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Bury Unitarian Church

 
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Sermon by Kate Brady McKenna  6-11-22

                

Terry Ratcliffe

As many of you know, Terry Ratcliffe, a former member of this church and the architect of this beautiful building, died last weekend.  He will be very much missed.  And he will also be very much remembered.  Today we’re talking specifically about this building of ours, this home to our community, this place in which we worship, share, eat together, discuss together, argue together, and work together to do all the work our church is here to do. 

 

And it is a magnificent building. 

 

I’ve confessed this to most of you before, but before I first came to Bury – six and a bit years ago, in June 2016, I wasn’t expecting to find a very nice building.  I’d only seen smallish pictures, from outside, and I was expecting to have to be very polite and say things like “it’s very nice, yes”.  You know, like you do when you’re eating at someone’s house and you really don’t like it but you can’t say so.

 

And then, of course, I saw it.  I don’t really remember my first impression of the outside – I was quite nervous!  But I do remember stepping in through those doors at the front, and thinking “oh!”.  And then I realised that this was a building I really like.  I remember the pride with which I was shown around, and I still remember breathing in the church-smelling air of this worship area and knowing that I was in a sacred space. 

 

Having realised, then, that this was a building I really like, I was called to minister here, and my opinion has changed.  I no longer really like this building.  I absolutely love this building.  When I step inside, my spirits lift a little.  It is holy ground. 

 

Most of you know that I come from Norwich, and many of you know that Norwich is stuffed to the gills with medieval and Norman churches:  far more churches than a city that size can sustain, and, actually, far more than it ever could sustain, even in the heyday of both the city and of church building in the city.  But that’s another story.  The point is that I grew up surrounded by some of the loveliest and oldest churches in the country – head out into Norfolk and the churches get even older.  And I do recommend that if you’re planning a holiday in this country you consider going churchcrawling in Norfolk and Suffolk. 

 

My old church in Norwich – the Octagon Unitarian Chapel, where I know a few of you been – was a modern addition to the city.  It’s a mere 260 years old.  And it’s beautiful, as you’ll know if you’ve visited.

But it’s not this place, is it?  Norfolk churches, including the modern upstarts like the Octagon, at only a quarter of a millennium old, are often beautiful.  But they’re not this place – our home, our place of shelter, our refuge and our launching place. 

 

But what do I love so much about this place – or, because this is where we are – this room specifically?  And this, I will add, is one sermon where I actually do encourage you to stare around the room as I’m speaking. 

 

I love all the rounded corners.  I love the height.  I absolutely love the coloured windows – and I love the way at certain points in the day the light comes through them and pours onto the floor or out into the vestibule.  I love the fact that we can just turn our heads and look out into the garden – and there’s a tree out there that I’m particularly in love with. 

 

And I love the smell in this worship area.  Whenever I come in, and the church is quiet, I make a proper effort to breathe it in.  Deeply.  Properly.  Who else notices that smell?  It’s the smell of church, and specifically it’s the smell of our church.

 

But it’s not just the architecture itself:  it’s how that architecture lends itself to what we do here.  To worship.  To that point in our week where we gather in the hope of being nourished for the coming days, in the hope of being inspired to do our work, and our work – as I’m always saying – is to build a kingdom of love and justice and peace. 

 

So it’s not accidental that when we sing our voices literally rise above us.  It’s not accidental that the light pours in and that we can see trees and grass outside – reminding us of some of the many blessings of life.  It’s not accidental that  - unlike older churches – the lectern and the pulpit are made of the same stuff as the chairs and not raised very high:  they’re raised enough so whoever’s speaking can be seen and heard, but not high enough that the worship leader can think they’re the classic ‘six feet above contradiction’. 

 

For those of us who are comfortable with ‘God’ language, our church uses a lot of the traditional techniques used in the churches to bring worshipers closer to God:  height, light, space, air.  And something to look at, of course:  the sculpture behind me, which I don’t really get to see that often because I’m facing this way. 

 

It’s all of a piece.  It’s all beautiful.  And I know we’re all proud of it, and I know we all love it, and I know we’re all grateful for it.

 

In ‘the time before’ – the time before 2020 – you probably heard me say, quite a few times, that the church isn’t the building.  The building is just where the church is.  We’re the church.  The people are the church.  That we could continue to do what we do even if something bad happened to the building. I said it a lot, and I think all ministers say it lot.  We’re the church. 

 

And I wasn’t wrong.  It is true.  After all, this community knows that you can change buildings and still sustain a community.  Back in the sixties – and I know a lot of you were around at that tumultuous time – you made a very brave decision, and you had this place designed and built.  As someone who only came along recently, I thank you for that courage and foresight.

 

And yet. 

 

Although it is absolutely that we are the church, that we are more than the building, that the building is just where we do what we do, I think we – or at least I – realised thirty-one months ago that that’s true and it’s not true.  Because I think that we all missed this building, and missed it quite badly, when we couldn’t be here.

 

The day we locked the church after a lunch club meeting, and knew that we weren’t opening it again for – we thought at the time – at least a couple of weeks, felt awful.  Our poor building, all on its own without our breathing life into it. 

I came in a few times when the building was closed – perfectly legitimately, and safely.  And it made me more than ever aware of its beauty.  At a time when we couldn’t really go anywhere, couldn’t really see much other than our own homes, I relished those times I came in.  The height and light and air and the proportions were infinitely comforting. 

 

And here’s what I realised in those times.  We do need this building.  We need this building to come to, to come together in.  We know that nothing is permanent, that even our beautiful building isn’t permanent, but for right now, we need it.  We weren’t the same when we weren’t together in it.  Zoom is great, printed services are great, but nothing beats coming together in a beautiful sacred space of our own.  Nothing.  We’ll keep up the Zooms, though less frequently, and we still provide our services in printed form to quite a few people, but we don’t want to be away from this building again, do we?

 

This beautiful space, designed and built just for us, is vital to us. 

 

And we, too, are vital to it.  It felt sad being here, without life ringing through the rooms. 

 

Every time we call for a blessing on this place – and we do that every week – we are feeding this church.  Every time we call for a blessing, we are re-establishing our sacred home.  Every time we call for a blessing we are being that blessing.  Every time we call for a blessing we are acknowledging that this building is, without any doubt, a blessing itself.

 

Let us continue to love, and cherish, and feel gratitude for this beautiful building with which we are blessed, and to offer our thanks to all those, living and dead, who brought it into being, who nurtured it, and who nurture it still. 

 

Amen. 

 

   

   

 

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Bury Unitarian Church
1 Bank Street
Bury
Lancashire
BL9 0DN

0161 761 3785

 

 

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Charity Registration No. 1078570
Bury Unitarian Church 2016