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