Sunday Sermon – 28 April 2019

Lighten our Darkness

There are some sayings we use whose origins are not immediately obvious to the ordinary person, and whose meanings are obscure to those hearing them for the first time. To be “one over the eight”, “to eat one’s words” or “to sail close to the wind” might be examples of these. But an idiom common to politicians is straight-forward enough. There is, they assure us frequently, “light at the end of the tunnel”, or conversely, “there is no light at the end of the tunnel”. Which you use depends on whether you are in government or opposition. Or possibly, vary according to whether you are in an optimistic or pessimistic mood.

The local, and at that time disused, canal near to where I lived as a child went through a tunnel. It was straight, not particularly long, though long enough not to be able to see the far end as one stood at the entrance. All was blackness in front. One could walk along the tow path which went alongside the water to the far end. As lads we would walk through the tunnel, entering the darkness with trepidation.

After a few yards, a pin prick of light could be seen in the distance, and gradually that grew in size, whilst the orifice behind us shrank until it became invisible. It was seeing the light ahead that gave us the courage to go on until we emerged thankfully into the daylight once more.

It is that picture which comes into my mind when I hear the hackneyed cliché pronounced about light at the end of the tunnel. The coming of the light is truly a promise that darkness will end and the uncomfortable, fearful blackness disappear.

In common imagery it is darkness is associated with evil, with unpleasantness or anxiety, with fear, ignorance and much else that we deplore.

Forces of evil are ascribed to Satan or the Devil. And a pseudonym for the Devil is the Prince of Darkness. The older ones will remember the black-out in the war years, and how a popular song of the day was about “When the lights come on again, all over the world”. All would be well in the light, Vera Lynn assured her audiences. The darkness itself was symbolic of discomfort, even fear, in the absence of peace.

Darkness too is associated with ignorance. The Dark Ages are historically a time not only of misery for many, but a time when learning was minimal, and what might be described as culture, was rare. To be plunged into darkness is not only to be symbolically removed from civilisation and comfort, but to be surrounded by ignorance.

Then the opposite is true of the symbolism of light. Knowledge and learning are associated with illumination. “With light of knowledge in their eyes” goes a line in one of our hymns. The previous line is of the “flame of freedom”, for knowledge and freedom are linked.

A common symbol used to denote a place of learning is a lighted torch, showing that to bring light is to abolish the darkness of ignorance and to present knowledge to the people.

Revelation and knowledge is to “see the light”. The dawn is a new beginning where optimism replaces gloom, and anxiety is reduced proportionately. From time to time, though not very often these days, I make car journeys which involve starting early in the morning. In the winter months this means leaving whilst it is still dark. To see then the sky gradually lighten and the countryside slowly revealed, is always re-assuring, a peaceful feeling. The coming of the dawn is a religious experience.

None of this is original thought. As long as mankind has existed, night and the darkness is the time when evil is planned and executed, when nefarious schemes are hatched and weaned. Those things which “will not bear the light of day” are conceived in the dark.

But what is the relevance of all this?

We live in a world and at a time when ability to spread knowledge has never been greater. Printing presses, duplicating equipment, fax machines and the like, proliferate. We are bombarded with free papers, unsolicited mail, circulars of all kinds, political pamphlets and government information sheets. Virtually every home has its radio and television set; mobile phones are everywhere, and computers continuously flash messages round the world, and to satellites in the space above it.

The news stands are weighed down with papers. Magazines are available on every conceivable hobby, interest or passion. “If all the world were paper” starts an old nursery rhyme. Sometimes it seems that is no longer fanciful supposition. Our world is knee-deep in paper.

Yet in spite of all that ability to spread knowledge, we find, paradoxically, dangerous secrets are kept. Secrets that ought not to be secrets; information that we ought to have. We are as a people kept, to coin a phrase, in the dark. It is almost as if a deluge of information is used to hide the absence of that which we have a right to know.

Occasionally a little light is thrown in some dark corner and we learn that nations are preaching peace and selling armaments, often to both sides of states in conflict. Information is secretly amassed through telephone tapping and by other means, on citizens going about their own lawful private business. Folk are excluded from jobs, facilities or benefits for dubious reasons unknown to themselves. Prying and the preparation of dossiers is a way of life for many employed in secret places and on hidden tasks.

Powerful institutions, be they governments, multi-national companies, large public utilities or local councils, should not and must not operate in darkness, or even in twilight, but in the clear light of day.

There may be those who say, “What has this to do with my Church or Chapel attendance? I commune with my God and let the material world look after itself.”

But for my part I find it impossible to separate the world of everyday affairs from my Christian philosophy. If knowledge is freedom, then knowledge withheld is to be placed in chains. If I am free to worship, but constrained in my ability to put into practice my religion in the world outside, then I am not truly free.

Freedom is never absolute. One accepts that must be so in a democratic society. But the restrains upon freedom should be in the light, not applied under cover of darkness.

Our fore-bearers fought hard against oppression and tyranny that they might be free to live their lives without constraint within just laws. What is done to us, or what is done in our name to others is of proper concern.

That which is applicable to large institutions of state, commerce or industry applies with equal force to lesser institutions. Like many of you, I have been involved in numerous clubs, societies, church committees and similar institutions. Always there is a temptation to establish inner councils of one kind or another. Then unless there is vigilance, a danger exists that such special groups become secret societies, having private consultations and retaining self-certified confidential knowledge.

And because knowledge is power, there is a reluctance to share knowledge, to let in the full light of day. Where there is light, there is health; in the darkness lies decay. Let there be light, must be our watchword.

And finally there is self-knowledge leading to personal freedom. Darkness lies within ourselves. We push into the dark corners of our inner being that which we don’t want to see; rather like pushing things under the cushion when the visitor comes, or placing the unwanted gift into a high cupboard, hoping to forget it is there.

If we are to be ourselves free, we have to illuminate within our being. An important part, arguably the most important part, of coming here to worship, is not to listen to the preacher, to sing the hymns, to meet friends, or even to see who has stayed away this week, but to shine a light inside one’s inner self, and examine what is there.

In the peace of the Chapel, in the feeling of being close to an almighty power, the torch is shone and ignorance is replaced by self-knowledge. That knowledge is a step to freedom, the peace which passes all understanding.

Let there be light. In that light we shall see the way our feet shall go, as we wander with freedom in the world, going about our duties. Let us dedicate ourselves to abolishing the dark places, whether within the material world without, or the spiritual world within. By this means we shall surely emerge fully into the daylight at the tunnel’s end.

The words of that old prayer come to mind. “Lighten our darkness, good Lord we beseech you, …” . We should seek illumination within ourselves so we should know ourselves the better, and so free ourselves, as another prayer has it “…from groundless fears and needless anxieties”. But our faith in practice should lead us to become a beacon to illuminate all darkness, that all men and women should be free.

A well-known, if rather sentimental, picture by Leigh Hunt is entitled “The Light of the World”. Jesus sought fearlessly to throw light upon the dark prejudices, selfish interests, and pious hypocritical practices he saw around him. It should be our mission to aspire to that example, and to open up dark places to revealing sunlight whenever and wherever they are discovered.

So my plea this morning is for frankness and truthfulness. We start with ourselves and our private thoughts, trying not to hide from ourselves our imperfections under a cloak of excuse. We fight furtiveness and secrecy in our dealings within our communities, whether they be social or business, formal or informal. We speak out against leaders of society or nation who hold on to power by operating under a cloak of darkness. We believe in the light which gives knowledge and freedom, and acts as a beacon of truth.

The whole of the world was merry,
One joy from the vale to the height
Where the blue woods of twilight encircled
The lovely lawns of the light.

The lovely lawns of the light are where the world may dance in freedom, and the children play free from fear.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 28 July 1991
Mexborough 5 December 1993
Hucklow 13 June 1999

Sunday Sermon – 21 April 2019

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

 

 

Sunday Sermon – 14 April 2019

Reflections on Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Easter Week. Though perhaps the name does not spring as readily to the mind as some dates on the Christian calendar such as Christmas Day, Good Friday or Easter Sunday, it is, nevertheless, one of the important festivals in that calendar. The day is named as the anniversary of the ceremonial entrance by Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem. It is an early recorded example of a familiar modern phenomena, the demonstration march.

The modern “demo” as it has come to be called is variously a protest, a publicity event, a mark of sympathy, a display of, to use the modern jargon, solidarity. It maybe meticulously organised. At other times it is an assembly which is loosely planned. Occasionally it is a spontaneous gathering.

It is doubtful that the events of the original “Palm Sunday” were carefully planned beforehand. It seems to have been a more casual occasion. However, the entry into Jerusalem was certainly an exercise in publicity, which advertised a cause. Not drawing attention to the group’s beliefs in the aggressive, confrontational manner of so many modern demonstrations, but a joyous expression of exuberance. The occasion was one with a carnival atmosphere. Smiles and laughter must have been present both among the participants and the on-lookers. They were on the way to Jerusalem, the Jewish equivalent of the Moslem “Mecca”, to celebrate a special date in their Jewish calendar, the Feast of the Passover.

Jesus rode upon the most humble of all beasts of burden, an ass. G.K. Chesterton in his poem, “The Donkey” points out that this animal, chosen to carry Jesus on the journey, was an ugly, oft derided and abused creature. A central tenet of Jesus’s message was that of humility. It was therefore in keeping that no prancing Arab stallion bore Jesus. He did not ride in a carriage. No uniformed escort formed any part of the procession. Simply a submissive, unprepossessing mule was commandeered. An animal which Chesterton avers now carries a secret, and treasures a triumphal memory.

The escort were ordinary men, armed only with leaves plucked from the palm trees; waved, not with menace but as banners in an expression of delight, as they chanted in high spirits. It was a holiday atmosphere, and no doubt good-natured raillery was exchanged with passers-by.

At the time the Jewish peoples’ religious observances were controlled by all-powerful priests and Pharisees, who laid down in detail the way Jews should conduct their lives. Scribes studied minutely the text of the holy scrolls. Jesus saw all of these groups as becoming concerned increasingly with the detail of the letter, rather than with the spirit of the broad message.

Many centuries after the time in which Jesus lived and preached, a British politician commented on the corruption that accompanies power. “All power corrupts,” he proclaimed, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The power the religious establishment exercised over the lives of others had, Jesus stated or implied, corrupted those who wielded that power.

His was a revolutionary message against a powerful company of men. As with all establishments down the ages, its members deeply resented criticism. As we read the gospels it becomes abundantly clear that the popularity Jesus enjoyed was among the ordinary people. The hatred and fear engendered was among the ruling Jews residing in the synagogues and to be found in the temple hierarchy.

Jesus was scathingly critical of much he saw in the Jewish leadership, particularly that in Jerusalem and centred on the temple. The commercialising of the temple precincts by money changers, and others hawking wares; the ostentation, arrogance and hypocrisy of the Pharisees; the unbending strictness of the interpretation of law; the absence of a culture of forgiveness.

I have no doubt that Jesus was acutely aware of the enmity his criticisms and alternative philosophy aroused. He knew full well that ultimately there would be retaliation in reaction to his censure. It is equally probable that the cheering, high spirited disciples did not appreciate the strength of the opposition which was being marshalled against them. The destination that lay at the end of the road they were taking was hidden from them. If they had realised the danger ahead, possibly some would have turned back. Certainly the mood would have been muted rather than celebratory. But Jesus kept his thoughts to himself, and did nothing to dampen the optimistic mood of his followers.

It is ironic that a preacher whose theme was one of love should be an instrument whereby hatred and fear was aroused. “Love your neighbour”, he enjoined. Shortly the mob would respond “Crucify him”.

But then the story of Palm Sunday and the days that followed is one of stark contrasts. It began in expectation, and was to end in tragedy. The disciples hailed Jesus as king, yet the steed he rode was an ass. The mood in the procession was one of elation and joy; it was shortly to change to grief and despair. They were a band of trusting comrades, yet treachery was conceived and festered in their midst. They marched in as a close-knit group, but they would leave as a scattered army. They were an all-male group, yet central to the Easter story is a role played by women. They were all Jews, yet the world-wide acceptance of their message would be among the gentiles.

In many respects the Easter story is a description the history of the human race regardless of time and place. The ingredients are ever-present. Throughout the world and down the ages individuals or groups have risen to positions of power and influence. Not always, but frequently, they have gained an elevated position in the community, determined to exercise authority with discretion, with thoughtfulness, with wisdom. But pressures of office have slowly eroded the resolve, and a feeling of omnipotence has begun to infect. There is first, impatience with criticism, followed by a desire to censure, and finally a determination to silence. That aspect of the Easter story is a familiar pattern. It existed before the birth of Jesus. It continues to the present time.

Those who were to persecute Jesus even unto death, were not evil men, rather they were arrogant men. Men who more and more saw threats in intellectual challenge, and heresy if precedent was questioned. They saw themselves not as destroyers, but preservers or defenders of the faith. Questioning and challenge must be silenced, if need be by crucifixion.

The road to tyranny is lined with good intentions. Corruption is insidious, the failure to respond to criticism easily becomes an endemic habit. This may arise in all aspects of life – religious, political, commercial, and even private. There needs be constant checks on authority if life is to become healthy. In its absence, authority becomes authoritarian, and dissenters are crucified.

But on that first Palm Sunday, that was ahead. That day itself was for rejoicing and optimism.

So what does Palm Sunday represent? What is its significance today? A point of significance for me is that the vision of those participants was not extinguished by the oppression of later events.

It was the victims of persecution rather than their oppressors who were the ultimate victors. The message of love, of forgiveness, of good neighbourliness was not stifled. Indeed it was to grow and spread throughout the world. Persecution strengthened it; opposition increased the resolve of its adherents; hardship in support of the message was a badge of honour.

We live sadly in a world where cruelty is not unknown. Avarice is all too prevalent. The exercise of power for personal advantage is a cancer in parts of public life, though happily not yet an epidemic. Examples of selfishness seem easier to find than those of generosity. The voice of protest against injustice fights to be heard against the shouts of the mob calling for vengeance.

It is tempting to think sometimes that this is the whole picture, the true description of the world.

But the high hopes of Palm Sunday were in the end triumphant. The fraternal, close-knit group to whom I referred earlier, who were to leave in disarray, spread a message of love and understanding, of forgiveness and compassion than eventually encircled the world. Christian communities grew on every continent. They are to be found in every land.

Palm Sunday is a reminder that high hopes need not be empty dreams; optimism can rise above idle speculation; life is not only a tale of disaster and evil, but can and does have its time of uninhibited joy.

And a second point about Palm Sunday is one hinted at earlier. The procession was a humble one, composed largely of fishermen, labourers, simple people of the soil and the like. The message they preached was of the importance of humility. Phrases from the teaching ring down the ages. “Consider the lilies of the field…”, “He who would be master of all must first be the servant of all”, “Cast out first the beam in your own eye…”.

There is the widow’s mite in the collection box, the sinner who prayed not like the Pharisee, and countless other examples. And Jesus rode upon a donkey. He washed the feet of the squabbling disciples who argued about their order of precedence.

Palm Sunday is a reminder that the meek are blest and shall inherit the earth. Pride in power, egotism and vain-glory are in the end self-destructive. The King rides upon a donkey and his influence and message goes to the ends of the earth. That surely is the enduring Palm Sunday message.

C.J. Rosling 9 April 1995

Hucklow 9 April 1995; 5 April 1998
16 April 2000 April 2003
Fulwood 31 March 1996
Upper 31 March 1996; 16 April 2000

Sunday Sermon – 7 April 2019

Flower Service

Flower festivals, which have become a regular feature in the calendar of many churches, seem to me to be a relatively new institution, or possibly an ancient feature recently revived. I may be quite wrong about this, for I rely only upon a memory which grows more and more fallible by the hour.

In my church-going childhood there were many special services as the year progressed. Easter, Whitsuntide, Harvest, Christmas, anniversaries of both Church and Sunday School, are readily recalled, as are the occasional memorial and dedication services. There were parade services for scouts and guides, induction services for new ministers, and watch-night services at the close of the year, but I cannot recall attending a flower service until later adulthood.

Not that flowers were ever absent from the churches of my youth, any more than they are today. Apart from the always present altar display, flowers were found in profusion at most special services, decorating window ledges, adorning the platform for the Sunday School anniversary, splendid autumnal colours in abundance at harvest, and the whites, creams and yellows of narcissi and daffodils predominating at Easter.

But whether or not the flower festival is recent, old or revived, is immaterial, for the idea is a splendid one. A room, sacred or secular, decorated with flowers, is a delight to the eye, and a joy to behold. It reminds one of the rich variety of natural beauty within the world, and so is a focus of praise and thanksgiving to the creator. It brings within our homes, work-place or temple a vision of a garden or countryside without, and a fragrance that pleases other senses than merely the eye.

Almost as numerous as the variety of flowers themselves are the uses and symbolism of them. They are used decoratively as I have indicated, to bring colour into drab surroundings, to give a sense of freshness to what may seem mundane, to give life to inert man-made structures.. Entering a room, very often it is the vase or bowl of flowers which first catches the eye. The chamber in which flowers have a place is one where the people who live in it have warm personalities, or so we feel. Some-one cares about more than mundane affairs; there is a soul which regards beauty as at least as important as toil.

But flowers are also used as messengers. “Go lovely rose, tell her who wastes her self and me….” wrote the lover as he despatched the token to his sweetheart. No doubt, at a later date, he waited at the chancel as she walked up the aisle, attended by young bridesmaids whose tresses were adorned with flowers. Carrying a bouquet herself, she came to him as his bride.

Perhaps during later years he would present her with a bunch of flowers in apology for some misdemeanour, maybe to confirm a tiff had ended and harmony was restored. Friends visiting to look upon the new born child would bring a bouquet for the mother to show they shared her joy. Finally, at the end of her life, he or others would place blossoms on the coffin and flowers round the grave, the blooms replacing words which were too painful to articulate, feelings too deep to be expressed verbally.

So flowers are message senders. We use them to express our love, our regrets, our condolences, our thanks. We give them to others to show our friendship, or because we find them an acceptable present on birthdays or anniversaries. Our sympathy when someone is ill, or has been disappointed, or our congratulations on a success, are all equally marked by the offering of flowers. What retirement ceremony for an employee is complete until she has her arms filled with flowers.

Flowers are deposited by the wayside where tragedy has occurred by friend and stranger alike, who need to express their understanding and support, and realise words alone are inadequate.

To wear a flower in one’s button-hole, on the dress or in the hair, is to present a dashing figure. Ladies wear hats these days less frequently than was once the case, but when they do, flowers, even if artificial ones for practical reasons, frequently adorn them, particularly if the lady is young, or wishes to emphasise that the passage of years has not aged a still youthful spirit.

Some flowers have become associated with particular messages, emotions or occasions. Poppies with remembrance of those who perished in war, lilies with death, roses with love, for example. Countries and counties will adopt a herbaceous emblem, as for example the daffodil, thistle, or shamrock, the maple leaf, the red or white rose.

Then again our love of flowers is shown in the cultivation of gardens. A huge industry has grown up to satisfy the addiction of gardeners. Garden centres are nearly as common as super-markets; a house with a bit of garden is a romantic dream for many; tubs, baskets and boxes are sold in profusion; hardly a window sill without its collection of pot plants. Seeds of meadow flowers are strewn within the uncultivated plot.

In ages gone by, posies of flowers were carried for much less romantic reasons. Before proper sanitation was introduced, the stench in streets and public places was strong, and the risk of disease very real. So the rich and powerful would carry a bunch of scented flowers to lessen the evil smells, and to ward off, as it was thought, the risk of infection. Hence the “pocket full of posies” in the old nursery rhyme about the Great Plague, which even reached the nearby village of Eyam.

Of course the purpose of the flower, the reason for its existence, is to fruit, to seed, in order to ensure the survival of the species. The colours and the scents attract the pollinating insects, so that the flower may wither as its task is done. The seed is formed, and new, replacement life ensured. The flowers around us remind us that our lives, like those of the flowers, are transient, but that our seed is the mechanism by which we shall continue into future generations.

If harvest is associated with autumn, then flowers to me are associated with high summer, even though neither harvest nor flowering are restricted to those two seasons. But the landmarks serve as analogies for life itself. When some-one is flowering, they are maturing. The flower buds of our youth give promise of summer flowering before the autumn of life.

But today we recall with joy the pleasure which flowers give to us, as well as the way in which they are interwoven in the fabric of our ordinary lives.

Looking at flowers engenders a certain sadness, for one is aware that they will shortly fade – that their glory is but for the day. “Gather ye rose-buds while you may”, warned the poet, for both the rose-buds and the gatherers would fade. It would be easy to become melancholy at the thought, were it not for the knowledge that the purpose of the flower is to ensure survival. Though these blossoms must and will fade, others will follow them.

In the realm of horticulture, the variety of colour and size have grown over the years. We can enjoy flowers all the year round; we can see exotic species whose original habitat was in far distant lands, and grow them in our own gardens.

If we were confined to native flowers alone, uncultivated and wild, beautiful and attractive as many of them are, our displays would be more limited and our lives so much duller. The hardiness, the variety and the beauty of many of our admired flowers is due to the introduction of flowers from other habitats. From Europe, from South America, from the far East, from the New World, from mountain side, down in deep valleys, plants have been garnered. Their introduction has enriched our lives enormously. Their qualities, adaptability and beauty have not weakened our native stock, but invigorated it. If it had not happened, the display here would be poorer, and many flowers would not be seen at all.

Earlier I hinted that the life of the flower paralleled our lives. We mature and bloom, we produce the seed which ensures survival of the species, we fade but live on in the new lives that follow. But surely we should take another message from the flowers in pursuing our analogy. That richness, strength, variety which enhance the glory comes from the inter-mixing and assimilation of others. I will not push the point today, but surely we must reflect as we see around us the benefits of horticultural cross-fertilisation, benefits which also accrue from the inter-mingling of human races.

The language of the flowers, the message of nature, is one of harmony, but it is also that strength comes from absorption of complementary features from other varieties. Failure to follow the rule of nature actually harms and weakens the species.

So I suggest that the flower service today should not only give us an opportunity to glory in the beauty and variety in creation of flowers, but to reflect that the blossoms around us give unspoken messages. The message includes, as I pointed out earlier, deep feelings, good feelings, feelings of love, compassion, sympathy, sorrow, forgiveness, happiness and joy.

But they give out another important message of their own. If the species would be healthy and beautiful, then the stranger in the midst is a potential source of strength to be welcomed. The pure bred, if such a thing exists, tends to the sickly, ailing and weak. A message which we have yet to accept here at home as well as world-wide.

A flower service is not only an expression of our joy in the beauty occurring naturally around us. It is not even solely concerned with thanks to a creator who, as it says in Ecclesiastes, “.. has made everything beautiful in its time”, which is not to deny that both those things are important and true. It is also a reminder that variety is a strength and not a weakness. That differences are to be welcomed, not deplored. That the beauty of the whole is in the diversity of its parts.

A flower service is thus another expression of Christian ideals, and a statement of faith. It brings not only joy to the beholder, it carries a message to the wise.

C.J. Rosling 5 September 1993

Chesterfield 5 September 1993
Hucklow 13 August 2000