Happy Birthday Ginny

I was the middle one of five children brought up in a happy home environment.

My earliest memory of my father was the day I started school. I was four years old. There were lots of children starting on that day and there was a long line of chairs down the corridor. Each child was sitting on a parent’s knee waiting their turn to go into the Head Teacher’s office to be welcomed into the school. My dad was talking constantly to me trying to put me at my ease. He was very good at making people feel comfortable. He always knew the right words to say in any situation.

Through my school years he was always there to help with homework or music lessons. He would always make time to work through difficult problems.

My father was an amazing storyteller. He could tell a story on any subject. His stories weren’t always in words. Every Christmas morning there were five sacks (pillowcases) of presents. To identify whose sack was whose we had to look at the pictures he had attached to the sack. The pictures told a story depicting each one of us in a familiar situation.

His stories were magical. Some were just funny, others taught a lesson but all were enjoyable. I hope his stories go on giving pleasure to people for many years to come.

Ginny x

June 2011

Hucklow June 2010

Sunday Sermon – 29 April 2018

If Music be the Food of Love…

I suppose it is inevitable that, during a service in which music is a predominant feature, sooner or later some-one will quote Shakespeare,

“If music be the food of love
Play on, give me excess of it
That surfeiting, my appetite,
May sicken, and so die.”,

So I will start with the quotation, getting my quote in first, using it as a peg on which to hang my later comments.

Of course I accept the passage is not perfectly apt for a sermon in church on Sunday. A love-sick swain, feeling the anguish of being in love, unrequited love moreover, was hoping, or more likely, feigning to hope, that his love could be killed, and the pain eased. But today, we are enjoying the excitement which comes from music making and the pleasure which follows from hearing it performed. Far from advocating an excess of music, we quit the table, as the recipe for healthy living demands, with an appetite not completely satisfied, and a feeling that we would welcome a little more.

All down the ages, throughout the world, with all the main religions, and many minor ones, music has been an important constituent of church worship. In Psalm 150 for example we hear of the place of music in praising the Lord – cymbals and lutes, harps and trumpets are enlisted for the task. Tinkling bells are associated with Buddhist temples, Gregorian chants with the monasteries. The waves of sing-song rhythmical sound in the Jewish temple, the organs and choirs of the great cathedrals, the quiet evening hymn in the village church, are evocative tones conjuring up thoughts of piety and praise.

Growing old is frequently the excuse for harking back. So I make no excuse as I think back to my youth and the Unitarian church I attended in a small cotton town on the Lancashire Cheshire border. Many of my recollections are to do with music and singing. Whitsuntide with brass bands, behind which we processed to gather on the centrally placed market ground, there to sing hymns along with other congregations in joint acts of worship. Anniversary Sermons with children’s choirs on raised platforms. Harvest hymns in bedecked chapels and Christmas carols sung amid twinkling lights. All occasions clearly recalled.

Then there are Armistice Day services attended by personnel from the forces led by military bands. Boys brigade, scouts and guides marching on church parade to the accompaniment of bugle and drum, are all part of a tapestry with the thread of music running through it. Sometimes sad, sometimes triumphal, full throated roar or meditatively quiet, sentimental or robust, prayerful or platitudinous, the music and the hymns matched the mood and enhanced the occasion of which they were a central part.

Occasionally at the end of a service I have conducted, a member of the congregation will say, “I enjoyed that service”, before adding the explanation, that it was because I had chosen some good hymns, and we had all had a good sing. By good hymns invariably the criteria to be met is that the tunes are familiar, the pitch is right, with no impossibly high notes attainable only by angels or professional sopranos. A good sing is an essential ingredient of a satisfying service. For many it is the touchstone by which it is judged. And why not, what better marking script.

It wasn’t until adult life that I discovered the joy of playing instrumental music alongside others. In my early days of teaching, I was allocated a recorder group to tutor. The fact that musically I was totally ignorant was ignored. Hardly one step in front of the pupils, I learnt to play, with very moderate skill indeed, first a descant recorder, and later treble, tenor and bass. Emboldened, I later joined a small group of teachers who met weekly to play for a couple of hours. None of us were very expert, all of us were enthusiastic.

We played simply for our own pleasure. And the pleasure was not merely in the music with its inter-mingling parts, but in shared participation. All contributing, no-one dominant, each dependent upon the contribution of the others.

Later, I was lent a brass tenor horn and learnt to play it even less skilfully than the recorder. Joining a group of brass band players, I again experienced the delight of creating harmonious sounds in the company of others, even if my contribution was largely to the umph pah pah under-current.

Sadly, other things took over one’s time, and it is many, many years since I last played. The rudimentary skills, always precariously held, have now left me, but the memory of pleasures past remains. There is a close affinity between the joy of making music and “that peace which passes all understanding” which can be found in religious worship. So it is no surprise that music has such a central role in our services of devotion.

Music vocabulary spills over into life in general. Discords resolve into harmonies; chords find an expression in a sympathetic response, as in “striking the right chord”; to hit the right note is to set up a good relationship; our affections are cemented as we are in tune with one another, and so it goes on.

But let us return to our opening quotation, or at least to the beginning of it, which refers to music as the food of love. Central to the Christian philosophy is the concept of love. The two great commandments – love of God and love of neighbour – are foundations of Christian thought. We who profess the faith attempt to build the framework in which we live our daily lives upon that solid rock.

There are many words within our everyday vocabulary whose meaning we find difficult to define when asked. We know what we mean but we find it hard to explain that meaning in words. The word “love”, I suggest, falls in this category. We use it in so many ways, from explaining our appetite for cream buns at one extreme (I love chocolate eclairs), to enveloping the profoundest emotional and spiritual experiences, at the opposite end of the scale.

Our opening quotation was in the context of sexual attraction. But music may, way beyond that, touch upon what we are trying to express by the love of God. Bach wrote his great choral mass, Handel his oratorios, Beethoven his symphonies, all of which we hear with a sense of reverence and awe, transcending mere enjoyment, out of religious conviction. They were acts of creation, reflecting faith and conviction. Love of music and glorification of the almighty were aspects of one whole.

Love of God may be difficult to define in simple words, but the great composers have in their music encompassed something of the awe, emotional ecstasy, the peaceful security, the reverence and the spiritual dependence, which fall within the definition of “love of God”. It is in creative expression – that which we call the Arts, of which music is a part – that humankind comes nearest to the expression of that love.

And love of neighbour. If love of God is about what we do in private to and for ourselves, then love of neighbour is about the way we live our daily lives. It covers all our relationships with our fellows, those private acts which nevertheless impinge on others. It is demonstrated by what we do as distinct from what we say we do.

When neighbour loves neighbour, then harmony is assured. Discords can be resolved. The melody is agreeable. We are in tune with one another’s needs. The different instruments blend sympathetically to create a balanced whole.

To sing in a choir, or to play in a band or orchestra, is to learn the discipline of co-operation. Self is important only in so much as it is a part of a much bigger whole. Even the soloist may need an accompaniment. The joy comes from a feeling that parts are blending to create an entirety which is more, much more, than a sum of the parts. Successful communal music making is a small snapshot of life where neighbour loves neighbour in order to create harmonious sounds that express a love of God.

Surely that is one of the reasons why musical sounds and rhythmical beats have become such an integral part of church worship. The hymnist pens the words, but it is the tune which many of us remember. However fine the words, the tune has to be right if we are to sing it! But additionally, the full glory of the tune comes when the parts are blended to the whole, the chords are struck and the harmonies emerge.

Some in the congregation of my generation and above, will remember that old Victorian ballad beloved of musical hall baritones, “The Lost Chord”.

“Seated one day at the organ
I was weary and ill at ease”

it began.

It goes on to describe the accidental discovery of a chord which whose mellifluous tones brought peace and contentment in the place of stress and unease. Though the ballad was toe-curlingly sentimental, it contained a truth that music can and does bring solace and peace to the fevered mind. David long ago played his harp to soothe the torments of Saul. Today’s worshippers find an inner peace as the rousing hymn or the contemplative music swirls around them.

Music is the food of love. Comfortingly it embraces our worship of the almighty, eternal creator of us all within its arms. As we lift up our voices, or blow, scrape or bang our instruments, we, often inadequately, but sincerely express our deepest thoughts. And in making music together we glimpse for a moment the Kingdom of Heaven where neighbour recognises neighbour, and harmony prevails.

Music is yet the food of love
Surround me with its swell. That I
May glorify my God, in awe,
In humble reverence. My love
Of neighbour defined as one
Glorious harmony.

C.J. Rosling

Hucklow 22 October 1995

 

Sunday Sermon – 22 April 2018

Job’s Comforters

In that long running radio programme, Desert Island Discs, the guest is asked at the end of the programme to choose a book to take on to the desert island, being assured beforehand that they will also have a copy of the Bible and of the works of Shakespeare. The reason Shakespeare and the Bible are provided is because, when the programme was originally devised many decades ago, guests would plump for the bard or the holy book, and the choice of reading matter became predictable, if unconvincing.

Many folk commonly insist that they have always wanted to read the Bible but have not found the time to do so. Castaways, the theory goes, having all the time in the world, would relish the opportunity to fulfil their ambition. Maybe, perhaps, some might, one thinks, with a smidgeon of scepticism at the back of the mind. Certainly the Bible is not so much a book, rather an anthology. Some sections are more readable than others. One of the parts I like is from the Old Testament, the story of Job. The Book of Job was written probably two and a half thousand years ago, but it contains passages that are timeless, it provokes thoughts that resound with life today.

I’m sure you will be familiar with it, but let me give a brief resume of the story. I call it a story, believing it to be an apocryphal tale rather that a biographical account.

The story is about a prosperous, good living man suddenly smitten by illness and financial disaster. His three visitors, Job’s comforters, did nothing to relieve his anxiety and distress when they suggested that Job’s apparently saintly life must be a sham. His afflictions were by way of punishment from God for failings known to God, even if Job had concealed them from everybody else. That was the only explanation, the three advisors said, that made sense. Job rails against his fate, but recovers his faith, which we understand was being tested. As all good stories ought to end, the words “happy ever after” can be added to the conclusion.

The story is based on the problem of reconciling a belief in a loving God with injustice and suffering found within the world. God may be a loving god, but those who erred could expect to be punished. The observation is sometimes made that rain falls upon the just and unjust alike, but the just suffers the more because the unjust has borrowed, and not returned, the just man’s umbrella. But according to the theory of Job’s comforters, this is not the end of the story. The just man will be eventually compensated, whilst the unjust man will get his comeuppance. They implied that Job was a covert sinner.

Job cries out in complaint to God, who starts His response with the words, “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge?” Words that were echoed centuries later from a man dying by crucifixion, “…. they know not what they do.”

How much trouble in this world stems from counsel given without knowledge, or at best with only partial knowledge? There are numerous examples which spring to mind where misery and suffering, death and disaster, are the consequence of actions following counselling without knowledge. We knew not, and often cared not, what we did. And examples are by no means confined to the past.

The threat to our environment, to the planet on which we live and to the air enveloping it, provide a multitude of examples of accepting the truth of counsel, even though it rested upon a dubious foundation of knowledge.

To cite just a few examples: over-cropping has produced dust-bowls in North America, in Africa and elsewhere, creating deserts where the rose may no longer bloom; equatorial forests have been ravished and continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate; over-fishing has reduced fish-stocks until some species may well not recover; curbs and bans on whaling may be too little and too late to avoid extinction of some species of that great mammal; one might also include big game poaching and its effect on land-based creatures. Greenhouse gases causing climatic changes, nuclear weapons and power stations with waste products dangerous for tens of thousands of years are problems left to future generations to live with or to solve. The list of foolishness and greed is endless, breeding anxiety, threatening disaster. All substantially caused through accepting, blindly and foolishly, counsel without knowledge.

“Mad Cow Disease” was a direct consequence of counsel trusted without knowledge of the consequences. Today many worry, rightly, that growing crops from genetically engineered seed is a venture where advice and recommendation proceeds apace, whilst knowledge lags somewhere to the rear.

The enthusiasm to give counsel even when knowledge supporting it is questionable or unproven is not confined to scientists. In most fields of human activity – social, political, medical, national, religious, educational, and others – counsel is freely given when possible consequences are either not understood, not taken seriously, or recklessly disregarded. Unregulated competitiveness, expressed as the race is to the strong and the devil can harvest the weak, has done much to increase the burden of human suffering, poverty and misery throughout the world.

And what of the patriotism which goes beyond national pride into denigration and oppression, riding with indifference over the rights of others? Or religion which, whilst nominally about qualities which most religions share, but for short-hand convenience I might call Christian values of tolerance, compassion, brother and sisterhood, and mutual respect, encourages its adherents to terrorise those of other faiths. Holy wars (what a contradiction in terms) against the infidel are in our historical past, but counterparts can be found in news reports of today.

Even between members of one religious faith, antagonism flares into violence between Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian sects. Moslem fights Moslem, as well as Hindu, Jew and Christian. Religious rivalry degenerates into hatred and violence, though the religion professed is about peace with God and love of mankind. Knowledge is the basis of understanding. Counsel given without it is a road to disaster. Oppression, even terrorism, is justified by selective quotations from scripture writings.

The laws we enact, the examples we set for others, the messages we send out, the newspapers and magazines we produce, and commercial norms of behaviour displayed do have outcomes beyond the immediately apparent.

Much damage done, whether to the environment, to our social structure, to our relationships with others, is not the result of deliberate decision calculated by evil men or women, but through ignorance. Counsel given and accepted unquestioned, action undertaken without proper consideration, arrogance replacing forethought – these cause a high proportion of misery and suffering throughout the world.

It is true that the total of knowledge available to mankind is greater now than ever in the world’s history. Particularly in the last century knowledge in every field – archaeology, science, philosophy, engineering, medicine, the list is endless – has increased and continues to increase at an accelerating rate. Not only has the store of knowledge grown, but its availability and accessibility has grow also.

We perform in everyday living exercises that, only a few years ago, would have been thought miraculous. Men and women, almost as a matter of routine, travel through space. Oceans depths are plumbed for oil. We may travel to the other side of the world in the time taken for the sun to circle the globe. We watch events as they are happening thousands of miles away. We holiday in exotic climes, places not long ago only visited with great difficulty by explorers accompanied by native porters carrying supplies. In our hospitals, hundreds of operations are carried out each week to repair or replace organs within the human body. Through the Internet the world’s libraries can be accessed from the home.

But though we have so much knowledge and skill, and perhaps because of that, too often we act as if we possess complete knowledge. We are filled with self-congratulation, admiration for our achievements and our cleverness. That there is still so much to learn is forgotten. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we start processes that we cannot ultimately control or stop. Yet to question is to run the risk of being labelled a crank, a loner, an oddball, and an eccentric.

Many references may be found in pages of the Old Testament as to the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom rests upon knowledge, which is hedged about with humility, reservation and questioning uncertainty.

In the story of Job, health and fortune began to return to him when he was able to utter these words.

“Who is he that hides counsel without understanding?
Yea, I, Job, uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

My own belief is that suffering, hardship, poverty come not from God by way of punishment, but commonly from man by way of arrogance and indifference. Counsel without knowledge in the words of the Old Testament story.

Job’s relief from his woes followed recognition that his knowledge was limited, that he “…uttered what I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.” Recognition of the limits of his knowledge put him on the road to acquiring wisdom.

It is a message of universal application. It is the secret passage leading to a fairer, more equitable and peaceful world.

This is not a plea to abandon a search for knowledge. Knowledge should be pursued and acquired. It is properly a part of human nature to learn, and to try to understand. And knowledge should be applied, but with humility. Doubt and caution, humility and the certainty that what we know is always partial, are signs of wisdom.

The world will be a far better place when all peoples, with a sense of humility, can echo the words of Job

Yea, I uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.”

Counsel with care, and with thought for possible consequences. Only fools boast of their knowledge; the wise are certain only of how much they still don’t know.

C.J. Rosling 13 April 2007

Hucklow 15 April 2007

Sunday Sermon – 15 April 2018

Is Everything Filed in Order?

Some-one asked me the other day if I was an orderly sort of person. At first I thought they meant, was I a well-behaved citizen, or was I constantly in trouble for disorderly conduct. So, naturally, I felt a little hurt. However, I rapidly discovered that the inquirer was asking, did I arrange my goods and affairs in a tidy, systematic manner.

When I thought about it, I had some difficulty in answering, because, like many others, I lurch between the extremes of tidiness and disarray. I would like to think that I order my affairs in a business-like way, but admittedly often fail to do so. The drawers of my desk are a clutter, but the book-shelves are arranged to a plan. Mind you, it is a plan that few others can understand, but there is a system about it. My diary and address books are in order, but the top of the desk is normally covered with papers that I mean to sort out tomorrow, or failing that, certainly the day after. Always provided I am not too busy.

I keep my tools in a tool-box. But for some reason, when I need the screw-driver or the drill, it has mysteriously disappeared, having taken itself off to a different location entirely. I blame the rest of the family for that, for I always, well nearly always, put things back where I find them. Then I have a filing cabinet.

I expect that most folk try their hand at one time or another at creating a filing system, or similar, so the valuable bits of saved information are readily to hand. I confidently suggest that most of us have discovered that filing is not as simple as it first appears.

We decide that we will file our letters and bills or receipts. All starts off well; Mabel Smith’s letters are filed under “Smith, M.”, Horace Green letters go under “Green, H.”, the butchers bills and receipts are under “Butcher”, and bakers under “Baker”. Then Horace marries Mabel, so “Smith M.” becomes “Green M.”, which makes for confusion. The butcher starts selling bread, and the baker has a freezer from which frozen meat may be purchased.

So we are faced with a problem. Where do we file the receipt when we bought bread-cakes at the butchers whilst purchasing the pork chops. And the last time we bought a loaf at the bakers, we also bought a piece of frozen gammon. Or, we file newspaper cuttings and find that on the back of a recipe for Christmas pudding is an article on pruning roses which we need to keep. Is it filed under gardening or Christmas recipes?

The file for “Miscellaneous” grows ever larger, and the pile of “Awaiting filing” grows ever nearer the ceiling. And when we look for that interesting article on french polishing that we know we saved, it is nowhere to be found. That is until it’s accidentally unearthed months later under “Painting and Decorating”, because it was part of a long article on “Interior Design made Simple”.

Yes, if only things wouldn’t change, if only letters, papers, cuttings, books and the rest would fit neatly into the categories we devise, how much more straight-forward life would be. Of course we can create card indexes, and cross-references, but they become so time consuming to complete, and so complicated to follow, that ere long the whole task is given up.

And if that is true of material things, how much more so does it become when one deals with people. I have spent a deal of my life writing school reports on children, and supplying references for adults. What a task that is. No matter what care one takes, how inadequate is the invariable result. Words like “but” and “nevertheless”, phrases like “if only” and “on the whole” keep creeping in. Most children fall in the category of the girl in the nursery rhyme,

“When she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad, she was horrid”

And of course that pattern is not confined to children, it is true of most of us. People on the whole are an amalgam of good, bad and indifferent. And because this includes us, how we react at any moment to others is determined, not only by how they behave, but by how we feel at the time. Few there are who are not a incongruous mixture of the saint and sinner, capable of both generosity and meanness, compassion and indifference, tenderness and harshness. If these qualities are not in equal measure, then certainly there are substantial proportions of each.

It being so clearly the case that the attempt to put people into categories is a thousand times more difficult even than devising a filing system for personal affairs, isn’t it astonishing that so much of life revolves round the very task of categorising, putting our opinions of other people into neat boxes?

Sometimes these are minor affairs. Blonds are marked down as being dumb, red heads have fiery tempers, and baldness is equated with wisdom. This explains why I have kept a full head of hair!

Much more serious is filing people according to race, nationality, creed, ethnic background and the like, into pre-determined groupings. This method of registering allows such statements to be made, or to go unchallenged, as “All Jews are by nature money grabbers, who through fraud and sharp practice take advantage of the gullibility of the rest of us”. “Most of the crime is committed by the blacks who are inherently dishonest and violent.” “The poor, given bathrooms, will only use the bath to store coal”. “All foreigners cheat at games.”

One could go on at length, for the examples are legion. The odd, disturbing, fact is that these opinions are mouthed, or implicitly accepted, not only by some who declare themselves agnostic or atheist, but by many who profess themselves Christian. Surely near the core of Christian belief is the proposition that all men and women are equal in the sight of God. Prejudiced judgements imply that they are not.

There is a huge difference in life experience between an Anglo-Saxon living in England in 1995 and an Old Testament Jew living in the Middle East three thousand years ago. Yet we read Old Testament stories and, whilst noting the life-style is different, readily identify with the fears and the emotions of the people. Basically, they are the same as ours. Why then is it thought that the West Indian neighbour, or the Somali citizen, or the member of any other race, is fundamentally different from a white indigenous United Kingdom resident. Their values, fears and emotions are, we imply, different from ours.

How much more difficult it seems to be to accept that whereas most of us defy categorisation because we are such a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, the foreigner is different, and can easily be slotted in the appropriate box in the filing cabinet. If he has an un-English name we cannot be surprised that he is a drug dealer, because they are all like that. Of course if she is black, she must be guilty. The English are fair-minded, the Irish hot-tempered, the Scots mean, and the Welsh devious. Thank God human nature is more complex than that.

We applaud Jesus’s championship of the tax-collector, the poor fishermen, and the woman taken in adultery. We are delighted that it was the “foreigner”, the Samaritan, who rescued the Jewish victim of an assault. Over and over again Jesus pointed out that you can’t categorise and judge. Beams and motes abound irrespective of rank or nationality; the first are last, the last are first; the sinner anoints the feet of the saint whilst Jesus washes the feet of his disciples; the master is the servant; the widow is generous with the mite, the rich man mean with his gold. Everything is mixed up, and the filing cabinet is in a shambles.

One of the Psalms asks “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” We can equally ask, “How are we able to sing the Lord’s song, when we inhabit a land that so often accepts stereotyping by prejudice? Where black is bad and white is good, where rich only err, but poor sin.”

The truth is that none of us fits into one pigeon-hole comfortably. Each one of us is selfish and generous in turn; we are both foolish and wise; we are spiteful and kindly; we can be broad-minded one minute, and hopelessly prejudiced the next. No nation’s people consist only of the good; no race has a monopoly of evil. Prejudice is at the top of a polished slope, descending through discrimination and victimisation and on ultimately to the camps of Belsen, atrocities in the Balkans and genocide in central Africa.

Filing cabinets have their uses provided that we don’t force things into the folders we have decided upon previously, rather than into the section that they merit. But as far as people are concerned, each person is a cabinet unto him or herself. They contain numerous separate files and folders, with labels like “Acts of Generosity”, “Selfish Decisions”, “Thoughtful Gestures”, “Mean-minded Thoughts”, “Prejudices” and “Ignorant Judgements”. Each one of us, if we are honest, must admit that we have entries in all these folders, and many more beside.

The parable of sheep and goats has to my mind a fundamental flaw. It implies that there are two species of people. We are merely warned not be premature in dividing one from the other. But my interpretation of the christian message is different.

If the suggestion is that one animal is to be preferred to the other; that one represents the good, the other evil, then surely we are, as it were, a cross-breed of both sheep and goat. Recognising this, we must start with ourselves, and then extend outwards. “Unto thine own self be true” should lead to three thoughts.

First, after noting the muddle in the filing cabinet that contains our virtues and vices, we must charitably view any lack of order in other peoples’ cupboards.

Secondly, to accept that our own cabinet, like everyone else’s, contains many files, both good and bad.

Thirdly, that the files reveal what we are, not what others might think we are.

Cabinets come in a variety of styles and colours, but it is the contents that reveal the real truth. Christianity is about opening the drawers and looking inside.

C.J. Rosling. 2 June 1995

Fulwood 4 June 1995
Hucklow 11 January 1997

Sunday Sermon – 8 April 2018

My Conscience Is My Judge

Surely I can’t be the only person who, time and again, fails to see the obvious. I look at a crossword clue and fail to make sense of it. Then someone comes along and says, smugly, “I’m surprised you haven’t got 7 across. A pig that plants seeds is sow. Sow. Get it?” They give the answer and I wonder why I was so obtuse not to have got a simple solution that everyone else had seen. Then it might be the joke at which the whole room laughed whilst I struggle, as the saying goes, to get it. Once I knew a man whose given name was Harry. He was born and bred in Yorkshire, so I puzzled why every body called him Paddy. Paddy was the nickname for those who hailed from the emerald isle. It was quite a time before the penny dropped; his second name was Ireland. Get it?

It would be comforting to know that there are other sufferers from this embarrassing failure of intelligence, if that is what it is. To share blushes with others would ease the discomfort.

Sometimes I realise that the reverse of the coin applies. I am convinced that something is as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. The road ahead divides. I’ve missed the signpost but clearly the left fork is the correct road to take. Then it turns out I have made the wrong choice. Obstinately I refuse to believe that my sense of direction is wrong, so press on, compounding the initial error, like Harris in “Three men in a boat” negotiating the Hampton Court maze. Finally, I reluctantly admit to being lost, so have to ask for help, or drive back the way I have come and start again. Does anybody else experience the same odd trait of character, I wonder?
The other day I discovered that a word whose meaning I knew perfectly well, didn’t mean what I thought it meant at all. When I found out, by checking in my well-used dictionary, the real meaning, it was perfectly obvious. Again my old blind spot had got in the way of clear thinking.

The word in question was ‘conscience’. Though I’d never set it down in writing, I had regarded conscience as an absolute set of moral values. The dictionary tells me it is rather a personal sense of right or wrong. In other words a code, if not devised by, certainly accepted by the individual. This set me thinking. Yes, we build up our own moral benchmark, unique to us, by which we measure and moderate our conduct.

Take war for example. No sensible, right-thinking man or woman regards the use of armed force other than with at least distaste and more commonly with horror. Yet good people have divided opinions in any particular set of circumstances. My father, a lifetime pacifist, was a conscientious objector in the 1914-18 World War. Many thousands of others, good, honest men of principle, as was my father, saw it a matter of duty to fight for their country against, in the language of the time, the marauding Hun. Two decades later, a majority of men and women had clear consciences as they enlisted into armed forces to defeat the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Others, as in the First World War, and with equally strong convictions, believed it was morally unjustifiable to take up arms against fellow beings.

The difference between two opposite points of view is not the difference between right and wrong, but that between two opposing strongly held judgements. Each one of these contrary views could be justified as right in the view of the believer.

Differing perceptions about what is done, or not done, as choice faces the individual are not limited to war and peace, but crop up many times in the course of life for all of us. Sometimes the dilemma is about the fairly trivial, at other times the deeply profound. We measure what we do against our standards of what we think is right, that is morally justified.

If conscience is not about a personal sense of right and wrong, but becomes a purely external set of values, determined by others and to be imposed the rest of us, then we move to fundamentalism. “Why should I do this?” we ask. “Because I say so”, comes the answer.

Many early examples of fundamentalism are found in the first books of the Old Testament, with strict rules covering every aspect of life. Modern examples are not difficult to find in the United Kingdom, in America, in Africa, in fact throughout the world. Often prefaced with “Thou shalt not” the rules show little regard for ideas like tolerance, mercy, understanding, and compassion.

Our consciences are built up by ourselves; moderated, refined, expanded possibly, questioned certainly, as we grow up, mature and acquire different experiences, and meet fresh challenges.

The construction of our own set of values relies upon many sources and influences. In spite of what I said about fundamentalism, external rules formulated over time by society at large must help to form the structure. As Harris discovered, when in a maze, help from others is not to be scorned. To think arrogantly we are wiser than everyone else leads to humiliation. A starting point is the right of others to life, to freedom, to be able to fulfil their hopes and aspirations, as we would wish to fulfil ours. But that is a broad sweep and we gradually add conditions. Freedom, we may feel, has to be conditional on not denying it to others. The oppressor, whether operating on a national or a family scale, may have to be resisted, even lose his or her freedom. We have to face in reality a whole number of questions around such questions as self-defence, euthanasia, abortion, and medical intervention, amongst them.

The law of the land also impinges as we build up our own set of values. Do we, for example, pay our taxes in full, or do we put our money into tax havens abroad? Maybe not illegal, but folk will divide on the morality. That question might not arise for anyone here this morning, but breaking a traffic rule when late for an appointment might. Does the end justify the means is a question we may have to decide. Was the appointment at the hairdressers, or to conduct a funeral, or maybe to comfort a sick, distressed friend.

Decisions, judgements and reactions to particular circumstances are before us throughout each day. The decisions are often straightforward. I took but a moment in the super-market the other day to decide not to strangle the obnoxious child who was jarring everyone’s nerves. I went for a cup of tea in the café instead. This was partly from fear of the legal consequences, but I insist, mainly through the promptings of conscience. But not all decisions are as simple. Some are deeply divisive, and hotly debated. (Though I think silencing the screaming infant might have won some sympathetic approval).

Apart from Acts of Parliament and society’s rules for civilised behaviour, there are other influences on us as we compile a personal conscience volume that is our reference book for choosing what to do. There are our past experiences as one recalls one’s feelings when others made choices affecting us. We have regrets, we learn from the wisdom, occasionally from the foolishness, of others.

We absorb the thoughts of others; preachers and teachers, statesmen and saints, neighbours, parents, and youth leaders, all may help us to add to that personal code of conduct. The role of religion can be a crucial factor in guiding us to a live honourably, truthfully and mercifully.

But if we are compiling our own code of conduct is there not a system of checks? Teachers in schools, colleges or universities may mark their students exam papers, but, to use technical jargon, external assessors moderate the results to ensure consistency. So there are judgements about our own compilation of ethical standards. I have referred to some – the law, society’s expectations, adhering to the teachings of one’s faith for example. Also crucial is the challenge from those who hold sincere if contrary views.

We listen to the arguments that confront our beliefs, or perhaps they are prejudices. We make our responses, either upholding our view, or modifying it, and
sometimes changing it altogether. Maturity refines our ability to make right choices, but it does more. It increases understanding of human frailty, to judge when tolerance and mercy should guide our opinions.

Many Unitarians have followed a course of discussion and learning titled, Building your own Theology. In the same manner, though it may not be formally called so, we are all involved in building our own conscience.

This is a lifetime, open-ended course, with no end point. There may be, indeed there must be, fixed values within it, but details are ever being added, others dropped, many amended, as fresh problems face up on life’s journey. This process, in my view, is at its most effective when others challenge and compel us to defend our views. The challenges come for me in the framework of religious faith, and in the company of those who also try to lay a sound ethical foundation upon which to build a life of truth.

“I am surprised your conscience let you do that.” But why should I be? Maybe it was my conscience that is at fault.

C. J. Rosling May 2006

Hucklow 7 May 2006
Stannington 9 July 2006

Sunday Sermon – 1 April 2018

Easter Sunday

I am not quite sure of the year, though I think it was either 1968 or 1969. Certainly it was well over thirty years ago. Not that it really matters, except that it niggles slightly that I can’t remember. Makes me feel I am getting old.

At the time I was secretary of the local branch of a teachers’ trade union, and spent each Easter holiday over a score or more years attending the annual conference. A reporter friend who worked for the Sheffield morning paper, the Sheffield Telegraph, now long since closed and replaced by a weekly of the same name, said to me that his paper were running a series of articles during Easter week written by priests and lay people from different faiths. He knew I was connected with the Unitarians.. Would I, he asked, write something about what Easter meant to me.

After some hesitation, and pointing out I could only give my own thoughts, and other Unitarians may not agree with them, finally I wrote the article. I don’t think it was quite what my friend expected, but it was published. Some time later, Peter Godfrey, then Minister at Upper Chapel, had it printed in the magazine, The Unitarian.

I had forgotten all about the incident until a few weeks ago. Whilst looking for something else, I discovered in the bottom of a drawer in my desk a copy of that old article. I re-read it. A day or two afterwards, Ernest Baker rang and asked if I could take the service on Easter Sunday. My thoughts went to the article I had recently unearthed, so I decided to share it with you this morning. This is what I had written.

Easter and conferences fit together in my mind as inevitably as fish with chips, or parsons with pulpits. Nowadays it might seem the association of ideas is because of the annual pilgrimage I make to the NUT conference over the Easter holidays, but it really goes much further back than that. In fact right back to childhood.

My father, like his father before him, was. a non-conformist minister. For twenty years, until his premature death, the life of the family pivoted on the Unitarian Church, in the small cotton town of Stalybridge. The calendar was marked by Whitsuntide processions, on to Anniversary Sermons, through to Christmas parties and pantomimes, and then at Easter came the conference.

The Unitarian Churches and Sunday schools in that corner of East Lancashire and North Cheshire gathered together in one or other of the constituent chapels on Good Friday for the “Good Friday Conference.” Sometimes the whole family, but at least my father and one or two of we children joined the rest of the congregation early on Good Friday morning to travel on the special coach (sometimes two special coaches) to places with such magical names as Rawtenstall, Horwich, Warrington or Dukinfleld.

On arrival we went first to the church for the service. The pews were crammed to bursting point, the aisles blocked with the extra chairs brought in from the schoolroom to cope with the unaccustomed numbers.

We raised our voices unto the Lord, prayed in living silences (and there was plenty to pray about in a cotton town in the thirties, with heavy unemployment, means testing and the dole), surreptitiously sucked our sweets and counted off the pages of the minister’s sermon as he flicked them over one by one.

Then to the school-room for a dinner of pieces of pie, sandwiches and cake, washed down with tea from thick cups, filled by stout motherly ladies in flowered aprons from urns which, like the widow’s cruse, never ran dry.

In the afternoon, while the elders attended the annual general business meeting, the rest went on one of the organised country rambles, graded in length to suit the age and vigour of the walker.

One year, a friend and I sneaked away to watch Warrington play Wigan in a rugby league match. We weren’t found out, but the feeling of guilt remains to this day. Though not puritanical, my parents had definite views on what was appropriate to Sundays and Holy Days, and certainly live entertainment of this nature wasn’t on the list.

Tea in the school-room – ham and tongue salad followed by jelly – preceded the climax of the day, the evening meeting.

The speaker, or sometimes a whole panel of speakers, then warmed us up ready for the stirring debate that was sure to follow, when tubs were figuratively thumped. heads were vigorously nodded or shaken as appropriate, and reputations were built or demolished. It was an awesome occasion.

The first time I recall speaking in public was at a Good Friday Conference. As an impatient teenager (though that word wasn’t then in use, rather adolescent) I stood and spoke disparagingly of some long established Sunday school tradition. What that was I have completely forgotten.

Quite literally, there were cries of dissent and even anger from sections of the assembly. The chairman rose to my defence. “Remember we are Unitarians,” he said. “Unitarians are Free Christians, and that means we respect the views of all”. I expect he added under his breath, “Even daft ideas from foolish young upstarts.”

But where does the connection with Easter lie? What about the Crucifixion and the Resurrection? There is a connection for me that is close and real.

To me, Jesus was a man, not God. Not Man made God, or God made Man, but man. A remarkable, exceptional, maybe unique, man with an understanding of life that was at once simple yet profound. A seeker after truth who was eventually betrayed, tortured and executed by others who thought they had a monopoly of the truth.

I just can’t accept the story of a physical resurrection. Truth, honesty, compassion, tolerance are not bound simply to the life of an individual. For me the optimism of Easter Sunday comes with a faith that truth and goodness will ultimately prevail.

The question of individual immortality is of no moment, but the indestructibility of those values which give value to life is central to my faith.

Now conferences at their best are a meeting of people, who argue with passion and fervour, who listen with tolerance and sympathy, who meet in good fellowship, who depart with greater understanding.

Acrimonious, tedious and irrelevant they may sometimes be, because people are mixtures of strengths and weaknesses. But fundamentally conferences are convened by those who seek all that is implied by the Good Life. When we cease to seek the truth in honest discussion, then we start to crucify and destroy.

So for me conferences and Easter not only happen to go together, but it is right that they should do so.

And that was it. Have I changed my views over the intervening years? Well, I no longer go to conferences at Easter, but I have not changed my basic opinion about what happens when plough-shares get beaten into swords, or what Sir Winston Churchill called “jaw-jaw” is replaced by “war-war”.

Nor can one look at the images coming today out of the land of the crucifixion without sharing, at least a in small part the anguish which ordinary families from all the communities suffer in those lands stained with hatred and fear.

What is true about Middle Eastern lands is also true in many other areas of the earth, and of the misery ensuing when bloody conflicts erupt between peoples divided by religion, race or nationality.

Easter Day is often used as a metaphor for new beginnings, life emerging after the barren months of winter, a symbol of renewed hope. Flowers of spring bedeck the garden, and green shoots of delicate green change a dead landscape to a fresh verdant scene of expectation.

Unitarians are encouraged, nay expected, to build a philosophy of their own, based, partly on self-experience but largely on the experiences of other pilgrims of all faiths handed down and resurrected through many generations.

My philosophy that links Eastertide with a time to re-assert a belief in the efficacy of communication with others through discussion and argument in a spirit of honest searching for understanding remains as it was thirty odd years ago. New life, any life worth living, grows from conversation, not out of conflict.

Happy Easter to you all.

C.J. Rosling

Stannington:  31 March 2002