Sunday Sermon – 24 February 2019

Music, Music, Music

Possibly only those of us the young disrespectfully refer to as blue rinses, grey-beards, bald heads, or describe as having creaking bones and rheumy eyes, remember listening on the wireless – was it still the wireless or had it already become the radio? – listening to the weekly comedy show, “Take it from Here”. The format of this show, indeed of most radio half hour comedy shows of the immediate post-war period, called for a break roughly half-way through the programme, before the concluding sketch, for a musical item.

During one week’s performance, I recall the musical interlude consisted of a rendering of a then popular song,

“Put another nickel in
In the nickelodeon…”

The songstress, Joy Nicholls, went on to observe in conclusion that

“All I want is Music, Music, Music”

Perhaps I ought to explain for the benefit of younger members of the congregation, familiar only with compact discs, Ipods, down-loads on the computer and music centres, that a nickelodeon was an early form of American jukebox, found in hostelries and other public places. Insert a five cent piece (a nickel) and music burst forth.

For all races and nationalities, and as far as one can tell, this has been so since earliest times, music is an integral part of one’s being. This is true, right throughout our life span. The babe is lulled to sleep to the sound of the lullaby; the couple are married with an accompaniment of joyous and triumphal sound; solemn tunes and dirges attend the ceremonies marking the end of life. Be the occasion hatch, match or despatch, be sure a suitable melody can be found to suit.

Background music in home or restaurant, public place or private residence, is often described as mood music. In truth, all music is mood music. It may excite, it may soothe. It may be reflective or ceremonial. It may set feet a-tapping and hips a-swaying. It may send us to sleep or set teeth on edge. Life without music is hardly conceivable. As the saying has it, if it wasn’t a part of life already, some-one would have to invent it.

As music is so much a part of our lives, it is no surprise that the links with religion and worship are close. It is not merely the singing of hymns and chanting of psalms. Many of the most famous composers have written some of their greatest music within the Christian tradition. Handel’s Messiah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, Bach’s choral music, are illustrative examples of a great tradition, whereby classical composers are inspired by biblical accounts, and enthused with the mystical trappings which form a part of Christian worship.

The plainsong chanting of monks, or the singing of Christmas carols are further examples of how religion and music come together.

As children in Sunday School we left part way through the adult service and concluded our own assembly as we sang

“If I were a blackbird, and lived in a wood
I’d make it the happiest place that I could
I’d whistle and warble and carol all day
‘Til all the world’s troubles I’d warbled away.”

Meanwhile our elders, if not our betters, who stayed in church for the remainder of the service, chanted the Te Deum:

“We praise Thee O God,
We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord”

The words and tunes were different in Chapel and Sunday School, but the messages had this in common. Religion and worship are a matter for celebration. God’s creation is wonderful. It behoves us to marvel, and to sing of it with joy.

Music expresses our deepest emotions, awakes our desires, stimulates us into activity, uplifts our spirits. “Whistle while you work” is an injunction to enjoy life. The psalmist demanded, “Sing a joyful song unto the Lord”.

The religious custom of singing songs in recognition of, and as a tribute to, the Almighty may not be invariably an expression of joy. Sometimes sorrow, tinged with hope, inspires both the melody and the words. The slaves in the American south sang their spirituals as they toiled; long before that, slaves from Israel labouring in captivity asked plaintively, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Music brings peace to the fevered mind, as it did to Saul when young David played upon his harp. Today, calming music on the car radio is said to reduce tension, as one counts the minutes as they slip by, when stuck in a traffic jam which stretches to the distant horizon.

But surely one of the greatest attributes of music is its ability to unify. If you doubt that, sit on a coach full of OAPs returning from a day at the sea-side, as they sing communally the music hall songs of yesterday. Those who huddled in bomb shelters during the last war felt at one with neighbour, when they joined in, “We’ll meet again”, “When the lights come on again” or “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

Sports teams, in the modern parlance, bond, as they sing their ribald songs. Audience and cast at the end of the pantomime join together as they “Sing as we go”. The link grows stronger between parent and child as, in duet, they chorus a familiar nursery rhyme.

Yet more serious examples may be found. To sing in a choir with the harmonies billowing round one, is to abrogate self and experience the joy of community. To play an instrument in an orchestra or group, is not only to be subject to the discipline of working with others to a common end, but to feel a unique satisfaction, which comes from being amalgamated into a single unit – a society which is greater than the sum of the parts.

A concert audience, be it for pop, rock, classical or sacred music, will listen as one, react as one, be moved as one, even though members of audience are from different backgrounds, cultures, age groups, and are strangers one to the other.

On those occasions, perhaps nowadays too rare, when chapel or church is packed, the hymn well-chosen, and the members are in full voice, who has not felt the unifying power of music. We may not all be emitting exactly the same sound at precisely the same moment; we may individually chose our own key, changing it as we go along, so that the notes fall within our vocal range; but my goodness, the effect still is electrifying. The rafters shake, and the windows rattle; we are for a few moments not separate individuals, but one community. From a disparate, dare I say, yes, why not?, from a disparate rabble, we are transformed into a congregation.

Another feature of music, linked with its ability to unify, is that it is commonly understood, regardless of cultural differences or language barriers.

Music notation is a common language. The Russian violinist, the Swedish trombonist, the Italian flautist, the Hungarian percussionist, the English clarinettist sit in the orchestra before a common musical score, which each can read and understand. Though their spoken tongues are diverse, they make music in a single language.

And the music produced speaks in a language understood by citizens of all lands. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Mozart transcends the ordinary barriers which divide people. Elton John singing “Candle in the Wind” brought tears to the eyes of those whose mother tongue was not English. Words were secondary to an emotion that was palpable.

Young people sway and gyrate together on the dance floor to the beat of music, though they may know little or nothing of the other participants to the dance. The rhythm compels, the reaction is synchronised.

The story of Pentecost tells of acquiring the gift of tongues. The message shall be understood by all peoples. With music, the gift of tongues is universally established.

Music may not only bring us together, it enables us to share common fears and hopes, tears and laughter, joy and exhilaration. Relating and sharing experiences is not constrained by the barrier of language.

“All I want is Music, Music, Music” went the refrain.

First music, for it unites me with others. Not only is it a shared experience, but much more, a coming together in sympathy and harmony.

Second music, for it is a true gift of tongues. No translation is needed, for the language is common. My neighbour and I may speak as one, be moved as one, be uplifted as one, share tears and laughter as one.

And the third music? For the word was thrice repeated.

One phrase, the line of a hymn, “Singing songs of expectation”, comes to mind. Worship is about many things, but surely included on the list, is expectation. All good music is exhilarating. The world is a better place whilst the music absorbs us. It fulfils an expectation.

The fact that music plays such an important part in worship is not accidental. It is not just so the congregation can stretch their legs from time to time, as they stand up and try and fit words to melody. It is not merely to disguise the sound of coins, or the rustle of notes, dropping into the collecting box.

It is not simply there to allow the preacher time to draw breath, count how many are in the congregation, and take a sip of water. The music is rightly a central part of our services. To my mind a service without music is like toast without marmalade – palatable but lacking.

The music at its best draws us in, brings us together. The power of music to hearten and transport is its greatest asset of all.

Out of the horror of trench warfare in the first World War came much poetry, including verses by Siegfried Sassoon. Amid the misery of mud and barbed wire, with the stink of death around, and the dread of what the next hour might bring, he wrote of a moment of joy, when humanity obliterated the terror of the present.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears, and horror
Drifted away… O, but everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

The Psalmist implored, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. Joy Nicholls sang, “All I want is Music, Music, Music”. Millennium apart, they sang from the same song sheet.

C.J. Rosling 28 October 1997

Hucklow 2 November 1997; 4 November 2001

Sunday Sermon – 17 February 2019

Is There a God?

My father was a compulsive purchaser, borrower, and reader of books. Whether he was travelling by bus or train (he never owned a car) or sitting in his study, there was invariably a book in his hand or by his side. If it was a book he owned rather than one borrowed, and he owned many, he also had a pencil in his hand with which he underlined passages or made annotations in the margin.

In those pre-war days, my father, among his many book purchases, added, from time to time, the most recent copy of a publication which I am not sure still exists. Certainly it is many, many years since I last saw a copy of Bradshaw’s Railway Time-table. That too he marked and annotated.

He was a Unitarian minister, and used the Bradshaw to plan his journeys to meetings, or to churches in other towns to which he had been invited to preach, as well as preparing for the expedition to our annual holiday destination. Or sometimes, I suspect, he simply browsed for pleasure, planning purely imaginary trips.

Mind you, it didn’t guarantee that he would always get on the right train. On one Sunday evening, on his way home from preaching an anniversary service in a church in the Manchester area, he ensconced himself in a carriage on a train standing in Manchester Victoria station under the impression it was the local train travelling the eight or so miles to Stalybridge, where we lived. It turned out to be an express going in the opposite direction, with the first stop at Crewe. He eventually arrived home in the early hours of the following morning.

However, that was an isolated incident in a life of meticulous planning. Journeys were normally uneventful, and I know he gained, as many others have done, much satisfaction from dove-tailing the arrival on one train with departure on the connecting next train. But I digress.

As a child, I took it for granted that a train from say Sheffield to Manchester would connect reasonably conveniently with one from Manchester to Blackpool. The complexity of planning a country-wide network of trains was something I never considered. That trains were timed so, on the more commonly undertaken journeys, the arrival of one fed into the departure of another in an orderly way, I simply took for granted. Yet now, as I think about it, I am filled with admiration for those who were faced with putting such a complex jig-saw together.

There is not much, if anything, to admire about warfare. But supplying, and keeping supplied, large armies of troops is a complicated exercise, and the logistics of it a matter for wonder by most of us. To ensure that food and armaments, medical supplies and equipment, and the rest reach the right people at the right time, calls for detailed and accurate planning.

And so one can go on. Whether it is stocking the shelves of super-markets, collecting and delivering promptly, parcels and letters throughout the land, building a ship or constructing a large office complex, system and order are essential. It does not work purely by chance, by lucky accident. It is a created order.

Where there is no order, life disintegrates into chaos. The more massive and complicated the undertaking, whether it is building a power station, or arranging a time-table for a transportation system, the greater the degree of planning required.

Thoughts on planning came to me after watching one of those beautifully presented nature programmes on television. It was the aspect of inter-dependence which struck so forcibly. More and more examples of the inter-woven pattern of life come virtually daily to our notice. Drilling an oil-well, spraying a crop, draining a swamp, burning a tree, poisoning a pest, fishing a sea, mining or quarrying – all affect life in chains of, often unforeseen, reactions.

For the life in the world, both vegetable and animal, is inter-meshed. Microscopic organisms, unseen by eye, affect us, as we do them. Chains of dependence, cycles of life, life leading to death, and death to allow rebirth, are all palpably part of a huge plan far beyond man’s capability to comprehend in all its detail, let alone to imitate. There it is, all around us, complex, complicated, yet ordered.

Planning a holiday journey, organising meals for the week, or performing any of the other common domestic planning tasks, is very small beer compared with arranging a time-table over the country’s rail network, or tackling any of the large logistic operations like relieving the distress of races hit by disaster.

In a similar comparison of scale, man’s large, complicated plans, however massive and however complex, are simple, measured against the life processes upon our planet, and the way in which one form of life is dependent upon the co-existence of other forms.

And even that in all its immensity, is only a small part of the story. For the planet is but a tiny speck within an infinitely enormous universe. A universe which is not simply built of independent units, but constructed of inter-dependent bodies.

The times and the routes within my father’s Bradshaw were not assembled by chance. If they had been randomly picked, if they had been recorded according to mere caprice, if London departures had been fixed irrespective of departure times of connecting trains from Birmingham or Leeds, then the railways could not have operated effectively, if at all.

The Bradshaw was a printed record of a master plan, with one part dependent upon each of the others. It reflected skill, thought and design. As circumstances changed, so it was refined.

Similarly, if suppliers should decide without regard when, where and even if to send food to retailing shops, then ordered shopping would not be possible, and ultimately, I suppose, many would starve. Much planning proceeds the operation.

If we accept, as virtually every-one does, that our ordered life depends upon prior shaping, can there be doubt that the world in which we live, and the universe of which we are a part, must have decision and design behind it? And if so, that surely argues a planning and creative force.

Mankind for centuries and more, has speculated upon, argued about, the nature of God. I have not the competence to enter into that debate, and do not do so. But the existence of God is a different question.

Though some will state that this is a matter of simple faith, and I would not disagree with that, many of us will be reinforced in that faith by rational argument. For my part, it is the sheer complexity of the universe and the life within it that strengthens faith in God the creator.

As one considers a piece of machinery, noting how the cogs mesh together, that the movement of one part is dependent upon the forces applied in another part, observing that a small malfunction or adjustment of one component alters the behaviour of other parts, one marvels, appreciating the skill of the designer and maker. Not by chance, but by design, does the machine function.

How then can one see the infinitely more complex machinery that is the universe, its evolution and development, its inter-dependence, and deny that there is a creative force, a master planner whose design it is? How can it be seriously suggested that all has happened by a random chance; that uncoordinated, accidental forces have fortuitously produced a world in all its glory, where life is intricately inter-linked in an edifice which makes the greatest of man’s creations puny by comparison.

I can’t begin to understand what God is. Like Job, like Paul, like countless others, I am aware that there are things too great for me to understand. I am as a little child. But not knowing what God is, for me is no obstacle to accepting that God must be.

How to set about designing and building a computer, constructing a railway time-table, organising an international postal service, are tasks totally beyond most of us. But we do not on that account doubt that these things are in place by decision, by deliberate creation. They are not chance constructions.

Nor surely can the world and all therein be an unplanned edifice. Our intelligence may not be able to comprehend the creator, but creator there surely must be. Our world is not chaotic, but orderly and rational. All our experience tells us that order is not established by random chance, but by designing force.

One must be cautious with analogies and comparisons, for they can be two-edged. One might say that the man or woman who paints a picture, designs a tunnel, builds a cathedral, constructs a bridge, or is involved in any other of the myriad creative undertakings, completes the task and then is required no more. Therefore, one might add, even if it is accepted that God, whoever or whatever God might be, created an ordered universe, then that does not argue an enduring existence.

But that would be to deny the continuation of the process. For the process of creation persists. Any astronomer will confirm that new planets and worlds are being created as old worlds die. New life forms appear. There is no evidence that the task is complete; indeed the opposite must be true. God the designer and creator is involved in a task of infinite length. That is why we speak of God the eternal, infinitely engaged upon the task. God who was, but also who is, and is to come. I have said nothing today of the relationship between God and mankind, but dealt only with the existence of God. Emotional connection is a subject for exploration on another occasion. But in an age in which the existence of God is doubted, challenged even, it seems to me important that we who believe should affirm our faith, and, as far as is possible, rationalise our belief.

That is not to deny the importance of the relationship between God and mankind, and all that is implied and follows from that, but relationship is a question to be addressed on a future date. But without first accepting that God exists, it is not feasible to consider how God relates to us, and we to him.

This ancient and beautiful building in which we worship, is dedicated in our Trust Deed to, I quote, “the worship and service of almighty God”. For me the faith implicit in the statement of our fore-bearers is reinforced by reason of observation and experience. Here we worship Almighty God and affirm our faith in His reality.

Our fathers’ faith, we’ll sing of thee
Dear faith, which still we cherish:
Nor may their children’s children see
That faith decay and perish:

Reason and conviction confirm for me that faith rings true.

C.J. Rosling 24 March 1991

Fulwood 24 March 1991; 11 February 1996
Upper 28 April 1991
Chesterfield 7 July 1991
Mexborough 15 March 1992; 28 July 1996
Hucklow 26 February 1995; September 2004
Doncaster 26 March 1995
Stannington 7 November 2004

Sunday Sermon – 10 February 2019

Washing Up

Have you noticed how often, when you are trying to collect your thoughts and think about one thing, another thought keeps creeping into the mind, getting in the way, refusing to be dismissed? That happened to me the other week when I was thinking about what I should talk about today. I couldn’t get the dish-washer out of my mind. Our dish-washer had broken down at the time. That might not sound much of a disaster to you, who may not own one, but to us, or rather to me, it was a calamity.

Like so many modern appliances, once you get used to them, their absence becomes a matter of dreadful concern. Shameful as it might sound, I was taken aback at the prospect of having regularly to wash up by hand once more. It was like losing the car whilst it went to the garage for servicing and having to go on the bus!

You see, since childhood, I have had an aversion to washing up. As in many other households, my sister and I were expected to take our share, or as we thought at the time, more than our share, of the washing up. We tried all the usual ploys to avoid this; getting absorbed in a book; pretending to do homework; trying to sneak out to play; attempting to start diversionary conversations; all the time-hallowed tactics that children engage in, but with indifferent success. More often than not, we were rumbled.

Then, the excuses having failed, my sister and I would argue over whose turn it was to wash, and whose to dry. If you washed you finished first, unless there were a lot of pans. On the other hand, if you dried, you had the cutlery and crockery to put away as well. Were the dishes greasy, or only lightly dusted with crumbs? There were no pans after tea, but a stack of them after dinner. Those were just two of many things to be considered before opting for one task or the other.
Then there was the question of whether clearing the table was part of the job of the washer-up or of the drier-up, and who did it yesterday. But I don’t need to go on. You no doubt have heard it all before.

Having to wash up then has left its scars. So twenty years or more ago, when a modest insurance policy came to fruition, the decision on what to do with the money was straight-forward. Among a long list of other priorities, one easily topped the rest, and the dish-washer was purchased. The original purchase has been replaced. Like cars and washing machines, dish-washers wear out in time. The present one is not very old. Nevertheless, on that particular week it had ceased to function. The man had to be sent for. But there would be a day or two’s delay to obtain a part. There inevitably is. So back to memories of childhood – to hand washing and drying.

Unlike the time of childhood, I find that I have now a conscience. I am not sure where it came from, put it is very inconvenient. I feel bound to take over a part of the duties. No longer can I immerse myself in a book and pretend not to notice. The inner conflict is too great for comfort. So I find myself constrained not only to wash, but to wipe, and put away as well.

You may ask, as I asked myself, why washing up is to be avoided. The shameful thought entered my mind that it is really women’s work. Men are more suited to the thinking roles in life. Or if manual tasks are inevitable, men select those which use machinery, or involve constructing things. The menial, humdrum tasks of life are for others. Filling and emptying a dish-washer is all right, because that is machinery. But messing about with hands in water, or drying with a cloth is hardly a job for we men.

My sympathies lie with the man who prayed, “Lord, give me any job and I will do it. But I would prefer that you find me a job as an adviser, if there is one going.” Offering advice to others, or thinking is the man’s role in life.

It is said one thought leads on to another. And so it was that the broken dish-water has led me to beliefs on roles or positions in society. How the deep prejudices are not only profoundly anti-social, but at odds with Christian conduct as well. What a lot of the world’s ills can be traced to individual convictions of self-importance and superiority.

When we assert, whether publicly, privately, or in the secrecy of our minds, our own importance in the scheme of things, we are also expressing a conviction about the inferiority of another. “What were you disputing among yourselves as we came along?” Jesus asked his disciples, as he knelt and washed their feet. He knew full well the answer, having over-heard the arguments. They had quarrelled over, as you recall, the relative importance of one disciple as compared to the other. Who should sit on the right hand, and who on the left. Who was the most valued of the disciples, they wrangled. Play-ground arguments are not restricted to childhood.

Down the ages up to the present time, status, recognition, the position at the table, the dignity to be accorded the office, have loomed large in the affairs of men and women. Enemies have been made, friendships broken, certainly wars fought, because of slights, real or imagined, which have pricked self-importance.

And the response Jesus made to the disputing disciples was to state an uncomfortable truth. If you want to be first and win the esteem of society, then start at the back of the queue, for it is not for oneself to make judgement of individual value, but for others. The true master is one prepared to be the servant of all. Therefore, Jesus knelt and washed their feet. They were silenced and shamed.

It is not invariably the spoken thought that is the most corrosive, though spoken words can be hurtful, shameful and revealing. It is that which lies within the recesses of our minds. The canker within may destroy the whole body.

“What else can you expect from a foreigner?” is maybe the thought. Rape, pillage and riot in a central African state? Terrible. But perhaps we unconsciously note that none of the victims are British, and turn over to the TV or sports page. At another time maybe comes a self-revealing thought.

The underprivileged don’t mind doing the menial jobs of life, we muse, but you can’t expect him, or her, let alone me, to do that. We who are privileged are above that. The Samaritan passing along the road could have noted the victim lying there was only a Jew. But he didn’t. He saw a human being of another race, of equal value to himself, but having a greater need. Status, or race, were irrelevant. Suffering applied equally to all.

Nazism flourished fortified by a philosophy that Aryan race is superior to the Jewish Race; apartheid was about a falsehood that white is always superior to black; minorities are suppressed throughout the world because the majority are convinced that they are superior to the group within their midst. So power becomes oppression. The rights of others are not to be allowed to compromise the comfort of the powerful.

It is no doubt true that many who start on the road to arguing the case for superiority, whether consciously or unconsciously, don’t foresee, or even wish for, the inevitable end. I can believe that many Germans who were initially attracted by Nazism, did not contemplate the horrendous death camps like Belsen. Torture, false imprisonment, atrocities lie often at the bottom of a hill, the top slopes of which seem gentle and unthreatening, later to drop precipitously to the valley of horrors below.

It is the initial step of seeking, through self-importance, to elevate self. It is the wish to be master rather than servant, that contains the seeds of much evil in the world. For one’s own feeling of being better than the others also argues that the others are worse than one’s self. their feet when they are quite content to wash mine?
Arrogance and self-opinionated views are not harmless eccentricities, they are evil seeds. Central to the Christian faith is humility. The core of Christian teaching is about how unimportant is self, compared with the rights of others. The word “Humility” pervades the gospel stories. Humility is not subservience, but a philosophy which recognises the importance of others, whilst depressing the superiority of self.

A whole clutch of New Testament texts come to mind to confirm this. “Consider the lilies of the field…….”, “Except ye become as little children…”, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…”, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” are just four from many examples of the gospel teaching which remind us that pride and self-aggrandisement are sins which have sullied human relationships through the ages.

To paraphrase one of the parables. One sits at the head of the table by invitation and not as a right. Pomposity is no part of Christian ethics. Not only does it invite ridicule, but it leads to profoundly unchristian acts whereby others are oppressed and derided.

So I did the washing up, and dried, with cheerfulness, and perhaps just a suspicion of self-righteousness. I even emptied the rubbish bin.

But thank goodness the man came the next day, replacing the broken part, and effected the necessary repair. Prejudice nurtured over a life-time cannot be overcome as quickly as all that.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 15 July 1990
Mexborough 18 July 1993; 15 February 1998
Hucklow 21 March 1999

Sunday Sermon – 3 February 2019

Goodness And Evil

The horrifying terrorist attacks in the USA in New York and Washington on 11 September will have led many to come yet again to a question which has troubled not only Christians but many others for hundreds of years – how to confront the evils within society, without destroying ourselves in the process. This question exercised human minds long before the Christian era, probably back to the time when mankind emerged as a thinking being. Nevertheless it goes to the heart of the Christian message. The words in the universal prayer come constantly to mind: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Unitarianism is sometimes described as a philosophy of religious liberalism, in other words a religious philosophy based upon freedom. Now, once again, we have the dilemma of how much liberty should be curbed in order to protect freedom.

It would be utterly ridiculous for me to claim to have answers to a problem which has baffled the minds of the world’s greatest philosophers and thinkers. All I can do is to share some of my thoughts with you in the hope that they may stimulate ideas in your minds, that you may come to your own conclusions.

When we talk of goodness and evil, of right and wrong, we have first to face the dilemma of definition, of what we mean by the words we use. At the extremes, this is not too difficult. Evil, wrong-doing, is easily recognised when behaviour or actions are gross. Murder, theft, robbery, rape, torture, child molesting and the like would certainly feature on any person’s list. These are actions which oppress others, causing fear and loathing, removing from victims their right to well-being and dignity. Wanton killing of the innocent by terrorist bomb or fanatics in a hi-jacked aeroplane is unarguably an act of gross evil-doing.

And at the opposite extreme, goodness must include love, devotion, self-sacrifice in the care of and concern for others. Extending freedom and dignity to those broadly defined as neighbours, are actions which are rightly admired and applauded. At those two extremes then, sheep and goats, wheat and tares, or saints and sinners, are readily identified and differentiated.

But, as the passage from night to day, or vice versa, involves traversing an intervening area of grey twilight, so that the exact line of demarcation is not clearly seen. There are large areas between goodness and evil which fall into a twilight zone. The ten commandments define the absolutes but leave the intermediate areas uncharted. They raise many questions whilst providing only some answers.

Tolerance is a virtue, bigotry a sin. But between them is an area where one will find indolence, apathy, firmness of conviction, strong-minded faith. On which side of the line betwixt good and bad do these qualities fall? Patience is to be admired, ill-temper regretted. Between lie righteous indignation and hot-tempered outbursts. Where lies the dividing line between xenophobia and patriotism? Pride or conceit, self-regard or arrogance; the dividing lines are subtle and not easily determined.

Away from the extremes, the question of definition is often decided by arbitrary and subjective arguments. I explain I have strong opinions based on a firm faith, then regret that your strong opinions show you to be pretentious and self-opinionated. I am flexible, but fear your flexibility confirms my opinion that you are vacillating and spineless. I have a broad vision, but the width of your opinions reflect their essential shallowness. I am tolerant; I regret that you are lacking in conviction, and so easily swayed.

It was this problem of definition which led Jesus into his metaphor of beams and motes, and to his warning of the danger of sitting in judgement. So our first duty is to be humble and tentative in our judgements. Acts of goodness, expressions of evil are not as clear cut as we sometimes pretend.

It is an inescapable fact that all of us are capable of acts of wickedness and evil, as well as angelic exploits. We are all sinners, as it has been more succinctly put. Like the girl in the nursery rhyme, when we are good, we are very, very good, but when we are bad, we are horrid. So our faith must include words like confession, penitence and forgiveness. For we need them no less than do others. We don’t condone evil, but experience forces us to recognise its existence as being universal. Repentance then is followed by forgiveness; we acknowledge that others will transgress, for we err ourselves. It has to be added that forgiving is easier when the sin falls in that grey, twilight area and is followed by penitence and genuine regret.

But that leaves much unanswered. What about the wickedness that lies outside the grey area, that is in the undisputed darkness. What of the Hitlers, the Stalins, and today’s counterparts, ruthless and oppressive dictators along with the willing collaborators and imitators who inflict unspeakable horrors on their victims? What of those who abuse and kill to satisfy sexual perversions, of whom Jesus said it would be better that a mill-stone were tied round their necks? What of the terrorist who bombs, careless of the life and suffering of others? What of those who prey on the weak, the elderly and the confused, who rob the poor that they may attain richness? What of the reckless lout, careless of the hurt given as he or she seeks selfish personal satisfaction?

These, and other appalling examples of wickedness, are the ones which exercise us so much. Our instincts are often those of Old Testament ferocity – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – revenge and retribution come to mind. Yet how does this square with a doctrine of love of neighbour? In simple words, it doesn’t. Seeking revenge moves us from hatred of the crime to hatred of the perpetrator. It is an attempt to elevate us into God’s chair.

Revenge and retaliation are as destructive of those who follow this path as they are of the criminal. Barbaric punishment is a weapon which harms he or she who wields it as it inflicts retribution on the transgressor.

That so-called heretics, traitors, and witches were burnt alive meant not merely the loss of life of the victim, but the infliction of grave harm on the society which was supposedly being protected.

Public executions, hanging, drawing and quartering, floggings and sadistic torture do not eliminate wickedness; arguably they add to it. Cruelty, which was present in much of our nation’s treatment of the criminal in the past, and still today found in many parts of the world, depraves as much as the actions of the criminal it purports to punish.

When the inhumanity of the individual is countered by the vindictiveness of the state, we are all tainted by injustice. But that is not to say that evil should not be opposed and countered. But in doing so we must beware of quoting the ruthlessness of the tyrant as an excuse for the viciousness of our reactions.

It is an established fact that violence provokes violence. Many, though admittedly not all, child abusers have themselves been past victims. A home where love is absent, where violence in word and in deed is endemic, where tenderness is despised, is a home where evil breeds. An institution which degrades, and portrays an ethos of indifference nurtures evil.

Society has to protect itself from the evil wrong-doer. Punishment is not wrong for it enables the wrong-doer to pay penance for his sins as well as guarding the rights of others. But where degradation and humiliation are the aims, and where hatred smothers all love and compassion, where all hope is abandoned, then evil is succoured, not suppressed.

There is a hackneyed metaphor about the effects of evil which uses the picture of a damaged apple in an apple store. Unless the bad apple is rooted out, then the whole of the store will become infected, the moral states. This is sometimes quoted to justify any action to obtain an end. But if we damage all the apples in eliminating the one, what have we gained?

There are other pictures where love, concern and understanding have reclaimed the anti-socialite, where the lion has become lamb-like. The wrong-doer may be beaten into submission, but what is more questionable is that the sinner can be tortured into sainthood.

I am truly agnostic on the problem of evil within society, I just don’t know what the solution is. I only have instincts with which others may or may not agree. I believe that goodness must be ultimately successful because evil has within it the seeds of its own destruction. If we tackle evil with evil, if we state or imply that the end justifies the means, then we damage and harm ourselves.

We must hold on to an inner core of belief that love is resilient and unconquerable. Conversely, evil is vulnerable and ultimately self-destructive.

All of us are aggregates made up of good and evil. So we deceive ourselves if we think we ourselves are wholly good and pure. But a true concern for others, a determination to preserve human dignity in all fellow humans must be our dominant characteristic.

Likewise in our relationship to others, however condemnatory of their actions we may be, we must never deny their human status, for if we do this we have hurled not a stone, but a boomerang.

So I pose problems to which I have no solutions, merely principles that I submit that we should apply in arriving at solutions. Others may disagree with them. But what is clear is that the problem of evil and how to combat it goes to the very heart of our Christian philosophy.

C. J. Rosling

Fulwood 11 October 1992
Hucklow 22 November 1992; 30 September 2001
Chesterfield 28 March 1993
Mexborough 18 April 1993; 19 July 1998