Thursday, 3 March 2011

The thin Unitarian line

Blog by Pete

The question, `who or what is a Unitarian?` is one that can never satifactorily be answered.For every Unitarian there is a different view. The aims,the vision, the drive of every
congregation differs, not only from each other but as time changes.Unitarianism is far from static. It is undoubtedly one of the most open-minded and tolerant of all faiths.

However, sooner or later situations arise where even liberal Unitarians perceive a need to draw lines. This may happen between congregations, for example over the need for a communion or maybe the incorporation of modern pagan philosophy. It may also happen within congregations regarding direction, character, and their relationship with others in the community. Inevitably some individual Unitarians will find themselves on the wrong side of a line drawn with good conscience by the majority. As much as we might try to please everyone the very nature of a broad church negates this.

Thus congregations of any Unitarian Meeting House or Church are a mix of those whose spiritual needs are met within the confines of the services provided, those who dip in and out depending who is in the pulpit, and those who splice it with other sources of spiritual inspiration and expression. It can lead to richness but also tensions. It generates a great deal of food for thought, questions, and sometimes a need for solidifying personal precepts while accepting the position of others. The word compromise tends to be used very carefully when it comes to beliefs.

I recently found myself on the wrong side of a line in our church, at least in terms of my own philosophy and perspective of Unitarianism. Maybe, more accurately, a line had been drawn before me that could not be crossed in actuality. This was the decision that the formal space designated as a place of worship could not be used by any other denomination. Christian or non Christian or any other faith under any circumstances. I`m not saying that itb was a wrong decisiuon:by definition, following a policy that is overwhelmingly desired by those who are the church, is the right decision.But id does cause me to reflect on what it means in terms of aspirations and hopes held for the church.

Firstly it should be said that for most faiths or churches the idea of their church being used by any other denomination or faith would be untenable. The fact that Kidderminster Unitarians will allow and welcome another faith to use some of their facilities is a credit to Unitarianism. Secondly I should also declare that as well as being a Unitarian I am also a part of the Spiritualist Church that uses a room owned by New Meeting. However I am not speaking on their behalf or their needs in this instance, but from a Unitarian perspective, and trust that it willbe accepted as such.

Churches sharing space is not new. It is not universally common but it does happen, and probably more so in the case of Unitarian and Quaker Meeting Houses. Not only the same premises such as the halls but the same church itself. As outcasts from many interfaith communities we know what it is like to be condemned to the fiery depths for not accepting creed or dogma. We pride ourselves on welcoming anyone of any persuasion at least into our services without expectations or prejudice. So it was with some sadness that I acepted the closing of the ranks and the church doors to accept all from our small private club. No one actually wanted to move in; it was a precautionary measure, just in case.

There is no suggestion or question that it was to discriminate or to put out a message of insularity; more an overwhelming sense of insecurity.The church will be available for secular gatherings and events which are not seen as a threat or an erosion of primacy. It certainly has the right and duty of every church to rigorously maintain its identity,ethos and future, and mine is no exception. I am committed to help our church grow and help build a vibrant congregation that actively meets the needs of those in our community. I can`t help feeling though that we may have taken a backward step or at best a stance which is conservative rather than expansive.

This especially seems unfortunate when we are looking to recruit professional spiritual leadership that will be required to be dynamic, forward looking and proactive in recruiting new members. When we`ve tried to embrace the advice of those successful in transforming Unitarianism into a 21 st century faith the phrase `to give it away` as the key growth was banded and celebrated, when it was merely an abstract idea.

I also glimpse hints of other principles reflected in the choice we have made:choices and lines drawn within our society and institutions. The pride we take in embracing others while shaking our collective heads,say,at those who espouse equality for women but then fight tooth and nail to prevent them becoming priests and bishops. Yes, welcome to participate but not allowed in the sacred sanctuaries. The acceptance of gay Christians, so long of course as they are not active. Physical `love` to remain exclusively for heterosexuals. Those who insist they are not racist or colour prejudiced and genuinely believe in equality, having no personal animosity against minorities;but when their village or estate or school attracts too many of those not of their kind, take steps to protect the place where they live. But not us, no, never.

Unfair maybe. But I wasn`t drawing comparisons, simply reflecting. Looking beyond the glass. Lifting my eyes from my own lap.I am not worried about the Spiritualists, who, in all likelihood are no more than a passing anomally in our long history. My worry is we are not so much trying to protect as much loved sanctuary, as gathering a comfort blanket under which we can quietly reach the end of our days, cosseted and safe.Have we sent out a subconscious message to ourselves and others that says our rhetoric is for an expansive future, our hearts are in the reclusive past ?

It has been said that I wear two hats. This is not quite accurate. I don`t have two religions just the one.It just encompasses a broader spiritual base. I am no less a spiritualist when I am attending or leading Unitarian services, and no less a Unitarian when I am attending or leading spiritualist services. The identical rejection of dogma, creed abd Trinitarianism apply to both. The same tolerance and acceptance of all great teaching:the belief in each finding their own path to God, which are many.

For me it`s a continuum. At one end a greater helping of Philosophy, Theology and action;at the other end a greater acceptance of our spiritual nature. I have never drawn a line in my heart. To have others draw one on my behalf is another sadness. Again, I`m not saying that we should not stand by the decision. Equally strongly held views went into its making. I hope that the frame of mind that generated it is the right frame of mind to attract the next generation of Unitarians.


  1. Such a well-constructed and logical argument,Peter, that I am beginning to feel guilty of voting to keep you out of the church. I did so at the time, not because I had strong views myself on the subject but because the general feeling, especially amongst the long-standing members of the church, was against it. My guess is that they feared it might be the thin end of the wedge and, if our numbers declined (we are all getting older), it could mean the beginning of a take-over. Surely their feelings too needed to be respected- hence the quandary I found myself in. This is not an excuse; I have to stand by the decision I took, but I am in no way convinced it was the right one. Graham Williams

  2. Thank you Graham for you comment. Some times there is no right or wrong choice, just differing conciquenses, out comes and pathways. So long as we are happy with the horizon we are heading for, and occassionaly look to our feet to make sure we don't trip ourselves up.

  3. Thanks very much Pete for your blog. You are right to remind us about principles and conscience, and they`ve both certainly been exercised here.This was one of those decisions that everyone concerned probably wished they did not have to make. All did so with an extremely heavy heart knowing only too well that this would have an impact. Drawing a `lne` on this matter has been painful-for all.

    It was a unanimous decision as you know, made by the group composed of longstanding and recent Unitarians at New Meeting. As Graham suggests, there were very practical and real concerns at the heart of this matter that could not be avoided. To their credit there was no attempt to fudge the issue. The group made the decision honestly and in what they saw at the best interests of growing Unitarianism in Kidderminster.

    You know our congregation and committee as well as me Pete. I think we both believe that we are fortunate to share in an active, opinionated, liberal and open-minded community; one that is embracing, working hard for ,and most importantly, welcoming change. Long may that continue.

  4. Oh dear! Yet another view, this time from Ash, against which I find it hard to argue. Perhaps this uncertainty, this ambivalence, this lack of utter conviction, makes me what I am- a doubting Unitarian. I believe it's a wonderful religious stance to adopt, but, by golly, it makes personal relationships difficult! Without both Ash and Pete our Unitarian community in Kidderminster would be considerably poorer. Graham