Ernest Penn Retirement Sermon, 1999

This is my last service as your minister as I retire on 31st March. It is 44 years since Marie and I joined you here in Hull in 1955, and this year I celebrate 50 years service in the Unitarian ministry.
But this is not only about me! A very important and precious element in those 50 years of ministry and marriage has been Marie. I cannot fully express the depth of my own gratitude to her for her invaluable contribution in so many ways. She has shed in an supported me in my ministry so devotedly and unstintingly through all the years with her caring, her encouraging influence, and her considerable work and effort in the life and activities of the congregation, and not least through her ministry of music. So I just wanted to express my sincere and heart-felt appreciation to Marie for being there with the every step of the way. I'm sure the congregation concurs with these sentiments. The ministry is a bit like a marriage partnership. If both minister and congregation have survived 44 years together, then there must be something very special about their relationship - and that is what we celebrate today.
During these 44 years we have travelled together through many and varied experiences and we have a rich store of memories. It has been my privilege to share in the life of the congregation in good times and difficult times, in happy times and in sad times, in lean times and in successful times, and to share with some in their more sensitive and personal moments. We have worshipped together, we have prayed together; we have rejoiced together, we have mourned together; we have worked together, we have played together; we have grown together in one community, of caring mutually supportive of one another in the spiritual quest.
As we look back over the 44 years, how times have changed! How life has changed, how Hull has changed! How this Church has changed! How I have changed!
When we came to Hull in 1955 we had the blue and white trolley buses - clean, so smoothly and quietly gliding along with a gentle purr and lulling hum; so unlike the rattle and noise and smelly toxic fumes of the diesel buses which succeeded them. Then in 1955 the ferry across the Humber to Lincolnshire was operated by the romantic paddle steamers - been 'Lincoln Castle', 'Wingfield Castle', 'Tattershall Castle'. It used to be an exciting outing just to take a return trip and go down below to look at the engine and the great pistons turning the paddles. Now they have all gone superseded by the majestic Humber Bridge.
Then in 1955 the Hull University was a smaller community in which every one knew everyone. So different from today with its enlarged campus and larger population of staff and students. Then in 1955 there was no M62, no M18, no Humber Bridge.
And the Church has changed too.
In 1955 the Services were wholly liturgical. Both morning and evening services were read from the liturgies in Orders of Worship. These were beautifully written. Gradually there was an increasing desire for more variation than the set liturgical services allowed, and we started to have an open service once each Sunday, alternating morning and evening. As time went on with so many changes in customs and language we tended to hold fewer liturgical services and to be more experimental in worship. Some of the language in Orders of Worship may now seem to some to be a little archaic, inappropriate for modern days. However, occasionally I do revert to some of those classical Martineau prayers in Orders of Worship and they come to us with a freshness. A feature of Orders of Worship was the use of responses. We do frequently return to the technique of responses by using modern responsive readings in modern language and relevant to the modern situation. Many of these are printed in Songs for Living and Words of Worship, one of which we have used today.
Also in the congregation there has been a changing concept of ministry, from ministry as being exercised exclusively by the professional minister - to lay members participating in the conduct of worship in a 'shared ministry' with the professional minister. This means that after today the congregation can sustain its ministry without a professional ministerial preserve, until such time that an arrangement involving a professional minister can be achieved. I believe that this development in our worship and ministry is a mark of significant growth for the Congregation which augers well for the future.
And I have changed too! Another way in which the Church has changed is that over the years there has been a broadening of theological perspectives amongst us - a wider spectrum of beliefs.
In 1955 we were traditional Unitarian and liberal Christian; but principles of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance in religion leave room for individual growth and this leads to a wider spectrum of beliefs ranging from Theist, Liberal Christian, agnostic, universalist, to a spiritual humanism.
As this ministry ends no doubt each and every one of us will have our own very special precious thoughts and feelings. Many thoughts and feelings intermingle with me at this time. Among them are GRATITUDE for the past - and OPTIMISM for the future. I feel gratitude for the loyalty, support and friendship of so many people across the years, and I give thanks for the devotion, commitment and encouragement that has helped to keep this free religious tradition alive. Thanks for the many friendships I have enjoyed. I am optimistic about the future (singers will re-echo this). I am optimistic about the future because today it is encouraging to find in this Congregation an increasing desire for expansion, for publicising our free faith, for enriching our worship, for continuing spiritual growth and for sustaining and increasing our service to good causes in the local community.
This note of optimism, however, brings with it a challenge - we know from experience that DECLINE can happen - but we also know that DECLINE IS NOT INEVITABLE! Organisations need not stagnate; organisations can renew themselves continuously IF - IF.


The late Revd. Ernest Penn

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful