Coming Back: Online Service for Sunday 30th May 2021


Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley


Opening Words


In this period of gradual unfolding,

when we are slowly coming out of our year-long lockdown,

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 short hour.


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) words by Cliff Reed


We kindle the light of our liberal faith: may it be

The light of knowledge to dispel ignorance,

The light of reason to dispel superstition,

The light of love to dispel bigotry and inhumanity,

No matter what their guise.


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,

as we come out of lockdown,

keeping in touch however we can,

and helping each other,

however we may.

And let us look to the future,

So that we may come back into community,

With new strength and new vision.

We hold in our hearts

all those who have helped us

to come through this difficult time,

and all whose lives have been touched,

in whatever way,

by painful events, in their lives,

and in the wider world,

of which we are all a part. Amen


Reading extracts from What is the Unitarian message?: Keynote address given at the FOY Society seminar, 15th November 1997 by Miles Howarth.


My first reading is two extracts from an address given over 20 years ago to the FOY Society, by Miles Howarth.


  1. What is Unitarianism? Mumble about a historical tradition, or some sort of hole we have dug for ourselves. What do you actually believe in – dither about everyone coming to their own conclusions. What is the source of your authority – dither and mumble about some but not all Unitarians believing in somebody called God. By default Unitarians have elected Mumble and Dither as their joint spokespersons. Today vast numbers of people in this country are tolerably well educated, liberal-minded and think for themselves; this doesn’t make them religious, let alone Unitarian. The American Unitarian Universalists are a lot more successful than British Unitarians, and they don’t find the same difficulty with having some serviceable Objects.


  1. We should be in no doubt that this theme – the content and the message – are the keys to the future success or failure of the Unitarian approach to religion… so many of us with a deep commitment to the Unitarian movement are very occupied with ways and means – income, leadership, social service, publicity, administration, accountancy, premises etc. These ways and means are important tools but not the fundamentals. The play’s the thing, even if many of us also do duty as stage managers. There is not enough debate, and too many monologues, about why we are all here and where we should be going. If we can get the fundamentals right, then there will be enough people who are inspired, involved and active so they provide the money, the ways and the means. Look at the commitment, discipline and growth evident in certain other religious groups where people feel inspired by a set of ideals, however unsound we may find them. We must be in the business of impact and success and growth.


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. Amen


Reading The Purpose of Religion by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps


The purpose of religion is

to create loving community;

to foster relationships of mutual caring and respect;

to nurture the human spirit;

and to comfort, challenge, and inspire us, as the need arises.


The purpose of religion is

to seek and to find a moral compass for the soul;

to make responsible use of the mind’s powers;

to help us become good stewards of God’s green earth;

and to be humble explorers of the universe.


The purpose of religion is

to celebrate life in its fullness;

to follow in the footsteps of those who have taught and live the better

way for humankind;

and to uphold the universal values that make for peace, justice, and

happiness the world over.


The purpose of religion is

to free itself from inhumanity, bigotry, and empty dogma;

and to serve the cause of human welfare in a global commonwealth,

with joy and compassion.


Prayer Being There by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps


O God, whose Spirit is among us,

as comforter and friend,

be with us in this time of new resolve.

Remind us that, as someone has said,

‘the first duty of a congregation is to congregate’.

It matters that we come here when we can,

not just for what we each may gain,

but for what we each may contribute

by our presence and participation.

Remind us, in our heart of hearts,

that if we want our church to be there for us,

then we must be there for our church.

And remind us that, if we want its members

to be there for us in our need,

then we must be there for them in theirs.

In our strength, may we be strong

for those who feel their weakness.

In our weakness, may we be ready to take

the proffered hand, for through it we may

receive the strength that is divine.



Reading from A Vision for Our Future


Some words by the Executive Committee of 2015, to inspire and challenge us:


If we are to be a faith that matters to both society and to the individual, we should recognise that we are first and foremost a faith community; social action, whilst part of who we are, is not our primary purpose. Our communities should be places where the imagination can be fed, where our deepest instincts can be satisfied, where our sense of transcendent otherness can be explored. Yet we understand the need for people to be inspired to express their faith practically.


We also need to re-establish an identity, a unique spiritual position. No creed does not mean no belief!


[And finally] We must harness our energy by understanding who we are as communities and what we can offer to the world outside. It begins with opening our eyes and ears, by taking a good look around us and by listening to the voices of inspiration both near and far.


Time of Stillness and Reflection The Inheritors by Cliff Reed, from Beyond Darkness (adapted)


We are the inheritors.

We inherit the faith and the traditions

of those who were here before us.


We inherit the fruits of their struggle,

the legacy of their suffering,

the achievements of their courage,

the bounty of their generosity,

the afterglow of their vision.

We inherit as a unity the mingling of their diversity.


We inherit the Spirit that brings all things to be,

moulding purpose out of chaos

through the power of creative love,


We, the inheritors, give thanks,

for all that we have received.




But we who inherit must also bequeath.

May our bequest to our successors be all

that we have found of joy and compassion,

all that we have found to be divine.


And may the people of tomorrow be blessed

by what we leave them.



Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley


Address Coming Back


It is the end of May, and many Unitarian congregations are on the cusp of returning to face-to-face worship after more than a year of lockdown. If, indeed, they have not already done so. So maybe this is a good time to think about not only what we have learned in these past 14 months, but also to start planning for the future. Because it is not going to be the same as the communities we left in March 2020. As Terry Pratchett wrote in A Hat Full of Sky, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours… Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”


“Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” In one sense, we have all been forced to leave our congregations during the past year, or at least to leave the regular habit of face-to-face worship. During the long period of lockdown, we have found other ways of staying in community with each other – online worship, Zoom coffee mornings, What’s App groups and so on. I think we need to consider what we have learned from this time of lockdown and try to take what we have learned forward into the future.


I would like to share some wise words written by MUA Past President, Alison Thursfield, from the latest issue of MU Now.  “In the longer term, I am reluctant to try to describe what our congregation will look like as we move forward because I do not want to prescribe what develops or to stop new ideas from emerging. I think trying to say what the new normal will look like is to limit the scope of what we would like to see happening; and my ideas might preclude others from putting forward possible alternative plans.

What I will say is that I hope we look at the widest possible range of ideas, and that we can be open-minded when considering suggestions. I hope we can be innovative and then committed to the long term in supporting whatever develops; thinking what will benefit the congregation as a whole and being open to changes. This may not be easy, but to grow we must look to the future and not just have an exercise in continuing what went before. We need to try to develop our resources whether in the physical buildings or the spiritual dimension of what we do, and we need to be inclusive of the community around and not remain in our comfort zone paying lip service to inclusivity.

We have a challenge ahead. We will need imagination, commitment and tolerance to get to where we hope our vision will lead us.”


A few years ago, 2015 to be precise, the General Assembly’s Executive Committee produced a 48-page booklet called A Vision for Our Future, which was distributed at that year’s GA meetings, and also sent to all congregational secretaries. I think it’s a really important document, which addresses some of the things we need to do in order to secure our future. And that at this moment, we have another chance to make a difference.


There are a series of headings, the first of which is “We want to be a faith that matters.” Well, our faith *does* matter – it matters enormously, both to current Unitarians, and to potential Unitarians, who are out there, desperately seeking somewhere they can call home, somewhere they can find like-hearted (not necessarily like-minded) folk to accompany them on their own spiritual / religious journeys. Many of whom have found us in the past year through our Zoom meetings and worship services.


But unless those seekers (and current Unitarians) clearly understand who we are and what we’re about, we aren’t going to attract new people through our doors.


We have always been so hot and strong about being the “faith without a creed” and about the pre-eminence of freedom of belief. And that is right and good, as I said earlier. BUT I’m afraid it is now becoming a disadvantage in some ways, as only too often we find it difficult to articulate our faith, except in negative terms. For example, there was a photo of a particular congregation’s noticeboard on Facebook recently – five sheets of paper with statements that started “We don’t”. We need to find easy-to-articulate POSITIVE answers to “what do Unitarians believe?” and “what are Unitarians?”


So what the EC says about needing to “re-establish an identity, a unique spiritual position” is key to our future. As James Barry so acutely pointed out in his contribution, “We don’t have the advantage of the UUA, who have their 7 principles defined.”


I believe that the most vital task for British Unitarians is to adopt a widely agreed statement such as the Seven Principles. I believe that one of the main reasons why the Quakers are so much more successful than we are, is that other people understand what they believe in and stand for.

Fifteen years ago, in June 2006, the Executive Committee circulated a statement entitled Our Unitarian Ethos, which I believe was a step in the right direction. In comparison with the 2001 GA Object, it is snappy, easily understood and interesting. It reads:

“We Unitarians and Free Christians are united by our ethos and values. We

aspire to create a loving, caring, religious community within which we:

  • Value people in their diversity and uniqueness
  • Encourage freedom of thought and speech
  • Support spiritual exploration
  • Create celebratory worship
  • Advocate justice, liberty, honesty, integrity, peace and love

Hence we strive to:

  • Make the best of the life we have
  • Be democratic in our practice
  • Celebrate life in its many forms
  • Respect people whose beliefs and attitudes are different from our own”


This statement, with which I think the vast majority of Unitarians would agree, needs publicising widely. It sums up the underlying values of present-day British Unitarianism.


Connected to publicity are outreach and social responsibility. Think about the Quakers. Like us, their numbers have declined in the past 50 years, but they have much more respect as a denomination than we have. And why is that? Because they have a clear identity; some of their beliefs are well-known (for example pacifism); and they do an awful lot of outreach and good works in society. In the 19th century, Unitarians too were well-known – guess what? They did a lot of outreach and were responsible for the modernisation of many of our cities, among other things. But what do present-day Unitarians do now (that anybody outside the denomination hears about, I mean)?


On a congregational level, of course, the answer is, “Quite a lot actually.” Many Unitarian churches and chapels are vital parts of their communities – supporting environmental projects, running classes on world religions and mysticism, putting on meditation services, hiring the church hall out to local bodies, holding coffee mornings and other events in aid of charities, and so on. Or at least, we did until March last year. But what do Unitarians in Britain stand for?


This was why I undertook my survey in 2017, to discover what Unitarians around the country do believe and what core values we share. I summarised my findings in the final chapter:


“To be a Unitarian is:

  • to acknowledge the primacy of freedom, reason and tolerance in shaping the religious and spiritual journey.
  • to accept that freedom, reason and tolerance do have some limits, and that there are other influences: life experience and a supportive community, for example.
  • to engage deeply with moral and ethical issues.
  • to care about the wider world in which one lives and to strive to put one’s ethical and moral values into practice.
  • to connect respectfully with other faith traditions, and to accept that fellow Unitarians have different views.
  • to draw one’s own conclusions about the personal significance, if any, of the concept of divinity.
  • to value dialogue and the exchange of ideas, in community with other Unitarians, in worship and other activities.
  • to have an open heart and an open mind.”


We have so much to offer the world in our faith communities. Let us strive to come back better and stronger than before.


Closing Words


Spirit of Life and Love,

open our hearts and minds

to new ways of being in community,

to the sometimes scary prospect

of innovation and change,

so that we may serve both our congregations

and the larger communities in which we live.

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, Amen


Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley