Sunday Sermon – 5 January 2020

Bradford Broadway Anniversary

An anniversary, be it a personal one, or a church one as today, is, among other things, an occasion for reminiscence and historical musing.

The Church I attended as a child in Stalybridge, eight miles from Manchester City centre, where my father was minister, was built in 1870, the Sunday school, now demolished, pre-dating this by some five years. I recall as a boy watching the anniversaries approach sixty and then seventy years, and thinking that perhaps one day I would see the hundredth anniversary. Well I have. That has come and gone.

And now today, in this affectionately named “tin tabernacle”, where my grand-father preached as its first minister, and where my father must have worshipped as he grew up, the thought crosses my mind that I would like to be present at the centenary of this building. Not too long to go now, but who knows what fate has in store.

When this temporary structure, as it was regarded, was erected, nigh on a hundred years ago, was it expected to survive into the following century? I suspect not. But thanks to the devotion of many, and the building and repair skills of a few, it continues to serve a community, much changed in many respects from 1906, but with spiritual needs which are timeless.

One may observe that today is simply a date. As with a birthday, normally nothing is dramatically different, for change and ageing is a continuous process, imperceptible from one day to the next, a movement scarcely detected, like the advancing fingers of a clock. There is nevertheless a sense of occasion in celebrating an anniversary; to look forward with optimism as one enters another year, is an exciting prospect.

But let us first look back to the past. Though I never knew my grand-father, for he died several years before I was born, he must have been a remarkable man. Born in Lincolnshire into a poor Catholic farm labouring family, after not a deal of formal schooling, he worked whilst yet a child to help support the family. He practised as a Methodist lay preacher, then enrolled at Glasgow University to prepare for entry to the Congregational Church ministry. Later, after spell as a minister in Belfast, where my father was born, appointed to a charge in Oban. Finally to Bradford, where he left Congregationalism for reasons of conscience. Bringing many of his flock with him, he entered this Unitarian church as its first minister.

Conscience seems to have directed his spiritual calling. “Unto thine own self be true,” must have been a quotation with which he was familiar. He chose the hard path of putting honest belief before material security. and preached accordingly.

Historically, two words are linked with those who rejected the teachings of an established church; non-conformists and dissenters. Earlier such folk had been labelled heretics, to be persecuted, tortured and put to death, lest they contaminate the truth as perceived by the orthodox rulings of authoritarian priests. If heresy is no longer so punished, then dissent and a refusal to conform continue to be irritants to the establishment, not only in religion but in other aspects of life as well.

Though I am unclear about the nature of his disagreements, there is no doubt that William Rosling was a dissenter. Newspaper cuttings of the time both in Oban and Bradford quote him as saying that he would not, and could not, preach against his conscience – the classic statement made by those in the latter half of the seventeenth century when many left the Anglican church to form their own churches and chapels. It would be surprising if the authorities from whom William Rosling dissented were not irritated by his stubbornness, as were the divines of the second half of the 1600’s in their generation, for dissenters invariably have that effect upon establishments.
Many of the seventeenth century dissidents took the extremely hazardous step of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in small ships, enduring unbelievable discomfort, to start new lives in the colonies, where they might worship as they chose. The fortitude, determination and strength of character of those early dissenters, non-conformists who would not pretend to believe that which offended their intellect, is a matter of wonder to us today.

Grand-father Rosling did not emigrate, but stayed in Bradford to build upon the foundations of a new emerging church. It is right and proper that on an anniversary day we pause, ponder and give recognition to our forebears. Looking back is part of the purpose of an anniversary, albeit only a part.

Earlier I linked anniversaries with birthdays. To the young, a birthday is not a time to look back, but marks the occasion when a new phase of life starts. The child, later the young person, says – now I am old enough to go to school; now I can stay up later before being sent to bed; now I am older my pocket money should increase; shortly I shall move to the secondary school; tomorrow I can apply for a driving licence; at last I can (legitimately) go to the pub; we sing, twenty-one today, for now I’ve got the key of the door. To the young, birthdays are entrance portals, not rear-view mirrors.

Somewhere in middle life, a change occurs. Looking back and gazing forward are both part of the birthday experience. Sadly perhaps, the old man or the old woman will start looking back only, and forgetting the scene in front, for that ceases to be of relevance. To come to that is to lose all interest or faith in the future, and to live in a world that has passed into history.

Here in Bradford Broadway today we have moved from a new-born church celebrating future prospects with no past to recall, like the young child on his birthday. I trust we have attained the middle-age stage, when we can look back with some pride at what has gone, but also forward with hope for what can yet be. We can hope for the future as we learn from the past. What shouldn’t and mustn’t happen is that we celebrate like the old man by the fireside, with memories only and no ambition for the future.

Our times today are seen as troublesome and anxious. But perhaps we ought to think back to the times when our forefathers were meeting and founding this Chapel. It was by no means a time of quietness. The old order was changing. Suffragettes began to demand the vote, universal education meant that many were more able to question the rules that governed society

Within eight years of Broadway Avenue Church opening, the terrible World War One was wantonly destroying young lives. Families here in Bradford, as elsewhere in the land, waited anxiously, praying in this very chapel fervently, that no telegram would come with the dreadful news that another husband, brother, son or father would not return from the mud of Flanders.

In earlier times, our dissenting fore-fathers risked further hardship in order to worship in a manner of their choice, and according to their conscience. Their courage, which at the time some no doubt referred to as obstinacy, mulish stupidity or in similar terms, is something which we must not forget today as we worship in freedom, and with no fear of prosecution for our beliefs.

We pay tribute today to those who worshipped in faith, and expounded a conviction that freedom of worship was a core right in a civilised society.

And what were those strongholds? Not to sacrifice truth to expediency. Not to fear man, but rather to love God. That worship is the nourishment upon which faith feeds and by which it is sustained. That love of God and love of neighbour are not separate, but indivisible parts of a whole. That our duty, our obligation, is not merely to the present, but to bequeath to the future the wisdom of the past, modified by the experiences of the present.
These and other tenets were the bricks of faith with which those long dead built this Chapel, both in a physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense. That this building as a symbol of the devotion of men and women should continue is important. That the unseen temple built from bricks of truth shall be safe-guarded is imperative. In both may God preserve our coming in and our going out.

The heroes and heroines of religious dissent, and the founders of this Chapel had this in common – they lived with their eyes on the future, not to bask in memories of the past. In our celebration today, let us by all means pay tribute to our fore-fathers, but our main focus must be on the future.

What challenges does the future hold? William Rosling and his children, living and growing up in this part of Bradford would find much to astonish them if they were miraculously to walk around the city today. The diversity of cultures would be a surprise. Places of worship, churches and chapels, are joined not only by synagogues, but by mosques and temples. The Yorkshire dialect now spoken by Bradfordians whose parents and grandparents once lived in lands which were shown as red on a map of the British Empire, now no more.

First then, as we look forward, we recalling that our ancestors struggled and suffered as they insisted that religious tolerance was a central to their faith. Today, where much strife and antagonism in our land and throughout the world is rooted in religious intolerance, the challenge to us is to preach and practice tolerance, understanding and inclusiveness in this changed world.
Secondly, working alongside your new spiritual leader, the challenge for the future is to ensure consolidation, growth and renewal. The fundamentals of faith remain tried and tested by history. But the means of expression, perhaps the forms of worship, certainly the reaction to the pressures inherent in today’s society, must be relevant to this century.

Thirdly, it is to go into the coming days with the affirmation spoken earlier in this service ever before our eyes. The Jews of ancient times wore a small leather box strapped to their forehead. It contained the scriptural words reminding them that it was their duty to love God and honour family members. The demands of their faith were literally always before their eyes as they went about their daily business. Figuratively, the words spoken earlier in this service,

“To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another”

Should remain before our mind’s eye as we go forward into the future. At midnight on New Years Eve, it is traditional for church bells to ring out the old and to welcome the new. There is no bell tower or belfry here in this place of worship, but let us listen to the chimes within our hearts and minds as we celebrate what has passed, but more importantly, welcome with hope, optimism and enthusiasm the beginning a new year for Broadway Avenue Unitarian Church.

C.J. Rosling

Bradford 15 October 2000

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