Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Roger Fritts
We gather together at this time and this place to affirm our liberal religious values.
Here we believe that it is possible to have joy without hysteria. We believe it is possible to have morality without inquisitions. We believe it is possible to have community without conformity. We believe it is possible to have authority without slavery. We believe it is possible to have religion without madness. We believe it is possible to have worship without idolatry. And here we believe it is possible to have love without perfection.
We welcome all who wish to join us in this celebration of life.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)
We kindle a light against the darkness.
We affirm hope against despair.
We invoke love against indifference.
come among us
enflame our souls,
as we meet in your name.
Spirit of Life and Love,
be with us as we gather for worship,
Each in our 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 world in which Covid has not yet gone away,
and the clouds of war hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
and help 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,
victims of violence and war,
suffering in any way,
Reading Why we are here by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place
In his first collection of ‘prayer-thoughts, praise-poems and words of worship’, Spirit of Time and Place, Cliff Reed included this wonderful affirmation of Unitarian values:
We are not here to judge,
but to live as best we can,
in peace and harmony with
our neighbours, always aware
of our own shortcomings.
We are not here to condemn,
but to give such encouragement
and assistance as we can to those
we meet along the road.
We are not here to lecture others on goodness,
but to ask how well we match up
to the best that we know, the vision
in our souls, and then try harder.
We are not here to claim a place with the ‘elect’,
a place in heaven,
but to live on this earth with love in our hearts
and kindness in our deeds,
just like everyone else.
We are not here to speak for God,
but to heed the divine voice in ourselves
and to be the divine presence in this
glorious, complex and suffering world.
We are here to love our neighbour
as we love ourselves; to be human
to the best of our ability.
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 from On being a Unitarian by Philip 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 freedom, 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.
Prayer by A. Powell Davies (adapted)
Bring us closer, O God, to the meaning of life,
and especially to the meaning of our own.
Help us to be true, not to the conformities
but to our inner selves; to say to our hearts,
each of us for themself:
I will speak the truth without fear
because I am a free soul, breathing the breath of God.
I will stand for justice, no matter how my actions are construed,
because justice is the flame that burns within
the light of conscience and must be my guide.
I will love the cause of human welfare,
the better life for all humankind, the sacred hope of brother- and sister-hood,
because this is life’s meaning whispered in the spirit’s loneliness,
the meaning that redeems our emptiness,
the love of humankind that lifts us to the love of God.
Reading On Being Religious Liberally by Cliff Reed, from Sacred Earth
To be religious
is to be open to transcendence,
closing off no possibilities
in our dullness and our pride.
To be religious
is to connect our own deepest intimacy
with the universe’s unimaginable ultimacy.
To be religious
is to connect with each other in compassion,
truth and justice; always loyal to what we
know is true and right and good.
To be religious
is to move beyond our small denials that we may
worship, giving our spirits wing to rise in joy.
To be religious
is to recognise the shadow and include it, lest
too much light should blind us to another’s pain.
To be religious
is to be humble before the Mystery – within us,
around us, and among us – raising hands in praise,
joining hands in love.
Let us be religious, bound together in freedom.
May it be so!
Time of Stillness and Reflection words by Cliff Reed
Source of love,
help us to love when it is hard to do so.
Source of courage,
help us to endure when we are afraid.
Source of inspiration,
breathe into us when we are dried up.
The world cries out for love to heal its hatred and indifference.
The world cries out for courage to heal its cowardice and weakness.
The world cries out for inspiration to heal its soul-hunger and its withered hopes.
Source of vision,
show us the vision of a better world.
Show us the vision of a better world:
A world awake to its oneness,
A world of colour, song and comradeship,
A world of fairness, joy and festivals.
And give us the faith to feed the vision and to make it real. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Affirming Our Unitarian Values
A few years ago (2015 to be precise), the National Executive Committee of British Unitarianism launched a new document at the GA meetings, called A Vision for our Future. At the time, I commented, “So what the EC says about needing to ‘re-establish an identity, a unique spiritual position’ is key to our future. … I believe that the most vital task for British Unitarians is to adopt a widely agreed statement such as the Unitarian Universalists’ Seven Principles (or why not just adopt them, wholesale? – they work for me!). 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.”
And this year, as GA President, I have chosen to launch what I hope will become a national conversation about Unitarian values. All the MUA congregations have now heard my thoughts on the subject, so I will not repeat them here. The readings I have chosen to share today argue eloquently for the necessity of exploring what it is we value, both as individuals and as congregations. Because unless we can articulate clearly what we stand for, and how this fits in to a Unitarian identity, we are not going to be able to attract newcomers in, nor halt the decline in our congregations.
So what are the keystone values of British Unitarianism? If you are asked the question “What do Unitarians believe?” the immediate answer that springs to mind may be, “We believe in freedom, reason and tolerance.” I’m not so sure. Our beliefs may be as diverse as ourselves: some of us believe in a personal God; some of us are religious humanists; some of us share beliefs with other world faiths; and so on, and so on. So what is it that makes us Unitarians? What binds us together? Myself, I would put it another way: I would rather say that freedom, reason and tolerance are the values that underlie British Unitarianism, the principles and standards that make the rest possible. As Cliff Reed wrote in Unitarian? What’s that? “shared values and a shared religious approach are a surer basis for unity than theological propositions.”
So what does “freedom” mean to Unitarians? The first thing to realise is that it doesn’t mean “freedom to believe whatever I like”. It is not capricious – it doesn’t mean that Unitarians are free to believe that the moon is made of green cheese, for example. To quote Alfred Hall, author of Beliefs of a Unitarian, “It means the right to believe what the voices of reason and conscience proclaim to be true and good; the right to listen to and trust what God speaks to the mind, heart and soul of man; the right to follow Truth and to accept what is made known to us in our human experience.” Hall further quotes from Dr Gow’s 1929 Presidential Address to the General Assembly: “the belief in free thought as the way to religious truth and as a basis of church membership is a daring and heroic act of faith – a daring and splendid affirmation of belief in God … It is the profound faith that God can and will be found and realized by reverent free thought, by sincere effort, by the heart and mind which seek for him in spirit and truth.”
Reason, our second tenet, is strongly and fundamentally linked to freedom of religious belief – freedom requires responsibility, and responsibility requires reason. Humankind must accept responsibility for their choices and their acts. Every time we come across a new person, or a new situation, or a new way of thinking, we find that some things are better and others worse, by trial and error, by measurements of happiness and welfare, by comparison and reflection. This is how we cultivate responsible behaviour – by using reason as our guide.
The process is like this: find out what commends itself to your reason as truth and then accept that as your authority. If you work at it faithfully, your whole life long, with help from fellow pilgrims, you might become a better, wiser and more loving human being. If enough of us do the same, and put our beliefs into action, it might even lead to a better, wiser and more loving world.
“Freedom” and “Reason” are two of the keystones of Unitarian thought; the third is “Tolerance”. Outsiders may find it difficult to understand how the Unitarian movement holds together, placing, as it does, so much importance on the freedom of individual belief based on reason and conscience. But tolerance, this openness to new thoughts and ideas is a key concept in Unitarianism; indeed it is what has kept it green and growing down the centuries. Our movement has been underpinned by a process of continuous and continuing revelation. At different times and in different countries, different ideas have been considered to be most important. But tolerance also means a tigerish determination to fight for the right of others to enjoy the same freedom to worship in whatever way they choose, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Our “fellowship in diversity” (happy phrase) aims to be tolerant towards others. As Joyce Grenfell beautifully puts it, we believe in “loving in spite of human imperfection.”
So how does this all work out within the context of a Unitarian congregation? What is it that keeps us coming together in fellowship, Sunday after Sunday, rather than attending another church, or relaxing with our families, or engaging in a touch of retail therapy? I can only tell you what the three tenets mean to me, and how they touch my life.
Some of you will know that although I am a “birthright” Unitarian (on my father’s side) I did not attend a Unitarian church in my childhood. It was not until my late teens that I discovered Unitarianism, having examined the beliefs and creeds of mainstream Christianity, and been unable to accept them. Discovering Unitarianism was like coming home – I realised that this was where I belonged – a place in which my questions and doubts could be answered, or if not answered, wholeheartedly accepted. It was a wonderful feeling, and I still appreciate how lucky I am to have found this movement of ours.
And yet, it is not an easy way to live. If you want answers, fair and square, set down in black and white with no contradictions, Unitarianism is not the place for you. Some people may find the lack of a creed, a denomination-wide accepted set of beliefs, daunting. Not me – I love the fact that Unitarians do not claim to have all the answers – every Unitarian I’ve ever known has been a spiritual seeker, just like me. We are all on the same journey, “seekers and sharers, fellow pilgrims on the path” (to quote Cliff Reed once again).
What holds us together is that we all have the same attitude to religion and spirituality. All of us believe profoundly in the necessity of personal freedom of religious belief – the freedom to grow, and to act in accordance with our beliefs, to work out our own answers. And we need to make this better known.
I have told the story about the experience I had of discerning my own personal values, in my Presidential service. Because of course, no two Unitarians will have the same ones – not even, freedom, reason and tolerance. At a values workshop I attended a few years ago, Rev Winnie Gordon asked us what we valued most deeply, and to list these, with a five word explanation of what they meant to us. These are the ones I listed:
- simplicity: walking in the world lightly (which is related to my strong feelings about consumerism, and concerns about the environment).
- integrity: living wholeheartedly, actions matching values – I believe that our values are only valid if they are matched by our actions in the world.
- compassion: putting love at the centre – I’ve spoken to you about this many times.
- peace: loving our neighbours as ourselves – not just an absence of war, but really trying to love the other, and to treat them with justice, equity, and respect.
- equality: all unique, precious human beings – which is closely related to loving our neighbours as ourselves. This one is about recognising “that of God” in everyone, to use the Quaker phrase.
- loyalty: standing with each other – I believe this is so important for any congregation if we are to be a true beloved community – we need to care for each other, and to share each other’s joys and concerns, and to be there for each other, in times of joy as well as in times of sorrow.
Many members of other faiths find that their bond with others is in scriptural or creedal affirmations. That door is closed to us. Our bond is a belief that people can agree to work together for the deepening of spiritual life, the strengthening of moral character, and the improvement of society without agreeing to a set of theological doctrines. Ours is a fellowship in diversity, a band of pilgrims on the same spiritual seeking path, each having perfect freedom to follow the dictates of our individual reason and conscience to forge a living faith that will help us to follow the best that we know for the greater good of ourselves and the world.
May it be so. Amen
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we be inspired to discern our own spiritual values
and to come together in community to forge
a set of values for our congregations,
and then put them into action,
for the greater good of ourselves and the world.
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