I love seeing how language idioms reveal so much about a particular culture. Take two British expressions, for instance: “to be fair”, and “to be honest”.
These phrases aren’t as common in America as they are here in the U.K., where they are ubiquitous in everyday conversation. What do they really mean here? Well, they mean what they say they mean, to an extent. But not always. For instance, say I bump into an English person I know, just as I was heading home to have a bit for dinner (or “lunch”, as I would call it). I might say something like, “you know, I can make you a sandwich too, if you’re hungry”, and said English person might respond, “oh, no thanks – to be honest, I’ve only just eaten.” Does this mean they HAVE just eaten, or they’re just making a polite excuse, to avoid an awkward pitstop at my house for a dubious sandwich? To be honest, there’s no way to tell. I once asked some dear English family members of mine how you know what a British person really feels. They laughed.
So “to be honest” may not be a failsafe marker of the truth. Nevertheless, honesty is a key value in English life. The English don’t mind about polite lies in casual conversation – especially if it’s to spare someone’s feelings – it’s the larger truths that are sacred. It’s OK to tell a stranger that it’s no big deal that they ran over your foot with their gigantic, painful piece of luggage. It’s not OK to give them false directions in return.
To be fair, whatever they’re attitude to absolute truth, when you come right down to it the English tend to be considerate of other people, and what other people might want. That’s why “to be fair” is such an important phrase. The mere mention of it suggests there is another point of view to be considered here, then the one just spoken of – it broadens the conversation in a compassionate way (theoretically, anyway). “That neighbour of mine is a shifty, rotten, untrustworthy layabout. Though to be fair, his parents weren’t great shakes either.”
“To be fair” isn’t just an expression in British life, it’s a way of being. In newspapers (at least the good ones), in conversation, in academic theory, in policy pages, there is a general prevarication –considering other points of view first. You are besotted with fairness
This marvellous habit is the foundation of everything wonderful about British culture. I hope it never gets lost. And I’m being honest here.
Lunch with the Rev. Nov. 26th
Are you fairly new to the congregation – or brand new! – and would like to know more about its history, or what activities happen now? Or have you been coming for a while, and are wondering what Unitarianism is all about? Are you not a Sunday attender, but you have questions about a wedding or Christening – or questions about life, the universe, and everything? Or do you just fancy a chat? Or a free meal?
Whatever the reason, I’d like to invite you to a lunch at the Park Hotel, next to the chapel, at 12:30 pm on the 26th of November. All questions will be answered – ok, maybe not answered, but at least addressed! ALL are welcome.
And lunch is on me! But I’m afraid you MUST let me know by the Wednesday before (22nd of November), so I can book a table on the Thursday for however many can make it. I may have to cap it at about a dozen, so letting me know sooner rather than later is a good idea. RSVP to me at 07986 826601 or email@example.com. Parents, your children are welcome too. I look forward to our time together.
New Jersey UUs Visit Unitarian English Cousins
Eight Unitarian Universalists from Summit, New Jersey, arrived in Liverpool in late June, eager to meet the Unitarians of the Liverpool-Warrington area. Who were the English Unitarians? We didn’t know exactly, but we had faith that Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon would introduce us and guide us.
And he did. After months of preparing for our arrival, he spent pretty much his entire week with us, accompanying us on the packed itinerary, coordinating rides and arranging special events. You were great. Thanks so much, Bob!
The other day I read again Seamus Heaney’s poem “Blackberry Picking”. This was brought about because I had come across a bramble as I was walking across a car park – it had just one ripe fruit on it. Heaney describes vividly what it was like to collect blackberries:
“At first, just one, a glossy purple dot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking.”
So many things serve to take me back in time and the blackberries are one of them. All those years ago they seemed to be everywhere. I remember particularly the embankment in the Ashton Pit Fields where the iron bridge crosses the railway track – this was covered in brambles.
I wonder just how many handkerchiefs were ruined when people came across a bush and with nothing else to carry the fruit in anything would do. Sometimes we would use the caps we were wearing – in those days everyone wore something on their head.
Of course it was a simple and enjoyable – if a prickly thing – to collect them; the problem was what to do with them.
It was a reunion of sorts, since Bob had been Summit’s intern minister more than ten years ago and later served as a UU minister in western New Jersey.
Our visit was initially planned as a choir trip, but because of busy summer schedules, only six singers (and two spouses) signed up. Six of us, including our congregation’s music director Mitchell Vines, had been part of a choir trip to Transylvania in 2008, but on that trip, we had a choir of twelve, singing a variety of anthems, spirituals and show tunes by Irving Berlin. This time, given our size, we would be singing a few rounds from our hymnal.
In Transylvania, we struggled with Hungarian, which would not be a problem in England: Köszönöm szépen! But we wondered how similar our Unitarian-Universalism was to the music, services and culture of our English Unitarian cousins.
One of the first surprises was that most Unitarian congregations in Britain are known as “chapels,” not churches. In England, we learned that the word “church” refers to the Church of England (or the Roman Catholic Church). All other Protestant congregations—Methodist, Presbyterian and Unitarian—were blasphemous dissenters, not permitted to use the title “church.” The Act of Toleration in 1689 eased the rules for Protestant groups who believed in the Trinity, but it was not until 1813, that Unitarians could worship legally. Before this, Unitarian churches tended to be small and hidden away in inconspicuous locations.
In Summit, we don’t use the name “church” for other reasons. Last spring, after a 20-year debate, we voted to drop the word “church” from our name, becoming Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit. (We used to be The Unitarian Church in Summit.) All aspects of the old and new names were subject to review (even the preposition “in”). The sticking point was the word “church,” which we left behind since the reference to Christianity brought pain to some of our members from a Jewish background.
Despite the dictionary definition of a chapel as a small or perhaps secondary worship space, we discovered that the Unitarian chapels were substantial and had survived for centuries, certainly much longer than our 105-year history in Summit.
We were soon captivated by their beautiful stone buildings, their simplicity, their history, their free-thinking traditions and their friendly, down-to-earth members.
Unexpectedly, our first chapel visit was devoted to bingo--at Gateacre, in a Liverpool suburb. After a dinner of fish and chips, minister/lay leader Clare Grace Williamson launched the bingo, calling the numbers like a pro. There were plenty of silly prizes and plenty of winners. It was hilarious and a great way to get to know each other. Alex Buchanan and Arthur provided the history lesson and a twilight tour of the graveyard.
We went to Park Lane Chapel in Wigan for the Sunday morning service, where we sang some of our rounds. We enjoyed the sermon by Rev. Tony McNeile, which was followed by a very friendly coffee hour and then a traditional Sunday Dinner in the neighbouring pub with roast beef, ham and turkey on the carvery plus Yorkshire pudding.
Sunday afternoon we strolled through the lush gardens at Quarry Bank Mills Industrial Heritage Site to attend a service at Norcliffe Chapel Styal, another secluded Unitarian worship space. The mill’s founder, Samuel Greg, who built the chapel for his employees, was a Unitarian, as were many of the rich industrialists of Liverpool. This surprised us, as we rarely hear of Unitarians, past or present, being among America’s captains of industry.
On Monday morning, we walked through the lovely Lancashire woodland to Rivington Chapel, tucked into a remote forested area. Judith Crompton lovingly related the history of the dissenting congregation, founded in 1662 with a building dating to 1703. We sat in the high box pews, craning to see over the walls and joined bicyclists, hikers and their dogs for brunch at the Village Green Tea Room, located in one of the chapel’s buildings.
Tuesday morning, we visited Cairo Street Chapel in the heart of Warrington. We toured the interior and sang our rounds again, with Friede Sheikh joining our women’s section. Friede and Ray Beecham set up a wonderful morning tea party in the bounteous garden, which can be seen through the chapel’s gates, painted gold like the gates of Warrington’s Town Hall.
I’ve saved Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool for last, because this Unitarian house of worship is anything but a small and concealed chapel. Completed in 1899, this late Gothic-revival building in the suburb of Sefton Park was designed as a statement to the world that the Unitarians had arrived and had nothing to hide. We were instantly envious of its extensive facilities, the huge worship space, the art nouveau stained-glass windows and the grand Hall. Rev. Phil Waldron’s wood-panelled office was especially impressive.
But how could a small congregation sustain it, we wondered? Finances are definitely an issue for us in Summit and probably for most religious communities. During our visit, a bridal party arrived to prepare for an afternoon wedding. Rev. Phil explained that the Ullet Road budget is supplemented by its many rentals, for wedding, funerals, recitals and parties in the Hall.
Besides our chapel visits, our Summit group enjoyed lunch at the elegant Athenaeum Club in Liverpool, toured the Beatles Experience, wandered through Arley Hall Gardens, explored Chester Cathedral (with its special display of animal sculptures) and attended the unforgettable Brass Band concert that had us Americans waving Union Jacks along with the rest of the audience.
We will never forget how warmly we were greeted by all the Unitarians we met, especially our hosts, Peter and Anita Snape, Linda Bacon and Friede Sheikh. They opened their homes to us, making us feel part of the family. We spent hours and hours sharing stories, and we really enjoyed the home-cooked meals.
Speaking for myself, my only disappointment in visiting your Unitarian chapels was that so few people seem to know about them. We understand that church attendance is very low in all British houses of worship, and Unitarian-Universalism is very much a minority religion in the United States. But we feel our Unitarian (and UU) values-- the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our emphasis on community over creed and our respect for the interdependent web of all existence—is well suited to today’s world and very much needed.
We hope that Britain’s couples from mixed religious backgrounds, people of colour, LGBTG families and others seeking a hospitable community will come to recognize the welcome offered by Unitarianism in Britain, bolstering the health of Unitarian chapels and churches in England for many more centuries.
Ashton in Makerfield U3A
This year we have had two visits from a Local History group based in Ashton. The visits were a great success; most of the people who came to look at the Chapel didn’t know it was still open. Rev. Bob and Ian gave a potted history of the origins of the Chapel which came as a surprise to those who didn’t know anything of our history. All of them enjoyed their visit very much.
You may not have heard of the U3A, it’s not surprising really when you learn that it stands for the University of the Third Age. It’s even more confusing when you learn that it has nothing to do with a university! The organisation is for people who have retired from full time working. We meet at the Community Centre in Captains Lane on the first and third Fridays in the month, 1pm- 3pm, yearly membership is £12. We have a lot of interest groups with something for everybody, these include, Ballroom Dancing, Crown Green Bowls, Reading groups, Walking, Knitting, Singing for Pleasure and many more. In addition there are Theatre Trips and trips to places of interest. We hope you’ll come along and see what it’s all about.
If you want to find out more please ring Anne on 272454