Living in the question

'. . . the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' RAINER MARIA RILKE Letters to a Young Poet

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Grateful to Women of the Past

When asked to do the 'Ladies' service at another Unitarian Church I reflected on how I thank some of the women of the past for my being where I am today.

Reading 1: Extracts from an essay by Francis Power Cobbe - a feminist and Unitarian from the  late 19th Century.

Reading 2: Extracts about Annie Dillard, botanist and mystic; taken from Women in search of the Sacred

Hymn - Nearer My God To Thee


Today I have chosen to think about some of the women who have had an influence for me in this life of mine. Today I feel really lucky, lucky and privileged. My chosen path, towards ministry and indeed within the six and half years of ministry to date, has been relatively easy, and the question of my gender has not been an issue at all; but of course it has not always been so for women and even within the enlightened Unitarian movement women have sometimes found it difficult to express themselves.  We just have to look at the writing of Francis Power Cobbe and read her descriptions of a woman’s role, to realise how difficult it was for women to outwardly make a connection with the divine.  Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) was one of the most influential figures in the British Unitarian movement of her day. Although she lacked formal educational and professional credentials, she made her way among the leaders of progressive thought by sheer force of personality and intellect. According to Unitarian historian Alexander Gordon, "In detaching Unitarians from the older supernaturalism, her influence was considerable." 


In the wider community she was one of the foremost protagonists for the emancipation of women, educational and social reform, and a more humane treatment of animals. Cobbe was not always a Unitarian, she was brought up with Calvinism, but started to question this in her teens. By the time she reached her twenties she denied immortality, the divinity of Christ, the trinity, and the divine inspiration and authority of the bible.  When her mother died, she confided her beliefs to her father and he immediately banished her from his house.  A year later though he invited her to return, as his housekeeper!  She persisted in her religious studies through the works of Theodore Parker; whose theology presented God, not as a conquering king, but as a Father/Mother, Infinite in power, wisdom and love. 

Another active suffragette and Unitarian was Sarah Flower Adams, born 1805 and died in 1848.   

Unlike Frances, Sarah grew up as a Unitarian.  Her father was editor and owner of The Cambridge Intelligencer, and she married William Brydges Adams, a well-known inventor and civil engineer. When she married Adams, she made an agreement with him that she would do no Housekeeping. She is most well known for her poetry and her hymn writing.  She met people such as Robert Browning, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Leigh Hunt, and Harriet Martineau, but her convictions owed much to Thomas Southwood Smith, the health reformer, with whom she lived for many years; and there was her association with William Johnson Fox’s radical Unitarian congregation in the 1830’s.  It was at this time when she was most prolific with her hymn writing, contributing at least 13 hymns to the Hymns and anthems published in 1841. 

The hymn - Nearer, my God to thee!’, is easily the most famous.  It has been said that it was this hymn that was played by the band on the Titanic as it sank.  It was a favourite hymn for funerals and the bandleader from the Titanic had always said he wanted it played at ‘his’ funeral so maybe that is where the story came from.
An internet site says this of her.  ‘Her feminism and professionalism, the nature of her work, and her unconventional lifestyle were all grounded in Unitarianism, the most progressive and liberating ideology of the 19th century.

There are many other 19th century women I could mention but there is one who is quite significant for me and that lady is Florence Nightingale.   


She is most remembered as a pioneer of nursing and a reformer of hospital sanitation methods.  She pushed for reform of the British Military health-care system and with that the profession of nursing started to gain the respect it deserved.  What is generally less well known about her though was her development of new statistical methods of analysis.  She developed the ‘polar area diagram’, which was the first form of the Pi chart.  She was an innovator in the collecting, tabulation, interpretation and graphical display of descriptive statistics.  I used to be a maths teacher before becoming a minister and just as I developed my love of mathematics from my father, so too did Florence develop her love for mathematics from her father, when he took over the education of his two daughters.  However, he did not really approve when she begged her parents to let her study mathematics instead of ‘…worsted work and practising quadrilles.’  He urged Florence to study subjects more appropriate for a woman, but after many emotional battles her parents relented and allowed her to be tutored in maths.
Religion was important to Florence and her unbiased view was owed to the liberal outlook in her home.  Her parents were from a Unitarian background although the sisters were brought up as Church of England.  On the 7th February in 1837, Florence Nightingale believed she heard her calling from God, although she did not appreciate what that calling was to be.  She never married, as she believed that God had decided she was one whom he ‘had clearly marked out … to be a single woman.’  There are many quotes attributed to Florence Nightingale, but most of these are about her work and social reform, but I did find one that shows us her more religious outlook.

“For what is mysticism? Is it not the attempt to draw near to God, not by rites or ceremonies, but by inward disposition? Is it not merely a hard word for ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within’? Heaven is neither a place nor a time." (1873)

Women of today owe so much to these liberal women of the 19th and early 20th Century, without their efforts in both social and religious matters women such as Annie Dillard could not express themselves as they do, today.  Annie is a botanist and a mystic, I could have chosen any of her experiences to use for a reading, but what is important is that they all relate to the way in which to view life.   

As Anne Bancroft says in her book ‘Women in Search of the Sacred’,       “… Throughout Annie Dillard’s work there is the feeling that for life to be worth living it must be unrushed, based on inner silence and space, where living in the present is the most important act, where sounds can be really heard and sights really seen.”  Or as Annie herself says, “I walk out. I see something some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.”
When Annie ‘saw’ that tree in the reading she recognised this as a glimpse of the eternal, a gateway to the divine.  She began to recognise this in other moments too, such as sitting on a pavement drinking a cup of coffee, stroking a puppy and gazing into the hills on the horizon.  In each moment though, the point when she recognizes the connection is the moment when she returns to reality and she has to move on always in the hope that she will be ready to open up once more.  How fortunate she is, to have the freedom in her life to be open to these experiences, and without all those liberal women of the past it is a freedom that she would not have.

And how fortunate I am to have found my chosen path, within this liberal religion of ours that one hundred years ago allowed the first woman to train for the Ministry.  I started this address by saying how I felt lucky and privileged to be in my position, and now as I come to close I want to tell you about something that is very special to me.  In my spare time I quilt – creating out of small scraps of fabric things of beauty such as this quilt that I made for my daughter.   

Quilting is an activity that requires pure concentration, there is much room for error so I can’t afford for my mind to wander.  I become for a time absorbed and completely in the moment. In some small way, in the words of Sarah Flower Adams through this creative activity I am brought ‘Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!’, or it can be said I experience the ‘inward disposition’ mentioned by Florence Nightingale.  Or in Annie Dillard’s terms I open up my senses and make a connection with the Eternal.


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