"What is Church?" Service with Rev. John Harley, 7.3.2021


‘I am a little church’*. What is a church or chapel? Is it a sacred building or a body of people with a shared understanding of what is holy? As we see the easing of restrictions appearing on the horizon how do we ‘go back to church’ and how much has the pandemic redefined what church going means? (*e.e. cummings).

Settling music: 

Appalachian Spring – Aaron Copeland 


A renewed hope for this World By Nathan Ryan

Come into this place with open hearts.

Come into this place with a soul that has remembered how to be tender again.

Come into this place with a renewed hope for this world.

Come into this place ready to build a world we’ve always been worthy of, and have always dreamed of.

Chalice lighting

The Church Has Left the Building

By Margaret Weis

The church is not a place; it is a people.

The church is not only a steeple above the treeline, streets, and cars.
Rather, it is a people proclaiming to the world that
we are here for the work of healing and of justice.

The church is not walls built stone upon stone, held together by mortar
but rather person, linked with person, linked with person:
all ages and genders and abilities—
a community built on the foundation of reason, faith, and love.

The church is not just a set of doors open on Sunday morning,
but the commitment day after day, and moment after moment,
of our hearts creaking open the doors of welcome to the possibility of new experience and radical welcome.

The church is not simply a building, a steeple, a pew.

The church is the gathering together of all the people, and experiences,
and fear, and love, and hope in our resilient hearts;
gathering, however we can, to say to the world:
welcome, come in, lay down your heartache, and pick up hope and love.

For the church is us—each and every one of us—together,
a beacon of hope to this world that so sorely needs it.


A Church is a living fellowship -174 in green book

A church is a living fellowship
More than a holy shrine,
Where people can share their hopes and fears
Less of the yours and mine;

Where bonded by trust we search for Truth
Beyond the chains of creeds,
And thought can aspire to shine with fire
From all our deepest needs.

Let’s stretch out the open hand of Love,
Conquer the fists of hate,
Divided no more by voices of war,
Greeds of our mindless state;

We’ll take all our building bricks of Truth,
Make of them homes of Life,
A future to face the shame and disgrace
In all our pasts of strife.

A church is a place of human trust
More than of brick and stone;
Of love we will sing to make it ring
In every joyous tone.

Frank R Clabburn


Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand - John 6 v1-14

6 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Candles of Joy and Concern

Song for Athena 

by John Taverner 




By Jennifer Pratt-Walter

My church is a ring of alders tilting
toward a living pond, backed by
the punctuation of tall firs fondling
the morning breeze.

In my chapel, redwing blackbird
unravels her liquid song in the cattails.
The thick mud smell is an incense,

a beaver-felled tree is my pew.
I toss my donation, red huckleberries,
into this humble water where
the secret trout leaps.

Cedar waxwings are my songs lifting
from a hymnal penned by water touching sky,
and the courting dragonflies weave
my salamander prayer.

I need no minister, for that is me,
Alpha and Omega, breathing out
my own measured days
in this wet forest cathedral.


Thoughts and feelings about those words church and chapel…..

These lockdowns we have found ourselves in have given us much time to ponder on what church is

Some churches across the UK decided they had to rebel against government restrictions severely limiting numbers allowed to meet for worship

In the Guardian: Andrew, a minister at a London church, said in November 2020: “We’ve carried on as normal [during the current lockdown]. We’re holding a couple of services each Sunday, with about 160 people attending in total.

“We’ve asked people to be discreet. This is not a stunt we’re pulling, we’re not seeking publicity. It was a big decision – I’ve never practised civil disobedience before.”

‘The government had overreached itself’, he added. “I don’t believe the government has the authority to tell the church of Jesus Christ that it can’t gather for worship. They have provided no evidence, they just classed us as non-essential. But we believe worship is the most essential thing in life.

“We answer to a higher authority. When there is a contradiction between the laws of the country and God’s command, the Bible is very clear that God’s command must win out.”

In the second lockdown the police have investigated some churches and tried to disperse the crowds

The ban on communal worship in England has been challenged by the leaders of the Church of England, the Catholic church and Orthodox Judaism, along with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Pentecostal representatives.

They wrote a joint letter to Boris Johnson saying there was “no scientific justification for the wholesale suspension of public worship”. Despite their opposition, most faith leaders are urging compliance.

What is church – and is it worth breaking the law to make church going happen? Is meeting in a building more important than a community’s health? And how do we know what God’s authority is?

Andrew, the vicar might not have appreciated a quote by Brooks Anderson who said ‘ I have no objection to churches so long as they do not interfere with God’s work’.

Where is church?

Some of my best experiences of church have been in unexpected places! When I volunteered in the Calais refugee village with Lizzie in 2015 we helped in the kitchen in the midst of a huge make shift camp of tents – the refugees had made a multi-faith sanctuary out of canvas and boxes and plastic and old crates – we were invited in to pray –we were visitors and strangers but we felt so welcome - it was one of the most beautiful, tingle worthy places of worship I have visited – soon after it was bull dozed away – but for those moments of peace in a traumatic environment - a shanty town in a rich nation - I felt I had been in a sacred place – where the human was safe in the kingdom of God

I remember attending an outdoor Sunday service on the Irish island of Inishimore – we sat in a circle on the long grasses in the ruins of an old chapel – it was the Assumption of Mary day and the leader asked us one at a time to say something about how we connected with the Virgin Mary – it was church alright – even if we were sitting next to flowers and old stones

Possibly one of the places I felt least of all like a church going experience was the Sagradia Familia in Barcelona – the famous masterpiece church of Gaudi which is still being completed – so much part of the tourist trail – I felt herded – and I saw more flashing mobile phones on selfie sticks than in any other place – people seemed to be doing the church on their tour rather than being there

Philip Larkin’s well known poem called Church Going in which he skilfully mocks the way churches have become museums rather than living breathing places is powerful – the opening verse goes

Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,


What about our dear chapel of Frenchay and UMB? I hope they never become relics or museums.

Are we different as congregations emerging out of the third lockdown? Well – a few years ago if someone had said to me you will be meeting for worship almost entirely online I would have said – well that wont work in a month of Sundays

But I personally think we have shown that church and chapel can feel alive on zoom – yes we can have technical glitches – and we are mindful that some of our friends are not able to join us online -but if church is a group of committed and curious people coming together to explore faith and life together and welcome others to the space we have been doing this for months in lockdown

The Unitarians have a number of fellowships such as Bangor and Paris and Ringwood that do not even have a church building – and some members would say that it is an advantage not having to worry about bricks and mortar and that buildings can hold on to some traditions that do not serve the needs of local living people

Having said all that I cannot wait to go back to face to face worship in our beloved buildings – and see people’s faces and hold silence that does not depend on mute buttons. I have even missed the luke warm church coffee.

But If church is about reaching out, connecting, sharing our visions then we have been able to continue this journey online. To me the miracle of the story of the feeding of the 5000 is that the people bring their small offerings to the gathering – the boy brings just 5 small loaves and 2 fishes and it is it more than enough – church is about a community of friends and travellers who all bring something genuine and precious to the table and there is more than enough sustenance to feed all of us – we feed each other with our rich personhood and humanity and by sharing our joys and setbacks

I will leave you with some verses from 

ee cummings poem 

from which the title of today’s service is taken

i am a little church(no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
--i do not worry if briefer days grow briefest,
i am not sorry when sun and rain make april

my life is the life of the reaper and the sower;
my prayers are prayers of earth's own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying)children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness

around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains



191 (green) "To worship rightly"

Now let us sing in loving celebration:

The holier worship, which our God may bless,

Restores the lost, binds up the spirit broken,

And feeds the widowed and the parentless.

Fold to thy heart thy sister and thy brother;

Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;

To worship rightly is to love each other;

Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

Follow with reverent steps the great example

Of those whose holy work was doing good:

So shall the wide earth seem our daily temple,

Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.

Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangour

Of wild war-music o’er the earth shall cease;

Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,

And in its ashes plant the tree of peace

Go In Peace, 

by Mark L. Belletini

Go in peace. Live simply, gently, at home in yourselves.
Act justly.
Speak justly.
Remember the depth of your own compassion.
Forget not your power in the days of your powerlessness.
Do not desire to be wealthier than your peers
And stint not your hand of charity.
Practice forbearance.
Speak the truth, or speak not.
Take care of yourselves as bodies,
For you are a good gift.
Crave peace for all people in the world,
Beginning with yourselves
And go as you go with the dream
Of that peace alive in your heart.

Church of the Earth 

by Peter Mayer (from album Heaven Below)

Notices and chat