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Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Anglicans turn UK Unitarians out of cathedral.

The January 28 issue of The Inquirer, a British Unitarian magazine (not online), reports that the annual Anniversary Service of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the UK will no longer be held in Chester Cathedral, where the service has been held since 2001. "A complaint following the 2005 service prompted a review of the cathedral statutes, according to Nicholas Fry, spokesman for the cathedral," the article says.

"Usual circumstances require worship to be according to Anglican forms or, occasionally, according to forms used by churches that are membrs of 'Churches Together in England,'" the spokesman continued.

The Rev. Andrew Hill, minister of St Mark's Unitarian Church in Edinburgh, said, "This is an impoverished understanding of Christianity, that the only valid expressions of religious faith in this day and age are those associated with Churches Together or with the Council of Churches. On a wider plane, in light of the relationship between people of different faiths within Britain, this is simply setting a poor example."

The magazine's editorial observes: "In the entry hall to Chester Cathedral, there are signs saying 'Welcome' in 26 languages. A Unitarian could be forgiven for doubting their sincerity."

("In response to complaint, Cathedral says no to GA," MC Burns, The Inquirer 1.28.06: 3; "Cathedral's bad example," editorial, The Inquirer 1.28.06: 2)

This story highlights for me the decades-old erosion of a model of catholicity that, for a while in the early 20th century, seemed capable of encompassing Unitarians and Universalists along with many other Christian denominations. It's a model that saw Christian unity proceeding on an ethical basis rather than a doctrinal one. So much for that! The ethical model is almost entirely dead now as a model for the "church universal"; instead, questions of doctrine and authority are the central concerns.

This poses an uncomfortable dilemma for theologically liberal Christians like those of us you can still find in non-credal or heterodox denominations: Do we have a way to engage in ecumenical dialogue anymore, especially when our denominations are not set up to make truth claims or negotiate them with other denominations? I know this is an entirely irrelevant question for most UUs, for whom we're simply engaged in interfaith dialogue as non-Christians, but I still want to see a way to engage in Christian fellowship as a theological liberal.

Update 3.1.06: A month late, the Times of London picks up the story: "'Heretical' Unitarians cast out by cathedral" (Ruth Gledhill, The Times 3.1.06; via CT Weblog).

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 1 February 2006 at 7:50 AM

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Scott Wells:

February 1, 2006 08:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

Please excuse the shorthand but I'm off to work soon -- could it be the old ethical basis (as you put it) has been recognized as an entre to a "nice" sub-Christian proclamation. I'm not blaming Free Religionists, Humanists, and later groups within Unitarianism and Universalism for taking advantage first of the welcome and then the vacuum. I can't say we're the best example for the rest of the Body of Christ when it comes to internal integrity.


February 1, 2006 05:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

It is simply another sample of something that many of us know: simply, that Unitarianism is not welcome in the Protestant world. We may have good connections with individuals or with local congregations, or some affinity with other broad-minded liberal religionists such as the Quakers, but the broader picture shows that the doors of Protestant Christianity are closed and locked for Unitarians. Just another confirmation for those of us who think that we should move on and away from institutional Christianity.


February 1, 2006 06:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

How similiar are the British Unitarians and the USA Unitarian Universalists?


February 2, 2006 11:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

"ethical basis (as you put it) has been recognized as an entre to a "nice" sub-Christian proclamation"

If so, it'd be for the worse. That is, if an ethical basis is seen as sub Christian something important and valuable has been lost along the way.


February 2, 2006 07:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

This makes me incredibly sad. I was wondering: do the British Unitarians,as do so many U.S. UU's, generally make it a point to disavow their Christian roots or Christian-"ishness?" I truly don't know, and I assume not, as my impression is that British Unitarians haven't been as hostile to Christianity as are so many UUs stateside. If so, then I suppose this dismissal from the cathedral premises was inevitable.

What a shame to have this nice ecumenical relationship ended over liturgical details (ie, creedal factionalism).


February 5, 2006 11:51 AM | Permalink for this comment

To begin to answer StevenR's and PeaceBang's questions: British Unitarianism is more Christian than USA UUism, but not exclusively so like Transylvania for example. The 'Object' of the General Assembly includes the aim 'to uphold the liberal Christian tradition' although there are very loud dissenters from this phrase being included in the Object. A survey revealed about 60% of British Unitarians considered themselves Christian, but there is some argument about what these statistics mean.

We are excluded from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, though we had observer status in that organisation's previous incarnation. Locally some congregations belong to Churches Together in some towns, not in others, depending on local circumstances. For example in Leeds the Unitarian church is in Churches Together, mainly because it's a huge cathedral like structure slap bang in the middle of the city, and the church, and its minister, are very Christian.

Scott Wells:

February 5, 2006 11:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

For which reason, following Stephen's comment, in those low, grim daytime anti-fantasies of having to emigrate I sometimes have I usually imagine Hubby and I ending up in Leeds.


March 1, 2006 09:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

See "'Heretical' Unitarians cast out by cathedral" (Ruth Gledhill, The Times 3.1.06).


March 4, 2006 05:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

See also this conservative Episcopalian's blog entry. (The writer worshiped at King's Chapel during Carl Scovel's ministry, apparently before deciding that liberal Christianity is beyond the pale; I wonder if our paths crossed.)


March 6, 2006 09:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

Looks to me as though the blogger has the relationship of historical Unitarianism and modern UUism to orthodox Christianity about right (despite getting a few small facts slightly off). The question he fails to address, though, is whether it is appropriate to enforce strict doctrinal conditions when offering ecumenical or interfaith hospitality.

We "creedless" UUs would instinctively say no, that strict doctrinal rules are inappropriate, but our standards are not the same as the Anglican Communion's. Nevertheless, it does seem rather odd to see the Anglicans refuse hospitality to Unitarians on doctrinal grounds while allowing some of their own clerics, like Bishop Spong, to advocate theology that is at least as heterodox as ours.

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