Lewisham Unitarians step out on the Interfaith Walk for Peace

Sunday 29th May saw hundreds of people walk through the streets of Catford and Lewisham in a show of unity. Lewisham Unitarians were proud to take part in this event.

We began with lunch at Catford Synagogue where the rabbi gave a warm invitation to everyone to come and experience a Saturday prayer service. We walked at the front of the parade so that we could stand outside our Meeting House as the parade passed by.

Photo: Caro Swan  © SwanAround Photography

Photo: Caro Swan  © SwanAround Photography

Photo: Caro Swan  © SwanAround Photography

Photo: Caro Swan  © SwanAround Photography

We greeted the walkers, waving and singing a popular Unitarian hymn:

Come sing a song with me, come sing a song with me
Come sing a song with me, that I might know your mind
And I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find
And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.
Photo: Caro Swan © SwanAround Photography

Photo: Caro Swan © SwanAround Photography

Photo: Caro Swan  © SwanAround Photography

Photo: Caro Swan  © SwanAround Photography

We then joined the back of the parade as we visited Lewisham Civic Centre to be greeted by counsellors, the Islamic Centre where young boys who have been learning the Qur’an off by heart recited verses for us, and two Christian churches – St Mary’s Church of England and St Saviour’s Roman Catholic church. At the Lewisham Sivan Temple, we were given delicious snacks and we ended the walk at Lewisham Police Station. In each place of worship we were greeted warmly, and learned a little more about their history in the area and their building.

To mark each stop, a ‘candle of peace’ was lit.

Our symbol of Unitarianism is a ‘flaming chalice’, which we light at the beginning of each service. We hope that these interfaith candles will form a symbolic chain of peace throughout Catford and Lewisham to show that people of all faiths and none can work together to rise above our differences and celebrate the lives we share.

A sign of things to come - our transgender-friendly loo!

I am so pleased to be able to create a bespoke sign using Signomatic.co.uk for exactly what I want to express. 

Many people who do not have a traditionally male or female appearance experience harassment when using public toilets. In 2015, Lewisham Unitarians decided to make our Ladies and Gents toilets gender-neutral, in order to eliminate the necessity of choosing between them when using the Meeting House loos.  We would like people of all gender identities and expressions to feel at ease and welcome in our premises.

I felt it was time to find a proper sign to replace the dog-eared 'toilet' sheet blu-tacked to the door - but the market is not serving the fledgling demand for transgender friendly loo signage. However, with Signomatic's clever DIY design website, I was able to upload something I found online. It's a toilet - an image that needs no text explanation and makes no reference to gender at all.

So thanks Signomatic for helping the Meeting House loo move a little justice!  (And thanks also for the free sign during your very clever blog promotion...)

- Lori Winters, Chair of Lewisham Unitarians

Inspired by Karen Armstrong

I went to hear the religious commentator Karen Armstrong at New-Unity Unitarian Church in Newington Green on Saturday 19th March. Ms Armstrong was fantastic and really inspiring.  

Here are some points from Karen Armstrong’s lecture:

- Tribalism may have helped us survive at some remote point in the human past; however now tribalism is dangerous, and because we are now completely dependent/interdependent globally we must recognize that we are one people now and behave accordingly.
- The 'Golden Rule' is the foundation for compassionate thought and action; make a place for 'the other' in our heart and minds.
- In true compassionate dialogue with the other, you will be fundamentally unsettled, your point of view will be shaken (like Socrates); beware of a superficial/simplistic/dismissive characterization of the other ('you would pluck out the heart of my mystery..'); you might have to let the huge amount of suffering in the world affect and change you.
- A harsh strain of Islam from Saudi Arabia has come to the fore in the past 40 yrs promoted by power/influence of money; prior Islam was predominantly Sufi influenced, tolerant and compassionate.
- Don't wait for political and religious leaders to lead compassionate action; individuals should immediately use opportunities in their own lives and networks to take action themselves; Indian and Pakistani business people are doing this already; cities and communities becoming 'Compassionate Cities'; promote global compassion not just local community compassion.

She mentioned how uncomfortable it is when Westerners make large shows of solidarity and grief for the murder of Westerners by Isis et al, but not for the murder of Muslims in the Middle East or the 3rd world (which is a larger scale), and our leaders continue to engage with the Saudis etc. and she said this is noticed by Muslims worldwide.  She said she wishes people would leave flowers at these other non-Western embassies and organisations to show solidarity and support after a massacre.

Now with this latest attack in Brussels, I have the idea of asking whether any other congregations might want to form a group that would monitor the news for terrorist attacks on Muslim populations, and then take it in turns bringing flowers to their London embassies or other visible significant organisations/businesses, to show condolences and support, with a tag giving individual names but also their Unitarian congregation name.  Perhaps it could be a 'duty' traded monthly.  

What do you think?

Comment on this blog or see my Facebook post on the 'Unitarians' closed group.

submitted by Lori Winters, Chair of Lewisham Unitarian Meeting House

Celebrating LGBT History Month

To mark LGBT History Month, we held a special service celebrating the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender people that have inspired us. We lit candles to remember those LGBT community that have been part of our lives, family members as well as well-known figures.

LGBT Unitarian candles

One of the things that first attracted me to a Unitarian community, was the big-hearted, open-minded approach of its members. This extends to all people, regardless of background or sexuality. With the progress that has been made thanks to the gay rights movement over the past fifty years, it can be easy to forget that homosexual acts between the over 21s was illegal before 1967 and that an equal age of consent was not passed until 1998.

The community of Lewisham Unitarians has a long history of supporting social justice campaigns and encouraging equality in different areas of life. And ministers from this congregation and others have played an important role in the progress of gay rights in the UK.

Dr Tony Cross was minister at Lewisham Unitarian Meeting House for five years from 1968 onwards and has been an advocate and activist for gay equality for over 50 years. While we might assume that Unitarians are all very liberal and accepting these days, Dr Cross and Rev Keith Gilley (then minister at Golders Green Unitarian Church) struggled to get support from the wider national movement. They proposed motions at the national Annual Meetings regarding lowering the age of consent and realised that the fear and prejudice that some people felt – even within the liberal Unitarian movement in the 1960s – was borne of an ignorance that assumed that being gay was a lifestyle choice. 

So Dr Cross set about doing what he could to foster learning between straight and gay people. He set up a pioneering discussion group at the Meeting House called Integroup in 1970. In an article called ‘Only Connect’ published in Faith and Freedom in 2015, Dr Cross wrote that 

the Unitarian congregation at Catford was small but the members did not simply profess religious liberalism, they were wholeheartedly and genuinely liberal.

Almost in order to prove this, he invited to a Sunday service, Rose Robertson who had set up a helpline for concerned and curious parents of young gay people. Instead of a sermon at the service, he interviewed Mrs Robertson. He wanted to ‘open up a discussion about the prejudice, ignorance and injustice with which so many gay people had to cope.’ He recalls, ‘at the end of the interview, a member of the congregation who attended regularly with her husband and four sons, said to me “Well, Tony – we need to meet some homosexuals!”’ and that was the cue he needed to set up Integroup. Looking back on that time, he concluded

my hope then and now is that, with our diverse sexualities and identities, we can connect with each other, thereby not only enriching our experience but also ensuring a more peaceable social order.

Rev Keith Gilley began as minister at Golders Green Unitarians in the late 60s and continued there for over twenty years, before becoming editor of the Unitarian newspaper The Inquirer.  As his friend Rev John Midgely remembered in his Guardian obituary, ‘he encouraged inclusive attitudes towards homosexuality, supported a gay helpline and, with Rabbi Lionel Blue, led gay bereavement groups. He proposed the motion that "the ministry of the denomination be open to all regardless of … sexual orientation” at the 1976 Unitarian Annual Meetings. Long before civil partnerships and the equal marriage debate, he conducted "gay unions", some of the first ceremonies of their kind in the 1970s.

In 2013, the government seemed to catch up with public opinion by proposing the Equal Marriage Bill. Unitarians worked with the Quakers and the Liberal Jews to help bring this about. In his response to the news, the Unitarian Chief Executive Derek McAuley said, “We welcome the decision of the Government to bring forward legislation that will allow the holding of same sex weddings in churches and other religious buildings if that is the wish to the religious body. Unitarians will grasp the opportunity to carry out equal marriage with open arms. As one of our hymns says “All Are Welcome Here”.

And in 2014, Lewisham was granted a license to conduct same sex weddings. As far as we know, this was the first place of worship in the borough to be given such a licence and possibly the only one so far!

We continue this tradition of social justice by marking Transgender Memorial Day which remembers victims of hate crimes and proudly displaying our rainbow freedom flag from our noticeboard to show the people of Catford that ‘Unitarians welcome everyone.'

submitted by Rev Kate Dean, Minister