Westgate Chapel as a religious movement claims its roots stem mainly from the 1662 acts of Uniformity marking the then disorganized dissent from the Church of England. It is true that many of our Unitarian and Free Christian congregations were founded in this period, but they were not grounded on a non-Trinitarian view until much later. Informal links between different protesting congregations of dissent from the Church of England were often due to disagreements over scriptural interpretations. It was the scriptures in the form of the slightly later King James Bible that became the basis of government of congregations.
In Europe different schools of thought were also centered on the biblical interpretation to different levels depending on where and what the main new denomination was. This was always the reason for dissent in the non-conforming congregations often evolving later into denominations. In England in particular many schools of Biblical interpretation gave rise to increasingly different expressions of dissent. All in one way or another claimed to have got it right and opposed the Church of England’s 39 articles of faith and its common book of prayer with selective readings of scripture that became a seasonal expression of the so called Christian calendar.
Onto this foundation of dissent was the growth of denominations that by and large had a perspective that made them distinctive from each other only as time evolved. Perhaps a slight exception to this were Annabaptists mainly on the continent who early on emphasized just the need for believers baptism, but even then splits occur as they developed into more regulated congregations.
Finding Unitarianism was like finding the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of where I could find a home spiritually. I love this little old chapel and its great heritage and feel it needs to be nurtured and reinterpreted for today without losing its sacred nature, it needs to be a place open to all those who are respectful of the spirituality of themselves and others. I for one wish it to never be a place where some are more accepted than others who are liberal in spiritual practice of any specific way of doing a religion. Its strength is diversity not procedures and it will only grow from what might be termed grass roots.
As a tradition with its roots in the Christian tradition and the theology of those former congregations such as Baptists and Presbyterians of yesteryear, I as a relative newbie find some things I miss about those who went on to become perhaps more Calvinist and more and more literally Bible based.
In some ways dispensing with the Bible as a final guide to authority in one or another way has led to a lack of the practice seen in examples in the biblical epistles giving guidance to one another from the learned and practical applications of what is believed the right way to govern. The many instructional letters attributed to the apostle Paul; or though most likely just written in his style; seem at first glance to be largely ignored in the practices of the Unitarians since 1928. But our stained glass window at Westgate for example identifies the heraldic signs of the Gospels and St Peter in his keys to the kingdom along with the Sword of the word of St Paul. This was installed around about the time the General Assembly came into being. It does not however perhaps reflect directly modern Unitarianism, its centrality is Jesus the shepherd.
Historically many from Westgate were very influential in the establishment of congregations who perhaps were not as liberal, but were still supported in love and fellowship, such as the small Countess of Huntingdon Chapel 1780 not that far from here, still in existence today. Crossover between denominations was often a case of tolerance with support rather than intolerance and disconnection as seems to have followed in many locations since. Ministers also crossed over without hindrances of Qualification from the other denominations on a theological basis of dissent. Many of the predecessors of Westgate came from Anglican, Baptist and other denominations be they catholic or Free Church or reformed.
Three hundred and fifty years later here we their dissenting descendants enjoy the heritage they handed on. Like an Olympic torch handed from one to another their light still shines here in Lewes. Sometimes that vital flame nearly went out and at times the next runner was not evident as one looked to the horizon tired of continuing to run with a torch, heavier and heavier as time progressed.
But with hope a newer runner came into view at just the right time to keep it journeying onwards in time.
Dissent here has over many years been responsible for much in the way of social action, look into our library and the voices of dissent litter its bookshelves and have done since 1711 built onto the back of this sanctuary on stilts a place for study. Thomas Paine was influenced by the contents, as were others in Lewes able for the first time to borrow from the library here long before a public library replaced it in Lewes. My predecessors were learned men responsible for change in understanding. People like Smith who is quoted by Darwin who wrote about pond algae, going on to be professor of natural history at Cork University. Horsfield who wrote the only complete history of Sussex in our library, still used today it being the only complete history written.
Dissent here resulted in education for children whose families were not able to pay for it before education was the right of every child born in this country. It was also good quality education and some children gained entrance on the basis of their studies here at the dissenting Sunday School. It followed in a line of people linked here to Education such as an early minister Comfort Star whose father was much to do with the starting Harvard in the USA.
Look in the county records office and dissent here provided small grants to the poor for food or shoes, such was the once role of the dissenting ministers work in Lewes. His records still in evidence.
Dissent here gave weight to justice and fairness with dissenting members being sheriff of Lewes. Several members of Westgate held this office,
Dissent here much more recently also gave fair trade a place to be sold and encouraged the town to buy fairly when the commercial outlets did not want to know. That dissent spoke of one-world not rich bits and others used at disadvantage for cheap labor.
Dissent here also in recent times has been keen to support those wishing to mark their rites of passage at a reasonable charge according to individual circumstances in some cases for no charge, believing love should not have a set price to be recognized or celebrated by only the wealthy.
Is it a conviction to help others that drives this torch onwards as history proceeds its way? Looking at the distinguished part of our social action history here at Westgate Chapel did people past and present come here just to do what they could for their fellow members of the human race? No but it was an aspect of their faiths and beliefs that gave rise to it. The word that perhaps sums up much of what we are looking at is compassion, and it has to be said that it is not just other humans that have benefited from our dissent here, but also other issues have made us think and act in a One World ethos of compassion and concern. Such an ethos has seen links with other local Churches and good will with support of initiatives run here over the many years.
But dissent is not driven by compassion and good works alone, it is driven by far more than that, it is also driven past the point of mere humanities recognition of need. It is driven by another thing and that is to be a community who work at grass roots to do what can be done. But why does dissent promote community and a one-world vision, why does it work to do what it can in its little bit of the world.
I think it is because in dissent here humanity looks for hope; it looks for hope because so many certainties have gone in past generations. It looks to try and understand the hopes of those who went before us and to continue this wonderful legacy of a conviction of not hope for ourselves, but hope for the world in which we exist.
The centrality of Jesus in our stained glass window here shows his image as a shepherd caring for his sheep that is the beacon of hope those of us here seek to also reflect. It was never put there for us to worship Jesus as the Son of God; it was there to emphasis his life’s example here on earth. It was never put there to say Jesus is the only spiritual guru to follow, but it was there to say this congregation sees his life as a role model.
Unitarians in this country were so often looking to see the Jesus in one another, following that role model who is reported to have said so much about giving hope to those needing hope in their generation. Hope that was the same hope we have today inspiring us to do acts of loving kindness, because we believe In that torch of hope being passed on. In many ways looking at Lewes there is far less hopelessness for people today than in past generations of people living here. Lewes is a fairly affluent place and social need is low but much of that is because this beacon of hope did its work in past years. It has been hugely effective in this place and affected the lives of all who live here now.
It is in many ways the hidden gem in the crown of Lewes historically and it still is, because our way of doing dissent is still here and still going. We punch a weight in Lewes area far beyond our size. We are a congregation supporting issues surrounding those excluded from other places of worship over human sexuality or because they seek to express their own spirituality in rites of passage. Needing a place where there is no dogma and where there is a loving acceptance of others, not a place saying you must comply.
Dissent here is evidenced in our congregation working with others who are a part of the One world center like Amnesty and Lewes Group in Support of Refugees and Asylum Seekers who are a part of our community, although not a direct part of our congregation. Working with the Oyster Project a self-help organization for people with disabilities in Lewes. Being a place that seeks to support their organization in any ways it can, but also by coming alongside and seeking solidarity with other faiths and humanity not superiority.
Small as we may be here numerically we are still here, our doors open to those who find us and seek to be in fellowship. Dissent allows a freedom here that we cherish, but we are like an ancient olive tree, we do not bear fruit where we did before, instead a new branch is needed, sometimes grafted in to produce fruit. But our ancient roots will only support branches that are a strain of olive tree not a different variety of tree.
Implicit in this congregation is a dissenting liberal Christian way of doing things, that is our roots and that is what we stand for, and the torch of hope we sustain and carry onwards is one of hope that others will find here a place to feel at home regardless of their background and loving the way we are and who we are and reflecting that sacredness for today’s generation as I hope we do here for many years yet still to come.
Our roots sustain us and we see fruit on our branches, and we welcome those who like us find a spiritual home and a way of doing things here that is a comfort and a feeling of belonging. In fellowship with other congregations we seek to find in their ways of being dissenters a place where we also belong in an association of those who are seeking to be places carrying a similar torch of hope in a world where there is still need for hope.
That larger fellowship is a vital link to small congregations like ourselves, empowering us and encouraging us forward, carrying our torch from generation to generation as it has been passed to us. At those times when a replacement runner is not evident on the horizon it is then we need the fellowship of others to encourage us to continue. Such is the vital role of the LDPA to small weak congregations like ourselves! Thank you for coming here today and encouraging us to keep going. Encouraging us to keep carrying the torch of hope that has sustained generations before.