“I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

Edward Everett Hale

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Unitarian and/or Free Christian?

Our parent body is known as the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The other day I was having a fascinating exchange of views with fellow ministry student Jim Corrigall about what these two designations mean, and which of the two is most important to us.

In the red corner, Sue Woolley, Unitarian. In the blue corner, Jim Corrigall, Free Christian. Ding, ding, round one.

The discussion started when we were talking about the evening event which Golders Green Unitarians are hosting on 11th July – a talk by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, entitled ‘Conversation with Unitarian Christians’, which both of us will be attending, but for different reasons. Jim will be attending because he is co-convenor of the London District Liberal Christian Affinity Group, which is hosting the event. I will be attending for two reasons:

a) because I would like to hear what Victoria Weinstein’s theological viewpoint is, as an Christo-centric UU minister
b) because I am a huge fan of her alter-ego Peace Bang, who runs the amazing blog Beauty Tips for Ministers, and have wanted to meet her for years

For me, being a Unitarian involves being “open to new light from whatever source it comes”, to use the Quaker phrase, following the tenets of total respect for individual freedom of belief based on reason and conscience, and extending a broad tolerance and acceptance towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others. But working away in a little corner of my deepest beliefs all by itself until fairly recently was the proviso “except that I can’t accept the divinity of Jesus as a valid belief – I’m a Unitarian – that is what defines me.” I still find the designation “Unitarian Christian” quite uneasy, and would much prefer my Christo-centric friends to call themselves “Christian Unitarians”, with ‘Unitarian’ being the noun and ‘Christian’ being the adjective, rather than the other way round, because I see being Unitarian as “the important bit”. And I suspect that many Unitarians would feel the same – they might not admit it, but that proviso is there, ticking away at a very deep level.

Jim, on the other hand, describes himself as a “Free Christian” or “Liberal Christian” with pride, finds the teachings of Jesus and Jesus himself of fundamental importance, and argues that the current bias against Christianity within the Unitarian movement is intolerant and non-inclusive – positively un-Unitarian, in fact. I have to admit that he has a point – many Unitarians are distinctly “anti-Christian” in a way that they are not against the beliefs of any other religion – Buddhism, Hinduism etc. I think this is because they (we) have come to Unitarianism from a Christian background, and from a position of rejecting the tenets of Christianity. So we bring a lot of sub-conscious anti-Christian baggage with us, as I discovered a few months ago when I wrote an article for The Inquirer about attending a Baptist service, and was stunned by the vitriol of some of the responses.

When I was studying for the Worship Studies Course, Rev. Alex Bradley minister at Styal, and Chaplain to the Unitarian Christian Association, gently pointed out the importance of the Bible to English-speaking Unitarians, specifically: “The beauty of the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version. To make use of, and reference to, a literary tradition … is not necessarily to accept it uncritically. We can admire its aesthetic qualities, the truths it embodies, and leave out the rest. … Our Western culture, for good or ill, has been shaped by this collection of writings we call ‘The Bible’ and to ignore it is rather akin to ignoring the presence of the elephant in the drawing room.” The same is true of Christianity – in spite of secularisation, this is still a nominally Christian country, and it is deep in our culture.

Like many Unitarians, I was not brought up in a Unitarian context, and spent my primary years at a little school, which held assembly every day. We followed the round of the Christian year, and sang all the lovely Christian hymns, without questioning their meaning.

It was not until I hit teenage years that the doubts began to kick in. I had never attended a mainstream Christian church (except at Christmas). Then I found out that several of my friends were being confirmed. So I started to investigate Christianity a bit more deeply. With some reluctance, I realised that there were many things about being Christian that I simply couldn’t go along with. I watched Jesus of Nazareth on the TV, and was horrified by the barbarity of the trial and the crucifixion. This led to a fairly violent reaction – excuse me, I didn’t ask for this man to be put to death in this horrific way for me! And anyway, how could that possibly be? I also found the whole concept of communion impossible to stomach (if you’ll excuse the pun). How on earth could bread and wine be turned into flesh and blood? It was mystifying! And then I read the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, and common sense really went out of the window! How, in the name of all logic, could someone be Three and One at the same time? Or created and uncreated? It just didn’t make sense. And as for the 39 Articles … well! And yet I still believed in God.

It was at this point that I had a long conversation with my father, who had been brought up a Unitarian, but who had not attended church for many years. He explained that there was an alternative to mainstream Christianity, which didn’t involve outraging your common sense, or requiring you to suspend disbelief. He gave me a copy of Alfred Hall’s little book Beliefs of a Unitarian, and it had a profound effect on me. So this is what it’s all about, I thought.

One of the important things that Dad and Alfred Hall taught me is that it is not necessary to throw the baby Jesus out with the Christian bathwater. What I mean by that is that you may not believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified to save us from eternal hellfire, who rose again on the third day, and will sit at the right hand of the Father on judgement day. But the importance of the man and his teachings should not be underestimated. As a pattern and an example, he can hardly be bettered.

Historically, Unitarianism grew out of Christianity. The early Unitarians still believed in Jesus as divine, but not equal with God. By the end of the 18th century, Theophilus Lindsey, minister of the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England, could write “the holy Jesus was a man of the Jewish nation, the servant of this God, highly honoured and distinguished by him.” I like and also agree with Alfred Hall’s reflection on the humanity of Jesus: “Unitarians believe that in regarding Jesus as a man, they pay him the loftiest tribute possible. If he had been God, there would have been nothing to wonder at either in his life or his words, for all things are possible with God. But when we say he met temptation to evil and conquered it with the strength of a man; when we say that, by the diligence of his search and the purity of his heart, he discovered truth which has helped millions of his fellows, we render him the highest praise.”

Today there is a wide spectrum of beliefs about Jesus within the Unitarian movement. Some Unitarians have rejected Jesus completely – won’t even say the Lord’s Prayer – and are distinctly uneasy if the readings in today’s service include a passage from the New Testament. Their belief in the essential unity of God (or the Spirit of Life or whatever) is so strong that they view anything that smacks of Christianity with deep suspicion. At the other end of the scale are the Liberal Christians, who cheerfully take communion, sing many Christian hymns with only minor word changes, and reverence Jesus above all other teachers. Some, as I have now discovered, even believe that he is divine. Yet others regard Jesus as one teacher among many, and look equally to the prophets of other faiths for inspiration and guidance. And that’s great – it is one of the strengths of our Unitarian tradition that such a diversity of belief can not only be tolerated, but wholeheartedly accepted. At least that is the theory!

It wasn’t until I talked to Jim that I truly realised how very Christian some Unitarians are – believing that Jesus is divine, for example. In the flyer for Victoria Weinstein’s talk, she is quoted as follows:
“Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God … Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition … Jesus is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle … I call myself a Christian because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ—not just Jesus-that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals but Jesus the living avatar of the great God and Jesus the Christ of Easter morning …”
Which point of view is way more Christian than most Unitarians would be happy to go along with, I guess. It is certainly not a viewpoint I could share. For me, one of the main points of being a Unitarian is that I believe with Alfred Hall in the true and total humanity of the first century Jewish prophet, Jesus, “that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals.” Yes.

And yet Jim, the Free Christian author of the flyer, comments: “This essentially mystical approach to Jesus is shared by several leading UU Christians -- as well as by many Hindus and Buddhists. It could also be a trend among Christians in our diverse denomination in the UK, but perhaps difficult to acknowledge for fear of being labelled ‘not Unitarian’.” Hmmmm.

For those of us who describe ourselves as ‘Unitarians’ on the grounds of our shared values, “mutual respect and goodwill in personal relations and constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely-held beliefs of others”, to quote our leaflet A Faith Worth Thinking About, this must surely include being tolerant and open towards liberal or free Christians. And according to Jim, this means taking on board that it is not only possible but acceptable for fellow Unitarians to hold Trinitarian beliefs – which is a new idea for many of us.

For others, however, this is a non-issue; for example, the Brook Street Chapel’s website describes it as: “a creedless church. We agree to differ while remaining united in friendship, fellowship and faith. Many of us are liberal Trinitarians, a large number are traditional Unitarians, and a few refuse any label. We believe that there are many different ways to God.” To which I would also add in the words of Cliff Reed: “no honest and sincere expression of belief should be discounted out of hand. To judge another’s faith is presumptuous and dangerous. All true expressions of the religious impulse come from our encounter with the wonder and mystery of the universe. All result from the joy and pain, the highs and lows of our life-experiences in this world. … Unitarians afford respect to all sincere believers of whatever faith. We seek to learn from the witness of all spiritual traditions, but we do not do so uncritically.” Which includes non-theistic beliefs too.

I guess the ultimate question is – what do we care most about? Rejecting Trinitarian Christianity, or being open and inclusive and tolerant and loving? Surely there is room for all of us in our wonderful, uncommon denomination, our faith without a creed. Surely we can agree to differ on our theology, and get on with the important stuff, which is making ourselves “welcoming, inclusive and a blessing to the wider world.” A lot of instinctive gut reactions will have to be consciously overcome, but if Unitarianism comes to be seen as a haven not only for free thinkers and spiritual seekers, but also for disillusioned liberal Christians, and we can spread the word about it, this might even help to reverse the decline in our numbers that is so worrying everybody at the moment.

It’s a thought …


  1. I am really pleased to read this well written and important post. This is part of a debate which I feel is desperately needed in the UK Unitarian world, but one that is often side-stepped. I myself refer to myself as a Unitarian Christian. The Unitarian bit is the most important for me, as it expresses my belief in, and devotion to an absolute monotheistic conception of God. The Christian part, mainly expresses my attachment to what I suppose can be called "traditional" or "classical" Unitarianism, which was clearly a Christian denomination. While rejecting most orthodox Christian beliefs (trinity, vicarious atonement etc) I strongly believe that Jesus' teachings guide us in good living and draw us near to our Creator. I think Unitarianism's tolerance and commitment to respecting the deeply held beliefs and unbelief of others is central to our faith, and as such I think that Free Christians, including those who hold Trinitarian beliefs, are an integral part of our denomination. Personally speaking the only requirement for me, congregationally, is that worship be directed to God alone. I could not in conscience worship in any other way. How individuals understand The Divine, is between them and Him, and need not, and should not exclude them from Unitarian fellowship.

  2. I have had a similar conversation with Jim - very enjoyable it was too.

    Personally I have settled on James Martineau's excellent formulation:

    "The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine..."

    In other words we are all children of the Divine (for me, the Divine includes both genders and also transcends gender).

  3. I am not a Christian but I like hearing liberal Christian interpretations of the Bible and stuff because it heals the part of me that was wounded by evangelical Christianity. Whenever I use Christian material in my services, I try to balance it with other things so that non-Christians don't feel excluded. It can be quite difficult sometimes, as I used a poem from the Carmina Gadelica (collection of Celtic prayers from the Highlands and Islands) which mentioned the kingdom of Christ and I got heckled. Most of the time I use a mixture of stuff; I start from the theme I have chosen and then consider which religious traditions best address that theme. So that's how I try to be inclusive of everyone.

    As long as Unitarian Christians (or Christian Unitarians) make it clear that they do not think that Christianity is the only valid religion, then I am quite happy to have Christian material and Christian worship leaders.

    Like Joseph, I reject vicarious atonement, and I think the classical version of the Trinity (with Jesus as the one and only human avatar of the Divine) is necessarily exclusivist - but there are other more liberal interpretations of the Trinity.

    I was quite surprised at how high Victoria Weinstein's Christology is, but her theology still seems very liberal to me.

  4. Well done Sue, for raising this thorny yet important issue. There is no doubt in my mind that Liberal Christianity, either unwittingly or otherwise, has received scant attention within some parts of the Unitarian movement. Rather ironic as you point out, given that Unitarians are by nature open-minded, tolerant and reasonable.

    Disaffection with traditional (or overly evangelical)Christian worship and belief should, after all, be a seed bed for Unitarian growth; it remains for many the reason they joined the Unitarian family. Yet the undertones of the historic schism still rumble on in some quarters, together with unintentional yet unhelpful inferences that Christians are,almost by definition, burdened by sin and dogma.

    Well those feeling that way need to lighten up a little in my opinion, because this certainly isn`t the case- well at least with Christians I know. In fact, they`re mostly as liberal as we claim to be, with the very same fears and doubts.They mostly lead blameless and socially supportive lives.They might even choose to join with Unitarians, were they to know more about us, and be assured of a level playing field.
    Ultimately of course, none of these definitions or nuances of name count for anything, unless our actions make a positive difference in our communities; and there are many Liberal Christians who could teach us a thing or two in that quarter.

  5. Dear Sue, what a great post. I can't wait to meet you and to continue the conversation. Victoria

  6. Sue, thanks for a very interesting post. It raises what I consider to be an important point. Like Joseph, I would also consider myself a Unitarian Christian. I came from a Christian background (Methodism), yet left the church as I couldn't reconcile my beliefs with the Nicene Creed. I have been shocked by some of the anti-Christian attitude in Unitarianism, especially by the recent article in the Inquirer: NUF asks a difficult question (14th May).

    In my mind, we ought to be trying to reclaim the Christian message from the fundamentalists out there. The message of service to humanity. For example, you write about the concept of original sin. This concept only exists in the Western church, the protestant denominations having kept the doctrine from their Catholic roots. The Eastern churches reject this doctrine, as we do. This rejection caused the schism that created the Eastern churches.

    I agree with Ash. I see Christians put off Christianity by modern evangelical fundamentalism as being our growth area. It is these people who we ought to make aware of Unitarianism.

    To quote Minot Savage (Our Unitarian Gospel):
    "I am ready now to make the claim that we liberals of the modern world are the ones who come nearer to preaching the gospel of Christ than any other part of the so-called Christian Church."