The Power to Choose: Online Service for Sunday 21st May 2023


Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley


Opening Words by Alex Brianson

Spirit of Life, you who animate the Universe
Help us to remember the gift that is a human life.
With our consciousness and senses, we can touch, taste, see and feel
So much that is good, and alluring, and enticing.

Spirit of Life, some of us here today may be thinking of concerns more than joys,
Of loss rather than enjoyment.
For those of us, we ask for healing and restoration.
To those of us, we pledge our aid.

Just as cares arise, so shall they pass.
Just as grief pains, new joy beckons.
Spirit of Life, may we remember that life is a dance.
And may we ensure that we move to the rhythm divine.

So may it be.

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 from Passover Haggadah


May the light we now kindle

Inspire us to use our powers

To heal and not to harm,

To help and not to hinder,

To bless and not to curse,

To serve you, Spirit of freedom


Opening Prayer


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,

Suffering in any way, Amen

Reading from Thought for the Day, 27th January 2005, by Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks

On 27th January, 60 [now 78] years ago, Russian troops entered the little Polish town of Auschwitz, and saw sights we still find it difficult to comprehend. It was their first glimpse of the Final Solution: the planned extermination of every Jew in Europe. It’s hard to sense the sheer scale of the destruction. On 11 September 2001, history was changed by a terrorist attack in which 3000 people died. During the Holocaust, on average 3000 Jews were killed every day of every week for five and a half years. And not just Jews: the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, gypsies, gays, murdered because they were different; not like us.

Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, says the Bible, so that you will always cherish freedom. Remember death so as to sanctify life. Memory is the moral tutor of mankind. Forget, and you allow other genocides to happen: in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur. The survivors kept their faith with the dead but they’ve also taught us, the living, that the road that begins in hate ends at the gates of hell. That is why we must never forget.

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 the author’s Afterword to If This Is A Man by Primo Levi


If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again – even our consciences.


For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened. Everyone must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders’; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the credibility or the soundness of the things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art.  … They were acclaimed with hosannahs and followed to the death by millions of the faithful. We must remember that these faithful followers … were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men. Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions, like Eichmann; like Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz; like Stangl, commandant of Treblinka; like the French military of twenty years later, slaughterers in Algeria; like the Khmer Rouge of the late seventies, slaughterers in Cambodia.


It is therefore necessary to be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders: we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgement and our will.


Prayers said on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Anne Frank

God, you created us all in your own likeness.
We thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in your world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellow feeling and understanding;
show us your presence in those most different from us, so that in all our relationships,
both by what we have in common and by things in which we differ,
we may come to know you more fully in your creation.

Judge eternal, bringer of justice,
hear the cry of those who suffer under the lash of heartless political oppression;
those who languish in prisons and labour camps, untried or falsely condemned;
those whose bodies are shattered,
or whose minds are unhinged by torture or deprivation.
Meet them in their anguish and despair,
and kindle in them the light of hope,
that they may find rest in your love,
healing in your compassion
and faith in your mercy.

Reading The Nazi and the Bicycle Riders from Bright Blue by Rabbi Lionel Blue


The Nazi said to the Jew, “The Jews are responsible for all Germany’s problems.”

“Yes,” said the Jew, “The Jews and the bicycle riders.”

“Why the bicycle riders?” said the Nazi, puzzled.

“Why the Jews?” said the Jew.


It’s easy to make a devil out of anyone who stands in our way or who has a different opinion from our own. At Christmas and public holidays there is usually a lull in devil-making but it soon starts up again – just wait until the goodwill evaporates. The lazy Left will do it with classes, the lazy Right will do it with races. Government and opposition politicians will make devils out of each other, though we know it’s a game – but a foolhardy one.


And I shall do it too. I shall make a devil out of the woman in front of me at the ticket office, who is buying a season ticket in the rush hour. I shall hate people on strike who spoil my holiday. I shall hate people whose success I fancy should be mine. Whenever I feel this way, I add to the present object of my hate the words “and the bicycle riders”, and then I realise how absurd it is.


What is the devil, after all? Just my own weakness, my own lack of courage, the problem I can’t face, the bit of my own self I can’t love. We are our own devils.


Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Rhys Williams, adapted)


Spirit of Life, come to us to break down barriers,

to widen horizons,

to make us less judgemental.

Help us to see the larger picture

and the kinder conclusion,

to love and let live,

to embrace and forgive,

to sustain and care.


Help us to reach out to our better selves,

that we may love more and hate less,

care more and reject less;

that bound together by understanding,

we may sustain each other

through trial and tribulation,

through joy and happiness,

through sickness and health.




Help us, O God,

to be joined in a common purpose of hope

and fulfilment.

Renew and revive us.

We seek a common, holy ground

for one and all. Amen


Musical Interlude Clouds by Elizabeth Harley


Address The Power to Choose


Last Sunday evening, my husband and I attended a screening of a live performance of Good, a play about the Holocaust by British playwright, C.P. Taylor. It was both astonishing and disturbing. There were only three actors – David Tennant, who played the protagonist, Professor John Halder, who gradually turns from a liberal minded man in 1933, whose best friend was a Jew, into a high-ranking member of Hitler’s SS. The other two actors were Elliot Levey and Sharon Small, who both played multiple characters, without changing their clothes or leaving the stage. It was a tour de force of brilliant acting, against one, very minimalist set. And, like I said, very disturbing. It demonstrated superbly how the slow drip, drip of evil propaganda can change someone’s opinions, while still enabling them to justify their actions to themselves as “one of the good guys”.


In June 1940, 728 Polish political prisoners from Tarnow became the first residents of Auschwitz concentration camp. And in 2012, Maz and I spent our Summer holiday in Poland. One of the things we felt we ought to do was to visit the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau. Being there reminded me forcibly of the power of evil. The sheer scale of the suffering undergone by the Jews, Poles, gypsies, Communists and other prisoners was horrendous. It was part of a deliberate and evil plan to “free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies”, in the words of Otto Thierach, Hitler’s so-called Minister of Justice. Jews in particular were to be totally exterminated, being seen as sub-human vermin.

It was a task undertaken with meticulous and horrifying efficiency, carefully documented every step of the way. Apart, of course, from the 75% of the Jews arriving at Birkenau, who were simply marched down the platform from the transports straight to the gas chambers and murdered on the spot. The ruined gas chamber that we saw there (one of four) could take 1500 people at a time, and their murders took about 20 minutes. The scale of this evil was almost too much to take in.


But I don’t believe in evil as an independent power in the world. No-one is born evil – there is no such thing as original sin. I believe that every human being has the power to choose between good and evil. However, the choices that each person makes will set them on a path towards a life filled with good deeds or evil ones, and the farther one walks along the chosen path, the harder it is to turn aside. As the Native Americans believe, “it depends which wolf you feed.” C.P. Taylor’s play was a brilliant and chilling illustration of this in action.

I have to believe that there is a divine spark “that of God” in everyone, but perhaps those people we call evil choose to ignore its promptings. There are many degrees of evil; for example, I do not believe that the majority of German people during Hitler’s Reich chose evil consciously, although the dyed in the wool Nazis certainly seem to have done. But the Nazi propaganda machine awakened the latent anti-Semitism in many German hearts, giving them someone to blame for their hard lives, and enabling them to believe its lies, and close their eyes to what was going on.

Yet there were some who turned their backs on the temptation to evil and chose good. For example, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, the Catholic priest who took someone else’s place in a starvation cell in Auschwitz – we saw the actual cell. Or the brave Poles who risked their lives to help the Auschwitz inmates by providing them with food and medicine, and organised escapes. And of course, Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews, as famously portrayed in the Spielberg film Schindler’s List.


The Nazis were obsessed by an ideal: the supremacy of the Herrenvolk, the German race, and the elimination of all others. And this ideal led to death and destruction on a large scale. It seems that if we allow ourselves to become obsessed by an ideal, it skews our judgement and corrupts our reason. If we idealise something or somebody, we don’t see it / them straight. Examples of this are littered throughout history (and sadly, very often have to do with one party’s religious ideals conflicting with another’s).

Think about the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Great Ejection more than 350 years ago; and in more modern times, Hitler’s Final Solution, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the Rwandan massacre, 9/11 and so on. If you strip every example back to basics, they all happened because one group of people stopped recognising their essential commonality with another group of people (that of being fellow human beings) and got carried away by the idea that their point of view or ideal was the only correct one, and that therefore people with different points of view should be eliminated.

It is only by the exercise of compassion, by being open to the hearts and minds of others, by recognising that each of us is “unique, precious, a child of God”, that the closed mind and consequent intolerance can be avoided. Because the problem has not gone away. Intolerance is alive and well in our society. If we are not careful, we can fall into judgement and “othering”, seeing other people as somehow less than we are ourselves. It can lead to all sorts of -isms: sexism, racism, homophobia.


A few years ago, BBC3 ran a series called Queer Britain. Which I watched because I have many LGBTQ+ friends, who are just that – my friends. Their sexuality is irrelevant to my friendship with them. But the topics which each of the programmes covered – faith, body image, homelessness, and ethnicity, have never been so clearly defined for me within the LGBTQ+ context. So I learned a lot and was able to integrate new insights about what it means to be an LGBTQ+ person in the UK today.


Some of the stories were heart-breaking – it seems that discrimination in all its nasty forms is alive and well, not only among heterosexuals, but also within the LGBTQ+ community itself. The issues of body image and race have great potency – one Black lesbian woman commented sadly on one of the programmes, “I feel like a triple minority – Black, lesbian, and female.” And I thought, “Sh*t! She’s right – I get that.” Because as a straight white woman, I am only too aware that I shelter behind two bastions of often unconscious privilege, yet can understand from the inside what discrimination against women looks like. And know intimately what having body image issues feels like, although I had not formerly appreciated their particular significances for many LGBTQ+ folk.


Ultimately this is all about judging people by how they identify themselves or how we identify them – by what they look like, how they dress, the colour of their skin, their age, their religious faith, their sexual orientation, their gender. Whenever we judge people by what they are, rather than for their behaviour, we are guilty of being non-inclusive, on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, age, size and [dis]ability, to name the most common differences. And this seems to be all too prevalent in UK society today, no matter what we look like or whom we are attracted to.


Why do we do this to ourselves, to each other? We are all human beings, each one unique, each one worthy of love and justice and respect, each one with unique gifts to offer the world. As my friend Yvonne Aburrow once wrote, “everyone is an unique combination of beauty and diversity, and we should celebrate that. And each form of oppression of that beauty and diversity is different, with its own distinct history, which is different in different places, which is why we need feminism, and LGBT liberation, and Black liberation, and the disability rights campaign,… rather than a single munged-together ‘human’ campaign.”


There has been a slowly growing awareness of the endemic racism in the UK in the past few years. So much so that in 2020, a Black colleague and I co-facilitated a reading group for Leela Saad’s challenging book, Me and White Supremacy: How to recognise your privilege, combat racism and change the world. And the process of reading, then working through, this book definitely helped the participants in our reading group (including both facilitators) 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), which were the ones that really hit home with me. The list went on… Saad gently leads the reader to understand how insidious white supremacy is, in all its manifestations 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.


We need to learn to be aware of ourselves and each other as “unique combinations of beauty and diversity” and to respect and appreciate the struggles that each of us goes through to be recognised as such. So that we avoid the trap Professor Halder in Good fell into, of believing propaganda and judging others as “less” than ourselves.


Closing Words by Frederick E. Gillis


May the love that overcomes all differences,
that heals all wounds,
that puts to flight all fears,
that reconciles all who are separated,
Be in us and among us
now and always. Amen.


Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley