Music prelude: Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
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 short time,
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 space of time.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning)
We light our chalice today
Remembering with gratitude all the front-line staff
Of our hospitals, shops and public services,
Who are selflessly carrying on,
To meet the needs of the people they serve.
We light our chalice in the hope
That our loved ones may be safe,
That all people may be safe,
And in faith that normality will return,
And that we will return to normality
As kinder, more compassionate people.
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.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
And an orator said, Speak to us of Freedom.
And he answered:
At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom, even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.
Ay, in the grove of the temple and in the shadow of the citadel, I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff.
And my heart bled within me; for you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment.
You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, but rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.
And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?
In truth, that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its link glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.
And what is it but fragments of your own self you would discard that you may become free?
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 On being a Unitarian by Phillip Hewett
A person is responsible only when he is free to act in more than one way. But by the same token, just as responsibility entails freedoms, so freedom entails responsibility.
In the more usual language of religion, this is to say that it entails love. Love is the response that makes men responsible.
A love for truth makes us responsible in our thinking. A love for beauty makes us responsible in our feeling. A love for our world and our fellow-men makes us responsible in our acting. A responsible freedom unites us in love with others, so that we do not tolerate easily a situation where some squander wealth recklessly while others are in want, either physically, intellectually or spiritually. It means a reverence for the earth which is our home, so that we do not plunder her resources without regard to the future and pollute land, sea and air with the by-products of our hatred and our greed. All this is involved in the fulfilment of freedom in love. Responsible freedom does not mean simply a liberation of the mind to frame its own intellectual conclusions. It means also a liberation of the heart to go out in fellowship and sympathy to all those around us and to all life in this world in which we have the privilege of living. …
Love of beauty, like love of truth, results in a discriminating judgement. Love of truth rules out any respect for the patently false; love of beauty rules out any respect for the patently ugly. In both cases no person’s judgement is infallible; there is always room for learning and growth. But respect for differences of belief does not entail a willingness to accept the false, the ugly, the mean, the degrading, in the face of other and better alternatives.
God, our Father and Mother,
Great Spirit of Life and Love,
All of us need love and connection,
In order to thrive as human beings.
In this time of social isolation,
Help us to show our love in other ways.
May those of us who are well,
Give generously of our time and effort,
To help those around us who are in need,
And to make them feel less alone,
By keeping in regular touch.
May those of us who are vulnerable, or ill,
Receive the help we need, and accept it with grace.
Although e-mails and phone calls
Are no substitute for the warmth
Of closer human contact,
May we all share whatever love we can,
And grow together in virtual community.
In a Time of Fear by Cliff Reed
In a time of pandemic, when our prayers should be for the sick
and those who tend them with courage and compassion, may we
not fall into panic and hysteria.
May unwarranted self-concern not blind us to the needs of others
or lead us into irresponsibility and the undermining of community.
May we have a deep and active concern for those in hardship and
real danger and not inflate our own lesser worries into unreal terrors.
May we be conscious that fear can be the greatest sickness, infecting our minds and spirits, paralysing our daily lives and bringing chaos to the
economies and networks on which they depend.
May our prayer be for reason and good sense that we may face the
crisis with sound knowledge and clear sight.
And may our hearts be warmed and strengthened with the love that
drives out fear.
This is our prayer and our resolve. Amen
Reading What holds the Unitarian movement together? from Unitarian? What’s that? by Cliff Reed
The Unitarian answer is that shared values and a shared religious approach are a surer basis for unity than theological propositions. Because no human being and no human institution can have a monopoly on truth, it is safer to admit that from the outset. We are seekers and sharers, fellow pilgrims on the path, and this is how we Unitarians see ourselves. The values underpinning the Unitarian movement have to do with mutual caring and mutual respect. They involve a readiness to extend to each other a positive, involved and constructive tolerance. They are the values of a liberal religious community that honours individuality without idolising it; of a community that finds spiritual stimulation in the unique contribution of each person while feeling itself united by a bond too deep for words. They are the values of a community that is open to truth from many sources; a community of the spirit that cherishes reason and acknowledges honest doubt; a community where the only theological test is that required by one’s own conscience.
Above all, perhaps, Unitarians are bound by a sense of common humanity. We believe that the world would be a better place if more people put this one factor before all the lesser and illusory things that divide us.
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, grief 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
Music Interlude: A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address On Freedom
Many of our cherished freedoms have been curtailed of late – freedom of movement and the ability to congregate freely with family and friends, primarily. So when I saw that Khalil Gibran’s next topic was Freedom, I was hoping for something quite upbeat, to cheer us all up.
So I was a little disconcerted to read phrases such as, “I have seen the freest among you wear their freedom as a yoke and a handcuff,” and “you can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you, and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment.” Oh.
Then I remembered that one of the questions in my book, Unitarians: together in diversity, was concerned with freedom of belief. Freedom of religious belief is dear to the hearts of Unitarians. I offered my respondents three alternative definitions:
• It means that everyone has the right to work out for themselves what it is that gives their lives truth and meaning.
• It is the right to believe what your reason and conscience tell you is true.
• It is the freedom to question and doubt, and to grow into the answers. It is a process of continuous and continuing revelation.
And found that very few people ticked a single option; by far the most popular choice was all three combined, chosen by 156 people (61 per cent). Yet in spite of the popularity of the three options supplied in the questionnaire, many respondents chose to add comments, which I summarised as follows:
“Some participants were concerned to point out that freedom of religious belief must have some limit, thus: ‘We assume freedom in an environment where we grant others such freedom. In this way, our freedom remains within belief but becomes more limited in behaviour and relationship.’ Several agreed with the person who commented, ‘I would make an important caveat about acting on belief i.e. unless acting infringes the human rights of others.’ One sought to clarify the distinction between freedom of belief and freedom of activity or ritual, arguing that both were necessary: ‘Freedom of religious belief must also intrinsically imply freedom of religious ritual and activity, insofar as those activities do not impact on another’s safety or other basic human rights.’ Freedom also entails responsibility, as one respondent states: ‘I think we need to stress it is a responsible search for truth, which takes into account ‘by their fruits you will know them’.’ Another echoed this idea, writing, ‘Religious freedom is a big responsibility because it means we must engage deeply with the questions and not answer them at an easy or superficial level.’
Several people welcomed the personal freedom that Unitarianism gave them to be open-minded, to value diversity, and to be in a process of spiritual growth. One wrote, ‘It also encompasses the changes that are part of being human: we may ‘grow into the answers’, but the questions and the answers don’t necessarily stay the same; freedom of religious belief supports this inevitably fluid situation.’ Respondents were clear that ‘community is central too… not just about personal but also about communal experience.’ One commented, ‘Ideally we do all this in a worshipping community, rather than in isolation.’ Another described such a community: ‘A market place of ideas for discussion and developing symbolic forms for contemplation and reflection.’
The open-minded, open-hearted nature of Unitarian communities at their best was commented on by some. One wrote, ‘t is the right to participate fully in the religious community of your choice, secure in the knowledge that you are accepted for who you are.’ Another agreed: ‘It is also the freedom from discrimination or judgement, which allows equal participation in communal decision-making. When sharing in a group, it is important for individuals to feel safe and respected.’
A few respondents specifically valued the plurality of the Unitarian approach. One wrote, ‘It is the freedom to learn from and maybe even contribute to every branch of Christianity, other religions, and even non-religious practices. To me it means finding God wherever you look.’ Another was happy to be able to ‘belong to and follow more than one belief movement at the same time e.g. Unitarianism and Pagan’. Finally, one person believed that freedom of religious belief is ‘a distraction, a humanist construct – it’s not really possible. I am a person of faith not belief – and faith is not freely chosen, it is intimately felt. It is not a very strong opinion or a lifestyle.’”
I think it is clear from the respondents’ views that freedom is a complicated issue. It is evident, I think, that “freedom” does not mean “ability to do whatever I like”. Freedom involves responsibility. I loved Phillip Hewett’s take on this, from my second reading, “A responsible freedom unites us in love with others, so that we do not tolerate easily a situation where some squander wealth recklessly while others are in want, either physically, intellectually or spiritually. It means a reverence for the earth which is our home, so that we do not plunder her resources without regard to the future and pollute land, sea and air with the by-products of our hatred and our greed. All this is involved in the fulfilment of freedom in love. Responsible freedom does not mean simply a liberation of the mind to frame its own intellectual conclusions. It means also a liberation of the heart to go out in fellowship and sympathy to all those around us and to all life in this world in which we have the privilege of living.”
If this is true, and I believe it is, freedom is very far from being a light-hearted concept. It involves engaging with our world and its inhabitants in a responsible, empathic manner.
The issue of privilege has been much on my mind recently. We pride ourselves in this country on our freedom. But do we really have this? We may, if we are white, male, middle or upper class, heterosexual and nominally Christian… But I would argue that if we are people of colour, women, working class, with a different sexual identity, or following a different religious path, our freedom may be constrained in any number of subtle (or not so subtle) ways. Rev Winnie Gordon’s testimony in recent issues of The Inquirer should give us, the privileged, much food for thought.
Because whenever we identify people who are not the same as us as “other”, there can be a very subtle judgement forming in our minds at the same time, that this woman / gay person / person of colour / working class person / Muslim, Hindu, Jew is “different from us” in some way. Our lizard brains are hard-wired to distrust that which is different, and to see such people as a threat to our own comfortable existence. It is up to us to be aware of the actions of this primitive part of our brains, and to consciously make the effort to see everyone we meet as merely human, children of the Divine and therefore worthy of love and respect. And to ensure that they enjoy the same freedoms that we, through our accidental privileges of birth, do.
So yes, freedom brings responsibility. As Phillip Hewett wrote, “It means also a liberation of the heart to go out in fellowship and sympathy to all those around us and to all life in this world in which we have the privilege of living.” Yes, it is a privilege to share our world with others. We must discard what the Prophet calls “fragments of our own selves” which get in the way, wake up, be mindful of how fortunate we are, and work for the genuine freedom and equality of all.
I leave you with the words of one of my respondents: “‘Religious freedom is a big responsibility because it means we must engage deeply with the questions and not answer them at an easy or superficial level.” And I believe that these “questions” must include questioning ourselves on how we live, move and have our being, in our world, and the impact that this has on other people. That is true freedom.
Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
And do the work that is ours to do.
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Music Postlude: Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley