From Our Minister - June 2021
Updated: Jun 16
On 11th June, a flotilla of boats will be heading between Tower Bridge & Westminster in commemoration of the return of the Mayflower to United Kingdom. This is the 400th anniversary. On 16th September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth; it carried 102 passengers, many seeking religious freedom, to America & they were known as Pilgrims. The Mayflower returned to England & during this 2021 event the boat convoy will be led by the Excelsior, an authentically restored fishing smack of the Lowestoft fleet. It will be worth a watch.
I was at college in Plymouth completing my Social Work qualification & so spent many happy evenings on The Hoe, alongside the Mayflower Steps, the departure point of the Pilgrim Fathers. It turns out these are not the actual steps used at all. A few years ago, Gillian & I visited the Hoe again & had lunch by the sea in the Admiral MacBride. The actual steps where the Mayflower was boarded are beneath the lady’s restroom facilities in the pub. They were built over three hundred years ago. The head chef says, “People just want to come & see the toilet, thinking it is more than just a toilet”. I am pleased to say that Gillian did use these famous facilities, but I did not.
On its return 400 years ago, the Mayflower ship was in fact sold for scrap just a few years later. Indeed, there is a barn in Buckinghamshire, in a small Quaker Village of Jordan’s which is said to be made from the timbers of the old ship & so is the last resting place of the Mayflower. Two local farmers had shares in the Mayflower & were resident in the village while one of the timbers in the roof is split. This is considered to have occurred during the voyage of the Mayflower. However, that authenticity has never been confirmed so it may be that this story too has been elaborated.
After four hundred years, I think you can expect some revision in the stories. Nevertheless, the Mayflower Voyage four hundred years ago is part of our tradition in the United Reformed Church. After the establishment of the Church of England, (read your Tudor history) James l & the bishops drew up a list of rules to which all clergy were required to conform. Some Anglican clergy refused & so lost their livelihood. Many people were discriminated against for not attending Church of England worship & because they sought separation from the state religion. They were refused work or to study for medicine or the law, for example. And a lot worse happened to them, too.
The Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 were part of the first great movement of separation from the Church of England. They went further than most in their pursuit of that separation but, throughout its 50-year history, the whole movement had been willing to face prison, poverty, exile, & even death in its opposition to the Church of England. Its members became the mothers & fathers of two Nonconformist denominations — Congregational & Baptist, & subsequently our current URC, the pioneers of the idea of religious freedom. These were known as separatists or dissenters - among other things I expect!
So, the commemoration of the return of the Mayflower is a significant part of our history. However, I think in the URC we are now pretty much mainstream. Since we have our religious freedom & are not subject to discrimination as were our forebears in the non-conformist tradition. We have become part of the establishment.
It has become right & proper to comply with the law of the land & the democratically elected government. Most recently we have of course remained very compliant over matters of restrictions & limitations of our freedoms, even in our worship. This was for the health & safety of everyone & for the greater good of the community.
I think it is worth mentioning here, as we begin to worship in our buildings again, that we remain compliant. My letter from November 2020 still stands. We are returning to gathered worship within the current guidance & rules. We are making decisions & managing risk, respecting individual choices, & providing opportunities to meet in person for us all who need it in safe & supportive environments. There is a risk, but it is managed, as we must do, if this situation is going to persist.
Yes, although it seemed our religious freedoms were jeopardised this was not an attack on faith but our collaboration with the “powers that be” to ensure the safety & health of all Gods people. Quite right too. But I must also ask, as we commemorate the return of the Mayflower, as it reminds us of our non-conformist roots & dissenting tradition, whether we have been missing necessary opportunities of dissent & to non-conform.
There are other stories now being told. The detrimental effect of the colonisation of those first voyages on the native Americans, particularly the Wampanoag people is now being told. Whether the Mayflower voyage was also about economic opportunity as much as religious freedom is being explored. In the same way stories develop on lesser important matters, of toilets & barns, the stories of The Mayflower landings four hundred years ago have also re-developed & provided insight for us upon which to reflect.
Yet we commemorate the return of the Mayflower on the Thames this month because we value individual & collective freedoms & freedom of religion, & therefore have good reason to look back with gratitude to the dissenters who paid the price for it 400 years ago.
We can be brave enough to see where freedoms are even now being jeopardised, not only across the world but at home too. To hear the stories afresh can ignite in us that dissenting spirt whether it be church authority or government. We can dissent at the undermining of freedoms of those on benefits, homeless or in care homes or because stereotypes of gender, race or sexuality & lifestyle.
Jesus was no conformist. But he did like boats.