Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Jan Smith (adapted)
Welcome to this virtual space.
Whatever path has brought you here,
whatever load you carry,
let us rest a while together.
May our hearts be open to accept what comes to us as a stranger,
may our minds be open to wonder at what we do not understand,
and may our spirits be nourished by our time here together,
before we again take up our loads and set off upon our many paths.
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 Verona Conway (adapted)
Our worship is to the holy spirit of the universe who sustains it in love and makes it ever new each moment of time.
Our prayer is for light to see the way, truth to teach us how to walk, faith to give us the courage to keep on through all discouragements.
Our friendship is with each other as fellow-seekers after true happiness, fellow-workers in the service of the spirit.
[We light this candle that] our worship, our prayer, our friendship may be fully blessed in this hour, and we may go out stronger and wiser to work in a world that so profoundly needs strength, wisdom and compassion.
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 and climate change hover.
May we keep in touch however we can,
And help each other, however we may.
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 Pilgrim’s Progress by Alistair Mason, from The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper
Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an allegorical novel, was written in prison by John Bunyan, a tinker. Unsophisticated Christians loved the book at once; only after a century did educated people discover it was a classic of English literature….
Bunyan was a Puritan, in prison for unauthorised preaching. Puritanism was not a native peasant religion. Characteristically it involved an almost too logical scheme of salvation, a rather unnerving psychological insight, and an existential drive for individual authenticity that separated sheep from goats only too well. All this is there in Pilgrim’s Progress, more or less disconcertingly. But ordinary Christians loved it. Partly this is because the book succeeds as an adventure, a romance: what new terror will Christian meet over the hill? But partly it was because English-speaking Christianity was more Puritan at heart than many people like to think. Christian may not be Everyman, because he arrives at the Celestial City, while most of those he encounters do not, but his experience of struggle, failure, and divine grace resonated for ordinary Christians. Even if the character the reader identifies with is Ignorance, with his moderate-minded self-justification (‘I will never believe that my heart is thus bad’), there will always be a stab of self-doubt at the final terrible paragraph of Part I, when Ignorance is carried off from the gate of the City: ‘Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of Heaven.’ Perhaps the Puritans were right.
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 Pilgrim’s Progress by Alistair Mason, from The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper
Earlier literary pilgrimages were an interlude in life; this pilgrimage is life, and on through death. The urgency frightens: ‘the man began to run… his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! Eternal life!’ Few of those who blame Bunyan for his Protestant individualism ever read the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress (1684) where Christian’s wife and family make the journey too. This is social Puritanism, family-minded, travelling as a group. The thumb-nail sketches are of flawed Christians, not hell-fodder. They are often happy. ‘So Ready-to-Halt took Despondency’s daughter, named Much-Afraid, by the hand, and to dancing they went in the road. True, he could not dance without one crutch in his hand: but, I promise you, he footed it well.’ In an allegory, Puritans can dance.
Pilgrim’s Progress was second only to the bible in the esteem of Protestant Christianity for three hundred years. … Translated into over a hundred languages, in Africa and elsewhere it has appealed across cultural boundaries and stimulated forms of folk Protestantism less intellectual than Bunyan’s Puritanism.
Prayer For a group of modern pilgrims by Andrew R. Parker, from With Heart and Mind
God of all, who walks with us all the days of our lives, even when we do not know it, we bring to you our thanks for all the blessings which your love has brought to our lives.
We thank you for our homes and the communities in which we live, for our families and friends, and for all those, both known and unknown to us, whose lives and work help to support our lives.
We thank you for our church and chapel communities and for the fellowship they provide for us; the opportunities for doing your work and advancing the boundaries of your kingdom through them.
We thank you for the many wonderful and beautiful things which surround us. We thank you for the artists, sculptors, and builders of many generations, who have left behind them such a treasure store of marvels, not only for our pleasure, but for us to use as a window, through which we may catch glimpses of you and your glory.
We pray that our time spent in special and holy places may inspire us in the days ahead and that the many examples we come across of ordinary people, just like us, who were prepared to suffer and even die for their faith, may help us to stand firm and defend our faith against those who would seek to belittle it, or destroy it.
Lastly, we thank you for our own lives, especially for that spirit of enquiry and interest within us, which spurs us on to learn more about you and your creation.
Reading Christian and Faithful come to Vanity Fair from The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, quoted in The Oxford Book of English Prose, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Then I saw in my Dream, that when they were got out of the Wilderness, they presently saw a Town before them, … and at the Town there is a Fair kept, called Vanity-Fair…
Almost five thousand years agone, there were Pilgrims walking to the Celestial City, as these two honest persons are; and Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, with their Companions, perceiving by the Path that the Pilgrims made, that their way to the City lay through this Town of Vanity, they contrived here to set up a Fair; a Fair wherein should be sold of all sorts of Vanity, and that it should last all the year long. Therefore at this Fair are all such Merchandize sold, as Houses, Lands, Trades, Places, Honours, Preferments, Titles, Countries, Kingdoms, Lusts, Pleasures, and Delights of all sorts, as Whores, Bawds, Wives, Husbands, Children, Masters, Servants, Lives, Blood, Bodies, Souls, Silver, Gold, Pearls, Precious Stones, and what not.
And moreover, at this Fair there is at all times to be seen Jugglings, Cheats, Games, Plays, Fools, Apes, Knaves, and Rogues, and that of every kind.
Here are to be seen too, and that for nothing, Thefts, Murders, Adulteries, False-swearers, and that of a blood-red colour….
Now as I said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this Town, where this lusty Fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go through this Town, must needs go out of the World.
Time of Stillness and Reflection Pilgrim’s Prayer by Rev. Cliff Reed (adapted)
Guiding Spirit, show us an open road, a pilgrim track.
The blind alleys of our folly wear a dreary look, we must break out and find a better way.
Show us the path of deliverance from the byways and cul-de-sacs in which we wander, trapped in a maze of old ideas, old hatreds, old fears; condemned to tread the same old ground we have trodden before.
We seek the bright highway to wholeness, which cuts through the walls and spans the chasms keeping us apart; which unites those who have been sundered, binds up our shadowed, fractured world like a ribbon of light.
We would join the pilgrims of the human race, search out the healing, holy shrine where souls, people and planets are made whole.
Let us ponder these things in the silence…
Show us your highway, O God, open our eyes to see that it runs just outside our door. Help us to make the first step along it. Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address John Bunyan
John Bunyan was a Puritan preacher, best known for being the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was written during his years in prison and published in 1678. He died 335 years ago, on 31st August 1688.
Bunyan came from humble beginnings, being the son of a brazier, or ‘tinker’ – someone who travelled around the area (Bedfordshire in this case) mending pots and pans. After following his father into the trade, he enlisted in the Parliamentary Army at the age of sixteen, spending three years fighting in the English Civil War. But in about 1649 – the exact date is unknown – he married a pious young woman who introduced him to Arthur Dent’s book, Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven. Which may have given him the original idea for The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Bedford Free Church (now called Bunyan Meeting), of which Bunyan became a member, was founded by twelve Dissenters in 1650. Bunyan was soon invited to lead worship there, becoming a popular preacher, both there, and in the countryside around Bedford. But following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the freedom of Non-conformist preachers was curtailed, and later that year, he was arrested. His trial took place at the quarter sessions in Bedford in January 1661, when, according to Vera Brittain, in her book, In the Steps of John Bunyan: An Excursion into Puritan England, he was indicted for “having “devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service” and having held “several unlawful meetings and conventicles, to the great disturbance and distraction of the good subjects of this kingdom”. He was to spend most of the next twelve years in Bedford County Gaol, during which time he wrote his autobiography, Grace Abounding, and made a start on his most famous work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Which he completed during a second spell in jail in 1676.
The Pilgrim’s Progress has been one of the most popular tales of the Christian spiritual journey. In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Cross and Livingstone explain (somewhat snobbishly, I think) why: “Its unrivalled place in the world’s religious literature rests on its artless directness, its imaginative power, the homeliness and rusticity of its method and its plainness of style, which give it its universal appeal, even to the most simple-minded.” Many of the people, places and incidents that the hero, Christian, encounters on his journey have now entered the English language, including “Evangelist”, “Mr. Worldly-Wiseman”, “Mr. Facing-both-ways” and “Greatheart” among the people; the “Slough of Despond”, the “Hill of Difficulty”, “House Beautiful”, “Vanity Fair” and the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” among the places.
I first came across The Pilgrim’s Progress when I read Unitarian author Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women as a child. The March girls go on a similar journey during the course of the book, and their mother says, “Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim’s Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece-bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and rolls of paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City.”
The girls share their memories of it, and their mother then says, “We are never too old for this, my dears, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness in the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.” It gives the girls a new impetus to lead the best life they can.
I have always found the idea of pilgrimage romantic. When I was six or seven, my favourite hymn was He Who Would Valiant Be, not the cleaned-up version which we sing in our churches and chapels, but Bunyan’s original words: “He who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster, let him in constancy, follow the Master. There’s no discouragement, shall make him once relent, his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.” And especially the last lines of the final verse, “I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labour night and day, to be a pilgrim.” I found (and find) both words and tune rousing and longed to sail off to distant lands on a pilgrimage of my own.
At about the same time, I was introduced to the wonderful stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, who seemed to be always going off on quests. This led to a lifelong love of fantasy, which was set in stone when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings at the age of thirteen.
But it was not until much later that I realised that pilgrimage can also be an internal, spiritual journey as well as, or even instead of, an actual physical one. Living a religious and spiritual life is a journey which, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road, goes ever on. All through my life, I have been open to new ideas, new insights, primarily through the books I have read, some of which have influenced me quite profoundly. Over the years I have learned that the only place we can find true answers to the questions of “life, the universe and everything” (to quote Douglas Adams) is within ourselves. In our reactions and responses to the things our senses perceive and in our relationships with other people and with the world. Of course, each person’s journey will be different; I can only share my own.
As you probably know, I came to Unitarianism at the age of 18 because there were aspects of mainstream Christianity with which I was not comfortable. My journey since then has been somewhat of a pilgrimage, visiting various religious and spiritual viewpoints, and taking from each the sustenance I needed to continue on my way. And I soon discovered that one gorgeous thing about being Unitarian is that we never stop learning, never stop receiving new insights, from a multiplicity of sources. Until we eventually realise that God / the Divine / the Source of All Being is everywhere – in our lives, in our relationships and in the things around us.
My own sources of revelation have been many and varied, including the basic morals and ethics of childhood tales and fantasy, the inclusive liberal Judaism of Lionel Blue, the radical and challenging simplicity of the Quakers, the sound advice for the journey from authors like the Brussats, Bill Adams and Brené Brown, insights about other faith traditions from my Open University studies, and the mystical, insightful Christianity of John O’Donohue and Richard Rohr. Not to mention the massive influence of various Unitarian authors, particularly Alfred Hall, Cliff Reed, and Forrest Church.
I have been helped along my Road, not only by the authors of the books I have read, but also by friends and mentors in real life. A process of change and growth, which really started when I began the Worship Studies Course in 2006, has led me in unexpected directions, not least of which was becoming a Unitarian minister, and I am sure that the pilgrimage has not finished yet. How could it be? I am a Unitarian, and so revelation can never be sealed. I don’t expect that I will ever finish my journey, and that is fine. So long as I continue to be nourished and fed by what I am encountering, even the dark stuff. For I have discovered that the Spirit is there too.
Each person’s spiritual journey is different, and it is here, in our Unitarian communities, that we find the support we need to step out boldly like Bunyan’s pilgrim, Christian, and make our ways to our equivalent of the Celestial City. As Jan Smith said in our opening words, “Whatever path has brought you here, whatever load you carry, let us rest a while together.”
And although the literal nature of Bunyan’s allegory may not be to our modern taste, I believe the underlying message, that life is a journey, both physically and spiritually, is still relevant in the 21st century. No-one lives in a vacuum; all of us meet other people and visit different places and have experiences, which will inevitably influence us, one way or another. And our Unitarian community can be a safe and sacred space in which we receive help and inspiration to process our experiences, so that we grow into the best people we can be.
I cannot resist concluding with the words of that wisest of Hobbits, Bilbo Baggins:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
May all our journeys be rich and insightful and rewarding, today and always.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we journey through life together,
offering our support to one another
on our spiritual pilgrimages.
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