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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Minister’s Letter

June's Theme: Oneness

 

"If God is One, we are one with God and with one another in the universe. For me, these are the true and logical meanings of the words Unitarian and Universalist."

Yvonne Seon

 

One of the convictions of the earliest Unitarians what that God is one, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity. Today, our understanding of Oneness is, I think, a bit deeper. I think we have got passed worrying about doctrines to get to the mystical heart of the understanding of oneness. This mystical oneness is an experience spoken about in many of the world's great spiritual traditions.

Often we humans view ourselves as separate, and this belief leads us into fear of the world and worry about whether we're better or worse than anyone else. But the spiritual truth is that we are one, deeply interconnected with everyone and everything else. We are one with God, and one with all-that-is. Our world is one, and it is only our stupidity and ignorance that means we see each other as "us" and "them" divided by religion, nationality, ethnicity.

Our call as Unitarians is to believe in one love, one world, one human race; and to work to make this come true.

In love and peace,

 

Stephen

Minister's Message

May 2015

May's Theme: Curiosity

 

"I know that in faith and with your whole heart you question me. Therefore I am glad because of you. Truly I say to you I am pleased, and my Father in me rejoices, that thus you inquire and ask. Your boldness makes me rejoice, and it affords yourself life."

Jesus of Nazareth (Epistula Apostolorum)

 

Curiosity is a central Unitarian value. Our faith does not try to close the mind to questions, but constantly challenges us to open our minds to find out more truth. Unitarians must always ask the questions: is it true? Who said so? Why? What does that mean? How does that affect the way I should live my life?

We are curious about the history of our religion. We do not say, "the Bible says so, therefore that's what I believe," neither do we ignore the Bible or ancient texts - both positions show a lack of curiosity. But we ask, "Who wrote this book? What was going on at the time? What do we know about this? How can we understand this more?"

We do not think we know all there is to be known about the world, but pay attention to all sciences that can tell us more about the world, how it works, why it is the way it is. We continue to be fascinated and curious about the world around us.

We do not ignore all the world's religions, thinking we have all the answers, but we are curious to find out more about all religions, believing we cannot be arrogant enough to think we have all the truth - that there is still more truth to be discovered if we are curious enough to ask.

The world is a wonderful place. It's treasures are open to us if we are curious enough to seek out new answers. Let's stay curious.

In love and peace,

 

Stephen

Minister's Report to the Annual General Meeting

12th April 2015

 

Our purpose is to inspire spiritual journeys, engaging with the world with open hearts and open minds.

As Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel it is my role to lead and coordinate the spiritual ministry of the congregation and to be a resource in helping the whole congregation to fulfil our purpose.

An Annual General Meeting is a good time to step back and ask the questions: "How are we doing in fulfilling this purpose? Where are we in our spiritual journey together?"

The most significant part of our journey in the last year has been the coming together of two spiritual journeys: the journeys of Halliwell Road and Bank Street communities, separate for 115 years, have come together again. This time last year the Bank Street community heard the wonderful news that the Halliwell Road community was coming home to Bank Street again. We hope it has been a "coming home" and that we have got to know one another in the last year, as we have grown together into one community. Next week we mark this formal coming together with a service of Welcoming and Uniting. We are one.

This of course brings challenges. As our congregation gets bigger it is more difficult for us all to know one another other. We need to work extra hard to build relationships and to operate as one community. I continue to work with the Pastoral Care Team in trying to lead our ministry to love and care for one another, prioritising those most in need. But the pastoral and community life of the congregation is the responsibility of all of us, together.

We continue to inspire spiritual journeys in many ways. The development in the last year has been to move to a pattern of monthly themes for our Sunday services. This allows us to go deeper into a spiritual topic as adults and as children in Junior Church. This pattern will continue to grow and develop.

Our Junior Church has grown a great deal in the last year and we should be really grateful for that. It's wonderful for us to be truly a congregation for all ages! However this work is always a challenge on limited volunteer energy and small numbers. I believe as a congregation our number one priority right now should be our children's ministry to make sure we are truly welcoming to families and children.

We also continue to inspire spiritual journeys with a variety of activities outside our usual Sunday services. This year this has included "be" worship gatherings, Twelve Steps to Spiritual Health, the Spiritual Film Club and the meditation group.

The purpose of this community is not to serve ourselves but to look outwards to the needs of the world. Our purpose is to engage with the world. I continue to prioritise this outward looking focus in my work. Working alongside others I keep our profile high with updating our website, using social media, appearing on local radio and contacting newspapers.

I also have responsibilities beyond this congregation. I am a Chaplain at the University, and this year I have been Chair of Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre. Although this year I have stepped down from my role in the Ministry Strategy Group I continue to serve our wider Unitarian movement by doing some project work for the Ministry Strategy Group, as well as being a tutor on the Ministry in the Making conference for student ministers, teaching on the Worship Studies Course, and being a mentor for a ministry student.

More locally this year I have been part of a group that has founded the Bolton Fair School Admissions campaign and am Chair of the Steering Group. And although I am less involved than previously, I am still proud to be a Bolton Street Angel, and we as a congregation should be deeply proud that we are still able to support this important project in Bolton.

So we are an outward-looking congregation, and we are a growing congregation. Our Sunday morning attendance has grown substantially in 2014. In 2013 our average Sunday attendance was 33.6. In 2014 it was 37.7 (or 36.6 if you take out Sundays when we had large congregations because of baby blessing ceremonies). This growth represents more than 10% in one year, which is good on any measure.

Despite this growth, we are still a small congregation. Those of us who have found the Unitarian faith and this Unitarian community know what a difference it can make in their lives. This could be true for many more people who could find a spiritual home with us if only they knew we were here and found a warm welcome when they visited us. We can continue to grow!

But we face many challenges. We still struggle to find enough volunteers to do all that needs to be done and maintain a building like this. I am deeply grateful for all your volunteering and our shared ministry together. Thank you to everyone who does so much for our community.

But there is still much to be done. We have a shared ministry here. What is your ministry? I would love for us to be a community where people bring their passions and their talents to serve the world through all that we do. How can we fulfil that vision?

Once again I am hugely privileged to be the Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. Thank you. Thank you all.

 

 

 

Stephen Lingwood

Minister's Message

April's Theme: Resurrection

 

"To die - for this into the world you came.

Yes, to abandon more than you ever conceived possible."

Edward Carpenter

 

There is a theme of spiritual death in many of the world's great religions and myths. We must die to the old if we wish to be born to the new - this is the message we find said in lots of different ways, including in the Christian telling of Easter.

The point is that the spiritual life is not always a matter of gentle "growth" - but often involves a real (and painful) death of what has gone before. It is sometimes only when something has died, that we see something new come to life.

This year I am particularly thinking about Halliwell Road Free Church, who held their last service one year ago, on Easter Sunday. That church has now died. It's time has gone, and there's inevitable sadness in that. But in the last year we have witnessed a new resurrection happening, as the people of Halliwell Road have joined here at Bank Street.

I believe together we are much stronger. I believe it has been a mutually enriching experience to have joined our congregations together. I believe we have witnessed a resurrection. Let's give thanks for this.

Happy Easter,

 

Stephen

The Gospel of Mary

 

A Reflection by Stephen Lingwood

based on talk delivered to Bolton Theosophical Society

22nd March 2015

 

Many of us have heard of the book and the film, The Da Vinci Code, where the idea is presented that Jesus had a wife called Mary Magdalene. In the story the idea is that they had a child, and the descendants are still among us to this day.

 

Is there any truth to this? Well that's one of the things I want to explore here. I want to ask three questions: Who was Mary Magdalene? What is the Gospel of Mary that bears her name? And why does it matter?

 

Who was Mary?

Mary is a mysteries figure in the documents we have about the life of Jesus. I want to look at a few of these documents here and see how the picture we get of Mary is different in each of them.

First the Gospel of Luke 8:1-3 (NRSV adapted):

Soon afterwardsJesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Realm of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

 

So here we get our first glimpse of Mary. She was a follower of Jesus, the Gospel of Luke certainly describes this. Mary seems like a minor character though. It’s almost an aside – oh yes and Mary and some other women were there too. And yet we’re told that these women were supporting Jesus and his disciples, this is not a minor thing at all. This small mention is about all we get of Mary until the death and resurrection of Jesus when Mary again is an important figure present throughout.

 

The descriptions of the resurrection in the different Gospels vary quite a lot, yet Mary features in all of them. She is the first witness of the resurrection. And yet after this she disappears again, and very little more is said of her.

 

So from the Gospel of Luke (and Mark, Matthew and John) we get the view that Mary was a follower of Jesus.

 

Was Mary a prostitute? No, nowhere is it written that she was. This developed in later Christian tradition. It comes from the tendency to get women mentioned in the Bible mixed up. In Latin Western Christianity a tradition developed that Mary was a reformed prostitute. But this was never thought in Greek Eastern Christianity. So Mary was not a prostitute.

 

A further picture of Mary emerges when we look at Gospels that didn’t make it into the official Bible, such as this passage from the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas saying 114 from The Complete Jesus trans. and ed. Ricky Alan Mayotte (South Rayalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1998), 113, adapted):

Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life’

Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Realm of Heaven.’

 

So Peter doesn’t like the fact that Mary is included as a disciple by Jesus. Peter tells Jesus to tell Mary to leave because she is a woman. Jesus’ reply sounds very strange to us. He says that Mary will become a man, will become male.

 

To understand this we must understand the highly symbolic language we are dealing with.

Jesus always communicated in symbol and parable, and this is even more so in his portrayal in the Gnostic Gospels such as Thomas and Mary (I'll discuss what we mean by "Gnostic" below).

 

In this language ‘male’ is a symbol of mind and spirit, and ‘female’ is a symbol for the body, sexuality, and the material world (The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. 2003), 147). Jesus says that Mary can obtain a spiritual maturity so that her body no longer matters. Her body is no longer a barrier to her spiritual growth. As can any woman.

 

Now the feminists among you may object to these ideas. Why should ‘female’ be associated with the lower body and ‘male’ with the higher spirit? Is this saying men are naturally more spiritual than women? Well, yes, I think it is saying that, and I would agree that this system is not perfect.

There is sexism in this kind of theology. Yet the outcome of this sexist theology is that Mary could be seen as a disciple asimportant as Peter or John or any of the other male disciples. Perhaps by women ‘becoming men’ they could be seen as spiritually equal with men in the early Christian church. Is this more or less sexist than women remaining in an inferior state? Is it more or less sexist that ignoring women leaders in the early Christian church?

 

So from the Gospel of Thomas we get the view that Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus, one who could become as spiritually mature as any man.

 

When we move to the Gospel of Mary, another piece of writing that wasn’t included in the final official Bible, we see Mary not only as a follower, but a leader (Mary 4: 1 – 5:10 from The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. 2003), 14 – 15):

When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all. ‘Peace be with you!’ he said. ‘Acquire my peace within yourselves!

Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying, “Look over there!” For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.

Go then, preach the good news about the Realm. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it.’

After he had said these things he departed from them.

But they were distressed and wept greatly. ‘How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the realm of the child of true Humanity?’ they said. ‘If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?’

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, ‘Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.’

When Mary had said these things, she turned their heart towards the Good, and they began to debate about the words of the Saviour.

 

In this gospel we see Mary not only as having the potential to be as spiritually mature as any male disciple, sheisas spiritually advanced, or moreadvanced than the male disciples.

 

The passage comes from a part of the Gospel after the Resurrection. Jesus gives his final teachings, then leaves. The disciples begin to moan and worry about what will happen. It is Mary who takes the lead, and speaks to the disciples, comforts them and begins to give them advanced spiritual teaching. Mary is the leader of the disciples, the most spiritually advanced, the greatest disciple.

 

So was Mary the lover of Jesus or the wife of Jesus? There is some evidence for this. In the Gospel of Philip we hear that Jesus loved Mary more than all the other disciples, and used to kiss her often (Gospel of Philip 63:33-64:9). But we must be careful here in projecting our cultural understandings onto a different time and culture. I think it is clear, at least if you take these writings seriously, that Jesus and Mary were extremely close. But I don’t think you have to sexualise that close relationship. In my opinion, Mary was close to Jesus but the relationship was not a sexual one. But it is possible, and it makes a good story.

 

So, what can we say about Mary of Magdala? I think we can say this: Mary Magdalene was a disciple in Jesus’ inner circle. She was important in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church after his death. The Gnostic Gospels tend to emphasise Mary’s importance, and the canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – tend to play down her importance. But it’s worth saying all these Gospels, every single one of them was written well after Jesus, Mary and all the first generation of Christians were dead, and each brings their own perspective and theology.

 

 

What is the Gospel of Mary and what is its message and theology?

In the first two centuries of Christianity there was a lot of diversity that we've only really begun to appreciate recently. We've understood this through discoveries of these different gospels.

 

We think the Gospel of Mary was written at the beginning of the second century. But it was lost for centuries. It was discovered in an Egyptian market in 1896 by a German scholar who brought it back to Berlin for study. That discovered piece was written in Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt that is still used by Egyptian Christians, but since then a fragment has been found in Greek and it was probably originally written in Greek.

 

The document we have is not complete. We've lost maybe half of the Gospel of Mary. It was translated but not finally published until 1955. So what we have is just a few pages.

 

The Gospel seems to be a scene after the resurrection. Jesus is talking to his disciples, giving them some last teachings. He then leaves, and they panic a bit, but Mary, calms them down, and then gives them this inner spiritual teaching.

 

This teaching seems to be a sort of spiritual parable in which the soul ascends into heaven, being interrogated by "powers." This literary form of the soul going up to heaven was well used by many spiritual writings in the ancient world. It was seen as perhaps predicting this after-death journey while also providing teaching that could be used in this world to spiritually advance. These powers in the Gospel of Mary are things like ignorance, desire, darkness, flesh, wrath.

But we've lost most of this section. Here's one part (Mary 9: 2 – 5 from The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle by Karen L. King (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. 2003), 16):

 

And Desire said, "I did not see you go down, yet now I see you go up. So why do you lie since you belong to me?"

The Soul answered, "I saw you. You did not see me nor did you know me. You mistook the garment I wore for my true self. And you did not recognise me."

 

The point is the Soul does not belong to the material world, though Desire thought it did, because it mistook the body for the Soul. But the Soul says that the body is just a "garment" worn by the soul, and the true self is not the body. The point of Gnostic theology is that we are not our bodies, we are our souls.

 

We call this a Gnostic gospel because it's teaching this inner knowledge. "Gnosis" is a word for knowledge. Gnostic Christianity was a very powerful force in the first few Christian centuries. Although in a way we don't really know what it was, we just have fragments like the Gospel of Mary, but we don't have the full story. It was clearly very influenced by the spiritual traditions of Greek Platonism and so it seems less related to Judaism.

 

Often historians put forward what we could call the three bears version of early Christianity. Jewish Christianity that still retained strong links with the Jewish culture and religion is often see as too Jewish by modern Christian historians. Gnostic Christianity is seen as not Jewish enough. And Orthodox Christianity is just right in its Jewishness (King, 39). But that's very much a simplification of early Christian history.

 

In fact early Christianity was very diverse. It was complicated, Christian communities in different cities were pretty isolated, and developed along their own lines; and we've lost so much. Some estimates say we've lost more than 85% of literature from those first two centuries of Christianity. And so Christians often tell the story from the point of view of orthodoxy, from the point of view of those writings that survived, and as we know, the victors, write the history. We can't really say we have given other forms of Christianity a real hearing. We do not have their voices, only small fragments.

 

Why does it matter?

I think there's a few ways we can answer this question of why any of these ancient things matter today.

 

Firstly I think we can say that women were leaders and preachers in the early Christian church, so there is no reason they cannot be today.

 

Secondly I think we need to acknowledge how vastly diverse early Christianity was in its first two centuries. And I think that will help us to be comfortable with pluralism today. Today, within Christianity, there is a tolerance of diverse forms of churches, some churches have bishops and some don't for example, and that kind of thing is accepted. But what's not accepted is diversities of theology. So people like myself, Unitarians, are not accepted because our theology is not orthodox. But I'd like to see Christians get comfortable with not just a diversity of forms of church, but a diversity of theologies and spiritualities.

 

Thirdly, what are the spiritual insights we can get from the Gospel of Mary?

 

To answer this question I think I have to speak more personally.

 

For a start let me say that I'm not totally on board with the theology presented in the Gospel of Mary. I would not want to emphasise the "soul" over the "body" as I think bodies are quite important, and should not be considered the opposite of things spiritual. I'm much more interested in integrating different parts of the self, if they are, indeed different in the first place.

 

|But I want to highlight some of the teaching I find important in the Gospel of Mary. Before he leaves, Jesus says to his disciples that they should be on their guard against people who tell them to look here and there for the child of true humanity. What is translated as the ‘the child of true humanity’ in this version of the Gospel of Mary is translated in other Gospel translations as the Son of Man.

 

In Mark and Matthew we’re told the Son of Man will come on clouds with great glory and power (Mark 13:21-26; Matthew 24:15). The Son of Man, the child of true humanity, is a figure that will come in the skies at the end of the current time. But in Mary we have something very different. Here the Child of True Humanity is within you. We are told not to look for some supernatural figure in the sky to bring about a new age, rather we are called to follow what is within us. Jesus does not even say ‘Follow me.’ He says follow what is within you. He does not say believe in me, he says believe in what is within you.

 

But what does that actually mean? “Those who search for it will find it” we are told. Yet when I search, when I look within myself – when I examine my inner thoughts – I find a lot of rubbish. I find all my daydreams, my fantasies, my fears, my worries, my anxieties bubbling around!

When I have a quiet moment – either sitting in “proper” meditation or just having a quiet moment sitting starring out of a window on a train – I often find that my mind is so noisy. When the outside noise quietens down I can only find how noisy it is within my own mind.

 

How do we get past that noise? To find this child of true Humanity? I think the answer is given in the phrase by Meister Eckart: “To see as God sees.” To see how God sees means to see truthfully, to see Truth, to see how things really are.

 

The only way to do this is to remove the illusions we usually see through. It’s like we’re constantly wearing glasses that distort the world. Our job is to remove those glasses, and to see the world as it truly is, to see as God sees.

 

This can happen when we pay attention to our thought-patterns, to think “why do I feel in a mood today?”

Maybe because somebody drove badly in front of me this morning, and I got angry.”

Why did I get angry?”

Because I skipped breakfast”

Why was the other person driving badly?”

Maybe they skipped breakfast too, and weren’t paying attention.”

 

Simply seeing the deeper truth of a situation like this constantly removes the unexamined thought patterns of our lives and we begin to see more clearly, to see as God sees.

 

In meditation we do this when we constantly notice our distractions.

When we think, “You know what I’m not meditating, I’m thinking about tomorrow”

You know what I’m not meditating, I’m worrying about yesterday.”

You know what I’m not mediating, I’m thinking about the episode of Coronation Street I saw last night.”

Just by constantly noticing, seeing, we return to the reality of the present moment.

 

When we do this, when we remove the distortions, cleanse our vision, we begin to see as God sees and we begin to find the Child of True Humanity within us. When we do this, we are truly children of God, children of True Humanity. Mary said, “he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.” Our task is to simply to become true Human beings.

 

I'd like to end with these words from Meister Eckhart (translated and adapted by Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God (New York: Penguin, 2002) 120):

 

Reading from Meister Eckhart

It is your destiny to see as God sees,

to know as God knows,

to feel as God

feels.

How is this possible? How?

Because divine love cannot defy its very self.

Divine love will be eternally true to its own being,

and its being is giving all it can,

at the perfect

moment.

And the greatest gift

God can give is His own experience.

 

Every object, every creature, every man, woman and child

has a soul and it is the destiny of all,

to see as God sees, to know as God knows,

to feel as God feels, to Be

as God

 

Is.

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