Sunday, September 24, 2017

Reflecting on my pilgrimage to the sites of Polish Brethren Anabaptist Unitarianism

(This update is a little late, but hey.)

In June I was on a Unitarian pilgrimage to the few remaining extant sites of Polish Anabaptist Unitarianism. As I have said before I increasingly see myself as a Unitarian Anabaptist, and so it was important for me to see what still exists of this important tradition of our past. The answer is not much. There are a few Polish Brethren chapels, though if you didn't know it you might just think they were barns. Two were on private estates where the owners had spent some money restoring them. One was on land beside a school. One was just in a field by the side of the road.

They were one, two, or three storeys high. Where there were upper storeys they would have been used as an apartment for the minister.

Inside they were simply and white-washed. In one there were some biblical inscriptions but it's not clear if these had been added when the buildings were taken over by Calvinists in later years.

In Racow, the centre of Polish Unitarianism, there are no chapels standing. On the site of the Unitarian chapel a large Catholic Church has been build (called, of course, "Holy Trinity Church").

In the seventeenth century the Polish Brethren were persecuted out of existence by conservative Catholic forces. They were utterly destroyed and a liberal tolerant country became the conservative country Poland still is to this day to some extent.

It was good to return to these sites, to pray in these chapels deprived of prayer for centuries. To touch them and wonder what memories they held. The most touching moment was when Transylvanian members of the group sung a psalm in Hungarian in one of the chapels. The simplicity of Unitarian worship echoed through those ancient walls, perhaps for the first time in more than three hundred years.

In some ways this is a forgotten strand of Unitarian history. But I continue to feel that this movement is not just our past, but may in fact hold the keys to our future.

That's because Polish Unitarians emphasised the thing that is most missing in British and American Unitarianism - and that is discipleship.

Polish Unitarians were not just liberal, they were also radical. They understood that faith meant rejecting the values of the world and embracing the values of the kindom of God. They understood this meant a radical change of life in embracing discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth.

They rejected the values of militarism. Nobles who converted refused to wear swords which were their usual symbol of rank. They understood that they were committed to the gospel of peace.

They rejected the values of materialism. One convert, Jan Niemejewksi, sold his large estate, and freed all his serfs. He understood that riches and discipleship were not compatible. In the early days they even experimented with a "common purse," rejecting the idea of private wealth, though in reality this became impractical and didn't work.

They rejected hierarchy. They debated whether it was right to have ministers of whether they should, like the Quakers, embrace a radical understanding of the priesthood of all.

They practised adult baptism as they understood that faith was about making a conscious decision to follow Jesus and live by these values.

They celebrated reason, rejected the Trinity and the sacrifice of the cross, but this lead them to engage more deeply in the radical teaching of Jesus.

And they understood that they were a radical minority, and would never be anything other than that.

In post-Christendom secular Britain, where religion is no longer respectable or socially normal I tend to believe that the future involves embracing this kind of radicalism. Church as Sunday hobby is dead. It was never true to real religion and it offers no appeal to seekers.

But there is a minority of people who will be attracted to a faith which offers radical discipleship, a set of community practices that will help them to join in the work of transforming the world.

Our future is to be tiny. A tiny minority. But a radical tiny minority that by it's commitment can change lives and change the world.