Sunday, 4 June 2017

Wonder Woman.

I've just returned from watching the latest installment of the DC Cinematic  Universe. It was a roller-coaster of a movie; alternating between gut-wrenching realism of the horror of the First World War, tears of joy, of sadness and giggling. Yes, actual humour - oh, and colour- in a DC  movie. That's a first. But I digress.I actually left the Cinema wondering whether the writer was a  Unitarian or a Quaker from what it had to say about war and humanity. It is a movie with a philosophy. It raises questions over the automatic trust we put on our 'heros'; the way we glorify war and dehumanize our villains.

The movie follows Diana, Princess of Themyscira as she encounters the world of Men/Man. In the movie, the God Zeus created the world and populated with humanity in his image. Humanity was noble, loving and kind (so not the hoary of Zeus of Greek myth then....) but Ares (God of War) sees humanity and is jealous. He inflicts upon humanity greed, jealous, spite, hate, causing war and violence. It's a fall from grace moment. Not through eating of the tree of knowledge, but a fall due to violence, greed, hate. The Rev. Edward Higginson, Minister at the Unitarian Chapel on Westgate, in Wakefield during the mid nineteenth century wrote that 'Original Sin' - if indeed there is such a thing - was not sex, nor knowledge. It was violence. Sin entered the world, he mused, not when Eve bit into the apple, but when Cain slew Abel. The first act of violence, of hatred, was the first sin. And has tainted humanity ever since.

In the movies mythology,  Ares rebels and kills all the other gods and wages war Zeus created the Amazons to fight Ares, to protect humanity and the earth. With his dying breath, he creates Thermyscia and hides it away from the world of men, waiting until needed...

As a youth Diana learns important lessons about war; Altho' it is their Sacred Duty to defend the World from Ares, Hippolyta (Diana's mother) tells her daughter (who is more than little bit too interestd in war and weaspons) "War is nothing to hope for". Moreover, "Fighting doesn't make you a hero."

Diana is plunged into the midst of the First World War, that war 'To End all Wars.' A war she believes is inspired by Ares and is determined to rid the world of Ares and therefore war. But it's not that simple. Nothing ever is.

Diana wrestles with her own morality. She believes in killing Ares she will end war. But after killing a chemically-enhanced-DC-Movie version of General Eric von Ludendorf, there is no peace. The warlord is dead the but fighting continues. Shock reveal! The British politician who was arguing for an armistice was Ares all along, urging on all sides, 'whispering into the ear' of generals, scientists and politicians, creating ever more terrible weapons to 'win the war' and decimate humanity.

You see, Ares ( like many Christians do) see humanity as irrevocably broken. As a fallen race, as damaged, full of darkness. Surrounded by the horror of the Western Front in 1918 even Diana admits he's right

"I used to want to save the world, this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within. I learnt this the hard way ..."

 Diana experiences the limits of her own understanding of justice—a simple desire to set things “right” in the world—and discovers that the “good guys” are not always good and that darkness and light  co-exist in mankind. Although Diana sees that corruption, she still believes that humanity deserves a chance.

Yes, the world can be an ugly place. A terrifying place. The recent events in Manchester and London show us that. Perhaps humanity is broken, filled with darkness and needs wiping off the face of the planet.

But Diana has seen the other side of humanity. Predictably she's fallen in love with the male lead Captain Steve 'Above average actually' Trevor. Whilst she has seen the ugly side of humanity, has seen and experienced the darkness, she has seen something Ares has not: Love. The light of love. That of God in humanity. Or, if you prefer, that of Good in humanity.

She sees love in all its facets: in human relationship, in friendship, comradeship and sacrifice. It's in the moment of the sacrificial death of Trevor that Diana realises the power of love. That love is the most powerful force in the Universe.

" It's about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world."

It's about what you believe and she, like me, and many others, believe in Love. There's been worse battle cries ("Truth! Freedom!Justice and a hard-boiled egg").

Whether you see humanity as broken, irrevocably damaged or not - or somewhere grubby in between - is about perception. Humanity is capable of great beauty, of great joy, and great evil. Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Stalin and Suicide Bombers are all part of the same human family. And, as Diana learns, you can't out-source evil, you can't shrug off the evil in men's hearts to an external being. Be it the devil, doctrine or Ares. Diana expected the war to end when Ares died. It didn't because humanity is damaged, in some respects broken. Humanity is messy. The answer wasn't so simple. We cannot wash out collective hands, like so many Pontius Pilates, of all those dark spaces in humanity,  of all those terrible things we have done. We have to take ownership of them.

If, like Ares, you want to see humanity as fallen, as evil as broken then you'll see the darkness. That will be all you can see.  But if you see the light, humanity is not broken, far from broken because of Love. But more than that: Love wins out.The light wins out. Love is stronger than hate. Love is stronger than death.

Love is about the self, friends, family and is sacrificial. And all those other things St Paul wrote about it (patient, kind etc etc)  It is the most powerful force in the universe. Diana's final battle cry which brings down evil
"You get what you believe, and I believe in Love. Only Love can truly save the world"

 is mine also.

If you experience the world as broken and unlovely you will only see the darkness.
But if you experience the world as ok a bit grubby but lovely, you will see that light and the love. You will be that love.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Come and find the quiet centre

We don't usually think about Spring until the winter blanket spends more time on the floor  being used as a cat nest than it does on the bed… We notice the lawn needs cutting, and have to fight our way into the garden shed, and, no matter how neatly we left the garden hose coiled up, and having already tied together the contents of the shed in a knot that would have bettered even Alexander, in the quest for more prey, explodes like an angered boa constrictor, twisting its seething coils around the poor unfortunate who has dared enter its sleeping lair.

When the first hint of sun produces a rash of bare legs, pale and blinking in the sunlight, flocking together for safety like so many albino flamingos.

It means school holidays aren’t far away, when parents can lovingly offer their children for temporary adoption to grandparents and others can begin their rounds of the Saturday morning taxi service to sport.

It also means winter is coming to an end. The days are lengthening. The days are warming. Buds are bursting. Trees are in blossom. Spring is.

Winter, the season of fear has passed, giving way to Spring, the season of hope and renewal.

The late UU Minister Rev. Max Coots, wrote a lovely book called Seasons of the self. I highly recommend it. As the title suggests it is a book of meditations on the seasons of the year,
 presented in a very personal way. In one of those meditations, he talks about the coming of Spring, when the snow melts and frosts subside and we begin to discover all the things...
broken toys,
garden tools,
dried up leaves.

All the things we had forgotten about because they were covered over
by the snow or frost that lay over the ground. And then he writes this:

“Spring is a courage after Winter-weakness
that sends us to cleaning out,
as though the dirt that Winter stored
must be chased away like ancient witches.
“Spring is a courage.
It lets the empty stem of the cherry fall free to look as dead
as it had been when it stood tall in Wintertime.

“Spring is a courage that lets the old things die
and scatters them across our eyes -
the things that ought to be done and over with.

“Spring is not so much a dying time
as it is a time that shows what has already died.
It’s not an easy sight!

“Spring is a finishing, and it is a beginning too...”

In Winter we don’t think much about growth. With the coming of Spring we are reminded that out of death there can come new birth,
if we nurture it,
care for it,
love it.

But Spring also shows us that naturekind and humankind are continually in relationship. In the process of God’s creativity, as told by the storyteller in Genesis, we see the interplay between naturekind and humankind.

A great light was divided in two...
Light was ingredient to the survival of plants and creatures,
as a means of photosynthesis,
as a means of evaporation,
and as a measure of time.
Dry land was formed...
This formed the habitats of diverse creatures.
Plant life emerged with instrumental value
as a source of food
and oxygen
and soil nutrients.
Creatures evolved into more complex relationships
of birds, fish, cattle... and humans.
Humans were equipped and called to be responsible for the care of naturekind.
They were also intended to be in relationship with each other.
With this relationship, humans were charged to be fruitful and multiply,
and to create a community through loving inter-relationships.

And the storyteller says: God experienced great joy in creation...

In a unique way God related to humankind, because humankind is called to be the image of God.
Embodying something of God in each and every one of us. Filled to bursting with the potential of life and of love. Embodying something God-like in the care of nature, in human loving, in relationships.

But during Winter we don’t think much about these things.

It is only when Spring arrives and washes away the fear of Winter do we also see the pollution left behind, we need to get out our broom and do our spring cleaning. To tidy up the whatever is left of last year, of the winter, to sift through the detritus in our gardens and our homes, to throw away what is bad, clearing away mess and cutting back dead wood to find space to being anew and to encourage new shoots and new buds. So too with our own spiritual practice; tend and nurture the buds of our faith, see it grow and sprout. Embrace new shoots and new growth. Experience the dynamic of fresh growth.

So as Spring bursts forth around us, let us heed the advice of Shirley Erena Murray, to find the 'quiet centre' in our lives, in our spiritual do some spring cleaning, to 
find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes, that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


At a Meeting of the Board of Directors held on the 11th of September, 1847, it was

That the following code of Rules and Regulations be, and the same is hereby approved and adopted for the guidance and instruction of the Officers and Men in the service of the London and North-Western Railway Company, and that all former Rules and Regulations inconsistent with the same be cancelled.

That every person in the service do keep a copy of these Regulations on his person while on duty under a penalty of five shillings for neglect of the same.
By order of the Board of Directors.
                 General Manager,
     London and North Western Railway.

White Trousers

"Far be it for me to question your authenticity, but why are you wearing white trousers?"

The answer, in a nutshell, is simple: unbleached, undyed, simple weave cloth such as canvas is cheap, hard wearing and can be boil washed. Most European armies during late 18th and most of the 19th centuries adopted unbleached canvas (linen, cotton or hemp) trousers  for fatigue and other dirty duties, including mucking out horses, because of this. 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Unitarians Take to the Rails

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which opened on 15 September 1830, was dominated by Unitarians. The railway was the brainchild of  two Unitarians: Joseph Sandars of Liverpool and John Kennedy of Manchester, owner of what was then the largest cotton spinning mill in Manchester (and by extension, perhaps the world).  John Kennedy was a member of the Mosley Street congregation in Manchester – other members included the industrialists Edmund Potter FRS, and Robert Hyde Gregg (he was also a Proprietor of the L&MR). Kennedy’s daughter married Edwin Chadwick, the noted social reformer who worked tirelessly to improve urban sanitation and public health. Sandars, a wealthy corn merchant, was a member of the Paradise Street congregation in Liverpool. Amongst the proprietors were the following Unitarian notables:

Robert Hyde Greg
William Potter
Richard Rathbone
WIlliam Rathbone (not to be mistaken of the Unitarian Liverpool MP of the same name)
Henry Booth (see below)
Thomas Booth
J. Sanders
W W Currie - the son of Rev. James Currie.

Unitarian Directors included Sandars, Kennedy, Rathbone, Booth and James Cropper.

 The project took nearly ten years to complete – the Board of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway appointed George Stephenson of Newcastle as it’s chief engineer. Stephenson had been a pupil of the Unitarian Minister Rev. William Turner of Newcastle and was a member of the Dissenter’s (latterly Unitarian) chapel at Wylam. Wealthy Newcastle industrialists the Walkers had founded the chapel; George Walker had been president of the Warrington Academy (1798). Company Secretary and Treasurer was Henry Booth, a well-connected Liverpool Unitarian. It was Booth who suggested to Robert Stephenson (George’s son) that he adopt the multi-tube boiler (patented by Marc Seguin in France in 1828) for his locomotive the “Rocket” which he was to enter in the Rainhill Trials of October1829 to find the best type of motive power for the new railway. Booth also had shares in "Rocket" and stood to make a considerable sum of money if the Stephensons won the trial and therefore the contract to supply the locomotives to the L&MR. The Liverpool Chronicle levelled charges of corruption at the L&MR, suggesting that  because of the relationship between Booth, Stephenson and the Directors of the L&MR the Rainhill Trials were merely a publicity stunt. The Unitarian owned and editted Manchester Guardian came to the defence of Stephenson and the Board. The London based Mechanics Magazine criticised Stephenson and the L&MR Board - but these were penend by Stephenson's rival Charles Vignoles as part of his personal anti-Stephenson campaign.

“Rocket”, of course, won the day but at the time there was a suggestion of foul play due to the connections between the Stephensons and the Board of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. “Rocket” was by far the best locomotive demonstrated, and one that incorporated many (but not all) the design features of the mature steam locomotive. “Rocket” had been built to do one job and one job only: to win the Rainhill Trails and she was effectively an evolutionary dead-end. It was the “Planet”  - built by the Stephensons which first ran 4th December 1830 – that is generally considered to be the ‘mother’ of the steam locomotive. The speed of development can be shown by the fact that whilst  “Rocket” (1829) weighed 4 tons and had top speed of c.20mph, “Planet” (and her six sisters) came in at 9 tons with a top speed of c.30mph – a speed at which Unitarian polymath Dr Dionysius Lardner suggested the human being would suffocate. Having been fireman on the replica “Planet” at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, at only speeds up to 10mph, I take my hat off to those early enginemen as “Planet” has no cab and only a very flimsy (and quite low) safety rail to stop you falling off!

 “Rocket,” other than Ericsson and Braithwaite’s “Novelty” was the only serious competitor –Joseph Brandredth entered the “Cycloped” which was nothing more than a horse-powered self-propelling treadmill on wheels, whilst Timothy Hackworth’s old-fashioned entry “Sans Pareil” should have been disqualified for being too heavy. Hackworth, however, vehemently complained that “Sans Pareil” was not over weight. The Judges remained resolute but the Directors, however, approved Hackworth’s entry, perhaps to make the competition less of a ‘one horse race.’ Hackworth, a fierce and bitter rival of the Stephensons, levelled a charge of corruption and industrial sabotage against them: unable to cast the cylinders for “Sans Pareil” he had them cast by the Stephensons but during the trial one of them burst, and he duly cast blame on the Stephensons. Part of the intense rivalry between Hackworth and Stephenson may also have been religious: both came from the village of Wylam but whereas Stephenson was a Unitarian, Hackworth was a Methodist – and a lay preacher to boot. Hackworth refused to do any work on Sunday - not even to get "Sans Pareil" ready for the trials - whilst Messrs. Stephenson and so such qualms! There may also have been some class rivalry going on: both were self-made men, but Stephenson had risen rapidly in society whereas Hackworth had not.

It also has to be remembered that "Rocket" was the only locomotive built in a specialist factory - R. Stephenson & Co's works in Newcastle. Hackworth built "Sans Pareil" in his spare time, using what little savings he had; despite the Rainhill Trials being advertised in January 1829 for some reason Ericsson and Braithwaite only learned of it in July leaving them with only a few months to build "Novelty". The pair had previously experimented with building steam-powered fire engines, and given the short space of time they had, "Novelty" is probably based upon the technology they developed for their steam pumps. Furthermore, only "Rocket" had any pre-Trial testing, both in Newcastle and at Rainhill carrying out demonstration runs and, when "Novelty" and "Sans Pareil" were out of action, carrying passengers over the trial course.  The leaking boiler of "Sans Pareil" and the teething trouble with "Novelty" (water feed pump; air compressor; boiler joints) would have been ironed out had there been any test period - but, as George Stephenson said the "Novelty", "had no goots" - Ericsson and Braithwaite built two "Novelty" class locos for the L&MR in 1830 but neither proved succesful over the 35-mile route and had to be rescued by one of Stephenson's engines.

Such was the pace of technological development, that "Rocket" was obsolete within  months. The L&MR ordered four "Rocket" type locomotives from R. Stephenson & Co. on  26 October 1829 ("Arrow", "Dart", "Comet", "Meteor"), first running in January 1830. They inorporated many lessons learned from "Rocket":-

Cylinders at 8 degrees (rather than the 38 of Rocket) which made the loco more stable
A Steam Dome (to reduce 'priming')

Internal steam pipe (from the Dome to the cylinders)
Larger wheels (five foot diameter)
Larger cylinders
Valve chest on top of the cylinders (Rockets were underneath and therefore transposed and inverted)

 In turn, these were rapidly superseded in June 1830 by "Pheonix" and "Northumbrian" which sported an integral firebox and an ash box at the front end - but not yet a smoke-box proper.  The obsolescence of "Rocket" is shown by the fact it had a working life on the L&MR of about four years; it was heavily rebuilt in 1830 following a severe accident to bring it into line with "Arrow" et al through lowering of the cylinders and fitting a steam dome. After about a year of being laid-up out of work, "Rocket" was sold in 1836 for use on the Naworth colliery.

 So were the Rainhill Trials fair? Probably not! "Rocket" (despite being the most reliable locomotive present) and her design team had the advantages of not only having a fully-equipped Locomotive Factory and experienced designers and engineers to constrcut it, also had the advantage of running-in trials and being able to test and modify the locomotive before the trials began. Furthermore, Stephenson, through his Unitarian connections, knew the 'great and the good' and was probably able to use them to his own advantage - George Stephenson was excellent at self-promotion and putting himself forward as the best man for the job.

Unitarians in Liverpool and Manchester had a degree of political and industrial clout and influence far stronger than their numbers would suggest. Charges of ‘insider trading’ were levelled against them by the largely Tory, Anglican Liverpool Corporation and for demonstrating favouritism to fellow Unitarians with regards to contracts, employment and apprentices. George Stephenson – chief engineer of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway – the company founders and most of the Board were Unitarians. Was the victory of the Stephensons at Rainhill and the subsequent very lucrative contract to supply locomotives to the Liverpool & Manchester already a foregone conclusion? Yes.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

"It's the New Sodom, I tell you"

Whilst walking my way down Market Street in Manchester this morning,  making my way to Chapel, amidst the debris of Gay Pride, side stepping mountains of half drunk champagne bottles, tattered rainbow flags and pink streamers, I couldn't help but notice amongst the detritus not only passed out drunks but homeless peoples, whose only possessions appeared to be in a few black plastic bin bags which looked scarily like the banks of rubbish being thrown on the dustcart by the council workers.

I was moved by the sharp dichotomy. The contrast between those who spent the night on the street in their party clothes because they had drunk too much, and for whom this would be something to tell their friends later - high jinks indeed - and those for whom every night was spent on the street, and we wearing their only clothes. and for whom there would be no high jinks,

And yet, this was taking place in Manchester, at the Pride Big Weekend - a festival to welcome and celebrate the LGBTQI communities, to celebrate, welcome and affirm. To support and uphold those who are differant; those who within a few short decades have had their lives transformed. Manchester, welcoming thousands of visitors and thousands of pounds spent in shops and bars.

But yet.

But yet  where was the welcome, the hospitality, for those who are down and out and quite literally have nothing?

On Saturday - again in Market Street - I was stopped by a Christian lady who warned me that Manchester "Is the new Sodom, I tell you! Repent!".

And I agreed. Which shocked her. But  not in the way I believe she intended me to reply.

The sin of Sodom was not homosexuality. It was about wealth. And power.  And the abuse of power. Of not showing hospitality, especially to the least:

"For this was the guilt ... of Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy" (Ezekiel 16: 48-49)

The sins of Sodom were Pride, Greed, and Inhospitality.

This is contrasted elsewhere in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with the radical hospitality shown by Abraham  and also Lot toward strangers, toward unexpected guests in his house. Abraham was told by "God" that he would be rewarded for showing such hospitality.

The sin of Sodom is not homosexuality (although there is attempted rape....)

And yet this weekend, in Manchester I saw just that: greed and inhospitality. Whilst Manchester opened its arms to the LGBTQI community and the power of the "Pink Pound", people were living on the streets, in bin bags and tents. And were even asked to "move on" from the area around Canal Street, as if they were human detritis but be cleaned up by the council bin men to make the area nicer and litter free for the party-goers. The hypocracy is mind blowing:  an event to welcome "the other," those whom less than fifty years aho whose choice of lover was illegal, was treating "the other" and the downtrodden as little more than human waste, to be tidied up off the street for a Big Weekend to celebrate inclusion and community.

How do we as the LGBT community respond to the other, to those who do not conform within our community (those who do not fit the idealised gay man or woman or neatly fit into our compartments) and how do we respond to those who literally have nothing?  A three-year old report suggests that 20% of all homeless youth in the UK are LGBT - thrown out as unwanted, as damaged goods by their parents - and with the highest rate of suicide amongst homeless youth (69%).

So yes, I do agree with the Christian lady with the pamphlets and a bible  - this is a new sodom and we do need to repent. Repent of our sins of pride, of greed, and show hospitality to all.

The Church needs to repent of Sodomy, too: for two thousand years it has been persecuting, torturing and murdering gay people in the name of a "God of Love". Subjecting LGBT people to extreme acts of inhospitality. Because of policies of exlcusion, condemnation and denial by the Church towards LGBT people; by the response of Manchester council to the plight of the homeless (being moved on; installing spikes etc) i it is they who are the sodomtes rahter than the LGBT community and the homeless. Rather than LGBT people, it is they who deserve the anathema carried by the word 'Sodomite.'

"He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away."

Monday, 27 July 2015

Thunderbolts from Titfield

  I recently stared working at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester as a Trainee Fireman. No, not the big hunky fellas in the yellow helmets… but rather, the filthy guy in blue overalls shovelling coal on a steam train.  A boyhood dream realised – to learn to drive a steam train. And you don’t just start with learning how to drive the thing, oh no: you start at the very bottom literally – underneath it with an oil can. Learning how it works by cleaning the thing. Crawling all over it, under it, under it in your overalls, oiling it, cleaning it, polishing the brass until you can use it as a mirror... and then learning how to fire the engine. It’s a ... Long process. Glamorous it is not. But it is so very, very fulfilling.