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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Engaging with the World

An article based on the reflection given by Stephen Lingwood, 30 January 2011

We have a few martyrs in Unitarianism: those who gave their lives for the Unitarian faith, and for Unitarian values. Michael Servetus is the most obvious example, who was burnt at the stake in 1553; but much more recently than that we do have other martyrs. One of them was an American Unitarian Minister called James Reeb.

In 1965 Martin Luther King was campaigning for the right to vote for black citizens in Alabama. During a voting rights march a young man called Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed. The protestors tried to organise a march to Montgomery but were met with state troopers with clubs and whips. Martin Luther King called for clergy of all faiths and all people of conscience to support the black citizens in Selma, and many people responded, including the Unitarian James Reeb.


Reeb went to Selma, and on the night of the protest was attacked by four white segregationist and beaten to death. His murder prompted American President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights act of 1965.

What was the faith that James Reeb had in his heart that led him to Selma in 1965? Reeb actually grew up a strict conservative Calvinist. He went to Princeton Theological Seminary and then became a chaplain at Philadelphia General Hospital. The hospital mainly served the poor and disenfranchised of the city; many of them addicts.

In that hospital Reeb had a kind of crisis of faith. His theology told him that these people deserved their suffering, that it was God’s just punishment for their sin, and nothing compared to what they would suffer in the afterlife. But his heart told him that God had nothing but love and compassion for these people, and that he was asked to respond with nothing less.

He had a conversion, his heart opened, and he realised that any God worth worshipping had only love and kindness for those who suffered. He wrote in his journal, “When the moralist in you dies, then life begins.”

Reeb began to follow the path of Love which lead him to become a Unitarian minister who dedicated his life to serving the poor; and eventually lead him to give his life in Selma, Alabama.

Jesus said, “A tree is known by its fruit.” A tree is also known by its roots. James Reeb’s life was rooted in that experience of the open heart; that knowledge of Divine Love; that understanding that God, whatever God is, approaches this world with nothing but love and compassion. That God is love, God is compassion.

Faith is not about believing in God, faith is about beloving God: loving God, and loving what God loves. This is the central Christian insight; this is the heart of Jesus’ teaching: you cannot love God without loving your neighbour; and you cannot love your neighbour without loving God. The two are intricately connected. It’s not just that faith without works is dead: faith without works is impossible.

If we truly walk that spiritual journey, if we truly open our hearts to God, then we cannot help but open our hearts to one another. If we walk the spiritual journey, then it becomes natural for us to engage with the world. The spiritual journey naturally opens our hearts to the world, naturally leads us engage with the world with love and compassion.

And when we engage with the world, with an open heart, and an open mind, when we engage with the vision and compassion to see the suffering in the world, then our compassion leads us to a yearning for a better world, just like James Reeb. We encounter those things that cause suffering, those things that prevent love, those things that James Reeb came up against: racism, poverty, prejudice. We could even names these things with a theological word, we could name them as sin. Yes, hold on to your hats, I said it: sin!

I want to name just a few sins that seem to me to be the most pressing in our world today. The first sin I want to name is inequality. We live in a country that is more unequal than ever before. The gap between the richest and the poorest keeps getting wider. The irresponsible actions of the banking industry have led us into a recession, and now the government are drastically cutting public spending. In the news this week 1,300 jobs could go at Bolton Council, with Children’s Services possibly the worst hit. This is the reality facing so many of us in Bolton today.

The next sin I want to name: violence. We live in an incredibly violent world and we don’t always notice it because it’s so universally present. War is the norm rather than the exception. When did we get used to that idea? The idea of constant war? We don’t go to war once a generation or once every 100 years to defend ourselves. But we’re told again and again and again that war is necessary; that war will create peace. And in Iraq we saw not war as a last resort, but an eagerness to war, which is very disturbing.

The other sin I want to name is prejudice against minorities. First prejudice against Muslims. This is a really disturbing trend. This came to our doorstep in the English Defence League last year: whipping up fear and hatred against Muslims. This is exactly the kind of rhetoric used against Jews 80 years ago. Oh, “they” are plotting to take over the country, to take over the world. This is dangerous nonsense! And we need to name it as such.

And the other one I want to name is prejudice against gay people. This week a leading gay rights activist in Uganda David Kato was murdered. This is after a Ugandan magazine called for him and other gay rights activists to be hanged. A law is being considered in Uganda that would have the death penalty for homosexuality in some circumstances. And a lot of this stuff is being supported by conservative religious forces.

The Unitarian Church in Uganda is fighting very bravely for gay rights at the moment, but face violence and enormous pressure. But they are standing up for gay people, they are one of the few religious voices standing up for gay rights.

In the face of all this sin, our temptation can be to despair. Our temptation is to say, “What can we do? What can we possibly do to make a difference?” But we must not despair. We must realise that it’s not our job to come up with a grand plan to fix everything. It’s not our job to think up grand solutions. But it is our job to love. It is our job to walk the spiritual journey that requires us to meet God in other people; to engage with the world with an open heart and an open mind; to engage with compassion and imagination.

Loving the world is not simply a matter of just being nice to those we encounter – it does require us to engage with the issues of the world, and to do what we can. Justice is the social form of love.

What can we do? Firstly we can speak up: we can name injustice, we can name sin, we can name prejudice, and we can refuse to go along with it. We can speak truth to power. And we can do simple things: writing letters, giving money, caring and for those we engage with.

Simple things, but things that do make a difference. How do we know we can make a difference? Because we already have. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. Whenever people visit this chapel I always tell them about all the social justice and service projects that began in this place: Bolton Street Angels; Fortalice Hostel; the Interfaith Council. And further back this was a congregation of trade unionists and suffragettes. And Bolton itself, as a democratic borough, was campaigned for by members of this chapel.

That open-minded faith, that experience of the love of God has led Bank Street Unitarian Chapel to engage with the world for generations. And that continues to be our purpose: to engage with the world, to love the world, to work for justice in the world. To open our hearts to that Holy Love that will guide us.

It’s not our job to do everything. But it is our job to engage, to love, to walk the spiritual path that opens our hearts to the world. I want to end with the words of Dorothy Day, she said:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There’s too much work to do.”


Inspiring Spiritual Journeys

An article based on a reflection given by Stephen Lingwood, 23rd January 2011


“Where my free spirit onward leads, well, there shall be my way;

By my own light illumined I’ve journeyed night and day.”

Alicia S Carpenter, Hymn 212 in Sing Your Faith

Every one of us is on a journey. We are all walking on this pilgrimage of life; walking and exploring, and maybe seeking a better path. There are so many seekers in this world, searching, yearning for more love, more community, more meaning, more joy, more purpose in their lives: seeking a better path.


Every year thousands of people go on pilgrimages. Not just orthodox believers either, but quite often spiritual seekers, searchers, explorers going on pilgrimage to look for something.

One of the most popular pilgrimages is the one to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Thousands of pilgrims every year walk for hundreds of miles across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to reach either the cathedral, or the coast. It takes about 40 days, walking all day, mainly alone, sometimes accompanied by other pilgrims, then staying at a hostel at the end of the day. This is a tough physical and mental challenge.

A friend of mine has walked the pilgrimage and she said that the mental side was much tougher than the physical. The physical journey was tough, but the mental journey involved being all alone with your own thoughts day after day, walking through that barren landscape.

And yet every year the number of people making this pilgrimage rises. In 1985 there were 690 pilgrims. Do you know how many there were in 2010? 270,000 pilgrims (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Way_of_St._James). Each of those pilgrims was searching for something more, searching for something worthwhile, searching for a destination worth heading for, searching for a journey worth undertaking: the inner journey of the spirit.

I’ve told the story before of Nasrudin searching for the lost jewel. The story is that Nasrudin was on his hands and knees in the street outside his house carefully searching the ground. A friend of Nasrudin approached and asked him what he was up to, and Nasrudin said, “I’m looking for the diamond that fell out of my ring.” His friend began to help, until a neighbour approached and asked them what they were looking for. Nasrudin’s friend explained the situation, so the neighbour began to search too. Then a few more people arrived, then a few more, until there were a dozen people, all on their hands and knees, carefully searching for that glint of light in the dirt that could be a diamond.

Eventually one of the searchers said to Nasrudin, “Tell us, exactly where were you when the diamond fell out?” Nasrudin replied, “I was in the kitchen of my house.” “What?” replied the helpful neighbour, indignant, “If you lost the diamond in your kitchen, what are we all doing out here in the street searching?” “Ah,” said Nasrudin, “Because there’s more light out here.”

We are all searching, but we’re not always searching in right places. As liberals we can come out with things like, “All paths are valid,” “Whatever journey you’re on, that’s fine,” “It’s all just different paths up the same mountain.” Well maybe, but does that mean that there are no paths that lead down the mountain? Does that mean that there are no paths that lead in the wrong direction? That there are no ways to live your life that are at best unfulfilling or at worst dangerous? Does that mean it’s OK to search for the lost jewel in the street when you lost it in the kitchen? Or is that stupid?

We search in the street because there’s more light, because it seems easier to us, it seems like the best place to search. But you’re never going to find the diamond in the street if you lost it in the kitchen. And there are plenty of places you’re not going to find that deeper meaning and purpose to life. I used to think that there are many paths to the Divine, but increasingly now I think there is only one; it’s just called by many different names. But there are many paths away from the Divine. There are many paths that will get us nowhere.

You see, everyone has a path, everyone has faith. Everyone has a direction in which they point their lives, and we could call that their faith. If you don’t like the word “faith,” try the word “trust.” Everyone has something that they put their ultimate trust in. It might be what they claim it is, or it might not be. It might be money, family, alcohol, fame, nation, career, romance, religion or political ideology. Everyone has faith in something. The question is: is this a good thing to put my faith in? Will this lead my life in a good direction? Am I on the right journey?

Some of those things may not be bad per se, but if they are the things you put your ultimate faith in, then you may end up disappointed. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it well, “A person will worship something – have no doubt about that... That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

What we are worshipping, we are becoming. We become the journey that we’re travelling. We all worship something, we are all journeying on a particular path, but we need to ask the question: is this a path that is going to get me somewhere worthwhile?

Lots of people ask this question: is there more to life than getting a job, paying your taxes, and watching telly? Is there something more trustworthy? Is there something more meaningful? Is there a deeper joy? Is there a better path? Is there something worth searching for? Is there a journey worth undertaking?

We are here at Bank Street Unitarian Chapel because we think there is a journey worth undertaking. Our purpose is to walk that journey that offers deeper meaning and joy. Our purpose is to walk a spiritual journey; and to inspire others to do the same. We are here to witness that there is a better way, there is a better path: the path of the spirit.

The path of the spirit is not a doctrine, not a belief; it’s a way of being, it’s a way of life. It means an intimate relationship with the Holy. It means slowing down and making time for prayer. It means opening your heart to love. It means connecting, not being cut off from the world in a shell but really connecting with people, with the planet, with your God. It means living a life of compassion, joy, generosity, and service to the world.

Now you might want a more detailed description, but the fact is the spiritual path resists any tight description placed upon it, because if you define it too tightly it becomes a kind of idol. Even in religion and spirituality that are many misleading paths. One of the worst is to think you’re already at the destination. You can think you’ve got it all: all the truth, all of the Divine. But if you think you’ve arrived, then you’re definitely lost.

The spiritual journey is a journey. And while we’re still breathing we’re still on the journey. Every single one of us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, we’re all still on that journey. Our purpose is to be a place where we can deepen our spiritual journeys through worship, prayer, and service; and to share our spiritual journeys with one another, because the pilgrimage is much more fun in a group of fellow pilgrims.

Our purpose is to invite others onto the spiritual journey. Our purpose is to inspire others to undertake their own journeys. We can’t force people onto their spiritual journeys. Every person has to find their own spiritual journey. As Kahlil Gibran says in his wonderful book The Prophet: the Teacher cannot give you their wisdom, but can only give you their love, and lead you to your own wisdom. You cannot offer the spirit to anyone. You can only love them, and inspire them to find the spirit themselves; inspiring people to look within themselves, and start their own journey.

Our purpose is to inspire spiritual journeys. That is our task, and we need to realise the urgency, the importance of this task. We are not gathered here for a trivial purpose, we are gathered here for a life-changing purpose. We need to remember all those spiritual seekers out there, desperate for something more; all those people who are spiritually hungry and religiously homeless. How can we not do all we can to give them spiritual sustenance and a religious home?

We offer sustenance for the spiritual journey here in this Unitarian community. Unitarianism has inspired my spiritual journey. Unitarianism has opened my heart and my mind to the Loving Spirit. I was desperate and lonely as a spiritual seeker, and when I came home to a Unitarian community it gave me a place to belong, and a place to grow my heart and my mind, and a place to walk my spiritual journey with other pilgrims. How can I, how can we, deny that opportunity to others?

And I’m not saying that Unitarianism is the only community to live out that spiritual journey. If people can find that life-giving spiritual sustenance elsewhere, good luck to them. But there are plenty that can’t. I tried for years to be an Anglican, I couldn’t do it. The words stuck in my throat and got in the way of my spiritual journey. I didn’t make a very good Anglican, but I’m can have a good try at being a good Unitarian. For me Unitarianism is the only community where I can live out my spiritual journey, and that’s going to be true for lots of people too.

Unitarianism offers an open-hearted, open-minded spiritual community that welcomes people with their individual gifts, their doubts, beliefs, their bodies, and their loves. We are a pilgrim people with a mission to inspire people to walk their own spiritual journeys, and to invite people to join us in our journey. The inner journey of the spirit. That journey leads inwards to the spirit, but at the same time, it leads outwards to the world – to engaging with the world. But that is a topic for another time.


Are Unitarians Christians?

An article based on a reflection given by Stephen Lingwood in January 2010

There’s an old joke that goes along the lines of this: Question: why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly? Answer: because we’re always reading ahead to check if we agree with the words in the next line. There’s an element of truth in that. I certainly do that, especially in an ecumenical Christian context if I’m singing words that I’m unsure I agree with: words about worshipping Jesus, or about the “sacrifice” of his death, or words that suggest the Christian way is superior to other faiths. I check the words, and if I can’t in conscience sing them, then I won’t. This tends to happen when I’m joining in ecumenical Christian worship, which I do quite often; and which we all do as a congregation at least once a year.

Every year during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January the churches in the town centre come together for their morning worship. In many ways this is a wonderful thing. But it does leave us, as Unitarians, checking if we agree with the words. We may feel a bit uncomfortable in such situations, so it’s worth exploring that discomfort. It’s worth exploring our relationship with the Christian community.

The first thing I want to say about this is that I genuinely think Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre (CTBTC) is unique. It must be one of the most active, progressive, friendly, and diverse ecumenical groups in the country. It’s a wonderful group to be part of. But I do sometimes feel a tension in our ecumenical relations because Unitarians are different. We are a very different kind of church to most others. Sometimes we can be afraid to say this. Sometimes we can be afraid to be loud and clear about how we are different for fear of being thrown out of ecumenical groups. We know this has been the experience of many Unitarian communities around the country. We know that in many local Christian ecumenical groups Unitarians are not welcome. And we know that in the national ecumenical structures Unitarians are not allowed to be members. We often paint ourselves as victims of intolerance when we talk about such things, but frankly I think that is a bit unfair to these ecumenical organisations. Because, let’s be brutally honest: not all Unitarians view themselves as Christian. You don’t have to view yourself as a Christian to be a Unitarian. And yet we also demand to be counted as Christians by other Christians. It seems to me that we want to have our cake and eat it. If we want to belong to such organisations then we must be able to speak more clearly about how we relate to the Christian tradition.


So that leads us to that over-arching question: are Unitarians Christians? Are

we Christians?


I want to give my own thinking here, with the proviso, as is the Unitarian way, that you are free to disagree with me. The first thing I’d want to say when tackling this question is this: the life and teaching of Jesus is a vital source of faith for us. It has been for four hundred and fifty years, and there’s no sign that we’ve completely discarded it. There is a still a huge amount of inspiration and wisdom we can get from Jesus. But what is Jesus to us? I would say that Jesus for us remains the primary prophet. When speaking of prophets we could call Jesus a first among equals.There are many other prophets, and we recognise that. And Jesus was not the only prophet, not the first prophet, not the last prophet, not even necessarily the best prophet (it’s difficult to know what “best” would mean in this context), but for our community the primary prophet. The first and most obvious voice we turn to for spiritual guidance.

The second thing I’d want to say is this: each of us is as much a child of God as Jesus was. What Jesus was we can be too. Just as Jesus was filled with God, so we can be too. This is an important Unitarian understanding, incarnation (God-dwelling-in-flesh) is as true of you and me as it was of Jesus.

That’s what Christianity is for us. Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century Unitarian minister said this, “Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God. It demands, therefore, a good life of piety within, of purity without, and gives the promise that whoso does God’s will shall know of God’s doctrine.”

Paul of Tarsus wrote ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” If the same mind, the same way of being, the same spirit of love, the same Godcentredness is in us that was in Jesus, then we will live in a Christian way. Note that this doesn’t means you’re called to be Jesus, to behave in exactly the same way. Rather you’re called to be you. But you’re called to be you in a Christ-shaped way. What does that actually look like? Well Jesus gave us a very simple formula for judging this. He said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Our Christianity, our Christ-ness, is show by the life we live. The fruits of the Christian life include humility, creating equality, care for the poor, forgiveness, love of enemies, and sharing of material goods. As the Gospel of John says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.”

As Unitarians we believe we can live this way while receiving inspiration from Buddhist meditation, pagan rituals, or Hindu scriptures. All that helps us in a life of love is welcome. We can receive inspiration from anywhere. And we can also live in this way while having all kinds of doubts about metaphysical doctrines. Or even throwing out ideas and doctrines that are unhelpful.

So, are Unitarians Christians? Well the answer is yes, if what we mean by “Christian” is a community whose members are trying to become more Christlike: more filled with God, more filled with love, practicing care for the poor and outcast. And that’s very challenging. It’s challenging because if we say our Christianity is not about beliefs, but about what we do, then we are inviting people to judge us by what we do. We are inviting people to come and see how Christlike we are. That’s a tough challenge. But one that is worth meeting. As I believe the Way of Jesus is a joyful, life-giving adventure that can transform lives and the world.

Stephen Lingwood

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