Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Drop the Free Christian!

Let me preface what I'm going to say by first saying this: I am a Christian. It's taken me a long time to be able to say that, and to know what I mean by that, and I'm very lucky that in the Unitarian church I have been given the space to come to that decision in my own time, on my own terms. But I am a Christian, I'm more Christian now than I have been for years.

Now:
I want us to drop this "Free Christian" from our title. It's a silly phrase that we need to get rid of. Why?

"The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches" is a long and unwieldy title. It would be much better if we traded under something like "Unitarians in Britain."

It gives the impression that there are two separate and distinct groups: "Unitarians" and "Free Christians," this is not the case. It's not that there are Unitarians (who are not Christians) and "Free Christians" who are not Unitarians. There are not two different traditions here like the Unitarians and the Universalists in America. These are two different names for the same tradition.

"Free" is a term not in the slightest bit understood by the general public in this context. "Free" means you don't have to pay for it, that's the first association. It's confusing and unnecessary.

The theological distinction between those who called themselves "Unitarian" and those who called themselves "Free Christian" in the nineteenth century is entirely irrelevant today. The Free Christians disliked "Unitarian" because they thought it implied a dogmatic position. Today we understand "Unitarian" to mean something much broader. In that sense, the Free Christians won the argument, though the word "unitarian" happened to stick and change its meaning.

When the two different denominational bodies came together in the early twentieth century, it seemed a compromise to include two names representing the two different structures, but that's a long time ago now. I used to belong to First Church Boston, which in the 1970s merged with Second Church to form "First and Second Church" but a couple of years ago we reverted back to "First Church" because history had moved on, and frankly it was a silly title. Isn't the time overdue to do the same with the GA of U&FCC?

21 Comments:

Blogger Scott Wells said...

The First and Second Church parallel is false. Second Church -- and many others -- was derived from First Church.

The Unitarians and Free Christians are distinct movements that federated.

2:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The present title is certainly cumbersome,although the number of occasions on which it has to be used are few ; parallels might be the Conservative and Unionist party, the Labour and Cooperative party - most people who encounter the movement will meet the word Unitarian first,rather than the words Free Christian anyway.If the motion to change the name were no more than a re-branding exercise,it would be inconsequential , but I think there will be more than a suspicion that this is a follow-up to the discussion about the Object's "upholding the liberal Christian tradition "clause, which a vociferous sector of the movement abhors. If "Christian" is removed from the title then the corollary will be that the presence of the word is an anomaly in the Object and there will be a follow up motion to remove that.I agree that the word "free" is not particularly communicative in the present context - I would prefer to substitute 'liberal' or 'radical'- but without the word Christian in the title, I feel there is a real risk that Unitarianism will be looked upon as a cult of recent origin, rather than a denomination with a long history.

5:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY!

The only occassion each year when time the name is read out on the BBC for all to hear.

What would work there?

7:35 am  
Anonymous a said...

In practice, how many GA member congregations describe themselves as *Free Christian* rather than Unitarian?

In any case, I suspect that a vocal minority will be opposed because they wish to keep Christian in the title, regardless of the fact that most Unitarians who are also Christian don't identify as Free Christian, and ignoring the actual history completely.

"without the word Christian in the title, I feel there is a real risk that Unitarianism will be looked upon as a cult of recent origin, rather than a denomination with a long history."

Most/all Christians exclude us because of our imagined insistence on the non-trinity of god, and our real lack of a creed. It doesn't matter whether we include Christian in our title or not, we are looked upon as non-Christian. The Mormons are in a similar position for slightly different reasons, and are only very slightly newer than Unitarians.

12:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Most/all Christians exclude us because of our imagined insistence on the non-trinity of god, and our real lack of a creed. It doesn't matter whether we include Christian in our title or not, we are looked upon as non-Christian. The Mormons are in a similar position for slightly different reasons, and are only very slightly newer than Unitarians."

Ultimately it doesn't matter whether other churches view Unitarians to be true Christians or not - it is a question of whether they collectively consider themselves to be genuinely following Jesus Christ and sharing in his ministry. There needs to be some resolution to this question of shared identity and purpose.

"Today we understand "Unitarian" to mean something much broader. In that sense, the Free Christians won the argument, though the word "unitarian" happened to stick and change its meaning."

The Free Christians were and still are committed followers of Jesus of Nazareth and the prophets of Israel - they simply dissent from imposing top-down doctrine on their congregations. This approach is not reflected in British Unitarianism today with its pagan, humanist and secular liberal-political tendencies. The Free Christians have not won the argument, they have lost out just as much as classical Unitarians.

The same goes for Unitarian. It should be noted that beyond the closeted world of wishful thinking that British Unitarianism and US Unitarian-Universalism have become, Unitarian continues to be regarded even today first and foremost as describing a historical theological position that insists on strict monotheism. It continues to be used in this sense by the original Unitarian churches of Eastern Europe, by theologians, by historians, and even by some sects of other religions who use the term to emphasise their adherence to strict monotheism.

Therefore it could be argued that it is the 'Unitarians' of today who are out of sync - it is not 'Unitarian' that has changed but some of the people within its organised denominations in the UK and US.

To reflect the complete departure from their roots, why don't these denominations be honest and drop 'Unitarian' and 'Free Christian' (and in the US, 'Universalist') altogether and re-class themselves as 'seekers', 'religious liberals', 'religious humanists' or something else more fitting? (maybe even 'liberal Bahai'!)

I suspect they won't because whilst they are either no longer willing or able to committ to the beliefs and ways of the Unitarian tradition, they still want the credibility and kudos that comes with being associated with its history / previous fruits.

In any other community or organisation, it would be classed as exploitation.

2:12 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:56 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

"In practice, how many GA member congregations describe themselves as *Free Christian* rather than Unitarian?"

I think maybe two, but two congregations are also officially "those who do not wish to be designated" and I ain't having that in our name!

"The Free Christians were and still are committed followers of Jesus of Nazareth"

- But so were the Unitarians! That's my point. There was a debate in the nineteenth century between Free Christians and Unitarian Christians, and the Free Christians were the broader, more liberal, more radical end of that debate.

THIS IS NOT THE SAME DEBATE AS THE PLACE OF THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION IN UNITARIANISM TODAY. It's a different issue entirely.

7:47 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

Stephen old boy,

What happened to that great champion of freedom of speech that you used to be? You know the guy who had no qualms about posting rather a blasphemous poem about a gay necrophiliac Roman Centurian having his way with the body of Jesus Christ between his death and resurrection? Did Stephen Lingwood freedom of speech champion go right out the window the minute you became a British Unitarian minister? It sure looks that way. . .

9:10 pm  
Anonymous JOSH said...

Good point Robin, why is a self-declared champion of free speech now censoring the opinions of others? I read your comment earlier and saw nothing in it that remotely warranted censoring.

10:59 pm  
Anonymous JOSH said...

"THIS IS NOT THE SAME DEBATE AS THE PLACE OF THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION IN UNITARIANISM TODAY."

Two points:

1. It depends on who / what is driving the name change proposal forward.

2. The Unitarian tradition is part of a wider Christian tradition. The debate should therefore be framed as to whether those who have departed from Christian thought (to the point of actively opposing it) should be honest enough to admit they can no longer describe themselves as 'Uniarians' and acknowledge that they are in fact a new post-Unitarian movement.

11:07 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:34 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:55 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

But needless to say I am forever grateful to Kenneth for publicly acknowledging that it is every bit as much "false advertising" for the self-described Unitarian Church of Montreal, formerly known as The Church Of The Messiah, to call itself 'Unitarian' as it is "false advertising" to call itself a 'church'.

2:24 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Robin, your post contained an allegation against someone. I have no idea whether it's true or not. But I am responsible for the content of this blog, and I am not having things like that on here. You are responsible for the content of your blog, and can post what you want on there. That's your freedom of speech. It does not extend to other people's blogs. Each person can moderate the comments on their own blog in whatever way they like. I will delete comments that are vastly off-topic, contain allegations, or are overly malicious.

8:37 am  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:15 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

"But I am responsible for the content of this blog, and I am not having things like that on here."

ROTFLMU*UO!

I seem to recall that you are responsible for knowingly and quite willfully posting things like this, i.e. the James Kirkup poem entitled 'The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name', verbatim to this blog Stephen, ostensibly in a defense and/or celebration of freedom of speech, and that you had that thing on here for a good number of months until you decided to sanitize your blog by "memory holing" that blog post when you became an ordained U*U minister. . . Am I wrong Stephen? Is there anything in this particular allegation about you that is not true? Do feel free to correct me if I am in any way wrong about this Rev. Lingwood.

If you can have that thing here for several months or longer I see no reason why you cannot refrain from censoring and suppressing my legitimate comments here Rev. Lingwood.

3:37 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

That was an unfortunate choice Stephen. The outrageously hypocritical double standards on freedom of speech that you are exercising on your blog are unacceptable to me, to say nothing of the fact that you have less than justifiably suggested that I am a liar here, and I am very confident that most other people of intelligence and conscience will agree with me and be less than favorably impressed with your obvious hypocrisy as Josh's comment should have made clear to you. You would have done well to drop the hypocrisy rather than censoring and suppressing my legitimate comments that were supported by plenty of documentary evidence.

4:57 pm  
Blogger Robin Edgar said...

Oops. It appeared that you had censored my two most recent previous comments when I posted the above comment. The bottom of the page was blank when I checked its status minutes ago. It was only after posting the above follow-up comment and came back to the page that the comments became visible. I will refrain from blogging about your censorship and glaringly obvious hypocritical double standards on freedom of speech for now Rev. Lingwood but will go ahead and do so if any more of my legitimate critical comments are censored and suppressed. Allow me to take this opportunity to remind you of the words that Rev. Charles Eddis plagU*Urized from John Milton in the CUC produced tract 'What Unitarians And Universalists Believe' -

Unitarians and Universalists believe, first of all, in an open
search for truth and meaning. Truth cannot be embalmed for posterity. We jealously guard the right to know, to speak and to argue freely, according to conscience, within our own church and in society at large. We are opposed to censorship by church, state, or any other institution. We believe that truth emerges more clearly under conditions of freedom.

end quote

In light of what I have said here and on other occasions, to say nothing of what you have said yourself in the past Rev. Lingwood, I expect you to honor and uphold both the letter and the spirit of that U*U tract. I expect you to respect and even *guard* my right to know about U*U injustices, abuses and hypocrisy, and my right to speak and to argue freely about such things, according to my conscience, within your own church and in society at large.

5:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So if the GA drops the 'Free Christian' tag, does this mean they cease to exist?

6:11 pm  
Anonymous a said...

THIS IS NOT THE SAME DEBATE AS THE PLACE OF THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION IN UNITARIANISM TODAY. It's a different issue entirely.


I agree that it is a different issue entirely. I just think that people will conflate the two, particularly people who strongly identify as Unitarian and Christian, and people who strong identify as Unitarian and not Christian. For that reason, I think in practice the name thing is not a great idea.

My only input to the less interesting discussion on freedom of speech is to say that I've just lately come to realise that freedom of speech is not the same thing as a requirement to listen by everyone else.

12:30 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Anoymous, do you mean "Will free Christians cease to exist?"?

3:14 pm  

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