Prelude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Cliff Reed
We gather to share
our faith in the spirit of freedom,
in the spirit of honesty.
We gather to focus
our love in prayer,
to send it to those
who suffer and grieve –
in our own community
and in the wider world.
We gather to strengthen
the good that is in us,
that goodness may be
stronger on the earth.
We gather to worship.
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.
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 not quite yet post-Covid world,
keeping in touch however we can,
and helping each other,
however we may.
May we remember that
caution is still needed,
that close contact is still unwise.
Help us to be grateful for the freedoms we have
and to respect the wishes of others.
May we hold in our hearts all those
Who are grieving, lost, alone,
Suffering in any way.
Reading from The Protestant Revolution from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr by William G. Naphy
It is clear that the English Reformation was initially driven by the dynastic goals of Henry VIII, who, wanting a male heir, found it useful to replace papal supremacy with the supremacy of the English Crown. A close reading of the early legislation, limiting itself as it does to questions of temporal and spiritual supremacy, suggests that it was never Henry’s intention to found a Protestant church. The original Acts sought to reverse the historic increase of papal power [in favour of] the power of secular rulers. Subsequent legislation put a decidedly Protestant spin on Henry’s agenda, however. The introduction of the Great Bible in 1538 had brought the Scripture into churches in the people’s language. The dissolution of the monasteries, completed by 1540, had brought huge amounts of Church land and income into the nobles’ hands.
By 1549, this process of creating a new, distinctly national Church was fully under way, with the first vernacular prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, and the enforcement of the Acts of Uniformity, which together established English (not Latin) as the language of public worship.
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 Children of the Reformation: A Reflection on 500 years from Beyond Darkness by Cliff Reed
We are Protestants, children of the Reformation,
children of Martin Luther’s protest,
which changed the world,
his demand that a rotting Church reform.
We are children of the Reformation’s forerunners –
Wyclif and the Lollards in England,
in Bohemia, Jan Hus, whose chalice revolution
and death in flames we still remember in our worship.
We are children of Zurich’s Reformation,
when Huldrych Zwingli gave us a simple memorial meal
in which to remember Jesus and his friends,
the bread and wine of human community
in place of priestcraft and superstition.
We are children of John Calvin’s Reformation in Geneva,
his affirmation of the absolute Sovereignty of God the Father,
which helped others to say that ‘God is One’ and mean it.
We are the children of the English Reformation,
of William Tyndale’s courage in giving us the Bible
in our own tongue, of Thomas Cranmer’s wordcraft
which gave us the Reformed liturgy its English voice,
of Jane Grey’s faith and martyrdom.
We are children of the Radical Reformation –
the Anabaptists and the Anti-Trinitarians
for whom the first Reformers didn’t go far enough.
We are children-in-spirit of a brave and lonely Spaniard,
Michael Servetus, who proved too radical for Catholic
and Protestant alike and died a martyr in Geneva.
We are children of the Polish Brethren
and their community at Rakow, of their Catechism
and its architect, Faustus Socinus,
of Symon Budney’s Lithuanians,
at once more radical and more pragmatic.
We are children of the Transylvanian Unitarians
and their first leaders – Francis David, their theologian,
John Sigismund, their king – apostles of tolerance
to Christians of every creed.
We are children of England’s Unitarian pioneers –
John Biddle, prisoner of conscience,
William Manning, in the restless Suffolk countryside,
and others too in the troubled seventeenth century,
upholders of God’s Unity and human liberty.
We are children of those who first proclaimed
the liberal faith in our islands’ other realms –
Jenkin Jones in Wales;
in Ireland, Thomas Emlyn and Henry Montgomery;
William McGill, William Dalrymple,
and William Christie in Scotland.
We are Protestants, children of the Reformation
and Dissenters from imposed ‘orthodoxies’ –
and we are still protesting, still reforming, still dissenting,
because love, humanity, and God require it.
And although we affirm our own faith,
we do not deny the freedom of anyone to believe
according to their conscience
and to worship in goodwill.
Prayer by Priscilla Murdock (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
We gather in the shadow of a world unsure of itself, of plans for peace lost in the plague of ambition, of a planet under threat. And yet, we have cause to be hopeful.
Our forebears have given us an example of perseverance in the face of uncertainties, of hope in the face of difficulties. This church was gathered that they might have a place to come to be together to share their hopes and their faith. It is today the church that they envisioned, but with a wider vision and perhaps a wider, if not stronger hope.
The problems of the days of our founders were hazardous but not overwhelming to a determined people; the problems we are called upon to deal with in these times are indeed difficult, but not beyond our capacities to deal with.
Our hope lies not only in the inner strength that our religion teaches us to nurture, but also in the example of those who went before to show us the way. They built a church for us, and it is ours to hand on to our children and to their children.
May the light of reason, the comfort of kindness, the depth of a growing spiritual life, the outreach of action, and the acceptance of our own goodness and potential always be our inspiration and the source of our continuing gratitude to our founders and to those who have carried the torch that we hold high.
Reading from A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity by Matthew Fox
Present-day Protestantism suffers from apathy, or what our ancestors called acedia, a lack of energy or a kind of spiritual sloth. Descriptors I would apply to today’s Protestantism are: anaemic, tired, boring, incurious, unadventurous, emasculated, compromising, confused, depressed, … unmystical, lost, irrelevant, preoccupied with trivia, uninspired, one-dimensional, and burned out. All the issues that these adjectives imply are in fact spiritual in nature. Protestantism often lacks a profound spirituality (the word spirituality was rarely in its theological vocabulary until very recently) and this lack is beginning to show. What has happened to the protest in Protestantism? What will it take to bring it back? Protestantism has a proud and profound intellectual heritage, yet it is allowing itself to be mowed over by anti-intellectual fundamentalism, which has hijacked Jesus, Christ, and Christianity as a whole. …
Today in 2005, we find ourselves in a situation analogous to that experienced by Luther in his time, but with added dimensions of seriousness. Human beings, along with thousands of other species on the planet, face a peril of potential extinction that has not been witnessed on the earth for 65 million years … Ironically, human knowledge and technology are the most significant causes of this potential extinction. Isn’t this another sign that religion is not accomplishing its task, that religion is powerful in the wrong ways and powerless to effect change in the right ways? The population explosion in the human race, the growing canyon between the haves and have-nots, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, cry out for attention. So too do the rights of minorities – women, people of colour, tribal and indigenous people, and gay and lesbian people.
Time of Stillness and Reflection The Inheritors from Beyond Darkness by Cliff Reed (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 The English Reformation
I find it fascinating how almost incidental actions can lead to profound changes. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg Church in October 1517, he had no idea he was starting the Protestant Reformation. And four years later, on 11th October 1521, almost exactly 500 years ago, Pope Leo X conferred the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ on King Henry VIII, because he had condemned Luther and his works. At that time, Henry VIII was a good Catholic monarch.
Yet if that Pope had not given Henry this power, the English King might not have made the moves he made in subsequent years which, slowly, but surely, led the church in England away from Catholicism and into Protestantism. On second thoughts, he probably would… as William G. Naphy commented in our first reading, “the English Reformation was initially driven by the dynastic goals of Henry VIII, who, wanting a male heir, found it useful to replace papal supremacy with the supremacy of the English Crown.” Not to mention the incidental benefit of filling the royal coffers, on the dissolution of the monasteries.
From the start, the English Reformation was different to those taking place in Europe. Although Henry initially had no plans of leading the English church out of Catholicism into Protestantism, the thirty years following Luther’s initial act saw England become an avowedly Protestant nation, with an English Bible and English liturgy, laid down in The Book of Common Prayer.
In England, the pioneer in translating the Bible into English was William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament, and half of the Old Testament, into English in the first third of the 16th century. According to Wikipedia, it was the first English translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts. But he was not able to finish it, as he was burned at the stake in 1536. The job was finished by Miles Coverdale, who produced the first complete printed Bible in English in 1535. But it is generally known as ‘Tyndale’s Bible’ and much of it appears in the Authorised Version, the King James Bible, which was published over 75 years later in 1611. Indeed, and again, I’m quoting Wikipedia: “It has been suggested that around 90% of the King James Version (or at least of the parts translated by Tyndale) is from Tyndale’s works, with as much as one third of the text being word for word Tyndale. Many of the popular phrases and Bible verses that people quote today are mainly in the language of Tyndale.”
The invention of the printing press enabled more books to be published in the vernacular, which in turn led to a sort of virtuous circle: the more books that were available, the more people were likely to be able to learn to read, and hence educate themselves. Unitarianism is a most unusual faith, in that it evolved simultaneously in many countries at about the same time. To quote Alfred Hall, “men living in different lands, under different conditions, with different experiences, aided only by their own earnest study of the Bible and their spiritual endeavours, arrived at the Unitarian position. Thus it had an independent origin in the minds of various individuals and communities in England, America, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Poland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia and other countries in the West.” In other words, people were studying their Bibles, and finding no evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity (which had been accepted as orthodox Christian doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE). So they rejected it, going back to their Bibles to find out what Christianity had been like in the earliest days.
And we’re still in the process of studying and making independent judgement today, which I think is splendid. Our final reading this morning came from A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity by Matthew Fox. Fox was a Dominican monk for thirty-four years, before being expelled from the Order by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. He has written many books about creation spirituality, which is about re-connecting with the mystical, spiritual aspects of Christianity, and living from a place of compassion, rather than judgement.
In 2005, on 31st October, he too nailed 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church, calling for a New Reformation. And then wrote a book about it. The first part of the book is a strong attack on the Catholic church, and on fundamentalist Christians of all stripes. But the part which enchants me is the theses themselves. Introducing them, he writes: “Like Martin Luther before me, I present here ninety-five theses – or faith observations. [They] are an invitation to discussion and debate. They and the issues raised in this book are about not just a Reformation, but a transformation. Can what we know as Christianity transform itself for a new millennium and the generations to come? Can it take from its past only what is wise and move into a new age with a renewed commitment to sustainability for the earth and justice for the earth’s people?”
Like Quaker Advice and Queries, each short statement contains not only food for thought, but also a challenge to the reader. And not only to the Christian reader – many of Fox’s theses speak to me directly as a Unitarian. When I read them for the first time, I kept exclaiming aloud “Yes!” “You’re right!” “I agree!” Let me share some of them with you, with a pause between each, so that you can reflect on them:
“Theism, (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).”
“Spirituality and religion are not the same, any more than education and learning, law and justice, or commerce and stewardship are the same.”
“Jesus, not unlike many spiritual teachers, taught us that we are sons and daughters of God and are to act accordingly by becoming instruments of divine compassion.”
“To honour the ancestors and celebrate the communion of saints does not mean putting heroes on pedestals, but rather honouring them by living out lives of imagination, courage and compassion in our own time, culture, and historical moment, as they did in theirs.”
“God is experienced in our struggle for justice, healing, compassion, and celebration (via transformativa)”
“God speaks today, as in the past, through all religions and all cultures and all faith traditions, none of which is perfect and an exclusive avenue to truth, but all of which can learn from each other.”
“Compassion is the working out of our shared interconnectivity, both as to our shared joy and our shared suffering and struggle for justice.”
“Biophilia, or love of life, is everyone’s daily task.”
“Evil can happen through every people, every nation, every tribe, and every individual human, and so vigilance and self-criticism and institutional criticism are always called for.”
“Consumerism is today’s version of gluttony and needs to be confronted by creating an economic system that works for all peoples and all earth’s creatures.”
“Inner work is required of us all. Therefore, spiritual practices of meditation should be available to all, and this helps in calming the reptilian brain. Silence or contemplation and learning to be still can and ought to be taught to all children and adults.”
“Authentic science can and must be one of humanity’s sources of wisdom, for it is a source of sacred awe, childlike wonder, and truth.”
“Three highways into the heart are silence and love and grief. Two highways out of the heart are creativity, and acts of justice and compassion.”
“True intelligence includes feeling, sensitivity, beauty, the gift of nourishment, and humour, which is a gift of the Spirit.”
These theses, and many of the rest of them, rang deep bells in my heart. I believe that what Fox is calling for is a new way of being religious, a new way of being spiritual, a new way of being in the world, based on compassion, justice for all, and a deep sense of the way in which we and the rest of creation are interconnected, one with the other. He speaks of seven holy things: “our connection with the earth; our sexuality; our love that stands up to fear; our prophetic voice that speaks out; our intuition and intelligence; and our gifts we extend to the community of light beings and ancestors.” What’s not to like?
Fox is one of many contemporary Christian mystics (others include Richard Rohr and John O’Donohue and the Quakers) who are calling for a new kind of faith – one in which its followers follow their hearts and their intuition, trying to love life, and who are in the world for what they can give, rather than for what they can get. I find them inspirational.
In the reading I shared with you, Matthew Fox asked, “What has happened to the protest in Protestantism? What will it take to bring it back? Protestantism has a proud and profound intellectual heritage, yet it is allowing itself to be mowed over by anti-intellectual fundamentalism, which has hijacked Jesus, Christ, and Christianity as a whole. …”
We could also perhaps ask: “What has happened to the protest in Unitarianism? What will it take to bring it back?” Because we also have a “proud and profound intellectual heritage” as Cliff Reed showed in our second reading, which we need to speak out about, to share with others, so that they in their turn can learn the joy of thinking for themselves in matters of religion and spirituality. I believe that Unitarian communities can offer a safe and sacred space in which religious and spiritual inquiry and conversation can take place, without judgement.
Let us strive to make it so, today, and in the days and years to come.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we be inspired by the pioneers
Of our Unitarian faith,
And be moved to stand up for our way of believing and living.
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 Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley