Joined: 17 Nov 2006
|Posted: Wed May 22, 2019 7:02 pm Post subject: Unitarian, a community for what?
|Unitarians, a community for what? That was the question i was asked to answer. The population of this country is over 60 million, the population of the Unitarians in this country is about 3,000. Do we make a difference? Have we made a difference? Will we make a difference?
It has to be powerful and significant for 3,000 to make a difference amongst 60 million.
But over the years the Unitarians have made a difference. In my own time I have seen how the Unitarians have changed. When I joined, the Unitarians were known for being willing to remarry people who had been divorced. We were unique in this, and for a long time we brought happiness and fulfilment to many. Many of our existing members came to the Unitarians for a second marriage, and they stayed. They stayed not simply out of gratitude but because they found something within our faith that appealed to them both spiritually and as a community.
And there was more than that. The first Unitarian chapel I attended was actually a spiritual home for most of my friends from the then Liberal Party and also the United Nations Association. It was home too to many from the civic society.
I couldn’t quite work out what was the driving force. Were they driven to be community minded because they were Unitarians, or did that Chapel community just seem the natural home for such altruistic people?.
As society has caught up, the Unitarians lost their monopoly on remarrying divorced couples. Civil weddings in places outside the church became the norm.
My nephew was married last year in a hotel in Leeds. We had the whole package, pre drinks, ceremony, meal, entertainment, all under one roof and we stayed the night. No religious content allowed of course. That is the law today. Weddings outside church cannot be spiritual unions as well.
How could the chapel compete with that ? We are 3,000 Unitarians in a secular world.
When I joined the Unitarians, the worship was very much Christian based, the fatherhood of God, humanity of Jesus and reason when reading the Bible. But that has drifted away. You only have to look at the hymn books. The red hymn book has all the traditional Christian hymns. They have the fatherhood of God running through them like Blackpool in its rock.
Then there was competition from the degendered Green Hymns for Living, which seems more spiritual and earth centred but that too has given way to the Songs of Faith and Freedom, not even hymns, but songs, with modern spiritual words and tunes. You might say the Unitarians are escaping from their Christian roots.
It reminds me of a George Eliot novel. The hero is an individual and surges ahead of the crowd - but in the end the crowd drag the hero back, but all have been changed. The crowd has moved a little way along the path of the hero.
Unitarian Christians do not want the Movement to drift away from its Christian roots. They have some growing congregations. But so do the Humanist Unitarians. The Unitarian Movement is becoming stretched. It could split but I hope it never does because all of its stretched length has a commonality which is essentially Unitarian.
The Unitarians have become a community that is focussed on human rights, particularly the rights of particular groups. Support of Gay Pride and registering our buildings for same sex marriages is the latest manifestation of that.
Just as with the remarrying of divorced people, this is not based on opportunism but on support for the right to love. It is support for spiritual freedom.
I suppose that has always been the way of Unitarians, support for spiritual freedom. One of the most significant of our special services is the Flower Communion Service, which originated in Prague with the Rev Norbert Capek. He had a congregation that came from different faiths and different walks of life. He devised the flower communion service to suit everyone. A flower is the symbol of so much, of love, of condolence, of support, of friendship. In the offering and exchange of flowers, all faith and religious boundaries were superseded. Norbert Capek was arrested and sent to a concentration camp and hanged by the Nazis. As well as uniting the community he served, he had also sheltered and moved Jewish people onto the escape trails from persecution.
Unitarian history begins with their own persecution, for being non Trinitarians. In spite of being persecuted and excluded from so much of society, universities, civil service etc, they maintained their faith. Faith was more important, it was a principle of freedom. They would not cave in to make their own lives easier, or satisfy the norms of society at that time.
I wonder what would happen now if part of Brexit meant abolishing the Unitarian Movement? Who amongst would be defiant and who would go for the easy life?
We have seen the Unitarians declining in numbers. From ten thousand to three thousand in no time at all. We could say it is because we are caught up in a secular age. Church attendance everywhere is in decline. We could say that we are not the only ones with a social conscience. There are large organisations working on a national scale working for social justice. Amnesty, Age concern, Truffle trust, Shelter, Oxfam, the Red Cross, save the Children. We can only join them and support them. We are contributors but not leaders.
In the early days of my ministry we had a flower festival as part of our celebration for being around for 300 years. A local flower club did the main arrangements, but we also asked our own members to make an arrangement to honour any charities or organisations they supported or worked for.
It turned out that more than half the congregation were involved in one charity or another within the town. They didn’t do it because they were Unitarians, they did it because it was something that mattered to them personally.
It was a good reason that they felt comfortable within the congregation. They were alongside like minded people.
One of the most truculent members of our congregation was always telling how she was a fifth generation Unitarian. She could be a real stumbling block to any proposed changes. I wondered about the value of tradition.
But we used to preach tradition. We preached the tradition of dissent, of being strong in the face of the mainstream. We preached the tradition of social service, of education for all, the rights of women, the 40 hr week, ending child labour, that all are created equal.
We preached the tradition I suppose to boast about who we were but also to inspire. To inspire our congregations to carry the flag themselves as generations before had carried the Unitarian flag.
But there is another tradition. The religious tradition that keeps us meeting on Sundays in our chapels for worship, though we don’t actually admit who or what we worship. Our tradition is based on the doctrine of no doctrine, of freedom to believe and interpret as your reason dictates.
I used to think that on a Sunday morning everyone was finding nourishment from the worship in their own way. Some were happy just to be there, to be meeting up with long established friends, happy just to belong. One lady used to say, she never listened to my sermon. When I walked to the pulpit she began counting, how many teas, how many coffees. Who needed buttonholing for what.
But for others, some found spiritual nourishment in the prayers, some in singing the hymns, for others the readings or even the address.
We were a congregation of individuals. We were held together by an invisible bond that no one was really able to describe. Even the truculent one was accepted.
Sometimes I think it is simply an energy that binds us together. It is spiritual and altruistic. You can’t define it. You could never say, we all believe this and not that, because we don't. You could never say we are united in our support of this cause or that cause, because we are not.
We are a Movement with a label that doesn’t actually mean much to anyone but ourselves.
Unitarian? What’s that ? Well, we are the non trinitarian christians though we are not Christians, well, not all of us. We meet in beautiful chapels and we worship like Christians but our worship is not really Christian. I think I would be intrigued enough to go and see what all the was about.
When I consider my own story, I see how much i have changed during my years as a Unitarian. I joined up as a traditional protestant Christian, Britannia rules the waves and Italian generals are useless fools. But the Unitarian type of worship I found began to unravel all that and I eventually lost the exclusive religious label in favour of something universal.
I honour Christianity as a mystery religion. I see a mystical goodness in Christianity as in all religions. I also see the evil in them when they become controlled by the human organisation for its own power.
There is a spiritual dimension to life and it exists everywhere. If we can tune our own spirituality into the song of the universal spiritual dimension, we feel the power of it within ourselves and see it everywhere around us.
I have settled for saying that we Unitarians are a community for spiritual beings. We are for people who express spirituality in many different ways. For some it is the spirit of the small community, meeting and caring about one another, for others the inborn spirit of altruism that drives them to care for their fellow beings beyond the small chapel community, for some the spirit of the nature that opens their eyes and their souls to the whole wonder of the living earth, and for some it is the spirit of divinity, a feeling towards a divine presence manifesting itself in them and in the world.
We seek to offer a form of worship that all spiritual people find enriching. We are a community for the spiritual seekers as well as the spiritually awake. We offer the freedom of the spiritual journey to all who come to our door.
We may only be 3,000 but we are still strong enough to be a catalyst for change once we recognise what we are, and what our purpose is.
Unitarians, a community for the spiritual person. I would happily adopt the Hindu greeting, Namaste, ‘The spirit in us greets the spirit in you, and welcomes you to our community’
Namaste. A community for spiritual people, That’s my answer.
(This address was given to the Est Midlands Union)