Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.

25/11/2014

The Fellowship magazine, Issue 2

My good friend Bob, minister at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and chair of the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians, has worked hard on getting the second issue of 'The Fellowship' to publication.

It's a great read - outlining what this newly-formed group is aiming for in terms of vision and approach to faith, and with Bob's own article, taking a refreshingly robust stance on social justice issues. For me, the magazine and broader FNSC project is providing something I have missed - a community of simple, non-dogmatic faith that is yes, open-minded and inclusive, but also not ambivalent.

In saying this, I hasten to add that my article in the magazine is not the direct or indirect subject of my praise - as much as I am satisfied with it, I am referring to all of the other ones!



The full text of my article, as originally submitted, can be read below...

"'Reviving the Liberal, Radical Faith'

Many Christians, in addition to the master teacher and example they find in Jesus, will often readily name prominent Christians from history they find particularly inspiring. As a Unitarian Christian who has regularly attended a Quaker meeting over the past two years, I would say William Ellery Channing and George Fox are such figures that immediately spring to mind.

Since I first came to Unitarian Christianity in my early twenties, Channing has provided me with a coherent, comprehensive theology – a body of written works I constantly turn to and find guidance in. Setting himself against the dominant view within 19th century New England churches of a fallen, deprived humanity in need of supernatural rescue, Channing’s Christianity – a deeply-rooted humanism that proclaims we are not fallen, simply yet to rise to our divine potential – is profoundly inspirational on a daily basis, particularly in my work with young people.

Fox, on the other hand, speaks more to me for his simple, prayerful faith and utter commitment to living it out. Dressed in a self-made leather suit, shoemaker Fox must have cut a strange yet compelling figure roaming England during the turmoil of the 1600s preaching an uncompromising message of the light within, a subversive message of Christ being accessible to all without mediation of a priest, a radical message of absolute pacifism – and, controversial to some at the time, the reassuring message that women also had souls! His journal, treasured by both spiritual seekers and historians alike, recounts many tales of standing up in churches to denounce practices such as the exacting of tithes, of preaching in market places where he knew the reaction of some would be viciously violent, of audaciously speaking to those in power – even meeting with Oliver Cromwell and reportedly leaving Britain’s stern Puritan overlord moved to tears. Fox reminds me that Truth is not necessarily found in the sophisticated, the educated and the genteel but in the rough and ready, the troubled and the malcontent.

Without Channing and Fox, I may well have given up on Christianity, having no alternative to what had become, for me personally, the alienating doctrine of the churches I grew up in. In this sense, I am indebted to them.

Yet perhaps the real debt goes to someone else. For without this someone else, we might suppose the ministry, and lives, of Channing and Fox would have been brutally cut short.

The third figure who I find increasingly important in my reflections on what it is to be a Christian disciple and seeker today is Sebastian Castellio, the French preacher who led the revolt against the notorious burning of early unitarian thinker Michael Servetus in 1553 and in doing so, brought ruin up himself and his family. Castellio wasn’t an avowed unitarian, he might well be described as ‘softly trinitarian’ – nor had he ever met Servetus personally. Yet the attempt ‘to kill an idea by killing a man’ provoked him to publicly stand in opposition to John Calvin and his Geneva Council allies. Making what was a ground-breaking case for a free Christianity, Castellio famously argued, "When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings…” going further to add, “"Let me have the liberty of my faith as you have of yours. At the heart of religion I am one with you. It is in reality the same religion; only on certain points of interpretation I see differently from you. But however we differ in opinion, why cannot we love one another?" Although initially a voice in the wilderness, Castellio’s campaign for toleration eventually began to take hold in Europe.

Watching with horror at the modern-day barbarism of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ group, I am sure many of us who find affinity with historically non-conformist churches cannot but see the parallels between the moving yet ultimately tragic stories of our ancestors and the struggles modern day heroines and heroes are facing in the Middle East. As I write this, news has just broken of the torture and public execution of Mosul-based lawyer Samira Salih al-Nuaimi who spoke out against the destruction and desecration of mosques and shrines deemed to be heretical by ‘Islamic State’ fanatics.

If the Fellowship is to embark on a revival of our liberal, radical Christian faith, then religious freedom must be a banner we are willing to carry forward. And not just talk about mournfully, but act upon – for George’s sake, for William’s sake, for Samira’s sake, for all our sakes."

19/11/2014

Staying Rooted, Together

Below is the sermon I recently gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel (on Sunday 16th November 2014). This is part on an ongoing 'apprenticeship' I am serving under Reverend Bob Pounder - a good friend and mentor - with much appreciated support from the congregation at Oldham. I am unsure where this foray into lay preaching will eventually take me, though I hope it will might help in the currently suspended plans (mainly due to venue issues) to get a Free Christian congregation going in Stockport.
~

Friends, this time last year we were celebrating the bicentenary of this chapel. 200 years of liberal, radical Christian witness in Oldham. Today we come together again for the 201st anniversary and I can’t help but wonder aloud how we feel about that? Are we still celebrating or are we now at a stage resembling a bit like the aftermath of a big birthday party - the wider family having gone home, the presents unwrapped, the mess all cleared up - the concerns of the coming weeks, months and years firmly back in focus.

Over two centuries, the form of Oldham Unitarian Chapel has changed. Starting out as a fellowship of exiles under Reverend Richard Wright in 1812 and using rooms over shops on Henshaw Street, within three years work had started on the original Lord Street building to, somewhat audaciously, provide room for three hundred worshippers. By the turn of the century, further redevelopment had just been finished with the chapel rebuilt, again with a view to housing an increasing congregation - with a new impressive Sunday school to boot.

In this day and age such complexes are the preserve of migrant communities, such as our Muslim neighbours, and a smattering of so-called mega-churches. Oldham Unitarian Chapel, now in its third or fourth incarnation depending on how you look at it, is a much simpler and small outfit these days – housed as we are today in a flat-roofed classic post-war building. As I am sure you are aware, time tends not to be so forgiving with this era of building – and when comparing them to the wonders of the Victorian age, you might be forgiven for feeling like we have somehow lost our ability to inspire.

Yet, through you and your ancestors’ hard work, the chapel continues to survive - with the recently added windows, in 2009 and 2013, and the completion of the One World Café, there are signs of a spirit of adventure alive and at work within these walls.

But, and here’s the big but, we would be misleading ourselves to believe the building is what makes Oldham Unitarian Chapel a church.

Let me stop now our walk through Unitarian and Free Christian history and take a sideways leap into one of the traditions we stand closest to, the Quakers. As you will know, aside from my friendship with Oldham Unitarian Chapel, I attend the Quakers in my hometown on a regular basis – partly because no Unitarian or Free Christian church exists there anymore but increasingly so, because I have a natural affinity with Quakerism.

George Fox, the fiery 17th century preacher who sparked the Quaker movement, was known for his confrontational manner, taking on the priesthood and wider establishment of the day on a range of issues.

On one occasion George Fox entered a church building to hear a discussion amongst the congregation, chaired by the priest. We must remember this was fairly commonplace during the turmoil of the 17th century where, in addition to the reformation, many people were openly questioning their faith having witnessed brother turn against father and subject turn against king during the civil war.

George Fox listened intently to the discussions – then, in keeping with his character, inevitably rose to speak. This extract from his journal continues the story:

At last one woman asked a question out of Peter. What that birth was, that is to say, a being born again of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, that liveth and abideth for ever? And the priest said to her, "I permit not a woman to speak in the church"; though he had before given liberty for any to speak.

Upon this, I was wrapped up, as in a rapture, in the Lord's power; and I stepped up and asked the priest, "Dost thou call this, the steeple-house, a church? Or dost thou call this mixed multitude a church?" For the woman asking a question, he ought to have answered it, having given liberty for any to speak.

But, instead of answering me, he asked me what a church was? I told him the church was the pillar and ground of truth, made up of living stones, living members, a spiritual household, which Christ was the head of; but he was not the head of a mixed multitude, or of an old house made up of lime, stones and wood.”

From this short extract, I propose, we can find the three core foundations of what really makes a church – beyond the walls, the glass, and the leaky roof!

1. First, we see that George Fox valued people over bricks and mortar. Quite significantly, he talks about members being ‘living stones’. By this, I propose, he suggests the church rests on the strength of its people – living in the sense of being growing and changing, but also with a certain immovability and rootedness in a shared faith.

This is echoed by William Ellery Channing, who makes the following observations about the early Christians,

“The church as at first constituted presents interesting and beautiful aspects. It was not a forced and arbitrary, but free spontaneous union. It grew out of the principles and feelings of human nature. Our nature is social. We cannot live alone. We cannot shut up any great feelings in our hearts. We seek for others to partake it with us. The full soul finds at once relief and strength in sympathy. This is especially true in religion, the most social of all our sentiments, the only universal bond on earth. In this law of our nature the Christian church had its origin.” (p. 318, ‘The Church)

2. Second, we see George Fox likened the church to a ‘spiritual household’ – and, I suggest, we can take from this that like any family, each member has a place and a contribution to make.

It should also be emphasised George Fox championed the role of women, and it is worth noting that his founding of the Religious Society of Friends which at one time is said to have claimed 10% of the population, rested primarily on the intellect and efforts of women such as Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Hooton and Mary Fisher. Margaret Fell in particular strikes me as a calm, engaging and quietly methodical figure; serving as a perfect complement to the rawer, rugged and plainly awkward figures of George Fox and other Quaker men – I wonder if this rings any bells at Oldham!

This position, I would argue, fits with the overall pattern of the gospel if we look at the make-up of Jesus’s closest companions – we can also look to Paul who reminds us in Corinthians of the need to recognise the differing gifts which each person can bring to the church. It is important we recognise and value the behind the scenes organiser just as much as the man or woman in the pulpit.

If we unpack this further, we might also say that just as a family passes guidance followed by responsibility from generation to generation, so must a church. We must actively mentor and then hand over to our young.

3. Third, and most importantly, we see George Fox had a sense of the ‘Lord’s power’, a deep spiritual experience, a real sense of a greater scheme of things beyond our own immediate concerns.

We must acknowledge that he was a charismatic, and for many of us, the sense of being wrapped up and caught up in rapture might be something we have not experienced nor will experience to the same intensity.

Yet, if we go the other way and declare there to be no spiritual life, declare Christ has no longer any relevance, declare there is no God – however we may each come to define such things – then I think we essentially give up being a church and being disciples in the truest sense of the words. We instead descend into cults of personality, academia and pedantry.

Some religious liberals have indeed gone this far, within the Quakers, the Unitarians and the wider Christian movement. There is no compelling evidence that is has brought them renewed purpose or growth in an increasingly secular society – quite the opposite. Thomas Green, a prominent Quaker in the mid-20th Century cautioned against this tendency. In the opening words of the 1952 Swarthmore Lecture, he notes:

“The worship of God is the primary purpose of the religious life. A desire that God may be glorified on earth as He is in Heaven is what distinguishes true Christian service from altruism. A passion for justice or the natural emotion of pity may inspire a social reformer, but the Christlike love of men which can outlive their indifference, ingratitude and hostility has roots in fellowship with God. If worship is neglected or allowed to deteriorate in quality then the moral and humanitarian concerns of a religious society will eventually lose their vitality. ‘Without me ye can do nothing.’ Unless we are faithful in waiting upon God, guided by His Spirit and endowed with His power, we cannot hope to make headway in the struggle against the evils of our time.”

As I have said, we may continue to deliberate, doubt and differ on who, what and where God is but let us stay true to the inscription on the stone that rested above the old chapel’s door – “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind and strength.”

Friends, the future for Oldham Unitarian Chapel – as with any church in this day and age – is uncertain and it is likely it will only find its way by further acts of reincarnation. Yet let us be audacious enough to pray for and commit to this chapel reaching its 301st anniversary, let us also pray and commit to this chapel continuing as a church, a people on a spirited adventure together, a source of fruit for the community, a light to the world. Amen.


Matthew Grant - 9th November 2014

09/11/2014

Re-Root

This morning, instead of my usual trip down the road to the Quaker meeting I know and love, I instead headed northwards. Dutifully following the directions announced by the mobile phone, I found myself venturing up and down dale, along  remote winding country roads. I am sure there was a more direct route, for the destination was a relatively nearby settlement, the village of Gee Cross. The reason for the re-routing of my Sunday morning was to attend a service at Hyde Chapel, a Unitarian and Free Christian congregation located within the heart of Gee Cross that serves for all intents and purposes as the local church. 

Despite attending Quaker meetings on most Sundays for around three years now, at this point in the year - as the nation comes together to remember its war dead - I have always tended to gravitate towards Remembrance Day services rather than the meeting house. This is not because I am pro-war, I am in fact pretty much a pacifist like my Quaker brethren. However, I do feel the 'Peace Testimony' of the Quakers is something, whilst admirably upheld in a militarised society, that ends up being quite dogmatically enforced, and in turn, the ministry around it can at times feel quite formulaic. It is for this reason I tend to go to a local war memorial or village church for Remembrance Sunday, where the perspectives and sentiments are far more mixed and free-flowing.

This is the first and foremost reason for heading north. But there are other more complicated reasons, which I will most likely explore further in future journal entries if and when I have established the clarity and conviction with which to express them. Put simply, these reasons are based on a growing uncertainty over whether I belong with the Quakers as a pluralistic, increasingly 'non-theistic' movement and a decision made this week to explore other churches.

The service at Hyde Chapel struck a fitting tone, one of remembrance and thanksgiving alongside a powerful sermon or testimony, delivered by an elderly member of the congregation, to the destruction wrought by World War One. I found the recitation of Archibald MacLeish's poem, 'The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak', to be deeply moving:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could 
but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave. 

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, 
they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for 
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

And so it was I left, having been greatly enriched and rooted by the service, having briefly met a few friendly, down-to-earth people who made me most welcome; resolving to return again.

For the remainder of the afternoon I spent the now limited hours of daylight on a short walk with my wife taking in the late Autumn air, spurred on in part by the BBC weatherman who had warned this would likely be the last day of still blue skies with unrelenting heavy rain and gales forecast for the coming week. Walking alongside the canals admiring the colourful montage of narrowboats, some of which filled the air with the raw primitive smell of smouldering wood and coal, and then on down by a pattering brook and up across quiet fields, we both remarked on how blessed we are to live amongst such readily available peace. On our way back home, we stopped off at the war memorial to observe our own impromptu moment of silence as we read the names upon names of the fallen from the village we now call our own; neighbours who went off to faraway lands and never returned. The frequent occurrence of various forenames sharing the same surnames reminded us that, for many families, the devastation of World War One was sweeping and without mercy. This echoed the words of the lady from the morning's service, recounting as she did the loss of three uncles on the battlefields and the further loss of another uncle to catastrophic post-traumatic stress which left him permanently hospitalised, trapped in a different no-man's land - a total of four out of six brothers who never returned. 

It is surely a crying shame we have continued to add names to our war memorials over the past century, decades scarcely passing by without British involvement in violent conflict abroad.

Tonight I took it upon myself to visit our local Anglican church, set just behind the war memorial, which alternates its Sunday evening slot every other week between a Celtic Eucharist service and a Taizé service. As I mention above, I am questioning whether the Quaker movement is where I can continue to be and to grow as a Christian - yet I understand that contemplative methods of worship are, for want of a more apt way of putting it, that which I am most at synch with and find most uplifting. And it is for this reason I have tonight visited a house of worship belonging to a denomination I was baptised into as a child but have for so long felt miles apart from. As it turned out, the Celtic Eucharist service was not as contemplative as I had anticipated, yet it did provide opportunity for prayer and inspiration - I took part in the act of communion in good faith as I have always done, despite my Quaker leanings, recommitting myself to the Christian life, to discipleship in both the practical and the mystical sense.

On the short walk home again, I felt a strong sense of Christ with me. Again, I was appreciative for the peace so readily available.





07/11/2014

Walking the Way

This week I happened upon this quote from Derek Lin, an American Taoist writer:

"Seeking The Tao

Many people are searching for the right path for themselves. Perhaps the mainstream religions do not suit their spiritual needs, so they look around for something different.

Some of them are dabblers who sample one tradition after another, never spending enough time for in-depth understanding. Perhaps they are looking for the silver bullet, something that solves all of their problems in one shot. The Tao is not suitable for such individuals, because years of cultivation and actual application of the teachings are absolute requirements.

Real cultivators understand that the teachings reward persistence and patience. They know that, in the long run, there is nothing better than the Tao that has endured for thousands of years. They delve into it with confidence, because it is something that has passed the test of time.

The Tao Today

What is your motivation for seeking the Tao? Is it something exotic and mysterious that has attracted you? If so, you may be disappointed by the plainness and simplicity of its teachings. Follow the Tao only if you can feel, in your heart of hearts, that it is the right path for you. Devote time and effort to it, and you will find yourself amply rewarded from here to the rest of your life and beyond."

I could write much more on this but I am really still mulling over my thoughts. 

So far, what I can say is I find it chastening yet I also find it affirming at the same time. So called 'spirituality', the modern day word used in place of the less fashionable 'religion' and even less fashionable 'discipline', is not easy - it's not about simply 'being accepted for who I am' and 'exploring different ideas', the phrases to often trotted out by religious liberals (including myself). It is about growth, about transformation, and this involves a long journey of starts and stops, of faltering moments and moments in which we must actively return. 

This might sound like common sense - I suppose it is. But common sense is something we are prone to losing sight of. Again, we must actively work to rediscover it.

02/11/2014

A small protest from the Kop

I may well be turning into a grumpy old man ("as opposed to the grumpy young man?" I can almost here a loved one heckling from the crowd). I have written yet another letter of protest, this time to The Star, the local newspaper in my hometown of Sheffield. 

As more regular readers will know, I am a lifelong fan of Sheffield Wednesday FC. Football is one of those things, for the English as well as some of their European neighbours, that draws hugely on tribal, emotional instincts rather than our God-given reason. In fact, more often than not it completely overrides reason! I am no different - I have cried over lost cup finals, I have pitch invaded in absolute joy, I have uttered the classic line, "I'm never coming again..." only to then return the following week to the same seat in the same stand, brimming with optimism.

Football was very much birthed in Sheffield, with the city having the honour of the oldest surviving football club in Sheffield FC, the oldest surviving ground in the form of the slightly sloping Sandygate Road which is home to Hallam FC (apparently the second oldest surviving club), the oldest professional stadium which has been home to both professional clubs at various points and the 'Sheffield Rules' which formed the basis of modern day football rules. And of course, there are the two professional clubs, Sheffield Wednesday FC and Sheffield United FC, which have in the increasingly far off past won the major domestic honours. All of this might be news to any readers from Manchester or London (he says, slightly bitterly).

It is a shame that Sheffield does not make more of its footballing history, with it tending to focus more on its past as a world-renowned producer of steel. As a side note, the city also has a fascinating history of radicalism, rooted in Methodism and to a lesser extent Unitarianism.

It is even more of a shame, to me at least, that the city's most recent exposure in the national media has been the furore over Ched Evans - the Sheffield United FC striker recently released from prison after serving two and a half years for rape. Many Sheffielders are opposed to his return to football with Sheffield United FC but it also has to be said a significant proportion of United fans would like to see him return. Again, regardless of all the arguments over his 'innocence' (he is currently appealing his conviction), I think this desire from some fans for his no-questions-asked return ultimately comes down to a tribal, emotional attachment to him as one of their footballing heroes of recent years and the basic desire for their current team to win games. The same could be said of those Wednesday fans who defend to-the-hilt the recent return of Sheffield Wednesday FC striker, Gary Madine, to footballing duties following a prison sentence for two separate incidents of serious physical assault whilst out on the town.

All that said, the case of Ched Evans - who is very likely to get a new lucrative contract with his old employers as soon as the media storm wanes - is indicative of a change in the composition and culture of the English football scene. It is a change to one in which massive sums of money, often 'invested' by dubious benefactors, rule over the game completely - a change that I feel is for the worse. I have tried to raise this, in my own small way with my letter to The Star, as I believe all football fans need to re-find their sense of reason - at least outside of 3pm to 5pm on a Saturday - and stand up for their clubs as community-based organisations with a moral compass. The letter goes as follows:

"Dear Editor, 
The recent debates over whether United should or should not re-employ Ched Evans point to wider issues within English football. 

Our city’s biggest football clubs, both United and Wednesday, started out as community organisations – taking on a business dimension with the growth of professionalism. With the formation of the Premier League, which both clubs were party to, the business dimension of football has increasingly taken over at the expense of the community aspect.

Consequently, we should not be surprised if the asset that is Ched Evans, who cost the club £3million, is reclaimed by United. Just as the investment, Gary Madine, was also maintained by Wednesday. The only hesitation from the United boardroom is likely to be the impact on ‘the brand’.

So whilst Sheffielders may hotly debate such things from a community angle – and many will rightly be opposed to convicted criminals who have caused lasting harm to their victims having an easy route back to fame and fortune – the sad reality is we are out of step with the way the beautiful game has gone."

Viva la revolution!