‘Someone has broken the church windows!’ As a minister, this is something you never want to hear from a member of your congregation – especially when your church is the oldest surviving non-conformist house of worship in London and when you have been on the job for less than two weeks.
I became minister of the Newington Green Unitarian Church and its sister church, Unity Church Islington, on the first of October. Soon after, the late-night slumber of the many illustrious ghosts of Newington Green – such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Dr. Richard Price – was interrupted by the sound of shattering glass as rocks and bottles sailed through six large, first-floor windows.
Many thoughts arise when surveying floors, tables and pavement covered with jagged glinting shards of glass. We saw no obvious indication that the attack related to the church’s identity, but we had to ask, why us?
Unitarians have experienced a history of persecution. For centuries, the rights, property, and even the lives of our religious forbears were put at risk and lost for questioning established dogma. Is this ancient history? Not entirely! Only this year, Chester Cathedral denounced Unitarians as heretical and banned us from holding an annual service there as we had done three times before. But ‘heretic’ is a term that many of us accept and bear with pride! Its origin is in a Greek word meaning ‘able to choose’.
Unitarians believe in choice – we cherish the use of reason in religion. We impose no creed on our members, and do not believe that any one religion or philosophy has a monopoly on truth. Instead, we support each person in the search for his or her own answers to life’s ultimate questions. That search may lead in many different directions, as we draw inspiration from all the world’s religious traditions and the arts. It is not unusual to hear wisdom from Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Humanist sources in a Unitarian church and to find members who lean toward one or more of these traditions. Some might identify themselves as a Buddhist Unitarian, a Hindu Unitarian, or, in my case, a Jewish Unitarian. In a world where many are drawn to absolutes, the Unitarian way – the insistence on choice, on openness to many influences, and on reason – is perhaps outrageous enough to draw the ire of some.
Albert Einstein said ‘in the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.’ We recovered the stones that smashed our windows. Standing in front of the congregation, the church’s democratically elected leadership and I held these missiles with forgiveness in our hearts for those who threw them. Our worship service centred around the faith and hope that forgiveness brings.
Our many inspirations throughout history – Jesus, The Buddha, and others – guide us toward compassion and to seek the best in every person. ‘What is it like to be a stone thrower?’ we ask ourselves. ‘How hopeless and disconnected must one feel to wish to deliberately inflict harm on others?’ Our inner city youth are afflicted by a profound lack of hope, purpose, and meaning in their lives. It is time we asked how we can make a difference in lives that are so disconnected that destruction becomes an appealing outlet. Our congregation has found this time as an opportunity to reflect on how we as a community can support families in our area.
No one enjoys a rude awakening, but a handful of stones have helped to open our eyes to ways to work for a better world.
Andrew is the minister of the Newington Green and Islington Unitarian Churches.