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Why Unitarianism? Three Ministers Reveal All

unitarian church

Photograph courtesy of New Unity, a nonreligious Unitarian church in London, whose congregation is one of around 170 congregations belonging to The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

1. Personal Inspiration

What personal experiences, authors, speakers and so forth, inspired you to train for ministry with the Unitarians?

Maria Curtis

I discovered Unitarianism in my mid-fifties, having been an atheist for most of my adult life.  I was familiar with my local Unitarian church as a concert venue where my singing group had rehearsed and performed. I started to look at the information leaflets and writing on the walls, noticed the absence of crucifixes, and thought, “What sort of church is this, where ‘all are welcome regardless of beliefs’?” At the time a difficult long-term relationship had come to an end and I was experiencing a sense of freedom. I had always been interested in spiritual approaches to life but was intellectually unable to adhere to irrational beliefs. The Unitarian church aroused my curiosity and I felt I had nothing to lose by attending a service. The service was led by a female minister who managed to combine a sense of irony with a prayerful seriousness; what she said was interesting, inspiring and uplifting.

I was hooked and have never looked back. I very quickly got involved in the life of the church, doing readings, setting up for services and making teas and coffees etc., and became a member and sat on the Committee. When the minister left, a group of members kept the church going. I was an experienced teacher and was working as a psychologist in education. I co-led some education programmes (engagement groups) and started taking services. There was no particular moment when I felt a calling – it was more a feeling that I was already ministering and wanted to train in order to make a better job of it. It was the ethos of the church that inspired me –  the fact that it was congregational; that the community was based on shared values rather than shared beliefs; that it was open-hearted and open-minded.

Claire MacDonald

Ministry mediates between the world of everyday experience and our hopes and dreams. It’s very cognisant of desire and disappointed hopes. I came to it through my childhood experience in a deep way, a way in which I also felt called to transformative theatre work in groups and with communities, which I did for many years. I was an eldest child in a fragmented, cash strapped family in which my siblings and I had to care for a dying parent in a family in which the other parent had left. That kind of experience brings the exigencies of life very close and invites you to ask big questions.

As an adult the calling was expressed to me by Rev. Elizabeth Birtles when I took a course in how to lead a service with two impressive Unitarian women — Sarah Tinker and Jane Blackall. Liz Birtles articulated for me the way in which a minister operates in a space between, a place where energies can be called forth, ragged hems mended and hearts stilled — through a practice of doing and being. That just called me to it. Unitarianism and Unitarian ministry has been the only ministry wide enough, deep enough and liberal enough to hold me personally. It has allowed me to draw on the Christianity of my childhood and deepen it with other religious and philosophical insights and a political commitment to justice and equality across race, class and genders.

In terms of who has inspired me as writers and thinkers — that too goes a long way back — Ivan Illich, the great Catholic liberation theologian and social thinker in his book Tools for Conviviality, which I read first in the 1970s has always been a spiritual presence, as has the theologian Mary Daly, brave, wild, radical, feminist, wordsmith and counter cultural thinker that she was. Karen Armstrong’s diligent attention to religion’s history, Nicola Slee’s Christa imagery and ritual sensitivity; Kwame Anthony Appiah’s commitment to conversation’s centrality to human flourishing; Mary Wollstonecraft’s prophetic imagination, and, personally, the great Unitarian speaker, minister and hymn writer Rev Andrew Hill, as well as Rev Andy Pakula who mentored me in ministry at Newington Green, Rev Ana Levy Lyons, my minister in Brooklyn, composer Meredith Monk who asked the great question for me as a performer — what is the difference between an audience and a congregation? Letty Russell for knowing the value of a round table — when I think of it there are just so many thinkers, writers, encounters, friends whose spirituality and political theology has informed me I can’t list enough of them here.

Andy Pakula

I do not fit the mould. I never have. I grew up in a liberal and rather secular Jewish family in New York. We celebrated Hanukkah (mostly for the presents) and Passover (the celebration of freedom), but we also had a Christmas tree, and Santa came and filled our stockings every year! I did not take to religion as a young man. Indeed, I was vehemently atheistic and anti-religious. I am still an atheist and, depending on definitions, I might still be called anti-religious; at least I am ‘anti’ the kind of religion fosters homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, that promotes ‘us vs. them’ thinking, that insists that it knows the right answer – as if there is just one – that tells us what we should think, believe, and do, and dangles rewards and threatens punishment to get us to behave.

I chose to study science, earning a PhD in Biology and a Master’s in Business, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I went on to have a rewarding career in the biotechnology industry. As a scientist, I wouldn’t entertain any ideas that couldn’t be proven in a well-designed, objective experiment. So, when I found myself in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Lexington, Massachusetts, it was a bit surprising to those who knew me, and to me as well!  My wife Miriam and I had decided to give it a try, but only for our young son’s benefit – or so we thought. Over the subsequent years, ever so gradually, that congregation helped me to recognise the potential beauty and power of people coming together to create community and to make a better world. Indeed, it started me on a path that led me to leave biotech and become a non-theistic Minister.

I began studying for the ministry at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts: several years of academic training, followed by a year-long internship under the supervision of an experienced Minister. I was in the late stages of setting up my internship at an American congregation when Miriam announced that she’d been offered an exciting job (as the CEO of an internet retail fashion company) that would be a great step forward for her. Naturally, I was delighted – until I found out that this new job was based in London. ‘London? We can’t go to London! I’m preparing for the American UU ministry!’ I feared that it would be impossible for me to transition my ministerial preparation to the UK. However, the expected barriers fell like dominoes before me. We packed up and moved to what we expected to be our very short-term home – London.

The London Unitarian congregations of Newington Green and Islington asked if I’d be willing to fill in for a year, upon the departure of their shared minister. I was told that it would be considered a success if the congregation numbers were maintained. Happily, the congregation grew that year, and the church Committees asked me to stay on a bit longer. Two more years passed, with continued growth, from 35 members to more than 100. In 2009, when I completed my British Unitarian ministry training, the congregation formally welcomed me as their Minister. It had become clear to me that even though I hadn’t foreseen the fascinating twists and turns my life path would be taking, I was in the right place, at the right time, in the right vocation; and so looking forward to the challenges and joys to come. I do not fit the mould, and I don’t think any of us are meant to be shaped and manipulated to fit a mould – of belief, perspective, sexuality, or ability. We’re meant to be treasured as the people we are, and to be accepted, loved, and supported as we grow as individuals and join together to create a more just society.

Perhaps the most important experience for me was of truly deep and vulnerable community. This took place in various settings in and around Unitarian Universalism (UU) in the US. This experience is to me the most profound and even perhaps ‘sacred’ of encounters. My disenchantment with the world of business inspired me in the sense that it provided a clear example of what I did not want to do for the rest of my life! There have, of course, been many other experiences.

2. The Meaning of Ministry

What does being a Unitarian minister and spiritual leader mean for you, in terms of your personal beliefs, values and goals?

Claire MacDonald

Being a minister and being a Unitarian are two related but distinctive things for me. Ministry is a practice and a calling across faiths and contexts. It’s not defined by denomination, it’s a practice, a way of doing and being. I try at it, I fail, I fall, I try again. It is at the same time deeply joyful and scarily uncertain — it calls me to find resilience and to learn to swim when no resilience is possible.  It’s without goals in its best sense. It feels very connected to caring for the earth, to countercultural ways of thinking and doing outside conventional notions of ‘success’.

I try to ask the questions, value experience and not depend on established narratives. And yet, I think we are looking for the best models to live by, models that allow for the most generative kinds of human flourishing. So I am not a liberal in the classic sense — not all paths are equal for me. Spiritual leadership is simply two things, one is always being prepared to say that the ‘buck stops with me’. I am the backstop. And I simply try to walk the path, to walk with, not to fix or solve but just to be there.

Andy Pakula

I am committed to creating more love and justice in the world. This begins with community and works through community, so building healthy, loving, justice-seeking community is my highest priority.

Maria Curtis

I spent years of my professional life putting labels on children with special educational needs as a route to acquiring resources. I am very much against labelling people. One of my fundamental beliefs is that we should encounter “otherness” with curiosity and compassion. It is important to me to acknowledge that we all have prejudices – we all project our perceptions onto others – then we can work to counter them in an attempt to see the other as a human being like us. I believe we are all “equal in the sight of God”, but we find it very difficult to behave as if this were the case; we are all guilty of valuing some people more than others. Through our spiritual community we endeavour to support one another in seeing the divine spark within everyone.

One of my tasks as spiritual leader is to acknowledge human frailty and still maintain hope. We are not in denial about human stupidity and evil, but we know that is not the whole picture. I support my congregation in avoiding despair and retaining their capacity for joy amid the gloom and doom. For example, we can easily experience despair in relation to climate change but despair does not lead to action; we need to tap the wellspring of joy and gratitude at simply being alive amid beauty and loving relationships. This is the world we want to preserve for future generations and it is our responsibility to act to make the world a better place, rather than being mere bystanders.

3. Study and Training

What did your training involve and how do you continue to reflect on and develop your practice?

Maria Curtis

We used to have a Unitarian college in Manchester which was part of a federation of colleges of other dissenting churches. I did a two-year full-time course in Contextual Theology, alongside Unitarian Studies, which was taught separately. Because I was academically well qualified, I was allocated to courses from the MA programme although I had no background in Christianity. I enjoyed the courses but felt uncomfortable learning in an academic environment where one’s Christianity was assumed. I do not identify as a Christian and soon realised that the sort of philosophical discussion I had anticipated was only possible with my Unitarian colleagues and not the other students (and only some of the staff). We have recently created a new Unitarian College which is completely independent and can tailor courses to individual needs, a much better model in my view, and I wish it had been available when I undertook my training.

By far the most significant aspect of my training was the placements, the first under the supervision of an experienced minister and the second where I was the minister-in-training. I learned so much about congregational life and was able to reflect on my practice through my contextual theology assignments. I continue to reflect on my practice through a covenant group (a form of peer supervision), my District support group for ministers and my own minister’s support group in my church. There are two national meetings per year when all Unitarian ministers in UK can gather to reflect on and develop their practice. We also have an annual General Assembly where we meet with the wider membership.

Claire MacDonald

My accredited training took several forms. Firstly, I took a course in how to lead a service which tuned out to be much, much more than that. It was an opportunity to reflect and connect in ways that were transformative and allowed me to bring my existing practice as a performer, teacher and writer into an emerging context and share with others the experiment and experience of allowing what ministry might be to change us. It stayed with me and the people who did it with me stayed with me. I have Sarah Tinker and Jane Blackall to thank for that. Secondly, I was incredibly lucky to be invited by Rev Andy Pakula to spend a year at New Unity in Islington as his assistant and trainee. It was a wonderful year. I learned from him about family systems theory, and about how to be in a congregation, where your role is to be slightly set apart. I took services there monthly and I loved and love that congregation. I then trained for two years at Harris Manchester College Oxford in ministry. The focus was on formation, in an intimate conversational setting in which we wrote essay length pieces of writing on a variety of topics and shared those, reading them aloud and then through discussion. The afternoons we spent in discussions were very deep indeed.

At the same time, I undertook a pastorate in Oxford and led services monthly as well as a book group. I also studied in London over two years for an MA in Abrahamic Faiths at Heythrop College, a Jesuit foundation, which was among the deepest and most challenging and interesting intellectual contexts I have ever taken part in. I already had a PhD in a different subject. I was a university teacher and was also running an MA while I was training but this was very challenging. The MA focused on the violent impact of modernity on the three Abrahamic faiths and the ethical, political, spiritual and cultural questions which emerged from that. I had teachers from all three faiths.

In terms of continuing reflection – yoga, prayer, getting myself out of the way, trying, failing, listening to God, finding God in the small things. There’s nothing special. My practice is everyday life. In a sense it’s the heightened awareness of life’s brevity, of that very short horizon, of living with insignificance. I am a yoga teacher and writer. I still work in the arts. It is very important to me though that the MA aspect of my training was so intellectually deep. It gave me strength and depth and connected me to the the writings of others through history. I felt as if I was being taken by the hand from somewhere very deep down and just hauled to the surface of the water, learning to swim.

Andy Pakula

I was trained both in the US and the UK. In the US, with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), I was required to do a Masters of Divinity degree which was 30 modules. It covered theology, history, preaching, ethics, scripture, world religions, pastoral care, community systems, and much more. I was also required to undertake three hundred hours of Clinical Pastoral Education, which I did in a hospital, and to carry out a yearlong full-time internship in a congregation. In the UK, I was required to learn more about British Unitarian history and theology. Ultimately, as an atheist serving a non-religious congregation, I found much of the theology and history to be not very relevant to my practice of ministry. I have learned far more doing ministry than I did learning about it.

4. Liturgical and Reflective Practices

What liturgies, rituals and reflective practices feature in your church’s services and events?

Claire MacDonald

As I understand it, liturgy originates in the order of things, the way we do them. Simply meeting weekly for reflection and sharing is a practice that has become essential and which is at the heart of community and congregation. That Sunday morning hour is an expansive moment. Its a pause between one week and the next, a collective breathing in and out, a point of recognition of who we are. We do some meditation, we sing at times, we read poetry, we light candles for the world and our own lives and we share the joys and hopes and losses and pain quite formally, and in a context that is confidential. We do that to recharge and support our commitment to change. That change is an essential aspect of ordering our daily life on ethical principles and values. Everyone matters, we commit to love and kindness, we admit to failure, we appreciate what we dont know, we use and value reason, we accept and value difference.

At my own community meeting house in south London we embrace many paths to spiritual growth and we do it in a strong and questioning way. We experiment with ways of connecting through arts and poetry, song, meditation, story telling and practical work gardening, cooking, sharing meals, going camping together. We also try to work/walk through the seasonal year and its festivals, which are often tied to the big Abrahamic faiths as well as older, earthier insights and practices. The road is made by walking, as the poet Antonio Machado said. This Sunday we are doing a water gathering service using the bringing and mixing of waters to tell the stories of our summer and our hopes for what is next. Artist Amy Sharrocks, who created the Museum of Water, is joining us. Personally, I also lead and design rites of passage, and conduct weddings and funerals in which I help people to create those in appropriate ways for them. I am also interested in rituals as effective acts, or performative utterances. I am leading a weekend workshop at the Live Art Development Agency at the end of September on blessing and cursing for art practitioners. I like that cross-over.

Andy Pakula

We don’t do much in the way of liturgy to the extent that this is meant to mean a repeated set of words and phrases. We do have rituals. There are those (such as candles of joy and sorrow, lighting of a candle, and rising in communal song) that we repeat weekly. There are others that are infrequent and some that are devised for specific situations. Our meetings begin with a ritual check-in with the prompt ‘how is your heart.’ The meetings end with a check-in of ‘likes and wishes’ to express what each person liked about the meeting and what they wish could be different in the future. The meeting finally closes with a ritual where each person in turn takes the hand of the person to their left with the words ‘I place my hand in yours that we may do together what we cannot do apart.’

Maria Curtis

Services begin with the lighting of the chalice, the symbol of our free faith. I often incorporate candle lighting ceremonies in my services where individuals from the congregation can light a candle (tea light), offer a silent prayer or speak to the theme of the service. I sometimes have mini-discussions where people can share their experiences in small groups. We have very little in the way of a set liturgy, but my services generally follow a structure that I’m comfortable with, sometimes known as the “hymn sandwich”. Every service would contain hymns, readings, prayers and silence/meditation. I have also used film clips occasionally.

An example of a recent District Meeting that I hosted: A service – plus – workshop on a theme of Active Hope, based on the ideas of American Buddhist and eco-warrior, Joanna Macy. We sang, we prayed, we gave thanks, we lamented, then we discussed what we had done that had actually made a difference, however small, to the welfare of the earth.  Contributions took the form of lighting a candle and speaking and sharing in small groups. All who attended (about 35) made a contribution and I believe felt empowered by the end of the ceremony, which took about two hours. Once a year, I lead a service to which members of the local community are invited. A couple of years ago, this took the form of the Great Get Together on a theme of Unity to commemorate the life of murdered MP Jo Cox. This year, the theme is Food and we’ll be looking at the recent UN report on farming and climate change; food poverty; food waste; recycling, etc.

5. Matters of Identity

Would you describe your ministry as Christian? Or, in other words, how does the Unitarian church’s Christian heritage feature and inspire current Unitarian communities and yours in particular?

Andy Pakula

No, not Christian. My own background is secular Jewish. My congregation is mostly agnostic or atheist. We draw wisdom and inspiration from secular and religious traditions. Christianity is no more important in this way than other major world religions.

Maria Curtis

A small minority of my congregation would describe themselves as Christian; most would not, but there is enormous variation in theology and beliefs among Unitarian churches and chapels. Having come from a very humanistic church in the south of England, I had quite a shock when I went to train in Manchester and encountered congregations which were predominantly Christian. I certainly do not identify as Christian; I can make no sense of Jesus being the son of God.  I find some Christian ideas such as Original Sin and the Atonement abhorrent.  I am not interested in claims about Resurrection. However, I am attracted by the ethics of Christianity, as conveyed in the gospels.

I sometimes describe myself as a follower of Jesus –  the radical who stood against hypocrisy and was committed to social justice – but I am also inspired by the Buddha, Socrates and many other mystics, philosophers and poets who seek the truth. I cannot assume that everyone in my congregation believes in God. I regarded myself as an atheist for years but would not do so now.  I no longer find it helpful to think in terms of belief or disbelief in God. In the course of a service I may use many paraphrases for the concept of God, eg, the Divine, That which is of highest worth, Love, Creative Spirit, etc.  At the beginning of a service I would always explain our Unitarian stance, saying that we respect the Christian tradition from which we emerged, but glean insights from other faiths and philosophies, as well as from literature and science. Above all, we are open hearted and open minded, and that means we must be ready to change our minds in the light of new evidence.

Claire MacDonald

My ministry does not look for Christian answers, it doesnt use the Christian story or the Christian message allegorically but it listens to what ancient stories have to tell us, and I am moved and creatively charged by them. I share with Christians a sense of the strange, essential, resilient mystery of Christianity. Christianity is a conversation, and a process, and a spirituality the institution of church is quite another thing. Unitarianism began in a moment of political dissent from the established church and I value the way in which it has moved towards a conversation between reason, science, knowing and unknowing, and an embrace of wider spiritual traditions. I also appreciate its commitment to ministry as a dynamic practice though I see that as in a sense more a rabbinical role than a priestly one — since Unitarianism is non sacramental.

For me, it’s more a question of culture than belief. Being married to an American Jew I have spent many years as a participant in Jewish liturgies, seders and practices, which I have come to love and appreciate. I have also come to see more clearly the ways in which I remain culturally, and in my heart, Christian. It has me emotionally — I know its stories, I know its part in my personal development from childhood, I know its shape and its depths. I have also been affected and informed since my teens by liberation theology. That movement, to always walk towards the margins, to always side with the poor, to side with those for whom the world is in a state of collapse, that is Christian in ethical practice and it takes a deep, steady sense of the worth and value of Christian theology to go there, and I have also learned from women practitioners and theologians across faiths — Ana Levy Lyons, my Jewish Unitarian minister in New York, the writings of Jerusha Lamptey, who is a muslim theologian at NYU, and, very recently, from the Palestinian scholar and activist Liana Saif who is taking part in my blessings and cursings workshop. In recent years the beauty and insight of Islam has been instructive for me. That is an ongoing journey.

6. Building Community

How do you build local community and accommodate a range of personalities and beliefs?

Claire MacDonald

This is huge question. By doing, listening, modelling, respecting, embracing… Ministers have a place at the table that is unique. It allows us to take part in a very wide range of community activities and spaces. That is very important. I think we need to offer respite, space, pause, and I think we need to be very clear about our values. Building community in times like these is very challenging indeed. Accommodating people is not what I see community doing, its more to do with finding ways to allow and enable people to ‘just be’ but also providing a strong sense of what we side with and commit to — people can be with those values as process and engage with them as part of a journey.

I am reminded all the time that Unitarian communities and congregations are ecological systems and I am thinking about what the ecology of a community means in difficult times, how resilient a small system can be. Religious movements encourage people to bring all the baggage we carry with us into the space. We don’t just bring our dressed-up selves but ourselves in pain and need. I find that challenging and I find it breathtakingly honest at times. We bring our grief and upset to the table, and in the current political spiritual ecological crisis I have begun to see that they are not negative, they too are tools we have to work with. The trick is to keep breathing, to learn to step back, not to judge, to accept where we are. I don’t find it easy at all. I find it extremely challenging at times. I have to remind myself that failing and falling and making fools of ourselves is all part of how we find new growth in the world we live in. Religions accept that we are broken, and that we strive for wholeness. At times, in a mosque, in a synagogue, in a temple, in a church, I feel we can breathe, let down, as if we step into shallow water together with bare feet, just to be here. That’s the challenge, to be here. As Tich Nhat Hahn says, our true home is in the present moment. ‘The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment / to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now. It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.

Andy Pakula

I came to the conclusion some time ago that it is better for a congregation – and especially a minister – to be one thing well rather than try to be all things to all people. The Sunday Gatherings at New Unity are non-supernatural. They don’t deny the existence of supernatural forces and entities but speak to the core religious message of love and justice. Our words and practices place responsibility for the world and for our relationships upon human beings. This is not to say that other people and views are not welcome or included. All are welcome. Many who hold supernatural beliefs find much that is inspiring and sustaining at New Unity and – since we don’t try to deny or disprove their beliefs – they feel free to read their beliefs into our message.

Maria Curtis

We are a welcoming community which offers hospitality to all. We model respect in our interaction with one another, including tolerance of difference in our relationships, which then radiates out to the wider community. What holds us together as a spiritual community is our shared values. These are reinforced through regular worship, where we gain strength from participating together, and through shared activities where we extend our hospitality and charity to other groups. Together we share our joys and sorrows, leading to cohesion as a community.

7. Rewards and Challenges

What are the greatest rewards and challenges of your work?

Maria Curtis

The rewards far outweigh the challenges. Compared to life as a professional in the public sector, my life as a minister is pure joy. I have the autonomy to focus on what I feel is most important without having to worry about resources or statutory deadlines; I used to be part of a bureaucratic special needs machine, whereas now I have considerable freedom. True, there are deadlines, and one loses weekends, but apart from the work around the Sunday service, I can prioritise where to focus my time and effort. It is a real privilege being able to serve a congregation and focus on what really matters in life; a big responsibility, too, as people share their deepest feelings with their minister.

I am very comfortable in the role of “holding” the congregation during services as well as holding individuals and small groups. I bring transferable skills from my experience as a teacher, psychologist and counsellor which I enjoy using, but, beyond expertise, it is the use of self, just “being there” for others, which gives me great satisfaction. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of coming up with ideas for services, choosing readings and structuring the service for maximum impact. I am someone who enjoys writing and researching but my perfectionist streak means that I probably spend too long on these activities. Too much time spent sitting at the computer is one of the downsides of this line of work but the pressure is coming from me, not anyone else.

This may seem a strange thing to say, but I really enjoy conducting funerals.  I feel at my most therapeutic when I am supporting people in coming to terms with their loss. I think it is very important to make the funeral ceremony a positive experience. By that I do not mean denial of the finality of death or sharing fantasies about the afterlife.  It’s all about acknowledging the pain of loss and working towards acceptance of death. I endeavour to convey the personality of the deceased in a way that rings true for the mourners so that they can celebrate a life and say goodbye to their loved one. It is such a privilege to conduct funeral services for people when they are at their most vulnerable and be able to offer them comfort and support.

If I had to summarise ministry, I would say it is about bearing prophetic witness – to injustice, dishonesty, hypocrisy, etc, – while acknowledging with gratitude and humility the sheer privilege and joy of being alive.

Claire MacDonald

There are so many kinds of rewards in community. Being in there, in what I call the dirty water of passionate commitment to human flourishing, connected to where people are in vulnerability and resilience is rewarding. There’s a lot of fun involved, a lot of letting go of what doesn’t matter, a lot of attention to where we are. The challenges are also very big. Some of them are the usual — funding, making our spaces beautiful and safe, offering gatherings that are connected and meaningful, not making it a to do list, not overdoing it, listening. There are others patriarchy and unconscious sexism, the passing off of privilege as liberalism, the lack of real diversity in liberal congregations, the challenges of race and class, the need to meet emerging sexualities and identities with authentically and actively, all of that.

There is also a fear of taking responsibility that is very challenging, a desire not to rock the boat, an aversion to risk, a narrow minded clubbiness. Shall I go on? Church hurts. I am in a ministry group across denominations and its the same everywhere. The trick is to keep breathing, to learn to step back, not to judge, to accept where we are. And yet to hold to values and principals. I’m also prepared for failing and falling and making fools of ourselves, in things not going well, and in tears and temper and falling out — because this is how we find new growth in the world we live in. We bring our pain, grief and upset to the table, and in the current political spiritual ecological crisis they too are tools we have to work with. I am reminded all the time that Unitarian communities and congregations are complex ecological systems and I am thinking about what the ecology of a community means in difficult times, how resilient a small system can be, what makes it special, what gives it shape, makes it distinctive, gives it life? Churches are very challenging places because we bring our whole selves, and that is really powerful. We don’t just bring our dressed up selves but ourselves in pain and need. I find that challenging and I find it breathtakingly honest at times.

Andy Pakula

The challenges are few and the rewards many. The challenges for me really come down to my own passion. I want to do more each day than can fit. This comes from the fact that the work is so rewarding and important. Ministry is the best possible job. My work is to help people and help them make a better world. It is to help people to love one another. It gives my life meaning and purpose and aligns with my personal mission.

8. Unitarian Visions

In your view, what should the Unitarian vision and practical emphasis be, going into the future?

Maria Curtis

Our priority should be to engage with others who share our values, with people of faith but also humanists and anyone else who takes life seriously.  There are so many big issues to confront that we need all the help we can get. I am less interested in putting energy into preserving Unitarianism than in gathering like-minded people of compassion together to make the world a better place before it is too late.,

Claire MacDonald

Living it. Caring about an enriching spiritual life as everyone’s right. Not worrying about growth. Not getting into bed with the remaindered business model that churches are finding so appealing at present but siding with ecological, counter cultural thinking, how to collaborate, how to let go of old systems, how to model in the way we work together the kind of society we would like to be.

Andy Pakula

I believe Unitarianism should be a diverse collection of congregations. These congregations will have distinct perspectives, approaches, and diverse beliefs. Each would be authentic and avoid the pitfalls of trying to please everyone. Each congregation would be outwardly focused – intent on meeting the world where it is and providing what the people of today need.

9. Working with Others

What organisations with similar values and goals do you collaborate with?

Andy Pakula

We collaborate with Extinction Rebellion, Citizens UK, Humanists UK, and dozens of small non-profits.

Maria Curtis

Local, national and international interfaith groups. Local ecological groups. We have created a South-East Climate Alliance group.  GreenSpirit, a national group of which I’ve been a member for a while, brings together people from a range of backgrounds who care about the earth. Society of Friends (Quakers). Ironically, the group we have least contact with in my area are Christian churches; Churches Together will not collaborate with us because we don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. Greenpeace.  Amnesty International.  Local Refugees group.  Extinction Rebellion.  Local recycling/repair groups working against waste.

Claire MacDonald

I am committed to internationalism so I collaborate with, visit and partner with Unitarians across the world. That includes feminist Unitarians in Transylvania through my friend Reverend Eniko Ferenczi, and with friends and fellow Unitarian ministers Meg Richardson and Gabriella Lettini at Starr King College at Berkley, who teach counter cultural pedagogies based in transformative inclusive theologies. I am a writer and arts practitioner as well and am part of the Culture Declares Emergency movement working on the climate crisis. I am in LIF, the Lewisham Interfaith Forum. I am a committed arts activist and work with arts organisations such as the Live Art Development Agency. They are based in an old Unitarian mission in Bethnal Green and create collaborations across all kinds of groups. I work with SimpleGifts, the Unitarian social action centre, also based in the same building in Bethnal Green. Actually, I will pretty much collaborate with anyone. At the moment I am planning to collaborate with Magic Me, which is also an arts-based organisation in Bethnal Green.


Claire

Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald

Claire MacDonald is a Unitarian minister with Lewisham Unity in Catford, South London. She is also a writer, with a background in performance, who is committed to what she calls ‘writing beyond belief’ working in social change and art contexts to explore new ways of doing, being and meaning through conversation and collective practice. As an activist, she is committed to the idea that radical change originates in culture, and that art, like religion, operates at the moving edge of experience, always edging into what is just beyond what we think we know. Claire has recently joined the Secular Liturgies External Advisory Board.

 

Andy

Rev. Dr. Andrew Pakula

Andy is a Unitarian Minister at New Unity, a Unitarian congregation with two centres in north London. Under his leadership, the church has hosted a series of annual lectures by prominent public figures, to address “a topical or important aspect of liberty, reason and ethics”. The Richard Price Memorial Lectures have invited Evan Davis, the economist and BBC presenter, to speak on media and dishonesty; psychotherapist Susie Orbach, to describe “Frankenstein’s Bodies Today”; and literary critic Terry Eagleton, to analyse “The New Atheism and the War on Terror”.

It may interest readers that Andy was involved in a controversy when he was invited to appear on the Today Programme, BBC Radio 4’s flagship morning show, at the request of guest editor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and a Unitarian himself. Berners-Lee had wished him to present the segment within the programme known as “Thought for the Day” but the BBC hierarchy claimed this was not appropriate, since Andy describes himself as an atheist. Instead, he was allowed to deliver his message an hour earlier, as an “Alternative Thought for the Day”, with a theistic Unitarian minister appearing in the actual TFTD slot.

 

Maria

Rev. Dr. Maria Curtis

Maria has been Minister of Horsham Unitarian Church since October 2014, after training at Unitarian College, Manchester. Prior to ministry, she worked in social work, teaching and academic research, and for over twenty years as an educational psychologist.

Maria is shortly retiring from congregational ministry but will continue to serve the Unitarian movement with a focus on ministry training. As leader at Horsham Unitarian Church, Maria developed a Green Spirituality group, which is open to the community, with the aim of “bringing people together to celebrate life and consider how best to nurture the earth and all her creatures”.

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The Secular Liturgies Real History Project

We hear a lot about ‘fake news’ and it’s malign influence through social media. Well, over the last few years, I have been observing the increase of another phenomenon on social media – fake history. Many individuals and groups are using spurious, far fetched and downright deceitful accounts of history in order to try to justify their prejudices and promote harmful political and religious ideologies.

History has always been manipulated in this way but academic history has over the last seventy or so years established large bodies of evidence and evidence-based historical accounts which maintain a strong degree of objectivity. In spite of all the nuances discussed in countless articles about the objectivity of history (or the lack of it), there simply are a great many things, which we can safely say are true beyond reasonable doubt. Also, it isn’t difficult for anyone with some basic critical skills to determine when an author hasn’t done their due diligence in researching the claims they make or when he or she has an axe to grind and, therefore, an obvious bias.

Part of the problem is that historical research has not successfully filtered down into general knowledge or cultural awareness in the wider population. History as taught in British Schools has long been very limited in its scope and inclusivity and arguably still is, hence the recent women’s history and Black history initiatives which have sought to redress the balance.

Since it isn’t possible to police the internet, nor should it be possible, the best way to respond to the flood of fake history is surely to foster an environment where there is so much ‘real history’ of a strongly objective and scholarly standard (both in terms of journalistic and academic articles), that the majority of people simply won’t be able to actively avoid or remain ignorant of the truth very easily.

As a historian, I feel a deep sense of responsibility in addressing the ‘fake history’ problem. I have been alarmed by the frequency at which I am meeting people who have been taken in by fake historical accounts, and who when challenged, resort to saying things like ‘well everyone has their own version of history don’t they?’ More worryingly still, I have come across a number of articles published and shared by individuals and groups who might, on the surface, look to be allies of Secular Liturgies Project but who have resorted to answering lies and misinformation with further lies and misinformation of their own.

Much of the fake history I have encountered on social media promotes a right-wing ideology with its accompanying white supremacist and misogynistic tendencies. However, the political left have also been guilty of using the same methods of deceit. Then there are the many traditionalist and fundamentalist religious groups who have mastered the art of bending history in their favour, and on the other side, a few bitter apostates who have chosen to do the same thing in order to vilify and dehumanise the religious.

The Secular Liturgies Real History Project has a simple objective, which is to encourage as many people as possible to share on social media as many scholarly and accurate historical accounts as possible, especially on subjects that are frequently misrepresented by fake or misleading articles. These should be shared with a clear Secular Liturgies Real History hashtag (#SecularLiturgiesRealHistoryProject) and a link to this blog so that people can see a movement growing, learn about it and join in should they wish to. These articles should preferably explore an area or aspect of applied history, in other words, useful history that is relevant to the issues and challenges of the present.

It’s so easy to read a good article and not to think of sharing it. However, it only takes a moment to share something worthwhile across your networks, and it just might help someone to learn something important that they didn’t know before or challenge someone to rethink their assumptions and prejudices. It only takes good people to do nothing for evil to flourish, as the saying goes. Spreading knowledge and understanding increases the resilience of societies and communities against  persistent attempts at propaganda and indoctrination.

All articles shared in the name of this project should conform to scholarly expectation. If I or anyone else catches something being posted on behalf of this project that does not, they should call it out. If you would like to take part but do not know how to evaluate sources online, there are many guides produced by universities which can help you. Here’s a link to a good one produced by one of my Alma Maters, the University of Edinburgh:

Evaluating Evidence: A University Guide

Once you are familiar with these principles and have a bit of practice in applying them, you are equipped with the basic research skills required to join in with the project. Also, you can always seek advice before posting when you’re not sure about an article. Debates over points in articles shared for this project, which are controversial in terms of their accuracy, are welcome.

I am going to start sharing some articles via the Secular Liturgies Facebook Page to get us started!

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Marching for Change by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

“The Secular Liturgies Network is not affiliated with any political party or movement. However, we are deeply committed to secular values of freedom, equality and democracy, and as individuals, we take our political responsibility to defend these values seriously. We seek to further the cause of global economic and environmental justice, with the understanding that international cooperation is urgently required to achieve those ends. In my humble opinion, the United Kingdom can best contribute to these goals if it remains in (or eventually re-joins) the European Union as an active and influential member. However, it wasn’t for this reason alone that I participated in the March for Change in London on the 20th of June. It was also an opportunity to stand in opposition to those who seek to erode our hard-won rights and freedoms, and against all who are determined to exploit the British people for their own financial and political gain. I joined thousands of others in sending a message, loud and clear, that the upwards of 48% (and rising) will not be ignored.”

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Marching for Change

I woke up at 4am having dreamt up a political slogan but after cobbling together a sign out of flipchart paper and permanent marker, I was too embarrassed to reveal it. Let that be a lesson to you. Never recreate something you dreamt about, before your critical faculties are fully engaged, and without the proper equipment. The message was far too earnest, not to mention vague, and exactly the sort of thing an academic might be expected to come up with, which made it impossible to carry out of principle. It was what I ought to have said, rather than what I really bloody well thought about the whole sorry state of the nation. I folded it away in my bag, just in case I had a change of heart. I never did.

As I skipped down the road towards the rendezvous point, I felt wonderfully subversive and rather like a child again. Perhaps activism would suit me after-all. Watching it was certainly an exciting prospect. It had been a while since I’d witnessed such an event in person. Indeed, I had avoided demonstrations for a few years, in order to preserve the innocence of my children while they were little. Surely, they didn’t need to be exposed to the cruelties and tragedies of the world before they’d even enjoyed it enough to establish some secure moorings. Also, I had never been an exhibitionist, apart from on one occasion in my youth when an overzealous host made the mistake of refilling my glass a few times too many while I was engaged in deepest conversation, the result of which was that I mooned at the assembled company for reasons I have never been able to ascertain. Since then, I had made myself present, and heard, on many a controversial occasion but shouting and fist waving is hardly the pursuit of a gentlewoman such as myself, even a financially distressed gentlewoman with much cause for complaint.

Only if I were sufficiently disguised by some form of elaborate costume would I consider making a vulgar display of emotion in public. It has been said, that Pentecostals and even Charismatics gave up on me during my years of religious devotion, even though I had rather a bad case. As far as I am concerned, two people in complete agreement is a cause for suspicion, more than two is downright sinister, especially if, god forbid, they become excited by the fact.

By the time I was seated on the bus, however, the enthusiasm had worn off and my mood was rapidly sinking. This may have been more to do with the disturbance of my circadian rhythm and an adrenaline crash than anything else, but at the time, it was the state of world affairs that was squarely at fault. We all knew it was hopeless, that the government just wasn’t listening, and that the narcissistic types to whom the country had been sacrificed were probably enjoying the attention. Conversation was fairly vigorous on the bus nonetheless, and it was pleasing to hear a variety of opinions, with little sign of the sinister conformism that so repelled me. The rise of racist and homophobic hate crime, the resurfacing of anti-Semitism and populist ideology on both the left and right, the spread of fake news and fake history, the problem of prejudice in general and how to overcome it – all were discussed with the vigour of those who still anticipated victory, albeit with a delay of a decade or so, or even a generation. There was a general feeling that we humans were in a worse pickle than ever before but that we weren’t quite a lost cause.

Someone asked if we could stop at the services with a Waitrose, a request which was received with sympathetic noises from around the bus. I smiled to myself, reminded of those who claimed these marches were ‘Waitrose on the move’ – the customers that is and not the staff! Were we really going to represent a middle-class elite? It was a ghastly thought, especially since there was much in middle-class British culture – or the lack of it – which I despised. Meanwhile, my mother piped up with an “oh no, we should stop at the one with the M&S. It has much better coffee.” There was a heavy silence indicating a level of disagreement on the subject. Understanding the possible direction this conversation could take, I hid myself from view as a precaution, taking refuge in the view beyond the glass. After all, my mother is a woman who has been known to complain about how common our royal family are, an opinion with which I have a degree of sympathy but would want to keep to myself nonetheless. There was clear consensus, however, on the revolting nature of service stations in general, with much pining for the famous Gloucester Services, with its organically formed, grassland covered eco building, and not forgetting its farm shop and edible garden!

There was a bit of a stunned silence when I mentioned how my sister had received rather a lot of anti-Semitic abuse over the years, due to her olive complexion and dark eyes, in spite of the fact she isn’t in fact Jewish. There are family rumours that our great, great grandmother was a Spanish Jew but I suspect family rumours don’t count. I’m not sure this revelation of the greater-than-some-imagined depths of our fellow citizens’ hatreds improved morale on the bus, nor my theory that the reason populism always returned was because, deep within humanity, there is a lust for trouble and even war; that in truth, many people liked rich ruffians and ruthless profiteers because they admired them and wanted to be exactly like them. No-one really wanted peace until they had tasted the pain of war for themselves. Peace was boring. Being an arsehole was much more fun. “Good for them”, I’d hear people say, when I told them about the greedy and unscrupulous behaviour of those in the ERG – the ‘bad boys (and girls) of Brexit’.

Indeed, while I was still reeling, not to mention fuming from the ears, at Boris Johnson’s assertion that the quarter of a million pounds he gets a year for his piddling articles in the Telegraph was mere chicken feed, these morons actually revelled in it. They were too simple to see, that just like the ‘American dream’, extreme wealth only comes true for a miniscule number of people who are born into privilege and have good bit of luck on their side. There are very few cases where someone very rich has worked their way up from nothing, fewer still who have anything that could be described as noble character, and the handful of people who do work their way up have to at least be intelligent enough to capitalise on the opportunities they get. Therefore, while the vast majority of the stinking rich have got there by exploiting other humans and the planet, by being scumbags in other words, those who admire them will never share in their spoils. Far from it. They will remain poor and stupid their whole lives, however nasty and selfish they are.

I’ve heard it said that many working-class people in Britain voted Tory and Brexit because they would rather be ruled by people who are overtly increasing inequality and serving themselves, than by those whose policies would help close the wealth gap, some of whom happen to be a little hypocritical at times (far lefties from privileged backgrounds come to mind here). That’s like choosing to be operated on by a willing local butcher, who readily admits he’s not all that au fait with human anatomy among other things, just because you caught the qualified surgeon smoking and over-eating on his day off. We all have our vices and contradictions but there are degrees, and besides, how can you celebrate immorality when it comes to one group of people, while roundly condemning it in another? It was the kind of argument that made one want to pack up immediately and live as a hermit as far from so-called civilisation as possible.

When we arrived in London, we had coffee and slices of pizza at a café in Hyde Park. We had alighted there in order to use the facilities and had queued accordingly, but listening to the sounds of someone violently retching within one of only two adjacent cubicles in a cramped subterranean space, was enough to make someone, however desperate, tighten the sphincter one last time and find alternative arrangements. I had been feeling rather jolly again at the sight of dear old London but the sound of vomiting echoed in my subconscious, renewing my world depression.

We stood baking steadily in full sun for what seemed like an age, as an unbroken stream of urbane and cheery protesters spilled out of the underpass in Park Lane carrying signage that couldn’t help by raise a smile, even in sullen and despondent cases like my own. Someone with a mic regaled us with the news that we would be joined by a Boris Blimp and a six-foot high model of Nigel Farage carrying puppets of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. This increased our sense of anticipation but the latter construction turned out to be a disappointment. I didn’t even recognise the giant Farage head when I first saw it lying on the pavement awaiting the erection of its body, because it was, if anything, better looking than the man himself. In an effort to create a caricature, someone had actually managed to create something flattering, which says a lot about the particular difficulty of the task. It meant that for a full ten minutes or so, I was wondering whose head this was supposed to be and why on earth I did not recognise it.

Then we marched. My abiding memory of this part of proceedings, was not the coarse and incessant chant of ‘bollocks to Brexit’ (hardly the cleverest of slogans!) but the point at which the march temporarily ground to a halt, and a nearby Scottish woman managed, rather impressively, to channel the full outrage of those north of the border into an impromptu and impassioned speech. The angry of Scotland would have been proud. Disregarded by the vilest human produce of England, and about to be stripped of their European citizenship, they had every right to be incandescent. Several English marchers were chiming in, saying they were tempted to move to Scotland in order to get away, and in some cases, promising to join the movement for Scottish independence once they got there. Having lived in Scotland for thirteen years, I was quite sure an English exodus across the border, even a liberal and socialist one, wasn’t quite what the woman and those she represented had in mind as a remedy for their current predicament! There was much sympathy for Scotland and Northern Ireland among the demonstrators, on account of their remain majorities, and much rage was vented on the subject of bitch-faced Priti Patel’s appalling suggestion that Ireland should be threatened with food shortages in order to force them to drop the backstop. No doubt she and her cronies would love to see Ireland starved into submission, just like in the old days!

Meanwhile, I was rather consumed by an altogether different kind of nostalgia. I had grown up in Ealing, in West London, but had lived elsewhere since late in the year 2000, visiting the capital rather less frequently in recent years. I had almost forgotten the glorious splendour of the place. It occurred to me, that if it wasn’t for the ill effects of the city’s pollution on my health, I would live there now. After all, it is hands down, the most inspiring city in Britain, both in terms of its buildings and its people. It is a place so diverse that barriers and prejudices are broken down just in the course of a day’s encounters, and consequently, counter to popular opinion in the provinces, it is one of the friendliest places on earth, especially when compared with other cities of comparable size. There are places where people think of themselves as friendlier but these are generally the kind of places where the bestowal of such affection is highly selective, and where incomers are shunned. The nine million strong population of London, while they may not like to look at each other on tube trains, are exceptionally agreeable in public houses and bars, and when you really need assistance. One gallant fellow walked me for twenty minutes across London on an occasion when I found myself horribly lost in unfamiliar parts! Having said all this, there is undeniably a downside to the sheer quantity of humans contained within London’s boundaries. I was reminded of this every time I found myself in a queue, since they were invariably a mile long.

At times I felt like a tourist, struggling to remember where or what anything was, and wishing I’d brought an A to Z. Having lived in Scotland for thirteen years and the South West for six, my identity as a Londoner had somewhat faded, and while I was keen to restore it, I was also acutely aware that I am a product, not just of a London upbringing but of all these islands, having a rather illustrious Scottish heritage as well as an Anglo-Saxon one. And, in the run up to Brexit, I had managed to get Irish citizenship for myself and my younger son, courtesy of an Irish grandmother. My loyalties are thus divided, and it occurred to me recently that I am in the unenviable position of being hated, potentially at least, by almost everyone in these islands for one absurd reason or another! I had always felt international to the core since I were a child. If that made me an elitist ‘croissant waving citizen of nowhere’ then so be it. I shall wave my croissant with pride!

My mother, now getting on a bit and feeling worn out (this being her seventh anti-Brexit demonstration), had decided to short-cut the remainder of the march with the intention of joining the fray again in Parliament Square. The short cut was, of course, via a favoured watering hole. My world depression eased a little as we cut across Green Park. We were consoled by the presence of the magnificent London plane trees. However, my mood lifted entirely when one of those rough macho types with nothing between the ears (complete with bimbo on the side with nothing between hers), called me a traitor as he passed by us in The Mall. It opened up the thrilling possibility that, if there was enough testosterone in the opposing camp, today might be the day that I finally get a proper excuse to punch one of these idiots in the face. I’d had a thirst for this kind of violence since seeing Suranne Jones’s Anne Lister punch her attacker in the BBC adaptation of Gentleman Jack. Since then, I’d had the chance to practice on a firm pillow held up at either end by my two little sons who’d squeal with laughter every time I landed a blow, sending the pillow flying and the two of them folding onto their bottoms on the bed. I discovered I had a hidden talent, an impressive right hook.

My mother had advised me to conceal my flag and any other signage while separated from the main body of protesters but something primitive had moved within, and the receipt of verbal abuse compelled me to unravel my flag and display it as provocatively as possible, while simultaneously wishing I could war-paint my entire face with the British and EU flags side by side.

We ended up in a café in St James’s Park, soaking up the soft southern sunshine and the scent of wild flowers. In the end, it was nearly three o’clock by the time we got to parliament square, and I was feeling somewhat guilty for what might be seen, quite unfairly of course, to be a shameless display of champagne activism. Once we got there, we listened to a couple of good speeches but we’d heard it all so many times before. Our minds wandered. Then there were the desperate sounding presenters and march organisers jumping around the stage trying to whip up the crowd with such cringeworthy nonsense that, for a moment, I wondered whether the event had been hijacked by lunatics or counter-protesters in disguise. We were relieved to find that, evidently, the intelligentsia in general don’t do mass hysteria but it was too much for us to bear nonetheless, and we were forced to retreat into a nearby pub.

We hot footed it down Tothill Street and fell on our feet in the Pie and Ale House. A single table became vacant just as crossed the threshold, a rare find on a summer’s evening, with numbers considerably swollen. We found ourselves pressed up against a couple of marvellous signs saying “remain, reform, rebel”, owned by two mature, Northern-of-origin ladies who, like us, had come from dwellings in the South West. Everywhere was crawling with protesters, and with London being sympathetic territory on the whole when it comes to things ‘remain’, most were still decked out in their badges, stickers, capes, berets, face paint and so forth. It didn’t look as though I’d be throwing any punches after all, and by that time, I was past indulging in such shenanigans. Nor had my fears been confirmed about our elitism, quite the contrary. The two ladies were slightly mischievous looking, which for me, was always a promising sign. They joined us, and a spirited discussion ensued about the finances and hypocrisy of various members of the ERG and Tory right-wing who sought to run the country. If I were a more superstitious sort of person, I might have suggested that Jacob Rees-Mogg, faux aristocrat and prize poseur, was in fact a reincarnation of ‘the serpent’ himself but unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg, I know where mythology ends and reality begins.

One of the ladies expressed concern that I might be upset about having been called a traitor. It was, after all, outrageous. There I was trying to do right by the land and society that nurtured me, while men such as my accuser were bent on undermining every good thing we and our predecessors had struggled for. There was indeed an enemy within – a body of people like that man who were cowardly and incapable of looking one in the eye – quite the opposite of anyone I’d met on the march. My feelings were unscathed, however, and I related the fact that in a moment of outrageous courage or folly, I had even relished the possibility of a fracas. One could not help but be angry with the privileged men and women who, out of pure greed and egotism, sought to dismantle everything that was really great about Britain, and with those who out of petty hatreds and profound ignorance, unthinkingly and slavishly followed them.

That evening my world depression lifted once more, not because anything had changed or improved in any way, but simply because in spite of everything, being among my fellow protesters had reminded me of a line in Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, which runs as follows “…the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.” This 1948 poem is a favourite of my rather philosophical six-year-old son, and this being so, I went to sleep that night hopeful that we will see much more of heroism and high ideals in the coming months and years – more people like Gretta Thunberg and ‘the Squad’ among others, who are prepared to stand up for fairness, reason, cooperation and peace – and that by the time my children are launched into the big wide world, they will have the courage to do likewise.

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Secular Liturgies at the University of Oxford

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

On Wednesday 26thJune 2019, I travelled to Oxford to deliver a presentation on the Secular Liturgies Project at the Ministry Old Students Association (MOSA) conference at Harris Manchester College (University of Oxford). This was a gathering of 30+ Unitarian ministers from a variety of different backgrounds, all liberal, progressive or humanist in their approach, and including both atheists and those with some nondogmatic but nonetheless meaningful belief in ‘the transcendent’.

I was keen to share the aims and objectives of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum with Unitarian leaders and thinkers, since I was sure they would have a great deal to contribute to the Secular Liturgies project in terms of philosophy and theology, reflective practices and rituals, and in particular, in terms of lessons learnt from their long-standing models of community building around these things. I had planned to speak and then to lead a creative workshop but the Q&A lasted an hour and we ran out of time! I have included the transcript of my presentation (below) but since it is very similar to the transcript for my previous talk, I will focus here on some of the questions that followed and the responses I gave.

The Q&A

Does your network welcome people who have a belief in the transcendent?

Yes, we have people who believe there might be something more than what we can sense, explain and understand with our limited bodies and minds but they are not dogmatic, superstitious or proselytising about it. Some members talk of ‘God’ as a personification, metaphor or superlative for all that is good in the world, and others will use the word to point to what they call the great or infinite mystery of the universe. Some are agnostics, in that they are open to the possibility of something divine in the supernatural sense but do not believe we are able to make any certain claims about it. Those who have a traditional theistic world-view, such as evangelical, conservative or fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, Jews and so forth, tend not to be interested in our network.

I aim to be as inclusive as possible. After all, there is much we still have to learn about the universe and what we call reality. I think this is the wisest approach, since people’s beliefs are so varied and changeable. Even the most rational people have superstitious thoughts and beliefs at times, and in fact, many nonreligious people still have superstitious and dogmatic beliefs, a small minority of them even more so than some of the less superstitious and dogmatic of religious people. This is because our beliefs and how firmly we cling to them has a lot to do with our psychology and innate personality and not just with our religious affiliations or lack of them. It is why we sometimes meet dogmatic atheists and thoughtful, open-minded religious people. A small number of people with no religious affiliation may still be very superstitious, and there are people who are very religious for whom superstition is a fairly limited part of their understanding of day-to-day events. Given the many nuances of belief and its often transient nature (and not forgetting all the contradictory people who attend spiritualist, Christian or other churches once a week but for the rest of the time act as if they don’t believe any of it), it is important to accommodate a range of people with a variety of viewpoints, albeit within a firm ethical framework that safeguards human rights.

In the light of what you’ve said, wouldn’t it be better to use the phrase ‘leaving behind rigid religious structures’ rather than ‘leaving behind dogma and superstition’ so as to be more inclusive? And, what about including people who aren’t rational, and making sure you don’t leave lots of people behind?

It is difficult to find language that communicates one’s meaning perfectly to absolutely everyone. The problem with phrases like ‘rigid religious structures’ and others that have been suggested to me is that in an effort to be more inclusive to one particular group, they end up excluding even more people in other groups, either that or they move into territory that is so vague as to no longer really communicate much at all to anyone. The phrase ‘leaving behind rigid religious structures’ may mean something to those religiously affiliated people who are beginning to do exactly that but it won’t mean much to the majority of church/mosque leavers who are fed up of exactly dogma and superstition, nor will it mean much to the millions of people who grew up or are growing up in nonreligious homes, many of whom see the appalling spectacle of fundamentalist religion around the world and fear for the future. The emphasis on leaving behind dogma and superstition is clearer and better communicates what we are about – education and scholarship, historical criticism, excellent science and so forth – even while we are open-minded, and to a point, flexible in accommodating the irrational aspects of our human natures. Most people understand that dogmatism and superstition are a major problem for humanity, even though they may, consciously or unconsciously, indulge in some of it occasionally themselves!

We need to be inclusive at grass roots in welcoming everyone into our communities, and treating everyone with respect and kindness, but equally, we need to be vigorous in teaching people, including and especially children, to think critically, to be aware of and to question their assumptions, and to get at the truth through reason and experimentation. As I said in my talk, reflective practices can help with this. People should be discouraged from taking the easy way out, by turning to supposed ‘revelation’, or in other words, by turning to religious dogma and superstition. Given the dangers that we face today with fake news, false information in general and the rise of extreme political and religious ideologies, this has never been more urgent. Rather than being tempted to dumb things down in community-building work, which can also be rather patronising and underestimates people’s capacity for understanding, it is worth trying to raise our society up. I must also make the point here that we should still have a great deal of respect on a personal level for those people who are superstitious or more traditionally religious but who nonetheless are doing a lot of good work for social justice, sustainability and so forth, even while we do not share their theology.

Given what you’ve said about the range of human belief and personality, as editor of Secular Liturgies, how do you decide what to publish and what not to publish?

Firstly, I am committed to maintaining the highest standards in terms of the quality and accuracy of submissions. I send pieces away for peer review if they are not in my field of expertise. However, the questioner was getting at what I include in terms of the beliefs expressed rather than in terms of the quality of the material itself. My view is that a good editor doesn’t just publish pieces that fit perfectly with their own opinions on everything, or just those submissions which appeal to them personally. I don’t have to like and agree with every single statement in a piece. As long as a piece has appeal for the network more widely and is compatible with the overall principles and goals of the project, it may express beliefs and views that are not necessarily those of the editor. I want to be challenged, after all, along with my readership, and I trust that people can think for themselves and don’t need me to provide an excessively strict filter. Therefore, I provide a framework within which there is plenty of room for exploration, challenge, and questioning.

The framework is nonetheless strong. Submissions have to be compatible with our key values and goals as expressed in my presentation. Just to illustrate with a couple of examples: I turned down a philosophical essay someone submitted, even though it had some philosophical merit (in places), because its entire emphasis was on undermining the idea that there is anything that could be said to be true at all. This piece was critical of religious truth claims but it also, along with its author’s accompanying message, was a clear (though unsuccessful) attempt to undermine our commitment to knowledge gained through reason, scholarship and science, and as such, I could not publish it. On the other hand, I do accept works in which authors express some nondogmatic beliefs in supernatural (or essentially mysterious) things, which I may not share. For example, in Connor Hansford’s recent piece of creative nonfiction, he expresses deep scepticism about the traditional Christian conception of a supernatural deity but he also mentions he has a belief in a “higher power” or “energy”, and in the ability of his ancestors to watch over him. I do not consider such beliefs to be harmful, or his work overall to be incompatible with our values and goals, since he is clearly not being dogmatic, superstitious or proselytising about his beliefs.

Why did you choose the word ‘secular’ for your project?

After a lot of market research, I decided ‘secular’ was the word the largest number of people were comfortable with. After all, in the UK, we are used secular spaces, with the separation of the state from institutions of faith. I liked the way that the word ‘secular’, rather than dismissing religious faiths altogether, implies a multi-faith as well as a nonreligious approach, therefore accommodating a greater range of viewpoints. This seemed very apt for a project that welcomes religious progressives alongside humanists, and which takes inspiration from the insights and practices of all faiths and philosophical traditions. Secular spaces have a neutrality about them, while also providing for everyone a firm framework of universal secular values based on reason, human rights and compassion. Statements of secular values are different from ideologies because the values are underlyingly universal, based on reason and evidence regarding human needs and wellbeing. They benefit and appeal to all humans, even while overlaid beliefs such as religious beliefs may sometimes suppress them. Secular values protect fundamental human rights and freedoms, ensuring all individuals are treated as equals, whether they be religious or otherwise, and thus they include the protection of every individual’s right to worship whatever they like as much as their right not to worship anything at all.

Can’t we end up being dogmatic about secularism?

It is a common mistake to think secularism and liberal values are just one more exclusive and dogmatic ideology. There is a tension of course, when individual human rights trump the rights, for example, of a religious group to practice their faith, but in such cases, there has to be evidence that a faith practice is harmful to certain individuals, and in societies where there is no large majority faith, the very existence of religious groups depends on the state upholding people’s individual rights to gather and worship as they please, against oppressive (or potentially oppressive) dominant groups and cultures. Ultimately, the choice we have in all societies, is between human rights based on liberal and secular values, or a tyranny of whatever the dominant political or religious ideology happens to be.

You mentioned the need to tackle issues of intellectual property. What is your approach to the use of objects, rituals and other heritage borrowed from other cultures?

I am very much for openness and reuse on condition that the context from which the ritual, object or work has been drawn is explained, understood and respected, and where authors and creators (either individuals or groups) are attributed.

(See my article on ethical re-use at https://secularliturgies.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/june-2016-exhibition-alert/, which also links to other helpful resources on ethical re-use.)

You say that you want to build bridges between the different progressive groups. Why don’t progressive groups cooperate and collaborate more already?

Ironically, there is a tendency for some progressive leaders to be overly dogmatic and to work only with those who agree with them on absolutely everything. There is also the perennial problem of the human ego, and the fact that some people like to build mini empires and wrongly view other progressives as competition. These are universal human problems! I aim to model a very different approach with the SLN&F, and you will get a clear sense of this open, reflective and self-critical attitude from what I publish. The reality is that no one group can do everything well, and so it may prove more useful to encourage the flourishing of a variety of movements and organisations with similar values and goals – which may come together on occasion – rather than to aim at any kind of deeper merging of movements. The SLN&F is looking to build bridges across groups and organisations and to look for potential for deeper collaboration on various projects but I am also aiming to support diversity rather than to push for any kind of uniformity.

The issue of community building is a really thorny one. Roger Ray, our guest speaker at the recent Secular Liturgies event, talked much of its importance for people’s health and wellbeing, and I totally agree. However, community building remains a very difficult thing to do in practice. It is enormously time consuming and endlessly frustrating because of all the facets of human psychology and behaviour we have been discussing. I am hoping to learn much from your experiences of fostering progressive community within your churches and congregations.

Recently, I found the time to reflect on my own vocational priorities in the light of the need for both what I call ‘priestly’ community builders and ‘prophetic’ publishers – those who do the day-to-day work of fostering community around shared rituals and those who read the times and question and challenge the status quo respectively. My current circumstances make it impossible for me to do both things well, and I find myself drawn primarily to the writing, speaking and publishing side of things, having an eye I’m told for original journalistic opportunities, good creative writing and for connecting up relevant research. I fully acknowledge, however, the great need for grass roots face-to-face community building, and while it isn’t my priority at the moment, I am willing to work in collaboration with others to create experimental progressive community where I live in Exeter. Part of my research, after all, has been to do with assessing the pros and cons of various community models and precedents, and it would be interesting to run some new experiments. I hope to work with Exeter’s humanists, Progressive Christians, Secular Buddhists and other existing progressive minded groups on this, if and when they are willing!

As someone who is sociable, while also being a little introverted (I enjoy being around people but need plenty of time alone to recharge my batteries) and as someone who has witnessed a great deal of petty squabbling and some more serious corruption in community settings, the prospect of community-building is a daunting one, and one that in our fragmented and technologically advanced society, seems almost impossible. However, we crave connection as much as we did in any previous age, and it is connection and shared experiences that make our lives meaningful. We are, after all, the most intricately social species on the planet, and possibly in the universe. Even the most extremely introverted humans crave that connection with others. Indeed, it is the loss of the community relationships we evolved to have, which is increasingly believed to be at the root of much mental illness and anti-social behaviour, not to mention the epidemic of loneliness and isolation. Therefore, we cannot give up on community and belonging, even while it seems elusive, and even while it’s construction and maintenance is fraught with difficulty and frustration.

Further Reflections on the Day

The question I had, which would have underpinned a creative workshop exercise, was one I left with the Unitarian ministers to think about in their own time. It ran as follows:

What could you contribute towards a Secular Liturgies Movement, firstly as Unitarians, and secondly, as individuals (in the following areas)?

  1. Philosophy and ethics
  2. Reflective practices and rituals
  3. Literature and other cultural heritage
  4. Creative writing and the arts
  5. Pastoral care and community models

I mentioned my plan to harvest answers to this question for an extended article to be entitled “An Interview with 30 Odd Unitarian Ministers!” I am discussing the possibility of this with the Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald and hope it will come to fruition. I have also been encouraged to write a piece for The Inquirer, the Unitarian Magazine, so do look out for that. In general, I am looking forward to a closer relationship with our Unitarian friends as time goes on.

It was a delight to finally meet Claire, a Unitarian Minister and Thinker in Residence at the Live Arts Development Agency (London), after having met on Facebook some time ago when she came across my project and got in touch. It was inspiring to hear about the work and contacts she has in areas close to my heart – the spiritually and philosophically inclined arts, sustainability and progressive voices in Islam. I am very grateful for her invitation to speak at Harris Manchester College.

I am also looking forward to working with Paul Lindsay Dawson, a lay Unitarian leader at Westgate Unitarian Chapel in Wakefield, who suggested we hold a joint event there. It will be fascinating to see what grows from these connections. Exciting things are definitely happening in the progressive movement in general in terms of joined up thinking, connections between people and pioneering projects!

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Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong with Rev. Dr. Claire MacDonald

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to spend two hours wandering around Oxford; peering through iron gates into green flower-lined quads and down the central tree-lined walkway of the city’s botanical gardens, leaning over bridges to watch students and tourists punting up the river Cherwell, circumnavigating Christchurch Meadow and its enthusiastic young cricket players, and soaking up the history in the corridors and gardens of Harris Manchester College. There was a striking photograph in one such corridor, of Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), former student of the college and pioneering suffragist, distinguished scholar and well-known speaker, and the first woman to train for the ministry in England – an intelligent looking woman with a determined expression (see below). I enjoyed doing some further research on her once I got home, as part of my ongoing re-discovery of our lost and hidden heritage; the history of great women.

Thus, my day in Oxford turned out to be rather like a pilgrimage, in which my physical surroundings, as they changed, and as my perception of them deepened, began to reflect, and find themselves reflected in, my own inner journey. The presence of Oxford’s colleges, those imposing institutions of learning, made me contemplate my misspent youth, and how I would love to be able to go back in time and tell my younger self not to worry so much about everything but to instead focus on my studies – it would have been healing as much as anything else. I eventually found the confidence and inner tranquillity to learn at full capacity but it was rather late, in my mid-twenties, when I started my doctorate. However, it wasn’t a negative feeling I had, or even really a regret, since the city made me equally aware and grateful for all the experiences I had had on account of a somewhat nomadic and unsettled youth, and of what a great deal I had learnt from them all.

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Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), photograph taken in 1904, at the start of her ministry in Leicester.

MOSA Conference Lecture Transcript

(Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, 26th June 2019)

Hello, my name’s Anastasia, and I’m Editor of the Secular Liturgies blog and up-coming Magazine. I’m delighted to be with you all at the MOSA conference, and am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce you to the mission and purpose of the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum of which I am also the founder.

A Post Religious Future

The idea for this Network and Forum grew out of my increasing concern that here, and in many other secularising nations, we lack a shared vision for a post-religious future.

If we are to succeed in building secular civilizations, which are culturally rich, sustainable, and resilient, we will have to invest a lot more in discussion, teaching and pubic engagement around secular ethics, and in the development of reflective practices that will help us to live better and more meaningfully without superstition and dogma.

British Social Attitudes Surveys show that religious affiliation has declined steeply and continues to do so. 50% of British people no longer identify with a religious faith, and many who do are non-practising, liberal or progressive. The percentage of 18-24yr-olds with no religious affiliation is significantly higher at 64%, indicating that rapid secularisation will continue.

Many nations are undergoing a similar transition. The world’s nonreligious are now the third largest group of humans, recorded as 16% of the world’s population in 2010, exceeded in numbers only by Christians and Muslims.

However, before we begin to hail the dawn of a new secular age, we must remember that birth rates are significantly lower among the nonreligious. Therefore, the percentage of world’s population which is nonreligious is actually getting smaller, and even in predominantly secular nations, while religious affiliation is declining, some religious beliefs, and superstition in general may not be. Movements in new age spirituality, Wicca, Modern Witchcraft and Spiritualism, for example, are gaining in popularity, especially among the young.

It is also true, however, that religious communities with high birth rates tend to be poorer with less access to education, so when it comes to power and influence, secular communities are likely to hold on to and increase their share.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

In developed nations like ours, where traditional religion is rapidly losing ground, a combination of secular ethics and reflective practices has the potential to fill the void and provide a rational alternative to new age spirituality.

By the void, I refer to a proven decline in empathy and ethical engagement, a poverty and mediocrity of culture in some areas, and a lack of socialisation and social inclusion that has led to the epidemic of loneliness. These problems haven’t been caused by the decline in religion alone but the latter has certainly contributed to them.

While most of us here will be all too aware that traditional religious ethics, culture and community brought with it far too many of its own ills, there were aspects of faith and practice which instilled empathy and compassion, inspired great works of art and bonded people together in close community.

As a thinktank and creative hub, publisher and events pioneer, the SLN brings people together from across many secular, humanist and progressive backgrounds – to reclaim and repurpose the greatest insights and practices of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions, to creatively express a common secular ethic, and to experiment with reflective practices that will enrich secular life and culture and make it more resilient.

The SLN publishes original creative works, including poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, interviews with relevant experts/practitioners, and articles which communicate academic research to a wider audience.The first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine comes out in Jan 2020, and will contain some of the best work submitted since I started the project back in July 2018. Some of these contributions will also feature in experimental liturgical events.

Our Network discusses secular ethics, reflective practices and nonreligious pastoral care. It is largely comprised of humanists, the nonreligious, and religious progressives from across many faiths and denominations. I have recently published interviews with a humanist senior chaplain who leads an NHS Hospital Trust, a humanistic Jewish Rabbi, a progressive Christian minister, a humanist funeral celebrant, and a spiritual director and pastoral supervisor in the Ignatian tradition. And, I am planning interviews with progressive Hindu, Muslim and Secular Buddhist leaders and practitioners. We also have a growing collection of original poetry and creative writing.

Our approach is inclusive and respectful of cultural and religious differences, as far as beliefs and practices remain compatible with the UN declaration of human rights and sustainability goals. After all, contrary to popular belief, values across communities of faith and unbelief are very similar, as is being revealed by the research of the Understanding Unbelief programme at the University of Kent. My approach is to emphasise what we have in common – universal human values – rather than what divides us.

The Nine Themes

Our secular liturgies and liturgical events are organised around the following Nine Themes…

  • Critical Thinking– truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  • Good Life– character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  • Good Society– social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  • Sustainability– our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism, biophilia
  • Health and Well-being– reflection, meditation, mindfulness, socialisation
  • Big Culture– cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  • Community– companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  • Life-Cycles– birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  • Seasons– annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

Reflective Practice and CPD

Let’s take a moment now to look a little more closely at reflective practice…

Reflective Practice is a key part of CPD cycles for practice-based professionals, those such as teacher-educators and learners, leaders across industries, health professionals and environment or sustainability managers. Reflective Practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions (and indeed one’s thoughts and one’s experience of the world) so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.

In reflective practice we pay attention to ourselves, noticing our assumptions, noticing thought patterns. By doing this we are empowered to change what we see, and even to change the way we see.

Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action. Those of you who have received or delivered workplace training in reflective practice will be familiar with names like Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schon, Gibbs, Benner and Wrubel, Brookfield and Johns,Somerville and Keeling…

In the David Somerville (no relation of mine) and June Keeling model, as an example:

They suggest actively seeking feedback in the workplace, asking yourself and others what you and they have learnt that day, identifying accomplishments and areas for growth, viewing experiences objectively, empathizing aloud, recording your thoughts, feelings and future plans (in, for example, a journal), looking for emerging patterns, planning for the future, and creating your own future by combining the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

For many nonreligious people, these activities are no longer part of normal life, especially outside the workplace, and may indeed seem superfluous. However, for religious people, these (or similar) social and reflective activities are positively encouraged and integrated into the cycles, seasons and gatherings of religious life.

While we might not share the dogmas and superstitions of traditional religion, many of their institutions and traditions instil useful habits of reflective practice. These practices help us to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter so much, what is meaningful and why, what to love and what to hate… They attend to the life of the mind – to morality and virtue, to wonder and creativity, and to personal growth in knowledge, wisdom and character.

Reflective Practice in History

However, while scholars may have found precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, they have barely begun to scratch the surface of all the lessons in reflective practice that the world’s many religious and philosophical traditions can provide.

Indeed, almost everything that is good in religion, or in so-called spirituality, is to do with rituals that facilitate individual and communal reflective practices.

We can learn, for example, from the way that religions give meaning, narrative and purpose to cultural heritage and the arts. Religions are able to connect almost everything we come across in life with our moral sense and with our identity, our loves and our losses…

The Philosopher Alain de Botton has done some important work in this area. He points out how our museums and galleries often fail to engage and inspire us because they fail to exhibit their art works and artefacts in ways that make them relevant to the passions and purposes of their visitors. I highly recommend his book Religion for Atheists and his TED talk on Atheism 2.0. I would add that museums fail, therefore, to reflecton their collections in ways that make them meaningful to us.

We can also learn a great deal from the way religious organisations conduct their reflective gatherings (for example, their liturgical services), and from their varied and reflective approaches to pastoral care. We can learn from the way they mark rites of passage, lifecycles and seasons and from the way they give meaning to our travels in pilgrimage. We can learn from their approaches to the scheduled or habitual contemplation of our actions and experiences, through journaling, prayer, meditation and the mindful or imaginative reading of texts.

Examples of Reflective Practice

For example, prayer may be seen as a form of reflective practice, like journaling or blogging, rather than as a real conversation with a supernatural being. The person who prays puts into words and a new context (sometimes a public context in religious services) their feelings and thoughts about the things they have heard about or experienced. In the process, they reflect on this information and experience in ways that can change their own attitudes and behaviours over time.

The production of creative works is also a form of reflective practice, since our creations arise from our observations, impressions and reasoning about what we experience of the world, of reality, of life and humanity.

Secular Liturgies as Reflective Practice

Thus, the process of creating secular liturgies is itself a form of reflective practice, as much as reading or hearing them is a means to facilitating reflective practice. By Secular Liturgies, I mean the writings and other expressions, such as rituals, meditations and creative art-forms, which are read or take place at private or public secular liturgical gatherings.

Secular Liturgies arise from and encourage reflective practice. They explore, celebrate and convey secular values, values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They capture and communicate the latest information and research that can help to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

Secular Liturgies: A Broad Concept

While Secular Liturgies include, more obviously, writings and readings which are morally and/or intellectually instructive. They also include words, exhibitions and activities, which are indirectly helpful to us by creating spaces for reflection or socialisation, or by creating rituals which can instil healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking.

“A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy!”

Liturgies in Daily Life

‘Liturgical moments’ can of course be integrated into everyday life. They define and reinforce the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art found in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. Therefore, the SLN explores ways of incorporating elements secular liturgy into home, working and leisure environments. We are thinking, for example, about the role of places, spaces and buildings in influencing (and being influenced by) liturgical events.

Our thinking is also informed by people such as Thaler and Sunstein, the Nobel Prize Winners in economics, whose famous book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, explained how environments can be created which positively influence human behaviours without us even being aware of it.

Goals of Secular Liturgy and Reflective Practices

So, the goals of our secular liturgies, reflective practices and secular liturgical events are to help us to do the following

Firstly, to question, learn and overcome our cognitive biases…by cognitive biases I mean of course the gap between how we ought to reason and how we actually reason. No doubt you’re familiar with the ground-breaking work done in this area by another Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, which you can read about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Another goal is to help us engage with, teach and instil secular ethics. Reflective practices demand honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, secular and humanist values, which often stand in contrast to those of religious power structures.

Secular Liturgies and liturgical events also help us to better appreciate the natural world and our place within it, in contrast with the way traditional religion so often sets us apart from our natural origins and even from the needs and pleasures of our bodies.

Secular liturgies and liturgical events enable us to enjoy our most pleasurable and health-giving psychological states; emotions such self-transcendence, mindfulness, wonderment, awe and love, which lead to positive changes in our thinking and behaviour.

And secular liturgies and liturgical events cultivate empathy and compassion for others, through the understanding of ourselves and humanity that comes from sharing stories and building relationships and community through meaningful socialisation.

A Diverse Network

The SLN connects those with shared values and goals but often very different cultural backgrounds and identities.

Our network consists of humanists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, the nonreligious, the ‘spiritual but not religious’, Unitarians, British Quakers, liberals from other denominations, and members of progressive religious reform movements such as Progressive Christianity, Progressive Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Buddhism.

Together we can learn so much more about other cultural perspectives and gain a far better perspective on our own cultures. We can draw immense wealth from the repositories of culture and reflective practises that those from the progressive streams of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions can provide.

A ‘Big Culture’ Approach

We therefore take what I call a ‘big culture’ approach. This is a critical approach which sifts the golden nuggets of wisdom from the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, in terms of both their thinking and practice, leaving dogma and superstition behind.

We have to ask ourselves which parts of our inherited cultures – the literature, the objects, the rituals and traditions – conform to our secular values and goals, and which must be consigned to museums and archives? We must navigate through controversial issues of cultural remix and cultural appropriation, intellectual property and respectful reuse, and the engagement of marginalised heritages. I am especially keen to showcase aspects of marginalised heritages in our SLN events.

Progressive Religious Reform Movements

The Progressive Religious Reform Movements are ideally placed to offer up to wider society the positive and useful aspects of the faiths out of which they have arisen.

They have left dogma and superstition behind and are currently going through a process of repurposing their stories, traditions and rituals, and finding a new purpose and place in society. They are passionate about retaining, and indeed, reclaiming, the philosophical insights and practical wisdom they have inherited.

This is something the keynote speaker at our launch event on the 8thof June at Exeter Central Library explored in greater depth. Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. Roger L. Ray, founding pastor of The Emerging Church and author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations. His sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast and video and can be found on iTunes under the title Progressive Faith Sermons and on YouTube on the channel CCCSPRINGFIELD. Unfortunately, there was a problem with our camera mic on the day but if you have good hearing or sound boosting technology, do check out the recording of his talk, which is linked to from the 9thJune blog post on the event. He is shortly giving a similar talk in the US, which he intends to record, so there will be a better video available soon.

Call for Submissions

Finally, how can you get involved? How can you take part in this exciting mission? Well, apart from keeping an eye out for our experimental liturgical events which will be advertised via the website and social media, you can…

Join us in writing secular liturgy and choreographing innovative liturgical events along the Nine Themes.

You can send us your secular liturgical extracts, poetry, short stories, personal accounts and other creative nonfiction, short dramatic scripts and extracts, short films, art-works, music and cultural heritage content and objects.

You can submit articles relating cutting-edge academic research in relevant fields.

If you are a practitioner in a relevant field I would love to interview you!

And you can join our FB Forum and real-life Forum thinktank meetings, where you can… share ideas for readings from original creative writing, established novels, poetry, works of philosophy and other literature, and share ideas for reflective activities for secular liturgical events (e.g. new or adapted rituals, meditations, art-forms, films, community feasts, tea ceremonies, dance routines, multimedia, art exhibitions, songs, musical compositions and cultural heritage objects of the real or digital kind)

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Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford


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My Week with God by Connor Hansford

It’s day one of my monastic getaway and I am sitting on an ordinary bench in a very extraordinary garden. I started to get interested in gardening before I entered the monastery, so I am able to identify some of the flowers I can see: there are some foxgloves, alluring but deathly poisonous; below them, cosmos, blue and star-like; on either side of the path delphiniums, blue and fluted; in the grassy area near the entrance to the garden are bleeding hearts, so-named because they look like… bleeding hearts; on the wall roses, full and red. Walking along the gravel, past the media building and the plastic likeness of the exterior wall of the grand abbey church, I can see fuchsias and myriads of other plants and flowers whose names are unknown to me. I sit down heavily on a bench a few metres from the canal and watch the midges and the pond skimmers dance and fritter in the setting sun. It is May, a week after submitting my final piece of coursework for university, and this is Buckfast Abbey – a nineteenth-century Cistercian abbey built on the site of a much older Cistercian abbey that was destroyed by King Henry VIII during the dissolution. That is to say his troops destroyed the original abbey: the King himself was busy fighting the French and impregnating various notables, then chopping off their heads. I think, as I listen to the birds and the far-off tumult of the River Dart winding its way to the sea, “God, I miss my family.”

Have you ever gone to a National Trust property – Chartwell, say, or Coleton Fishacre, both absolutely gorgeous houses – and thought, “I wish that screaming kid would fall in a pond and drown”, or “Christ, I wish those old buggers on the veranda would stop talking about Brexit and just piss off”? Me too. Well Buckfast Abbey feels rather like a dream in this regards: there are no bored children, no Conservative old biddies, no amateur historians declaring that they know this, that and the other: no, there is just peace. And it’s really pissing boring.

It’s my first night at Buckfast, the air is fresh and warm and filled with the sounds of birds and water, so why am I crying like a demented person? For the past three years Plymouth, with its hideous post-WWII architecture and myriads of overwhelming crazy people, has driven me almost to distraction. Couple this with two irritatingly masculine housemates, two rats and a leaking lead valley, and by the time I arrive at Buckfast I’m just about ready to drop. The monks’ gardens to the rear of the abbey church offer me a private sanctuary where I can shove off these mortal coils and get to grips with learning the names of birds and trees using the two Collins guidebooks I recently bought from Waterstones. The food, frugal but sufficient, is nice and filling: the window in my room is leaded so that when I peer longingly out over the wide drive leading from the abbey proper to the monks’ gardens, I feel like a Daphne Du Maurier heroine awaiting the return of her handsome piratical lover. And that’s precisely the problem. My boyfriend, Glenn, isn’t here.

Glenn and I have been together for two-and-a-bit years. Undeniably there are times when I wish he’d shut up and vice versa, but his absence from this place of peace and beauty is troubling to me, so troubling in fact that I start to violently weep. The reason: this place is like heaven, except its perfection is prohibited by the absence of my beautiful boyfriend and my lovely mum, Ria. A few days later, in the monks’ calefactory (or common room), I tell the administrator (interim abbot) who looks, incidentally, like a schoolmaster from a Kingsley Amis novel, “Surely a part of a thing’s wholeness, its perfection, is our capacity to share it with those we love”. I’m paraphrasing. The administer smiles knowingly, then says: “Sometimes even I miss turning to someone else and saying, ‘isn’t this beautiful?’”. That sums it up nicely. The gardens here are heavenly, Eden-like if you prefer, but the reason why Adam was not alone in The Garden was because perfection is attained through shared experiences, and because he needed to get a leg over in order to create the human race. Apparently. I love my boyfriend and my family, without whom even Eden seems… incomplete, imperfect. Incidentally one wonders how God – if he exists – could possibly oppose homosexuality when my first thought upon entering the monastery is: I miss my boyfriend. So there’s that.

Another reason why I went to Buckfast was because I thought that technology was having a negative effect on my mental health. I read a book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and it got me thinking: maybe I should delete my social media right now, maybe just maybe Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are the reasons why everyone feels so depressed all the time. I think that’s a part of the reason, but I think there’s more to it than that. My bedroom at Buckfast had in it a walnut writing desk, a single, squishy bed, a wardrobe and that’s it. There were plug sockets, so I could charge my phone, but no Wi-Fi signal, so I was required to turn on my 4G, except when I was out and about. The accoutrements of most hotel bedrooms were noticeable by their absence: a TV, for example, and a clock radio. There wasn’t even a hairdryer: all the drawer of the bedside cabinet contained was a likeness of the Virgin Mary. Ditto the walnut writing desk and the mantel above the fire: the Virgin Mary, it seemed, was a common theme, to the chagrin of the trio of Anglican lay preachers who were also staying at the abbey. Apropos of my tearful revelation in the garden and contra to my misgivings about social media, my smart phone proved to be an invaluable bedfellow during the wee small hours when my enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb and I was beginning to wish I had brought something cheerier than John Wyndham’s The Chrysalidsto keep me entertained for the remaining six days of my stay. Social media, I determined, can be a problem, but it is also, first and foremost, a blessing. Without regular contact with Glenn and Mum, monastic life would’ve driven me quite loopy.

A couple of weeks prior to my stay, I wandered phoneless through Plymouth Central Park: I was alone and unimpeded, save for two aforementioned Collins guidebooks on trees and birds respectively. I looked down from observing a squirrel in the branches above me and saw two young people walking towards me, their heads bowed in supplication to their glowing mobile phones. At the time, I remember, I smiled wryly: my smile, innocent though it seemed, was, underneath, mocking and superior, as though I had never walked underneath a tree while idly checking my emails, etc. They could have been twins awaiting news about an ill relative, or students waiting to hear back about a job, or they could just have been on their phones for no other reason than because that’s what they happened to be doing at that particular moment. Who cares? As I said, without my phone, monastic life would have driven me quite loopy. I enjoyed the monks’ gardens and the walk along the River Dart, and these experiences were not tinctured by my phone. It is not the presence of these technologies that causes anxiety, but rather an absence of nature and the outdoors: I was calmer at Buckfast than I had ever been before. Why? Was it because God was in that garden?

Ah, God. I went to Buckfast for two reasons: firstly I wanted some peace and quiet where I could get on with some creative writing away from the distractions of Plymouth, and modern life more broadly. And secondly, I wanted to connect with something Other. In the car on the way to the abbey I told Glenn and my chauffeur for the duration, Josh, that the trick with experiences like this was to go into them open-minded, but not too open-minded. The man who is too open-minded may never leave a place like Buckfast: he may get swept up in the Latin and the theology and attribute his feelings of peace and oneness to a benevolent higher power, like the monks. This is a fallacy, in my opinion. I should like to make this clear: unless a person’s religious beliefs threaten to negatively impact my life or the lives of people I love, I think people should feel free to believe what they like. I judge not the monks of Buckfast for committing their lives to a rigorous and immovable schedule of eat, pray, pray, eat, pray, sleep, but it is worth remembering that gentlemen like these have a vested interest in self-validation. This was the phrase that came into my head as I followed the swirling robes of Brother Daniel into the monks’ calefactory after lunch on the third day. Just because a man is old and dresses a certain way, that does not mean that everything he says is gospel. As the administrator administered me with a cup of too-pale tea, I recalled the notorious Milgram Experiment in which participants electrocute other participants on the orders of a malignant experimenter, dressed in a white lab coat. As in Milgram, so in Buckfast.

“I felt more spiritual as a walked towards the abbey doors yesterday evening and saw the setting sun through the trees than I did in the church itself,” I told the administrator sternly. He smiled warmly and told me this was symptomatic of spiritualism “with a small ‘s’”. People, he said, are attracted to spiritualism “with a small ‘s’” because it’s easy and doesn’t demand anything of them. This, I am afraid, is bollocks. My family are descended from the Cree tribe of Native Americans, wherefrom derives my own spirituality and many other things besides. Native American cultures demand, first and foremost, that people respect nature: on this account, Christianity has been scandalously lax. “If there is a God,” I told the administrator, and this is a bloody massive IF, “then he is in the trees, the shrubs, the plants – God is not white stone, or gold, or what have you. You can’t find him by sitting in a draughty church listening to ten old men singing in Latin. If you want to know peace and harmony, you have to get outside.” I didn’t say that in as many words, but it’s what I think. The monks at Buckfast attend six services each day. This means that each of the 152 psalms is consumed over a period of one week. Guests of the abbey are not required to attend any of these services, except midday prayer, which takes place in a small chapel in the abbey cloister. There is one monk, an old man who cannot walk except by using a walker or a stick, who suffers from acute arthritis and deafness. As a consequence, he often shouts, “Oh dear”, even though his is a mostly-silent order and sounds of any sort reverberate like gunshots  in the heady stillness of the monks’ enclosure. On one occasion, another monk grimaced hatefully when his brother oh-deared during midday prayer, even though the service concerned love and charity and forgiveness, and I thought: what an absolute crock of crap. How can you preach love and kindness, then scorn an elderly gentleman for daring to exclaim during prayer-time? Bollocks to it. I looked at the crucifix on top of the altar and thought: that is nothing more or less than some metal, moulded to look like a cross. I was gripped, suddenly, by an unfamiliar clarity, as though a veil had been lifted and I could see the world clearly for the first time. One of the other guests, Keith, told me that the point of Latin mass was not to listen to the words, or to try and understand, but to allow the words and the melody to wash over you like a river. This, I reflected, was also bollocks. Some of the singing was relaxing, but not more than a song by Enya, or a ditty by Bieber, depending on your personal preference. And as for not understanding, it doesn’t work like that. If you represent an ideology and you want people to engage, then at the very least we should be able to understand what you’re saying, even if we are unable to understand what it means.

Another of the guests, Peter, told me that it was inevitable that the Holy Bible was replete with historical inaccuracies, after all the thing was put together piecemeal years after the fact. “What does it matter?” he asked. It does matter, of course it bloody matters, because if you can’t even get the facts right, then why the blazes should I entertain any of this other crap about angels and the devil, etc. And why oh why do all likenesses of Jesus resemble a hipster at a festival? He wasn’t white, he was from the Middle East. Peter tells me that Jesus’s likeness was borrowed from the Roman’s representation of the sea god Neptune, which reminds me: I’ve recently read Mythos and Heroes by Stephen Fry, and there are loads of similarities between Greek myth and Christian myth, Pandora’s box and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for example. Coincidence? Obviously bloody not. Brother Daniel related the sad tale of monasteries that had been ransacked for non-existent gold, monasteries that heretofore provided essential alms and other supplies to the poorest people of the parish. Poof! Gone. Sad, true, but sadder than the Native Americans who were slaughtered for being savages? Sadder than the so-called pagans whose temples and beliefs were supplanted by this new and truer way of thinking? Not to my mind. And who can forget the innumerable sexual assault charges brought against members of the Catholic faith? Not I, that’s for certainty. Theists will say, “But of course it’s not perfect, nothing’s perfect”, but there is such a thing as being too imperfect, and to invalidate Native American spirituality in the way of the administrator is tantamount to a religious hate crime.

I thought that monks possess a kind of secret cookbook, which helps to prolong their lives past the bounds of reason: this, of course, is not so. The food I ate at Buckfast – trifle, spaghetti Bolognese, soup – is no different to ours: the difference, insofar as there is one, lies in the way it is consumed, frugally and in silence. Guests of the abbey are permitted to get up only once during the course of a meal. They then have to keep pace with the monks, or risk being stared down for failing to masticate fast enough. Lunch, the main meal of the day, is served hot by one of the monks in a Jesus-like display of humility and supplication. The feeling of fullness I experienced at the end of each meal was not linked to magic or to God, but to science and the fact that you will feel fuller for longer if you concentrate on eating, thereby synergising mind and body in recognition of the fact. Likewise, regular mealtimes aid digestion: obvious, right? There is no ‘the secret’. I came away from Buckfast calmer than when I entered, not because of God or a lack of technology, but because of the garden and the Eden it provided for creatures of all kinds: birds, bees, foxes, even spiders. I believe in a higher power and the ability of friends and family to stay and look over us even after they are gone, but I do not believe that this power, this energy, is any more accessible inside a church than it is outside in the garden. More and more I find myself drawn back towards so-called paganism: indeed, one of the guests, another Peter, confessed that a former member of his congregation left after receiving the cold shoulder following the death of her pagan husband. She asked Peter how “those people” could preach love and tolerance, then turn their back en massewhen she needed them the most. Religion does not make you a good person, nor does atheism make you an immoral person. If you do your upmost to be good and kind and tolerant and open-minded, then that’s enough for me, and if you’re going to worship anything, worship the Earth as my ancestors did. People spend their lives wondering: is it just Earth that provides or God as well, and for what? Meanwhile our time on this beautiful planet passes swiftly by with scarcely a “thanks for dropping in, see ya!” So make the most of your time on this earth and treasure what’s important, because the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and nothing lasts forever. And, whether religious or not, be kind to each other, for who’s to say the kid on his phone isn’t anxious or depressed, or that that ditzy shop assistant hasn’t just lost a loved one. The monks are right about one thing: the world is indeed filled with cruelty and evil, but it’s worth putting up with these things for all the good in it, so make the most of it, and if you ever stay at a monastery take more than one bloody book!

Connor Hansford

Connor Hansford is a stage-three English with Publishing student at the University of Plymouth who aspires to become a professional book editor like his hero Maxwell Perkins. Additionally, Connor hopes to one day start a small press in his home town of Dorchester where he also hopes to work on his golf swing and angling skills. Connor runs the University of Plymouth Journal INK and a WordPress blog which he updates sporadically called Memoirs of a Snowflake. Connor is a Quaker who is descended from a long line of Cree Indians.


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An Interview with Jenny Lloyd

I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jenny Lloyd on her work as a humanist funeral celebrant (accredited by Humanists UK). As rapid secularisation in the UK continues, humanist celebrants like Jenny are leading the way in creating life-cycle events within a humanist framework. Jenny specialises in funerals, while other celebrants endorsed by Humanists UK specialise in weddings and naming ceremonies, or a combination of these three types of ceremony.

Dr Anastasia E. Somerville-Wong, Editor of Secular Liturgies

Jenny Lloyd

Jenny had a career in education from 1970 to 2006, with a four year break (1975-1979) to bring up her daughters – returning to work when her husband took on the role as primary parent. Jenny taught secondary English and media studies and was head of an English department before moving into the advisory service with Devon Local Education Authority in 1989. As an advisory teacher and then as an advisor, Jenny worked in schools alongside secondary teachers (and later primary teachers), writing and trialling materials, training teachers, and reporting to headteachers, the local authority and the DfE.  Jenny took leave of absence in the mid 1990s to do an MA in Children’s Literature, and returned to lead the National Literacy Strategy in Devon and then the Secondary English Strategy. On retirement, Jenny trained as a humanist funeral celebrant in 2007 and started practising in 2008.

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Jenny Lloyd

1. What inspired you to become a humanist funeral celebrant?

Someone who I’d worked with on a community arts project suggested that I train in 1998 when the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK) was looking for more people to become celebrants in Devon. I’d recently been appointed to a big job (leading the National Literacy Strategy for Devon Local Authority) so I couldn’t consider it but I knew that she’d given me the idea for what I could do in retirement (from 2006).  She did me a big favour.  I’d collected oral history from Exonions in the 1970s and knew I was able to give people a voice to tell their stories.  That oral history work was inspired by Charles Parker who collaborated with Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl on the BBC Radio Ballads – the central premise being that everyone has a story worth telling.  That was my inspiration.

2. What kind of training did you receive?

Five days, including two weekends, with BHA celebrant trainers. This involved practical exercises, including speaking, writing, listening, questioning, presenting; problem solving and exploration of tricky situations (e.g. ways of responding to requests for religious content); exploring the nature of humanism and our understanding of it; input on the scope of the work; practical guidance for family visits and leading funerals including music, readings, structures, language. The final weekend involved one day based in a crematorium for role play funerals with coffin, a behind the scenes tour of the Crematorium and a role play burial.

We also had four written assignments based on case studies with feedback, worked with a mentor (going on family visits; observing funerals), observed funerals by other celebrants, and were expected to do continuing professional development every year and be peer reviewed every three years.

3. What is your approach to funeral planning with a bereaved family?

I note the details of the person who has died (generally, though not always, received from a Funeral Director) and the main contact (generally a family member). I ring to make an appointment. I then prepare my blank page notebook with my checklist[1].I am there to listen. I need to be in a position to write a ceremony (or help the family write it) which captures the life and personality of the person and evokes the memories and stories for the assembled family, friends, colleagues as they say their goodbyes.  I want to help them have a point of reference so they will continue to share memories and tell their stories after the ceremony. People often assume I knew the person well.

I establish how involved the family/friends want to be; how much work they’ve already done.  I often start with a family tree to get a picture of the family in my head. I tend to ask whether the person who has died was ill for long, to give the family a chance to tell me the story of their death if they choose to.  Sometimes this is told in great detail and needs to be said before they can move on to remembering their lives.

Generally, I give an outline for the ceremony[2]but stress that there are no ‘oughts’. If I am doing the main ‘tribute’ or an overview of the person’s life (before contributions from family and friends) I ask open ended questions about the person’s life.  I need to get a sense of the kind of person s/he was; their life; collective family memories and stories.  There is always a story to tell but when the family/friends can’t tell me much, I ask more questions to trigger memories and as a last resort ask, “Did they have a dog?”  Several times I’ve been able to find an appropriate animal or nature poem when the narrative is sparse. In these situations, I also ask if there is anyone else I can talk to.

I also need to gauge the tone for the ceremony from the tone of the conversation with family/friends: what emotional dimension to convey; level of formality. If the family are going to do the main tribute I need to get a picture of the person first hand from our conversation (rather than wait for scripts from contributors) so I can write the opening and closing words and get the tone right.

I end the conversation by going through my checklist (unless things are covered earlier).  I want the family to visualise the occasion and think about how they want to go in at the start; whether the curtains are to stay open or close.  The final questions are about the important words I use: e.g. “We are remembering, saying goodbye. Are we celebrating, honouring, paying tribute to….?”  The dress code question also helps me gauge the family’s vision for the ceremony: all black, dark colours, range of colours i.e. degrees of formality.

Sometimes the ceremony evolves over the period between the family visit and the ceremony. There might not be a formal committal.  Sometimes I just do the opening, committal and the closing words. Sometimes the tone is conversational or even a conversation round the coffin (within a structure which acknowledges time constraints.) Sometimes the planning is done over the phone and via email – always more difficult to judge the tone with long distance planning!

4. Do you have a humanist liturgy or liturgies you use or a set form of choreography?

There is a structure for humanist ceremonies, which is flexible and often adapted to suit different families/groups of friends:

  • Entry music (sometimes gathering music and then entry music).  Sometimes people choose to follow the coffin in; others choose to be in the chapel/hall before the coffin comes in and stand when it does.  In some chapels it’s possible to arrange for the coffin to be in position before people arrive.
  • Opening words
  • Thoughts about life and death(I generally don’t include this. I’m not there to preach.)
  • Remembering X (my terminology; often known as tribute(s) or eulogy)
  • Reflection, generally to music
  • The Committal
  • Closing words
  • Music to leave by.

5. What resources would you especially recommend for humanist funeral planning?

  • A collection of readings, poetry and prose, varied in tone and accessibility, from the popular to the more obscure, to offer families/friends, particularly for the committal i.e. short readings acting as words of farewell. Also useful to have (or to be able to find) are readings for particular interests e.g. gardening, wildlife, cycling, animals, sailing and the sea.
  • A collection of readings suitable for burials and woodland burials.
  • Some readings suitable for the deaths of babies and children and people who have killed themselves.

I was surprise in the early days that readings (apart from the one at the committal) are not generally of importance to most people.

  • A collection of images for the front page of the script presented to the family. I mostly use a generic abstract motif but use favourite flowers or other relevant images.  The script for the family must be well presented.  I give the family a copy/copies after the ceremony is over.
  • Knowledge of a range of music is helpful though not essential. I have often recommended a piece of music, particularly classical, when the family ask for guidance. I like to be in charge of the music and order it rather than the funeral director.  I can arrange edit points where needed and choose appropriate versions.  My musical knowledge has increased to cover genres I wasn’t familiar with before doing this work.

6. Do you carry out any secular/humanist rituals as elements of funeral services? If so, please describe them.

  • Standing when the coffin is carried in; standing for the committal, the formal goodbye; the family approaching the coffin at the committal or after the closing words to touch it, for a private farewell, to place a flower on the coffin. Often just the immediate family but sometimes everyone as they leave.
  • The committal is the most ‘solemn’ moment. I ask everyone to stand,  use a form of words and then read a short poem or piece of prose chosen with the family at the family meeting.  Then a pause before we continue.  I sit people down for the closing words.  Sometimes we play a piece of music instead of or as well as a reading.
  • When I leave, which I do during the final music before anyone else leaves, I stand in front of the coffin with a very slight bow of my head. I think of this an act of respect and my last connection with the person whose life I hope I have captured so that people present have made connections, said their farewells.
  • Greeting people before the ceremony and being present afterwards if anyone wants to talk to me. I don’t leave till the family go.

7. Since you do not offer hope of an afterlife, how do you bring comfort to bereaved relatives?

I emphasise the continuing bond between the dead and the living through shared memories and the stories the bereaved will tell about the person who has died. I talk about the ways people live on after their death through children, grandchildren etc; through what they have said, done, made, written (as appropriate); through the influence they have had; through their legacy e.g. of love and laughter; of passing on skills: DIY, gardening, cooking…..).  Pericles’ words from 5thCentury BCE are useful: ‘what we leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments but what is woven into the lives of others.’

From feedback which families give me, I know that they find the process of talking to me in preparation and the ceremony itself a comfort. People have written to thank me for giving them the opportunity to reflect on a life, and on the wonder of that life.

8. Do you help the terminally ill to plan their own funerals or do you only work with relatives after a death?

I have done a number of such meetings and subsequent ceremonies with terminally ill people.  I have also done ceremonies for people who want to leave a script behind when they die (they may have no family; want a non-religious ceremony but don’t trust the family to follow their wishes).  The script is often attached to their wills to make their wishes clear.

9. What are the greatest challenges and most rewarding aspects of your role?

  • Challenges:
    • The biggest challenge is when I discover that the person who has died was not liked or loved; this emerges during the conversation. It is very difficult to find the words to express such people’s lives.  I have found a form of words to do this.
    • Taking on the views of ‘combined’ or conflicted families. I share my draft script with the client (the person who has instructed the funeral director – sometimes a direct instruction from a client) but when they have shared this with others, coping with vetos on certain information is challenging along with negotiating a script which acknowledges and gives voice to a range of opinions.
    • Funerals for babies and children.
    • Funerals for people who have taken their own lives. I have to establish how explicit the family/friends want to be about what has happened (this has ranged from full acknowledgement of suicide; alluding to it; not mentioning it at all).
    • Murder: I have done one ceremony for someone who was murdered and for someone who murdered his wife.
  • Rewards:
    • Building trust with a family/group of friends so they talk freely. Telling the stories of people’s lives.  Making connections with a person or a family at an intense level culminating with the ceremony.  Feedback from people who appreciate what I’ve done.  Knowing I have made a difficult experience rewarding for the family.  Helping a family recall the person and helping with the continuing bond between the living and the dead.

10. How do religious attendees of humanist funerals respond to their experience?

People who have said they were Christians have volunteered various opinions: that they found the ceremony moving, with a spiritual dimension, serious, rather beautiful. The most negative thing (so far) was a thank you followed by a statement that they were Christians. Was the implication that my ceremony wasn’t legitimate?

11. While your clients are those who claim no religious affiliation, do some of them nonetheless have unorthodox beliefs in supernatural things or superstitions, which influence their approach to the funeral?

I have done a funeral for a spiritualist. Her friends painted a picture of her life, beliefs and involvement in spiritualism in their tributes but this did not shape the non-religious framing of the ceremony.

I am currently writing ceremonies for a couple in their eighties who are pagans. That part of their lives is covered in the narrative but the ceremonies are non-religious and not shaped by paganism.  They approached me through my website and through conversation with me established that I would represent their lives in a non-religious ceremony. They don’t want a pagan ceremony.

12. How do you think we as a society could learn to better cope with loss and the prospect of our own deaths?

I think we should talk about death in conversation but also be practical and arrange both powers of attorney for health and welfare and Advance Decision Directives.  Just completing these leads to conversations about dying and death.

These documents should be better known.  Advanced Decision Directives come in various versions, some of which are very complicated.  I recommend the version published by Compassion in Dying.  I think these documents should be better known, perhaps through lawyers/Financial Advisers where people have them; through GP surgeries; through day centres; through secondary schools perhaps part of the Personal, Social & Health Education programme.

I think children should grow up knowing that people die and use the language of dying.  There’s some good practice of making memory boxes for children when a close relation is dying or has died.  Don’t cover death up with euphemisms. I don’t understand why ‘passed away’ has gained so much currency. I use the words “died” and “death” in my scripts. Occasionally the clients change this to “passed away” and “passing” when they review the script I send and I have to respect this.

My husband John’s death, two years ago, has given me a perspective on dying and death which I didn’t have before he died (discussed below). We had sorted out powers of attorney for health and welfare but hadn’t got round to Advanced Decision Directives.  I have since completed my advanced directive.

13. What are your thoughts on assisted dying?

I am in favour of assisted dying. I often think that there has to be a better way to die when I hear searing experiences of painful and difficult deaths from my clients.

I also realise that assisted dying is not without difficulties. John was in terrible pain while dying of prostate cancer (locally advanced when diagnosed). Neuropathic pain caused when cancer metastasised to the lower spine is very difficult to control.

When it came to it, John didn’t want to die, certainly not before it was unavoidable.  He had found it very difficult to move from treatment over 10 years to palliative care for the last 6 months of his life when death became a reality. He knew that the cancer would kill him and often said so when the cancer was under control.  After it spread, he felt that the oncologist had abandoned him when palliative care took over.  The cancer had spread to his lower spine so his mobility was restricted; his response was to ask for exercises to keep mobile (as he’d done in the past when recovering from running injuries). I think that having to follow the advice that movement would trigger pain so avoid unnecessary movement meant he no longer had control.  On the other hand, I found his extreme pain very difficult to witness.  Would I have wanted an assisted death in his situation? It would have shortened his life by perhaps 4 months.


[1]Funeral Visit Checklist

Music

Tribute(s)

Readings

Coffin in e.g. follow in; seated before coffin comes in; coffin in position first

Reflection words (do the family want me to mention prayer here)

Committal: curtains (open or closed); reading/music

Thanks yous (if appropriate)

Donations (if any)

Gathering (if there is one)

Key Words

Dress Code

[2]Entry music; opening words; remembering X – i.e. tributes; music for reflection; the committal; closing words; exit music; readings may be interspersed throughout and more music.  Some ceremonies end with the committal.


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Secular Liturgies 2019 by Anastasia Somerville-Wong

Below is the script of my talk on Saturday for those who couldn’t make it!

Also, look out for the publication of my paper “Secular Liturgies” in the next edition of Secular Studies (a Brill international peer-reviewed academic journal which you can access online) for those of you who like something more in depth and want to know where I get all my facts and figures from!

Here’s a link to Roger’s talk and I will be adding a link to a video of mine in due course!

Evidence Based Faith:Haud Ignota Loquor (Speak not of what is not known)

I am grateful to all those who came and supported the event.

Secular Liturgies 2019: A Symposium on Secular Ethics and Reflective Practices

(Exeter Central Library, 8th June 2019)

 

Hello and welcome to Secular Liturgies 2019, a Symposium on Secular Ethics and Reflective Practices, organised by the Secular Liturgies Network and Forum.

Before our keynote speaker gives his address, my name is Anastasia, Editor of Secular Liturgies, and I’m going to introduce you to the mission and purpose of our Network and Forum.

A Post Religious Future

The idea for this Network and Forum grew out of my increasing concern that here, and in many other secularising nations, we lack a shared vision for a post-religious future.

If we are to succeed in building secular civilizations which are culturally rich, sustainable, and resilient, we will have to invest a lot more in discussion, teaching and pubic engagement around secular ethics, and in the development of reflective practices that will help us to live better and more meaningfully without superstition and dogma.

British Social Attitudes Surveys show that religious affiliation has declined steeply and continues to do so. 50% of British people no longer identify with a religious faith, and many who do are non-practising, liberal or progressive. The percentage of 18-24yr-olds with no religious affiliation is significantly higher at 64%, indicating that rapid secularisation will continue.

Many nations are undergoing a similar transition. The world’s nonreligious are now the third largest group of humans, recorded as 16% of the world’s population in 2012, exceeded in numbers only by Christians and Muslims.

However, before the hard-line atheists among us get too excited about the dawn of a new secular age, we must remember that birth rates are significantly lower among the nonreligious. Therefore, the percentage of world population which is nonreligious is actually getting smaller, and even in predominantly secular nations, while religious affiliation is declining, some religious beliefs, and superstition in general may not be. Movements in new age spirituality, Wicca, Modern Witchcraft and Spiritualism, for example, are gaining in popularity, especially among the young.

It is also true, however, that religious communities with high birth rates tend to be poorer with less access to education, so when it comes to power and influence, secular communities are likely to hold on to and increase their share.

The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum

In developed nations like ours, where traditional religion is rapidly losing ground, a combination of secular ethics and reflective practices has the potential to fill the void and provide a rational alternative to new age spirituality.

By the void, I refer to a proven decline in empathy and ethical engagement, a poverty and mediocrity of culture in some areas, and a lack of socialisation and social inclusion that has led to the epidemic of loneliness. These problems haven’t been caused by the decline in religion alone but the latter has certainly contributed to them.

While most of us here will be all too aware that traditional religious ethics, culture and community brought with it far too many of its own ills, there were aspects of faith and practice which instilled empathy and compassion, inspired great works of art and bonded people together in close community.

As a thinktank and creative hub, publisher and events pioneer, the SLN brings people together from across many secular, humanist and progressive backgrounds – to reclaim and repurpose the greatest insights and practices of the world’s faiths and philosophical traditions, to creatively express a common secular ethic, and to experiment with reflective practices that will enrich secular life and culture and make it more resilient.

The SLN publishes original creative works, including poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, interviews with relevant experts/practitioners and articles which communicate academic research to a wider audience.The first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine comes out in Jan 2020, and will contain some of the best work submitted over the course of the year. This work will also feature in our experimental liturgical events.

The Nine Themes

Our secular liturgies and liturgical events are organised around the following Nine Themes…

  • Critical Thinking– truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
  • Good Life– character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
  • Good Society– social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
  • Sustainability– our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism, biophilia
  • Health and Well-being– reflection, meditation, mindfulness, socialisation
  • Big Culture– cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
  • Community– companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
  • Life-Cycles– birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
  • Seasons– annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar

Reflective Practice in CPD

Let’s take a moment now to look a little more closely at reflective practice…

Reflective Practice is a key part of CPD cycles for practice-based professionals, those such as teacher-educators and learners, leaders across industries, health professionals and environment or sustainability managers. Reflective Practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions (and indeed one’s thoughts and one’s experience of the world) so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.

In reflective practice we pay attention to ourselves, noticing our assumptions, noticing thought patterns. By doing this we are empowered to change what we see, and even to change the way we see.

Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action. Those of you who have received or delivered workplace training in reflective practice will be familiar with names like Borton, Kolb and Fry, Argyris and Schon, Gibbs, Benner and Wrubel, Brookfield and Johns, Somerville and Keeling…

In the David Somerville (no relation of mine) and June Keeling model, as an example: They suggest actively seeking feedback in the workplace, asking yourself and others what you and they have learnt that day, identifying accomplishments and areas for growth, viewing experiences objectively, empathizing aloud, recording your thoughts, feelings and future plans (in, for example, a journal), looking for emerging patterns, planning for the future, and creating your own future by combining the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic.

For many nonreligious people, these activities are no longer part of normal life, especially outside the workplace, and may indeed seem superfluous. However, for religious people, these (or similar) social and reflective activities are positively encouraged and integrated into the cycles, seasons and gatherings of religious life.

While we might not share the dogmas and superstitions of traditional religion, many of their institutions and traditions instil useful habits of reflective practice. These practices help us to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter so much, what is meaningful and why, what to love and what to hate… They attend to the life of the mind – to morality and virtue, to wonder and creativity, and to personal growth in knowledge, wisdom and character.

Reflective Practice in History

However, while scholars may have found precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, they have barely begun to scratch the surface of all the lessons in reflective practice that the world’s many religious and philosophical traditions can provide.

Indeed, almost everything that is good in religion, or in so-called spirituality, is to do with rituals that facilitate individual and communal reflective practices.

We can learn, for example, from the way that religions give meaning, narrative and purpose to cultural heritage and the arts. Religions are able to connect almost everything we come across in life with our moral sense and with our identity, our loves and our losses…

The Philosopher Alain de Botton has done some important work in this area. He points out how our museums and galleries often fail to engage and inspire us because they fail to exhibit their art works and artefacts in ways that make them relevant to the passions and purposes of their visitors. I highly recommend his book Religion for Atheists and his TED talk on Atheism 2.0. I would add that museums fail, therefore, to reflect on their collections in ways that make them meaningful to us.

We can also learn a great deal from the way religious organisations conduct their reflective gatherings (for example, their liturgical services), and from their varied and reflective approaches to pastoral care. We can learn from the way they mark rites of passage, lifecycles and seasons and from the way they give meaning to our travels in pilgrimage. We can learn from their approaches to the scheduled or habitual contemplation of our actions and experiences, through journaling, prayer, meditation and the mindful or imaginative reading of texts.

Examples of Reflective Practice

For example, prayer may be seen as a form of reflective practice, like journaling or blogging, rather than as a real conversation with a supernatural being. The person who prays puts into words and a new context (sometimes a public context in religious services) their feelings and thoughts about the things they have heard about or experienced. In the process, they reflect on this information and experience in ways that can change their own attitudes and behaviours over time.

The production of creative works is also a form of reflective practice, since our creations arise from our observations, impressions and reasoning about what we experience of the world, of reality, of life and humanity.

Secular Liturgies as Reflective Practice

Thus, the process of creating secular liturgies is itself a form of reflective practice, as much as reading or hearing them is a means to facilitating reflective practice. By Secular Liturgies, I mean the writings and other expressions, such as rituals, meditations and creative art-forms, which are read or take place at private or public secular liturgical gatherings.

Secular Liturgies arise from and encourage reflective practice. They explore, celebrate and convey secular values, values of compassion, truth, freedom, equality, courage, tolerance and responsibility. They capture and communicate the latest information and research that can help to advance well-being and alleviate suffering. They make secular cultures more resilient in difficult times, and inspire us to meet our global challenges.

Secular Liturgies: A Broad Concept

While Secular Liturgies include, more obviously, writings and readings which are morally and/or intellectually instructive. They also include words, exhibitions and activities, which are indirectly helpful to us by creating spaces for reflection or socialisation, or by creating rituals which can instil healthy habits, practical wisdom and critical thinking.

A story, a poem, a dance, the process of painting a picture, a journey, a piece of music, a period of silence, and even the shipping forecast- these may all be described as liturgy!

Liturgies in Daily Life

Liturgical moments can of course be integrated into everyday life. They define and reinforce the values, goals and cultural identity of groups, from the tattoos and graffiti of youth subcultures, to the word-art found in the homes and workplaces of the aspirational classes. Therefore, the SLN explores ways of incorporating elements secular liturgy into home, working and leisure environments. We are thinking, for example, about the role of places, spaces and buildings in influencing (and being influenced by) liturgical events.

Our thinking is also informed by people such as Thaler and Sunstein, the Nobel Prize Winners in economics, whose famous book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness”, explained how environments can be created which positively influence human behaviours without us even being aware of it.

Goals of Secular Liturgy and Reflective Practices

So, the goals of our secular liturgies, reflective practices and secular liturgical events are to help us to do the following:

Firstly, to question, learn and overcome our cognitive biases…by cognitive biases I mean of course the gap between how we ought to reason and how we actually reason. No doubt you’re familiar with the ground-breaking work done in this area by another Nobel Prize winner in economics, Daniel Kahneman, which you can read about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Another goal is to help us engage with, teach and instil secular ethics. Reflective practices demand honesty, freedom, tolerance and equality, secular and humanist values, which often stand in contrast to those of religious power structures.

Secular Liturgies and liturgical events also help us to better appreciate the natural world and our place within it, in contrast with the way traditional religion so often sets us apart from our natural origins and even from the needs and pleasures of our bodies.

Secular liturgies and liturgical events enable us to enjoy our most pleasurable and health-giving psychological states; emotions such self-transcendence, mindfulness, wonderment, awe and love, which lead to positive changes in our thinking and behaviour.

And secular liturgies and liturgical events cultivate empathy and compassion for others, through the understanding of ourselves and humanity that comes from sharing stories and building relationships and community through meaningful socialisation.

A Diverse Network

The SLN connects those with shared values and goals but often very different cultural backgrounds and identities.

Our network consists of humanists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, the nonreligious, the ‘spiritual but not religious’, Unitarians, British Quakers, liberals from other denominations, and members of progressive religious reform movements such as Progressive Christianity, Progressive Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Humanistic Judaism and Secular Buddhism.

Together we can learn so much more about other cultural perspectives and gain a far better perspective on our own cultures. We can draw immense wealth from the repositories of culture and reflective practises that those from the progressive streams of the world’s faith and philosophical traditions can provide.

A ‘Big Culture’ Approach

We therefore take what I call a ‘big culture’ approach. This is a critical approach which sifts the golden nuggets of wisdom from the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, in terms of both their thinking and practice, leaving dogma and superstition behind.

We have to ask ourselves which parts of our inherited cultures – the literature, the objects, the rituals and traditions – conform to our secular values and goals, and which must be consigned to museums and archives? We must navigate through controversial issues of cultural remix and cultural appropriation, intellectual property and respectful reuse, and the engagement of marginalised heritages. I am especially keen to showcase aspects of marginalised heritages in our SLN events.

Progressive Religious Reform Movements

The Progressive Religious Reform Movements are ideally placed to offer up to wider society the positive and useful aspects of the faiths out of which they have arisen.

They have left dogma and superstition behind and are currently going through a process of repurposing their stories, traditions and rituals, and finding a new purpose and place in society. They are passionate about retaining, and indeed, reclaiming, the philosophical insights and practical wisdom they have inherited. This is something our keynote speaker will no doubt explore in greater depth.

Call for Submissions

Finally, how can you get involved? How can you take part in this exciting mission? Well, apart from keeping an eye out for our experimental liturgical events which will be advertised via the website and social media, you can…

Join us in writing secular liturgy and choreographing innovative liturgical events along the Nine Themes.

You can send us your secular liturgical extracts, poetry, short stories, personal accounts and other creative nonfiction, short dramatic scripts and extracts, short films, art-works, music and cultural heritage content and objects.

You can submit articles relating cutting-edge academic research in relevant fields.

If you are a practitioner in a relevant field I would love to interview you!

And you can join our FB Forum and real-life Forum thinktank meetings, where you can… share ideas for readings from original creative writing, established novels, poetry, works of philosophy and other literature, and share ideas for reflective activities for secular liturgical events (e.g. new or adapted rituals, meditations, art-forms, films, community feasts, tea ceremonies, dance routines, multimedia, art exhibitions, songs, musical compositions and cultural heritage objects of the real or digital kind)

Where you can find us

Here are the details for our website and blog and online Forum.

Academics and practitioners from across disciplines are contributing to the blog at https://secularliturgies.wordpress.com/

You can also follow our progress and posts on our Facebook Page and participate in discussions on our online Forum

And don’t forget to write your email address in the booklet going around if you would like to receive the first edition of Secular Liturgies Magazine.

Rev Dr. Roger L. Ray

And now it’s time to introduce our keynote speaker, the Reverend Dr Roger L. Ray, founding pastor of The Emerging Church and author of Progressive Faith and Practice and Progressive Conversations.

Roger’s sermons reach an audience of several thousand through podcast and video. They can be found on iTunes under the title Progressive Faith Sermons and on YouTube on the channel CCCSPRINGFIELD.

Roger earned a Masters in Divinity and a Doctorate in Ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He was also a 2004 fellow at Harvard Divinity School.

Without further ado, I hand you over to Roger Ray.

Evidence Based Faith:Haud Ignota Loquor (Speak not of what is not known)

(A link to the video of Anastasia’s talk is coming soon!)

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Dr Anastasia Somerville-Wong with Rev. Dr. Roger L. Ray and Rev. John Churcher  at Secular Liturgies 2019 (Exeter central Library, Exeter, UK, 8th June, 2019)