Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Linda Hart
We enter into this time and this place to join our hearts and minds together.
We come to this place: the doors open, the heat comes on, biscuits are laid, the water heats, and we all come.
What is it that we come here seeking? Many things, too many to mention them all.
Yet, it is likely that some common longings draw us to be with one another:
To remember what is most important in life.
To be challenged to live more truly, more deeply, to live with integrity and kindness and with hope and love.
To feel the company of those who seek a common path, to be renewed in our faith in the promise of this life.
To be strengthened and to find the courage to continue to do what we must do, day after day, world without end.
Even if your longings are different than these, you are welcome here. Even if you do not have the strength and the courage to pass along, you are welcome here.
You are welcome in your grief and your joy to be within this circle of companions. We gather here. It is good to be together.
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 each of us bring our light
to join the ‘carnival of lamps’.
We come as individual souls to gather in community,
finding our purpose in connection,
our freedom in the self’s surrender,
and our oneness in diversity.
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 by Cressida Pryor
Last week I was standing at one particular new threshold… at the start of my grandson’s third birthday party in the local village hall. There I was, ready to greet newcomers – the bouncy castle was inflated, the ride-on bikes were already whizzing about, driven by excited children, and noise levels were high.
I turned around to see a mum approaching the hall holding the hand of a reluctant little boy; hiding in the folds of her skirt… he hovered, seeming unsure as he approached the door to the main hall, doubting if this was where he really wanted to be. He dragged his feet… and then stopped very still.
How many of us have also had that reaction approaching a room full of noise, other people’s voices raised above the hubbub? How many of us have also thought, “Is this where I really want to be?” It takes a lot of courage to cross a new threshold…
This little fellow had his mum’s hand to hold – and he did, tightly! After a few whispered words of encouragement, they did enter the main hall together. A little while later I was nearly run over by this same boy hurtling around the hall on a trike, his mum sitting at the side chatting to other parents.
He did step into new ground… He had a hand to hold, and was rewarded by friendship and many companions.
How can we make our chapels and churches, meeting houses and rooms safe places to enter for the very first, and subsequent times? For the newcomer, there may not be a hand to hold, or words of whispered encouragement to make the difference….
May we too… encourage ourselves and our companions to see difficulties as our most rewarding threshold.
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 Open, inclusive and welcoming churches by Bill Darlison, from The Unitarian Life edited by Stephen Lingwood
We would be wrong to assume that people investigate our churches solely, or even primarily, because they might find a particular service interesting. For many, the search is for community as much for intellectual enlightenment, and any Unitarian group must present itself to newcomers as a caring, friendly, non-threatening gathering, in which Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance are part of the fabric and not just part of the rhetoric.
Visitors must be put at their ease, and the role of the “welcomer” is a very important one in this regard, involving more than just handing out hymnbooks. Coffee-time after the service also provides a unique and vital opportunity to make visitors feel welcome and valued and, while they should never be subject to lengthy monologues by garrulous or proselytising members of the congregation, visitors should never have to stand alone at this time, and should be given every opportunity to introduce themselves.
Prayer For the Lonely by Cliff Reed, from Spirit of Time and Place (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
We pray today for the lonely – in solitude and in our midst:
those who feel alone and companionless,
those who want to share their lives, but can’t,
those who long for friendship and human warmth, but are denied.
We pray for the perception to recognise them,
the sensitivity to respect their boundaries and their pain,
the love to include them in our lives – and ours in theirs,
if that is what they want.
And should we have deepened another’s loneliness,
through unkindness, thoughtlessness, or coldness of heart,
may we repent and turn again towards them with a new resolve.
This is our prayer,
Reading from Hospitality by Stephen Lingwood, from With Heart and Mind 2
Hospitality is one of the key practices handed to us by the Islamic-Judaeo-Christian tradition. In many cultures stories abound of those who have either embraced or rejected the stranger, and in doing so, have embraced or rejected God. One of the most famous stories is that of the strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah, who gave the strangers food and water, and washed their feet. This is contrasted with the strangers visiting Sodom, a city that couldn’t have been less hospitable – they tried to rape them. That the author of Genesis says these strangers were angels, points to the message of these stories – that our relationship with the divine is defined by how we treat strangers, the poor and outcasts in society.
One of the key ministries of our Unitarian communities should be the practice of hospitality. We are communities who welcome the weary traveller with open arms. And we welcome the whole person: mind, body and soul. We do not ask anyone to leave any part of themselves at the door. We welcome people with their doubts and beliefs, with their imperfections, whomever they love, wherever they are on their spiritual journey. The only qualification to our welcome is that those who are welcomed should also welcome others, and should contribute towards the welcoming and loving ethos of the community….
It is my belief that such religious communities save the world. Never doubt the power and importance of this mission.
Time of Stillness and Reflection (words by Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in The Living Tradition
Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.
Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.
Let us be aware of the source of being, common to us all
and to all living things.
Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,
let us fill our hearts with our own compassion –
towards ourselves and towards all living beings.
Let us pray that we ourselves cease
to be the cause of suffering to each other.
With humility, with awareness of the existence of life,
and of the sufferings that are going on around us,
let us practice the establishment of peace
in our hearts and on earth.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Crossing a New Threshold
It’s September, and all over the country, children and young people will be going back to school and college, or starting a new stage in their education or their lives. The British (non-) Summer is over (although at the time I’m writing this, it’s fine and sunny), and it’s time to put away our buckets and spades and buckle down to something new. In my own family, my step-grandson will be going up into Year 1, and my nephews will be starting their further education.
And many parents will be waving them off bravely, then (if they are anything like I was when my two children-no-longer-children went off to university) coming back home and weeping into the sheets… it was a time when I needed (and blessedly received) the support of my Unitarian community.
For those of us who are longer in the tooth, September may also be a time when we sign up for new adult education courses. Having worked in or around the education system (including the Unitarian education system with my own ministry training and the Worship Studies Course) for donkey’s years, I always get a new surge of energy at this time of year… it is so full of new possibilities.
For example, there are two new Worship Studies Course Foundation Step courses beginning this month, one for UK students, the other for folk from Australia and New Zealand. And I’ve been asked to help facilitate the Australia and New Zealand one, which began last Monday morning at 8.00 am (which was evening for the students, except for two poor souls who were on holiday in the US, for whom it was 3.00 am – respect to them for showing up!). It’s a new venture for Unitarian College, and we made a good beginning. It fills me with hope for the future of our beloved “uncommon denomination”, as more and more people are trained to fill lay leadership roles, either supporting our current ministers or on their own, in their home congregations.
Nevertheless, starting a new course or walking through the door of a new classroom or lecture theatre or even a Unitarian church or chapel, can be a scary thing to do, (even if we are only doing it online, as the new WSCFS students are doing). I loved Cressida Pryor’s story of the little boy, invited to a friend’s birthday party, but “doubting if this was where he really wanted to be.” I guess that most of us can empathise with that feeling. As Cressida wrote, “How many of us have also had that reaction approaching a room full of noise, other people’s voices raised above the hubbub? How many of us have also thought, ‘Is this where I really want to be?’ It takes a lot of courage to cross a new threshold…”
Because, sometimes, we can feel less than welcomed. Let me share a personal example: Just over a decade ago, I was the very new minister of the Banbury Unitarian Fellowship. At that time, the local paper, The Banbury Guardian, included a half-page on church services each week, and also a short ‘Thought for the Day’ type column called Cross Talk. The significance of that title passed me by completely. So I submitted a short piece on an uncontroversial subject, Spring – the Season of Renewal, which they duly published.
A few days later, I got an apologetic phone call from a very friendly Quaker, who explained that the Cross Talk columns were parcelled out between member churches of Banbury Christians Together, which he coordinated, and that I had inadvertently ‘jumped the queue’ by submitting a piece independently. Of course, I apologised for my blunder and asked to be added to the list of contributors. He said that so far as he was concerned, he would be happy to add me to the rota, but he would consult some other folk about it and get back to me.
The weeks went by, and I didn’t hear anything, so eventually I rang him. And apparently, there had been a strong adverse reaction to my piece appearing, from certain Evangelical Christian members. The inclusion of a piece by a Unitarian was apparently “the thin end of the wedge”. Before they knew where they were, they’d be letting Just Anyone write a Cross Talk column – Jews, Hindus, Muslims – where would it end? My Quaker contact was very apologetic and agreed that this sort of reaction was very un-Christian, to say the least.
It made me so sad that Unitarians were regarded as the “thin end of the wedge” because we do not believe that Jesus was the unique divine Son of God, who was crucified to bring humankind back into right relationship with God. And it also made me sad that no contributions from other faith traditions were permitted, let alone welcomed. Ironically, this happened during the bicentenary year of the passing of the Unitarian Toleration Act. Yet in at least one corner of the United Kingdom, Unitarians were very definitely still beyond the pale. I wasn’t angry, just sad.
Being made to feel welcome, having a sense that we “belong” somewhere, is crucial to our spiritual well-being. As I said a few weeks ago, not feeling that we belong, being excluded or rejected by whoever our current “in-crowd” is, hurts. And I do believe that if we are able to experience a true sense of belonging, if we are able to find a place where we are accepted body, mind and soul, with all of our flaws and imperfections, we will thrive as a result. And will be able to grow into the best people we can be, able to offer welcome and hospitality to others in our turn.
If we are to grow as Unitarian communities, there are two fundamental questions that we need to answer: first, what will encourage the curious stranger to summon up the courage to walk across our threshold in the first place? And second (which is probably more important), what can we do to make them feel welcomed and included in our congregational community, so that they will want to come back again?
And of the two questions, the first is easier to both answer and to implement the solutions. We need to have a vibrant online presence (whether that is our website, and/or our social media accounts); our buildings and grounds (if any) have to be as attractive as we can make them (both inside and out); and our external notice boards need to be both up-to-date and relevant. The entrance should be open and accessible, bright and welcoming.
Once the newcomer enters the worship space, it is important that they walk into somewhere well-lit (but not dazzling), clean, tidy, uncluttered, bright and welcoming, with regularly updated internal notice boards. Are the latest leaflets and magazines prominently displayed, so that the visitor can pick one up? And are the flowers fresh, if that is something your congregation does?
Also, it should go without saying that the toilets will be spotlessly clean and fresh smelling, with a good supply of loo roll, and enough soap to wash one’s hands with. And that either the towel should be clean, or there is a good supply of paper towels or a working hand-dryer. As well as facilities for the disabled.
All these things take a lot of hard work and it is easy, particularly if our congregation is small, to be daunted by the size of the task. Yet why on earth would the newcomer return, if none of these things are in place?
Which leads us to the answer to the second question: “What can we do to make the newcomer feel welcomed and included in our congregation, so that they will want to come back again?” Which is what our second and third readings were about. As Bill Darlison, former minister of Dublin Unitarians, says, “any Unitarian group must present itself to newcomers as a caring, friendly, non-threatening gathering, in which Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance are part of the fabric and not just part of the rhetoric.”
There is a fine line to tread about putting visitors at their ease – not everyone wants to engage in an animated conversation about the joys of Unitarianism right off the bat, but would rather slip in and observe what is going on. Nevertheless, it is equally important that visitors are not left to their own devices, particularly during coffee hour. And the church notices during the service need to be inclusive, not just “refreshments after the service, as usual”. This type of information could be included on the order of service, and I also believe that an order of service should always be provided, so that strangers can follow what is going on during the service.
Stephen Lingwood goes further, saying that hospitality should be one of our key ministries. He describes the best kind of Unitarian hospitality this way: “We are communities who welcome the weary traveller with open arms. And we welcome the whole person: mind, body and soul. We do not ask anyone to leave any part of themselves at the door. We welcome people with their doubts and beliefs, with their imperfections, whomever they love, wherever they are on their spiritual journey. The only qualification to our welcome is that those who are welcomed should also welcome others, and should contribute towards the welcoming and loving ethos of the community.”
Which may perhaps give us all something to aim for, the next time a newcomer crosses our threshold. We must never forget that doing so will have cost them not a little courage, and that we need to make them feel welcome, without overwhelming them.
May it be so.
Spirit of Life and Love,
May we welcome the newcomer
into our communities, and also
hold all of our members in
a warm and compassionate embrace,
so that we live up to the hymn’s words,
“All are welcome here.”
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