Online Service on Marriage 29th March 2020

For those of you who would like to listen along with the text, I have included a sound file below with a recording of the service: Huge thanks to my husband, Maz Woolley, for doing this for me.


Prelude I will be starting the service by playing some quiet, reflective music, at 11.00 am on Sunday morning, to centre me and prepare me for this time of virtual worship. You may wish to do the same.

Opening Words

In this time of insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this one hour,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
For this one hour.

Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point.) Words by Martin Whitell, shared with permission.

As I light this personal chalice flame, I am grateful that I am not alone.
I remember with affection those who are doing the same and I look back with happy memories of the countless times I have observed it before.
What a privilege it is to belong to a faith which unites people and see the divine in many ways.
During the coming days may I keep our values of care, kindness and hope burning strong no matter how difficult things become.
One thing is certain, the time will return when I can meet again with those I love and care for and then I will appreciate the meaning and strength of this ritual more than ever.

Opening Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love,
Be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in their own place.
Help us to feel a sense of community,
Even though we are physically apart.
Help us to care for each other,
In this difficult time,
Keeping in touch however we can,
And helping each other,
However we may.
We hold in our hearts all those
Whose lives have been touched,
In whatever way,
By the coronavirus and the fall-out from it. Amen

Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Then Almitra spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, master?

And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be for evermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone.
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Alternative Lord’s Prayer

Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.

Reading from the First Letter of John, Chapter 4

Let us love one another, because love is from God. Whoever does not love God does not know God, for God is love. No-one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us.
God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

No-one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us.

Prayer by John Carter (adapted) (used with permission)

In this time of anxiety, dis-ease, disconnection and yes… death.
We join our heart, mind, soul and body together in reflection, meditation and prayer.
We do not know what our future holds, if we will be affected directly or indirectly by this virus…. But we do know the sense of concern, hope and yes, even the fear that it presents.
So we take time to ponder and to pray….
We take time to reflect upon life, living, and its fragility.
We take this time…. to be still.
We are concerned,
We don’t know when this will end, whether we will be called to live with it, to fight for our own survival, or that in the end we may be claimed by it.
Yet we know our history, we have been here before….
So we accept our fear, our concern, our primal need for survival. And we know others are facing it as well….
So we pray….
May our fears lead us not to greater fears,
nor to greater greed of only myself and my needs, but to greater compassion, empathy and care.
May we look to others and not see rivals for help, but to see others who like ourselves are frightened and concerned.
May we be moved by their humanity, no matter how well or how badly they display it.
May we be moved with love and compassion.
May we be willing to ask for help when we need it, and willing to give help when it is requested.
May we be grateful for all those who face greater risks in the fight to help us live.
For those who work each day to research for cures, who tend those in dire need and poor health.
For those who patrol our streets to give us a sense of security. who place their lives on the line during this time.
May we be grateful when we use the various tools and technologies so we may stay connected during our isolation.
May our words be graceful, beautiful and lovely during this time. Bringing a greater sense of life, and of living, even in the midst of death and dis-ease.
May we always remember that we all are members of the human race, sharing this world with many other species and life.
May we remember, and may our humanity be expressed in love and compassion.
Divine Spirit of Life
Breathe upon us and strengthen us in this time
That whatever may come,
We will be lights of compassion and love to all who walk this beautiful blue planet.
So say we all, Amen

Reading from Warwick Unitarians’ Newsletter by Malcolm Burns (adapted) (used with permission)

The sudden and rapid growth of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought many disruptions to all our lives, and doubtless will continue to do so, but it also gives us a challenge and an opportunity to show ourselves at our best. As Unitarians and followers of the example and the teachings of Jesus we are presented with the opportunity to really live up to his example in a life of service to others.

We too can make a real effort to put others first and to help one another in love. It is an attitude that everyone needs to share in the coming weeks, and one which may help us to refocus our lives and indeed our whole society.

Let us remember that we have had many reasons to be thankful for all that we have. There are many others in our local community but also around the world who do not have homes to be safe in, or food supplies to keep them healthy, or friends and families to trust and love.

As we look at our present situation, we realise that we take these things for granted while others cannot, so we should not fail to look outward in our concern for others in greater need than our own. This is what is meant by living a life of love.

And in our prayers, let us remember those who are already setting this example, those who work in the Health Service and in Care Homes, ambulance staff and the police, the unseen workers delivering food supplies to our supermarkets and the drivers delivering to our homes, the teachers who will keep schools open during lockdown and the catering staff providing nourishment for needy children.

Time of Stillness and Reflection

Let us now join in a time of stillness and reflection. The Buddhist Mettabhavana, or Prayer of Loving Kindness, is often used in Unitarian services, or for personal meditation. This is my version of it. After each line, I invite you to close your eyes, and pray for the people concerned, using the words given, if you wish…

First of all, we pray for ourselves: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from harm, may I find peace.

Next, we pray for our loved ones, those people who are dear to us: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.

Next, we pray for someone less well-known to us, about whom we have no strong feelings, but whom we might know better, if we made the effort: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.

Next, we pray for people we don’t know, for all the people who are doing their best to make a positive difference in the world, and for those who are lost in places of scarcity and fear: may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.

Next, we pray for someone we dislike, or find it difficult to get on with: may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.

Finally, we pray for the world: may all be well, may all be happy, may all be free from harm, may all find peace.

May all find peace, today and always, Amen

Musical Interlude I will play a piece of quiet, reflective music at this point. You may wish to do the same.

Address on the theme of Marriage

You may have guessed by now that I’m going to be working my way through The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, as inspiration for this series of online services. I count myself blessed, that it came out of copyright on 1st January!

For many of us, our immediate family may be the only people we see for any extended period in the coming weeks. So I thought it would be useful to reflect on the question, “What makes a good marriage?” (or other close relationship under one roof). From now on, in this address, I’m going to use the term “marriage” to stand for both.

For every couple, the answer will be slightly different. Loving each other is fairly crucial, of course, but will not be enough all by itself. I would guess that almost all couples love each other when they get married or start to live together (unless the marriage is an arranged one, but that is another story and outside the scope of this address) so why is the divorce rate / relationship breakdown rate so high? I think that the problem is that many people expect too much from each other, and also expect the first heady flush of romantic passion to last forever. It doesn’t, of course, and they then discover that they are not so compatible after all.
I think that for most people, the advice of the Prophet in Kahlil Gibran’s book of the same name is much more sensible and realistic: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness … Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup, but drink not from one cup.”
The advice “let there be spaces in your togetherness” is perhaps particularly apposite at the moment… So what are the other elements of a happy marriage? I guess that if I e-mailed round the District asking each one of you that question, the answers would be different from each. But this is a sermon, not a seminar, so I can only offer you my own suggestions.

One of the most fundamental as far as I am concerned, is that your life partner should be a good friend as well as a good lover – someone whose personality and freedom you can respect. True friendship is the best basis for a long-lasting relationship. And like all friendships, the relationship between two married people, or committed partners, will change over time. Good friends allow each other the space to change and grow, and are always there, in times of sorrow as well as times of joy.

The next quality I would like to consider is equality. This is a more tricky concept – it’s not as black and white as it may first appear. Equality in marriage doesn’t mean that each partner does an equal amount of housework – if it did, hardly any marriages I know could be called equal. It’s hard to define, but for me equality means that each partner contributes as fully as he or she can to the overall business of the marriage – how you split the responsibilities for the various elements will differ widely between couples, and what works for one couple wouldn’t be entertained for a moment by another. The split in responsibilities and contributions will also tend to change over time.

For example, when a couple who are both working full-time and earning an adequate amount of money settle down, it would be reasonable to expect that household tasks and spending should be split fairly equitably. Although again, that doesn’t mean that each partner does half of each task, just that each works as hard as the other to get the necessary jobs done.

Once you have a family, the equation gets more complicated. One partner, often the woman, will tend to be largely responsible for the childcare, to the detriment of her own career, lifestyle and freedom. But realistically, for most families, there is little other choice. Unless you are prepared to dump your kids in day care from 8 in the morning to 6 at night, something has to give. Of course in these days of spiralling house prices, some people simply have to work full time to cover their costs, and would like nothing better than to be at home with the children all day. Again, the balance has to be worked out so that everyone is as happy as possible. A tricky one. And once the children have left home, the balance will shift again.

Each family will come to a different arrangement. For example, in our household, there are certain jobs that are “my” jobs, like the washing and ironing and maintaining the family diary and remembering people’s birthdays, and there are certain jobs that are my husband’s jobs, like cleaning the bathrooms once a week. Then there are certain jobs that we share, like the hoovering. This division of labour has evolved over the years and works for us. Washing up remains a bone of contention: we both loathe doing it, and would much rather that the other one did all of it!

So far as wider responsibilities are concerned, until my husband’s retirement, I was at home much more of the time because of my job, so my contribution was to organise our complicated lives during the week, and generally keep things humming along. Now we’re both at home, the balance has shifted again.

Which is not to say that more traditional arrangements of responsibilities are wrong. For example, a lot of couples in my parents’ generation have very traditional marriages with very clearly defined male and female roles. But if they also have boundless love and respect for each other, the split in responsibilities will work for them. The secret of any successful marriage is to come to a modus vivendi that suits you and your family and then stick to it, so long as you are flexible enough to change if circumstances do.

So far I have only talked about equality of responsibility, which is what most people think of when they mention the word. But another type of equality is, to me, even more important. Another term for it might be power-sharing. A colloquial, if old-fashioned, way of putting it might be “who wears the trousers?” In an ideal marriage, both partners would have equal power and influence, and all decision-making would be democratic. But in reality, each partner will tend to have spheres of influence, in which he or she makes all the decisions, and for day-to-day matters, maybe that is the only practical way of doing things. But I believe that all important decisions should be discussed and agreed, and that each partner should be bound to respect the opinion of the other, and not just to ride rough-shod over their feelings, nor to give in because it’s easier.

The importance of shared interests is another interesting concept. When I was a teenager, I used to believe that it was important to share your partner’s interests and enthusiasms – for example, their taste in music, their hobbies etc. Now I know from over 40 years of more or less happy experience, that it ain’t necessarily so. Maz and I do share certain interests, but also have areas of our lives which diverge widely. Our taste in popular music is a good example of this: it is a fairly safe bet that if Maz likes a particular group or song, I won’t, and vice versa. We have two separate and mutually incompatible record collections, and tend to only listen to music in our respective cars, out of respect for the other person’s sensibilities.

We also have very different hobbies, and very limited free time in which to indulge them. I go to the gym (or did!) and write, crochet, cross-stitch and read; Maz does (or did!) amateur dramatics and collects and restores model cars. We both appreciate the importance of the other’s enthusiasms, but don’t share them. What is important is that we both recognise the validity of the other’s interests, and make quite stringent efforts to ensure that we each have time to indulge them.

It is, of course, important to share things and to build up a store of shared memories. We both enjoy long walks together, and visiting National Trust properties. And our family holidays are very important to us for this reason. They are the one time of the year that we spend extended time together as a family, and we return to our busy lives strengthened and refreshed. We also share an interest in architecture – exploring a new city on foot is a shared enjoyment.

While it is not vital to share your partner’s interests, it is essential that both agree on the important things in life – that they have a mutual sense of values and common objectives. It is my belief that many marriages founder because people haven’t got to know each other properly before they get married, and take for granted that the other person will agree with them on all the important issues. Then, when they don’t, problems start.

What do I mean by important issues? Well, for example, whose career is the most important? If one person goes for a job at the other end of the country, is their partner happy to up sticks and follow them? In the old days, when fewer women had meaningful careers, they weren’t given much choice about this. Career moves also have implications for the family as a whole, in terms of schooling, extra-mural activities, social lives and so on.

Shared beliefs, whether religious, moral or political, are an important contributor to a happy marriage. You will tend to influence your partner’s way of thinking over time, but if you are too incompatible, it can cause endless arguments, especially if one partner is passionate about a particular issue, and the other either doesn’t care or takes a diametrically opposing view. The three Unitarian tenets of reason, freedom and tolerance are important here – it doesn’t matter so much if you don’t share your partner’s views, so long as you are prepared to defend to the death their right to hold them.

But shared values are fundamental. I honestly don’t believe that a relationship can survive long-term if the other person doesn’t share your moral values, at least to a large extent. This becomes even more important when you have children: parents have to present a united front when laying down ground rules for their offspring. Obviously there is room for negotiation in any relationship, but I think there have to be limits.

Another important ingredient of a good marriage is communication. Most courting couples talk endlessly to each other about each other. Then when they get married, too often this important communication shuts down, or at least decreases radically, as the partners tackle the nitty gritty of married life. I’m a great believer in keeping my husband informed of anything that affects our lives, and he feels the same. We often leave each other notes or text messages during the day, and discuss things that evening. Telling your partner you love them is also pretty important – as are hugs and casual kisses (or elbow bumps!)

Another factor is how a couple deals with rows and arguments. If television soap operas and films are to be believed, the healthiest form of communication is a blazing row followed by a steamy kiss and make up session. I fundamentally disagree with this view. In our house, we do have rows, of course we do, like anyone else. But we do try and keep things within bounds, and always make up before the end of the day. The maxim “don’t let the sun go down on your anger” is a very important one – allowing problems and resentments to fester is heading for trouble. We also try to be open about anything that’s bugging us, so that disagreements can be nipped in the bud before they get out of hand.

Related to this is the importance of forgiving and forgetting. The ability to say sorry is one of the most useful skills a married person can have – you have to mean it too.

Finally, you have to keep working at it. People change and grow over time, and their partners do too. It is the responsibility of both partners in a marriage to adapt as their partners change, and keep the relationship alive and flourishing by being open to new ideas, and hopefully growing closer to each other over the years.

Perhaps these factors are more important than ever, right now, when many of us are not allowed to leave the house, but will have to live in closer and more constant proximity to our loved ones than we are used to. I think we will all need to adopt the maxim “live and let live” in the next weeks and months. My blessings to you all…

Closing Words

Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,

Postlude I will play a piece of quiet, reflective music at this point. You may wish to do the same.