Thursday, 29 December 2011

coherent authenticity is wholly insufficient merely to proclaim either to ourselves or to the wider world that "everything is holy now" without, at the same time, living ourselves and offering to others a coherent religious practice that allows such an insight to be shown by us in our words and deeds and, therefore, passed on to those who chose to follow us.

I've been thinking along these lines for a while now. I want to ground my life and spirituality in a coherent understanding of reality. This understanding is bound to grow and evolve, possibly in response to experience and ritual and spiritual practice; but it is good to have a theological or theoretical basis for one's practice. (Note that by 'theological' I don't necessarily mean having to do with deities, and I certainly don't mean anything dogmatic.) If you don't have a theoretical underpinning for your practice, you become known as the religion where you can believe what you like (instead of a religion that is engaging in a search for the truth, whatever that turns out to be).

It's not enough to say that all paths point to the same underlying mystery - one needs criteria to ascertain which path gets there without pitfalls along the way. One needs to be able to explain how spiritual paths that look wildly different on the surface actually do point to the same underlying mystery. I think that the common features of different paths can be found by looking at how they relate to the processes of transformation within the human psyche, which seem to be consistent at least within cultures, and probably across cultures too. However, one needs to make this comparison without implying that the experience is merely psychological; without reducing the rich variety of colours of different traditions to a sort of sludgy mystical fog; and whilst respecting the particularities (historical, cultural and spiritual) of different traditions.

With that caveat in mind, what are the common features of different paths? They have been described in various ways in various traditions (Alchemy, Kabbalah, Wicca, the mystics' journey into the interior castle, Jacob's Ladder in Freemasonry, Jung's description of the individuation process, Campbell's Hero Journey, Lewis Rambo's stages of conversion).

Common features of all these descriptions of the spiritual journey are the sense of descent into one's inner world, which is also connected with the vast interior space of the collective unconscious or the Divine; the realisation that one is inwardly connected with everyone else; the experience of encountering the Void (possibly including self-emptying, or at least the setting aside of the ego); then entering into a larger consciousness (sometimes described as theosis). These experiences are probably more accessible if one takes the view that the Divine is accessible through inward contemplation; that the whole of reality is suffused with the Divine presence; that we ourselves carry sparks of the Divine. But sometimes people go through these processes of inner transformation in spite of having very different ideas of the nature of reality - which is what suggests to me that they are intrinsic to the functioning of the human psyche and its relationship to the universe.

Just as it is possible to have a deeper insight into one's own language and culture if one is conversant with another language and culture (preferably having been immersed in that other culture to some extent), so also it is possible to have a deeper engagement with one's own religious tradition by engaging with other spiritual traditions. I did not understand what Jesus was saying until I had compared his ideas with those of Sufism and Taoism. I am immersed in the symbol system of Wicca (and have been for twenty years now), and having travelled on my spiritual journey through its particular highways and byways, I can appreciate the shape of other spiritual journeys, including that of Christian mysticism - but I could not have travelled by that route because I was encumbered with the baggage of an evangelical Christian background. I had to set Christianity to one side for a long time before I could look at it afresh and see it differently.

You have to travel by one particular route in order to experience the journey fully - but it's good to find out about other journeys and compare their particular scenery with that of your own. If you don't have a concept of journeys and maps, you might never even set out on the journey; and if you don't get tips from other travellers, you might head off in the wrong direction entirely.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Happy Hanukkah

On the first day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
A latke with apple sauce
On the second day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
Two dreidls spinning, and a latke with apple sauce.
On the third day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
Three rabbis dancing, etc.
On the fourth day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
Four klezmer bands, etc
On the fifth day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
five Torah scrolls, etc
On the sixth day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
A six-pointed star, etc
On the seventh day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
Seven Sabbath spice boxes, etc
On the eighth day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
Eight Maccabee warriors, etc
On the ninth day of Hanukkah my true love sent to me
Nine candles flaming, etc
Happy Hanukkah!
If you can come up with lyrics that fit the Hanukkah story better, feel free!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Autochthonic, revealed and rational religions

Pagan and indigenous religions are said to be "autochthonic" which literally means "earth-born" or self-generated from the Earth. They are traditional and indigenous practices and folk customs which people develop in order to facilitate their relationship with the land and nature. They are the kind of religions that deal with hunting, farming and fishing. Typically they regard the divine or deities and spirits as immanent in the land; they are either pantheistic or animist.

Revealed religions are those which are revealed by the deity or deities to humanity, and seem to come from a transcendent reality. Most of the religions of the so-called Axial Age (the age of great founder-figures like Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Lao Tsu and Jesus) are revealed, and are characterised by having scriptures and a transcendent view of the divine.

Rational religion is a child of the Enlightenment, and refers to the idea that people should be able to work out for themselves that the divine exists, and apply their reason to scriptures and other revealed ideas. I am not sure if anthropologists and sociologists of religion actually use this category, but it seems to me that Unitarianism doesn't fit in either the revealed religion category or the autochthonous category. It grew out of a revealed religion but it was trying to get back to "natural religion" and often regards the divine as immanent rather than transcendent.

I am strongly drawn to the idea that the experience of divinity should be compatible with reason, and accessible to anyone. However I do not think that the experience of the divine is a rational experience - it is accessed through the subconscious and the collective unconscious, which are associated with dreams and visions, and therefore not rational. What we should do with these promptings from the subconscious is to test them using our reason to see if they are harmful or beneficial, however.

I also believe that when you get to the heart of the religious experience, whatever religious tradition you are in, it is the same experience, albeit with different cultural trappings. The mystics of all traditions have reported similar feelings and developed similar practices.

Mother Goddess

Sinking gratefully back into the land,
Into the folds of the Mother,
Her creases in time and reality,
Her magic is a wrinkled apple,
A golden ball dropped from a tree's galaxy of branches
into Her green and fertile lap
where it will decay and then grow into a tree.

O Mother I hear your call,
the wild clear call of the Moon,
the barren and compassionate one
who gazes down upon the Earth,
your green and blue sister.

May I dance with the Sun, Moon and stars;
May I feel their dance within me
and know that it is the One at play in the many -
the dance of being and non-being,
the laughter and tears of the divine at play
in each one of us -
wearing different masks,
now tragic, now comic.

May I hear the song of the stars,
feel the rhythms of the Earth pulse in my body,
lie upon the beloved land
and know that my depths are Her depths
all the way to the ends of the Universe.

17-10-2011, 11.35 am

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Blessed are the poor

In previous posts, I have looked at whether Unitarianism is Christian or not, and what kind of Christianity it is heir to. In  my view, it is the heir of Christian heresies. In the ancient world, a heresy was a school of thought, and not a pejorative term implying deviance from the true path.

Some of the earliest Christian heretics were the Ebionites, who were the Church in Jerusalem. They were led by James, the brother of Jesus, who probably knew a thing or two about Jesus' life that did not get into the Gospels. The Ebionites took their name from the Hebrew word for poor; this was derived from the many references to the poor in the Hebrew bible, and from the line in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (which I always assumed meant that the poor were spiritually blessed, not that the poor-in-spirit were blessed). They did not believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth, which was in any case based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a girl or young woman into Greek (parthenos). They also rejected the teachings of Paul of Tarsus. They may have been vegetarians, and they held an adoptionist view of Jesus as the Messiah. They are also said to have denied the pre-existence of Christ, and vicarious atonement (both doctrines which Unitarians have rejected since the Racovian Catechism).

Some Unitarians look to the Gnostics as spiritual fore-runners, but since the Gnostics were world-denying and Unitarianism is world-affirming, I personally do not think that the comparison is helpful, except insofar as the Gnostics denied vicarious atonement, and held that the purpose of Jesus' existence was to bring enlightenment.

Other early Christian groups which broke away from the mainstream were the Miaphysites and the Dyophysites. They rejected the compromise on the nature of Christ which was hammered out at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The Pelagian heresy is interesting, in that Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin. However, the implication of Pelagianism is that since humans are capable of exercising their free will to become good, we ought to be able to live blameless lives, and there is no excuse for not doing so. Pelagius himself was quite puritanical, and expected people to live up to quite high standards. Semipelagianism sounds more manageable than full Pelagianism.

The Arian heresy (see my previous post) was a very important and widespread view, which influenced early Socinians. Arianism was very popular in the early medieval Germanic kingdoms, and for a while, it looked as if it would become the mainstream theology of the church in Northern Europe.

The Racovian Catechism was an important milestone in the development of Socinian thought, though it is by no means the final statement of either Socinian or Unitarian theology, and it was recognised by its authors that it was a provisional statement, and that the church was open to the discovery of new truth.

Why are all these ideas important? Because they show that mainstream Christian doctrine was arrived at by a series of disputes, controversies and compromises, and was not inevitable or obvious. They also show that real Christian theology is a far cry from the simplistic formulations of many modern evangelical churches, which are usually based on penal substitution theology (a combination of the doctrines of total depravity and vicarious atonement).

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Golden heresies

Having said in the previous two posts that Unitarianism has its roots in Christianity, we must ask: in what kind of Christianity does it have roots?

It is the heir of Renaissance humanism; of Anabaptists, Socinians, Arians, Lollards, Universalists, Arminians, and other liberal and heretical schools of thought. And it is the child of Enlightenment Deism, and of Enlightenment thought generally.

In ancient Greece, a haeresis was a school of thought, and diversity of ideas was considered valuable; it was only in the Christian era that a definitive version of truth was thought desirable and so heresy became anathema.

The Renaissance humanists were the first to campaign for education in the humanities (grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy), and to improve the understanding and translations of Biblical and early Christian texts, as well as translating classical pagan texts. Unitarianism has, for most of its history as a  movement, been keen on biblical criticism, and using one's reason to work out what the texts mean (not relying on external authority for an interpretation).

The Arian heresy, first propounded at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, is the view that Christ is not "very God of very God" - he is either God's son by adoption or by creation. The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by — and is therefore distinct from and inferior to — God the Father. This being so makes him no longer unique, and also has implications for other Christian doctrines.

The Socinians held an Arian view of Christ, and it is arguably they who discovered the principle of tolerance which is such an important part of Unitarian values. At one of their earliest church councils, they discovered that they could not agree on several theological points — so they agreed to differ, rather than create further schism. The Socinians emerged from among the Anabaptists of Northern Italy in the late 16th century; Fausto Sozzini, their founder, had read the works of Servetus on the errors of the Trinity. When they  arrived in Poland, the Socinians started a printing press at Rakow (which town was subsequently razed to the ground by the Catholics) and from Rakow, Socinian and Unitarian ideas spread to England and Transylvania — where, in due course, the Polish Socinians fled, as Poland was caught in the grip of the Counter-Reformation. In due course the Unitarians of Transylvania became a church which still survives today, and Unitarianism was founded in England by Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey.

The Lollards do not, as far as I know, have any direct connection with Unitarianism, but they are interesting as the first group to have translated the Bible into English, and to have looked outside the Catholic Church for the source of religious authority. Some of them were thought to have been non-trinitarians.

The Universalists never formed a formal church in England (although the General Baptists, who were much influenced by Arminianism, did reject the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, and most General Baptist churches joined the Unitarian movement and retain a distinct identity within it). However, the idea of universal reconciliation was popular in England, and was held by many Unitarians, who also rejected vicarious atonement.

Many early Unitarians believed in "salvation by character" and so were interested in books like The Imitation of Christ. So it seems that they drew on mystical and contemplative forms of Christianity as well as the liberal and rational Protestant forms mentioned above. Many Unitarian churches started out as liberal Presbyterian; others were Independents.

But the most important aspect of Unitarianism for me is that it is reasonable, and tolerant, and honours diversity. The famous Unitarian values of freedom, reason and tolerance are said to have emerged because people wanted the freedom to reason about what the Bible meant; but then they found that different people came to different conclusions about what it meant, so then they had to tolerate each others' different opinions. Unitarians have never burnt anyone at the stake or killed them for their beliefs. On the contrary, Unitarians have frequently been killed or burnt for their beliefs.

Another massively important aspect of Unitarianism is its positive attitude to other faiths, which stems partly from the idea that Jesus is an exemplar and not a saviour — if he is not a saviour, there is no need to convert people of other faiths to Christianity; and because Unitarians  believe that the Divine reveals itself to different peoples in different ways, other religions are respected (though might be criticised for harmful practices).

The Unitarian insistence on building the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth also appeals to me. And of course the fact that it is inclusive of LGBT people, and has always campaigned for the education and emancipation of women, the abolition of slavery, and social justice generally, is really important.  And so is its positive attitude to science. Charles Darwin was the son of a Unitarian, and his wife Emma was a Unitarian as well. Unitarians were probably among the earliest to accept evolution — certainly Barbara Bodichon (Unitarian and Pre-Raphaelite) had accepted it, as she painted controversial geological views of cliffs.

Modern Unitarianism has also been profoundly influenced by Transcendentalism, which grew out of 19th century American Unitarianism, and also influenced the Pagan revival, and much of American and European life and literature. I have written elsewhere on how Ralph Waldo Emerson, and hence Transcendentalism, was influenced by the translation of the Upanishads into English by Rammohun Roy, founder of the Brahmo Samaj and campaigner for the education of women and the abolition of sati. The Transcendentalists believed (among other things) in an ideal spirituality that "transcends" the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions.

So these are the kind of ideas of which Unitarianism is the heir — not the narrow and pessimistic doctrines of Calvinists, Evangelicals and scholasticism, but the broad and tolerant strains of the Reformation, which sought freedom and tolerance. The systems of thought which were the forerunners of Unitarianism were optimistic about human and divine nature. They were not world-denying, but world-affirming.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Roots hold me close, wings set me free

Roots hold me close
Every religious tradition needs roots. We need the forebears who shaped our traditions and our thinking. If we were not proud of them, why would we want to be part of our tradition? We need the spiritual practices, rituals and symbolism of our tradition - these are the things that transform us, and help us to cohere as a community.

How does ritual effect transformation? By allowing us to symbolically represent the inner processes of our individual and collective psyche, and change their relationships to each other.

What are the rituals of Unitarianism? There's the hymn sandwich (yes, it is a ritual), the Flower Communion, the Water Communion, the lighting of the flaming chalice.  There's communion. We need these rituals because they are part of our identity as a worshipping community.

But we also need personal spiritual practice, which we have the freedom to choose from many different traditions. However, our roots lie in the Christian tradition, and if we chop off our roots, the plant might die. We can learn about lectio divina, prayer beads, contemplative prayer, and liberal and mystical Christian theology.  All of these practices and traditions were developed by people who were rooted in the same culture that we are, and they fit in with our cultural background. We also have roots - albeit further back - in the pre-Christian polytheist traditions of these islands, and these inform many of our folk customs and festivals.

Of course there's nothing to stop us from learning the spiritual traditions and practices of others, but let's be careful to avoid a shallow engagement with them, one that is not rooted in the philosophical outlook of the tradition being borrowed from. It's worth reading this critique of Pagan UU rituals, which points out that they are often engaging with the fluffy end of Paganism, rather than the full depth of Pagan theology. I have 20 years' experience of Pagan rituals, and they have considerable transformative effect and powerful resonance. I also practice Buddhist meditation (specifically Metta Bhavana), which I find really helpful.

Wings set me free
So I am not by any means arguing that Unitarianism and UUism should only use Christian practices - it could be argued (by those who do not view us as Christian) that this is also a form of cultural appropriation, depending on whether you see Unitarianism as post-Christian, universalist, interfaith, multi-faith, or something else. What I am suggesting is that we should feel free to explore Christian mysticism alongside other spiritualities, and that whatever tradition we are drawn to, a pick and mix approach, or a shallow engagement with it, will most likely not be conducive to spiritual growth.

I think we need to be aware of what we are doing when we borrow any practice, whether it is Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. What is the underlying theology and philosophy of the practice? Is it compatible with our values, theology and philosophy? If we adapt the practice to fit our values, theology and philosophy, have we taken the soul out of the practice and made it into something else? If this is the case, should we rename the practice?  If we are going to engage with Buddhist or Jewish or Pagan practices, we need to do so in a mindful way, with an understanding of the underlying philosophical tenets of Buddhism, Judaism or Paganism.

Given the way that the Christian ritual of communion has developed, is it valid for Unitarian communities to practice bread-and-wine communion? (I'd say yes, because we have always done so with our own interpretation of what it means, which is not so far away from other liberal Protestant groups.)

Unitarianism has also developed its own special rituals and symbolism, which help us to form our identity. These are our wings, if you like. Many religious traditions have their own special rituals and prayers and symbolism that make them unique (the Druids have the Awen and the Druid's prayer; Wiccans have cakes and wine; Quakers have Meeting for Worship; Anglicans have their liturgical traditions; and so on). Different Christian denominations do communion differently, and with a slightly different underlying theology.

We can interpret  rituals and symbolism differently from others, but we should be aware of their history and origins, and not lift them out of context without considering the theological and philosophical implications.

Unitarians and UUs cherish our freedom, but let's not use it for a shallow engagement with spiritual practices. Let's use it to engage meaningfully with theology and symbolism and ritual, and to enrich our understanding of both our own tradition and others. If you are not rooted in your own tradition, it's difficult to engage meaningfully with other traditions.

Religions are like languages - you can speak more than one language, but if you don't know the grammar of your own language, it's difficult to learn another one.

I've practised Wicca for 20 years, so I would say that I speak the language of Wicca really well. But I was brought up as a Christian, so I speak that language too. Whether I like it or not, Christianity informs my thinking to a certain extent (even if I am reacting against some aspect of it). Over the last three years, I have immersed myself in Unitarian history and thought, so I would say I speak that language pretty well too. I also see it as a distinct language, rather than as a dialect of Christianity.

One of the things that I really value about Unitarianism is that it allows me to speak in all three languages, and to offer translations between them - as well as bringing in concepts from other religions which may shed some light on the ideas being discussed.

I also find it helpful to interpret and critically evaluate ideas from all three traditions in the light of ideas from other religions. The ideas of Sufism (which was partly derived from Neoplatonism and Gnosticism) are particularly helpful for understanding what Jesus was talking about. The ideas of Hinduism are really helpful for developing a deeper engagement with Pagan theology and philosophy.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Is Unitarianism Christian?

There has been much debate recently about whether Unitarianism (and Unitarian Universalism) is Christian, post-Christian, universalist (in either the modern sense or the 19th century sense), or something else.

In our insistence on being non-creedal, have we adopted an "anything goes" approach?

Many Christians would claim that Unitarianism is not Christian, because most Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity and the doctrine of vicarious atonement. But not all Christians believe in vicarious atonement (at least not in the penal substitution theology version of it). The Orthodox Christian view of Christ's role and function is quite different from that of Western Christians. Early Christians did not believe in the Trinity; the doctrine was finalised at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So neither of these beliefs are essential to Christianity. It might be argued that certain values (such as forgiveness, social justice and compassion) are unique to Christianity, or promoted by Christianity more than by other faiths - but in fact Roman polytheism listed compassion as a virtue. It is difficult to define any religion by listing its beliefs and values, because religion is about identity and community rather than beliefs and values.

Many Unitarians would claim that Unitarianism is not Christian, sometimes for the same reasons that some Christians would make that claim, and sometimes because Christianity is viewed as exclusivist (in the sense of regarding itself as the sole possessor of truth) - but many Christians take part in interfaith dialogue and study other faiths in a spirit of humility which avoids cultural and theological imperialism.

My own view is that Unitarianism has Christian roots (and that the tree is made of the same wood). We use the Bible in our services. We are rooted in a Christian culture (whether you like it or not, Western Europe has been Christian for centuries - and yes, that religion was imposed by the sword, but it's still part of our culture, rather like the way that British law and morality is part of the culture in post-colonial countries). The values promoted by Christianity (and by other traditions) are still widely valued in our culture, and by Unitarians. We still celebrate Christian festivals, together with all the Pagan trappings that come with them (who doesn't like Christmas presents, Easter eggs, Christmas trees, and all that?) We still think Jesus was a good bloke.

And yet... Unitarianism and Unitarian Universalism include some unique traditions of our own: Transcendentalism, Deism, Universalism (in both senses), the Flower Communion, the Water Communion, the flaming chalice. We have the writings of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears. And, inherited from Servetus, some Unitarians have a pantheist understanding of the Divine that was partially informed by Neoplatonic and other hermetic writings, which has fed into the Pagan revival via Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists, and made room for Pagan spirituality in the 20th and 21st century.

So it is true that Unitarianism is both Christian and non-Christian, depending on your understanding of what "Christian" means. Given that mainstream Christians can't agree on what it means, it's hardly surprising that Unitarians can't either.

I think the key to defining whether a group or an individual fits into any particular category is, in the end, about membership and identity. What do you identify as - and do the other people with that identity agree with your self-identification?

I do not identify as a Christian, but I do identify as a Unitarian, because I am accepted as a member of a Unitarian community; I share the views of the majority of Unitarians about the value of the Bible and the Christian tradition; I espouse the values of Unitarianism; and I am pretty well versed in the history and culture of Unitarianism.

But there's nothing to stop a Unitarian from identifying as a Christian. Unitarianism does after all emerge from the Christian tradition, and there's much to value in the Christian tradition (as well as much to criticise). And if we reject the Christian tradition outright, we reject much that is of value.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The empty path

Someone once said to me that Unitarianism is an empty path. They meant it as a criticism, but I thought it sounded rather positive and Taoist. "The way that can be named is not the true Way" (usually written as "The tao that can be named is not the true Tao", but Tao just means "way").

In "Mind your language", Danny Crosby reflects on the view expressed by a character in The Simpsons that Unitarianism is like an empty bowl.  The point about an empty bowl is that you can fill it with whatever you like; it is clean and receptive, and it gives form to whatever fills it.

The point about an empty path is that it is not cluttered up with extraneous symbols, meaningless rituals, and pointless prohibitions.

I like the idea of the empty path, because it reminds me of apophatic theology and the via negativa described by Matthew Fox.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

My christology

“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.” - James Martineau
My christology is neither high nor low,
but broad and deep.

We are all Christ,
emerging wet and shining
from the River Jordan,
with the light of heaven
shining on us.

We are all Buddha,
reborn each moment,
arising dependent,
Buddha-nature unfolding.

We are all John Barleycorn,
cut down in autumn,
ploughed back into the earth each winter,
putting on green shoots in spring.

We are all Aradia,
bringing her subversive message of hope
to an oppressed people.

We are all messiahs,
and we must all save the world
together, like rainbow warriors.

Let us recognise the work
to which we are called,
and open our sacred hearts to the world.

Yvonne Aburrow
2-7-11, 6.01 am


  • Aradia is the messianic figure supposed to have appeared to Italian witches and taught them the mysteries of Diana
  • Christology is what you think the nature of Christ is (in relation to God and humanity)
  • John Barleycorn is a dying and resurrecting vegetation spirit in  Wiccan mythology
  • The Legend of the Rainbow Warriors is a prophecy of the coming of saviours

(part of the Write for your Life practice developed by Merle Feld)

Thursday, 23 June 2011

This day

This day
I desire to make connections
  to sustain a sense of the sacred
  to be graceful and gracious
  to listen to the silences between the words
  to be mindful of the beauty in each moment
  to give thanks for the beauties
    of tree and flower,
    birdsong and laughter,
    friendship and fellowship.

Great Mystery at the heart of all that is,
may I be constantly aware of the wonder and joy
of being awake, alive and aware
and treasure each moment
whatever it brings

and when I fail,
as often happens,
let me not be too hard on myself,
but gently reconnect with the heart of the mystery
sinking gratefully into the soft darkness,
the singing silence.
For each moment we can begin again.
It is never too late.
The time is always now.


(Morning - setting an intention)

(part of the Write for your Life practice developed by Merle Feld)

Monday, 20 June 2011

World Refugee Day

I just received this from the Refugee Council, who stand up for the rights of asylum seekers.
World Refugee Day is observed on June 20 each year. This day honours the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.

I stand accused

I stand accused
For asking for my rights
For exercising my right to live
For choosing the party of my choice
For choosing which leader to lead my country
I stand accused

I stand accused
For demanding proper health care
For demanding better education
For demanding freedom of speech
For demanding freedom of association
I stand accused

I stand accused
For belonging to a political party of my choice
For being ungrateful to war mongers posing as war veterans
For asking how a state minister becomes a millionaire overnight
For asking why some people are above the law
I stand accused

by Hasani, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Sunshine after rain

Light unending
Light transforming
Light revealing.

The world is transformed by light
especially after rain.

The rain makes everything seem grey and misty
But it washes the dust and weariness away
And when the sun returns,
everything gleams, fresh and bright,
colours sparkling.

The light renews the world,
transforms it,
reveals its brilliance.

Water and light: sources of life,
refreshment and renewal.

The soul's seasons are like this:
tears and laughter, water and light.

When the tears come,
may they be swiftly followed by laughter,
Laughter that renews and refreshes,
illuminates everything
and reveals the joy,
the inexpressible joy
at the heart of everything.

(part of the Write for your Life practice developed by Merle Feld)

Monday, 13 June 2011


Where does the mind go during sleep?
Does it rest in the Divine?
Wherever it goes, it returns refreshed
from the shores of forgetfulness.

And what of dreams,
those messengers from the deep?
Beautiful and fearful,
they bring up treasures and horrors
from beneath the sea.

My body sinks thankfully into sleep
like a sloth settling onto a branch.

Let us be grateful
for the gift of sleep
and the healing it brings.

Let us be grateful
for the gift of dreams
and the insights they bring.

1.30 pm

(part of the Write for your Life practice developed by Merle Feld)

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Tread gently on the earth

a song by Carolyn Hillyer (tune on YouTube)

Drum your footsteps to the sacred mountain
Lay down on the bleeding earth and sigh
Breath the rhythm of the Mother sleeping
Listen to Her dream, She whispers: Come alive!
Tread gently on the earth
Breathe gently of the air
Lie gently in the water
Touch gently to the fire.
She bears the scars of our fears and our follies
The dark night hovers and the world sits blind
But the waters flow and the moon is singing
Daughter winds are gathering and hope is high.
Tread gently on the earth
Breathe gently of the air
Lie gently in the water
Touch gently to the fire.
You were born of Her, She gave you being
She healed your body and brought your soul fire
As the Mother wakes we must awaken with Her
We will fade away if we let Her die.
Tread gently on the earth
Breathe gently of the air
Lie gently in the water
Touch gently to the fire.
I have always loved this song, which has a really beautiful tune and a great message.

Source: The Neith Network Library which also has several other poems / songs by the same author:
And her website, where you can buy her CDs, is Seventh Wave Music.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


When pain comes to live in the body
It has a way of taking over
my whole awareness,
making me feel trapped in my body with the pain.

But then there's the gratitude
for the love and concern of friends
who wish me well,
ask how I am,
some of them reaching out of their own pain
to touch me in healing.

And so my awareness moves
from the pain to my heart
opening in gratitude
for the gift of friends,
sending messages of concern.

A true friend is one who shares
pain and laughter
love and companionship
sorrow and joy.

I give thanks for friends.
I give thanks to friends:
manifestations of divine love.

6.11 pm

(part of the Write for your Life practice developed by Merle Feld)

Monday, 30 May 2011

Where does your theology come from?

Daniel over at Benge has an excellent blogpost about creating heaven on earth - a great idea, relating to some of the sayings of Jesus:
"Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew, 6: 10)

When he was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The Kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed the Kingdom of God is within you." (Luke, 17:20)

His disciples said to him, "When will the Kingdom come?", Jesus answered and said, "It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look here!' or 'Look there!'. Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the Earth, and people don't see it!" (Thomas, 113)
Daniel also says that he was partly inspired by the lyrics of a Belinda Carlisle song.
They say in heaven that love comes first
Let’s make heaven here on earth.
This led me to think about where I get my theological ideas and inspirations from. A lot of my theological ideas come from science fiction.

I am very inspired by the eco-spirituality of Ursula Le Guin, who is a fan of Taoism. I especially enjoyed her book Always Coming Home, which elucidates a spirituality based on the ecology of the Napa Valley in California, as well as being an exciting tale of a conflict of worldviews. As a child, I found the idea of the Equilibrium outlined in her Earthsea trilogy very inspiring, too. And the ethics implied by her wonderful short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (I would walk away).

I was also very struck by the ideas of Julian May, who is a fan of Teilhard de Chardin. May talks about the idea of Unity, which is similar to Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. Unity is the point at which the whole galaxy becomes unified in a metapsychic way.

I also have to mention Michael J Stracinsky, creator of Babylon 5, and a fan of interfaith dialogue. There are some wonderful ideas about religion and diversity in this series, particularly the episode where the commander of Babylon 5 is asked to showcase the religion of planet Earth, and decides to have a long line of people from different religions, to illustrate the religious diversity of humanity.

There's an entire tradition of theology devoted to listening to the ideas of the people, not just the "expert" theologians - so I don't think there's anything wrong in Daniel getting his theology from 1980s pop songs and me getting mine from science fiction. Indeed, as is well known, new religions have been founded on the basis of science fiction (well, space opera, anyway).

Where do you get your theological ideas?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Reclaiming religion-words

Many people have difficulty with words like church, religion, and worship because they have acquired negative connotations through association with evangelicalism and fundamentalism. As Dennis Potter once said, "The trouble with words is that they've been in other people's mouths."

So I would like to suggest some more positive meanings for these words.

Religion - to reconnect with all that is; to connect with one's deeper being in community with others.

Church - a community of people with whom one goes on a spiritual quest or journey.

Worship - a celebration of what is of ultimate worth in our lives

Belief - trusting and loving something greater than yourself (not necessarily something supernatural - it could be humanity or your community)

Faith - a state of openness or trust

God - the experience of connection with other beings, the ultimate mystery, the source of all life, the spirit of life, the ground of all being

Some words might be irredeemable... but let's give them a try:

Christian - someone who follows the teachings of Jesus and tries to live by his values

Salvation - a process of healing and restoring the lost parts of the soul to each other (not undertaken by some strange supernatural means, but by being in loving community with others)

Sin - a state of alienation or separation from the wellsprings of life

The trouble with using these words without carefully qualifying of what you're talking about is that people will hear the original meaning of the word that they were taught, rather than the (new to them) liberal meaning - especially in a culture where people are more interested in the dictionary definition (denotation) of a word than how it is used in different contexts (connotation). So if you're going to use one of these words to mean something other than the accepted view of what it means, it can cause difficulty to newcomers to your liberal religious community.

Monday, 25 April 2011

From the rising of the sun

Praise be to the source of all life.
Praise, all beings who come from the source, praise the source of all life.
Blessed be the source of all life from this time forth and for evermore.
From the rising of the sun until its setting, praise the Name that cannot be named.
The source transcends nations and boundaries, and its glory is beyond the heavens.
Who is like unto the source of life, which dwells in the deep,
The source that becomes like the earth
  to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth!
The spirit of life raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the dunghill;
And sets them with princes, even with the princes of their people.
The life wells up even in the barren, and makes them joyfully bring forth life.
Praise the source of all life.

(A NeoPlatonist / Taoist / Unitarian version of Psalm 113)

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Third Annual Pagan Values Blogging Month

Pax of the Pagan Values Blogject has just announced the third annual Pagan Values Blogging Month.

You can sign up for it on Facebook.

Pax writes:
We must not be afraid to discuss the values and virtues and ethics we have discovered in our contemporary Pagan faiths. There are enough books on rituals and spells and prayers to last us a few generations… let's start writing works on confronting poverty and hunger from Pagan perspectives. Let us set aside the fear of prejudice, and the once glamorous but now tattered and worn mantle of the outsider and the rebel, and take pride in ourselves and our faiths, in our works and lives and worship and in our Pagan communities and our larger communities.

Learn more about the event.

When you get your contribution written/recorded and posted in June put a link to it in the comments stream on the Facebook page. Tags such as "PVE2011" and "Pagan Values" are also encouraged.

Pagan Values Blogging Month 2010 and 2009 produced some excellent reflections on Pagan values and virtues - it was popular theology in the making.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Earth Spirit talk at Unitarian GA

Many people think that the Pagan or Earth Spirit element in Unitarianism started around 1980 with the first Unitarian Universalist Pagan ritual, or with the foundation of CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) in America in 1986, or the Unitarian Earth Spirit Network in the UK, founded in 1990. In fact, it has its roots in some much earlier developments.

Unitarians and ancient pagan ideas
A notable pagan thinker of late antiquity was Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who pleaded for religious tolerance for pagans in the face of Christian intolerance:
We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road.
— Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402)
Paganism is generally tolerant of different viewpoints because most Pagans believe that everyone has their own unique path to walk, and that there is a vast array of deities. Unitarians are tolerant because they tend to believe that everyone’s experience is unique and different religions are different perspectives on the same underlying reality.

Michael Servetus
Michael Servetus (often regarded as the first Unitarian martyr) decided on the unity of God in part because he had been reading Hermetic texts, according to Earl Morse Wilbur, author of a history of Unitarianism in two volumes. The Hermetic texts were a loose compendium of Platonist and Neo-Platonist texts from late antiquity (the last days of the ancient pagan world). Some pagan thinkers of antiquity held that there was a divine unity.

Deism and Natural Religion (18th century)
Two key strands in Unitarian thought were Deism and Natural Religion.
Deism in the philosophy of religion is the standpoint that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that a supreme being created the universe. Further the term often implies that this supreme being does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending to assert that God (or "The Supreme Architect") has a plan for the universe that is not to be altered by intervention in the affairs of human life. Deists believe in the existence of God without any reliance on revealed religion, religious authority or holy books. … Deism became more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment — especially in Britain, France, United States and Ireland — mostly among those raised as Christians who found they could not believe in supernatural miracles or the inerrancy of scriptures, but who did believe in one God. The Founding Fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, and it is generally believed that many of them were deists.

Most deists saw the religions of their day as corruptions of an original, pure religion that was simple and rational. They felt that this original pure religion had become corrupted by "priests" who had manipulated it for personal gain and for the class interests of the priesthood in general.

According to this world view, over time "priests" had succeeded in encrusting the original simple, rational religion with all kinds of superstitions and "mysteries" – irrational theological doctrines. Laymen were told by the priests that only the priests really knew what was necessary for salvation and that laymen must accept the "mysteries" on faith and on the priests' authority. This kept the laity baffled by the nonsensical "mysteries", confused, and dependent on the priests for information about the requirements for salvation. The priests consequently enjoyed a position of considerable power over the laity, which they strove to maintain and increase. Deists referred to this kind of manipulation of religious doctrine as "priestcraft", a highly derogatory term.

Deists saw their mission as the stripping away of "priestcraft" and "mysteries" from religion, thereby restoring religion to its original, true condition – simple and rational. In many cases, they considered true, original Christianity to be the same as this original natural religion.

The original, simple and rational religion was known as the Urreligion or natural religion.

Many early Unitarians were Deists (particularly the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence) and were accused by their contemporaries of atheism. Deists believed that religion was natural to humanity, and that God was accessible to reason. They looked for an original form of religion from which all current forms had decayed or evolved. Hence many of them were interested in ancient Greek religion, and also in Druidry, believing it to be a form of the ancient Hebrew religion which had been brought to Britain by the Phoenicians.

Iolo Morgannwg
Hence, when Unitarianism in Britain officially began, it was not long before it attracted the attention of one Iolo Morganwg, who had earlier written a huge collection of material for the nascent Druid movement, and went on to become a Unitarian minister and to write many of the hymns used in the Welsh Unitarian hymnbook. At that time ancient druidry was thought to have been a debased form of the Hebrew religion, brought to Britain by the Phoenicians, so it is hardly surprising that Morganwg became interested in Unitarianism. Nevertheless, the Druid movement of which he was one of the founders has evolved into the modern Pagan Druid movement.

Ronald Hutton’s comprehensive work on the druids shows that there was hardly any evidence of what the druids were like; the only evidence available was from Roman sources, but there was hardly enough there to reconstruct a religion that looked anything like druidry.

Druids did not generally identify themselves as Pagans until the early 20th century. Before that, druid orders had names like the Universal Bond, and their views were universalist rather than pagan, in other words, they believed that there was an essential element in every religion that was the same – a mystical core of religion.

Contemporary Druidry is part of the Pagan revival. Druid and Pagan beliefs range from non-theism to animism to (neo-)shamanism to duotheism (a god and a goddess) to monism to polytheism. Most Pagans feel a sense of connection to the land, the Earth, and/or Nature. A number of Druid orders are drawn to ancient sites because they feel connected to their builders and former users. Some Druids consider themselves to be the successors of the ancient druids described by Julius Caesar and others, often using arguments of dubious intellectual provenance, as we know almost nothing about what ancient druids did or believed.

A key theme in Druidry (particularly at the festival of Samhain) is the connection with ancestors, usually defined as including one's personal kin, the people who once dwelled in the place one lives in (house, village, town, region), and spiritual kindred, that is, inspirers.

There are two main strands of Druidry, the countercultural (associated with road protests and similar events, and sometimes clouded by a reputation for public drunkeness) and the more retiringly 'spiritual' (who tend to be more middle class). There is much overlap between the two strands.

Druidry and the Pagan revival are very diverse and cannot be easily pigeonholed. Contemporary Pagans are drawn from a range of backgrounds and include some professionals and scientists.

Rammohun Roy
Another non-Christian who became interested in Unitarianism – and became in the process a major influence upon it – was Raja Rammohun Roy. He had had encounters with various Christian missionaries in India, but found their arguments unconvincing. Tired of Hindu stories of half-human half-deities, he was not minded to accept the divinity of Jesus, and argued that Jesus was human and not divine. He founded the Unitarian Society of Calcutta and the Brahmo Samaj (One God Society). He also translated the Upanishads and Vedas (Hindu scriptures) into English, and it was probably he who coined the word “Hindu”. He corresponded with Unitarians in Britain and eventually travelled here to ensure that the government did not repeal the law banning widow-burning, which he and others had campaigned so hard to abolish. Sadly he died here and is buried in Arnos Vale Cemetry in Bristol. His writings influenced many Unitarians.

Whilst he was in England, Roy toured the country and met many people of all walks of life, including George IV (whose coronation he attended) and Jeremy Bentham, who had Unitarian sympathies and many Unitarian friends. Roy presented three papers on the Revenue System of India, the Judicial System of India and the Material Condition of India to a committee of the House of Commons.
Religious and political thinkers sought him out to engage in spirited discussions, and Dissenting and Anglican clergymen vied with each other for the honor of his presence at their services. Prominent middle-class reformers were constantly at his side, their daughters or unmarried sisters often especially attentive to him. And, while in Manchester, a crowd of factory workers followed Rammohun about on his tour, the men and women insisting on shaking his hand or embracing him. (Zastoupil, 2002: 215)
He addressed the Unitarian annual meeting in London, and was invited to Bristol by the Reverend Lant Carpenter, where he stayed at Mary Carpenter's home until his untimely death from meningitis on 27 September 1833. He was buried in Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol, and an annual service is held at his tomb, conducted by the Unitarian minister of Bristol. The Brahmo Samaj are regular attenders at this event. A statue of Rammohun Roy (paid for by the Indian government) was erected in central Bristol in 1997.
Roy's visit also had political implications, in that there was some talk of him standing for Parliament, and his association with radical dissenters like the Unitarians was of considerable assistance in their agenda of reform and the disentanglement of church and state (Zastoupil, 2002: 220).
Roy's deist views, his struggles with Hindu orthodoxy and debates with Baptist missionaries over the doctrine of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, and the fact that his family was said to have disowned him for his views, all resonated strongly with the Unitarians of the 1820s and 1830s, who faced persecution by the authorities (the 1689 Toleration Act was not extended to them), legal disputes over chapels and endowments, frequent blasphemy charges, and public objections to their involvement in politics and campaigning (Zastoupil, 2002: 230).
Unitarians and Nature
Unitarians have often found Nature inspiring and viewed the Divine as immanent in Nature, perhaps drawing on Spinoza’s ideas of God as Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge, the Romantic poet, was a Unitarian originally and preached in several Unitarian chapels. He also employed a lot of Nature imagery in his poems, and many of them were pantheist in tone.

He wrote about Liberty as a principle that ran through all Nature:
And there I felt thee!—on that sea-cliff’s verge,
Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,
Had made one murmur with the distant surge!
Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,
And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,
Possessing all things with intensest love,
O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.
He writes about God incarnate in humanity, and in Nature, in his poem, Religious Musings: a Desultory Poem. The influence of his Unitarian mentor Joseph Priestley is apparent in these lines:
'Tis the sublime of man
Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wondrous Whole!
This fraternises man, this constitutes
Our charities and bearings. But 'tis God
Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole . . .
James Martineau spoke for many other Unitarians when he included the works of Coleridge in a short listing of his personal 'sacred guides'. And perhaps his famous view of the Incarnation could have been influenced by these Religious Musings.
“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Transcendentalists
The most obvious way in which Unitarianism has influenced contemporary Paganism is through the Transcendentalists (a group of Unitarians from New England). Ralph Waldo Emerson, who began the Transcendentalist movement, had read the writings of Rammohun Roy, and was deeply influenced by them.

The Transcendentalists argued that true religion and spirituality transcend the dogmatic cultural forms of religion; they took their name from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The key players in the Transcendentalist movement were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden, an account of his attempt to return to Nature by living in a small hut by Walden Pond), and Bronson Alcott, educator and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.

Many of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s ideas fed into modern Paganism; for example the idea of polarity (on which Emerson wrote an essay) is very important in Wicca; and the idea of retreating to a simple hut, as Thoreau did, influenced Ross Nicholls, founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, to advocate retreating to a simple hut (perhaps he got the idea from the poem by WB Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but that was inspired by Thoreau).

Emerson’s own writings were widely read, and he became friends with Walt Whitman, the gay poet of Nature, who corresponded with Edward Carpenter, a gay Pagan socialist vegetarian whose writings were influential in the Pagan movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is probably because of the Transcendentalists that Paganism has so often been referred to as a “Nature religion” according to Chas Clifton, an American scholar of Pagan Studies. Most Pagans and many Unitarians believe that the Divine (or deities) is/are immanent in the world; an important prerequisite for treating the planet with respect.

Unitarians and the Goddess
Another very important idea in the contemporary Pagan revival, and for many Unitarians, is the worship of the Goddess or of Goddesses.

Unitarian feminists were vital in the process of exposing the patriarchal nature of religion. Names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of Theodore Parker’s congregation, who wrote The Woman’s Bible, and Frances Power Cobbe, who edited a 14 volume edition of his writings, are very important in feminist history.
  • The Goddess is immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother - this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.
Before there was the Earth Spirit Network, there were the feminist theology activists in Unitarianism who campaigned for more inclusive language; they included Ann Peart.

Theodore Parker
Theodore Parker was a Transcendentalist minister who was shunned by the more conservative Unitarians in the Boston area, but eventually gathered a congregation of about 300 in an old theatre; they included Barbara Bodichon, feminist and later a Pre-Raphaelite artist; and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a famous American Unitarian feminist. Parker was a noted campaigner against slavery; but he also often referred to God as a Mother, and believed that God is immanent.

Norbert Čapek 
Norbert Čapek also viewed the Divine as immanent in humanity, and wrote the famous and much-loved hymn, Mother Spirit, Father Spirit. He also designed the Flower Communion, which was a radical expression of what it meant to be Unitarian in a country occupied by the Nazis, and a celebration of individuality, as well as a form of communion that his congregation, many of whom had rejected conventional Christianity, could celebrate.

The flaming chalice
During the Second World War, the Unitarian Service Committee was rescuing Jews from the Nazis, and needed an official symbol to put in their passports to show that they were under the protection of the Unitarian Service Committee. Rev Charles Joy, the leader of the USC, commissioned Hans Deutsch to produce a symbol, and wrote to the General Assembly back in America, that it was like a Greek or Roman chalice.

So, pagan and pantheist ideas have been in circulation in Unitarianism since it began; they are not a recent introduction, but an integral part of Unitarian engagement with the world, because both Paganism and Unitarianism are world-affirming.

~ Yvonne Aburrow

Creative Commons Licence
From Natural Religion to Nature Religion: Pagan and Pantheist tendencies in Unitarianism by Yvonne Aburrow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

See also Pagan tendencies in Unitarianism on the Pagan Theologies Wiki.

Friday, 1 April 2011


Services that I am leading over the next few months:

11 am, 10 April 2011
"What is a Messiah?"
The word Messiah (anointed one) means different things in different spiritual traditions. The service will explore the Jewish, Christian, Gnostic and Unitarian meanings and implications of the concept of Messiah.
Bridport Unitarian Chapel

11am, 8 May 2011
Rammohun Roy and Rabindranath Tagore
These two spiritual leaders were educational and social reformers and their ideas are still inspiring and relevant today.
Golders Green Unitarians

11am, 5 June 2011
What is a Unitarian?
Exploring the spiritual and historical significance of being a Unitarian.
Crewkerne Unitarian Chapel

6pm, 21 August 2011
Introduction to Taoism
Taoism is one of the three great religions of China. I have always found the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, inspiring, and the religion or philosophy which arose from it is also fascinating, and gave rise to alchemy, a spiritual practice which spread across Asia and into Europe.
Trowbridge Unitarians

11am, 2 October 2011
Exploring time and cyclicity in relation to Harvest.
Trowbridge Unitarians

10.45, 13 November 2011
Remembrance Sunday
Oxford Unitarians

Spiritual practices workshops

Wednesday 20 April, 7-9 pm: Meditation workshop
We will start with some simple meditation techniques for relaxation, such as relaxing the body, mindfulness of breathing, and simple visualisations to assist with focusing on the breath.

Wednesday 18 May, 7-9 pm: Metta Bhavana 
This is a Buddhist meditation practice which promotes loving kindness and a sense of peace and harmony. We will explore the variations on Metta Bhavana, the Buddhist ideas which gave rise to it, and spend some time practising it.

Wednesday 15 June, 7-9 pm: Visualisation 
This is a practice used by many Pagans to explore and transform the inner self. We will try some simple visualisations, and look at some of the symbolism of the Pagan traditions which is used in visualisations, such as the four elements.

Wednesday 13 July, 7-9 pm: Chakras 
These are an ancient Hindu concept of energy centres in the body. They correspond to various glands in the body. We will look at their names and associated concepts, sounds and colours, and visualise opening and closing them. 

Wednesday 17 August, 7-9 pm: Unitarian writers on spirituality 
We will look at some of the Unitarian writers who have explored spiritual practices, especially those which cultivate a sense of the Divine as being immanent (involved and present) in the world. It would be helpful if participants could obtain a copy of The Unitarian Life: Voices from the Past and Present, edited by Stephen Lingwood (London: The Lindsey Press, 2008). 

Wednesday 14 September, 7-9 pm: Communion 
This is quite a difficult subject for many Unitarians, because most of us do not believe in salvation. What does communion mean to us? What Unitarian traditions of communion have emerged? How can it be re-imagined? We will look at three different Unitarian bread-and-wine communion services, the flower communion and the water communion, and their historical and theological contexts. 

About the workshops 
  • We welcome people regardless of ethnicity, ability, gender, or sexual orientation. 
  • We welcome people of all ages except that a lower limit may be applied as appropriate. 
  • We welcome new members and help them to feel at home. 
  • We offer a safe space, characterised by acceptance and respect for all. 
  • We make room for people of different beliefs, perspectives, and spiritual orientations. 
  • We emphasize that there is no single answer to life's great questions, no one way of understanding the sacred element of life, and no one spiritual path that is right for everyone. 
  • We offer opportunities for broad participation. 

About the facilitator 

Yvonne Aburrow has been a Unitarian since 2007 and a Wiccan since 1991. She has led numerous workshops and rituals, and studied MA Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities at Bath Spa University. She has written four books on the mythology and symbolism of trees, birds and animals, published by Capall Bann. She is a trade union activist and web developer, as well as a blogger and a poet. 

The Trowbridge Unitarian Meeting House
'The Conigre' 45 Seymour Road

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Loving kindness meditation

Many Buddhist traditions practice Metta Bhavana, or loving kindness meditation. (Metta means loving-kindness.)

The way I do it is as follows.

The meditation is in several stages (the classic version has five). At each stage I silently recite a mantra, linked to the breath. The first line is said on the inbreath, the second on the outbreath, and so on.

May you be happy
May you be well
May you be safe
  and free from injury
May you be filled
  with loving kindness.

This is a shortened version of the full mantra, and therefore easier to remember.

The first stage of the meditation is to wish yourself loving kindness (so the mantra is "May I be be happy, may I be well..." etc).

The second stage is to wish loving kindness to someone you love.

The third stage is to wish it for someone you like.

The third stage is to wish it to someone you are neutral towards.

The fourth stage is to wish it to someone you dislike, or who has hurt you. (Don't start this one by trying the most difficult person in your life, as it can be quite painful - start small and work upwards.)

The fifth stage is to wish loving kindness to a small group such as your immediate circle of friends (or you can imagine the previous four people together in a group).

The sixth stage is to wish loving kindness to your immediate community (place of work, spiritual community or neighbourhood). At this stage I send loving kindness to Wiccans and Unitarians everywhere.

The seventh stage is to wish loving kindness to everyone on the planet.

The eighth stage is to wish it to all sentient beings.

The benefits of this meditation are manifold. It is very calming and soothing; it allows you to focus on your breath, and relax into feelings of loving kindness and safety; it helps you to feel connected to all beings, and to expand your imaginative sympathy to encompass them; and it helps you to overcome negative feelings towards people you dislike, which can really improve your relationship with them, and help you to forgive them. It also has beneficial effects on the brain, as it has been shown to reduce the "fight or flight" instinct in situations where it is not needed.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Spirituality Workshops

Contemplative Prayer 
Wednesday 16 February 2011, 7 till 9 pm
Because many people do not believe in a personal God or in miraculous interventions, we find it difficult to pray. But prayer is not just about asking for things. It can be contemplative. It can be about communing silently with the universe, or self-examination, or holding loved ones in your thoughts, or increasing mindfulness. This workshop will look at different types of prayer, and invite you to create your own prayers, as well as spending some time practicing contemplative and centering prayer.

People of all faiths and none are welcome to this event. It is about how you develop your own ideas of prayer; it does not seek to impose any viewpoint.

Register for this event at or Sign up for this event on Facebook

What do Lent and Easter mean to you? 
Wednesday 16 March, 7 till 9 pm
We will examine what Lent and Easter have meant to Unitarians and Christians down the ages, and what they can mean for us now.

The workshop will include Jungian perspectives, ancient pagan mythological parallels, and Christian mystical ideas.

Unitarians have traditionally disbelieved in original sin, vicarious atonement and the resurrection, but it is interesting to view the Easter story as a piece of mythology, and compare it with Jungian views of the process of individuation, and with myths of dying-and-resurrecting vegetation gods from the ancient pagan Near East.

Modern Pagans celebrate the myths of Ishtar, Adonis, Attis and Baldr, all of which involve a similar journey to the underworld.

Christian mystics and heretics have also viewed the Easter story differently.

We will also look at traditions of fasting and preparation, and ask if they are still relevant, or whether some other practice would be more appropriate for Lent.

Register for this event at or Sign up for this event on Facebook

Free, but donations for tea & coffee and chapel funds gratefully received

TrowbridgeUnited KingdomBA14 8LY

Pledge of Quality

In every UK Spirituality event, workshop, course, or retreat that I lead, I will do my utmost to:

  • Welcome people regardless of race, ability, sex, or sexual orientation.
  • Welcome people of all ages except that a lower limit may be applied as appropriate.
  • Welcome new members and help them to feel at home.
  • Offer a safe space, characterised by acceptance and respect for all.
  • Make room for people of different beliefs, perspectives, and spiritual orientations.
  • Emphasize that there is no single answer to life's great questions, no one way of understanding the sacred element of life, and no one spiritual path that is right for everyone.
  • Offer opportunities for broad participation.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Mother Spirit

a prayer by Yvonne Aburrow

God our Mother: the source and origin of all life
Who is in both the starry heavens and the fruitful Earth
We sing to you of your beauty,
And we cry to you when we are in pain,
We whisper your many names into the night.
Your presence is everywhere
Your song is the music of creation, perpetually renewing itself,
Reflected in the patterns of Nature and the movements of the stars.
You feed us from the bounty of Nature’s store
And nurture us when we are in pain,
When we have hurt others,
And give us the strength to heal and forgive.
May we not harm the delicate web of existence,
But help to heal and strengthen it.
For yours is the beauty, present in everything,
The ever-changing beauty of Nature,
Throughout all existence