Describing a Rhino – 12/5/24

Musical Prelude: Air from King Arthur’ by Purcell (played by Andrew Robinson)

Opening Words of Welcome and Chalice Lighting:

Welcome everyone to Essex Church, where this gathered community of Kensington Unitarians meets each Sunday for worship as well as other activities during the week. Welcome to those who are new to this place or to Unitarian worship, welcome to those of you who are here most weeks, welcome to our regular visitors. And an extra warm welcome to those of you joining us online today – it’s good to know you’re beaming in from wherever you physically are, connecting as part of this gathering.

Just as we have all taken our own different paths to arrive here today, so we as Unitarians are free to shape our path of faith; we are not identified by fixed beliefs because for many of us belief changes and develops in response to life. But what does identify us as a community is a responsible search for meaning and purpose, an emphasis on healthy values to guide us in life, a commitment to making ours a more just world.

And so I invite you now to take a breath and to tell yourself that you are here, you have arrived and you make a difference by connecting in this way – for we each bring our unique natures to form this whole community. It really wouldn’t be the same without you … and you …. and you. We make a difference by choosing to be here together this morning – whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever our lives are having us deal with at the moment, let’s bring it all here, knowing that by our presence together we create a space both sacred and social, here amongst us in our shared humanity; here in a place of peace, a place of healing, a place of loving respect for the many different ways we live our lives. Let’s take a moment to take that in, our shared humanity, our unique paths, our commitment to freedom in matters of faith…

(light chalice in silence)

Martin Luther King once said, “The hope of the world is still in dedicated minorities. The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific and religious freedom have always been in the minority.”

As we gather to worship today
May it be as such a minority,
Dedicated to the cause of freedom
For all the people of the world (words by Rev Cliff Reed)

Hymn 67 (grey): ‘We Sing Now Together’

Let’s start our service in song now. Today we’re using the grey Unitarian Universalist hymnbook. We’re going to sing hymn number 67 and if you have a look at it you’ll see that they put the words under the music – which is good if you can read music but not so great to read where you are. But folks online will have the words on their screens and the words will be on the screen here at church.

One of the messages of our service today is that our Unitarian path encourages us to explore our faith, to allow our beliefs to change and develop over time and to welcome the diverse beliefs of others. I think that’s well expressed in the closing verse of this hymn which reads:

We sing of earth’s comradeship now in the making
In every far continent, region and land;
With folk of all races, all times and names and places,
We pledge ourselves in fellowship firmly to stand.

We sing now together our song of thanksgiving,
Rejoicing in goods which the ages have wrought
For Life that enfolds us and helps and heals and holds us,
And leads beyond the goals which our forebears once sought.

We sing of the freedoms which martyrs and heroes
Have won by their labour, their sorrow, their pain;
The oppressed befriending, our ampler hopes defending,
Their death becomes a triumph, they died not in vain.

We sing of the prophets, the teachers, the dreamers,
Designers. creators, and workers, and seers;
Our own lives expanding, our gratitude commanding,
Their deeds have made immortal their days and their years.

We sing of community now in the making
In every far continent, region and land;
With those of all races, all times and names and places,
We pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Our simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, is an opportunity to share something that is in our heart with the community. We’ll hear from people in the building first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people on Zoom to come forward.

So I invite some of you here in person to come and tell us briefly who or what your lit candle is for. If you’d rather have the microphone brought to you, give me a wave and I’ll bring it over. Thank you.

(in person candles)

And if that’s everyone in the room we’ll go over to the people on Zoom next – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in the church.

(zoom candles)

And I’ll light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, that its one light may remind us of our connections, one with another, none of us live our lives alone. (light candle)

Story: ‘How to describe a ……’

Some of you know that I spent many years as a teacher of Religious Education. It’s a subject that takes a bit of effort from teachers in most schools, just to keep young people awake and interested. And the story I’m going to tell now is one I’ve told many times. I’ve told it about a camel and about an elephant. I’ve even told it about a guinea pig, when we happened to have an obliging guinea pig in the classroom.

But I’ve never told it about a rhinoceros and that’s what this story is all about. And we’ve got a photo of a rhino on the front of today’s order of service for us to look at – with apologies to anyone joining us at home – I hope your imaginations can conjure up a rhino.

I wonder if anyone here has seen a rhino in the wild? I’ve heard it’s wise to keep a respectful distance between you and such a remarkable creature. Has anyone seen a rhino in a zoo or safari park perhaps? I’ve seen them a few times and they have always been remarkably chilled out, slowly chewing the grass or rubbing their muscly frames against a big old tree.

But for the purposes of this story let’s imagine we’ve never seen or heard of a rhinoceros. And let’s imagine that we are all subjects of a wise and thoughtful ruler. And let’s pretend that we are an argumentative lot and that our small country is becoming increasingly divided. It’s a land renowned for welcoming people of different faiths – but now seeds of distrust are being sown in people’s minds. Stories are circulating about there not being enough to go round – and the different groups start blaming one another and criticising one another and finding fault with each other’s way of life and beliefs.

So the wise rule invites six people from six different communities to come together for a special task. They are asked if they mind having their eyes covered and all agree for they love their ruler and want to be helpful. They are taken into a courtyard and unbeknownst to them they are standing around a big creature that we now call a rhino – but in those days in that land – no-one had ever seen a rhino before. Fortunately this particular rhino was very relaxed and rather liked what happened next. Because the six people were asked to stretch out their hands and touch the animal that was before them and then describe it in their own way. And of course they could only describe what their fingers told them and their minds interpreted. To one the rhino was like a suit of armour. To another the rhino had legs like mighty tree trunks. To another the rhino had a tail like a thin rope, thin but strong. And quite a smelly bottom. To another the rhino had three horns, yet another only felt one horn and so was convinced the rhino was related to the unicorn.

Each person, meeting a rhino for the very first time, and with only limited senses, formed their own limited impression. Their wise ruler then escorted them away from the rhino into a room where he asked them what they now knew of rhinoceroses – and they started to argue from their different perspectives. When the rhino was brought in to join them they realised that their particular view was limited – and that it would take a while to truly understand what a rhino truly is. In the same ways, explained the wise ruler, you communities are too limited in their perspectives. Go back home now and explain to your communities that instead of blaming and criticising and finding fault with others we need to be gentle and curious and kind towards those who are different from us.

And in time it’s said that the rhino became the symbol for this happy land where different communities lived side by side in harmony and goodwill, and that the universities of this land specialised in courses on curiosity and appreciating differences – alongside animal welfare courses – because the rhino was so impressed by the people’s welcome to those who were different that he decided to stay and lived a long and happy life.

So that’s how people got to know more about a rhino. And inside the order of service today there’s a picture of a rhino – engraved by the wonderful artist Albrecht Durer – who made this engraving in 1515 – but when we look closely at this engraving we realise that Durer had never seen a rhino in real life. He’d only read a description of an animal given as a gift to the ruler of Lisbon. But really, unless we meet some one or some rhino face to face and get to know them a bit – we can’t really say that we know who they are, it takes time to get to know people and rhinos, especially if they are different from us.

Time of Prayer & Reflection: ‘for all communities’

And so as we join now in a time of prayer and reflection I call on the divine spirit of life and of love to bless the communities of the world that they might be places where people can flourish and grow, feel secure and so be able to take the risks that are inevitable in a life well lived. Let us pray for all human organisations, for their members and their leaders that they might use their powers wisely and always for the greatest good.

May our communities be open in their structures and so be open in the welcome they give to the great diversity that humanity is. May our communities be places of conversation and gentle questioning and holy listening, places where people can share their life stories and go deeper together.

May no-one feel excluded in life.

May our communities be willing to change yet understanding and honouring that which has gone before.

And in a few moments of shared silence I invite you to think of the groups and communities that are important in your lives – your neighbours, friends or families, your interest groups, your church, places of work, the connections you make online, the connections you treasure.

In the silence you might wish to think of these connections with gratitude and perhaps think of ways that you might want to strengthen the threads that connect you.


Let us take a moment to honour all communities who are struggling or living in fear this day: particularly we might think of places at war, where battles rage, and violence is an everyday reality……..

And so let us give thanks for connections and for communities, and do what we can to strengthen and enliven these ways of being, this day and all days Amen.

Hymn grey (108): ‘Life Flows On’

Chance to sing again now and let me remember to say this time that it’s fine to sing or not sing, stand or sit, whatever is right for you – hymn 108 is the old Quaker song of defiance against tyranny – my life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation … how can I keep from singing’ – so let’s do just that.

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation:
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing:
It sounds an echo in my soul –
How can I keep from singing!

What though the tempest round me roar,
I know the truth, it liveth.
What though the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging:
Since love prevails in heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing!

When tyrants tremble, as they year
The bells of freedom ringing;
When friends rejoice, both far and near,
How can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging:
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing!

Meditation: ‘Willing to be disturbed’ by Margaret Wheatley

This piece that is leading us into a time of meditation is written by someone called Margaret Wheatley, someone who has long worked with groups of people to assist them in times of change. Her message in this writing is that we need to be willing to be disturbed in order to find compassionate ways forward for humanity. On her websites she says that she wants to help people create groups and communities that are worthy of human habitation.

Once I’ve read this we’ll move into a few minutes of silence and that silence then leads into a fine piece of music played for us by our pianist Andrew Robinson. It’s called Capriol from Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, written in the early 20th century.

So let’s ready ourselves for a time of going inwards, getting ourselves comfy, letting our breathing and position settle us for these few minutes of quiet as we hear what Margaret Wheatley has to say about our need to acknowledge the many different ways there are of being in this world.

‘As we work together to restore hope in the future, we need to include a new and strange ally – our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.

We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know. Most of us were trained to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers. We’ve also spent many years listening to others mainly to determine whether we agree with them or not. We don’t have time to sit and listen to those who think differently than we do. …

It is very difficult to give up our certainties – our positions, our beliefs, our explanations. These help define us; they lie at the heart of our personal identity. Yet I believe we will succeed in changing this world only if we can think and work together in new ways. Curiosity is what we need. We don’t have to let go of what we believe, but we do need to be curious about what someone else believes. We do need to acknowledge that their way of interpreting the world might be essential to our survival.’ Words by Margaret Wheatley to take us into the fellowship of quietness now.

Period of Silence and Stillness (~3 minutes) – end with a bell

Interlude: Pavane’ (Capriol Suite) by Peter Warlock (played by Andrew Robinson)

Address: ‘Describing a Rhino? Our Different Perspectives’ by Rev. Sarah Tinker

I think we should feel sorry for Albrecht Durer. OK, he was one of the most famous artists, ever. In the early 16th century he had already invented the sales technique perfected by IKEA and poster makers around the world – create a really appealing image and then work out how to make prints of it cheaply – and then sell lots and lots of prints to people who want to hang your picture in their living rooms. Durer really was an early version of an artist as an entrepreneur – the Damien Hirst of the early 16th century. From his workshops in Nuremberg he made many prints of his woodcuts and engravings – of different qualities to suit different bank balances. And maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him because in his lifetime even his flawed engraving of a rhino that he’d never met made him quite a bit of money. Durer never did meet a real rhino so he never realised that in this particular engraving he’d created a creature of fantasy that existed only in his own mind.

But of course that’s what most of us do much of the time. We form strong views about other people, both individuals and groups, many of whom we’ve never actually met – and then we relate towards them as though our imaginings are real. I hesitated to use the quotation from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that I’ve put on the front of today’s order of service – because it paints a bleak picture of human life here on earth. He wrote these words some years ago and I doubt he’d be feeling any more positive today. See what you think.

“I see in the rising crescendo of ethnic tensions, civilization clashes and the use of religious justification for acts of terror, a clear and present danger to humanity. For too long the pages of history have been stained by blood shed in the name of God…In our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference.”

‘We must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference.’ That’s the message I want us to hold on to. That’s similar to the message we heard Hannah read to us earlier on from the work of Margaret Wheatley. She asked us not to give up our beliefs, but to be curious about the beliefs of others. She recommended that we do not cling to our own certainties but rather be willing to be disturbed and confused – because only then can we start to explore new ways of thinking and working together as a whole world community.

Last month here at Essex Church we celebrated the 250th anniversary of our congregation – marking the first time a Unitarian act of worship was held openly in England – where it was still illegal to hold such acts of worship. That first service was held in 1774 and it wasn’t until 1813 when an Act of Parliament, called the Unitarian Toleration Act, allowed Unitarian & Free Christian congregations to flourish. Yet to this day no Unitarian is allowed to preach in an Anglican church. Unitarians are also not accepted as members of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

These tiny slights are annoying, or indeed upsetting to some. But perhaps such on-going discrimination might help us to relate with people all around our world who are facing discrimination each and every day because of their chosen faith. Each year the State Department of the United States issues a review of religious freedom around the world. As you might imagine, it paints quite a grim picture of a world filled with intolerance in one form or another. In various countries it is illegal to hold religious beliefs contrary to the state supported religion. In many more countries discrimination is fuelled by views expressed by government leaders. Last year’s report noted an increase in violence against both Muslims and Jews. The following countries were cited for particularly harsh treatment of people for their religious beliefs: Burma, People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. What can we do about all this? Not a lot in truth. We might sign online petitions or join Amnesty International campaigns – for such actions can make a difference in how individuals are treated by repressive regimes. To know that people of the world are informed and concerned about ill treatment may sometimes help. We might campaign for a truly universal acceptance of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights throughout countries of the world – it declares that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance’.

But perhaps the key tasks for us are to ensure that our own house is in good order – to examine our own prejudices and attempt to re-balance the prejudices of our own society. We can perhaps feel pride in our pluralist society where all people are free to express their own religious beliefs. Or we might despair to know that most Muslim and Jewish places of worship here in the United Kingdom now have guards on their doors in case of attack. Imagine if that was us. If we Unitarians had people on guard to protect us from attack because of our faith. That is what the Dissenters of hundreds of years ago had to do but this is the 21st century and there are still many wrongs to right.

I hope we Unitarians can be a helpful voice in the debate of how we live in a diverse community. I hope we can encourage ourselves and others to be curious about those who are different from us rather than afraid. I hope we can assert common human bonds across the divides, forged from respect and good will, creating new connections built on foundation stones of empathy and love. I think that would be a genuinely helpful legacy from the struggles of our forebears to win our own religious freedom, a sign of our gratitude and indeed our respect.

Let me end with some simple, yet truly aspirational words repeated by Unitarian children’s groups over the years – said as their chalice flame of freedom is lit:

This is the church of the open mind
This is the church of the loving heart
This is the church of the helping hands
May the light of our Unitarian chalice flame
Inspire us to use our powers
To heal and not to harm,
To help and not to hinder,
To bless and not to curse,
To serve the Spirit of freedom.
May this be so.

Hymn 114 (grey): ‘Forward Through the Ages’

And our closing hymn today is number 114, forward through the ages – and it celebrates all those who have gone before us, all those who have yet to come. I always think this hymn is one of gratitude for those brave souls who stood up against tyranny in order to win the kinds of freedoms we sometimes take for granted now. So let’s sing this in that spirit of gratitude for brave souls throughout history.

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 vision, realm 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.


My thanks go to Andrew Robinson for great music today, thanks to Jeannene for vital tech support here in the church and to Charlotte for co-hosting and welcoming everyone online – without you two we would have no service. Thank you to Hannah for our reading If you’re joining on Zoom please do hang on after for a chat with Charlotte. For those of you who are in-person – please do stay for a chat and drinks after the service – served in the hall next door.

And have a think about joining us for Hannah’s yoga class after today’s service – 12.30 to 1.30pm. You don’t need any experience for these sessions, just a willingness to move at your own level and breathe and rest and stretch. And it will be manageable in whatever clothes you have on.

This coming Wednesday 15th May Brian Ellis is leading our in person Heart and Soul gathering here in the church at 7pm – do let Brian know if you plan to come along – it’s a lovely way to go a bit deeper in good company with others, through sharing, silence and prayer. On Friday 17th there’s an online ‘Heart & Soul’ Contemplative Spiritual Gathering at 7pm, this week’s theme is ‘Choices’, led by Alex Brianson. Email Alex to book your place .

Looking further ahead we have the next ‘Better World Book Club’ on 26th May when we’ll be looking at ‘On Being Unreasonable’ by Kirsty Sedgman (it’s a really excellent book). All our library copies have been snapped up but if you need one let Jane know.

And we want to give a special plug for the tea dance on Sunday 2nd June – Rachel Sparks is coming back for our first tea dance in 4 years – do come and support this event which should be great fun and hopefully will be the first of many. She teaches a beginners dance lesson at the start and leads some fun line dances along the way. There are flyers for this so please take some and tell your friends! And even if dancing isn’t your thing it’d be great to have congregation members come along and chat to visitors and make them feel welcome. The tea dances have a lovely buzz to them. There will be bunting I expect.

Next Sunday’s service is led by Patricia Brewerton and Jeannene Powell on the great theme of ‘Home’ – I recommend that to you.

Details of all our various activities are printed on the back of the order of service, for you to take away, and also in the Friday email. Please do sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch, look out for each other, and do what you can to nurture supportive connections.

I think that’s everything. Just time for our closing words and music now.

Benediction: based on words by Joseph M Cherry

If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves,
we must be bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there, loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be so bold, so brave,
and so loving. And may that be so for the greater good of all, amen, go well all of you and blessed be.

Rev. Sarah Tinker

12th May 2024