God is not only interested in religion

The words at the top of this page are by Marcus Braybrooke. They are a distillation of a longer quotation from William Temple (Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-1944) quoted in Marcus’s book Peace in Our Hearts, Peace in our World:

It is a great mistake to suppose that God

is interested only, or even, primarily in religion.

Religion is more than doing things a certain way, it is about the way we live our lives. Consequently faith is supposed to find its conclusion in the way we live. We are reminded of this in the Letter of James:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?
If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James ch.2 v.14-17

How we live and how we interact with the world is a measure of how far the Kingdom of God is being constructed.

As Mahatma Gandhi said:

No work that is done in God’s name

And dedicated to God is small.

A scavenger who works in God’s service shares equal distinction

With a king who uses his gifts in God’s name.

This is the theme of today’s online service. Filmed in Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church Alfie McClelland plays the organ and Elsie Nelson gives the reading. The hymns played are Thou Whose Almighty Word (‘Hymns of Faith and Freedom’ 173) and Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah (‘Hymns of Faith and Freedom’ 326).

The service can be seen here:

Sunday Worship Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church (available from 9.45 am Sunday, 22nd November)

Faith and Freedom, Autumn and Winter 2020

The latest issue of Faith and Freedom (Autumn and Winter 2020, Number 191) is now available and on its way to subscribers.

Detail from the William Penn window, Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Photo: Emily Klenin)

In this issue Professor Emily Klenin shares her research into a significant Unitarian Universalist Church building. Geography, History, and the Inner Light: Decorating a Unitarian Church in Central Pennsylvania, 1899 – 1932 explores the story of a unique building. The Unitarian Church of Our Father was established in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1902 and as the new church was built it became the venue for a remarkable experiment in art and design thanks to the involvement of local millionaire M.T. Garvin. According to Professor Klenin there is no evidence that ‘that any of his contemporaries thought him personally interesting’ but Garvin was a secretive and generous philanthropist who bequeathed his department store to his staff and funded the creation of this church in the American Gothic Revival style with Arts and Craft influences. Born a Quaker, M.T. Garvin became a Unitarian and built the church with its Chapel of the Emancipators decorated throughout with stained glass of the highest quality created by the Bavarian firm of F.X. Zettler. The ‘emancipators’ memorialized include William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Joseph Priestley, William Penn, significant American Presidents and many more including a rare window celebrating the League of Nations. Devices and symbols incorporated in the windows are explained by Professor Klenin. In a masterful article Professor Klenin describes the building, its decoration and the influences that led M.T Garvin to create it. Blending theological knowledge with artistic appreciation and considerable technical knowledge she gives a brilliant account of this remarkable building:

The southeast window in this way becomes a focal point for force lines (a structural notion native to engineering…but borrowed by modernist painters) linking windows with pulpit, south window with south window opposite, and southeast with northeast and northwest. But there is more. The light from without, specified textually at the bottom of the window, also finds a vertical counterpart high above the pulpit, in the wooden bas relief showing Quaker founder George Fox, facing the congregation and accompanied by a text stating that he is ‘preaching the Inner Light’.

Further detail from William Penn’s window (Photo: Emily Klenin)

David A. Williams is a distinguished emeritus professor of astronomy and a former President of the Royal Astronomical Society. In Is anybody out there? he examines the most recent research that deals with the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. How many ‘exoplanets’ have been found orbiting stars in the Milky Way? How many might be in the habitable zone? How long might civilizations last? How might they get in touch? All these things are discussed.

Coronavirus, conspiracy theories and paranoia is the topic discussed by Dr Charles Stewart, a pharmaceutical physician. Dr Stewart looks at how the current outbreak of Covid-19 began and ties this in with various conspiracies and fears. The Rev Frank Walker tells the story of Sebastian Castellio, the Pioneer of Toleration which includes discussion of the role played by Michael Servetus. Catherine Robinson is a member of the Unitarian congregation in Oxford which meets in the chapel of Harris Manchester College. In ‘A Sincere Communion of Souls’: Unitarians in Oxford 130 years ago she tells the story of how the congregation was founded in Oxford, a place then viewed by some Unitarians as ‘a bastion of conformity and orthodoxy’.

There are, as always, some insightful and important reviews – Jim Corrigall on Alastair McIntosh’s latest theological reflection on the climate crisis, Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being; and on Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green & Pleasant Land & How to Take it Back. Professor Alan Deacon reviews John Barton, A History of the Bible: A Book and its Faiths, a ‘beautiful, affirming book’ which looks at the creation and history of the Biblical texts and their relation to faith and the church. Finally, David Steers reviews a remarkable account by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis of the theological impact of the ‘Troubles’ on members of one Irish denomination in Considering Grace. Presbyterians and the Troubles.

Window showing Monticello. Thomas Jefferson’s house, now a
National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, saved partly through the exertions of M.T. Garvin (Photo: Emily Klenin)

Emily Klenin’s photographs of the windows of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster, Pennsylvania can be seen at this link:

https://adobe.ly/31HHxiX

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The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice

The quotation at the top of this page comes from Martin Luther King. It is in fact itself a distillation of a quotation from Theodore Parker, the nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian and abolitionist:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

It is interesting to compare the two sayings; one a very powerful soundbite, the other, the older one – the first to make the case for this imagery – far less snappy but explaining the idea in a very clear way.

I use this saying in this week’s online service which looks back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The impetus for this momentous event came from the churches, most notably in Leipzig where St Nicholas Church became the centre of resistance to a corrupt state in a society poisoned by secret police and corrupted by layers of informers and spies.

St Nicholas Church, Leipzig (Wikimedia Commons)

The minister of the main church in Leipzig, the Rev Christian Führer, led the people in mass prayer vigils which helped to bring the system to an end. His position was similar to that of László Tőkés in Romania, who I was privileged to meet a couple of years ago in Transylvania, and who distilled his experience in his book With God, for the People. But both men showed the necessity of observing the phrase in our reading today ‘choose this day whom you will serve’.

You can see the service in this week’s video:

Available from 9.45 am on Sunday, 15th November

This week’s service is filmed in Dunmurry. The reading is from Joshua ch.24 v.14-18 and is given for us by Emma McCrudden. Church organist Allen Yarr plays the hymns When I survey the Wondrous Cross and Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.

Time for a Story: War Horse

With Armistice Day in mind this week’s Time for a Story, given by Sue Steers, tells the story of the work of horses in the First World War, an aspect of the story of that conflict which was long overlooked until the publication of Michael Morpurgo’s book War Horse. The video can be seen here:

Remembrance Sunday 2020

In so many places tomorrow Remembrance Services have either been curtailed or cancelled because of the pandemic. This is one of the many inevitable consequences of the situation around the coronavirus. Nevertheless, many churches will hold a service of Remembrance on Sunday morning, at least they will in Northern Ireland although obviously not in other places such as England where a lockdown has again closed the churches. I will be leading two Remembrance services tomorrow and we also have an online Remembrance Service which can be viewed here:

Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Remembrance Service, Sunday, 8th November 2020

Our service comes from Downpatrick and features the two memorials which we have in the church. One is the First World War memorial which includes the names of all the members of the congregation who served in the war as well as three who are listed as having died in the war. When I researched the details for the Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in 2018 I discovered that many church war memorials, although often cast in bronze or carved in marble, sometimes didn’t quite match the records as we know them today. So in the case of the Downpatrick memorial one of the members who is listed as having served actually died in 1920 from wounds he received at Ypres and his grave is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. So four members of the congregation were killed through fighting in the First World War.

We also have a second memorial which includes a poppy from the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation which was on show in the Tower of London in 2014 and which was given in memory of Rifleman John Hayes. Click on the following link to read about this:

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red poppy dedicated at Downpatrick

In today’s video I have also included an image of every Non-Subscribing Presbyterian twentieth-century war memorial of which I am aware.

Detail from the illuminated Roll of Honour of the First Presbyterian Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast

Time for a Story

On 4th November 1922 Howard Carter finally discovered the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun. In this week’s Time for a Story Sue Steers tells this fascinating tale. The video can be seen here:

Time for a Story: Tutankhamun