Minister's Report from Rev. John Harley May 2020

Minister’s Annual Report for Bristol Unitarians 

by Rev John Harley, May 2020 

At the time of writing we find ourselves a month into lockdown measures due to the coronavirus pandemic. I have tried to adapt quickly to online worship and online ways of meeting. In the first week of the lockdown I decided to share the cost of the Zoom Premium package with Bridport Unitarians. This has allowed us to host zoom meetings as often as we wish and involve as many people as we want. We are experimenting with a variety of different non face to face worship formats – including live worship on Zoom, YouTube services with Karl and Mark Stewart and worship simply sent as a document for people to follow at a time of their choosing. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. YouTube services can be downloaded and enjoyed at any time whereas Zoom services are live and cannot be accessed at a different time. For some of the Zoom worship we have been joining forces with Bridport Unitarians. For a recent service we had 54 people all connected on Zoom including some from Norwich and Southampton as well as Bridport and Bristol (including Brigid in France) so online worship does have its merits. I appreciate Mary Cowley and Peter Bruce’s time in getting to grips with Zoom.

However, I am aware that not all our members are able to access the internet let alone Zoom. I am using email and telephone to make contact with these members and encouraging them to use a free IT support number offered by the General Assembly and/or use the telephone to listen to Zoom services. Lindy, Karl and Mark are also making contact with people in our Unitarian community to check how they are coping and how they are staying connected.

We have also developed a weekly check in and candle lighting Wednesday evenings – this has become quite established now - and soon we will be restarting Rainbow Path – both on Zoom. I am in contact with Sally and Lindy to decide how to continue with Bright Lights. It is important that we do not lose the momentum of our ministry because of the lockdown. It will be interesting to see which new approaches we have set up during the lockdown will be continued after the country gets back to ‘normal’. There are certainly some learning points for us as a community from the lockdown situation. One on line service and a check in per month, and maybe some of our meetings on zoom, could well be a new practice we wish to keep. One way forward after the lockdown could be some kind of questionnaire for people to respond to asking them what online features we adopted are approaches they would like to take into the future.

A selection of key events and initiatives since May 2019 (apologies for any major ones I have missed off this list)


-Rainbow Path group continues – third Thursday of the month 7-9pm – variety of facilitators - average attendance: 8

-July 2019 Frenchay Flower Festival

-activities continuing: Andrea Clark Ward’s meditations (Person centred and Kundalini), book club, AA Meetings led by Mary Jones and scrabble club

-new members:

-Neil Floyd and Liz Barnett playing organ and piano respectively

-24th August 2019 Wedding – Sharon Hayman and Daniel Ledingham

-31st January 2020 Funeral – Marie Eastman

-1 March 2020 Naming - Isla Costigan

-new member welcomed: Charlotte Bryant

-Liz Barnett wishes to become a member soon

-new microphone system operational – thanks to Trevor Scantlebury

-new TV/DVD equipment – thanks to Peter Bruce

-improved visibility on the Green – re banner and noticeboard

-Angela Bufton conducted her first Sunday service online with Mary Cowley


-July 2019 opening doors to St Paul’s Carnival – though less footfall than last year due to Carnival being rerouted

-Bright Lights continues with a relaunch and new publicity – third Sunday of the month 3-5pm - average attendance: 12

-new wooden floor

-Mark and Paul’s Meditation and Chanting on 4th Sunday of the month

-development of Divine Witterings publicity material – launch postponed due to coronavirus

(Divine Witterings – a monthly café style discussion on the first Saturday on the month)

-Rupert is prepared to be an occasional musician if Mark and Karl are away

-improved visibility in the Square

-Adoption of Period Poverty as our main local cause we want to support – Paul Wheeler is informing us about this

-some progress on governance issues

Joint Ventures

-September 2019 Congregational Retreat at Llangasty Retreat House – attendance: 14

-Minister making regular appearances on BBC Radio Bristol’s Thought for the Day

-newsletter continues to be produced – alternate months – in newsletter and ‘catch up’ form – thanks to Peter Wildman and Karl Stewart.

-Mark Stewart continues to send out regular information about events and services via email and on Facebook– this is effective

-new guidelines for visiting preachers has been written by Karl and John – the purpose of this is to keep a greater continuity in our worship style and content

Some reflections on the ‘health’ and profile of the congregations:


-Attendance for Sunday services still steady – average 15-18 - with some new joiners over the last year

-Toilets refurbished

-Graveyard garden tidied and access improved


-Attendance for Sunday services still vulnerable – average of 8-10 – a few new joiners but numbers up and down

-monthly meeting with some focus on specific areas such as governance and outreach

-new banner

Both congregations

-One of our main assets is the strength of our sense of community

-we also have a valuable tradition of shared ministry

-Rev Lindy Latham continues to be involved with Bright Lights, has helped with the development of Divine Witterings, leads some of our Sunday worship, rites of passage services and attends some services – we are lucky to have her continued input and help

-Mark and Karl Stewart, Paul Wheeler and Deana Stone-Pearce continue to share inspiring worship and occasional services led by Susan Wildman

Future ideas and priorities for the two congregations:


-to develop our presence in the village – are there more events we can be involved with and have stalls at?

-We have a unique historical building – we have the potential to attract a higher number of special services: namings, weddings and funerals.

-improve publicity in the local area

-can we work on ensuring continuity and ongoing quality of worship – all visiting preachers should be sent a copy of our guidelines for worship

-Refreshments after service. Can we invest in another urn for hot water or a filter coffee machine!?


-Again, like Frenchay, can we become more present and involved in local community events?

-Our building is one of our key assets (like Frenchay but for different reasons)

-Can the acoustic of the hall be improved? (should an audio consultant be invited to give advice?). It may be possible to put some canvases on some walls that will have a dual function of improving the acoustics and aesthetics.

-can we make the hall more attractive for worship while keeping the space neutral for groups to use during the week? John would still like us to explore meeting in the middle of the room in a circle perhaps with a new circular table and circular carpet as our focus.

-is our Divine Witterings project the best way of reaching out to local people?

-we could have another day or half day workshop along the lines of our Rekindling day – this time concentrating on our constitution and governance.

Joint ventures and joint thinking

-Congregational Retreat planned for 11-13 September at Llangasty Retreat Centre. Theme: 'Letting grace shine on what matters - as we look to our spiritual compass.' (we are still hoping this event will go ahead)

-Is there scope for collaborating more with the Western Union? Perhaps offering online services monthly? There are some small, struggling congregations across the WU. Have we got the best model for working together?

Some of John’s other Unitarian activities and projects:

-Co-leading a Summer School engagement group with Mark Stewart – August 2019

-developing and planning a retreat for all those in spiritual leadership with Lindy Latham and Winne Gordon: Reconnecting with the Soul of Ministry – 6-8 October 2020 – at Hazel Hill Wood (supported by the Hibbert Trust and Unitarian College)

-being trained as a Unitarian student mentor

-Tutor for the Worship Studies Course in Intergenerational Worship

-involvement and input with Daniel Costley’s book published by the Lindsey Press: Life’s Journey-Creating Unitarian Rites of Passage

Further reflections from John:

John will be trying to reduce his driving time in the coming year and use the train at least one weekend a month. John would like to thank Mark and Karl Stewart and Lindy Latham for their kind hospitality over the last year and a big thankyou to Mary and Colin for many Sunday lunches. After the experience of the lockdown due to coronavirus pandemic there are newly discovered approaches we may want to continue with such as keeping some of our events/worship online. Our weekly check in/candle lighting on Zoom could well be continued or moved monthly.

We continue to work well as a team. Huge thanks for everyone’s hard work and dedication, especially our committee members and to those I haven’t thanked in name. I still believe, in terms of growth, we have much more potential in reaching out to those looking for creative and liberal faith in the South West. It continues to be a privilege to work with you all in helping this growth become reality.

Minister’s holidays

Up to 3 Sundays can be taken off between July 2019-July 2020

John has taken one holiday Sunday so far – 6 October 2019 for a retreat weekend in Wales.

He has two remaining to take before August. Perhaps if the lockdown continues into the summer John can carry these over to July 20 – July 21.

John Harley – May 2020