Entrance music – Selection of reflective music
Opening words, courtesy of the Simpsons
I thought I’d start this morning’s service in a bit of different way, so a huge thank you to Matt Groening and all the hugely talented writing staff of what is now, the longest-running animated show in history: the Simpsons. Thank you to Ari for sharing this with us a few weeks ago. This is an absolute gem of a find.
As we begin this morning’s service, I’d like to ask that you keep that short little clip in mind, as it honestly does serve a purpose. I promise.
So, good morning, to you all. As has become almost habitual in each of these services you entrust me with leading, I’d like to start by extending to you all, the very warmest of welcomes as we gather here this Sunday. Welcome to those familiar faces, and to those new faces, and to those who cannot be with us here this morning but are with us in our thoughts. Welcome to your feelings of happiness and hope. Welcome to your worries, concerns, and anxieties. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what you believe, no matter what you don’t believe, no matter what accompanies you this morning: you are welcome. You are welcome in this space. This space of reflection and contemplation. This space of humility and vulnerability.
As you walked through the doors this morning, you entered a sanctuary. A sanctuary where you are safe to be yourself. A sanctuary where, no matter what joys, sorrows or concerns you brought with you, the warmth of our welcome remains constant.
As is customary to our denomination of Unitarianism, I would like to light the flame of our chalice, the symbol of our movement. And, as I do, some words from James Timiney:
As we light our chalice,
We think about what this light means.
It represents the light within ourselves
And the light within others:
Threads of the universal light of love.
Moment of mindfulness
So, here we are again. The end of another week. You made it. This week may have been one that you relished, one that you embraced and tackled head on. Or it may have been one that you survived. If that is the case, then I’d like you to know that no matter challenges you’re experiencing, you are now one week closer to the resolution, and whatever feelings of pain and sorrow you are feeling, have crossed off one more day on the countdown to them checking out of your life.
In what has almost become another tradition of our time together, I’d like to invite you to just take a moment to sit in your chair and relax. Take a deep breath and notice the movement of your chest as you inhale, and then gently exhale. Focus on the sensations of your body, starting from your head and your neck, and working slowly down through your chest and out to your arms, through your elbows and wrists to the very tips of your fingers. Focus on each and every sensation you feel; move back along your arms and further down your body and into your legs, right down to the tips of your toes. As you do this, take note of how your body feels. It might be energised; it might be tired; it might be relaxed; it might just simply…be. Take 30 seconds to be still.
30 seconds of quiet.
And, in your own time, I’d like you to bring yourself back into the room.
I would like to invite you to listen to, or join in with if you wish, our first hymn of the day, number 30 in your purple hymn book: Each Seeking Faith is Seeking Light.
Hymn 1 – Purple Book 30 Each Seeking Faith is Seeking Light
So, today’s service is all about Unitarianism. What is it? Why are we Unitarians? What brings each of us here this morning? What drives us? What sets us apart from other denominations or religious groups? What do we have in common with them?
In order to answer those questions, I think it’s necessary for us to understand what the word ‘Unitarian’ means, and perhaps to know a bit about the history of our denomination.
Scholar, John Bowker, describes Unitarianism as: “A religious movement connected with Christianity [whose members] reject the Trinitarian understanding of God.” As far as definitions go, that pretty much sums up our theological basis, with ‘Unitarian’ being the opposite, if you will, of ‘Trinitarianism’. But he goes a bit further and says this: “It is characterised by an emphasis on seeking truth out of human experience, not out of allegiance to creeds or doctrines. There is no hierarchical control, each congregation being self-governing”.
I think that’s also a fair summary. But there’s no wonder Reverend Lovejoy, Homer and Lisa Simpson, Grandpa Simpson and Rod and Todd Flanders have a rather bleak view of Unitarians. If there’s no creeds, doctrines, governance, collection of shared beliefs, nor coming together around one sacred text, then, really, what is there? Are we just a bunch of people with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning, gathering in an old building, listening to someone speak for an hour, only really waiting to get the mini buffet afterwards?
It won’t surprise you to learn that the answer to those questions is, of course, no. To really begin to explain what it is, I think it’s helpful if we to turn to an Arabic term, al-Muwahhidun. Also translated as Unitarian, this small religious group, commonly referred to as the Druze, stress the unity of the Being, in particular, the idea that all humans are manifestations of a one and all-encompassing Being.
Now, this idea isn’t unique to the Druze. In fact, there are many Christian theologians who express the idea that God is in every person. In fact, the Book of Genesis tells us that we were all made in God’s image. But in traditional Christian circles, the celebration and reverence for humanity is often treated with slightly less importance. Instead, those within other Christian denominations continue to place emphasis on worshipping something other than humanity, whether that’s God as the Father, God as the Son, or God as the Holy Spirit. You could argue that humans often play second fiddle to the divine.
After all, humans are fallible. We make mistakes. We’re capable of committing acts of great evil and causing suffering to so many. In fact, it’s this imperfection that stands us apart from the divine. To be divine is to be free of such flaws, something which, no matter how hard some may try, we as individuals cannot escape. We are all flawed. We all have imperfections. None of us are what you would traditionally recognise as being divine.
But that’s one of the things that’s always troubled me about more mainstream Christian denominations. While yes, it can be incredibly comforting to put your faith in something bigger and greater than mere humans, for all the reasons I’ve just stated, it also does us a great disservice. Amidst all the suffering and aguish and pain we are capable of causing, we’re also capable of acts of true benevolence. Part of my job is working with local charities and organisations, all of which do fantastic work to help make the lives of those less fortunate, better. These people are hard-working and care passionately about helping people. There’s no malice to be found. I think there is a great deal more love and kindness in the world than we often give credit for.
Shall we sing again? Our second hymn is one of my favourites, and it comes from the Purple Book, number 70: I Wish I Knew How.
Hymn 2 – P70 I Wish I Knew How
As we continue to think about Unitarianism, let’s take a very quick, and I mean whistle-stop, look at the history of our movement. It began in the 16th Century as a result of the reformation, the second major split to occur in the Christian movement, the first being the Great Schism in 1054 between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. On both occasions, the splits happened because of differences in theology and understanding of key Christian doctrines, which I won’t go into here. Our movement has its roots in Poland, and, just as with most splits within the Church (big C), was brought about due to theological differences. Namely, as we’ve already discussed, a rejection of the Doctrine of the Trinity: the idea of one God existing simultaneously as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I can’t speak for early Unitarians, but I know that one of the things I found myself questioning when I was an aspiring theologian at university, was just how and in fact why more mainstream Christian denominations asked their followers to believe such doctrines as the Trinity, without any room for meaningful debate? “Just because” seemed to be the common answer whenever it was posited that the idea of a man coexisting as both fully human and fully divine was illogical and a contradiction. And it was this appeal to logic and reason that eventually brought me to the Unitarians.
We place emphasis on the lived experiences of people and seek rational thought and logic in our beliefs. I know, many people see religious belief and logic as being exclusive from each other, but I’ve never bought that argument. Take a look at the mural to your left. An artist’s paint palette and a microscope; it perfectly demonstrates that science is one of the tools we have at our disposal to help us understand our world. And while it should inform our understanding, it still leaves room for religious or spiritual belief. What is faith if not putting your trust in something that you can’t necessarily see?
The other thing that drew me away from more traditional Christian denominations is the concept of Christian exclusivity, something else that Unitarians reject. Think about it in this way: if, say, the Anglican or Roman Catholic Churches are “right”, so to speak, that that means that Christianity would be the only world religion to have been founded or inspired directly by God itself. What then of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and other theistic belief systems? Are they all, simply, wrong? And are the adherents of those faiths excluded from salvation, enlightenment or whatever end goal it is they may aspire to?
That can’t be the case, and that’s why Unitarians welcome into our ranks, those of all faiths and none. We have to accept that at their cores, all belief systems share the same overwhelming message of love, respect and acceptance. In fact, it’s the core message of Jesus’ ministry: love your neighbour as you love yourself, and love God. These are, in Jesus’ own words, the greatest commandments.
While there are certainly dogmatic and doctrinal differences between all belief systems, whether it’s the concept of reincarnation in eastern traditions or the resurrection and ascension of people in the end times, as is common with western faiths, the way to achieve these things is to be good. And I don’t mean resisting the temptation to pick up that Mars bar you don’t need at the checkouts when doing your weekly shop (other chocolate bars are available). I mean being a true, honest and decent person, treating others with love and respect, and helping those who are in need of our help.
The Theosophical Society, established in the 1960s during the emergence of the New Age Movement understood this perfectly. They established three main rules by which they governed themselves: “to form a brotherhood without distinction of race, sex or creed”, “to study philosophy, religion and science” and “to investigate unexplained laws of nature”. I think as Unitarians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists and atheists, these are pretty sound things to aspire to.
Christian exclusivity also speaks to the idea that only by believing a specific set of doctrines and dogma, can you be part of the gang. Well, let me tell you, friends, I spent years as a spiritual and theological nomad, wandering the religious wilderness because I didn’t have a home. I refused to accept things simply because I was told to believe them without asking deep and often uncomfortable questions. Until, I arrived here, sharing this space with you this morning.
Unitarianism has come a long way since its initial founding on the basis of a rejection of the Trinity. And, to be fair to the Simpsons, they’re right. There are no creeds or doctrines. There is no liturgy. There is no criteria on which your membership is determined. You can be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Pagan, an agnostic, an atheist or even a Jedi, and still be a Unitarian. So, what makes us Unitarians?
I think we have to take the idea of the Druze, the notion that each and every person is, in fact, a manifestation of the divine. Each and every person sitting here this morning is connected to each other through shared experiences; we’re all connected by a shared understanding of what is right, good and just. We’re connected by the fact we’re all living and sharing this place in the universe we call Earth. We’re connected by the fact we are all deeply flawed, while being capable of performing acts of great kindness and love. We’re all linked by the fact we are all one and the same, despite our differences in gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, spiritual or religious beliefs, socio-economic background, level of education, political affiliations, our preferences for Android or iPhone, Star Wars or Star Trek, jam first or cream first…the list goes on.
As Jo Cox, the former Labour MP once said: “There is far more that unites us, than which divides us.”
That, my friends, is what makes us Unitarian. Unity. Understanding that, despite all the things that make us different, we are united as one common collection of individuals, each trying to do their very best to make our own lives as happy and as fulfilling as possible, while supporting those around us who may need our help to realise their full potential.
Shall we sing again? Our third hymn is from the Purple Book: O Source of Many Cultures
Hymn 3 – Purple Book 119 – O Source of Many Cultures
Sharing of communion
So, with the idea of being united as one community of human beings fresh in our minds, I’d also like do something else that breaks with mainstream Christian denominations. You see, communion is reserved in the Catholic Church for only those who have been baptised. And in Anglican circles, the Eucharist if often only for those who have been baptised and confirmed. Although, it has to be said, some Anglican congregations drop the need for confirmation. And I get it…well, I don’t, but they see communion as an intimate religious experience linking individuals to Christ. And that’s okay. But here, this morning, there is no such obligation to commit to anything or anyone.
Eating and drinking together is a common part of human social interactions. You may have done it this morning around the breakfast table; we do it every week after our services. And I see this as no different. Instead of seeing the bread and wine (Ribena is available for anyone who doesn’t want to have wine) as being symbolic of Jesus and the last supper, let us see it as symbolic of our shared experience and our unity as a community of individuals. Let us share in the eating of bread and drinking of wine. As one person eats and drinks, look up them. And as you too eat and drink, feel safe and comforted in the knowledge that they, just are just like you in so many ways. They have hopes and dreams. They have experienced great moments of joy and great moments of sorrow. Feel safe, knowing that on your darkest days and on your brightest days, you are never alone. For in us and with all people, you have friends and people who care deeply for you, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you believe.
And because I am no more special than anyone here, I won’t hand you a cup or a piece of bread; I won’t say any special words. I’d just like to invite you, if you wish to take part, to take a piece of bread and a cup of wine (or Ribena), and take a moment to reflect on our unity.
Candles of hopes, joys and concerns
Before we spend some quiet time reflecting on whatever it is you yourself would like to reflect on this morning, as is customary for our church, I’d like to invite you to light a candle, or as is common for our congregation, candles, for any hopes, joys, thanks or concerns you may have. You may wish to vocalise your thoughts as you light your candles, but as always, you are more than welcome to light them in silence. There is also no obligation to light a candle at all. Instead, you may use this time to pray, meditate or reflect in your own space.
Music for Reflection – Let It Be (Piano Version) – Mark Benson
Let us take some time to reflect and gather our thoughts. You may wish to listen to the music, or you may wish to let your mind wander.
I’d now like to invite [someone] to a read a poem written by Margaret Kirk, and it’s called Something There Is That Doesn’t Love A Wall, which as Margaret writes in her introduction to the poem, is a reflection on Robert Frost’s work, Mending Wall.
We see barriers erected between people of different lands.
We see sheets of steel and towers of concrete called protection.
We see boundaries policed,
watch men, women and children running from hunger and persecution, looking for a gap in the wall.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
We see walls of fear:
fear of the young, fear of the stranger,
fear of sexuality that is different, fear of the educated, fear of the poor,
fear of the Muslim, fear of the Jew…
Fear upon fear, endless and perpetuating, and we offer our silent prayer that solid walls of fear will crumble to dust.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
We hear the language of separation, the jingoistic chant, the racial slur, words of indifference and dismissal, words arranged for the purpose of exclusion, words that sting and taunt, words that lie.
Let us find words that ring with love and truthfulness, that reach out through the emptiness of separation.
We see the deluded barriers of the mind protecting self.
We see relationships stripped of affection as one person becomes closed to another.
We see people trapped in misunderstanding, old hurts re-ignited,
bricks placed higher on the wall, goodwill and trust suspended.
And we ask for boundaries that are not impenetrable, through which light can shine and distance be dissolved.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
And when we need these boundaries for our own well-being, let us know them for what they are.
Use them wisely and kindly,
recognising our own vulnerability and that of others; so each of us can find the space for retreat and succour, find that peace that passes all understanding and be renewed with strength and love
for the task of living life joyfully in communion with all others.
Thank you [person].
Margaret Kirk is a Unitarian minister from, I believe, our Whitby congregation. And to me, this poem beautifully picks up on some the things I’ve talked about this morning. The issues of separation and calling out difference, and instead striving for the celebration of togetherness and unity: “living life joyfully in communion with all others”.
That, my friends, is Unitarianism summed up in eight simple words.
As you have hopefully picked up on during our time together, as Unitarians, we’re a pretty open-minded bunch. You can bring whatever you want with you to our church, without fear of discrimination or exclusion. You can bring belief in God, Gods, nature, or belief in nothing at all. We’re not bothered. My idea of God will be vastly different to that of perhaps everyone’s here. You may use prayer as a way to communicate with the divine, whereas I don’t. Instead of placing emphasis on our differences, excluding people for not following a strict set of beliefs or practices, we welcome people. We embrace their difference, give it a big hug, and invite them in for a cup of tea and some beige food. Of course, there is room for theological discussions without our own congregation and the denomination more broadly, but we don’t let ourselves be defined by what we believe, other than our belief in the unity of humanity, and constant desire to make the world a place filled love and acceptance of the differences that make us unique. And while we celebrate difference, we venerate the fact we are united, as each human being is a manifestation of something truly special. Whether you choose to believe that that thing is divine or a piece of God, or just something really quite neat, it matters not. What matters is that we are brothers and sisters.
And it’s only though embracing difference and celebrating it, that we can truly recognise our unity. And only through unity, can we really begin to make the world a kinder, safer, more compassionate and more loving place. In a society where those in power seem hell-bent on othering those in need and sowing the seeds of division, let us use whatever means we have to share the message of unity, and treat our fellow human beings with love. For love and unity is Jesus’ message, and is shared by inspirational leaders from all faiths and leaders from no faith at all.
Let us pray, reflect, or meditate together.
To live in harmony
Spirit of all life, light and love, that is the life force within us all, you are in our hearts and minds.
We are grateful for your understanding and mercy.
We ask that you shine light into the darkness, enabling all people to see the path to peace.
Forgive the ones who are still unseeing of their brother and sister in the faces they hate.
And forgive the ones who see but do not speak, who know the wrong but do not act to right it.
Let us find the way of wisdom to bring a commonwealth for humankind to live in harmony on this sacred earth with all things wild or human made; and in your Sacred Spirit dwell.
That was a prayer written by more Yorkshire-based Unitarians: members of the York Healing and Spirituality Group, Brinley Price, Richard Thomas, Dee Boyle, Susan Leadley and Claire Lee. You see, Andrew, I’m making good use of that book you gave me last week!
Before we sing our final hymn of the morning, I just want to check to see if there are any notices.
Now, I’d like to invite you to join in with or listen and follow the words to, our final hymn of the morning. It’s number 147 in your purple hymn books: Spirit of Earth, Root, Stone and Tree.
Hymn 4 – Purple Book 147
As always, after the service, please join us for some light refreshments, there’s always an abundance of beige goodies and sweat treats, as well as tea and coffee. Also, if you would like to pop something into our collection tray, any amount will be humbly appreciated. Although, please do not feel obliged to put anything in at all. The donation of your time here this morning is more than enough.
As we come to the end of our time together this morning, let me now extinguish our chalice. And, given I’ve borrowed heavily from other people this morning, I thought I should end with some words of my own this time.
Light of the world,
Light of our flame.
Let us dwell not on distinctions,
Or differences in name.
But on all that binds us together,
In common spirit and community.
Help us to celebrate all we share,
And recognise we are together in unity.
And although your heat and warmth disappear,
Let us remember that even when we might want to push and shove,
And force our way past those with whom we feel we share little,
Unity is our call to arms, and our weapon of choice is love.
Extinguishing of the chalice
And we will, as is the tradition of our congregation here, finish our service with the words of God Be In My Head. And if you wish, you may substitute the word God, for love, or another word that you feel is more appropriate for you:
God (Love) be in my head,
And in my understanding;
God (Love) be in mine eyes,
And in my looking;
God (Love) be in my mouth,
And in my speaking;
God (Love) be in my heart,
And in my thinking;
God (Love) be at mine end,
And at my departing.
Exit music – If I Can Dream – Elvis Presley