Sunday, 5 January 2020

Epiphany: A Meditation on the Gifts of the Magi

The Gospel of Matthew tells us the magi brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus. Gold represented Christ's kingship, his sovereignty; frankincense represented his divinity; myrrh represented his humanity, his mortality.

Let us consider how these gifts have manifested in our own lives over the past year. We're going to take them in reverse order to the order they are given in the gospel story. 

We start with myrrh – the gift of humanity, of mortality.
How have the gifts of myrrh manifested in your life in the past year?
Perhaps you have had a brush with mortality yourself or have lost loved ones.
How have experienced your own physicality?
Perhaps your physical health has been poor or perhaps you have been filled with vitality and strength. How have you experienced the world through your senses in the past year – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch?
How have you experienced the physical closeness of others?
Perhaps you have given warm hugs or felt the comforting touch of a hand on your shoulder.
How have the gifts of myrrh manifested in your life in the past year?

We move on to frankincense – the gift of divinity.
How have the gifts of frankincense manifested in your life in the past year?
How have you experienced the divine or the sacred within and outside yourself?
Perhaps there have been times when you have felt particularly close to Spirit or Source, experienced awe and wonder, felt at one with the universe.
How have you experienced divinity or the sacred reflected in others?
How have the gifts of frankincense manifested in your life in the past year?

Lastly, we consider gold – the gift of sovereignty.
How have the gifts of gold manifested in your life in the past year?
Have you felt in charge of your own destiny or have you felt that outside influences have controlled what has happened in your life?
Have you been free to make your own choices and to live your life to its full potential?
Have you owned your own mistakes and successes, taken full responsibility for your actions?
How have you experienced sovereignty in others?
How have the gifts of gold manifested in your life in the past year?

May we continue to experience the rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh throughout this year.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Mothers' Night: Celebrating the Divine Feminine at Yule

During Advent it is customary in most Christian traditions to honour Mary, mother of Jesus. It is no coincidence that the Christian Church chose the time of the winter solstice for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, light of the world. Many pagan traditions honoured a mother goddess who gave birth to a child of light, representing the sun, as the sun is reborn at the winter solstice.

Since the end of the last ice age, Northern European hunter-gatherers have followed the reindeer migrations for their meat, milk, and skins, which provide food, clothing and shelter.  When the male reindeer sheds his antlers, the larger and stronger doe retains hers and leads the herds in winter.

The Sami, the indigenous reindeer herding people of the Nordic countries, honoured the goddess Beaivi by smearing warm butter, yellow like the sun, on door-posts at the winter solstice. Beaivi, the sun goddess, associated with fertility, motherhood and regeneration, flew through the sky as a reindeer, carrying the life-giving light of the sun in her antlers on the night of the winter solstice.  The offerings of the people helped her gain strength and fly higher and higher into the sky to return fertility to the land.  Saule, the Lithuanian and Latvian goddess of the sun, also flew across the sky in a sleigh pulled by antlered reindeer, throwing pebbles of amber into chimneys to symbolise the sun.  So next time you see Santa, spare a thought for the forgotten Mother Christmas!

I have never given birth to a child in the physical realm, but I feel very connected to the energy of gestation at this time of year. I am heavily pregnant with ideas and plans, straining to come forth into the light in the new year! What is waiting in the solstice stillness to be reborn in you, to move from the darkness into the light?

According to the Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon pagans“… began the year on the 8th calends of January [25 December], when we celebrate the birth of the Lord. That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, “mothers’ night”, because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night”.  (Wallis, Faith (Trans.) Bede: The Reckoning of Time, 1999.)

Many modern heathens celebrate Mother’s Night on the night before Yule, the Winter Solstice, as a celebration of the Dísir, protective female ancestral spirits, and mother goddesses, such as Frigga, goddess of hearth, home and family, and mother of Baldr, the Scandinavian Child of Light.

As part of my observance of Yule and Christmas I like to honour my female ancestors by lighting candles and spending some quiet time remembering them with gratitude. Many family relationships can be complex and difficult, and my family certainly has its fair share of those relationships.  Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for the sacrifices my ancestors made to give me the precious gift of life.  In the Christmas story, Mary Mother of Jesus struggles through many hardships to give him birth. Just two or three generations ago, many of my female ancestors died in childbirth or were widowed early.

At Yule I think of women like my great-grandmothers.  On my mother's side were Elsie Maud Healey, who worked in a bicycle pump factory, which made ammunition in the First World War, and Ethel Ellen Higgs, who spent her teenage years in service. On my father's side were Lizzie Moore, a blacksmith's daughter, who married a farmer aged 20 and died of pneumonia aged 34, after having six children, and Nellie Crewe, who ran the family farm and brought up her five children alone when her husband Frank died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1919.  I honour my female ancestors by sharing their stories and their favourite festive foods at our family gatherings. Perhaps you do something similar. However you celebrate, may your Yuletide be blessed.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Holy Anarchy and the Song of Mary

Luke 1:46 – 55 (The Magnificat)
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has gone great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

Perhaps you grew up, as I did, in a Protestant church where Mary was mostly ignored, but when she was acknowledged, it was as Mary, meek and mild, submitting passively to God's will. I believe this does her a terrible mis-service, because there is nothing meek and mild about the Magnificat. It is a courageous and subversive song of praise.

In the time of Jesus, Mary's homeland was occupied by the Roman empire, a brutal military regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews. Both the Roman and Jewish culture were deeply patriarchal.  Women were not full citizens.  A poor Jewish woman was considered the lowest of the low. This world was not a safe place for Mary or her baby, even within her own community. Under Jewish law, Mary, as an unwed expectant mother, could be stoned to death for adultery. It must have taken great courage for Mary to say yes to what God asked of her.

Mary, lowest of the low, was chosen by God to bear the Messiah. Through her son, she hoped and expected, that God would continue this reversal, this subversion of the empire of domination.  For the Jewish people, the central events of salvation history were their liberation from slavery in Egypt and from exile in Babylon.  The concept of reversal is central to Luke's Gospel, which portrays Jesus as a prophet of the God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed.  Time and time again Luke shows Jesus speaking up in solidarity with the poor and marginalised.

When Jesus begins his ministry after his forty days in the wilderness, the first words Luke records him speaking are from the book of the prophet Isaiah, ““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”” Luke 4:18 – 21

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was killed by the Nazis in 1945, preached a sermon on the Magnificat during Advent in 1933, whilst ministering to a congregation in East London. 1933 was the year Hitler came to power.  The sermon begins, “This song of Mary's is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God's power and of the powerlessness of men.”

Mary's words were considered so subversive that they were banned by at least three oppressive regimes in the last two hundred years. During the British occupation of India, the authorities banned the recitation of the Magnificat at Evensong. In 1970s Argentina, the 'mothers of the disappeared' put the words of Mary's song up on posters in the capital plaza, prompting the military junta to ban its public display. In 1980s Guatemala, Mary's song inspired the poor to believe that change was possible through non-violent resistance and their government banned its public recitation.

Mary's song calls us to resist the forces of oppression in our own time. The Magnificat is a call to social justice. Social justice begins with compassion – com meaning with, passion meaning suffering. In the Gospels, we find Mary, holding Jesus, with compassion, at the start and the end of his life, swaddling him in the manger and suffering with him at the foot of the cross.

It takes courage to open our hearts to compassion, to make ourselves vulnerable enough to feel the pain of another. It takes courage to transform that compassion into action. It takes courage to stand up to the powerful on behalf of the exploited, the marginalised, the homeless, the asylum seekers. It takes courage to stand with those in our communities whose daily lives are adversely affected by unjust systems and institutions.

It takes courage to envision a new world order, the world turned upside down, to join with Mary in building the kingdom of God or as contemporary theologian Andrew Shanks calls it, the holy anarchy. It takes courage to embody the beloved community, sustained by love and compassion for all. It takes courage to say yes to God, to let love in, to be transformed by it. Mary's life is turned upside down by God's love. May we have the courage to embrace holy anarchy and let love turns our lives upside down this Christmas.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

O Holy Darkness: My journey through Seasonal Affective Disorder to discovering the spiritual treasures of Samhain

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.” Wendell Berry

Like many of us I have an uneasy relationship with darkness. Fear of the dark is an ancestral fear – our ancestors lit fires to ward off nocturnal predators. As a child I remember sleeping with a night light, because I was afraid of the monsters that might jump out at me in the dark. Fear of the dark is thus fear of the unknown, or rather, what we project onto the unknown. As a country, we are stepping into an unknown political future. It can be hard not to feel anxious when facing such uncertainty.

I wouldn't want to suggest that all suffering is good for us, but sometimes sticking with a painful process and examining the root of our discomfort and sorrow can transform our experience and allow us to gain new perspective. Painful experiences prompt us to reconsider what is important to us. They can be part of the process of discovering what makes our heart and soul sing.

In around 1578, when St John of the Cross was imprisoned by his Carmelite brothers, who opposed his reforms of their Order, he wrote the poem, Dark Night of the Soul.  The phrase 'dark night of the soul' has entered common parlance to refer to a spiritual crisis. St John's writings explore the painful journey of the soul through what he termed 'purgative contemplation', in which the will, intellect and senses are darkened, towards spiritual maturity and the union with God in unconditional love.

Catholic writer Jeannie Ewing describes how St. John of the Cross taught her about the beauty to be found in the quiet of winter, when all life seems to be dead or sleeping, and yet the restoration and renewal of life is actually hidden in the womb of the earth during those long months of the year: “Most of us errantly conclude that all darkness is an unholy darkness. St. John of the Cross introduced countless generations to the gift of a holy darkness, one that is bestowed to certain people as they deepen their faith journeys, one that strengthens their resolve to believe when they cannot see anything beyond “the dark night of the soul.”

In Jeannie Ewing's account, I recognised my own journey through season affective disorder to a healthier relationship with darkness and winter. I think I probably experienced 'winter blues' for most of my adult life, although it took me a few years to recognise them. Darkness increases rapidly during October and November. At the beginning of October, sunset time in Manchester was 18:46. Today the sun set at 16:33 – one hour of this shift is natural, one hour is because of the clocks changing.

Every year, as autumn advanced, my energy and my mood would plummet with the fading light. I would struggle to get out of bed in the mornings. I would feel despondent and irritable with myself and wish I could hibernate like a bear and sleep away the winter.

As a society we associate light with positivity and dark with negativity, which is reflected and reinforced by our language. We talk of en'light'enment and happy people have a 'sunny' disposition, but when we are unhappy we are in a 'black' mood and we are plunged into the darkness of despair.

A few years back, I started to work with the wheel of the year as part of a course on pre-Christian Celtic spirituality and shamanism, led by Nicola Smalley of the Way of the Buzzard. My relationship with darkness and winter began to change. The essence of working with the wheel of the year is to attune to the natural energies of each season by learning from nature.

One side of my family still make a living from the land as farmers. If you go back just a few generations, so did all our ancestors. They had no choice but to adapt to the cold dark winter. There was a real risk that they might not survive to see the new year. Their priority in the autumn was to ensure that they had enough food to last the winter. At the end of October they would gather in the last of the harvest and kill all but the breeding livestock so that they had the minimum number of mouths to feed through the winter. They would then preserve the fruits and meat for their winter food stores, just as the crows and squirrel bury their winter stores of nuts.

As the trees shed their leaves and vegetation died back down to the earth, they would also remember their own dead at this time of year. The Celtic festival of Samhain at the end of October celebrates the end of the harvest and the remembrance of the dead. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, of matter and spirit, is said to be thinnest at this time. These traditions have passed into the Christian calendar with All Hallows, All Saints and All Souls Days, and Martinmas in early November. My family still take their cattle to market at Martinmas (11 November or Old Halloween).

Our culture no longer encourages us to live according to the seasons. Our supermarkets stock all foods at all times of the year. Technology means we can have artificial light all year round; smart-phones, tablets, tv screens, and city street lights, disrupt our circadian rhythms. We can push on through winter and be as busy as we were in summer. I work in the education system and the autumn term, far from slowing down, is often one of the busiest times of the year. And then comes December with its gaudy lights and frantic Christmas preparations.

Pushing on through eventually takes it toll. Most plants shed their leaves in autumn to conserve their strength, because it would weaken them to continue to try photosynthesising and growing through the winter. If we continue to live our lives through autumn and winter at the same pace as summer we too become exhausted. Our bodies are attuned to the rhythms of the year as well as the cycle of day and night. Night-time provides an opportunity to rest and let go of the day. In the wheel of the year, winter provides the same opportunity.

I no longer use a SAD lamp to increase my exposure to light and resist the dark. Instead, I try to accept the invitation of the increasing darkness to listen to my body and slow down, to deepen into silence and stillness, to try to embrace a simpler existence, and (most difficult of all) to practise letting go and saying no.

For all of us there was once a time when darkness was not scary, but safe. We each grew in the womb in darkness. Darkness was our original state. Sight becomes our primary sense in early childhood, but vision is the last sense to develop in the womb – touch first starts to develop at 3 weeks gestation, then taste and smell, then hearing, and lastly, vision. A developing baby's eyelids open at around 26 weeks and it can distinguish light at around 6 months, but there is little light stimulation and the womb is mostly dark, with the baby's vision remaining relatively undeveloped at birth.

Just as the earth nurtures the seeds in darkness over winter, and animals gestate their young, we too can use this time to nurture ourselves, and in nurturing ourselves, we conceive and nurture the seeds of new plans for the new year, ready for birth in the spring. In letting go of the old, we make room for the new.

Creative inspiration can only come when we make space for it. In her book, The Celtic Spirit: Daily Meditations for the Turning Year, Celtic scholar Caitlin Matthews recounts the tale of the 17th century traveller, Martin Martin, who toured the west coast of Scotland and reported on the training used in the last of the bardic schools, whose methods of composition had not varied from earliest Celtic times. Students composed poems in the House of Darkness: a long, low hut divided into cubicles devoid of light, in which the students lay upon couches alone and worked on each poem in darkness. Inspiration was able to spark more brightly when the subtle senses are able to work, without the distraction of our physical ones.

I invite you to join me and the rest of nature in accepting the invitation of the dark nights to wind down, withdraw and take good care of yourself, to let the velvety darkness swaddle you and nurture you. You may wish to use the time between now and the winter solstice / Christmas to reflect on some of the following questions:
What can you let go of that burdens you and drains your resources? Perhaps you may be holding on to bad habits, toxic relationships, quarrels or grudges.
What changes have happened in your life in the past year? How can you take stock of the past and come to terms with it, in order to move on and look forward to the future?
As birds that do not migrate flock together to form companies to keep them warm and safe by roosting close to each other, how can you nurture yourself and your relationships with your loved ones?
What burdens the world and drains its resources? How can we contribute to building a just world of peace and harmony?

I'm still not completely in tune with autumn and winter. I'm still not great at saying no. I still pack my diary too full and I have to work hard to resist the temptation to fill up space as soon as I create it. I still have bad days when I struggle to get out of bed. I admit that my favourite time of year is the opposite time on the wheel of the year – the period between Beltane at the beginning of May and the Summer Solstice, when nature is blossoming and blooming with verdancy and the light is increasing. But I no longer dread the dark, for it is full of possibilities.

Having reflected on my journey, my healthier relationship with darkness is being built with the three pillars of 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Faith in the process, in the transformative powers of darkness, Hope of achieving a lasting balance, Love of myself, my fellow inhabitants of the earth and the mysterious Loving Presence that holds us all.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Unitarian Day of Prayer for Peace

Today is the annual Unitarian Day of Prayer for Peace and the last day of the interfaith Week of Prayer for World Peace.

International Prayer for Peace:
Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Druid Prayer for Peace:
Deep within the still centre of my being, may I find peace.
Silently, within the quiet of this circle, may I share peace.
Gently, within the greater circle of humanity, may I radiate peace.

“If ever there were a time for a candle in the darkness, this would be it.
Using a spark of hope, kindle the flame of love, ignite the light of peace,
and feed the flame of justice.” Melanie Davies

Peace and justice are intertwined. Most conflict in the world is about control and possession of resources – land, water, fossil fuels. The Gulf Wars were fought to secure the oil supply of the West. The involvement of Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen is being fuelled by UK arms deals with Saudi Arabia, who provide us with oil. Meanwhile, China, being a major economic partner of the West, is unopposed in its occupation of Tibet. 

Competition for resources is likely to become more intense as climate change progresses. Recently we have seen Extinction Rebellion blossom into a world-wide movement demanding justice for our planet. The movement challenges our global economy that prioritises money over the welfare of future generations. It draws attention to the injustice of a situation which sees the worst effects of climate change experienced by the poorest peoples in the world, with the smallest carbon footprints, while in rich countries with the largest carbon emissions, we remain relatively unscathed so far.

Peaceful protest, non-violent civil disobedience, has been key to achieving justice in the recent past – from Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence from Britain, through the civil rights movement in America to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

I wasn't able to attend the Extinction Rebellion action in London, but I was pleased to note the involvement of several Unitarians. As I understand it, the core of my Unitarian faith is peace – peace with ourselves, peace with God, peace with each other. It is not just a journey towards peace, but the road we travel.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” 

This is exemplified by the Women Wage Peace movement, established after the 50-day Gaza war of 2014, which resulted in the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, 67 Israeli soldiers and 6 Israeli civilians.  During the conflict, worried mothers of soldiers began connecting on Facebook, to give each other support and comfort. As the dialogue developed, the feeling grew that must try to stop the cycle of violence. Women of all backgrounds in Israel and Palestine reached out to each other and the movement was born.

In 2015, on the anniversary of the conflict, a tent was raised outside the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem. For 50 days people came and went and joined in a peaceful demonstration by fasting, as a way of commemorating and mourning the loss of life on both sides.
The fasting women agreed several principles:
To pressure governments to work consistently and insistently until they find a mutually acceptable and honorable peace agreement, acceptable to both sides; To pressure governments to put into practice the United Nations resolution which states that women must be part of security and peace making committees; To commit to non-violence; To commit to democracy and equality, the movement has no specific leaders and is non-hierarchical.

Since its inception, Women Wage Peace has held several more events. In September 2016, Israeli and Palestinian women walked a March of Hope through Israel and the West Bank, culminating in an Assembly in Jerusalem.
In September 2017, the Peace Journey was repeated, and included bus tours from all around Israel to a series of events at the Dead Sea and Jerusalem; 30,000 people attended the final assembly. In the summer of 2018, a Mother's Tent was erected in the Rose Garden in front of the Israeli parliament. Politicians, opinion leaders, and artists, spoke, reminding their leaders that a political agreement is possible to attain.  In November 2018, they held a Young People's Congress in Tel Aviv, entitled of “Removing Barriers to Peace.”
In 2019 the Mothers’ Tent was again erected, this time in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, where it stood for a month until the last days before the election.

Bernice Lewak Zohn describes her involvement in this year's action, “I am a Jewish, Anglo woman, born and grew up in South Africa. I stand shoulder to shoulder with Israeli women and Israeli Palestinian women. We have brought a loudspeaker and recorder with us so that all passers-by will hear songs of peace, sung in Hebrew, Arabic and English. We hand out sweets to passers-by and postcards which bear the name of our movement: Women Wage Peace - in English, Arabic & Hebrew. We talk to whosoever stops to question us about our movement. Our presence draws a variety of responses from the stream of passers-by.. My heart is warmed by a feeling of kinship with my fellow women, and by a sense of hope; and I feel a need to tell about this lovely organization to all English speakers and especially to my fellow South Africans - those of us who watched apartheid destroy the moral fiber of generations. Those of us who felt that our easy South African life style was built on the backs of others.  Those of us who feel that it is imperative that there has to be an ongoing search for understanding and peace - no matter how long it takes and no matter whether we think that the other side is available or not. To quote John Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible, will make violent revolutions inevitable”."

Among the speakers at the 2017 rally was Shakib Shanan, whose son Kamil was killed in a terror attack at the Temple Mount. She said, “Although my heart is bleeding I stand here tonight with you. In pride and faith that only peace and love must connect us. We have suffered so much, Palestinian families and Israeli families have lost their loved ones and been left with a wound that does not heal. I came here to say, we want to live! We are allowed to say this out loud – we are peace-loving... I call on [our leaders] – enough! Sit already. Sit already! We want peace. Listen to our cry, it comes from our hearts. Listen to the cries of truth and justice, we want peace, from this place hope emerges.”
I found this profoundly moving, that women brought up on either side of such a long-lasting and deep-rooted conflict, are coming together in the name of peace and seeing beyond imposed divisions to our common humanity. Just as hatred is born of fear, peace becomes possible when we move beyond fear of the other and recognise that the other is, deep down, just like us.  

Exemplified by the work of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, it is clear that peace also requires us to practice forgiveness, of ourselves and others.  Forgiveness is not easy, but only when we stop holding grudges, between nations and individuals, when we stop seeing others as enemies and enemies as other, when we are able to accept one another and ourselves without judgement and condemnation, will we find reconciliation and peace. Perhaps the Women who Wage Peace will succeed in their aim for a Middle East peace settlement, perhaps they won’t.  Time will tell.  But whatever happens, they have acted and made their voices heard. 

Rabbi Johan Rayner says, “It is not enough to pray for peace. We have to work for it – to denounce injustice, not just when it is committed against us, but also when it is committed against others; to defend human rights, not only ours but also theirs.”

So if we too wish to reject war and embrace peace, let us act and make our voices heard. Non-violent civil disobedience isn't for everyone. We don’t have to join a march or a vigil to promote understanding of other people and cultures, and contribute towards the creation of a just and compassionate world.  We can sign petitions against environmental destruction. We can write to our MPs to express our concerns about arms deals and spending on the ‘defence‘ budget, when schools and hospitals face cuts.  We can volunteer our time or resources to charities working towards peace and social justice.  We can choose to invest our money in ethical financial institutions.  We can participate in interfaith dialogue, visit mosques, synagogues and temples, get to know our neighbours.  We can pray and meditate, sending our peaceful energy out to heal the world.  

Most importantly, we can practice peaceful communication in our personal relationships – because every time we see something from another’s point of view, we cultivate empathy, every time we treat someone else with respect, kindness and compassion, we contribute to building a peaceful world.  The smallest actions make a difference.  All of these things matter.  All of these things mean we are radiating peace. Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Prayer for World Peace by Sister Joan Chittister
Great God, who has told us “Vengeance is mine,” save us from ourselves, save us from the vengeance in our hearts and the acid in our souls.
Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt, to punish as we have been punished, to terrorize as we have been terrorized.
Give us the strength it takes to listen rather than to judge, to trust rather than to fear, to try again and again to make peace even when peace eludes us.
We ask, O God, for the grace to be our best selves.
We ask for the vision to be builders of the human community rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.
We ask for the love it takes to bequeath to the children of the world to come
more than the failures of our own making.
We ask for the heart it takes to care for all, as well as for ourselves.
Give us the depth of soul, O God, to constrain our might, to resist the temptations of power to refuse to attack the attackable, to understand that vengeance begets violence, and to bring peace--not war--wherever we go…
And so may we be merciful and patient and gracious and trusting with these others whom you also love.
This we ask through Jesus, the one without vengeance in his heart.
This we ask forever and ever. 

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Honouring our Past, Building our Future: Reflections on the 128th Anniversary of Chorlton Unitarians

The first meeting of the Chorlton-cum-Hardy Unitarian Church congregation took place on 17 October 1890.  At first there was no church building and no minister. The congregation met for worship in the Masonic Lodge on High Lane (now converted into houses).  The church building opened for public worship on 9 February 1901, with a service led by Rev. Copeland Bowie, Minister at Southwark, and Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association.

The description of the original church building in 'The Unitarian Heritage: An Architectural Survey' by Graham and Judy Hague, 1986, reads:
“Chorlton-cum-Hardy Unitarian Church, Wilbraham Road, 1900. Congregation founded 1890 as a missionary effort by the Manchester District Association of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Picturesque, half-timbered; gabled facade with bay window over full-width porch. Steeply pitched roof with small spire. Set in wooded grounds, approached through Art Nouveau gates. Interior plain, design inconsistent with exterior. Organ dated 1856.”

Sadly, our original church building succumbed to dry rot and had to be demolished in 1987.  Our current church building was created from the old Sunday school building.

The congregation was founded to provide a Unitarian presence in the rapidly expanding district of Chorlton. In the second half of the nineteenth century Chorlton expanded from a small village to a suburb of Manchester, growing from 146 houses in 1851 to over 3,300 in 1909.  The growth of Chorlton was facilitated by the provision of public transport, which made it easier for people to live in Chorlton and commute to work in the city of Manchester. A daily horse drawn bus service began in 1864 between Chorlton and Manchester, followed by the opening of the railway station in 1880.

As the population of Chorlton grew, so did religious diversity, and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the building of many churches, of which the Unitarian Church was just one.  Between 1873 and 1909 at least ten different churches were built, including Methodist, Primitive Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Unitarian.

Unitarianism also expanded in the nineteenth century. After the repeal of the Trinity Act in 1813 it was no longer illegal to deny the Trinity. Unitarianism began to expand and consolidate into a distinct denomination. In 1910 there were 372 congregations in the UK, a growth of 33% in 50 years.

In the nineteenth century Unitarianism was of course still positioned firmly within liberal Christianity, using biblical interpretation to justify its conclusions about the unity of God, the lack of original sin and other Unitarian teachings. This is illustrated in a publication of 1883 by Robert Spears entitled Unitarian Handbook of Scriptural Illustrations and Expositions.

James Freeman Clarke, an American Unitarian who lived from 1810 to 1888, summarised Unitarian teaching in five points: The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever. This became a popular summary of the Unitarian faith in both the US and UK until well into the twentieth century. After the two world wars, human progress onward and upward seemed overly optimistic. Church attendance declined across all denominations.

Since the mid twentieth century the cornerstones of Unitarian faith have been encapsulated as the values of freedom, reason and tolerance. A non-credal tradition, Unitarianism has been able to reposition itself as pluralistic or multi-faith in today's postmodern society. As a result, the late nineteenth century Unitarian may not have recognised much of the content of our worship today, but they would certainly have recognised our continued commitment to social justice, and Unitarians throughout our history have held dear our core values of freedom, reason and tolerance.

Mission is not a word we use much in Unitarianism today. It has uncomfortable colonial connotations – Europeans preaching the gospel of Christian salvation and 'civilisation' to indigenous colonised peoples. Unitarians did not generally take part in such missionary activity, although they did launch a mission in India. However, the only successful Unitarian Christian communities that have grown in India are those begun by native Indians rather than planted from foreign missions.

Back in Britain, the heartlands of Unitarian growth were in the rapidly expanding textile manufacturing towns and cities of north west England, where thousands now lived in poverty, bad sanitation and poor health. Unitarians founded 'Domestic Missions', which engaged in social reforms, including education, factory legislation and public health, as well as teaching liberal Christianity.

In 1854 the Unitarian Home Missionary Board was founded for the training of Unitarian ministers to serve the urban poor. The Board evolved into the Home Missionary College in 1889, only dropping the label "missionary" in 1926 and becoming simply Unitarian College Manchester.

The word mission is retained in some of our district association titles – North and East Lancashire Unitarian Mission, and Merseyside and District Missionary Association, for example. The Manchester District Association's 'Domestic Mission' still gives small grants to community projects in the city and surrounding area.

How might we understand Unitarian mission today? There are three aspects to a contemporary liberal Christian understanding of mission:
Being – community (how we are as a church)
Saying – evangelism (how we tell people what we offer)
Doing – social action (how we live our faith out in the world)

Over the next few months we will be considering the being, saying and doing of how we understand our community purpose and our vision for the future, with a view to agreeing a new mission statement for our congregation...

Congregational Covenant
May we honour our past.
May we live fully our present.
May we build our future, living our shared purpose:
To be a welcoming spiritual community of open minds and open hearts
To nurture one another
To work for justice
And to care for the earth.
Thus do we covenant with each other:
To dwell together in peace, and to help one another seek truth, meaning, love and deep connection.

Lotus Window in Chorlton Unitarian Church

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Michaelmas, blackberries and letting go

At this time of year I can often be found gathering fruits from the hedgerows. When I was a child my grandmother used to tell us not to pick blackberries on or after 11 October as that was when the devil peed on them! I wondered where on earth this bizarre tale had come from. A little investigation uncovered a link with Michaelmas.

Michaelmas, or the Feast of Michael and All Angels, is celebrated on 29 September. It is one of the “quarter days” of England, the others being Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer (24 June), and Christmas (25 December). These dates, close to the solstices or equinoxes, were the four dates on which servants were hired, rents due or leases begun. Traditionally, the harvest should be completed by Michaelmas, marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new farming cycle. Michaelmas also came to mark the beginning of legal and university terms.

Archangel Michael appears in the Book of Daniel as protector of Israel. In the Book of Revelation Michael leads God's armies against Satan's forces, defeats them and expels them from heaven. Michael has been venerated as an angel of healing and protection in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At Michaelmas the nights draw in and the days grow colder. Michael's help is requested in defending the faithful against the forces of darkness.

Folklore says that 'Old Michaelmas Day', 10 October (the date change coming from the change from Julian to Gregorian calendar), is the last day that blackberries should be picked. When Lucifer was expelled from Heaven by Michael, he fell from the skies and landed in a blackberry bush. He cursed the fruit and made them unfit for human consumption - the means by which he achieved this differs in different areas of the UK - in southern England he peed on them, in northern England he spat on them, in Ireland he stamped on them and in Scotland he threw a club at them.

This story is a way to persuade children not to consume blackberries when they are past their best. Are there things in our lives that are past their best? At this season of change, I invite you to consider what would be good for you to let go of, to restore balance in your life and to prepare you for a time of rest and reflection over winter. 

Epiphany: A Meditation on the Gifts of the Magi

The Gospel of Matthew tells us the magi brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus. Gold represented Christ'...