1. President's Christmas Message 2015
Very warm Christmas greetings to all congregations, districts, societies, and individual members of our General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Many of our churches light candles to mark the Advent period and some others refer to Advent when lighting their chalice candles: the symbolism of light in the dark underlying most of our chalice symbolism being combined with the anticipation of Advent.
As I said at my chalice lighting at the Annual Meetings:
“Just as the candle is consumed, so too we will only be able to bring truth and love and beauty into our lives and into our world by transforming into sacred flames—a sacrifice of self that is fed by the spirit of God acting through our lives and our relationships.
“May our inner lights burn brightly, bringing the light of peace and justice to our darkened world.”
We live in a world beset with overwhelming problems, both natural disasters and human-caused misery; we live in a society dominated by commercial interests and values; and we live with a calendar that seems to bump from one special greetings-card-day to another, and now we are in the commercial rush that will take us up to Christmas Day.
It would be easy to just turn our backs on the whole Christmas message and say, “Humbug”! But I'd rather see Christmas as an opportunity to focus on the life, values, and sacrifice of Jesus; to celebrate through song and story the spirit of love he demonstrated and which continues to inspire 2000 years after his death. For Unitarians, Jesus has never been the central god-figure-pillar of the universe; nevertheless Unitarians have written songs and stories that have entered the larger societies of which we are a part.
We can take the Bible stories as stories not history, and enjoy the imagery while pondering the multi-layered values that good stories embody. For example, stories about Jesus frequently mention his acts of kindness. Social intercourse, even in church, that doesn't include kindness loses something crucial.
The Paris conference on Climate Change is in its final, difficult stages. This gathering takes place in a beautiful city just weeks after a terrible atrocity caused by extremists who think it is alright to kill those with whom they disagree. Winter's icy blasts are an extra challenge for most of us but deadly for many refugees living in unheated tents. Can the Christmas call to Peace on Earth nudge us and our representatives along more sensible paths of behaviour? One lives in hope while working hard on issues locally.
Christmas is a time for us to think of others more than ourselves and as we celebrate the joy of the season with friends and family may this be so for all of us.
To the traditional wish for “a Happy Christmas to one and all” I repeat words from our Chalice lighting, perhaps illustrating that we wait not for someone else to solve our problems, we wait for ourselves to respond effectively to God's spirit within us:
May our inner lights burn brightly, bringing the light of peace and justice to our darkened world.
2. Hearts and Hands for Syria: a Red Cross Christmas and New Year emergency appeal
Fighting in Syria has forced over 10 million people to flee their homes, over 4 million refugees being now in exile outside the country. More than 200,000 have been killed and many more seriously injured. Right now millions of people are in urgent need of food, water, shelter and healthcare. This huge humanitarian crisis shows no sign of ending.
The British Red Cross is therefore urgently appealing for more desperately needed funds to support people in Syria and neighbouring countries affected by this ongoing conflict and this massive refugee exodus.
Millions of people have fled from Syria to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Many have found themselves separated from loved ones and are desperately struggling to find shelter or a way to earn a living. The British Red Cross is working with partners in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement to give these refugees the vital help they so urgently need but funds are running out.
‘The British Red Cross has been helping in Syria since before the unrest began. We have now scaled up our response and are providing support across the region. Every month we get food, water, blankets, soap and other essential help to people caught up in Syria’s terrible conflict. We’re helping people get their homes ready for harsh winters and deal with the psychological impact of years of violence. And we have worked to fix water networks and health services, cutting the risk of deadly diseases.
Much of the help is given by staff and volunteers of our partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The British Red Cross has been working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent since 2004, helping the organisation prepare for a range of disasters. Their reputation for neutrality means we can send help where other aid agencies cannot. But these brave men and women still face huge risks—dozens have been killed in the line of duty.’
If you wish to respond to this urgent Red Cross appeal please kindly make your cheque payable to the British Red Cross and send it to British Red Cross, 44 Moorfields, London EC2Y 9AL. Please indicate on the back of the cheque that you wish to earmark it to the Syria Crisis Appeal and write on the envelope ‘Clara Barton Appeal, for the attention of Laura Deacon’. Thanks.
3. ICUU Update on Burundi Situation (19 December 2015)
Violence in Burundi has escalated with government forces killing civilians, leaving the bodies in the streets to further terrorise their people. The still active charges against the leader of the Burundi Unitarians are now being used to seek to arrest and intimidate the lawyers and those of others faiths who were of assistance.
Regrettably, it is now necessary for Burundi Unitarians to join the multitudes fleeing the country for personal safety. Assistance is being offered to all our congregants who need to leave and several large homes in another country are being rented to provide shelter.
So far everyone has been able to leave safely, although some Unitarians remain in the country. It is likely we will need to house and feed people away from home for a number of months.
Provisions have been made for the Unitarian Church Building in Bujumbura to be secured and guarded. When possible, worship and prayer continues there.
The Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana is living in one of the rented shelters, organising relief efforts and looking after the spiritual needs of both Unitarians and non-Unitarians.
A significant grant from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), combined with the generous donations from Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists around the world, is making all this possible. Any funds the Burundi Unitarians had have been frozen by the Burundi government.
The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) is working closely with the Unitarian Church of Burundi to support these efforts. Partners are assisting through a special multi-organisational working group coordinated by the ICUU and also including representatives of the Canadian Unitarian Council, International Bridges for Justice, UUA International Office, UUSC and the ICUU Francophone Mentoring Coalition.
If you are contacted by individual Burundian Unitarians seeking support or assistance, please refer them to this joined-up support effort rather than offering direct assistance. Please send any questions to Rev. Steve Dick.
Further donations will be need to the meet the ongoing needs of Burundians in exile. Please continue to support the ICUU Burundi Appeal. You can donate online via credit card or PayPal.
Cheques in £ can be sent to Burundi Appeal, ICUU, 345 Addiscombe Road, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 7LG, UK.
4. Essex Hall - Holiday Closure
The General Assembly Offices will be closed for the Christmas and New Year holiday from 4.00pm on Wednesday 23 December 2015 until Monday 4 January 2016 at 10.00am. Messages will not be retrieved from the voicemail service on the GA telephone number until our return. For messages that are of an urgent nature please ring or preferably send a text message to the mobile number 0750 763 1285. Please note this is an emergency number only and will only be checked periodically.
5. Reminder about Motion Workshop
All those intending to present a motion to the Annual Meetings should note that a Workshop is planned for Monday 18 January 2016 from 1pm-4pm in the Lindsey Room, Essex Hall, London WC2R 3HY.
Please bring along ideas and draft Motions if you have them and a packed lunch (drinks provided) from 12:30pm.
If you wish to attend please contact: Mary-Jean Hennis by email or on 020 7240 2384
Annual Meetings Steering Group
6. 2016 Annual Meetings
7. General Assembly Directory 2015-2016
The new General Assembly Directory for 2015-16 has been circulated. Every effort has been made to ensure that it is up-to-date and any subsequent amendments should be sent to Andrew Mason by email or by post at Essex Hall.
8. Small Charitable Donations – Limit for claim increased
The House of Commons has approved the Draft Small Charitable Donations Act (Amendment) Order 2015, which will increase in the limit for claims under the Gift Aid Small Donations scheme from £5,000 to £8,000 per charity per year. In the first year of the Scheme, 2013-14, 8,100 charities claimed a total of £6 million: in 2014-15, 19,300 charities claimed a total of £21 million. The draft Order is not subject to proceedings in the House of Lords. It will come into force on 6 April 2016.
[Source: CLAS based on HC Deb – 7 December 2015]
9. 2nd Round Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund
The second round of the Listed Places of Worship Roof Repair Fund opened to applications yesterday. Applications will be accepted for 12 weeks, with a deadline of Friday 26 February at 12 noon. The Fund is worth £25 million and it is anticipated that grants will be allocated in early summer 2016.
Applications for grants between £10,000 and £100,000 will be accepted from listed places of worship across the UK, where roof and rainwater goods repairs are deemed to be urgent. Works must have been identified by a professional architect or surveyor as necessary within two years. Both unsuccessful applicants under the initial scheme and new applicants will be able to apply, provided that they meet the current criteria.
There have been some changes to the Scheme and the application form has been amended. Any applicants who were unsuccessful during the first round and wish to be considered again will need to make a new application using the online application portal. The key changes are:
•The repair work should be identified in a recent condition survey as being needed within the next two years.
•The Scheme can now consider the repair of spire coverings such as shingles or tiles, in addition to roofs, tower roofs, cupolas, rainwater disposal and any associated repointing where it forms part of the roof repairs.
•The application form now has more room to explain the reasons for any restrictions in the accounts of the place of worship and to explain its opening arrangements.
•The number of items asked for in the supporting documents has been reduced.
A dedicated team appointed by the National Heritage Memorial Fund is administering the Fund. Contact details for the team and the full guidance documents are available on the Fund’s website: www.lpowroof.org.uk. The ChurchCare website of the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Archbishops’ Council will also be providing support and guidance: non-Anglican applicants may find it a helpful resource.
[Source: CLAS based on Church of England media release – 2 December]
10. Media Coverage
From IMRO (Irish Music Rights Association) “Restored JW Walker pipe organ at Dublin Unitarian Church to be re-dedicated this Sunday at a special afternoon recital” (3 December 2015)