol’ by Debra Faulk (adapted)

Before we go any further though, I’ll light our chalice, as we always do whenever 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.

A chalice lit in our midst is a symbol of our liberal faith,
A faith built on the foundation of freedom, reason and tolerance;
A faith sustained by acts of kindness and justice;
A faith that visions a world flourishing with equality for all her people;
A faith that demands the living out of truth and goodness;
A faith that requires thoughtfulness and mutual care;
A faith of wholeness and liberation.
This tiny flame is the symbol of the spark of all this within each and every one of us.

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.

(candles – thank each person)

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 Elizabeth Bukey (5 mins)

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 which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

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 presence, the light within and without.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the silence
and stillness at the centre of our being. (pause)

We gather in reverence and thanks for You,
Ground of our Being, Source of all Good.
We are grateful for the gift of another breath,
and for each moment of connection, beauty, and truth.

Cry with us in our pain for our world.
Remind us that we are loved, just as we are.
Remind us that we are connected with all that is.
Remind us that we do not journey alone.

Give us what we need for today.
Call us back to our promises, commitments, and values.
Help us love ourselves and each other,
And to show that love in our actions.

Make us instruments of justice, equity, and compassion.
Free us from all that is evil.
We declare that life and love are stronger than tyranny and fear,
That a world of beauty and love is coming,
And we must shape it together. (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 illness or injury, isolation or injustice –
and let us also pray for those who care;
who act and speak out to improve the lot of those in need.
In a moment or two of stillness let us call to mind a person, or situation, in need of prayer.

(pause – 30s)

And let us take another moment to focus our thoughts and prayers
on all that we have to be grateful for right now – the goodness
that persists despite all the world’s challenges and uncertainties –
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 – 30s)

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

Hymn: ‘The Flame of Truth’ performed by the Unitarian Music Society

Time to sing now: ‘The Flame of Truth is Kindled’. The words of the hymn articulate something of our Unitarian way and what it is we’re attempting to do together here. The words will be up on screen so you can sing along – or just listen – we’ll do our best to make sure you’re all kept muted.

The flame of truth is kindled,
our chalice burning bright;
amongst us moves the Spirit
in whom we take delight.
We worship here in freedom
with conscience unconstrained,
a pilgrim people thankful
of what great souls have gained.

The flame of thought is kindled,
we celebrate the mind:
its search for deepest meaning
that time-bound creeds can’t bind.
We celebrate its oneness
with body and with soul,
with universal process,
with God who makes us whole.

The flame of love is kindled,
we open wide our hearts,
that it may burn within us,
fuel us to do our parts.
Community needs building,
a Commonwealth of Earth,
we ask for strength to build it –
a new world come to birth.

Reflection and Slides: ‘How to be a Unitarian’ by Jane Blackall

So, as I mentioned earlier, between January and March of this year we had held a six-part course on ‘How to be a Unitarian’. We had far more people sign-up than I’d ever anticipated, loads from this congregation, but because it was online we had people joining us from up and down the land, including ministers from other congregations, and the chief officer of the General Assembly, our national Unitarian organisation, Liz Slade. So it turned into a big deal!

This was a course that I’d first developed and run in 2018, with help from Sarah Tinker, so a few of you might have experienced an earlier incarnation, either the full six-parter or the very condensed one-day version. In an ideal world I think we ought to be running something like this at least annually because there are always new people coming along to our churches and it’s not that easy to explain – in a nutshell – what it is that newcomers are getting into! It’s complicated. So this is sort-of an orientation course. But, in truth, there might be some of us who have been attending for years without necessarily having been required to think about it all that hard. For good reason we don’t spend too much time on Sunday mornings navel-gazing about our tradition. But it’s important to make time for some serious self-reflection once in a while.

Each week of the course had its own theme and focus – starting with an invitation for each of us to reflect on our experience of Unitarianism, then on to issues of theology, history, and values, looking at the wider national organisation, and how our independent congregations work, how our Unitarian involvement meshes with our own personal spiritual journey, and how our shared values might play out in terms of social justice and changing the world – but that barely begins to cover all the stuff we covered in those twelve hours and all the great conversations we had. However, I’m not just telling you this to make you kick yourself and say ‘I wish I had signed up’! It seems important to bring a little of what we covered on the course to a Sunday morning audience, for the benefit of those whose lives didn’t really allow them to sign up for a big commitment, so that we can all join in with this important conversation with a few shared reference points.

So, in less than ten minutes now, I’m going to give you the digest version of what we covered. At the end of each session I picked out three ‘take aways’ – key points to remember – and I’m going to take you through them now, at relatively high speed, to give you a bit of context for the reflections offered by course participants this week and next. Bear in mind that some of these bullet points are distilling incredibly nuanced discussions into relatively few words so if any of it makes you raise your eyebrows slightly that’s surely an invitation for you to hang around after the service this week or next and have a chat about what it all means. I’ll put the text of these ‘take aways’ up on screen but if anyone wants a slightly expanded version of this to reflect on at your leisure please send me an email or put your details in the chat box later.

• Unitarianism is a Religion… we gather in community for a sacred purpose.

• Unitarians are Free to Believe… what their own life-experience tells them is true, and what the promptings of their conscience tells them is right, based on deep reflection and reasoning (it’s not just ‘anything goes’).

• Unitarianism is Full of Contradictions… as individuals and as a denomination we can be both rational and intuitive, humanistic and theistic, scientific and mystical (we find it healthy to hold these in balance).

• Unitarians are Open to Insights and Wisdom from a Wide Range of Sources… including direct experience, the collected wisdom of the world’s religious traditions, reason and science; we often say that ‘revelation is not sealed’.

• Unitarians Take Responsibility for Working Out their Own Personal Theology… with freedom comes responsibility; we must do our own ‘work’.

• Unitarians Share some Core Shared Principles and Values… which play an important part in holding us together in community given the diversity of personal theologies (freedom, reason, compassion, equality, justice, etc.)

• Unitarian Congregations are Independent… so local expressions will vary hugely in terms of theological leanings, worship style, and resources.

• Unitarians are Strengthened When We Work Together… the GA (General Assembly) is our national umbrella organisation which acts on our behalf and coordinates projects and services which are of benefit to us all.

• Unitarians are part of a Continuous Tradition characterised by an ongoing Search for Truth, Goodness & Meaning… process rather than dogma unites us; we build on the insights of those that have come before.

• Our Congregation at Essex Church is Descended from the first Avowedly Unitarian Congregation in Britain… and our current transition is the latest in a long line of changes since our founder first left the Anglicans in 1774.

• Unitarian Communities Only Survive and Thrive Because of the Efforts of Committed People (Like You)… community depends on commitment and the church is only here for as long as people show up for it in various ways. The ongoing existence of our congregation depends on people ‘mucking in’.

• Congregational Life is Challenging (and not just for Unitarians) but Worthwhile… community life is inevitably messy and frustrating yet the connections we form with others on the spiritual journey are essential.

• Unitarians Take Responsibility for doing their own Spiritual Work… we can each deepen our spiritual life by working on our own religious literacy, building our own theology, and tackling any ‘baggage’ that holds us back.

• Going to Church supports our Personal/Spiritual Transformation… being part of a religious community helps to keep you honest, supports you in ‘sticking at it’ when the going gets tough, and exposes you to new ideas, challenge, and encouragement; the spiritual life is about transformation.

• Belonging to (and Regularly Participating In) a Unitarian Community is Counter-Cultural… church is where we strengthen the things that matter against the prevailing influence of neoliberalism and consumer culture.

• The Pursuit of Social Justice is a Core Part of the Unitarian Way… one phrase beloved of Unitarians is ‘deeds not creeds’; living a life of kindness, compassion, peace, and justice is more important than what you believe.

• Unitarians ‘Own’ their Faith and Speak Freely About It – It is Possible to be a Unitarian ‘Evangelist’ without Proselytizing… if we Unitarians are shy about our faith commitments and never speak about it to our friends then we concede the public space to more religiously conservative voices. We need to let it be known that we exist – then people can take it or leave it.

• Unitarians are Perfectly Imperfect… the list of ‘take-aways’ might seem a bit daunting but the intention is to give you a wider and deeper view of Unitarianism than you might get simply by coming along on Sundays. There are loads of ways you might enrich your experience of Unitarianism.

And I added a final point: reflecting on ‘How to be a Unitarian’ isn’t primarily about signing up more people to Unitarianism; it’s about changing lives and changing the world. Yes, really.

So that’s a very very abbreviated account of what we covered in the last three months! Later in the service you’ll hear what Charlotte and Patricia made of it, and next week it’s Rachel’s turn, but I wonder what leaps out for you? What challenges you? What intrigues you?

Meditation: ‘Our Fellowship’ by Cliff Reed (adapted)

We’ve now come to a time of meditation. I’m going to offer a few words for reflection, adapted from some by Cliff Reed, a retired Unitarian minister, and author of ‘Unitarian? What’s That?’ This will be followed by a few minutes of shared stillness during which we’ll have our virtual chalice on screen. The silence will end with music from Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – adjust your position if you need to – perhaps put your feet flat on the floor to ground and steady yourself – you might like to close your eyes. As we always say, these words, images, and music are just an offering, feel free to meditate in your own way.

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, Soul of the Cosmos,
be manifest in our worship, to inspire and to bless.

May we feel between us a kinship too deep for words.
We celebrate the ties of community that make us one.

Let us celebrate this fellowship of the liberal faith; grant it
strength and vision to be a blessing to the earth.
The global commonwealth begins with us.

The global commonwealth, a vision of the world made one in peace
and plenty, where justice reigns with love and all are valued.
What matters is that we help to build a better world.

What matters is that our faith should make us better people somehow;
only so we can build a better world, living with true righteousness and compassion.
We reach out in inclusive welcome to all who share the vision and the will to make it real.

We reach out to the soul-hunger of our times, earthing its dreams and yearnings
with tested insights and tempering reason, offering comfort to its many casualties.
To this fellowship, we pledge our support, and to the free and loving faith it upholds.

As we move into a time of shared stillness now, let us each meditate on our own
place in this community, and its mission. What might it mean for you to be a Unitarian?

Silence: 3 minutes silence accompanied by chalice video

Musical Interlude: ‘Praeludium’ by Shostakovich performed by Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu

Reflection: ‘Faithful Contradictions’ by Charlotte Chanteloup

During the ‘How to be a Unitarian’ course, I realized how contradictory my faith could be.

• I pride myself on making rational decisions but cannot help but think that some things were just “meant to be”.
• I am both humanistic and theistic: I go through phases of rejecting and embracing God-language.

Unitarianism is a strange thing. It has a long tradition: Essex Church was founded in 1774, and the wider movement dates back centuries! But it adapts to contemporary knowledge and insights. In my mind, it’s even fundamental to Unitarian values and beliefs. This process of ongoing discovery is essential because the great mystery is ever-unfolding. Because revelation is not sealed, because Unitarianism is a progressive faith, it needs to adapt to contemporary insights and values. This inclusivity is a big part of why I (and many other people) felt comfortable joining this movement.

I find this church and this movement to be a safe place for me. I feel comfortable attending, because I know whatever will happen will mostly fit in with my values and my beliefs. But, as Jane put it during the course: “if you are who you were when you came in, we failed”. Being challenged in my beliefs and my values is not comfortable. Meeting new people with different life experiences is not always comfortable. But to have the opportunity to grow, we must be challenged. And it doesn’t always feel comfortable! Still, Unitarianism and Essex Church (as it’s where most of my experience comes from) can provide a place that makes being challenged feel safe. This way, we can engage more freely with the wisdom that we are given.

Nevertheless, in a culture that can sometimes feel more and more secular, how can we reconcile tradition and adapting to the new world? Churchgoing is against the flow of culture and committing to a faith can be counter-cultural: in this space I’m not trying to be more productive, it is a commitment that I make to myself, to find life-changing meaning in my existence.

Another contradiction I grapple with was highlighted during this course: in a faith that emphasizes an individual search for truth, how can we speak freely about this religion? It can seem difficult to talk about what our faith means to us without feeling like we are trying to proselytize. Two things helped me reconcile this spiritual conflict. First, it was said that if we don’t talk about progressive faiths, then only the loud voices are heard. This may send an inaccurate message of what faith must be. Second, during a moment of reflection in that session, I wrote a little script about how to talk about my faith. Until now, I would always end up telling the history of the movement. It took a long time and I’m not sure it was an adequate answer! The advice I was given for this is: explain what my faith and my participation in the movement brings me. This way, I can talk freely about my faith without feeling like I’m trying to get others to convert!

Unitarian Universalist theology is of this world, not of the next. So, in a faith whose aim is to build the kingdom of heaven on this earth, it seems logical that Unitarianism would be like life, full of contradictions.

Reflection: ‘Finding My Way as a Unitarian’ by Patricia Brewerton

So, what did I learn during the six weeks of this course? Firstly, that there a lot of interesting people who are prepared to put in the time to learn How to Be a Unitarian; interesting and also very diverse with a variety of ways of being Unitarian.

When I requested and was granted membership of Essex Church I knew that Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity – the very name tells you that! I was also aware that they do not accept the doctrine of original sin, the belief that every human being is born into sin and every human being needs saving from sin and that this salvation necessitated the sacrifice of God’s only son. My teenage years were dominated by a desire for personal salvation and the fear that I could never achieve this.

But that was a long time ago and by the time I arrived at Kensington I had ceased to believe in much that I had grown up believing. So I felt that I was a Unitarian. Nevertheless I signed up to the course and wondered what there was to learn that would take a six week course.

So I knew what I didn’t believe but I must confess it had been some time since I considered what I actually DID believe. The first thing I learned from How to Be a Unitarian was that perhaps I needed to attend to this. Although Unitarians are free to believe what their own life experience tells them is true it was made clear that it is not simply a case of anything goes.

And clearly seeking out the holy is not easy. It seemed to me from the readings we were set that there is a struggle going on in Unitarianism to resolve this problem. As there is no holy book to refer to, there is no possibility of saying “The scripture says” to back up any doctrine. Each person needs to examine the promptings of their own conscience as to what is right for them. It seems that this requires deep reflection – something I am not very good at.

From the very first session of the course I was impressed and surprised at the level of spiritual work my fellow students undertook. But I was embarrassed because I find this kind of spiritual work almost impossible. It also disturbed me because it stirred up some of those feelings of guilt and inadequacy I had had as a teenager. The course prompted me to consider whether I had any kind of spiritual life, to ask why I felt a need to attend church nearly every week.

The final session of the course brought answers. The pursuit of social justice is a core part of the Unitarian way. I realised that my spiritual life is actually the same as my intellectual life, my refusal to accept easy answers about the way the world is which leads me to constantly read and question what I read. I realised that my spiritual life is also reflected in the work I do, in my politics and my contribution to the local community.

I find it very hard to still my mind and the time I spend in the gathering on Sundays is my opportunity to do this. It is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that another way is possible; to acknowledge the possibility of a greater power which I will call God or though I might call it Justice in the hope that justice will one day come and though I might not live to see it and some might call it naive of me to even believe it is possible, this time in the Unitarian community on Sunday mornings inspires me to continue to search and work for that day.

Hymn: ‘For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table’ sung by Kensington Unitarians

Thanks so much Charlotte and Patricia for sharing your reflections today. Time for one last hymn now. I’ve picked this one to connect with Patricia’s closing thoughts on the centrality of justice in the Unitarian way. The words of this one are particularly pertinent in this moment when we’re increasingly aware of how difficult it is for many to afford the basic needs of life. It’s a recording of our own congregation singing, ‘For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table’.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead.

And God will delight
when we are creators of justice and joy,
yes, God will delight
when we are creators of justice,
justice and joy!

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the role, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that’s fair.

For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands kind and wrinkled
for young and for old, the right to belong.

For just and unjust a place at the table,
abuser, abused, how hard to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live.

For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.


A few announcements: Thanks to Charlotte and Patricia for their reflections, Abby and Jessica for our lovely music, and Hannah for hosting. We’ll have virtual coffee-time after the service as usual so you can stay and chat if you’d like. If that’s not your thing, as I said at the start of the service, do get in touch via email if you’d like to say hello, or come to some of our other events during the week. If you can bear to hang around we like to take a group photo after the closing music.

Our online programme continues: we have coffee morning as usual at 10.30am this Tuesday, and there are still a few spaces left for our Heart and Soul spiritual gatherings (Sunday and Friday at 7) on ‘Grief’ – even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch and look out for each other. We’ll be back on Zoom next week at 10.30am; our next in-person gathering will be Easter Sunday.

We’ve just got our closing words and music now. So I invite you to select gallery view at this point, if you can, so we can all see each other and get a sense of our gathered community as we close.

Benediction: based on words by Brian Kiely

We are about to extinguish this chalice flame, but its light will live on,
in the minds and hearts and souls of each and every one of us,
calling us to lives of compassion, justice, and liberating love.

Carry the flame with you as you leave this sacred gathering
and share it with those you know, with those you love,
and with those you have yet to meet along the way.

May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Closing Music: ‘Sonata for Two Cellos, mvt 2’ by Barriere performed by Abby Lorimier and Jessica Hu

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall, Charlotte Chanteloup and Patricia Brewerton

3rd April 2022