by Stuart Coupe
In this contribution, I want to explore the responsibilities and difficulties concerning the principle of Unitarian religious freedom and its relationship to personal belief.
To begin this Service you are invited to light a candle, or chalice, if it is safe for you do so.
Chalice Lighting by Joy Croft
As is our custom, we light the chalice – and see!
The flame of truth burns bright,
fed by the visions of each if us,
rising from the heart of us all.
Let its light shine out as our lives shine out,
brightening the dark places of the world,
bringing wholeness and peace.
Opening Prayer by Nancy Wood
Hold on to what is good
even if it is
a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is
a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do
even if it is
a long way from here.
Hold on to life even when
it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand even when
I have gone away from you.
In this reading, Bruce Davis talks about the value of living by vows; those which are traditional to a monastery and those which we might use on a personal level in our everyday lives or our ‘monastery without walls.’
‘In addition to traditional vows such as poverty, chastity, obedience, charity and marriage, people can take personal vows. Such vows give us direction in everyday life so that we can affirm our desire to love in a ‘monastery without walls.’ Anyone can take personal vows. In normal life, there is no one to judge or hold us accountable for the promises we make, nothing other than the truth, the mirror in the simple quiet. People live by their own vows during weekend retreats, for months and even years at a time. Vows of simplicity, forgiveness and gratitude have a clear way of guiding everyday life. Each day is planned, spent and reflected upon in simplicity, forgiveness and gratitude no matter how the day passes. Vows concerning peace, love, innocence or purity remind us that we can find a truer relationship in all things. Personal commitment to grace and joy help to set the tone for each day so that we can be open to grace and joy in all situations. Vows of acceptance or surrender can remind us that all our experiences are interwoven into the fabric of silence. …each vow affirms our commitment to live life as a gift, as a sacrament.’
Awake – by Peter Mayer
These are extracts from the Unitarian booklet ‘A Faith Worth Believing In.’ Sometimes I find it useful to return to the core aspects of our Unitarian position, aspects that it is all easy to take for granted. How about you?
‘Unitarians believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves and that the fundamental tools for doing this are your own life-experience, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understanding and the promptings of your own conscience. Unitarians suggest that the best setting for this is a community that welcomes you for what you are – beliefs, doubts, questions and all.
Unitarians affirm that people should enjoy individual liberty and private judgment in spiritual matters and that respect for integrity is preferable to the pressure to conform. Unitarians suggest that we are all engaged on a life-quest and in the development of the personal value system by which each of us lives. Unitarians affirm that our beliefs may change in the light of new understanding and insight but that the final authority for your faith lies within your own conscience.’
What is it that brought you to and keeps you associated with Unitarianism?
Perhaps it is an association which you have always held? If that’s the case, you are in the minority. Unlike, for example, the Catholic tradition, very few congregants are ‘born into’ a Unitarian faith network and even fewer are –‘life-long’ Unitarians. At Billingshurst we are fortunate to have three ‘life-long’ Unitarians in our congregation but two of these are below the age of ten – so perhaps they don’t count as such quite yet!
On the whole, evidence suggests that these days, Unitarianism is ‘found:’ that is, people look for a place to enact a need for religious expression (in ways in which they haven’t perhaps found in more orthodox settings) and somewhere along the line, they find a home with us. Some stick around, some leave, much as is the case with most churches I suspect.
Assuming that you are part of a Unitarian congregation (and by the way, if you are not, welcome – and thanks for reading) what is it that keeps you here?
In my teens I joined a Methodist church. I didn’t join because of any strong theological standpoint held by the Methodists and to be honest, it wasn’t really Christianity that attracted me either. It was, in fact, a girl in the sixth form who I was dating at the time and she invited me along. Thinking it a wise idea to stay in her good books, I went along. There it is. It was teenage love got me into religion.
And Unitarianism? How did I get into that? Well, when I moved to Horsham I thought it would be a chance to have a change of theological scene. I quite fancied giving the Quakers a try so I rocked up to their meeting house only to find it closed. I decided to step into the next church I came across and it was the Unitarian Chapel. I stayed.
How did you get here? And if you have been associated with us for a while, what keeps you coming back?
Be honest now. If your motivation rests more in the social aspects of belonging to a chapel, then that’s fine; really it is. A good natter, a coffee and a piece of cake is all part and parcel of chapel life and, after all, your lusting after a good chunk of cake is little different to me lusting after the charms of my sixth-form sweetheart.
In the past times, it was perhaps a little easier for Unitarian/General Baptists to pin-point their reasons for congregating. Whilst I’m sure that in days gone by, the familial and social aspects of worship played their part in attendance, I also suspect that the expression of a robust theological standpoint, i.e. a non-trinitarian Christian faith, played a strong part. Unitarianism wasn’t just ‘rooted’ in the Christian tradition as we talk about it now, it was an express and important denominational aspect of it.
Things have changed radically now. Even over the course of my relatively brief foray into the Unitarian tradition, the Christian element of our worship has receded almost, it seems at times, to the point of extinction. I imagine that a look of perplexation would have fallen across the face of any Unitarian/General Baptists many years ago if they were told that in 2020 there would be a Unitarian Christian Association whose aim was to promote and celebrate Christianity within the movement. It would have been an anathema. Unitarianism was an expression of Christianity.
Despite have a nominal Christian background (the attraction of Jesus soon equalled that of attraction to my sweetheart) I’m fairly comfortable with Unitarianism moving away from these roots. It is this movement which, I suspect, many folk find attractive about the Unitarian offer and if we were still an exclusively ‘non-trinitarian expression’ of Christianity, I doubt that many of the chapels would be in existence today.
So why are you here? Two reasons (three if you include the cake) could be that you are sympathetic to the beliefs stated in the earlier reading i.e. ‘that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves and that we are all engaged on a ‘life-quest,’ and the development of the personal value system by which each of us lives.’
Sometimes however, I wonder if we take this aspect of our Unitarianism seriously enough.
Does Unitarianism make enough of putting ‘the development of a personal value system’ at the very heart of what we do?
Now here’s a thought: If I were to ask what your personal value/belief system is, would you be able to articulate it both succinctly and then perhaps in more detail? Could you describe how it has changed in the light of ‘new understanding and insight?’ Could you describe how your everyday life is, and has been informed by, your personal beliefs and then go on to suggest ways in which it has, and is, transforming you and your relationships with others?
If you are finding the above a bit of challenge then let’s not worry too much. This is a very, very demanding exercise. Yet not to at least try to do it runs the risk of leaving Unitarianism as a very undemanding enterprise. Being impish for a moment, we show up, sit quietly and listen, say a little prayer, meditate, have a natter and eat a bit of cake.
Although developing our own personal value or belief system may be demanding, the semi-formal requirement to do so, is perhaps something that might act as a distinctive part of our Unitarian religious practice. Whilst we have our ‘values’ which bind us together, I sometimes wonder if we are in need of a common physical practice/ritual that we can all participate in outside of our hour at chapel. The formal, written articulation of our own beliefs (albeit that they will always be provisional and open to development, change or abandonment) could be a practice which is common to our faith but one which maintains our need for individual thought and expression. It’s just an idea.
Although potentially demanding in nature, it is easiest start somewhere easy, to start simply. A personal creedal statement such as ‘I will love my neighbour as I love myself’ or ‘I will put compassion at the heart of all of my relationships’ are sound starting points from which the possibility springs of building an ever wider framework.
If we don’t challenge ourselves with developing some kind of personal creeds from which to step out into the world with, there is a danger that much of the understanding, wisdom and insight that we find ourselves nourished by during our hour of worship stands the danger of being lost. The risk is run that we simply drift from one nice sounding quote and pleasant spiritual undertaking to the next without ourselves ever being really changed and without, possibly, ever fulfilling our potential of changing the world in ways in which we might hope.
Why are you here? At this moment in time, what is that you believe? What is it that you live by? How is this affecting you and others for the better?
Goodness me. I think I’m ready now for a nice piece of cake….
If, here, you have found freedom, take it with you into the world.
If you have found comfort, go and share it with others.
If you have dreamed dreams, help one another that they might come true.
If you have known love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world.
Go in peace. (Lauralyn Bellamy).
Church of Life – Peter Mayer