My wife and I were married three and a half years ago at the Unitarian Church in Brighton. We first really became aware of it as a building when watching Slow Club there as part of the Great Escape festival back in 2010, and when we began arranging our wedding the following year it was our first choice of venue. As an atheist, I did feel slightly uncomfortable at first about the idea of a church wedding, even though what little I knew about Unitarianism, and the Brighton church in particular, placed it very firmly on the liberal non-dogmatic side of religion.
The Unitarians encouraged us to attend some of their services before deciding on their church as our wedding venue, so we could get a sense of what they were all about. We were pleasantly surprised at what we found. The ministers were friendly and engaging, the readings included poetry and fiction alongside texts from various religions, and there seemed to be a free exploration of ideas. Most importantly, it helped me understand one of the things people get out of attending church, the sense of community. It wasn’t going to make me suddenly believe in god, but I appreciated that togetherness at least. My wife and I attended more services than we were actually required to and continued to attend, not every week but every so often, even after our wedding.
Every three months, on the Sunday closest to the solstice, the service would be opened up to the congregation. Members would read passages of their choosing, most often poetry. We attended the autumn solstice service one year, and a visibly weak old man approached the lectern. He announced that due to severe ill health this would be the last service he could attend, and clearly he wasn’t long for this world.
We thought he may read a poem, or even just end his announcement there, but instead he unexpectedly broke into a rendition of ‘September Song’. You may recognise the song even if you don’t realise you know it, as it’s a bit of a standard. I first knew it as the theme tune to the cheesy sitcom ‘May to December’. To hear this man sing this song about aging and approaching the end of one’s life, bravely standing in front of us with soul wide open, acknowledging his own mortality, was devastating. Usually the congregation received each reading in silence, but on this occasion a spontaneous standing ovation broke out, and tears rolled down nearly every face in the room. It was a moment I will never forget.
I’ve listened to many versions of September Song since, but the fragile beauty of Robert Wyatt’s version, with Pascal Comelade is my favourite (if Robert Wyatt has recorded a version of a song, it will usually be my favourite), and hearing it will always transport me back to that day.