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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Minister's Message May 2014

“As tranquil streams that meet and merge

And flow as one to seek the sea,

Our kindred fellowships unite

To build a church that shall be free.”

Marion Ham

 

This month we enter into a new phase of our life in this Chapel. The congregation of Halliwell Road Free Church, having held their last worship service on Easter Sunday, have now joined us, meeting and merging and flowing as One.

We recognise that there will be many different feelings about the closure of Halliwell Road Church – sadness and grief – as well as thanksgiving and celebration for the many special memories of that place and its ministry for the last 115 years. You can read about many of these memories and thoughts in the last Halliwell Road Calendar – and I recommend that you do.

And now there is change and newness for all of us as we become one Free Church. As I said at Easter: something has died – and something new has been born. This will all take some getting used to; and I along, with the Chapel Council, will be thinking about how best we welcome all of us into one community. One simple thing is for us all to wear name tags on Sundays for the next few weeks – this will enable all of us to help get to know each other’s names. But this is just the beginning and we need to get to know one another – and to learn from each other.

So although this is a sad time as we mourn the loss of one Unitarian church in Bolton – it is also an exciting time as we start something new together. It may be that we find the Spirit moving in our new community – calling us to build something new and greater than either church was previously.

I am, once again, deeply grateful, moved, and excited to be your Minister at this time.

In faith and love

Stephen

 

Same Sex Marriage

A Reflection based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood - 24th July 2011

One warm Sunday evening seven years ago I left my flat in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where I was living at the time) and walked just a little bit down the road to Cambridge City Hall. Outside the large civic building a large crowd was gathering – perhaps two thousand people. I joined the crowd and soaked up the atmosphere.

There was a great feeling of celebration – but it wasn't Independence Day, it wasn’t the 4th of July.

We all starred up at the City Hall clock tower and counted down to midnight. When the clock struck midnight, we all cheered – but it wasn’t New Year’s Eve.

People were shouting out “Mazel tov!” – but it wasn’t a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

What we were celebrating was the issuing of the first same-sex marriage licenses in America. Massachusetts was the first state in the United States to open marriage to same-sex couples. And Cambridge (really just the northern part of the city of Boston) was the first town in the state to hand out the marriage licences – at midnight on the first day it was legal: 17th May 2004.

I remember that night with a lot of affection – it was the most joyful crowd I have ever been in. It felt like New Year’s Eve, a wedding, and July 4th all rolled into one. I cheered, sung and celebrated in that crowd for about three hours. We all watched as the couples walked into the City Hall and then a few hours later emerged one by one. Each couple would emerge out of the main doors grasping their tiny pieces of paper (their marriage licences) that meant so much to them. And the crowd would cheer as they walked down the steps outside the City Hall – walking down an aisle, of sorts, as they would be doing again very soon. I waited until around 2am until the couple I knew emerged out of the City Hall. I hugged them and congratulated them. A couple of days later they were married in my church: First Church Boston Unitarian Universalist – one of the first same-sex marriages in America.

It was a great privilege to be living in Massachusetts when this history was being made. Since 2004 a few other US states have opened up marriage to same-sex couples. In July 2011 New York State, the biggest state so far, also legalised same-sex marriage. Seven years ago only two countries in the world had legal same-sex marriage: Belgium and the Netherlands. But since then Argentina, Norway, Portugal, Canada, South Africa, Iceland, Spain, and Sweden have all legalised same-sex marriage.

In the UK of course we have had civil partnerships for same-sex couples since 2005. Now civil partnerships are similar to marriage, but they are not marriages. They are deliberately designed to have a lower status than marriage. One of the ways they are different is that civil partnerships cannot be religious. They cannot happen in a church or place of worship. They cannot contain any religious language. I wrote an article in the Inquirer a few years ago criticising civil partnerships for this and other reasons. At the following General Assembly Annual Meetings our Oxford congregation proposed and successfully passed a motion calling for civil partnerships to be allowed in places of worship. Along with the Quakers and Liberal Jews we Unitarians have been campaigning for this, and working together with Waheed Alli, a Labour Peer, legislation has been passed to enable this to happen. A period of consultation ended last June, and this should be able to happen next year.

But in many ways the proposed change is very small. Civil partnerships will still be civil (non-religious); they will still need to be performed by a registrar and not a minister of religion; there will still be a legal separation between the actual legal bit and any religious bits. The only difference is that they can happen in a religious building before or after a non-legal religious ceremony. In other words: this is still not marriage.

Why does this matter? To ask this question is to approach the bigger question: what is marriage? What is a Unitarian approach to marriage? What do we actually believe about marriage? Why should marriage exist at all? Why can’t two people just live together, and leave it at that? Why have this thing we call “marriage” anyway?

One answer to that question is a very practical one: marriage offers some forms of legal protection. Marriage legally declares that this person, my spouse, should be considered family, should be considered my next of kin. There are all kinds of situation when this is a considerable advantage. And civil partnerships do offer this kind of legal protection to same-sex couples.

Marriage does this legal stuff, but it also does something more. Marriage says something legal, but it also says something theological, something spiritual. The act of marriage declares something. It declares something to the couple, their family, their friends, and society at large. Marriage declares that this relationship is life-giving; this relationship is in some important way good; good not only for the people involved but for the whole of society. Marriage is a theological declaration that loving, committed, faithful, sexual relationships are good for humanity. Loving, committed, faithful sexual relationships are places of holiness, places where we meet the love of God.

The question then becomes: what kind of relationships are holy? What defines the holiness, the goodness, of a relationship? There are two ways to answer that question: we can look to the past and see what cultures and religions have said about what kind of relationships are holy and good and what kind of relationships are unholy or unhealthy; or we can look to the present and ask: is it possible to discern today what relationships are holy and good?

If we look to the past we find that people have assumed that the fact that the majority of people seek relationships with the opposite sex means that only opposite sex relationships are good and holy. This is the assumption we find in most religious scriptures. But if we look to the present, if we use our own understanding, we can see with our own eyes that same-sex relationships can be loving, faithful, good and holy. And if that is true, if the gender of the participants does not dictate the holiness or unholiness of a relationship, then why is marriage restricted to only different-sex couples?

At this point I turn to the Quakers, who have been much wiser than us Unitarians on this issue. They have been considering this issue for a long time: carefully, prayerfully, thoughtfully. And they’ve come to a conclusion that I find so compelling. In 2009 they came to a decision that said in part: “We are being led to treat same sex committed relationships in the same way as opposite sex marriages, reaffirming our central insight that marriage is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses.”

“Marriage is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses” – what a compelling statement. In other words when a committed relationship is a place of holiness, of the love of God, there is already a marriage there; that is what marriage is. A ceremony of marriage only confirms what God has already done. That is why I think civil partnerships are not good enough. In the United States civil partnerships were already seen by many as a conservative compromise position. Many considered them to part of a doctrine of “separate but equal” that had been rejected as a racial philosophy a generation earlier. And I wonder whether campaigning for “religious” civil partnerships really makes sense: logically, theologically and practically. I think this is really just a distraction.

Last month the government announced that there will be a consultation on same-sex marriage starting in March 2012, and we Unitarians really need to have a thought-through position on this. It is my belief that we should be clearly articulating a spiritually-rooted commitment to full same-sex marriage, including the right to a religious marriage. What I wish we would do is treat it as seriously as the Quakers have done. I wouldn’t be in favour of just one motion at the Annual Meetings. Frankly that wouldn’t be good enough because here’s the elephant in the room: liberal activists go to the Annual Meetings and pass motions that do not filter down to grassroots congregations that are in many ways quite conservative. And what would be the point of the General Assembly taking a position in favour of same-sex marriage if many of our congregations did not want to perform them? This is one issue where we can’t afford for the grassroots to be out of step with the centre. Marriage is one of the major things congregations do. Any Unitarian position on marriage needs to be well thought-through and widely shared.

I want every congregation to talk about this, to pray on this issue, to carefully discern what they think. Like the Quakers we need to come to a committed, thought-through position and act and campaign on that position. We need to be guided not by the knee-jerk political liberalism that usually guides us. Rather we need to be guided by God. We need to be guided by discerning the Spirit’s presence in human relationships, by thinking about our theology of human relationships. We need to be witnesses to what we believe the Divine is already doing. What do we believe? And how should that guide our actions?

Edward Carpenter: Prophet of Soul and Body

A Reflection based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood

on Walt Whitman Sunday - 26th May 2013

 

“Do I contract myself?

Very well then I contract myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

 

Imagine yourself in vast museum or art gallery in the pitch black dead of night. You have one torch which shines a narrow beam of light in front of you. You can view the objects and images all around you, but only one at a time by shining your light. Now imagine that each picture in the gallery shows an experience of your life. One picture shows your first day at school, another your first kiss, your wedding day, or when you had children, or the thousand million other individual moments that make up your life. Which picture truly represents who you are? Which experience defines you? Or, do all of the images, all of the experiences, make up who you are? Or is the true “you” the one who carries the torch and who gazes on all these experiences from some other level of existence?

This is an image that is used by Bhagavan Das (1869-1958), the Indian member of the Theosophical Society, and is quoted by Edward Carpenter in his book The Drama of Love and Death (page 272). I want to explore something here about Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). I want to explore the experiences and ideas that made up his life, and about how he might help us to approach that great question “who am I?”

Now I started investigating Edward Carpenter for the simple reason that his name is on the front of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel Bolton. There is a plaque outside our front door which states: “This Chapel and its school served as a meeting place of the Bolton followers of Walt Whitman known as the ‘Eagle Street College’ their wider circle included the writer Edward Carpenter (1844 – 1929)”

We have grown accustomed in our Chapel to celebrating Walt Whitman once a year, near his birthday in May, resurrecting those Bolton followers who met here more than 100 years ago. As the plaque says they were known as ‘Eagle Street College’ which was a bit tongue-in-cheek, because the ‘Eagle Street College’ was just a small terraced house in Bolton where one of the members, James William Wallace, lived with his mother. But it was in this place that a small group of men (and later women) began to meet in the 1880s to discuss literature, politics, spirituality and lots of other stuff. They met in several other places in and around Bolton including Bank Street Chapel and Rivington Unitarian Chapel. The group became more centred on the works of the American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1891), which in some ways they took as a kind of a religious scripture. They wrote to Whitman, and he wrote back, and they became connected to a trans-Atlantic network of religious and political radicals, including many of the earliest influential socialists. But I was curious to find out, who was this Edward Carpenter, who was part of this radical network? Other than being a “writer” who was he? I didn’t know anything about him, but I felt like I should as his name was on the side of my Chapel. So I decided to find out.

Edward Carpenter was born in 1844 into an upper middle class family in Brighton. But even as a young boy he was rather different and very uncomfortable with the middle class respectability that Brighton represented to him. He went to Cambridge University and studied mathematics, although he was always interested in a great variety of subjects: scientific, spiritual, political, artistic. He became a fellow of the University, which in those days meant you had to be ordained into the Church of England. He rather liked the idea of a quiet life of academia in Cambridge, but it was not to be. A friend handed him a copy of Walt Whitman’s poems. Carpenter lay on the floor in his room poring over the book in wonder. The unusual free-wheeling style of Whitman at first seemed strange to Carpenter. But it was also liberating: Whitman’s poetry was wild, earthy and unashamedly celebrated the body and the beauty of both men and women. Whitman nudged Carpenter to embrace at least two inclinations that he had been wrestling with: one was a democratic vision of a society that crossed the class divides that were so strong at the time; the other was the acceptance of his own homosexuality, as something not to be ashamed of, but something to embrace and celebrate.

Whitman’s poetry seemed to have this profound effect on many people. It had a profound effect on a number of men and women in Bolton who began to meet and read the poetry and discuss all the issues it brought up. And it had a profound effect on Edward Carpenter. His growing belief in socialism led him to resign his post at Cambridge, begin writing poetry himself and to join the University Extension Programme in which lectures were given in northern towns to people of all classes. From Cambridge Carpenter suddenly found himself in Yorkshire, and there was a bit of a culture shock. He lectured, he joined socialist movements and he tried to live out his ideals in all he did. He eventually settled in a small cottage outside Sheffield where he tried to live out a rustic ideal of the simple life, a bit like the sitcom “The Good Life” growing his own food and living off the land.

Edward Carpenter was a prolific writer and perhaps is best known for his poem “Towards Democracy” which was very much in the style of Whitman, and his book “Civilisation: It’s Cause and Cure.” In that book he put forward the theory, in many ways similar to Karl Marx, that civilisation is essentially a disease rather than representing progress, and we need to be cured of it to go back to a simpler way of life, represented by communism or socialism. Perhaps this seems a bit extreme. But Carpenter knew that people were more complex than theories and he was never dogmatic in his ideas. He moved happily amongst socialist, communists, anarchists, and other progressives, but never put himself exclusively in one camp. His love of Whitman put him in touch with the Bolton Whitmanites and he visited them regularly and they visited him. They were very good friends with him, and one of them was probably his lover. We don’t know if he ever came to Bank Street Chapel, but it seems quite possible.

Now Carpenter was not a Unitarian. Nevertheless he was deeply influenced by a couple of Unitarian ministers when he was in Leeds. He knew Joseph Estlin Carpenter (no relation), who was one of the pioneers in bringing an interest in world religions into Unitarianism. He also spent time with the American William Henry Channing, who introduced him to the Transcendentalists, a group of mainly Unitarian thinkers who embraced nature and intuition. Although Carpenter never became a Unitarian, if anything he was a pagan, he was a pioneer in a lot of areas that have since influenced Unitarianism a lot. Indeed everything that has influenced the development of Unitarianism (and wider society) since the nineteenth century is personified in Carpenter: feminism, gay rights, environmentalism, paganism, world religions, animal rights, vegetarianism. He was ahead of his time in all these areas: a prophet of many progressive causes. He was no saint, though, and one of his biggest moral failures was a persistent anti-Semitism. Nevertheless one person called him a “prophet of soul and body.”

And for me that’s the most significant thing about Carpenter: in how he embraced both body and soul. We are so used to separating those two things in our culture. We divide body and soul, feminine and masculine, religion and science, paganism and Christianity, homosexual and heterosexual. And these are not just ideas: they are divisions within us. Each of us is fractured by these divisions within ourselves. Like walking through that dark art gallery we see different parts of ourselves, different experiences and we ask “who am I amongst all this diversity”? Or perhaps we see it like masks that we wear: a different mask in different situations. In Bank Street Unitarian Chapel I am Minister; with my friends, I’m a friend; with my family I’m a son, a brother, a brother-in-law, a fun uncle. However old I get I’ll still be a child to my parents. Who is the “real” me? Who is the “real” you? You are different in church, than you are when you’re at home, when you’re with different groups of people, with family, with friends, with co-workers. That’s always going to be true, but sometimes we divide ourselves unnecessarily and we lose any real sense of a coherent “me.” As Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contract myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Each of us is large, each of us contains multitudes, and even contradictions. But some of these contradictions tear us apart. Think of the male Christian leader, who has taken a vow of celibacy calling same sex marriage an aberration, shameful, grotesque and likening it to slavery, who is then later found out to have made inappropriate sexual advances towards men. We should feel compassion towards someone who has so divided themselves. Who contains such harmful contradictions, fighting against each other.

If our Christianity truly flowed from the teaching of Jesus we would clearly see hypocrisy as the greatest sin. It’s the one thing that Jesus condemns most strongly. Dividing ourselves into contradictions tears our souls apart. Jesus said “if new wine is put into old wineskins, the skins are destroyed, new wine has to be put into new wineskins.” Jesus, and other spiritual teachers, promise that we can be healed of our contradictions, our inner conflicts. Indeed this is the great task of the spiritual life: to make the inner like the outer, to integrate all the parts of ourselves into one.

I am a Unitarian because this faith teaches more fully than any other that we need every part of ourselves. Your body, your sexual self, your sensual self, is not to be denied or repressed. Your mind, your thinking, doubting self, is not to be denied or repressed. Your soul, your yearning, feeling, praying self, is not to be denied or repressed. Edward Carpenter, in coming to terms with himself as a homosexual, as a political campaigner, as a philosopher, as a lover, as a gardener, as a spiritual pagan, worked really hard not to deny any part of who he was. Even though some parts of who he was were considered dangerous and shameful by his society. He didn’t always succeed, but he kept up the work.

More than anything else Carpenter sought to harmonise soul and body, the spiritual and the physical. In his early years Carpenter was influenced by the philosopher Plato who valued the spiritual over the material. He wrote to a friend, “you have two sides to your existence (everyone has I suppose in a way) – the one you live in Duke Street and digest law and perform the usual functions of life… the other you spend in an ideal world… I have just been reading Plato’s Phaedrus – that is the essence of what you dream of.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 37) But later in life he valued the sensual more, when he wrote: “The kiss of the senses is beautiful beyond all and every abstraction; the touch of the sunlight, the glory of form and color, the magic of sweet sound, the joy of human embraces, the passion of sex – all so much more perfect because they are as it were something divine made actual and realisable. In such a mood asceticism in any form seems the grossest impiety and folly, and the pursuit of the Unseen a mere abandonment of the world for its shadow.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 217)

Walt Whitman put this much better when he said in Song of Myself, “the scent of my armpits is purer than prayer.” The spiritual life is not an escape from the physical life. The spiritual life invites us to live much deeper into our physical lives. Carpenter approvingly quoted the Chinese Taoist Lau Tzu “these two things, the spiritual and the physical, though we call them by different names, in their Origins are one and the same.” (Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, 273)

One of the most significant spiritual practices we can take on is to pay closer attention to our bodies: to feel the cool air entering our lungs; to pay attention to the many sensations our bodies are experiencing. Often prayer becomes most powerful when it moves out of our minds into our bodies. Mindfulness meditation is paying attention to our bodies. Communion, eating bread and wine, is paying attention to our bodies. Do not turn away from your body, or your mind, or your soul.

As you walk through the dark gallery, looking at all those images of your life, do not deny a single one, all of the experiences make up who you are; every part of you makes up who you are. That doesn’t mean that all your actions are healthy or right, or all your experiences are good. But every fundamental part of you is important: body, mind and soul. All of it makes up “you.”

But as we go deeper into answer that question “who am I?” we discover we cannot answer it in isolation. “You” are also made up of your relationship to the rest of the Universe, or to what we might call God. This is the universal witness of all the mystics. Perhaps we’re not wandering the dark gallery alone. Perhaps there are others who also wander and shine their light on the same moments and experiences. It is only the darkness that deceives us into thinking we’re isolated. In fact we’re connected, related, interconnected to everyone else and to everything else around us. Edward Carpenter called this the “All Soul” (Drama of Love and Death 272)

For Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is actually the Song of All of Us. Each one of us just one part of a greater whole. Who are you? You are one part of a Soul that encompasses us all. You contain multitudes, and you are one part of a multitude of souls that makes up the greater soul. Edward Carpenter expressed it in this way, “For a time, certainly we cling to our limited and tiny self-life and consciousness and deem that all good comes from the careful guarding of the same. But again there comes a time when the bounds of personality confine and chafe beyond endurance, when an immense rage sweeps us far out into the great ocean; when to save our lives we deliberately lose them… And the hour arrives when we look down on these local days, these self-limitations, as phases - phases of some vaster state of being. … [Then] the body moves freely about the world; life ceases to be the ‘obstacle race’ …which it mostly now is; and… the soul moves freely, because truly for the redeemed soul it is possible to feel that all things and creatures are friendly, all beings are part of itself.” (Drama of Love and Death 286-7)

Let us seek every day to understand ourselves as one part of that greater All Soul.

 

Minister's Message - April 2014

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

Gospel of Matthew

 

As humans, our instinctive desire is for things to stay the same. Even when we know we are stuck in a life-pattern that is unsatisfactory, or self-harming, such as addiction, we would prefer to continue with the pain we know, than risk a change. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” we think.

Jesus, and many other spiritual teachers, teach that our liberation comes from dying to the old life, “taking up your cross,” and being born again into “eternal life.”

I’d like to consider what this means, not just for an individual, but for a community. Communities, such as churches, always busy themselves with trying to save their life. The highest good, they believe, is for the community to continue, unchanged, for as long as possible. The institutional momentum, what we seem to “naturally” busy ourselves with, is to “keep things going” “keep the show on the road.”

And yet “those who want to save their life will lose it” – so many churches, despite their best efforts to “keep the show on the road” close down. What might it mean for churches to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow the spirit? What might it mean for churches to not see their task as keeping the show on the road but to see their task as dying to be born to eternal life?

It might mean not seeing that the church has a task, but rather that a Task (a very important Task to do with saving the world) has a church as an instrument to achieve that Task. And the question is: is the church prepared to sacrifice itself for the fulfilment of that Task? These are important questions, and I’m wrestling with them myself as I consider all this. But it has long been my belief that Unitarianism in this country is dying. The latest Annual Report from the General Assembly confirms this with a drop in membership of 84 people – from 3,468 to only 3,384 Unitarians. The real question is – what kind of dying does the future hold? Will we desperately try to save our own lives – and then lose them? Or will we in fact take up the cross, follow something bigger than ourselves and in dying to something old – be born into Eternal Life – a Life somehow much deeper and more important?

This is the Easter question that I’m pondering right now.

Happy Easter

Stephen

Minister's Message - March 2014

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah

 

 

Great Jewish prophets like Jesus and Isaiah saw that religion had one test that it needed to pass: are the hungry fed? Are the naked clothed? Are the children, the poorest, the most vulnerable, treated with human dignity and care? If religion did not lead to the care for the least then it was a religion that God hated (the prophet Amos does not shrink from this kind of language).

This is why I believe it is a time for people of faith and all people of goodwill to speak out about the hunger crisis facing Britain right now. Half a million people last year had to use foodbanks. Five thousand five hundred people were admitted to hospital for malnutrition. This is a national scandal and the government urgently need to make sure the welfare system provides a line of defence against people going hungry in this country. That’s why I will be joining in the National Day of Fasting on the 4th April to support the Ending Hunger Fast Campaign. As we enter into Lent, a traditional time of fasting for Christians, it is appropriate to thinking of fasting, cutting down or giving things up – but this seems especially appropriate this year as there are many people, not voluntarily choosing to fast, but being forced to by circumstance. People of faith need to choose not just the fast of giving up food but the fast of loosening the bonds of injustice.

In faith, love and hope

Stephen

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