Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words Draw Close by Ben Downing (adapted)
Friends, draw close.
Listen together. Pray together.
Share the mysteries which never die,
And the silences that never cease.
And as we share and celebrate and worship,
One in all, and all in each,
May we feel and know that we are being understood
Better than we know and understand ourselves.
May we give to the winds our fears,
May we give to the world our faith.
May we give to Life our thanks and our service,
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point). (words by Cliff Reed)
We kindle our chalice flame
as other chalice flames burn brightly
around the world.
May our flames
warm all human hearts
of all faiths and nations
and direct us towards a future
of peace and justice,
oneness and loving kindness.
May it be so!
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 The Stages of Tolerance – where do you stand? Part 1, by Roland Northover.
The first two readings (one long reading split into two) were written many years ago by a friend of Frank Field’s, formerly a member of our Northampton congregation. The language is not very inclusive. But I would urge you to put aside any small irritation that this may cause and listen well – this is an extremely lucid exposition of the various stages of tolerance.
The word “tolerance” can cover such a wide range of human expression that it may, perhaps, be helpful to think of it as having certain states or stages.
Stage 1 the position where Intolerance reigns. This state covers human thinking and emotions from the level of active attempt to force another to one’s way of thinking by violence, as in the Inquisitions, to the more civilised position where the pressure exerted is more mental and emotional. It can also be the basic position of the proselytisation, even when unrecognised by the proselytiser. Do we not always give ourselves credit for better motives than those we actually possess? Pride in our own beliefs is a subtle thing … it masquerades in myriad forms, strongly reinforced by our emotions.
Stage 2 At this stage, the position taken up by the “tolerator” can be described as “I have the Light of Truth, my dear fellow, you are also religious and therefore will eventually come round to my way of thinking.” This is the position of the pedestal “I’m up here, you may join me in due course.”
Stage 3 It is perhaps at this stage that the word “toleration” begins to display a little of its inner meaning. Understanding and vision begin to appear. The quality of the relationship is “I have my religion and you have yours … your religion is no good for me … but if it suits you, that’s alright with me.” There is in this way of thinking the embryonic acceptance of a common factor in all religions.
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 The Stages of Tolerance – where do you stand? Part 2, by Roland Northover
Stage 4 Here the “tolerator” is beginning to recognise that a man’s formal beliefs are largely a matter of accident of birth and background. The attitude begins to be one of “As narrow as I like for me in my own belief, but as wide as the World in my acceptance of the rightness of other beliefs for those who embrace and follow them.” The thought “By their FRUITS shall ye know them” creeps in and factors of varying psychologies in men and races begin to be recognised. Whether appreciated or not, here there is recognition of the common factors in all religious approaches.
Stage 5 When a man reaches this stage, he no longer insists on the “other fellow” being “religious-minded” before freely accepting him as a companion and an equal along life’s spiritual way. The closed shop attitude has gone. No longer does the man say “I admit you to the society of ‘religious’ people even though I am a Quaker and you may be a Brahmin or a Methodist, but we can’t accept Jones who has no dogmatic beliefs.” His thinking has taken on a broader rhythm. He is beginning to think of the word SPIRITUAL as something much wider, more embracing and more potent and significant than the adjective “religious”.
Stage 6 Those who have reached this stage give to the word “SPIRITUAL” a very wide significance. They believe the word to mean an inclusive endeavour towards human betterment … uplift and understanding. They give to the word “tolerance” real religious inclusiveness, embracing every trend and department of human expression, endeavour and aspiration which concern the esoteric development of man. They recognise the externalisation in activity of the Essential Brotherhood of Man is but the expression of the ONE LIFE within or of THE ONE IN WHOM WE LIVE AND HAVE OUR BEING.
The impulse behind people who have reached this stage is simply the Love of God as it works out in love of one’s fellow men. They are the people who know the real meaning of the word “brotherhood”. Their lives are those of willing service rendered with complete selflessness.
Prayer The Great Multitude by Francis Terry (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
We close our eyes and are in the midst of a multitude; all to whom our hearts can reach out, all into whose lives our imaginations can enter. We remember those near to us, whom we know best: and at the same time we acknowledge with awe how much there is in each of them which is beyond our understanding. We think of men, women and children throughout the earth, of whom we have no personal knowledge, but who are involved in events which we hear of in the news, and those everywhere who make up the ordinary daily flow of human experience. We are aware of them as a great mass of varied joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, of every sort of personal relationship, and our hearts begin to respond in sympathy – but how faintly compared with the depth and reality of each person involved.
We look back to the past, to our parents, to the people of their generation, and to the generations before them, from whom we have sprung, and who shaped the world which we inherit, with its advantages and problems. We acknowledge our debts, and the responsibility of our inheritance, and we can look back to them in memory and imagination: and yet how little that is compared with the detailed reality of what they did and endured.
We look forward to future generations; to those who will benefit by what we do well, and suffer from what we do badly. We cannot see their faces, or imagine what sort of people they will be. Our hearts are too little for this great ocean of humanity which surrounds us. And yet we can feel our narrowness, and reach out beyond it.
And so we cry to you, the Universal Spirit, to whom all hearts are open. In you we live, and move, and have our being. Take us more fully into your Universal love and concern. Strengthen us, bring us to unity, and bring us together into larger life. Amen
Reading Our final reading, Out There by Eila Forrester, is a challenge, specifically to us, to Unitarians everywhere. (slightly adapted)
We do not think our Father’s thoughts
You do not think mine, nor I yours.
Safe now in our Unitarian pew we take that for granted.
Could they do so in North Korea, or in Afghanistan,
In Ukraine or Syria or Iraq?
And indeed over half the world what freedom have the thoughts of the women who cannot fill their children’s bellies, let alone their own?
Who now shouts for the freedom of the unfettered tongue?
Who now cries out for the freedom of conscience, freedom of mind?
Out there where the barbed wire encircles the guttering flame of hope,
who now mans the barricade of tolerance?
Not us, in the silent pew, wrapped in our complacency.
What do we do for Pole or Jew?
For the urban priest or the bookless peasant?
We have our inheritance, our protection of statute and of rights.
To what use do we put them?
The fight is out there in the world of the gun and the guerrilla. Where fear blasts women’s minds and hate eats into the hearts of children.
It is out there that freedom is being forged now, and tolerance is hammering the limits of prejudice.
It is still our fight.
No dictatorship over the searching mind.
We have the weapons of experience, born of our inheritance.
Out there is the ambiguity of politics and of power,
Out there in the radio stations, beside the cameras, in the lecture halls and the laboratories.
Out there to be forged anew. It’s still our fight.
Time of Stillness and Reflection The Mettabhavana, or Prayer of Loving Kindness
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 A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address From Tolerance to Inclusivity
The starting point from this service was the recent television series by Simon Reeve, when he travelled through South America. It was in several episodes, as he moved down from the northernmost part of South America, to the tip of the southernmost part. And everywhere he went, he found that the indigenous peoples of the different countries had been marginalised and pushed out of their ancestral lands by the conquering Europeans. Many are reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the margins of society. They are not treated with respect, considered as equals.
So today, I’d like to consider one of our three Unitarian tenets, tolerance, and to ask the question: is it enough? And am going to start with an anecdote by my favourite rabbi, Lionel Blue. It comes from Blue Heaven, and encapsulates beautifully why religious intolerance is so rife:
“Well, I’ve been in religious business for a long time, and it can be quite a dirty business too.
You feel a bit sick when you realise that every army – Fascist, Nazi, communist and capitalist – has been blessed by some religion or other, and people pleaded with God at the same time to punish England and to save the king. It’s easy to hijack holiness with tribalism (or nationalism, as we prefer to call it) and organised religion often reminds me of a football supporters’ club. It’s up our side and down with theirs.
Sometimes the problem arises out of a very simple mistake, which goes something like this: ‘I am Lionel Blue, a reform Jew who lives in North West London, and I go to synagogue there. In my synagogue I have a religious experience and come close to God. If you too want to come close to God and have a religious experience, you too should live in a suburb of North West London like me and go to a reform synagogue.’ You see the slip, it’s so simple, but that’s why religious people have killed each other for centuries. …
Sometimes I’ve thought of leaving religion and making my living differently. Twice I nearly did, but I came back. Why? Because religion has got the guts to make me face a very unpleasant truth. Partial loving, like loving your own group, or tribe, or church, or party, or sex, is natural but not enough. It’s only an extension of loving yourself. Unless you try to see the God you love in the people you don’t, the killing will have no end. I know this does not feel natural. It isn’t. It’s supernatural.”
When I carried out my survey about the beliefs and values contemporary Unitarians, I discovered that there were a range of views about tolerance among us, and concluded, “Tolerance was related in the minds of many respondents to the issue of freedom of religious belief. It was recognised that it is often difficult to put into practice. Many respondents found value in a tolerant approach to the beliefs of others, but it was clear that it must have limits, specifically that Unitarians should not tolerate particular beliefs and behaviours which are harmful to others. Some disliked the word ‘tolerance’ itself, suggesting that it has some negative connotations. Tolerance is generally recognised as an important concept for Unitarians, but the extent of its adoption will vary from person to person and situation to situation.”
Inclusive” is a word bandied around quite a lot by Unitarians. We pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming. However, in the Great Course Cultural Literacy for Religion, Professor Mark Bergson of Hamline University writes, ‘Inclusivism states that while one’s own tradition is the only one that contains complete truth, salvation is still available to those who are outside the tradition. The grace of God is extended to all human beings, and the saving work of grace can be accomplished even if the individual is not a member of their faith.’
If we take that definition of inclusivism to be correct, we’re not inclusive; we are pluralist. Bergson says of pluralism, ‘If we truly want to respect and appreciate other traditions, we must maintain their distinctiveness and not try to blur the differences. [This] approach begins with the notion that ultimate reality – God, the divine – is beyond our ability to completely grasp. We must acknowledge that, as limited human beings, we can never understand divine reality in its entirety… no religion possesses truth in its entirety. Each tradition possesses its powerful truths, but also its blind spots. The more religious traditions we welcome into the conversation, the more illumination there will be.’
If this is what we aspire to, it is important for Unitarians to be involved in inter-faith activities in their communities. We should welcome the opportunity to engage with other faith traditions and learn more about how they perceive religious truths, both to enrich our own knowledge, and to move into a place of understanding and compassion (in its broadest sense) about people who believe differently to us.
Then there is the other side of the coin. Another Great Courses professor, Brad S. Gregory of Stanford University, wrote, ‘Too much inclusivity threatens to dilute our identity,’ and that part of being a member of any denomination is being ‘in community with others who share the same commitments.’
This really made me wonder. We Unitarians are proud of our inclusive attitude – ‘All are welcome here’ says the hymn by Peter Galbraith – but are we taking it too far? One of our central tenets is that of freedom of belief – we don’t believe that every aspiring Unitarian should have to sign a statement of belief in order to become a member. Cliff Reed writes in Unitarian? What’s That? ‘shared values and a shared religious approach are a surer basis for unity than theological propositions.’ And I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly.
Nevertheless, I think that our individualistic approach to the spiritual journey has its dangers. It is somewhat problematic for Unitarians to articulate what ‘we’ believe as a denomination – every Unitarian can explain what they as individuals believe, but it is difficult (and even perceived as improper!) to speak for others. I believe this is a problem we need to face – unless we can articulate clearly what we believe, how can we attract other like-minded, like-hearted people into our communities?
Perhaps each congregation (and the General Assembly) should try to put down on paper (and then on their website) some basic statement of the beliefs and values that they have in common. So that outsiders will be able to understand what we stand for, what our identity as Unitarians is, what our core values and mission are, and so be able to judge whether Unitarianism is for them.
Coming back to the bad treatment of the indigenous peoples of South America, with which this address began. I believe that tolerance (or respect or acceptance or even inclusivity/pluralism) is not only important in the context of religious beliefs and freedoms. It extends out to how we treat (or think about) other people in all aspects of our lives. A couple of years ago, I and a colleague co-facilitated a reading group, for Leela F. Saad’s challenging book, Me and White Supremacy: How to recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world. It helped all members of the group (including me) to see with new eyes.
Chapter by chapter, Saad covers all the multifarious aspects of white supremacy, including white fragility (feeling hurt and defensive if you become involved in a conversation about racism and are criticised), white silence and white apathy (saying and doing nothing in the face of a racist situation) and white exceptionalism (believing that you are one of the good people and therefore do not need to do this work.). The list goes on… Saad gently leads the reader to understand how insidious white supremacy, in all its manifestations, is in our society and gives them the tools to overcome it in themselves and become a true ally to people of colour in the battle against racism.
Reading it, working through it, helped me to see with new eyes. It has made me realise how far I still have to go, but I am determined to stay the course. Because if I do not, I will be betraying one of the central Unitarian values, as stated in the First Principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
And it is not possible to do that from a one-up position.
I said earlier that we pride ourselves on our inclusivity. But as Eila Forrester warned in our final reading, “the fight is out there in the world of the gun and the guerrilla. Where fear blasts women’s minds and hate eats into the hearts of children. It is out there that freedom is being forged now, and tolerance is hammering the limits of prejudice. It is still our fight.”
I do not think we can afford to be complacent. Not as long as so many are victims of intolerance and prejudice of all kinds.
I believe not only that every Unitarian should read Saad’s book, but should also “mark, learn and inwardly digest it” as the Book of Common Prayer advises. So that we can play an active role in promoting true inclusivity, not only in our own society in the United Kingdom, but also in the wider world.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we actively engage with true tolerance,
knowing that each person is “unique, precious, a child of God”
as the Quakers have it.
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