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