The following piece accompanies the blog on "Religion and Spirituality".Here are some thoughts on "What religion has done for me"
I did not have a particularly religious upbringing. As a teenager I cannot claim to have been anti-religious either, I just didn’t see its relevance. I have always been interested in ideas, religious ones being one of many. That said from the age of 11, until my late twenties, I was more interested in political and perhaps philosophical ideas than anything else. Religion just seemed old hat, something from the past.
I grew up in the village of Birstall, in West Yorkshire. In the market square is a statue of Joseph Priestley. Priestley is one of the two founding fathers of British Unitarianism. He was also a major figure in its development in America. I attended the same school that he did, Batley Grammar. Of course we all knew about him but as a scientist, but not as a radical minister of religion. I never once remember any mention of this, as we were growing up. Although perhaps it was mentioned and the reason that it failed to register with me was because I just was not interested. We knew of Priestley the scientist, the man who discovered oxygen and invented soda water...or as we would often say “The man who invented oxygen”.
Throughout most of my life I had very little interest in religion. I was an agnostic who was verging on atheism, although I never quite took the leap of absolute disbelief. My late teens and early twenties were a mixture of hedonism, dark music and left wing politics. I was in a band and we thought we were going to change the world, oh the arrogance of youth. Meanwhile I worked in the civil service. In my mid twenties I came to Manchester and gained a degree in Politics and Modern History and soon after started work as a free-lance historian. It was during this time that Mr Priestley reared his head once again, due to his political radicalism. I hasten to add that even then I paid no attention to his religion.
This all began to change between the years 2002 and 2004 as things changed within me and my experiences of life external to me. This was brought on by my acceptance of and recovery from alcoholism. It was around this time that I began to experience what I know today as God. I had a life changing spiritual experience, I can think of no better way of describing what happened. As a result I began to explore different religions and spiritual groups. I discovered Unitarianism, almost by accident really, but became immediately interested. I soon discovered that there were congregations locally and after a bit more research I began attending Cross Street Chapel, in Manchester.
I can still remember the first service I attended, led by Rev John Midgley, it spoke powerfully to me. I also remember the warmth of the greeting that the handful of folk in attendance extended to me. I can still feel Peter Sampson's handshake as he passed me the hymn book, and gently spoke to me.
I enjoyed every aspect of congregational life; getting to know people first within the congregation and eventually further afield. I spent months bending John’s ear about everything, as I did with most people. I joined the choir and an R.E. group and just became part of the place. I felt cared for, I felt loved and I felt welcomed.
Hospitality has to be the key to true religion, in practice. One of my favourite hymns is “All Are Welcome Here” it reads “All are welcome here...all are welcome to seek in spite of fear...to open wide to all our hearts...for all are welcome here.” To me this is the whole point of religion, to build communities of love that encourage that search for understanding and meaning, that search beyond the confines of our limited individual selves. I have certainly found that to be true of my chosen Unitarian faith, at its best at least; it encourages each of us as individuals to continue that search but to do so together, unconstrained. I felt welcomed and I was listened to during my time at Cross Street. I found a religious community where I could be myself, but not in isolation; I am certain I would not, could not have discovered so much alone. I did not realise then just how much I would need that community...
I was at work on Thursday morning, November 2nd 2006 to be precise, when I received a phone call from my dearest friend Claire. She told me her son Ethan had been killed on his way to school. I immediately left and went to Manchester Royal Infirmary. I loved Claire and Ethan more than anybody in the world, but today is not a time to talk about that. John my minister came to the hospital to be with us and the family and held us in prayer over Ethan’s broken little body. He was there for us over the next few months. I will never forget all that he did.
I left the hospital later that day and felt utterly alone and lost. Claire had gone with her family and Luke (Ethan’s dad) had gone with his family. John also had to go. So what did I do? Well the first thing I did was pray. That was not enough though I needed to be with people. So I rang up some of the Cross Street folk. Well several of them just happened to be up at our Oldham Chapel, I made my way there and spent the rest of the day with these people. They listened to me, fed me and looked after me. This continued over the next months and year really as I came to terms with everything, while attempting to be there for Claire. The people of my community were able to be there, in an unobtrusive manner while I came to terms with the horrors of all that had happened. I took some time off work and spent a lot of time with these different people. They loved me when I really needed it. I do not believe I would have come through it on my own. I am sure I would have survived I am just not so sure I would have done so without hardening my heart. They helped me keep my heart open.
It was coming to terms with all of this that drew me into ministry. I wanted to be part of and to attempt to build a community of loving compassion, of true hospitality that attempts to hold people and allow them to be who they really are in every aspect of life. At least that was and is my ambition.
I have been minister to the good folk of Altrincham and Urmston for over a year and I feel that we have got to know one another quite well. From the outset I made it a priority of mine to spend time talking, but above all else listening, to them. During the worship we have shared I have encouraged openness by allowing them to get to know me. Worship for me must always speak the language of the heart and not just feed the intellect. This may well have been a challenge for some folk, but was a deliberate decision on my part in an attempt to give those present permission to be open with me. I have spent time with everyone connected with both congregations, visiting them in their own homes and talking with them about many things. This has been a real treasure to me, personally. We have some real gems hidden away in our congregations. I cannot begin to express how deeply moved I have been by what people have shared with me. Virtually every conversation has been littered with moving stories of love, of pain, of grief and of faith. I have heard some of the most incredible tales of personal spiritual experience, something I have an interest in. I have rarely left someone’s home without feeling that my life has been enhanced by the time we have just shared. I have felt welcomed into the lives of the people within both communities and for that I am profoundly grateful.
“Listen with the ear of your heart”, has become my mantra. It comes from “The Rule of Benedict” a set of ancient principles for monastic orders, followed by many Christian and some Buddhist communities today. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with the ear of your heart “. What is required is deep listening, a concept proposed, in contemporary times, by the Dalai Lama.
To me this is the whole point of religion; to be an environment that encourages us to listen, to one another and to the voice of transcendence that speaks through all and yet beyond life. Just think of the blind men and the elephant. Maybe just maybe if they had listened to one another they may have got a better idea of what an elephant was really like, instead of just grasping in the dark trying to make sense of the little bit that they were able to get a hold of.
It’s more than that though. The real purpose of religious community is to offer a place of love, support and above all else compassion as we walk through the journey of our lives. We cannot possibly experience that if we journey alone. I want and need to journey with others and I am no longer ashamed to admit this.
Religion has done an awful lot for me.