Sunday, 23 February 2014

Grown-up Politics ... maybe some day

This morning, the BBC published an article stating that the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, had said that the "tone of the debate was putting off the public". Ed Milliband, of course, immediately jumped on this band wagon - as other politicians are bound to do.
Ed Millband at PMQ

In response, I posted the following to Facebook:

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Hope & Despair: Faith in the Modern Age

Address given at New Meeting House, Kidderminster on 28th July 2013
Faith is in decline. In the 2001 census, the number of people in the UK identifying as Non-Religious was 14.8% of the population. In 2011, this proportion had risen to 25.1%. As a population, we just don't seem to find religion as relevant as we used to - with a quarter of us identifying as non-religious. Christianity seems to be the hardest hit, with other faith groups actually increasing in numbers. Evangelistic churches, usually combined with a rigid doctrine, are also bucking this trend - with 7 in 10 churches expecting that their congregation would increase over the next 20 years. 5 in 10 of the churches stated that their congregations were already "noticeably growing" (Evangelical Alliance). Where there is a defined message and content, congregations are increasing. People who are looking are looking for answers, not more questions. Religion, it seems, has become another consumer product. On the other side, militant atheism is also on the rise - made popular by the writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, defining religion as something harmful to society. Religion is being portrayed as a divider of people and those who subscribe to religious belief are described as being deluded and naive. So the divide widens and society becomes more polarised between believer and non-believer, the religious and the not.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Interesting article on faith

This may not be to everyone's taste, but I think this is an extremely interesting look at faith and well worth a read and a think about. You may be hearing some more about this.

Papal Encyclical Letter on Faith - 29th June 2013


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Seeking Grace

Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace.
In the day of my trouble I call upon you, for you answer me.
~ Psalm 86:6-7 (ESV)


The concept of God's grace, or living in a state of grace is not necessarily one that many Unitarians think about. In the Bible, the state of grace is associated with living at peace under God's protection. In the New Testament, Paul uses the term in his letters to describe a state obtained through acceptance of Jesus as Christ, and associated with the receipt of the Holy Spirit. So, we could define the state of grace as living at peace with God, placing in God all trust and accepting what comes as it comes.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Standing on street corners


Post by Ian

I pass a street preacher, listening to him for a while, and I think that the message that he is putting out there is firmly one of faith over action. Believe in Jesus, and you will be saved. That's all you have to do: believe, and you shall have eternal life and happiness. This is an easy faith, and yet the evangelical churches continue to grow while Unitarians decline - as do other liberal churches. Surely this can't be right. Social action with an accepting welcome is declining, but strict conservative doctrine on the increase? But then, he's the one out on the street. He's the one making himself, and his church, known.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Speaking of uncertainty....

Post by Graham

A new year has begun and, as ever, we are confronted by concerns and worries that permeate our very existence. We cannot deny we live in turbulent times- financial problems, the ever-present threat of a terrorist attack, wars in Afghanistan and Syria, the possibility of Israel bombing Iran, Egypt on the brink of civil war, North Korea going on the rampage, the growth of militant Islam, the possibility of mass strikes at home, increasing poverty and homelessness. It's not surprising that we convince ourselves that our age alone is the great age of uncertainty.

 Yet, if we think back to an era not long gone, we can see  a period when nothing was certain. Would they in the 1930s get a job? Would they  in the early 40s be invaded by Hitler and have their lives changed for ever? Would they in the dark years of the Cold War suffer a nuclear attack from the Russians? They came through their uncertainties and taught us, surely, that we must try to do the same.

This sounds good coming from me, a retired bloke with no massive student loan or a mortgage to pay off or the prospect of being laid off by my factory or my local council in the future. Uncertainty in these and other areas is anything but conducive to a feeling of security, and my heart goes out to those who are threatened by an uncertainty that could wreck their lives.

And yet uncertainty in matters of belief is something completely different.

I think it is a good thing if we regularly re-examine our beliefs (I certainly have since my Baptist days) and never feel quite sure that we have got everything in the religious and spiritual sphere quite sorted. The day we feel we have reached the ultimate truth and that everyone who thinks differently from us is mistaken must, surely, represent a recipe for disaster.

Have you ever met someone who is absolutely sure about everything? He (and it's usually a he), is quite certain he has the right answers to all of life's problems, never accepts an opposing view, in fact rarely lets anyone else get a word in edgeways in conversation and to the end of his days remains supremely self-confident. I'm sure you must have met such people at some time in your life. I certainly have- I usually call them politicians or headmasters, although I realise that is grossly unfair to some members of those professions!

I would like to mention someone who was quite the opposite of these self-confident creatures. This person is a character in a favourite 'novella' of mine: a German story by Thomas Mann called 'Tonio Kroeger',.

Strange name isn't it, Tonio Kroeger, the eponymous hero of the story? His name in fact sums him up, as he is a strange mixture himself. He gets his surname, of course, from his father, an important big North German businessman, but the name Tonio comes from his artistic mother who originates from Italy. She is a fun-loving, artistic type who plays the piano and mandolin and dotes on her son. His father, on the other hand, is a straight-laced, rather cold man who constantly castigates Tonio for bringing home bad school reports and for not being serious enough about his studies. Tonio loves his mother but realises she is too easy-going and feels, deep down, that his father is right in his views. That is not enough, however, to make him change his ways. Tonio would rather spend his time writing poetry and playing the violin than get too involved in his school work. He is a sensitive soul who is quite different from his classmates with whom he has little contact.

He has a somewhat tortured childhood, being attracted to what he calls 'the normal, the blue-eyed', and yet is unable to get close to them as he has nothing in common with them. He falls in love with a girl who is thoroughly normal, who loves dancing and the usual adolescent pursuits, who wants nothing to do with him, and his one friend from school, Hans Hansen (note the typical North German name,) is more interested in books on sport than in fine literature. The only girl interested in him is a girl, who, like him, is clumsy at dancing. and is constantly falling over in the dance class they attend, and Tonio has no interest in her whatsoever. It's a sad story of a miserable childhood, and, as you might have already observed, it is a story laced with irony, which is typical of Thomas Mann.

 Tonio is clearly a budding man of letters and, as time goes on, finds it increasingly difficult to adjust to everyday society, so much later, perhaps in his thirties, he decides he no longer belongs to ordinary society and determines to lead the life of a Bohemian to see if he can find a place amongst such people. In the meantime his father has died and his mother has married again; this time to a musician with an Italian name whom she followed back to her native Italy. Tonio, however, now quite famous as a writer and a would-be Bohemian, finds no satisfaction in his new life. He finds his fellow artists dissolute and repulsive, and the only satisfaction he can find in life is in work itself. He realises he does not really belong anywhere and so, after a long discussion about his feelings with a female Russian friend, who thinks Tonio is not a true artist but an ordinary citizen who has lost his way in life, Tonio decides to return to his roots and try and find his way back into normal society. He is desperate to belong somewhere and as he says so pathetically:

 'I stand between two worlds, belong to neither and consequently finds life a bit difficult'

 I'll cut the story short, but after several later misadventures, Tonio, still uncertain of his place in society, eventually decides that, if he is different from most people, so be it. He realises there is no point in bemoaning his fate and the best he can do is to become reconciled to his situation and make the most of life. And so he attains some sort of closure to his problem and manages to achieve some equanimity.

 A strange but moving story, but perhaps you are wondering about its relevance ? Well, I don't know about you, but I see myself in many ways as a poor replica of Tonio. I have constantly been torn between two extremes throughout my life. I don't know about yours, but my life has been awash with contradictions and uncertainties!

 And now I find myself a member of the Unitarian Church, where uncertainties abound. Was I right to reject the certainties of my Baptist upbringing, when I was told at the age of 17 when I was totally immersed, that my sins were washed away for ever and I could look forward to eternal salvation? I think I was, because I believe that uncertainties are the very essence of life. We do not know, any of us, when we are going to die, when disaster will strike, when perhaps problems will mount up and seem insurmountable, and yet we live with these uncertainties, don't become neurotic about them Certainties can lead to complacency, smugness even, and to be uncertain of what will happen in our lives gives our lives a certain excitement, a certain frisson which is perhaps lacking in the lives of those who seem much more comfortably placed than us.

 

 It is the same with regard to the uncertainty of beliefs. What did that Spanish philosopher and writer, Miguel de Unamuno write:

 Life is doubt. And faith without doubt is nothing but death.

 And then there is that wonderful quote from Abelard that we all know:

 By doubting we are led to enquire; by enquiry we perceive the truth.

 Whether we shall ever reach 'The Truth' is in itself doubtful but, as that jolly slogan used for sporting competitions puts it: 'It's not the winning that's important, but the taking part.'

Liberal theology sees as much truth in the search for the destination as in the destination itself, which is why it attracts those who are never satisfied with easy answers and who are plagued by uncertainty-that's us!

 For whether we consider ourselves  Liberal Christians or not, our Unitarian faith is a liberal theology and the hallmarks of a liberal theology are openness, humility and a lack of dogmatism. As Tony Windross, a liberal Anglican vicar, writes in his 'Thoughtful Guide to Faith':

 'Liberals are able to live with questions.....Their world is not black and white but innumerable shades of grey. Living in the midst of Mystery, liberals never think they can do anything more than scratch the surface of things...... The liberal position is the no-man's land between entrenched religious conservatism and secular humanism, and this is about as uncomfortable a place as it is possible to be.

 Windross says there can be no certainty-liberal theology accepts the need for theology to be allowed to develop and does not hanker after the past. Scientific progress occurs as the result of the identification of error, as new thinking shows ways in which earlier thinking was wrong or at least limited in scope. And now I quote Windross again:

 

'Religious people sometimes say this shows the superiority of theology, in that scientists always seem to be changing their minds, theologians rarely do Another way of looking a this, however, is to say theology is a closed system and that theologians wear blinkers.

 And so I feel we have no need to have any hang-ups over uncertainty. As long as we are constantly searching for the truth, are prepared to change our minds, are open to new ideas, then we can rest content. Like Tonio Kroeger we might find it difficult to find our place in the world but the answer is to struggle on, surely. 

 There's a quote from Gotthold Lessing, a leader in the Enlightenment movement in Germany in the 18th century. He wrote in 1778:

 `The true value of a man is not determined by his possession , supposed or real, of the Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get at the truth. It is not possession of the truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent and proud` .(Just look at many of the regular attendees at many of the Christian churches in our country, and you'll see what Lessing means).

Lessing then goes on to say this:

 `If God were to hold all truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hold only the steady and diligent drive for truth, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.`

 I don't know if I would have the courage to go that far, but that surely is the Unitarian ideal: Never be certain of anything, be happy to live with your uncertainty, constantly adjust your thinking and end your days with the satisfaction that you have at least done your best to make some sense of your life and of your God.

 I shall finish with a prayer by Thomas Merton who was a Roman Catholic mystic. It was sent to me by that retired Anglican minister whom I got to know in my village of Alveley The Rev Bill Price is a lovely man, as I have said before He is a truly liberal Christian, a missionary of the finest sort. He has helped to set up an orphanage in Nepal, frequently travels out there, in spite of poor health, to see how it is progressing.  Bill is in his eighties now and has moved away from the village to be nearer his family and we regularly correspond. Often religious matters crop up in our correspondence, and Bill gives me insight into his profound wisdom on all things spiritual. Anyway, this is what he sent me:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe the desire to please you, does in fact please you, and I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire, and I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I trust you always, though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. 

 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Conscience

Post by Graham

I suppose over the four years or so I have been leading our service that it has become abundantly clear that I have a fascination with the Second World War. Often I have referred to it, used passages from German literature about it in my address and inevitably drawn conclusions from it.

 I suppose my fascination started when, at the age of 15 in 1955, I spent the whole of the summer holidays with a German family who had invited me to their home in Eschweiler, near Aachen. Whilst I was there, but not immediately on arrival, I discovered that the father of the family, who kept a very low profile in the house, had only recently been released from a British prison as a member of the hated SS. I actually found him to be a kind man and began to wonder even then, at the age of 15, how someone, whom I considered thoroughly decent, could have lent himself to unspeakable evil.

 A little later I started my A-level German course and began to read the most wonderful poetry of Goethe and others, study the works of Lessing, the great liberal thinker and rationalist of the 18th century, and continued to wonder how a country with such a rich cultural heritage (just think of its music!) could have descended into such barbarism. And all this had taken place in my lifetime, born as I was in September 1939 just three weeks after the war started. I still can't fully realise it even today.
 
 

 I wondered where the men of conscience were at the time. Why hadn't they made a stand against Hitler? Of course, as I delved further into modern German literature and history, I discovered that there were such people, many of whom we in this country have overlooked, so that the prevailing view, in Britain particularly, is that all Germans were easily swayed by Hitler and his ideas and showed no conscience about the atrocities their country was committing.

  Just recently I was reading an interview with that venerable astronomer and one-time TV presenter, Patrick Moore. For him it would seem the Second World War hasn't yet ended as he came out with this disgraceful remark: 'The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut'  which he followed with: 'I suppose there can be some honourable decent Germans. I haven't met them myself, but I'm sure they exist.' If only to correct such bigoted views, with Remembrance Sunday in the offing, when peace and reconciliation should be at the forefront of our mind, I thought this morning it might be a good idea to look at some Germans, amongst others, who made their own personal stand against evil and proved that in Germany too there were men of conscience.

 One that stands out is, of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What a man! Born into a prominent middle-class family in 1906 (his father was Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Berlin) Bonhoeffer decided at about the age of 14 he wanted to be a Lutheran pastor and in time succeeded in his ambition. He was not only a prominent theologian, however,  but also an exceptional pianist and sportsman.

 From the moment Hitler came to power in 1933 -in fact two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor- Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address attacking Nazism. He increasingly became a thorn in the flesh of the Nazi regime, was frequently thwarted by the Nazis in his work as a founding member of the  so-called Confessional Church which strongly opposed the German Christian movement. This had had allied itself with Nazi racism, something the Confessional Church couldn't countenance. PAUSE  As early as1938 Bonhoeffer had secretly associated himself with the German Resistance that made several attempts on Hitler's life. He was finally arrested in1943 but it was not until after the failed Stauffenberg Plot of July 1944 that the authorities were able to prove his involvement with the rebels. He was kept for 18 months in Berlin and was then shipped off firstly to Buchenwald Concentration Camp and finally Flossenbuerg where he was hanged in 1945, just 23 days before the Nazis surrendered.

  Perhaps Bonhoeffer's religious philosophy was quite different from Unitarianism, for his writings sometimes reveal a criticism of liberal theology, but at the same time he showed a remarkable commitment to social justice, and he firmly believed that a Christian should not retire from the world but should act within it according to his conscience. Can we these days really appreciate the courage it took for one man, in such dreadful times, to remain firm to his principles and so bring about his own death? His philosophy is summed up in these words of his: 'When a madman is tearing through the streets in a car, I can, as a pastor who happens to be on the scene, do more than merely console or bury those who have been run over. I must jump in front of the car and stop it.'


 He was not the only one to resist Nazism, of course. There were many others, from Stauffenberg himself and his fellow conspirators to all those brave people in occupied countries who openly fought in their resistance movements or those who sheltered Jews at great cost to themselves. Just one example is Miep Gies who died in 2010 at the age of 100. She it was who secretly housed and shielded the Frank family in Holland. If she had been discovered she would have faced execution. It was Miep Gies who discovered and preserved Anne Frank's diary after the family's arrest. There were others like her who put themselves at great risk in helping Jews in occupied Europe. Oskar Schindler is another who took that risk and, as we know, his achievements have been well documented in literature and film.

 Talking about films, I wonder if you saw some years ago the film called 'Sophie Scholl- The Final Days'? It told the story of Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, who were students at Munich University during the war years. They founded a passive resistance movement in 1942 called 'The White Rose' and they distributed leaflets  in Munich, especially in the university itself, calling for the restoration of democracy in Germany and for social justice. They also daubed anti- Nazi slogans on walls and the sides of houses. They were arrested in 1943, brought before that fearsome Nazi judge Roland Freisler and were summarily executed by guillotine. Sophie was just 22 when she died. Sophie, like Bonhoeffer, was influenced by her Christian faith. She was a Lutheran but was also greatly impressed by the writings of Cardinal Newman and his so-called 'theology of conscience'.

 These, of course, are all well-known names but there were countless others about whom we know almost nothing. One such couple were Elise and Otto Hampel, and their story forms the basis of this novel by Hans Fallada called in English 'Everyman Dies Alone'. It's a great story that I am sure you would enjoy. PAUSE. The Hampels were a poorly educated, working class couple living in Berlin. After Elise's brother was killed early in the war, the couple commenced a 3-year propaganda campaign that baffled- and enraged- the Berlin police who eventually handed over the case to the Gestapo. Their campaign consisted simply of leaving hundreds of post cards all over Berlin. These cards were often badly written and misspelt, but they all called for civil disobedience . The Hampels blanketed the city so thoroughly and eluded capture so successfully that the Gestapo came to assume they were dealing with a large, sophisticated underground resistance. Eventually they were caught and executed by beheading in Ploetzensee Prison in Berlin in March 1943.
 
 
 
 It's a grim place is Ploetzensee! Chris and I went there a few years ago. It has been left very much as it was in the war years and you feel the ghosts of those who were liquidated there. The hooks are still on the walls where the Nazi-resisters were hanged, This story of the Hampels is a story of ordinary people. As a newspaper review of this book, that was published after Fallada's death in 1947, stated: 'This isn't a novel about bold cells of defiant guerrillas but about a world in which heroism is defined as a personal refusal to be corrupted'.

 It's not only in Nazi Germany, of course, that we see examples of personal defiance and resistance. Have you ever thought how much courage it takes to stand up and speak out when the stakes are high, even today,  in a democratic country like our own? Only recently I was reading about so-called whistle-blowers in the NHS who have had the guts to denounce publicly malpractice, corruption or poor care, often risking their jobs in the process. According to the doctor who wrote this article they are the unsung heroes of the health service. They often receive appalling treatment from furious managers, and last year an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Channel 4 found that doctors routinely had to sign contracts forbidding them to talk publicly about the trust they worked for. Being forced to keep silent, of course, put patients' welfare at risk, and some were simply not prepared to go along with this. Little has been done up to now to protect such people, but, fortunately, things are slowly changing. Yes, everywhere we look we see people in all walks of life willing to sacrifice themselves in the cause of conscience. A pity there weren't more prepared to do the same when they worked with Jimmy Savile at the BBC some decades ago!

 What about the courage of our Unitarian forebears? There are plenty who fought against the prevailing system throughout the years, as we know, but I shall mention just one. He was really an early precursor of us Unitarians in the 16th century and you have undoubtedly heard of him. It was Michael Servetus who died because he refused to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. He was born in Spain and brought up as a Roman Catholic. When he went to university in Spain and later France and began to study the Bible, he came to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity was not biblically based. This is what we Unitarians say today, of course, as do some other sects, Jehovah Witnesses amongst them.

 I can't say I get my knickers in a twist when there is talk of the Trinity today. It is certainly not the main reason I consider myself a Unitarian. In the 16th century, however, to deny the Trinity was blasphemy of the highest order. In his two treatises 'Errors of the Trinity' and 'Dialogues on the Trinity' Servetus argued that Jesus was not to be equated with God; he was rather the supreme revealer of God and thus could be considered divine.

 Because of his writings Servetus was hotly pursued by the Spanish Inquisition and, in order to escape, he disguised himself  and assumed another name (Michael de Villeneve). To complete his transformation, he sought a change of career and took up the study of medicine. He proved to be as good a physician as theologian. He became physician to the Archbishop of Vienna, and he suggested a theory of the circulation of the blood which has stood the test of time He continued with his theological work, however, and wrote another work, which he published anonymously called 'The Restitution of Christianity'. Suspicion grew that he was the author of this work and the Inquisition sought his arrest. He escaped to Geneva, a bad move as it was here that Calvin held sway. He had Servetus apprehended and he was burnt at the stake for his beliefs in1553. PAUSE

A pretty extreme example of a man not prepared to sacrifice his beliefs and conscience!

 Enough of history- what about us? Do we have the courage to stand by our Unitarian convictions when they are challenged? Do we defend Muslims when they, as an entire group, are attacked and verbally abused? Do we say they worship the same God as us, even if their religious practices are so very different? Do we speak up when someone casually says that this country is going to the dogs because we have let too many immigrants in ? Do we have the courage to say that this country is all the better for being a multi-cultured society? That, should all the immigrants be sent back home to the country of their birth, then our hospitals, care-homes, restaurants and hotels would all be in dire straits?
 
 

 I don't know whether you read a blog from Ash last February discussing racism in Britain? He talks about contesting racial views when we hear them, not quietly accepting the venom and hatred that pours forth from the mouths of some. He was making exactly the same point as I am trying to make here. Let's stand up for what we believe to be right and speak our minds. Ash closes his blog with this comment, and I repeat it here for it is terribly relevant to my message this morning. Ash writes and I quote: 'The more we challenge such matters, be it in the pub, at the match or in the shop, the sooner we will all be able to live in a truly tolerant, integrated and open-minded society.'
 
I couldn't agree more!

And so I say to myself, as much as to you: .Let us, if only for the sake of our integrity, follow the example of those who were prepared to stand against the crowd, like the whistle blowers in the NHS, Miep Gies, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Graf von Stauffenberg, the Hampels, Bonhoeffer, Servetus and others in our Unitarian history and show the courage of our convictions. We might not swell the ranks of Unitarianism in so doing but we might persuade people that Unitarianism is not a wishy-washy faith that has nothing to offer the world in this day and age. I believe we follow a faith (as different as our  private beliefs are) that is terribly relevant in the 21st century and has much to teach the world at this time of great unrest and intolerance.

Let conscience be our guide. Let us stand up for our faith, truly believing in freedom, reason and tolerance and strive to be its  very best ambassadors. Then, if we achieve nothing else, we shall at least be true to ourselves.