Wednesday, 2 January 2019

On stumbling across Unitarians

On stumbling across Unitarians
(I wrote this piece on a work trip to Malta last July.)

Nearly 4 years ago just before my ‘retirement’ I found myself in hospital for 13 days after surgery on a broken leg following a bicycle accident. During those days and nights I had plenty of time to think and to stare out of the window. Some of my planned retirement plans that I had held for a number of years were dropped. One in particular was to be more involved with Quakers. I had been a member for over 20 years during the busiest time of my life. It suddenly became crystal clear to me that being a Quaker no longer fitted for me.
So what next? Once mobile again I decided to check out my local Christian churches in South Manchester. Over the next 18 months or so I visited 8 such churches – 3 C of E, 1 Baptist, URC, joint Baptist-URC, Methodist, and Metropolitan. I could almost have drawn up a trip adviser table of my reactions to these churches or perhaps it was more like Goldilocks! I found myself enjoying singing hymns again, enjoying the ritual of communion and some parts of some of the sermons I heard. I was made welcome in all situations. I found myself attending 2 of the churches fairly regularly for a while but not feeling totally happy with either.  

I was more of less reconciled to this situation when I was at someone’s graduation meal one year ago and a stranger mentioned that she went to a meditation class held at my local Chorlton Unitarian chapel.  ‘Hmm’ I thought, ‘why have I not tried them out?’ Curiously I had visited a Bridge club held there and also had been at a rehearsal of the choir I belong to in Cross Street Chapel.
My first Unitarian service in Chorlton was life changing! We were sat in a horse shoe formation so I could see everyone and a chalice was passed round. There were readings, prayers and hymns/songs from a range of religious and spiritual perspectives many of which resonated with me. One of the biggest surprises for me was to hear transpersonal language and ideas used in the service which was lead in an engaging way by Laura Dobson. I had never experienced transpersonal ideas in a religious setting before.

 As a young man I had started to have experiences of loving connectedness with nature which I later realised was a form of mystical or spiritual experience. It was hard for me to locate such experiences within Christianity in the late 1960s but by the 1990s I was able to find a home in Quakers who were seemingly mystics but I was still reluctant to voice these experiences especially when they involved swirling colours. In my experience people hardly ever discussed what had happened to them in the silence of the Quaker Meeting. Thus hearing transpersonal language used in my first ever Unitarian service was so welcoming.

In the end it was Cross Street that did it for me. There were a number of synchronous events. For example one Sunday walking to the service I found myself thinking of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich – ‘All will be well’ and then in his sermon Cody Coyne refers to Julian and this same quote. Then on another Sunday on the way to Cross Street I was thinking of the Serenity prayer and Cody quoted it that morning. Another time in another sermon I am hearing an implicit mention of the philosopher Martin Buber, a favourite of mine and Cody confirmed yes he was thinking of Buber.
Somehow I managed to get over my habitual shyness and respond to the warmth of the welcome I received. It was helpful that in the service Cody usually invited any of us who wished to come forward and lit a candle to celebrate an event in our lives or to commemorate something more painful. This put me in touch with the realities of the lives of my fellow attenders. It led people to ask me about events in my life that I mentioned.  It also helped that we all sat at one table so I did not have to make an awkward choice of which table to sit at. Curiously volunteering one Sunday to serve tea and coffee also helped to break the ice – a great way to strike up casual conversations.
Later I came to realise that Unitarians have a range of experiences, beliefs and words to describe how they understand spirituality and that there is no pressure on me to fit in or accept other people views; more the delight in swapping experiences, ideas, meanings. And of course Unitarians seem a great place to discern my way forward and to deal with the spiritual uncertainties raised by my ‘retirement’.