>>> find another congregation



We provide a focus for liberal religious worship and reflection and a centre of fellowship for people of religious sentiment.

Bury Unitarian Church



about us
trade justice
book club
room hire
contact us


general assembly


Sermon by Anne Mills - 5-6-16

Change and Choice


First of all, I'd like to thank the people who have helped me with this service: Barbara, who read the chalice-lighting words and the first prayer; Marian, who chose the reading and the story, and read for us; and Chris, for all the music; and all of you---for being here, this morning.

 In the calendar, I am listed as "a member of the Taking the Service seminar group". I don't often pull rank, but, today, I'm speaking to you as the Chairman of this Congregation, as there are points to make that we all need to ponder and remember. We have now entered a period of change; for the foreseeable future, we are without a minister---our main leader, in so many ways---and that is something which has rarely happened since this church first came into existence, in 1974. On our first Sunday without Beryl, we acknowledge her contribution to this church, and I suspect we will find out, over the next few weeks, how much she did on our behalf, a great deal of which we were unaware of. Without a minister, we will lack continuity; we need to pay attention to that and try to provide it for ourselves.

 How, and whether, we adapt to this change depends entirely on us, and there will be choices and decisions to be made which may not be easy. How did you feel about this morning's changes? The chair* and painting** weren't in their usual places---nor was the story***---it is coming, by the way! I was tempted to introduce a new hymn-tune, but decided that might be a step too far! Of course, such changes are small, and easily reversible---simple to handle.

 Especially as we grow older, we become resistant to change---but, sometimes, we can't escape it; all we can do is cope, and hope and pray for better times. In the late 1960's, the congregation at Bank Street, Bury, had to decide what to do about its premises: the church, built of stone, and very large and high, was horrendously difficult to heat, particularly in winter, and not much better in summer! Then it was discovered that the building was riddled with wet rot and dry rot; the organ produced sound with difficulty, and it was only the expertise of Frank Carter, the organist, that enabled music to be transmitted at all. For our wedding, in 1968, I went to discuss the music I wanted; most suggestions were met with a doleful shake of Frank's head: "Sorry---the organ won't manage that." I'm sure the congregation, faced with the prospect of giving up its familiar place of worship, was devastated; many members would have been completely against the idea of starting all over again. People like my father convinced them, eventually, that the most sensible way forward was to demolish the building, sell the land to help with financing a new church, and build new premises which were easier and cheaper to run and maintain. The argument that it was time to stop throwing good money after bad finally prevailed, and, from our viewpoint, more than 40 years on, I think the right decision was reached---although I know that not everyone agreed with my father, at the time! We now have a beautiful building, admired and envied by others, for its attractiveness and amenities. Sadly, my father didn't live to see the new church completed.

 At the same time as deliberations at Bank Street were taking place, the congregations at Chesham and Heywood were facing their own problems, and recognising that their familiar premises were no longer viable. Brittain Hill, Heywood, was gutted by fire in 1968; no matter how much the congregation would have wished to rebuild and restore it, this wasn't a practical proposition. At Chesham, news was received that Chesham Primary School was to re-locate, thus removing a large proportion of the church's income---and there were problems with the heating-system, as well. Once more, the sensible option was for the three congregations to join together again, where they had started originally---in the centre of Bury, so change was forced upon all these congregations, more or less at the same time, and they were obliged to abandon their much-loved buildings, move to a completely new place, and meld the three congregations into one harmonious whole  ---a very ambitious project!

 The problem with us Unitarians is that, because we are encouraged to think and decide for ourselves, we find it difficult to accept that other people's views might just---occasionally---be superior to our own! I'm sure that the early Bury Unitarian congregation endured many teething-problems---along the lines of: " Oh, we never did that" at a particular church, or "We always used to do it this way" at wherever. The churches had lost their homes and their statuses, in one fell swoop, and the difficulties to be overcome were tremendous!

 Now---the story: "The Nervous Squirrel".

There was once a family of squirrels who had lived in an oak tree for generations. The tree provided food, and protection from wild animals, so the squirrels never left its shelter. Then the tree died; there was nothing to eat, and the squirrels had a meeting to decide what to do. One squirrel argued that they needed to move trees, in order to survive, but the oldest squirrel claimed that they would be killed by predators, if they did. The young squirrel decided to risk the change, and left; he was never heard of again, and the old squirrel seemed to have been proved right. In time, when the squirrels were starving, another youngster also decided to leave, with the same result, and so it went on, with one after another leaving the oak tree. Eventually, only the old squirrel was left. He was so thin that his ribs showed through his skin, yet he continued to mutter about the danger from predators. Meanwhile, 100 metres away, in the same forest, the rest of the squirrels were living comfortably, in a lovely new tree, which provided ample food and protection. Life was good! But they worried about the old squirrel and went back to visit him; he was in a very bad way, indeed. Despite being told about the comfortable, new way of life, he refused to change his mind---moving wasn't worth the risk. He was never heard of again.

 How we handle change matters; it's mainly a question of perspective, I think. I'd now like to read you a short extract from a piece by Rev. Bob Wightman, now retired from his ministry at Dundee, and a former GA President. 

He writes: "I can complain because the weather is rainy, or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free. I can grumble about my health, or I can rejoice that I am alive. I can mourn my lack of friends, or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships. I can whine because I have to go to work, or I can shout for joy because I have a job to go to. I can murmur dejectedly because I have to do housework, or I can feel honoured because God has provided for my mind, body and soul".

I think you catch the drift!

 In each example, if we choose the first option, the glass is half-empty, and the response is negative and pessimistic. The second, and far more positive, choice allows us to move forward, explore possibilities, see matters in a better light. As regards this congregation, we are not alone in realising that we are an ageing, declining group. Church-going is not very fashionable, at present, and this affects all denominations, throughout the country. Two years ago, at a Day Gathering here, discussing "Growth", I said that what I would really like was to be able to invite my family and friends to come to a church-service, now and again, secure in the knowledge that they would accept. I haven't been very successful, so far---though I won't give up just yet! (Having said this, my daughter is here, this morning, and I appreciate her presence and support.) Think about your own situation---how do you think you would get on?

 We are fortunate, however, in that (a) we have sufficient money to maintain this church, in the style to which it has become accustomed; (b) we have enough people to do the work---just about; and (c) we are a large, thriving congregation, compared with other Unitarian churches. We have only to look at some of our neighbours to realise the truth of this: churches run by one or two people only, and attracting a mere handful of attendees to services, once or twice a month.

 So: what should be our formula for success? It seems to me that there are a few rules we could adopt. We need to co-operate with each other, work together for the good of the church, and be democratic---this church is about all of us, not a few select individuals! It's not your church, or mine---it's ours! Let's be kind to each other, tolerant of opinions, supportive of each other's work. Above all: let's try not to grumble! If there's a problem, speak to a church officer, Council-member, or Trustee---that's what they're there for! Try to resolve the difficulty, rather than muttering under your breath! And, on the subject of working together, remember that every little helps. We come to church with expectations: that the building will be warm, clean and tidy; that the service will be well-prepared and delivered; that the music and the flowers will be beautiful; that there will be coffee afterwards (and a biscuit, too, if we're lucky!)

 But---don't forget---somebody has to organise all this, and take the responsibility---it doesn't happen by magic! And that means that all of us must be involved, doing what we can, according to our abilities! Coming regularly to church, sharing worship with others, and offering support and friendship, is one way in which we can all contribute.

 We have a reputation for being a friendly, welcoming congregation, and I would add that, at our best, we are generous, caring, pleasant and helpful. Why shouldn't we always be at our best---for our own sakes, not just to impress visitors!

 The time of change---transition, if you like---is now; the road forward might be tough, and we may sometimes feel discouraged; things may not necessarily go smoothly, especially to begin with, so, please---be patient! There are bound to be matters that have been overlooked, or forgotten, and these can be put right, in time. If we give up, or give in to despair, we are lost. We have the potential, not just to maintain our present position, but to improve upon it. That is our collective decision---our choice; there are no guarantees that it will be easy, but let's at least try to achieve what we can. Over the past five and a half years, this congregation has done some excellent work---let's not lose our momentum!

 Our glass should be half-full---maybe occasionally in need of a top-up. To coin a couple of religious phrases, not to mention mixed metaphors---can we all drink from the same cup, and sing from the same hymn-sheet? I sincerely hope so.


 * The chair was on its own, at the front; it bore, on its back, a plaque, in memory of my parents: George and Rene Sutherland.

**The painting was presented to the congregation by Alex Rogers, a former Churchwarden and Chairman of Trustees; it showed the old chapel at Bank Street, Bury; it usually hangs in the lounge.

***Instead of a story, the children had an address, during which they were given information about the decision to demolish the old chapel and build a new one; they were read the story of "The Nervous Squirrels" in Sunday School and asked to draw pictures of squirrels.

 Anne Mills: June 5th, 2016.






click here for a free download

Bury Unitarian Church
1 Bank Street

0161 761 3785



Back to top


Charity Registration No. 1078570
Bury Unitarian Church 2016