By Rev. Duncan Voice
Opening Words – Kathleen McTigue (adapted)
Into this moment we bring our hunger for awakening.
We bring compassionate hearts, and a will towards justice.
Into this moment we bring the courage to walk on after hard losses.
Into this moment we bring our joy, and gratitude for ordinary blessings.
By our gathering this becomes a sacred and blessed moment.
May we shelter in its peace.
We light our chalice,
flame of our faith:
to commemorate our past;
to symbolize all that we value,
that holds us together in community;
and to be a light of hope for our future.
Spirit of Life and Love,
We are grateful for this opportunity to gather
and to simply be.
Though we miss being together in person
we reach out to each and everyone here
in fellowship and love.
As we look forward towards gathering in the future,
may we truly appreciate this simply gift.
We take time this morning to remember those
who cannot be with us.
Our families, our friends, our fellow seekers.
Those who are ill and those that suffer loneliness
and spiritual torment.
We hold them in our hearts.
May we seek and discover new ways to reach out
and offer friendship and support.
We remember also those whose passing comes to our mind
at this time.
May they be at peace,
and may our loving memories strengthen and comfort us,
as we continue the journeys of our lives.
God of our hearts,
Help us to be a welcoming and generous community.
Help us to recognise ourselves,
so that we may truly recognise one another.
May forgiveness, reconciliation and peace
be the path we travel together into the future;
living our truth gently and lovingly.
Reading: John 14: 15-17
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
Reading: Psalm 32 Redux by Carla A. Grosch-Miller
Hymn: 11 Blessed Spirit of my life
Reading: Going Nowhere by Lewis Richmond
I, the blazing life of divine wisdom,
I set alight the beauty of the plains,
I radiate the waters,
I glow in the Sun, and the Moon, and the stars.
With wisdom I order all things right.
I beautify the Earth.
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.
I am the rain coming from the dew
that makes the field laugh with the pleasure of life.
I call up tears, the perfume of holy work.
I am the yearning for good.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)
Music: Caritas abundat in omnia (Love abounds in all) – Hildegard of Bingen
Last weekend I attended the annual general meeting of the Unitarian General Assembly, online of course! I must admit to being a little daunted by the prospect of an online meeting starting at 11 and finishing at 5; but it was very well organized with periods of worship and breaks, and so it was actually OK. It is still good to gather in whatever way we can at this time, although we of course miss personal interaction a lot.
The meetings, if you have never attended, cover the necessary business matters of the General Assembly, along with proposals and voting for resolutions, and usually there are some guest speakers and workshops. Also, the presidency passes on; this year Ann Mills took over from Celia Cartwright. Sadly there were no speakers or workshops this year, but four resolutions were proposed and subsequently voted for. Debate was not what it normally is, but nevertheless I must congratulate the Essex Hall staff on making it happen at all.
The four resolutions that were passed were:
From the Findhorn Unitarian Network – a proposal that requested the Executive Committee (EC) prepare and present a Code of Ethics, applicable to Ministers, Lay Leaders and Essex Hall staff, for consideration at the 2022 Annual Meetings. For 73, Abstentions 17, Against 25,
From Cardiff Unitarians – a proposal about fossil fuel divestment requiring the GA to completely divest from these investments by 2025 and encouraging congregations to do the same. For 91, Abstentions 10, Against 3,
From Stockton Unitarians – a proposal about provision for young Unitarians. In particular the provision of a residential youth program for 7-11 year olds at the Nightingale Centre in Peak District. This attracted the most controversy as it appeared that our Youth Officer was against; I think because he feared it might tie his hands a bit. He said that by allowing activities and initiatives to grow more organically more young people than ever were engaging in the current programs. I suppose giving the young people more of stake rather than saying this is what’s on offer. Because of his reticence I voted against, but the motion was passed with: For 55 , Abstentions 31, and Against 27.
Finally, a proposal FROM THE LONDON DISTRICT & PROVINCIAL ASSEMBLY (LDPA), THE PEACE FELLOWSHIP, AND TWELVE FULL MEMBERS – this welcomed the foundation of the interfaith Red Cross Memorial Peace Appeal in aid of the Global Coronavirus Emergency Appeal, the Yemen Crisis Appeal and other urgent humanitarian and medical appeals; and it urged congregations to support this as one immediate and direct way to be a force for good in the world. For 92, Abstentions 11, Against, 11.
In the past, some resolutions have been a bit general in nature and while well intentioned have not really made much difference to anything. This year’s ones may not be have been perfect either, but at least they were addressing concerns that perhaps most of us share; environmental concerns, making spirituality relevant and accessible to young people, how we behave towards one another and interfaith work and the huge crises that are happening in some parts of the world and how we might help in some meaningful way.
If you weren’t keen on what you heard though, or you think important issues need addressing, then remember that as a congregation you are entitled to propose a motion for consideration. It’s our democratic process and it could be a way to influence the direction of our movement, so do consider it in the future.
Apart from what I have described so far, we also heard reports from the officers of the General Assembly. This began with Elizabeth Slade, the Chief Officer, who after being in post for just one year, had unenviable task of having to close the London offices and try to manage from home due to the pandemic.
In her report she emphasised our need to find a direction for our churches and chapels, a path through this new landscape that we find ourselves in. She mentioned financial sustainability, which I’m sure is on the minds of many a committee up and down the land. As membership of our churches seems to be dwindling are there other sources of finance, perhaps even other ways of doing church community?
She also talked of spiritual health, reconnecting with our own congregations once again but also the wider community. She said, “Our doors are always open to those who already know the value of a spiritual life…..But if we see spirituality as a universal part of being human, then those who do not see themselves as religious will also be suffering spiritually from the effects of pandemic – and from all else in today’s culture that dishonours our spiritual lives.”
I think this point was well illustrated by her with a quote from John O’Donohue where he says,
“The reductionism and fragmentation of our culture has relegated the sacred to the margins. Yet ironically this very process has only intensified the spiritual hunger that people feel.”
I wonder if these cultural issues are one the most significant factors in the numerical decline of Unitarianism? The annual report indicated that national membership has now dropped below 3000 for the first time, standing at 2810. Some faith groups are very committed to their particular brand of religion, but it seems the majority of the British population has lost this connection; and what is seen as “organised religion” is maybe viewed with indifference, or through stereotypes, or even with suspicion or hostility?
That might be part of the picture, but perhaps we should also ask ourselves how we present our Unitarian churches and chapels to the wider community. How we are seen, if indeed we are seen at all, by those unconnected with our faith community? Do we sometimes give the appearance of being uncommitted? Like it doesn’t really matter, like we can take it or leave it? Whatever the reasons for our numerical decline over the years, we do have to consider the value and the purpose of what we do, and learn how to communicate and share this in an appropriate and honest way. We have to ask, do we really believe that we offer something spiritually valuable?
Well, I think we do have something very special to offer. I think our churches and fellowships are gathering places for people with good hearts. I also think decline in membership is not the only story, that a lot of good is happening. A lot of caring, a lot of love; but these things aren’t really measurable and don’t show up on an annual reports. So we should keep that in mind and take heart.
Spirituality can be a counter intuitive and paradoxical thing sometimes, as was alluded to in our second reading. What is considered great or successful in the material world, wealth, power, status etc. doesn’t really count for much spiritually. In fact most spiritual teachers tell us they can be an encumbrance, taking too much of our time and attention, inflating our egos and detaching us from reality. Of course we live in a material world, but the purpose of our Unitarian churches cannot be a material one. It can’t be all about growth and resources, helpful though these things may be to achieve some worthy aim.
Some people have said that we need great leaders to guide us, but although good leadership is important, I don’t think we should expect the arrival of some kind of super hero! Or consider that this is either desirable or necessary. I would prefer us to focus on finding ways to be together. For together we can do wonderful things. Together we can do some deep listening and some honest sharing. Together we can have conversations in safe spaces and invite people to join us. Together we can listen to one another and express ourselves if we wish to.
We need to do this so that what is really important can begin to emerge. A common understanding that we can articulate, and share, and adapt as we need to. What we might call a shared vision. A truly shared vision, not one that someone has provided for us.
Jesus said that the spirit of truth is within us all. Let us then take time to listen, so that it might guide us, and help us all to live in love and peace.
May it be so
Hymn: 181 Wake, now, my senses
Recently while out walking my senses were woken when I was fortunate enough to hear a Nightingale sing. I felt very grateful that these harbingers of Spring choose live in Sussex after their long migration from Africa; and that I can listen to their beautiful magical song. Their habitat is dwindling and they are declining in the UK, but some people are trying to help. Long may they sing, and long may we listen and appreciate them. I leave you with the final two verses of John Keat’s Ode to a Nightingale.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
As we go from here may we be awake to all the possibilities of life and the truth in our hearts; and may the God of our understanding be with us now and always. Amen.