The Unitarian Church’s defining symbol is the Flaming Chalice. According to their literature the flame symbolizes truth and the chalice generosity, but according to its designer, Hans Deutsch, no one meaning or interpretation is official.
Seeing as it was Sunday, I’d decided to go to church, and seeing as the Unitarian Church on High Street was amongst the places I’d had in mind when, at the beginning of this blog, I’d said I wanted to get ‘behind closed doors and find out what went on’ – off to the Unitarian Church I headed.
The doors were open for half past ten. There were three sets of them. I entered through a small porch, followed by two sets of wooden doors with glazed panels. Between these sets of doors was a panelled lobby where I paused for a second, staring at the frosted glass in front of me, wondering what I’d find. Then I pushed open one of the doors and entered a fairly standard-looking sort of church - pews, a pulpit, a dais, a table with flowers on it, a lectern and choir stalls.
I don’t know what I’d expected, but it hadn’t been as traditional as this, and definitely not as comfortable. These were dissenters, I knew, so maybe I’d imagined something a little more austere. Bare walls, an aversion to heating, pews designed to be uncomfortable – that sort of thing.
Even on first walking through the door, however, it was obvious this was a loved and well-used church. Its oak-panelling was as polished and shiny as chestnuts before they’ve lost their lustre and its brasses shone like gold, as did its organ pipes. Its windows were full of light, its walls were white and despite a massive royal coat-of-arms on one of them - a royal seal of approval harking back to its dissenting past - it had the air of a church that to its congregation was some sort of home.
I chose a back pew. All my life I’ve been a back seat girl. Come in with worship, announced the Minister from behind the lectern, looking round at us all. Come in and find peace and rest, music for your souls.
The service had begun. It was a quiet, low-key start. The Minister spoke about times in our lives when the lights had gone out, calling on us to think with gratitude of those who’d helped us through. A short prayer was said to the Spirit of Life and Love, then we were into the first hymn. ‘Come Together in Love,’ we sang with the organ keeping us in time.
After this, the Minister told a story about two old friends, Old Joe and Old Jim, and their falling out over a calf. Shades of Bruce Chatwin’s ‘On the Black Hill’ I found myself thinking. The story concluded with the phrase ‘I have more bridges to build’. Then there was a prayer about walls being built, and bridges coming down and learning not to fear each other. Then we were into a poem, beginning with the words ‘What is a friend?’
Friendship, unmistakably was the theme of this service. We sang another hymn. We prayed again. Instead of closing my eyes this time I tried to write it down:
Spirit of life and love, to want to love and to be human is to be aware of our separation, often feeling alone, not knowing what to do or say. We want to live in harmony with the world around us. We confess our separation as an act of humility…’
That was as far as I got. Something was said after that about feeling the presence of God, and something else about grace – it’s in grace we discover God, which I have to admit I didn’t quite grasp. Then there was a hymn about living together in truth and peace, followed by a prayer about being perfect channels of love, followed by a silent pause for thinking about those who loved us.
I like pauses. They give me time to recognize what I’m thinking when all too often my thoughts are just swashing about. This was a proper pause too, a good, decent-sized one followed by a prayer for old wounds to be healed, followed by another pause in the form of a musical interlude performed on the organ.
The air rushed through its pipes. On any other occasion I might have sat back and closed my eyes, but this was my chance to take in what I’d missed so far - the parquet floor, the lovely mosaic work on the dais, the hanging lamps, the lilies, the stone plaques with names engraved on them, the empty choir stalls, the stained glass flowers decorating all the main windows, the frieze of Wedgwood blue and white running round the top of the walls…
The Darwin family attended this church. Charles Darwin would have sat on these pews until the age of eight, which is when his mother died. Darwin events still take place in this church to this day. Then there’s the great poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who preached from this pulpit as a trainee minister.
This church once housed one of the oldest Unitarian congregations in the country. It’s built on the site of Shrewsbury’s first dissenting [Presbytarian] church, which opened its doors in 1691, just two years after it became lawful for dissenters to have a dedicated meeting place.
By a century or so later, in common with several other dissenting congregations, the one here in Shrewsbury had become recognizably Unitarian - a system of belief defined by the denomination as Judeo-Christian, but with no creed; rejecting some of the dogma of the established church, including the deity of Jesus Christ and the orthodoxy of the Trinity; stressing the importance of liberty of conscience; each individual free to form their own beliefs.
The organ piece finished. We sang another hymn and then the Minister gave her main address. It began with Robert Scott and the tragic heroism of his expedition to the South Pole, including the self-sacrifice of Titus Oates. Then it moved on to what if felt like to be all alone. Then it talked about friends being like angels in our lives and finally it ended with recognizing something of God in everyone. Each friend represents a world in us. May we all try to be such friends, one to another, the Minister finished off.
After the service, which ended with another hymn, a collection plate and a prayer to Our Source who Rises and Shines Forth in All Things, there was another short organ piece, through which the congregation sat attentively – as well they should, because it was a fine organ well played. Then it was time for tea and biscuits at the back, and a chance for me to ask a few questions.
Not only did I want to know what went on behind these closed doors on the High Street. I also wanted to know what it meant to be a Unitarian, and why people attended Unitarian churches rather than any others. Given the lack of dogma, for example, why weren’t Unitarians and Quakers worshipping together?
Someone talked to me about the freedom to find our own path, to explore and take wisdom from any source. This definitely sounded Quakerish to me. In his Guardian blog a few days ago [http://bit.ly/UKCwi3] Andrew Brown wrote, 'I lack the seriousness to make a real Quaker even without the theological commitments. But I do believe we ought to love our neighbours, even when they are miserable, absurd or embarrassing.' This didn't sound too far away from the Unitarians to me.
Why all these different dissenting groups, I asked, when they sounded so similar. The Quakers were less formal in their worship, it was explained. They’d sit around in an attitude of meditation, waiting for the Spirit to move them before doing or saying anything. The Unitarians on the other hand – as I had witnessed myself this morning – had a more formal and traditional take on worship, formed around what they described as ‘the hymn-prayer sandwich’.
I got into conversation with somebody who described herself as being at the nature-worshipping end of the Unitarian spectrum. Was she a Christian, I asked. She was a Unitarian, she said. She’d been brought up in the Unitarian Church but, no, she wasn’t a Christian. Some Unitarians were, she said, and others weren’t. But the ones who were Christians would call themselves Unitarians first.
It was plain that in this church all views were welcomed. I wondered if this didn’t lead to arguments sometimes. Being a free-thinker, after all, wasn’t always the same as being tolerant. But Winnie Gordon, trainee-minister here in Shrewsbury, told me that this was the friendliest Unitarian congregation she’d yet come across. People here listened to each other’s views and respected them. And they were welcoming too. Not everybody in the congregation had grown up in Unitarianism. Alison Patrick, for example, Tourism Officer at Shropshire Council, had become a Unitarian through a chance link with work, and others had just walked through the doors and found themselves at home.
Certainly I was made welcome. Outside afterwards I found the High Street buzzing. Starbucks was full, and so was Costa’s. People were going in and out of Waterstones or sitting in the Square enjoying a sudden and unexpected burst of spring. I closed the church door behind me and headed home up Grope Lane. I was glad to know at last what went on inside.