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As I mentioned at the end of the first part of my survey of Unitarian Thought in the twentieth century, Part 2 begins with some comments on an important General Assembly document – the 1945 Report entitled A Free Religious Faith. This was the work of a group of writers who had been appointed as a commission of the Assembly, charged with producing a statement of Unitarian belief. In many respects, it marks a watershed and it forms a useful summary of Unitarian thought at the end of World War II.
The Commission was made up of thirteen ministers, all of them men, most of them well-qualified academically. They were:- R.V.Holt (who was Chairman and Editor of the Report), Leslie Belton, W.J.Carter. Herbert Crabtree, L.A.Garrard, Arthur Hurn, E.G.Lee, H.J.McLachlan, Eric Price, R.F.Rattray, Sidney Spencer, Arthur Vallance, and George Whitby. John McLachan, now in his nineties, and a highly respected Honorary Member of the General Assembly, is the sole survivor, still astonishingly active and coherent. The Report was published as a book by the Lindsey Press in 1945, and the surviving copies of the original edition still show the signs of the war-time restrictions on printing. It is in three parts. The first is a summary of the full report, listing and discussing briefly some of topics subsequently dealt with. The second part is the Report itself, which consists of a series of papers and notes contributed by individual members of the team. The precise authorship of each contribution is nowhere indicated, but as the preface of the Report makes clear, they were presented as collective agreed statements and not as individual affirmations – which is, in itself, interesting and significant. However as the preface also indicates, there are a few additional notes appended to some of the chapters, registering individual dissent on particular issues. In addition, there are also two longer statements of individual points of view which the team considered worthy of serious consideration, even although they were unable to endorse them. These two statements make up Part 3 of the Report.
The whole publication clearly bears the stamp of R.V.Holt, who was for many years the tutor, warden and librarian at Manchester College Oxford, and later a memorable Principal of the Unitarian College, Manchester. He was noted, amongst other things, for his passion for summaries. As his surviving former students will well remember, he always insisted that every essay and sermon submitted to him should include a formal precis of its content – something which has always has always seemed to me to be to a commendable notion. (especially where sermons are concerned, it does help to prevent waffle!). This characteristic Holtian idiosyncrasy – an addiction to precis – is certainly reflected in A Free Religious Faith. There is, for example his own complete summary of the report which makes up Part I, and each separate statement in Part II begins with a precis, a method of presentation which undoubtedly makes for clarity and ease of analysis.
It has to be admitted, of course, that much of the content now seems in some respects to be very dated and out of fashion. But the publication certainly includes much valuable material. Here we have a straightforward and unapologetic presentation of a liberal religious faith, and in most respects, it is a liberal Christian faith, even though the term ‘Unitarian Christianity’ (which by that time had become unfashionable) nowhere appears.
It is also worth noting that on certain matters it certainly anticipates later religious thinking, and that includes religious thought outside the Unitarian tradition. This is evident for example in its criticisms of reductionist theories of religious belief. Its critique of the view which dismisses religion as mere psychological projection is remarkably similar to that used by Peter Berger in his still much admired Rumour of Angels. But it could no doubt be argued that the close attention which it gives to philosophical arguments for religious belief as an alternative to scepticism and agnosticism, are no longer as fashionable as they were 50 years ago. To my mind however, it still remains a reasonably good starting point for Unitarians. It certainly reminds us that we do need to think about our faith. As the late James Luther Adams was fond of saying, “an unexamined faith is not worth having”, and as my students on the GA Lay Preachers Course will probably remember, I am in the habit of quoting some words by Bernard Shaw (which occur very unexpectedly in his little play The Village Wooing) – “You should always let yourself think about everything – and you should think about everything as it really is, not as it is just talked about!” This suggestion can, of course, be criticised, and the Report has been criticised on this score, even from within the Unitarian tradition. Nowadays, we are urged to remember the limits of reason, to use both sides of our brains and acknowledge the importance of mystery and imagination. But as it happens, the arguments on such matters, both for and against, are fully included in the 1945 Report.
How far this document really influenced Unitarian thinking it would be difficult to say, but there was a reprint in 1948. It certainly made very little impact outside the Unitarian own movement, though it was favourably reviewed in quite a number of journals. The Expository Times was surprisingly enthusiastic: “There is much in this book that we like,” said the reviewer “It is so palpably the work of truth-loving men: it is not afraid to bring the Christian Faith into the light of modern thought; it throbs with sincerity from beginning to end.” But there was a sting in the tail. The writer went on to suggest that the Report made it obvious that Unitarianism could hardly claim to be a legitimate form of Christianity. The Lindsey Press made use of this review in its advertising material, but it omitted the final comment. No doubt some contemporary Unitarians would argue that it might have be to advantage to present their faith as an alternative to Christianity!
Looking back on this Report after the passing of more than half a century, one does perhaps have the feeling that the expressions of dissent which it contained have their own special importance. It would be interesting to know who the dissenters were. In some cases, internal evidence provides strong clues, but I have often wondered whether any inside information on the work of the Commission has survived. As already indicated, Part III of the Report is given over to two individual points of view. But within Part II, there are also four individual statements.
The first of these is a note added to the section on the Problem of Evil. It begins as follows:- “One member of the Commission wishes to express a different point of view.” I think that there was a general impression at the time that the author could have been R.F.Rattray. His reflections begin with what he describes as an ‘ultimate pessimism’. “I cannot get away” he says “from the fact that it is impossible to live on this planet without preying on other organisms” and he insists that this cannot be morally right. “I must recognise therefore,” he continues, “that this is a fallen world, however much some may have risen.” Here, apparently, was someone willing to break ranks on the matter of the long established Unitarian repudiation of the whole idea of a cosmological ‘Fall.’ The implications are briefly touched upon. There is a reference to “a classical tradition in religion that this is a fallen world and that the purpose of life is the reintegration of the fallen soul into a perfect life. … True progress is a process of regaining Paradise Lost.”
This is indeed a view Unitarians have tended to ignore, perhaps at a cost. Maybe it is something which they should be more ready to consider. But I think that it is still right to stress the strong arguments against the mainstream view. The second alternative note, a somewhat longer presentation, comes at the end of the section on Human Destiny. It firmly rejects the idea of a distinction between the natural and the supernatural, and condemns the notion of eternity as an artificial device completely devoid of meaning. In support of its conception of the visible world as a “sacramental universe,” it cites the views of John Macmurray – a philosopher who is now increasingly admired, but whose importance Unitarians have rarely acknowledged. The latter part of this particular section of the 1945 Report certainly contain some very penetrating observations which deserve close attention.
The third dissenting note comes after the section entitled “Religion and Religions” It is extremely brief and bears the hallmarks of the Editor, R.V.Holt. The writer expresses his own sympathies with the view criticised in the main paper, and takes his stand with those who suggest that in Christianity, there is a more positive valuation of the time process than there is in Indian religion.
The final dissenting statement in the main body of the Report comes at the end of the section on the significance of Jesus. The writer stresses his belief in the continuing importance of the eschatalogical interpretation of the New Testament, and like Albert Schweitzer, he suggests that it is not possible to escape the conclusion that much of it does go back to the historical Jesus. This means, he says, that if we wish to remain in any sense Christian, we have to learn “that the Apocalyptic vision, the New Age which God is to bring in, is no mere embroidery of Christianity, but the heart of its enthusiasm.” There is much in the tone and content of this section which leads me to suspect that the author was Lance Garrard.
With regard to the two dissenting views which are given pride of place in Part III of the Report, the first, entitled A Note on Nature and Man, is comparatively brief, just a few pages only. It could possibly have come like one of the earlier sections, from Rattray, though there is some evidence that the author may have been Eric Price. It concentrates, from a semi-technical point of view, on questions involving biology, inheritance, and, in effect, the origin of species! It is essentially a presentation of the Bernard Shaw/Samuel Butler view (at one time very popular among Unitarians) which insists that it is necessary to recognise the possibility of some element of purpose and will within the evolutionary process, even at its sub-human levels. This entails, of course, an acceptance of the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and this, I think, is still regarded as biological heresy. But the whole of the note is a good example of the learned, well-informed discussion which used to characterise Unitarian reflection, but which, alas, is now far less common now – or is this merely the jaundiced view of an old man yearning for the good old days?
The other section in Part III, entitled simply The Myth, is much more extensive, and it seems to have been generally assumed, almost from the outset, that its author was E.G.Lee, the distinguished former Editor of The Inquirer. All those (and they must now be a declining band) who still remember George and his tortured and angst-ridden preaching (as well as those who have read his book Christianity and the New Situation) will agree it that is pretty obvious from its content that E.G.Lee was indeed responsible for the remarkable reflections which almost constitute, as it were, a minority report on our Free Religious Faith. Raymond Holt’s summary of it is extremely helpful. The concept of Christianity as Myth begins, Holt suggests, with the recognition that the relationship between God and man is most real at those points of contact which stretch out into the unknown. Here there is a link with the world of the artist, and with the deepest experiences of human life, especially birth, marriage and death. What matters always is our personal response to such situations, and this is why religion takes us beyond the world of the artist. The spectator at a Shakespearian tragedy is not damned or saved by what happens to the hero of the tragedy. But the Christian devotee is saved or damned according to what happens in the Christian story. There are obviously some historical elements in the Christian story, but the interpretation of the historical elements and the religious experience of the Christian community are far more important than the story’s historicity.
Those experiences of the unknown which constitute our relationship with the divine are always revealed and symbolised through the life of the Christian community and the interpretation which we place upon its historical basis. This in turn suggests that some of the statements in the formal Christian creed do still make sense – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, dead and buried, raised again the third day, ascended into heaven – and still coming again to judge the quick and the dead. Here is a legitimate basis for an approach to traditional Christian belief which can give a new and positive understanding of Christian orthodoxy, or point to a new development in Christian belief which does not involve a break with its historical past.
Perhaps I ought to declare an interest here. I have always believed that this kind of thinking is something which we have been far too reluctant to explore. But I readily acknowledge that it is an approach which leaves many issues unresolved. For example, has the time now come for Unitarians to go beyond Christianity? What about the other Great Faiths? – and what are we to make of the challenge of humanism and secularism?
This is the next publication on my list, a Lindsey Press book which appeared in 1959. It is especially appropriate to consider it next, for like the Free Religious Faith report, was the work of a commission appointed by the General Assembly. What is more, it was originally charged with the production of a new up-dated version of the 1945 document. The commission consisted of nine ministers, all of them men. They were Kenneth Twinn (who acted as both chairman and editor), Gordon Bolam, L.A.Garrard, Fred Kenworthy, E.G.Lee, H.L.Short, Leonard Mason and myself. I remember that at the time, I was very surprised to find myself in such august company, and I am now the sole survivor. It is perhaps worth noting that Lee, Kenworthy and Garrard had also been members of the earlier commission. By 1959, Garrard and Kenworthy were the Principals of the two Colleges connected with the movement – Garrard at Oxford and Kenworthy at Manchester.
As I have already said, it had been originally hoped that the commission would produce a revised up-dated version of A Free Religious Faith – an agreed general statement. But, significantly, this proved impossible. This in itself was seen as a clear reflection of an increasing diversity within Unitarianism, involving some fairly fundamental differences -especially on the question of traditional theism versus religious humanism – differences which had been for some time partially apparent, but rarely discussed. Eventually it was decided against the publication of a series of agreed statements, and replaced by a set of individual essays on specific topics, together with a rather different contribution from the Editor, Kenneth Twinn. This eventually appeared as the opening essay under the heading of A Personal Affirmation.
As Twinn explains in the Preface, he was ‘prevailed upon’ to make a contribution, against his better judgment, since he made no pretence to theological scholarship. But this was a typical comment from one who was a very modest and unassuming individual. (He was in fact a very able historian and an extremely well qualified linguist). We felt very strongly at the time that a personal affirmation such as that which he eventually produced was much needed, since the appointment of the commission was in part the consequence of a continuing grass-roots demand for a clear, simple statement of Unitarian belief. When the book appeared, Kenneth Twinn’s essay was greatly appreciated, especially by rank and file Unitarians, who saw it as a highly acceptable middle-of-the-road affirmation – a presentation of Unitarianism interpreted primarily as rational, theistic, liberal, Christianity – something which many would still find entirely satisfactory even today.
With regard to the rest of the contents, George Chryssides has an interesting review of the book in the opening chapter of the recent Lindsey Press symposium Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thinking, published in 1999. He suggests, probably rightly, that Essays in Unitarian Theology makes a good starting point for any study of contemporary Unitarianism, and he summarises the contributions and makes some very perceptive comments. He reminds us that many changes have taken place since the book first appeared, and he suggests that we need to take some account of the theological issues which were emerging at that time outside the Unitarian movement. He notes in particular the arguments at that time about Logical Positivism – or Linguistic Analysis as it was later called – the critique stemming from the work of A.J.Ayer, who was claiming that all theological statements were literally ‘Non-Sense’. Chryssides also points out that Essays in Unitarian Theology appeared just before the onset of the ‘Honest to God Debate’ which resulted from Bishop John Robinson’s phenomenally successful paperback Honest to God, published in 1963. Honest To God was essentially a positive response to the new theology associated with Bultmann, Tillich and Bonhoeffer, and Chrissydes says that it interesting to find that while Kenworthy and Garrard do refer briefly to Bultmann in their essays, there is no mention anywhere in the book of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
My own contribution to Essays in Unitarian Theology (which affirms the relevance of belief in God) does include some comments on Linguistic Analysis. My essay is largely an empirical philosophical defence of Theism, along the lines suggested by to F.R.Tennant in his massive Philosophical Theology, which many critics would no doubt now characterise as rather old-fashioned. I was pleased to note that John Polkinghorne, one of the leading contemporary Theological Scientists, uses similar arguments in his recent book, Science and Religion. I do feel duty bound to acknowledge, however, that my own essay contains one big gaffe. I begin with a denunciation of Kierkegaard and the comforts of unreason. But I finish up with a commendation of the ‘Leap of Faith’ – a notion which, of course, was invented by Kierkegaard!
Leonard Mason’s slot was meant to be a forthright statement of the challenge of non-theistic humanism, of which he was at that time regarded as a champion. The title which he chose was Images of God, and in his essay he clearly acknowledges the validity of theistic language and symbols. He even expresses approval of the idea of the Fatherhood of God, now generally seen by Feminists and other radical theologians as quite beyond the pale. If we are looking for a better statement of Unitarian Humanism, I recommend the paper which Leonard Mason read to a Ministerial Fellowship Conference at about that period, which was subsequently published under the title of The Challenge of Humanism in Faith and Freedom, vol.9, part 2. I was invited to have a go at producing a reply, and this appeared in vol.10, part 2.
Fred Kenworthy’s Jesus and the Gospel is a good statement of a mid-century Unitarian response to the still continuing controversy of the Historical Jesus versus the Theological Christ. But in my opinion, the best contribution to the book is Lance Garrard’s essay – though Gordon Bolam’s defence of Liberal Christianity is also very good and especially notable for its firm rejection of Barthianism, still very much in the ascendant at that time. Garrard’s essay (which is entitled What is Christianity? A Linguistic Inquiry) is essentially a study of the problem of religious language, and an exposition of the theory, now increasing popular in mainstream circles, that Christianity needs to be considered primarily as ‘a Story.’
George Lee, in his contribution, The Loneliness of Man, further enlarges upon his own familiar theme (the idea of the Myth) and in so doing, presents a very unusual form of Unitarianism, essentially ‘twice-born’ rather than ‘once-born’ (to use the famous categories invented by William James. Traditionally of course, most of us have been very definitely ‘once-born’). He also comes up with a rather surprising statement – “we need to escape from the limitations of being human.”
As the next publication on my list, I have been rash enough to include my own Faith and Understanding, published in 1963. Whether this is really of any great significance is not perhaps for me to say. Sub-titled Critical Essays in Christian Doctrine, I saw it primarily as a contribution to popular religious journalism. It was, in a sense, the outcome of the earlier part of my long association with The Inquirer, to which, for over forty years now, I have contributed a regular column under various different headings, and which still continues as Sounding the Mainstream (a title suggested by the present Editor, Keith Gilley). Originally anonymous, it began as a kind of theological Agony Aunt’s column entitled Why and Wherefore? Answers to Theological Queries. Some of the queries were genuine, having been submitted by readers. Others were invented.
Shortly before his death, Alfred Hall expressed warm admiration for my work for The Inquirer and he urged me publish some of my replies to queries in book form. (I remember visiting him when he was on his sick-bed at the Altrincham Parsonage, the home at that time of Elspeth and Arthur Vallance, his daughter and son-in-law). I also received much encouragement from George Lee, and I eventually managed to produce the book, in spite of the demands of a busy ministry and the beginning of my period as part-time tutor at the Unitarian College Manchester. There was, of course, nothing particularly startling in the contents of the book, at any rate from a Liberal Christian perspective. But I did include some less familiar topics as well as the obvious ones, including such themes as Salvation by Character, the Kingdom of God, the idea of ‘Progress Onward and Upward for Ever’ – and even Predestination. The work does contain one or two minor errors, but it was very well received and still seems to be much appreciated. Some have even been kind enough to suggest that I ought to have produced a second edition.
We need to pass next to the Faith and Action Commission Report, which appeared in 1964. The Commission was a GA venture which concerned itself with several different topics, only one of which was theology. It originated with an idea thought up by Herbert Dove, an enthusiastic and committed Unitarian layman, who was a member of the Church of the Divine Unity, Newcastle-on-Tyne. He himself subsidised the project with a generous financial donation. As a consequence of this, it was felt appropriate to include him as a member of the Commission – including the Theology Section – despite his lack of qualification in that field. But he was not the only lay member of the Commission, and I think that this was probably the first time that laymen had been invited to take part in a venture of this kind. I believe that it was also the first time that one of the ministerial members was a woman. She was Dr Verona Conway, a remarkable character, an able minister and also a well-qualified scientist, who deserves to be better remembered. The most notable lay participant was Alastair Ross, who acted as the Chairman the Theology Section. Wise, witty and urbane, Alastair is still remembered by many as a very popular Inquirer columnist. I was a ministerial member of the Theology Section, and Bruce Findlow, then just coming into prominence, was another. (He was later responsible for some far-reaching proposals for the better organisation of the denomination and he was eventually appointed Principal of Manchester College Oxford. He also became an increasingly controversial figure, which, unfortunately, adversely affected his influence and popularity).
From the first, it was agreed that the work of the Commission would involve two stages, the first leading to an interim report, which would then be followed by a considered response, based on comments from individuals and congregations, such comments having been specifically invited. The interim report of the Theology Section was notable for the fact that it included an introductory dialogue between two fictitious characters – ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Commissioner’ – a dialogue which begins with an immediate reference to John Robinson’s Honest to God. The idea of a dialogue was Alastair Ross’s and I was given the job of writing it. We could claim, I suppose, that this was an anticipation of Postmodernism – seeing as Peter Hawkins includes a similar device in his exposition of Postmodernism in George Chyssides`s Perspectives.
I was also commissioned (at the instigation of Bruce Findlow) to draw up, as an appendix, a schedule of ‘Types of Contemporary Unitarianism.’ My list of six different brands was given the approval of the Commission, and it was widely accepted in the denomination at large. The six original categories were Liberal Protestant Christianity, Existential Unitarianism, Non-Christocentric Theism, the All-Faiths Approach (often called, rather misleadingly, ‘Universalism’), Non-Theistic Humanism, and Unitarian Pragmatism. In the 1980s my list was endorsed by the GA Theology Panel – with two additions: – Mysticism and Social Commitment. In my recent Irish Lecture on Current Trends in Contemporary British Unitarianism, I used a revised form of the list. Unitarian Pragmatism was omitted as were the two categories added by the Theology Panel (which I did not consider to be distinctive types of Unitarian belief), and to the five categories which remained, I added two more: Unitarianism as Social and Religious Protest and what I called New-Age Unitarianism, making a total of seven types in all.
Mention of the GA Theology Panel has reminded me of a serious omission in my general survey. This important body which, significantly enough, no longer exists, met regularly for many years, and produced from time to time, statements and discussion prompters which were usually published as special supplements to The Inquirer. Perusal of the Panel’s deliberations and pronouncements would provide a useful source for any detailed study of Unitarian Thought in the second half of the twentieth century.
Returning now to the Interim Report of the Faith and Action Commission (which covered such topics as the Idea of God, the Person of Jesus, the Nature of Man, the Church, Worship, Ethics, Our Relation to Christianity and the Other Faiths, the Kingdom of God), I seem to recall that it was favourably received. It was after all a fairly moderate, middle-of-the-road statement. Unfortunately, I seem to have mislaid my copy of the Final Report which incorporated responses from the movement at large. But I do remember that no great objections had been raised. Comments received seem to indicate clearly that at that time, most grass-roots Unitarians were Theists rather than Humanists. In a speech at the Annual Meetings of the Assembly, Eric Price (who possibly was disappointed that he had not been invited to serve on the Commission) expressed his regrets that the Report endorsed Theism at the expense of Humanism. But as someone pointed out, we were not endorsing either. We were merely reporting what appeared to be the general feeling of the movement.
The next in line on my list is Point of Belief, subtitled Essays in Liberal Religion, which was published by the Lindsey Press in 1968. It is in some respects a rather curious little book and was not specifically designed as an expression of Unitarianism. But it contains much very worth-while material. The editor, John Rowland, who was also responsible himself for one of the essays, had entered the Unitarian ministry after some years as a journalist, and he contributed much to the work of the Assembly, especially in the sphere of publicity. His 1968 book includes an article by John Wren-Lewis, an Anglican layman, who was at one time a very prominent amateur theologian and a devotee of Paul Tillich. There is also an good essay entitled The Future of God by A.C.Adcock, a liberal Anglican vicar who was for a considerable period closely associated with both Manchester College Oxford and the journal Faith and Freedom.
The Unitarian contributions include some thoughtful reflections by Jeremy Goring, and an essay by George Lee entitled The New Symbolism, in which he enlarges again on his favourite theme, concentrating (as he did so often in his writing and preaching) on the Gospel story of the Agony in the Garden. Jeremy Goring, whose attitude towards and relationship with the Unitarian movement, has always been somewhat ambivalent, calls his contribution The New Christian Wavelength. It is another good exposition of what I call Existential Unitarianism, and it includes some unexpected affirmations – such as the suggestion that Christian ‘orthodoxy’ is often closer than Liberalism is to the facts of the human situation. He also warmly commends what he calls John Macmurray’s “much neglected Essex Hall Lecture, Idealism Against Religion” – a judgment which I myself heartily endorse. Somewhat surprisingly, the symposium closes with a reprint of an essay by D.H.Lawrence.
We come next to The Divine Image by H.J.McLachlan, a sadly neglected little book, published in 1972, to which I would have liked to devote greater attention. It originated with some lectures which he gave in the United States under the terms of the Minns Trust (an American Unitarian foundation) and is essentially a defence of Renaissance Humanism and a salute to Erasmus, who is surely one of the greatest of our spiritual forebears, but one whom we often seem reluctant to acknowledge. He also expresses his indebtedness to Victor Gollancz. Somewhat paradoxically, he succeeds in combining a strong Unitarian conviction of the essential goodness of the human spirit with an unflinching acknowledgement of human wickedness, and he ends by affirming, with Teilhard de Chardin, that we all have to learn how to become fully human – something which forms an intriguing contrast with George Lee’s suggestion in Essays of Unitarian Theology, that its necessary to escape from being human!
Concerning Jesus, edited by D.G.Wigmore-Beddoes (1975) is another highly commendable little book which contains a considerable amount of excellent material. It is a set of essays by a group who were seen at that time as promising figures among our younger theologians, and it is still a useful pointer to the fact that most Unitarians do regard Jesus as a key figure for our free religious faith. One of the essays, Duncan McGuffie’s brilliant survey of Unitarian Christology from the Reformation right up to the twentieth century, probably deserves to be reprinted, for it is, in effect, a first-rate potted history of the entire Unitarian movement. But the book as a whole has probably suffered from the fact that is a poignant reminder of some very sad developments, two of which are incidentally mentioned in the publication itself. In the first place, even before it appeared, the editor, Dennis Wigmore-Beddoes, had been tragically killed in a car crash, and the book had to be seen through the press by John Rowland. (Wigmore-Beddoes had certainly shown great promise, and his untimely death was a great loss to Unitarianism. His book Yesterday’s Radicals, a study of the nineteenth century Broad Church movement is still much esteemed in some quarters). Then, in the second place, Tony Cross, himself the originator of the whole idea of the symposium and the author of one of its essays, had become, even before the book appeared (as a footnote reminds us) a convert to Roman Catholicism! (His subsequent career, of course, was even more bizarre. After a brief period with Catholicism, he returned to Unitarianism and gave considerable service to the movement, not least as the Principal of Manchester College. But in the mid 90s, he again returned to the Catholic fold). Even this is not the end of a very sad story, for Duncan McGuffie subsequently became a convert to Anglicanism – another sad loss to Unitarianism. John Hostler, another contributor, has also left the movement.
Happily, the two other contributors, David Doel and John Midgley, are still very much with us. John Midgley’s essay deals with the encounter between Christianity and World Religions, and David Doel’s article is an able exposition of the importance of Jesus Christ for Existential Unitarianism – that distinctive brand of Unitarianism, of which he certainly remains a leading, and indeed a formidable defender.
My comments on the remaining publications in my list must of necessity be brief. Prior to my original talk at the General Assembly Meetings, I had not had sufficient time to analyse them in great detail, and I have been unable to remedy this in preparing my reflections for publication. It is appropriate that we should consider next, Unitarianism by John Hostler, published by the Hibbert Trust in 1981, for as we have just seen, Hostler was one of the contributors to Concerning Jesus. His Hibbert Trust booklet is undoubtedly a useful survey of the essentials of Unitarianism. But as the author himself mentions, it was written by one who, despite the fact that he had been a long-time Unitarian, was beginning to move away from the movement – and as far as I know, he has now lost all contact with Unitarianism. But maybe this adds to its merits. Here we have, perhaps, a shrewd objective assessment of our tradition, compiled by an outsider, underlining both its strengths and its weaknesses.
The General Assembly Feminist Theology Report certainly deserves a mention in my survey. It bears no date, but I think that it must have appeared in the mid 1980s. It was a package rather than a straightforward report, another anticipation perhaps, of a Post-Modernist approach. I was one of the team which produced it and the main contributors were Ann Peart and Joy Croft. It certainly introduced the denomination to Feminist Theology, but most of the material was taken from non-Unitarian sources – a sober reminder that Unitarians are not always as radical as they think we are. It is necessary to note that most Christian denominations, and not only Unitarianism, have tried to come to terms with Feminist protests, especially where sexist language is involved. However we can take some credit for the fact that the importance of degenderisation is acknowledged by the changes included in both Hymns for Living and Hymns of Faith and Freedom.
God in One Person by A. Richard Kingston, published by the Macmillan Press in 1993 is a book which I would have liked to have reviewed at length. The question of the Trinity is something which Unitarians now tend to ignore, but it is still discussed at great length and in considerable depth in most mainstream traditions. It is clearly still a matter of great importance, not least because some of the mainstream comments are often surprisingly negative and sceptical. Dr Kingston’s book was a lone venture, and it has been largely ignored both by Unitarians and the other denominations. The author, a former Methodist minister, is now the Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Politics at the University of Ulster. He is also a convert to Unitarianism and a member of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast. His book is a very able and meticulously detailed defence of a non-Trinitarian version of Christianity – or what he prefers to call ‘Non-Incarnational Christianity’.
Richard Kingston insists that there is something highly objectionable, and even logically impossible, in the idea of a God who became uniquely and completely incarnate, once and once only at a particular moment in history, in the person of one particular human being. He supports this claim with a wealth of carefully marshalled philosophical and theological argument, based on an admirable scholarly acquaintance with a wide range of religious thinking. It is perhaps surprising that he makes no mention at all of the historic manifestations of the Unitarian tradition – not even the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland to which he now belongs. But the NSPCI has often been reluctant in recent years to acknowledge its historic links with theological Unitarianism. Dr Kingston also ignores the Myth Approach to Christian Doctrine and the possibility of interpreting Incarnation in quite a different way – along the lines suggested by Martineau. But we should all be immensely grateful to him for demonstrating that there is much more to Unitarian Christianity than the subversive ramblings of heretical sectarianism!
I can pass very swiftly over my own Current Trends in Contemporary British Unitarianism, published by the Ulster Unitarian Christian Association in 1997, which seems to have been generally accepted as a useful and reasonably accurate survey. It is perhaps notable that it stresses the importance of Green Theology and New Age thinking, as well as advocating a return to an adorationist Christology – as an alternative to the non-adorationist position which has dominated the Unitarian tradition since the time of Lindsey. One could perhaps argue that an adorationist position is also supported to some extent by Phillip Hewett in Understanding Unitarians, published by the Hibbert Trust in 1992. This work is another commendable contemporary survey to which I ought to have paid closer attention in my original informal paper, which is the basis of the present article. Indeed, I am now very willing to acknowledge that my failure to include any reference to any other of Dr Hewett’s publications was a serious error, seeing as he has undoubtedly played a significant part in the development of contemporary Unitarianism. He was originally a native of this country who came into Unitarianism under the influence of G.Randall Jones – another able and much admired figure within Unitarianism during the earlier part of the twentieth century. After a brief period as minister at Ipswich, Dr Hewett emigrated to Canada, where, as minister of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver from 1956 to 1991, he became one of the leading figures in Canadian Unitarianism, a distinctive sector of the Unitarian movement which deserves to be better known in this country. He has always been a frequent visitor to these shores, and some of us were very grateful for the informative paper which he gave to the Historical Society a few years back, reminding us of the important links in the past between Canadian Unitarianism and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian tradition in Ireland. He has also been the author of several publications which have certainly contributed to the development of British Unitarian thought. These have included a very able survey entitled An Unfettered Faith, published as long ago as 1955, before he left this country. (I remember being very impressed by its admirable treatment of the concept of miracles).
More recently, there was the work already mentioned – Understanding Unitarians – published by the Hibbert Trust in 1992. In some respects, this endorses what I have called the ‘Myth’ approach to Unitarianism, and amongst other things it stresses the importance of Jesus as a cult figure rather than just a historical prophet. Dr Hewett has some timely words of wisdom for those who urge us ‘to pass beyond Christianity.’ Unitarians, he says, no less than others, need to remember the culture which they have inherited and by which they have been moulded. “Why cut off one’s roots,” he asks “and try to put down new ones, or, even worse, try to live without any roots at all?”
A more substantial contribution, which is perhaps in some ways Dr Hewett’s most important publication, is the book entitled The Unitarian Way. This is a revised and expanded version, published by the Canadian Unitarian Council in 1985, of an earlier work called On Being a Unitarian (1968). It is a very stimulating comprehensive manual covering most aspects of the Unitarian movement, beginning with some reflections on the nature of religious faith and its essential foundations (which form a kind of update of Martineau’s Seat of Authority) and it ends with some information on Church organisation and structures. It analyses the true meaning of religious freedom (reminding us that “the free is not the free and easy, though many people may still think it so”), stresses the importance of rationality, tolerance, and symbolism, and it is full of relevant quotations and wise aphorisms – such as the following:- “There is as great a difference between rationality and rationalism as there is between spirituality and spiritualism, individuality and individualism, and community and communism.” (The Unitarian Way is not included in my list of significant publications which appears at the beginning of Part 1 of this survey, published in last year’s Transactions, but I have added it to the list of the works reviewed in Part 2 which forms the appendix to the present article).
I turn finally to George Chryssides’s excellent symposium, Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought published by the Lindsey Press in 1999, which I have already mentioned more than once. It is certainly good to know that the Lindsey Press is now so active once again, producing thoughtful, readable books. Especially noteworthy in Unitarian Perspectives are George Chyssides’s own introduction and his reflections on ‘New Religions and the New Age’, Margaret Wilkins’s comments about Jesus, Ann Peart’s reminder of women’s contribution to the Unitarian tradition, and Frank Walker’s essay on Don Cupitt and the Sea of Faith movement. We certainly do need to take account of Cupitt’s increasingly popular ‘Non-Realist’ theology. Many Unitarians, of course, already do. But perhaps we also need to remember that Non-Realist thinking itself has its own philosophical difficulties.
The book is also notable for the fact that, in Peter Hawkins’s contribution, we are introduced to Postmodernism – in an appropriately postmodernist fashion! But there are, of course, some problems here also, and I am moved to commend a recent article by George Pattison, the Dean of King’s College Cambridge, which appeared in Modern Believing (the journal of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union). Pattison remains in many respects a traditional modernist, and even a liberal. He insists that its necessary to distinguish modernism sharply from the popular cult of Postmodernism, and while the importance of the latter is acknowledged, he warns us to take note of the way in which “postmodern analysis itself can be pressed into the service of a new conservatism, academic obscurantism or journalistic chatter.” The article also includes a stout defence of liberalism. “Liberal theology” he says, “is a liberating theology, which strives to make us profoundly and radically free. The liberal ethos we embrace is not simply a faint-hearted sell-out to secularism: it is the liberalism that shines from every page of the New Testament.”
So much for my inadequate preliminary survey of Unitarian Thought in the twentieth century. I am only too well aware that there is much that has been omitted. One obviously needs to take account, for example, of Cliff Reed’s very able little booklet Unitarian? What’s That? But I must pass finally to some tentative conclusions. First of all let us return to James Martineau (a case of “my end is my beginning!” – I am always intrigued to discover how often we need to agree with T.S.Eliot!). I want to take up some extremely interesting comments which H.L.Short includes in his contribution to The English Presbyterians, From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism, 1968, another important book by four authoors which requires consideration despite it being essentially a work of history. I quote from p.272:- “In some respects, Martineau was an English Schleiermacher, and, like him, eager to commend Christianity to the cultured through traditional symbols, apprehended psychologically rather than argumentatively.” I have long felt that its necessary to go back to Schleiermacher, whose mission, of course, it was to commend Christianity to “its cultured despisers.” But let me return to Lismer Short:-
Some of Martineau’s followers said that if the seat of authority in religion lies in an inward intuition and an inward moral impulse, why limit this to Christianity? Surely the true religion is a pure theism, of which Christianity is only a local and temporal form. One should concentrate on a generalised moral idealism or seek a fellowship of all the faiths, Christian and non-Christian alike. It may even be that Buddhism or Idealist metaphysics or mysticism are more fundamentally religious than any form of Christianity. … Martineau himself, it was said, prayed and preached like a Christian and taught philosophy like a pure rationalist.
There is surely much to think about here. In the first place, on the matter of commending Christianity to the cultured through traditional symbols, could this not indeed be our mission – as George Lee believed so passionately? I am constantly struck myself by the extraordinary trivialisation which has come to dominate so much of contemporary Christianity and we Unitarians seem to have become infected with the same virus. To take a simple example, one has only to compare our present Church Calendars with those of 50 years ago! It is pleasing to note that there have also been observations of this kind in some of the other denominations. For example, John Harvey, some-time leader of the Iona Community (always a focus for radical thinking), recently sparked off controversy when he tabled a protest about what he sees as the increasing clerical dominance within the Scottish Kirk. He suggested that this is primarily a ploy to ensure that “he laity are kept infantile” and Don Cupitt in a recent article in The Guardian, charging the Church of England with being intellectually out-of-date, was moved to ask, very pointedly, why it seems to have become “obligatory for Christians to be silly.” Somtimes Unitarians often give the impression that they are in favour of silliness or at least commend the kind of superficiality and sentimentalism which can all too easily descend into silliness. But returning again to Lismer Short, we need to be aware of where complete openness may lead us. It may indeed be the case, as someone recently said, that if you are too open-minded your brains will fall out! But on the other hand, if a truly free Christianity, or whatever it may be called, means embracing humanism, secularism, and non-supernaturalism, then presumably that is the line that we ought to follow in the twenty-first century – though I also suggest that Unitarians cannot rule out the other alternative, favoured by George Lee and his disciples. Roger Thomas in his History of the Croydon Congregation, yet another much neglected Unitarian thinker, made an apposite comment on this point . Speaking of the wide variety of names which has characterised the Unitarian movement, he says: “Whatever we may call ourselves today, we must still strive to be a community of worshippers sufficiently mindful and magnanimous to respect each other’s reasonable and responsible convictions.” I can hardly think of a better description of the essence of Unitarianism.
Lismer Short also takes up this question of our many names in his final paragraph, and I would like to end by quoting him in full (from The English Presbyterians, p.286):-
The story [of the English Presbyterians and their descendants] has not been a simple unfolding from the original impulse, but a complex interaction of many forces. It cannot be said that in any particular generation the descendants have completely fulfilled the promise of their forbears, but usually, where one generation has fallen short, the next generation has done something to redress the balance. In one age it has been religious freedom which has been stressed, in another a polemical message, in another, a deeper piety, in another, a social idealism. At different times different names have been adopted: Presbyterian, Catholic Christian, Rational Dissenter or Rational Christian, Unitarian, Free Christian, Liberal Christian, Non-Subscriber, Free Catholic, Universalist, Theist – each representing one facet of a many-sided tradition, and each leaving something out. No doubt the present representatives of this many-sided tradition fall short, in this respect or that, of the possibilities of their heritage. But what shall emerge from the present situation will be decided by the interaction between the tradition, the current faith, and the historical circumstances.
The story continues…..
GA Commission Report – A Free Religious Faith – 1945
Kenneth Twinn (Ed.) – Essays in Unitarian Theology – 1959
A.J.Long – Faith and Understanding – 1963
GA Faith and Action Commission Report (Theology Section) – 1964
J. Rowland (Ed.) – Point of Belief – Essays in Liberal Religion – 1968
H. J. McLachlan – The Divine Image – 1972
D. G. Wigmore-Beddoes (Ed.) – Concerning Jesus – 1975
John Hostler – Unitarianism – Hibbert Trust – 1981
GA Feminist Theology Report (no date – probably mid-1980s)
Phillip Hewett – Understanding Unitarians – Hibbert Trust – 1992
The Unitarian Way – Canadian Unitarian Council – 1985
A Richard Kingston – God in One Person – The Case for Non-Incarnational Christianity – Macmillan Press – 1993
A. J. Long – Current Trends in British Unitarianism – Ulster Unitarian Christian Association – Belfast – 1997
G. Chryssides (Ed.) – Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Religious Thought (1999)
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