Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Late Ernest Penn

The last time I attended the Hull Unitarian Church was in 2004; the last service I delivered there (the adapted eucharist) was in 2002. I recall that the first time I attended was late 1984, and I attended regularly from 1985 (with Anglicans until 1987) until 1989 when I went to Unitarian College, and then 1994 when living in northern Lincolnshire until 2004. The latter years saw me return after it had undergone some expansion in numbers; I was encouraged to join but refused, though my mother was a member, and then detected that I was not well regarded because I had been told to leave Unitarian College after my religious humanism and symbolic neo-Paganism of the time did not fit the locality (why I would not join - I no longer believed the propaganda about freedom of religion within the denomination). Then ideas of a men's group, a theology group, were regarded as suspicious because it was seen as innovation by the back door (and I was involved) but then, more than anything, the church shot itself in the foot many times over a trust deed controversy (over which I had no significant involvement) and which led to many leaving over time. I felt that I was one who should have left and yet stayed. It was when I judged that a minister (after Ernest Penn) was badly treated and whose employment ended that I decided to leave.

The only time I returned into that company was for the funeral of Ernest Penn, the long time minister there from 1955. He also celebrated the marriage of Elena and me, and did so (with his input) to my script. Otherwise I retained the friendship of one Unitarian and it was through him that I kept in touch with what was happening locally and with the denomination.

Ernest Penn, an ex-Methodist, but a long time back, was a thoroughgoing Unitarian. He was a denominationalist, but otherwise flexible in his beliefs. He had started at the Hull Church when it used a liberal Christian liturgy, and his ministry ended when the church was (compared with anywhere else in Yorkshire) relatively humanist - but it was under strain. It was theist-humanist with some liberal Christian elements. He operated according to the breadth identified of the denomination.

After the funeral I was asked to look at some documents, which included a hundred year old set of handwritten notes about John Wesley the puritan, the grandfather of John Wesley the Methodist. They were looked at in Epworth, but were of no particular value except perhaps for Halifax or Poole civic archives. They are incomplete, the transcriber is unknown, and are about the interview Wesley had with his bishop prior to the Great Ejection in 1662. Then 2000 Presbyterian-Puritan ministers walked out because they could not consent and assent to the Book of Common Prayer. The congrgations of many of these Puritans later turned Arminian and, refusing to obey anything but the Bible, and without creeds or presbyteries, ended up Unitarian, some of which were then boosted by ideological and denominational Unitarians, like new liberal Puritans, later competing with and superseded by the broader Free Christian ethos types who interpreted the Presbyterians as broad and parish orientated. Thus it was interesting that Ernest Penn had these notes, and as a one time Methodist too, who had taken one part of a disused three-decker pulpit from a Halifax Methodist church to the Poole Unitarian church, and so it is supposed that these notes are either from Halifax or Poole.

Also I was asked to look at and type some of his sermons as a kind of record by his widow. Well, he was obviously affected by resource shortages, because, like my friend, he wrote his sermons on scraps of paper. He had not caught up with any technology for writing, so there are lots of crossings out and additions. How he used these to preach I will never know, because he did turn over pages. I once suggested he archived his sermons, but though he showed slight interest nothing came of it. All that has happened now is that I have tried to read his writing (tough in places) and made a record of the few sermons given to me. There are more, but his study was not a very rationally organised place.

So far I have transcribed four sermons. I have had to make judgements about them, even whilst keeping to how they would have been read. There is one more sermon yet to be transcribed (in my possession) which is actually the neatest and I think has been rewritten, for a special reunion service. But another sermon has been added now, the fourth, and I think is perhaps the least coherent of the four - though I seem to remember it somehow and never recall it being incoherent. He never was. He gave sermons according to the old school and had a fully trained and capable speaking voice, and would need no microphone. He looked up and delivered, even though he followed the text. He did give me advice, but at the college we were not trained in voice projection, just in reading (by someone else of the old school).

His sermons give an insight into a Unitarianism that was broad in faith and focused on the denomination; well respected he nevertheless was someone within the denomination rather than being given many high level tasks and rewards for such a senior and loyal figure. He did serve on the then Development Commission, and these concerns for growth came through in much of what he said in what was always a struggle over numbers, with some good times and lean throughout.

I suppose for myself there is a reappraisal of Unitarianism, via my (very) moderate Catholicism and preference for liturgical form, and my own identification with James Martineau and some of the Free Catholics. I am not very sympathetic to congregationalism (I find it illiberal) nor to the Puritan shadow that is anti-symbolic (except the 'white wall' and the minimalist as symbolism). As regards the sermon just added, the issue for me is the content of the religion, its sources and historic communities, and thus it is not enough simply to discuss religion and reason, but what religion and how reason(ing) then functions. Plus, I'm not very hot on modernist and minimalist reason, but rather on being reasonable with the complexities of text, sign and symbol, leading to a postmodernism of ritual play and a critical view of religion.

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