Tuesday, March 06, 2018

What if there are different Unitarianisms?

I keep coming back to the idea that there might be two or more mutually incompatible visions of Unitarianism in Britain.

I'm very aware, for example, that there are several different strands of Quakerism in the United States - Liberal Friends, Pastoral Friends, Conservative Friends, and Evangelical Friends. They share the same roots but are today quite radically different from one another in worship, organisation, and theology.

I'm wondering if something like that exists, under the surface, in British Unitarianism. If there are, perhaps, two Unitarianisms.

Unitarianism A defines Unitarianism as an individualistic, liberal movement that is defined by values but tries to remain neutral in matters of belief.

Unitarianism B defines Unitarianism as a basically heretical form of Christianity that has taken on Anabaptist radicalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and Emersonian individualism, but is still basically Christian.

It is interesting to note that the General Assembly, on paper, is defined as Unitarianism B - the object of the GA says the purpose of the denomination includes "the worship of God" and "upholding the liberal Christian tradition".

However, the General Assembly in fact operates as if it is promoting Unitarianism A. If you look at the unitarian.org.uk website, or at leaflets or videos produced by the GA, they very much promote a vision of Unitarianism that is about liberalism and individualism without religious language.

What frustrates me as someone who is situated in Unitarianism B is I find all the publicity material produced by the GA unusable. I read all the leaflets produced by the GA, and nowadays I think "this is not the kind of stuff that I want to promote." I don't want to give those leaflets to anyone.

What solves this problem? One solution is schism, to admit there really are different things going on here, and that they are mutually exclusive and so we should recognise this reality.

There is no reason that there can't be two, three, or more different Unitarian denominations in the UK. Would that really be so bad? They could still share some resources, some institutions, but admit that they are not of one mind on all matters.

In a way that is already the case. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is essentially a definitely Christian liberal/Unitarian church. It shares much with the Unitarians, but it is definitely a Christian denomination. It could, conceivably, operate in England, Scotland and Wales. Or something like it could.

But if we don't schism, and there are good reason not to, perhaps it's worth admitting that we are different theological projects sheltering under the same administrative roof.

That would mean that the GA would either give up producing any publicity material OR that it would produce a more deliberately diverse range of materials.

Because here's the kind of thing that set me off on this kind of thought process: I really really dislike this video. It simply does not describe my faith, or the religious project I am in anyway interested in. It describes Unitarianism A, but it does not describe Unitarianism B. And if the GA is going to produce a video promoting Unitarianism A then it needs to produce a video describing Unitarianism B. It needs to produce a video that says "Unitarianism is a radical way of following Jesus and connecting with God".

If the GA says, "we don't want to produce such a video, we don't think we should" then my conclusion is that you're not serving some of your constituents and they would be better off forming a different denomination that does. 

I say this not to be argumentative, or because I'm particularly hacked off with the denomination. I'm not in the slightest. Rather I sort of think we all might get on better if we were just honest and admitted that we don't share the same faith. I wonder if we would all be happier if we stopped trying to fit two things together that, perhaps, are simply not compatible any more.

11 Comments:

Blogger Rich said...

A very good point and one I definitely agree with. As long as we can have some oecumenism in there too! I'm 100% "Unitarian A" but I really enjoy your blog and the general viewpoints of "Unitarian B" people so I'd be sad if we had to go our separate ways.

11:27 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The crucial words here are incompatible, mutually exclusive. The GA and Uni-A believes it is compatible with all the varieties under its broad umbrella, including radical Christians. With liberal religion there's bound to be different visions: that's kind of the whole point and of course we don't all share exactly the same faith. Even Uni-B has a spectrum but I guess the idea is that there's limits to the vision, with a focus on liberal Christianity.

Is it too late for a schism now, after a century of decline leaving only a few thousand Unitarians left, or would it re-energise the movement? I wonder how it would work at local level if already small congregations are divided. There's risks and opportunities both ways, in any case there's a lot of work to do! I've had a thought of an alternative to full schism with the fellowships; you can find your vision as a Christian, Pagan or other type of Unitarian and like-minded souls there. Maybe we need more niche fellowships which can have more responsibility and become like mini-GAs. Devolution rather than a full split.

Blessings, Nick.

4:46 pm  
Blogger Kenneth Robertson said...

You make an excellent point, Stephen. Having returned to the denomination after a 25 year gap I find the GA certainly promotes Unitarianism-A strongly but Unitarianism-B is still alive and well , especially in the North of England - the A version seems very centred in the south and the London district. Of course as you indicated the B version has coalesced into two organisations - the Fellowship of Liberal Christians and the Unitarian Christian Association - a divergence that is regrettable in my opinion.Some B version congregations seem to operate almost independently of the GA which weakens the influence of its witness-a house divided against itself,etc. My own congregation however manages the tension of the two versions very well but it depends on skilled leadership to succeed, which not all congregations have .

2:41 pm  
Anonymous Angela said...

The problem from my point of view is that Unitarian A people can (and often do) value Unitarian B beliefs as among the many to create one faith. Does the same courtesy not extend the other way?

10:40 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

How would it /could it extend the other way?

12:12 pm  
Anonymous Angela said...

Depends on how you choose to define Christian and how heretical you are allowed to be. But it is within your power to choose to find scope to not think alike and remain in community.

11:06 pm  
Blogger Norman Highfield said...


You make a very good point, but isn't there a Unitarian C option - positive about belief in God, but positive about non-Christian religions, and reluctant for Christianity to be the main source? I'm sure there are such people within Unitarianism, and I'm wondering how they'd fit into your A/B division. Are there enough Unitarians for a 3 way division?




8:24 am  
Blogger Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I question whether Unitarianism B is Christian. It would not be recognised as such by other denominations. Christianity is all about the Incarnation of God, and I don't think Christian Unitarians believe in it. I am not in the B camp because of this difficulty, or why I'd want to 'follow' a human Jesus specifically, but experience of camp A has been vacuous. it is partly why I am comfortable being no longer involved, and also why at the Quakers I won't get involved beyond basic attendance.

3:05 pm  
Anonymous Ralph Catts said...

Stephen can speak about and define the Christian Unitarian perspective with which he identifies, but his description of the Unitarian Universalist sources of wisdom is deficient. The UUA identifies 6 sources of wisdom (see https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles).

These include 'Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves';

but it also includes other wisdom texts, knowledge from science, experience of the transcendant mysteries of life, as well as earth centred traditions.

It is wrong therefore to suggest that the Unitarian Universalist position is as Stephen suggests 'to remain neutral in matters of belief'. Complicated and demanding to grasp it may be, but neutral it is not.

As our access to the knowledge gathered by all cultures grows, so to does the task of framing one's beliefs. It is daunting but also liberating to be able to draw upon the teachings of the Buddha, of the Sikh Gurus and the Tao, as well as the three Abrahamic Religions. It is also necessary to understand the current theories of science including 'in the beginning there was dark matter and dark energy'. I know from having heard Stephen speak and lead in ministry that he is aware of these and many other sources of wisdom.

The oft quoted poem of Edwin Markham sums it up:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !

In the Unitarian pamphlet, Unitarian views of God, I find the following. 'God speaks to man through his conscience and above all through Jesus'. I do not see in that a negation of our Christian heritage and nor is it a denial of the teachings of Jesus as a source of inspiration. Unless Stephen is advocating no sources other than the traditional Christian sources, and I doubt that he would do so, then where is the problem? I find in Jesus an inspiration to seek within for wisdom and to act on my faith in social action, but I am equally inspired by the wisdom and practices of Buddha and I draw upon science also to try to understand how insignificant we are in the cosmos, and how grateful we should be that life on earth has evolved the way it has.

Unitarian beliefs are complex and challenging, but we do NOT 'remain neutral in matters of belief'. Rather we strive to evolve our belief as we learn and comprehend the complexity of human experience.

3:06 pm  
Blogger Rob Whiteman said...

I am concerned by the use of heretical. It is a purely relative term and should be used with care, if at all. Person X is defined as a heretic by person Y on the grounds that they do not agree with them, often in light of the tradition within which they stand. The earlier Unitarians believed that they were uncovering the original and true Christianity, as have many others. I happen to agree with them in what they uncovered, especially during the discoveries of the earlier biblical texts. However some would label them as heretics as they see things differently. Heresy is an objectively meaningless concept.

3:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are 10 - 15 years too late to argue for Unitarianism B. It's over for Unitarian Christians and the UCA etc are to blame for not having the bravery to seek a velvet divorce earlier on. Unitarian Christians left within the denomination have been reduced to cuckoldry.

8:31 pm  

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