The National Unitarian Fellowship was founded in 1944 and has proved to be a spiritual focal point for a great many people who, for one reason or another, either temporarily or permanently, have found themselves unable to make contact with a church. A fair proportion of members, however, while belonging to a regular worshipping congregation, also appreciate the wider contacts which they can enjoy through the NUF.
Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)
Sir Adrian Boult
Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell
Sir Tim Berners-Lee (www)
Unitarians are to be found worldwide but the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England gathered in an auction room in Essex Street, off the Strand in London on 17th April 1774 to hear the Rev. Theophilus Lindsey preach.
At the meeting were Joseph Priestley (pictured above), the discoverer of oxygen, and Benjamin Franklin. Joseph Priestley later became the Unitarian minister in Birmingham, but after the destruction of his scientific laboratory by a mob he moved to America and became the founder of the first Unitarian Church in the U.S.A.
The flaming chalice has become the internationally recognised symbol of the Unitarian movement. While originally only appearing as a device on letterheads and neckties, the lighting of a chalice is increasingly becoming a feature of communal worship in Unitarian congregations.
A little bit of background…
The philosopher A N Whitehead said that real symbols have the power to change history. The history of the chalice symbol is significant. It began by representing the religious courage of Jan Hus, a 15th century Czech priest, who was martyred for offering communion to his congregants in defiance of the Roman church, which reserved the sharing of wine to priests only. He was burnt at the stake for this act, and Unitarians too have a history of being persecuted for innovative and democratic deeds in religion.
During the Second World War an American Unitarian, Reverend Charles Joy, was stationed in Lisbon to help refugees from Nazism escape to safe havens. As executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee he felt that this new, unknown organisation needed some visual image to represent Unitarianism to the world, especially when dealing with government agencies abroad.
He commissioned a Czech refugee and cartoonist, Hans Deutsch, to design something that could be used on official documents, and thus an early version of the modern chalice came into being.
Joy described what Deutsch had drawn in the following terms: ‘A chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice…This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition and its central theme of sacrificial love’.
The American Universalists and Unitarians merged in the early sixties, and versions of the symbol were adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association and by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in Britain. It has since been used by Unitarian churches in other parts of the world.
Unitarianism values insights from the present as well as the past. It is appropriate therefore that the flaming chalice symbol should have both ancient and modern roots, in both instances grounded in the principles of sacrifice and service to humanity.