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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Unitarians will grasp the opportunity to carry out equal marriage with open arms


“We welcome the decision of the Government to bring forward legislation that will allow the holding of same sex weddings in churches and other religious buildings if that is the wish to the religious body. Unitarians will grasp the opportunity to carry out equal marriage with open arms. As one of our hymns says “All Are Welcome Here”.

This move reflects the historic commitment to religious freedom interpreted for the 21st century and our wish more an inclusive and more tolerant society. We don't expect Parliament to force other churches or individual clergy, who may disagree with us, to marry same-sex couples if they do not wish to do so. However, we do not consider that our wishes should therefore be simply set aside.

Unitarian ministers have been undertaking blessings of same sex couples for over thirty years and our experience is that the intentions of a same sex couple are identical to those of a heterosexual couples in seeking marriage. We have supported civil partnerships in religious premises and we will work with Government to see that a workable system for equal marriage is introduced.”

11 December 2012

Friday, 7 December 2012

Unitarians welcome statement by Prime Minister in support of same sex marriage in churches


I welcome the statement today by David Cameron supporting the holding of same sex weddings in churches.

The Prime Minister, speaking after an event in Redditch today, said: 'I'm a massive supporter of marriage and I don't want gay people to be excluded from a great institution.

'But let me be absolutely 100% clear, if there is any church or any synagogue or any mosque that doesn't want to have a gay marriage it will not, absolutely must not, be forced to hold it.

'That is absolutely clear in the legislation. Also let me make clear, this is a free vote for Members of Parliament but personally I will be supporting it.'

Legislation has been promised before 2015, and it is anticipated that next week Culture Secretary Maria Miller will launch the government’s plans in response to this summer’s consultation on equal marriage

Unitarians look forward to the announcement and that this will mean we will be free to conduct same-sex marriages in our places of worship if congregations wish to do so.

We don't expect Parliament to force other churches or individual clergy, who may disagree with us, to marry same-sex couples if they do not wish to do so. However, we do not consider that our wishes should therefore be set aside. We claim the right to do so in line with our own deeply held convictions about the inherent worth of all individuals and for public recognition of relationships.

Civil partnerships in religious premises, whilst welcomed by Unitarians, are not a substitute for same sex religious marriage. The introduction of civil partnerships in religious premises has faced difficulties and progress has been slow although several Unitarian congregations have registered to host ceremonies and some have taken place; the first being in Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool.

It is evident that there has been little public disquiet or indeed interest. I would think this will be the response if religious marriage for same sex couples was permitted with churches simply left to chose. There would be a flurry of media interest and then people would simply get on with their own lives.”

Friday, 30 November 2012

Do Humanists Sing?

"Do Humanists sing?" was one question discovered by Dr Matthew Engelke during his research on British humanism which he presented to the Annual Lecture of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network earlier this week at Conway Hall in Central London.

Well I found out that some do and some don't! Indeed, the British Humanist Association (BHA) have a choir. The subtext was, of course, is singing too much like a church.

Dr Engelke's lecture "In Spite of Christianity - Humanism and Its Others in Contemporary Britain" was based on his current ethnographic study of humanist organisations; the national BHA and a local group. Unitarians were mentioned twice in a positive context.

 For a Unitarian I found it valuable to seek comparisons and contrasts. He talked about a process of realisation by which many humanist came to identify as humanists. This seems similar to those who claim to have been unitarian all their adult lives before they find their home in the Unitarian Movement. 

Many humanists see that it is important to break with the past and expunge all signs of religion from the public sphere. He described opposition to the use of the term "acts of god" in a risk register being replaced with "acts of nature" despite its well known use as a legal term. 

He wondered, however, about continuity with a religious past. Humanism and Evangelicalism are often seen as the "opposites to each other". To some humanism is therefore cast as another faith. Some humanists cling to religious traditions, such as Philip Pullman who uses the term "CoE athiest". Dr Engelke did not see humanism as a religion by another name. 

Some humanists acknowledged the "goodness" of religion. The various ceremonies recognised aspects of being human. Churches provided a sense of belonging. They were opportunities for like-minded people to engage. Should humanist groups provide these?

Like many Unitarian groups in Britain the humanist group were in 50s and retired or semi-retired. They lamented the absence of humanist spaces unlike most religions, apart from Conway Hall. This is all rather ironic to a Unitarian given the origins of South Place Ethical Society as South Place Chapel, Finsbury a Unitarian congregation whose journey into ethical culture has been described as lonely.  

The local group studied had worked on social justice with a local Unitarian congregation and liked what they did - "I think what they do is interesting" reported one.

There is a clear contrast between the philosophical approach of many humanists and those who act as celebrants who provide services to many non-religious people. This is also a particular danger to Unitarians as well with its attraction to well educated middle class people.

He was surprised that for all the claims for reason and rationality that in practice humanists were prepared to act on irrationality and emotion when confronted with an ethical decision-making exercise. Indeed, many humanists wished to retain some sense of spirituality. This could be a bridge with many Unitarians?

Humanism is embraced by the Unitarian and Free Christian movement in Britain, however, not to the extent of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US. British Humanists would probably struggle to with the religious elements of our tradition but there is clearly common ground. Nationally, the General Assembly has worked with the BHA on education issues within Accord and on LGBT rights as part of the Cutting Edge Consortium. Locally I am aware of dialogue and exchange. We need to learn more about each other.

  

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

John Biddle - Father of English Unitarianism - 350th Commemoration of his death


22 September marks the 350th Anniversary of the death of John Biddle, known as the "Father of English Unitarianism".

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post on John Biddle as part of a short series on several anniversaries related to religious freedom.

With his connection to Gloucester I am pleased that one event I have come across to mark the anniversary is that the Cotswold Group of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches "Worship Leaders Support Group" have organised a contemplative workshop on 27 October with the title "Cherishing our Freedom: A Day of Conversation and Exploration Inspired by the Life of John Biddle."

His links with Gloucester are set out in an essay by the Gloucester and District Archaeological Research Group.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Mothers of liberty: how modern liberalism was made by women


I was interested to read that Dr Helen McCabe, of Oxford University, is speaking to the Liberal Democrat History Group at the Lib Dem conference next week on women associated with the development of Liberal political thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Look at the four names quoted; Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau, Harriet Taylor Mill and Barbara Bodichon. The first two are familiar in modern Unitarian circles; I wondered if Unitarianism had influenced the other two?

To my surprise (although I probably shouldn’t be) they too had Unitarian connections. These four “Mothers of Liberty” had clearly moved in the Unitarian and Radical circles that pioneered women’s rights and universal suffrage.

Mary Wollstonecraft attended Newington Green Unitarian Chapel during the ministry of Dr Richard Price. You can still go and sit at a Sunday morning service in the original box pew where she reputedly sat. Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792) she is often described as the “mother of feminism”. Dr Price, a Welsh radical dissenter, was a crucial influence on her thinking between 1784 and 1786. As the recent edition of The Inquirer (15 September 2012) shows he was a republican who supported the American colonists in their War of Independence.

Harriet Martineau, was one of the first women writers and journalists. She was brought up in a Unitarian family in Norwich. Her brother James, from whom she was later famously estranged, emerged as the foremost Unitarian theologian of the 19th Century. She argued that apparent differences in intellect between men and women were the product of educational discrimination.

She was best known as a populariser of political economy, though her career spanned many other aspects of Victorian literary culture. She shot to fame in 1832 as author of Illustrations of Political Economy - twenty-four short stories showing how economic conditions impacted on the lives of ordinary people in a variety of social environments.

She visited America from 1834-6 and identified with the anti-slavery cause, which she promoted in her journalism for the rest of her working life. She also wrote travel books on America and the Middle East, besides political analyses of conditions in India and Ireland, and can be regarded as the first significant British woman sociologist.

Harriet Taylor Mill was a philosopher and women’s rights advocate. Her second husband was John Stuart Mill and it is clear she influenced much of his writing. She produced a number of essays including “The enfranchisement of women” and a few articles for the Unitarian Journal “The Monthly Repository”. She and her first husband John were active in Unitarian circles and were friendly with William Johnson Fox, a Unitarian Minister and early advocate for women’s rights

Barbara Leigh Smith, later Mrs Bodichon, was an educationalist, artist and early feminist. She was the extramarital child of Benjamin Leigh Smith, Liberal MP for Sudbury and then Norwich. David Bebbington believes that his domestic arrangements made active Unitarian allegiance unlikely.  Her grandfather, however, was William Smith MP, the well-known abolitionist and dissenting and Unitarian parliamentary leader. He was deeply devoted to her and his other grandchildren from amongst the Nightingale and Bonham-carter families.

She and a group of friends met in the 1850’s in London to discuss women's rights, and became known as "The Ladies of Langham Place". This became one of the first organised women’s movements in Britain. They pursued many causes vigorously, including their Married Women’s Property Committee. In 1854 she published her Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women, which had a useful effect in helping forward the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882. In 1857 she married an eminent French physician, Dr Eugene Bodichon.  She helped establish what evolved into Girton College, Cambridge. She was a Unitarian who wrote of Theodore Parker:” He prayed to the Creator, the infinite Mother of us all (always using Mother instead of Father in this prayer). It was the prayer of all I ever heard in my life which was the truest to my individual soul.”

Four women, influenced by Unitarian thinking, who contributed to social and political progress. They were truly “Mothers of Liberty”.




Thursday, 13 September 2012

Religious Freedom Central to Development


I was interested in some comments by Ms Lynne Featherstone following her appointment as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of International Development. She has stated that her promotion of human rights and equal treatment will continue in her new role. Respect for the rights of women, minorities and LGBT people should surely be important matters and needs to frame part of a commitment to universal human rights which clearly contributes to development.

As a faith body Unitarians have always highlighted the significance of religious freedom as part of the overall human rights agenda. From the 19th century we promoted “Civil and Religious Liberty the World Over” in the knowledge that the denial of religious freedom and promotion of religious persecution will certainly undermine human development and progress.

The promotion of religious freedom has been central to the Unitarian journey. We will commemorate in 2013 the repeal of the Trinity Act which relieved those holding Unitarian views in Britain of legal penalties. Unitarians were founders of what is now the International Association of Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest multi-faith global organization with General Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The IARF has established a Peace Commission to explore practical steps in peace-building, particularly in areas where religion contributes to division. Having faced persecution ourselves Unitarians do not stand by whilst this fundamental human right is devalued.

In defending religious freedom this includes rejecting the persecution of people of no religion as well as those of faith. Paul Marshall, the leading researcher on religious freedom, has written that there is no group in the world that does not suffer to some degree because of its beliefs. This can be at the level of government repression but also inter-communal violence, with attacks on minorities.

I hope that issues surrounding religious freedom can influence decision-making about international development priorities. The Department of International Development has been working with national faith groups to promote development in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals. I would urge that issues surrounding religious freedom are emphasized in discussions about development and political, social and economic well-being. For example, events in the Middle East and North Africa are raising serious risks of religious strife and growing religious intolerance yet at the same time we also see opportunities for societies to be transformed with power in the hands of the people.

I took the opportunity to raise this issue with Ms Featherstone when I spoke to her earlier this week following up a letter to her as a result of her appointment.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Departure of Lynne Featherstone from Equalities Office raises uncertainty about equal marriage


The departure of Lynne Featherstone from her position as Minister for Equalities will raise uncertainty about equal marriage plans.

Lynne Featherstone has driven forward the Coalition’s policy on equal marriage and is to be congratulated. I wish her well in her new post at the Department of Department of International Development. Homosexual acts are still illegal in 78 countries and the rights of women need to be promoted in all parts of the world.

This is a crucial time for the Coalition’s proposals on equal marriage. The consultation is closed and we await the Government’s response later this year. This change of Equalities Minister will therefore bring uncertainty which will be enhanced by the move of responsibilities for the women and equalities portfolio from the Home Office to the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

Recently there have been indications that the Government may bring forward proposals to allow equal religious marriage for faiths who wish to pursue this as well as equal civil marriage and I hope that this more positive approach is not quietly rolled back.

The Deputy Prime Minister is holding a Reception next week (11 September 2012 at 1 Carlton Gardens) to mark the Government’s “historic consultation on equal civil marriage”. I, and other liberal faith leaders who will be attending, will use this opportunity to continue to press for equal religious marriage.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Meeting David Cameron and the Duty of the Politician


Chief Officer Derek McAuley talks to Prime Minister David Cameron in Downing Street garden.

Politicians in Britain have rarely been so low in public esteem. A series of scandals have eroded public confidence in Parliament and to many politics seems irrelevant, particularly at this time of austerity. I have had a lot of contact with a number of politicians, as well as civil servants, over the last year during the campaigning for equal marriage. On Tuesday of this week I attended a Reception at No. 10 Downing Street at which David Cameron spoke and I later had the opportunity to briefly talk to him. I also spoke to Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone and backbench MP, Mark Menzies. A few weeks ago I attended a round table conference convened by Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper and I have an invitation to an event in September from the Deputy Prime Minister. 

It was prompted to think about the "duty of the politician" when I read a recent article on a Unitarian politician, John Sutton Nettlefold. Whilst we must be careful not to dream of a "golden age", we can rightly look back to previous generations to draw some lessons.

Unitarians in Britain have been active in political life far beyond their numbers. John Sutton Nettlefold, a prominent Birmingham Unitarian politician, sheds some light on a Unitarian perspective on the "duty of the politician". Writing in the "Journal of Liberal History" (Issue75, Summer 2012 p 30-37), Michael James, a Lecturer in the School of Management, University of Wales Institute Cardiff,  describes Nettlefold as one of "the leading figures in the town planning movement". A City Councillor in Birmingham from 1898 to 1911 he was chairman of the Council's Housing Committee. He was also chairman of the Association of Municipal Corporations and member of the Garden City Association but he was never a Member of Parliament during his political career. 

Nettlefold was a prominent Birmingham businessman. He was related by marriage and religion to the well known Chamberlain family. According to James, he had strong beliefs in the Victorian values of thrift and self-help. Yet this perspective was moderated by his Unitarian upbringing. James writes:

"Unitarianism is a form of Christianity that schews doctrines, in
particular that of the Trinity, emphasising instead the practical
application of the teachings of Christ in the gospels, both in personal
conduct and public affairs. In attributing Unitarianism as one of the
formative influences on Nettlefold's political ideas, it is important to
emphasise that it is not only a religion but also an ethic. It was in this
latter respect that it shaped his outlook and ideas. Unitarians were, and
are, heavily influenced by the Enlightenment ideas of reason and progress;
the duty of the politician is to improve the condition of those less
fortunate than himself. Nettlefold. together with Joseph and Neville
Chambelain, subscribed to this political creed, with its distinctive trait
of combining belief in self-reliance and self-improvement and
adherence to the civic philosophy known at the time and since as "the civic
gospel", the belief that local government should assume responsibility for
improving the conditions of life of its citizens."

Nettlefold's energies were concentrated on housing and town plannng. He saw town planning as the way for achieving better housing for the working class and dealing with the slums of the Industrial Revolution. This needed statutory powers. James argues that he is the least remembered of the leaders of the early town planning movement. He was a man of action and his efforts ultimately led to important legislation in 1909 and 1919 shaping statutory town planning as "one of the pillars of British twentieth-century social policy - which for better or for worse, would change the face of many of Britain's towns and cities".

The phrase "the duty of the politician is to improve the condition of those less fortunate than himself" seems rather old fashioned these days but at its heart is a truth. And Unitarianism has moved away from many of the ideas of the early twentieth century both in belief and values. But surely it is still important that politicians must look beyond their personal or party interests and test their policy against the impact on the poorer sections of society. 

Monday, 16 July 2012

Unitarian Christian Association supports Maternal Health Project in Sierra Leone

Congratulations to the Unitarian Christian Association (UCA), an affiliated society of the General Assembly, for reaching their target of raising £5000 for the Kailahun maternal health project in Sierra Leone. This £5000 will become £20000 with European Union funding.


Christian Aid launched this project in April 2011 and the UCA agreed to support it with fund-raising in October 2011 with a target of reaching £5000 by January 2014. Infact, they have done so in just one year!


In their latest newsletter Cathy Fozard writes:


"In the latest news from Christian Aid it's clear that exciting progress is being made. The government hospital in Kailahun that we are supporting has a restored water system and a new solar power system. So now there is a constant supply of water and electricity to the hospital which is having a very positive impact on the health care provided there."


As £5000 is the maximum to be raised for this particular project, due to European Union restrictions on matching, the UCA will be continuing to fund-raise for Sierra Leone and have chosen a new Christian Aid project in the east that is combating malaria in Kenema, a city of £170,000 people close to the Liberia border. 


In March 2011 I wrote in "The Herald", the UCA magazine,  about the longstanding links between British Unitarians and Free Christian and Christian Aid; not least our status as a founding sponsor. I suggested that we could do more to make this link real. The UCA have responded to this call for action in a remarkable way. Well done.


Friday, 13 July 2012

All Time Page Views Peak 6000

This blog was created in December 2009 so with all time page views reaching 6000 I thought I would let you know who you are and what you have been most interested in.

Views peaked earlier this year with several popular blogs. The blog now averages 400 a month. Each day it is viewed 10 times even if there is no new blog entry.

Viewers come from all over the world. 50% are from the UK (3031) with 25% from the United States (1509); the latter reflecting the large number of Unitarian-Universalists. Third on the list surprisingly comes Russia (180), followed by Ireland (140), Canada (118), Germany (110), France (97), Ukraine (56), Australia (39) and Latvia (28). These numbers are small enough to be influenced by a few individuals. I occasionally get viewers from other parts of the world; in the last month for example from India, Indonesia and the Phillippines. So to some extent we are spreading the Unitarian messages far beyond our shores.

The most popular blogs have been those with a wider interest. They clearly come up in search engines and although only published in January of this year keep getting viewers:
The third and Fifth relate to how faith groups relate to LGBT people and the current equal marriage debates - a major fault line within many faith communities.

I will be making sure that the blog meets the needs of both British readers and those further afield and try not to make assumptions are knowledge of UK society and the faith scene here!

Thank you for your interest in the "Chief Officer's Blog".

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Unitarian social action in East London



I visited "Simple Gifts" the new Unitarian Centre for Social Action project in Bethnal Green, East London this afternoon. A crowd of predominantly Bangladeshi mothers and their children were leaving as I arrived, drawn from the surrounding housing estate. The cafe provides after school activities every Tuesday in the former Unitarian Domestic Mission in Mansford Street which is now managed by the Chalice Trust.



The cafe, which has been sponsored by the Unitarian Centre and "Knees Up!" from Quaker Social Action, provides a welcoming space and knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers to help improve this inner city area which sits a stones throw from the wealth of the City of London. I lived in the former Unitarian manse next door to the church for five months in 2010 and enjoyed the diversity of the area but the deprivation that led to the establishment of the Unitarian Domestic Mission in the 19th century remains although clearly in not such a desperate scale due to the modern Welfare State. This does not mean that social action is redundant; to leave support to the State would be a mistake. The cafe is the first initiative; others will be developed in response to community needs.



It was also useful to explore with organisers Rev Rob Gregson and Ann Howells the ideas behind the establishment of a Unitarian Centre for Social Action - it is intended to do much more than address the problems of the area but also to provide opportunities for Unitarians, and presumably others, to develop skills and expertise in social action and to spread the learning. The project has gathered interest from Unitarians across London. The "Good Samaritan" painting on the wall surely still sends out the message that Unitarian social action is to help everyone in need.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Well done to United Reformed Church on Civil Partnerships for Same Sex Couples


Yesterday the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church (URC) voted to allow their churches, if they wish, to host civil partnership ceremonies for same sex couples. 

This is a significant decision by the URC and is another step forward towards full inclusion of LGBT people within the churches. This goes a long way to breaking down barriers between people of faith and the LGBT community. Unitarians will wholeheartedly welcome the decision. 

For one of the mainstream denominations, with close connections with other large nonconformist churches, the Baptists and the Methodists, and well as the Church of England, to take such a courageous decision is encouraging.

We have a common historic heritage with the URC going back to the Great Ejection in 1662, whose 350th anniveresary we are marking this year. It is good to see that the shared values of religious freedom and tolerance led us to similar decisions. 

I have already been in touch with the URC to see if they will join the four groups who have been working closely on this issue - ourselves in the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism - to address some of the impediments that are currently limiting implementation of this provision of the Equality Act. It is clear that the fees for registration charged by some local authorities are excessive and that the guidance from central Government is not always reflected in local decision-making. With this decision by a much larger denomination we hope that we can strengthen the pressure to ensure these concerns are addressed”.

In 2008 the Unitarian General Assembly urged the Government to allow civil partnerships in religious premises and worked to achieve legislative change that came into force in December 2011. Cross Unitarian Chapel in Manchester was the first religious premises in England and Wales to be registered and the first ceremony was hosted at Ullet Road Unitarian Church in Liverpool in May 2012.



Thursday, 5 July 2012

Religion, Same Sex Marriage and Politics

I was pleased to join the Roundtable meeting arranged yesterday at the Houses of Parliament by Yvette Cooper MP, Shadow Home Secretary. You can read her observations on the gathering here. Also present were Greater Manchester MP, Kate Green, Shadow Minister for Equalities and Chris Bryant, Shadow Home Office Minister.

From my perspective the significance of the meeting lies in the coming together for the first time of the groups that have as religious bodies agreed to support equal marriage - The Quakers, Liberal Judaism, Movement for Reform Judaism as well as the Unitarians and Free Christian General Assembly - with senior figures in the Anglican Church. Present were former Bishop Lord Harries; Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans and Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and Guardian Columnist.

There is clearly potential for closer partnership working between faith groups and individuals committed to equal marriage. We need to ensure that the issue is kept on the public agenda now that the Government's consultation period has ended and that the liberal religious perspective on equal marriage, which is widely shared across all churches and faiths, is clearly stated.

We also need to work with a wide range of groups - faith and non-faith - and to widen and strengthen the circle of involvement.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Unitarians urge religious bodies to be alert to the dangers to civil liberties of the Draft Communications Bill


I understand that the proposals as set out in the Draft Communications Bill would force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and mobile phone network providers in Britain to install 'black boxes' in order to collect and store information on everyone's internet and phone activity, and give the police the ability to self-authorise access to this information.

When this plan was first floated in April of this year the General Assembly was in session and such was the concern expressed that the meeting approved the following emergency Resolution:

“That this General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches deplores the proposed legislation allowing Government access to all private e-mails, texts, mobile phone and internet use, and calls upon all United Kingdom Unitarians and Free Christians to oppose vigorously this gross violation of the rights of privacy and civil liberty.”

The publication of the Draft Bill in no way meets our concerns about the infringement of civil liberties inherent in the proposals.

Unitarians have always been sceptical of the argument that “those who don’t break the law have nothing to fear” when used to justify legislation that interferes with the lives of individuals. This has been a charter for increasing Government interference and endangers the traditional relationship between the citizen and the state.

Religious bodies should think carefully about the implications of such legislation. For Unitarians religious and civil liberty have always gone hand in hand. The rights of the individual need to be respected in both spheres and we support personal freedom drawing upon longstanding views of the right of individuals to live their lives without disproportionate Government interference. These proposals go too far

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

VAT on alterations to listed buildings


The extension of standard rate of VAT on alterations to listed buildings was included in the recent Budget and will adversely effect many historic churches and chapels of all denominations. I have made the following submission to HMRC expressing my concerns:

" I am writing on behalf of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches regarding the above consultation paper and would make the following submission.

We would wish to draw to your attention our concerns about one particular element, the withdrawal of the current rate VAT of zero on alterations to listed buildings. Although we are a small denomination probably at least half of our congregations possess church and chapel buildings that are listed. These are maintained almost entirely by volunteers and voluntary giving.

It is ironic that at a time when we have been working more closely than ever with English Heritage (for our English congregations) as part of their “Caring for Places of Worship” initiative that we find this undermined by these changes.

The consultation paper states that “the majority of the work covered by the relief consists of extension work which is not necessary for heritage purposes. The current rules therefore give a perverse incentive for change as opposed to repair… Removing the zero rate removes the perverse incentive to change listed buildings rather than repair them and ensures that all alteration work receives the same tax treatment”. There are major efforts to encourage the use of current and former church buildings for community use often and this often require alteration if that community use is to be widened – or even maintained. The consultation seems to assume that “repair” and “alteration” are mutually-exclusive alternatives: that is simply not always the case.

I note that it has been decided to extend the Listed Places of Worship Grants Scheme to cover alterations and the budget of the Scheme has been increased by £5 million for the current financial year. However, the LPWG Scheme is already under severe pressure and an extra £5 million will not meet the likely needs. There is no guarantee that funding for the Scheme will be maintained at that level in future years.

It is clear that the extension of the 20% VAT will place burdens on already stretched churches and chapels who have responsibilities to care for the nation’s heritage; in our case of the dissenting and nonconformist tradition of which we are marking the 350th anniversary of this year and which has made such a contribution to the development of British society.

I would urge that you reconsider and that places of worship be excluded from this change."

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Paul Parker's 8 Challenges for Religious Liberals


Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain. was asked to speak to the Unitarian General Assembly last week in Keele about the challenges for religious liberals in the 21st century. The full text of his address is available, however, these are the 8 challenges he identified:

1. Understanding what's going on with our membership

2. Being confident about who we are, and what we have to offer

3. Speaking a language people can relate to

4. Actually living up to what it is we say we believe

5. Making sure people know we exist

6. Making sure people can find us and feel welcome

7. Being effective, vibrant communities

8. Recognising the variety of ministries

Nothing here should surprise or shock Unitarians; the challenge for us is to respond to them in our own context, nationally and locally. These 8 challenges should shake us to the core. They go to the depths in how we see ourselves. They provide the questions for us to envision and then chart a future. 

Friday, 23 March 2012

Church Schools - a view on the Church of England Report


The Church of England published a significant report today on its role as a provider of education. Indeed the Church is responsible for more than 4800 schools and educates more than a million pupils.

The report asserts that Church schools stand at the centre of its mission.
  • wants to strengthen its role as a major provider of provider of schools at a time of educational change.
  • highlights that the Church has created a strong and distinctive “brand” and proved it can manage schools successfully.
  • wants a wholehearted commitment to putting faith and spiritual development at the heart of the curriculum and ensuring that a Christian ethos permeates the whole educational experience, particularly high quality religious education and collective worship.

 In the accompanying news release the Bishop of Oxford, who is the national lead on education, indicates that he would not be surprised to see at least 200 more Church schools developed in the next five years.

Unitarians have always had major concerns about single faith schools funded by the taxpayer. In the early days of the General Assembly in 1929 the Assembly affirmed its support for a National System of Education, Free, Unsectarian and under Public Control. They opposed new facilities for sectarian teaching or ecclesiastical privilege and the imposition of any religious tests upon teachers in the employment of public bodies. In 1942 they welcomed better and more efficient teaching of religious knowledge by the use of agreed syllabuses and trained teachers provided. We should not forget that Church schools have special rights to discriminate in admissions and in the employment of staff.

More recently in 2001 the Assembly affirmed the value of education taking place in a multi-faith and non-sectarian environment and opposed any moves to support an increase in the number of schools with a religious foundation. Such moves were seen as socially divisive and impeded the growth of genuinely pluralist communities. It did not mean no faith in schools but a respect for all faiths and where pupils could be encouraged to explore issues of ethics and religious belief in an open and unbiased way. I would be concerned that the Church of England has a goal of expanding the number of schools when all the evidence points to a rapidly declining number of those claiming to be members of or associated with the Church of England.

The fact that Church schools, and a very small number of those of other faiths, exist and won’t be disappearing has encouraged Unitarians to support the AccordCoalition; a campaign group for inclusive education in faith and non-faith schools. Rabbi Jonathan Romain, their chair, has described this report as a missed opportunity. I would concur.

The report in particular wishes RE and collective worship to allow pupils to engage seriously with an develop an understanding of the person and teachings of Jesus Christ. This is a much too narrow view of religious education. It should be education about religion not about one religion. I would see a contradiction between "collective" and "worship" when a degree of compulsion is involved.

If you wish to explore one Unitarian view on school education there is a chapter by Dr Melanie Prideaux in “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Social Issues” available free from Unitarian Headquarters

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Asylum Campaign Meets Oldham MPs at Westminster

I was very pleased yesterday to give my support to the asylum campaign for Abdoulaye Diabete and Taha Ghasemi yesterday when they met Oldham MPs, Debbie Abrahams and Michael Meacher at Westminster. Their campaign has been supported by members of Oldham Unitarian Chapel led by their minister, Rev Bob Pounder.

The two MPs received petitions containing 2000 signatures to be presented to the Home Office. Both men are seeking leave to remain in the United Kingdom on compassionate grounds.

Abdoulaye Diabete also took the opportunity to present Debbie Abrahams MP with a copy of his fresh appeal prepared by the Manchester immigration solicitors, Latitude Law. The new legal appeal was completed on 16 March 2012 and contains expert witness evidence.

The campaign has received great support from the MPs, from supporters and members of Unitarian churches throughout the country. The legal work can only be funded by generous donations from individuals, churches and through fund-raising.

Meeting these two individuals puts real faces to the Resolution on destitute asylum seekers approved by the General Assembly last April.

The campaign visit to Westminster has been covered in the Oldham Advertiser

Photo above (from left); Jim Corrigall, Rev Bob Pounder, Abdoulaye Diabete, Debbie Abrahams MP, Michael Meacher MP, Taha Ghasemi and myself pictured on Parliament Green

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Quakers "Pushing at the Frontiers of Change"

Personal stories are often most influential inpushing forward social change. In this new book, “Pushing at the Frontiers ofChange: a memoir of Quaker Involvement with Homosexuality” David Blamirescharts that history. It starts with the publication of “Towards a Quaker Viewof Sex” in 1963 and the response it provoked, to the challenges in the lead-upto 2009 when Quakers in Britaindecided to seek a change in the law to see same-sex marriage as equal to opposite-sexmarriage. It was a joyful and profound moment in Quakers’ history, but one thattook decades to reach.



Throughout, legal issues and attitudes in society are describedalongside personal accounts and an exploration of Quakers’ wider input into theconversation about homosexuality. What emerges is a frank perspective on howsmall but committed groups of Quakers – their actions, meetings, publicationsand belief in equality – have contributed towards vast social change for gayrights in the UK.



On Tuesday 20th March 2012 at5.30pm at the Quaker Meeting House in Mount Street in Manchester David will bereading from his book, talking about his personal journey and how the book hascome about. Ben Pink Dandelion, Professor of Quaker Studies, will also becontributing.



David has been a close friend of my partner’s parents since they met inthe Young Friends at university and it is a joy to see the publication of thisbook.



Unitarians responded promptly to the publication of “Towards a QuakerView of Sex” with the General Assembly in April 1963 approving the followingresolution, proposed by Martin West of the Unitarian Young people’s League,unanimously:



“That this Annual Meeting ofthe Ministers and Delegates of the General Assembly of Unitarian and FreeChristian Churches considering it essential for religious liberals to givetheir continuous attention to changing moral standards, commends to its membergroups and churches, for their sympathetic consideration, the recent Towards aQuaker View of Sex, published by the Home Service Committee of the Society ofFriends”.



The debate, as reported in “The Inquirer” (4 May 1963) “called forth an impressive volume of vocalsupport from all generations represented at the meeting" and saw a call forpressure on the Home Office to implement the Wolfenden proposals on reform ofthe law on homosexuality (which was not to be until 1967).



More generally, however, as reported by Rev Dr Ann Peart “Unitariansfollowed in a rather lukewarm fashion. Several resolutions to the annualmeetings concerning homosexuality and the age of consent failed to winapproval.” It was not until 1973 that more substantial work was initiated witha report produced for the 1974 annual meetings. This quoted and recommended thepamphlet “Homosexuality from the Inside”, edited by David Blamires. TheUnitarian report was, according to Rev Dr Peart, for its time “a brave attemptto advocate more just attitude to homosexuality.” It paved the way for theground-breaking 1977 resolutions that Unitarian ministry was open to all and expressingan abhorrence of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It was in2008 that the annual meeting, with little public attention, approved theresolution seeking the right to perform civil partnerships in religiouspremises; infact one year before the Quaker decision on equal marriage.



David’s book is available from the Quaker Bookshop, or on Kindle.






Thursday, 8 March 2012

Accord Coalition Inclusivity Award 2012


Unitarians have a strong concern for inclusive schooling and have been working  with like-minded partners in the Accord Coalition. Accord today named Lammas School and Sports College in Leyton, East London as the winner of this year’s Inclusivity Award.

The Inclusivity Award, open to all schools in England and Wales, recognises and celebrates those schools that do most within the legal framework and community that they find themselves in to promote inclusiveness, the growth of mutual understanding and forge links within and between different communities.

Lammas School won strong praise from the expert panel of judges for its use of inclusive assemblies to forge shared values, the importance assigned to community cohesion, the popularity of its Religious Education, which was the school’s strongest subject at GCSE in 2011, its sensitivity towards the diverse backgrounds of it pupils, who speak over fifty languages and its ability to adapt to the changing cultural and religious profile of its student body

In second place is St George’s Voluntary Aided School, a Christian faith school in Harpenden, Hertfordshire which earned high praise from the judges for its outstanding work in tackling homophobic bullying. The Independent had an article today which focused on the exceptional anti-homophobic bullying work of the second placed St George’s School.

In third place is Crown Hills Community College in Leicester. The College, which is in the top 4% of schools for Oftsed’s Value Added Score, was praised by the judges for its effort to challenge prejudice and the dangers of stereotypes, such as through focusing on conflict in Israeli and Palatine, and for its attempts to broad the horizons of its pupils through a range of external and extra curricula activities.

I was pleased to be invited to be one of the judges for the 2012 Award earlier this year. The others on the panel of judges were:

• Baroness Kishwer Falkner (Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice in the House of Lords)
• Lisa Nandy MP (Labour MP for Wigan and member on the House of Commons Education Select Committee)
• Manzoor Moghal (Founder and Chair of the Muslim Forum)
• Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE (former Chairman of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Minister of the Maidenhead Synagogue)

For more information on the Award and the Accord Coalition




Thursday, 23 February 2012

LGBT History Month: A Unitarian Hero - Dudley Cave


I occasionally come across references in the media to people whom I know were Unitarians. This month it was in BBC History magazine 9, Vol 13, no 2 February 2012) in an article by Stephen Bourne on how, during a rare period of tolerance, homosexuals served with distinction during World War Two. One of those quoted was Dudley Cave, a well known Unitarian who died in 1999.

Dudley Cave was a pioneer for gay rights within the British Unitarian movement and much more widely as well as being an advocate for peace and reconciliation. I recall seeing him on television on one of the early “gay” programmes in the 1990’s. We should remember him in Gay History month.

In the article it explains he was conscripted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, in 1941, aged 20. “He later recalled a conversation he overhead between two of his comrades. One referred to him as a “nancy boy” while the other protested that Dudley couldn’t be because he was “terribly brave in action”. Dudley understood that in their minds he could not be brave and homosexual, that the two were incompatible”.

It seems that homosexuality was unofficially tolerated in the armed forces for the duration of the war. Dudley reflected “They used us when it suited them, and them victimised us when the country was no longer in danger. I am glad I served but I am angry that military homophobia was allowed to wreck so many lives for over 50 years after we gave our all for a freedom that gay people were denied”.

Cave was posted to the Far East. During the fall of Singapore in 1942, he was captured by the Japanese. Marched north in a prisoner-of-war labour detachment, his unit was put to work on the Thai-Burma railway, 10 miles beyond the bridge on the River Kwai. He ended up in Changi Prison, Singapore where be began to accept his homosexuality. A British army medical officer gave him a copy of Havelock Ellis's "enlightened, eye-opening" 1920 book Sexual Inversion. It made him feel "much better about being gay".

In an article in The Inquirer (19 March 1994) entitled “A Gay Man in a Liberal Congregations”, based on an address to Golders Green Unitarians, he describes the reality of being gay in the 1950s; “Being gay, having a love that dare not speak its name, was disabling. I knew that I was a second-class citizen, perhaps even sub-human; my self-image was very low. I had to conceal my real feelings with every action, every word”. In 1954, Cave was dismissed as manager of the Majestic Cinema in Wembley after it was discovered he was gay. In the same year, Cave met the man who became his life partner, Bernard Williams, an RAF veteran and schoolteacher. They lived and campaigned together for 40 years.

In 1971 he decided to “have another look at the Unitarians” having been previously disappointed with their traditional worship. Things had changed and an “Integroup” was being launched as a “straight-gay integration” society at Golders Green Unitarians with Rev Keith Gilley. Within the denomination he has been described by Rev Dr Ann Peart (1.) as one of the “comparatively few people” active in promoting lesbian and gay rights and of openness and toleration in acceptance of LGBT people for ministerial training and ministry, recognition of same sex blessings in churches and support for homosexual human rights.

As secretary of Golders Green Integroup he was invited on to the launch committee of “London Gay Switchboard”. A gay bereavement support group at the church developed into the Lesbian and Gay Bereavement Project in 1980. This was the first organisation with the word “gay” in its title to win charity status, and not without a struggle. Drawing upon his bereavement skills, he was a consultant to the National Funerals College, which was important as the tide of deaths from AIDS grew. Although shy his ability as a speaker blossomed and he appeared increasingly on the media. He was also prominent as a Unitarian lay preacher and contributed to “Daring to Speak Love’s Name: a gay and lesbian prayer book”.

For 20 years, he battled against the Royal British Legion's refusal to acknowledge that lesbian and gay people served and died in wars defending Britain. He also challenged the Legion over its opposition to the participation of gay organisations in Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Dudley was a leading figure in the promotion of peace and reconciliation with Japan. "I will never forget what the Japanese did to us, but the time has come for forgiveness," he wrote to a friend. He was involved with the Buddhist Peace Temple near the River Kwai, and lectured extensively on the need for rapprochement between former adversaries.

Rev Keith Gilley summed up his life: “He embodied the Unitarian principles of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance, not only with these two issues with which he will always be associated but with so many others – equality in terms of colour, race, sex and in relation to disabled people signified almost as much with him as gay rights and peace issues” (Obituary, The Inquirer, 19 June 1999).

Peter Tatchell wrote of him as “Anti-Fascist, soldier, prisoner of war, advocate of peace and reconciliation, gay rights pioneer, Dudley Cave was above all a Humanitarian” (Obituary, The Independent, 31 May 1999).

A true Unitarian Hero in LGBT History Month

(1.) “Peart, Ann (2003) “Of warmth and love and passion: Unitarians and (homo)sexuality” in “Unitarian Perspectives on Contemporary Social Issues” (Chryssides, George D. (ed)) . Lindsey Press. Available from Unitarian Headquarters. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Struggle for Religious Freedom 3. – 350th Anniversary of the Death of John Biddle in Prison 1662


This year also marks that 350th anniversary of the death in prison of John Biddle on 22 September 1662. Biddle is described as the “Father of English Unitarianism”. He was imprisoned six times for his faith being caught up in the religious turmoil of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. The Commonwealth period brought greater freedom despite formal legal restriction.

Born at Wooton-under-Edge, Gloucester, in 1615 he graduated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1638 and took up a position as master of St Mary de Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester. Through personal study of the bible he reached the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity had no basis and composed a short theological statement in which he attempted to establish the unity of God by showing from Scripture that the Holy Spirit was not God but only a manifestation of God (1.)

He spoke freely and openly of the truth as he found it. In December 1645 he was committed to gaol to allow Parliament to be informed of his heresy  - the crime of denying the Trinity. In September 1647 it was ordered that his books be burnt by the common hangman.

He suffered intermittent imprisonment although with the Act of Oblivion of 1652 he had his freedom restored. He gathered a small religious society that met every Sunday for worship, which is regarded as the first avowedly anti-Trinitarian church in Britain. He published his “Twofold Catechism” which Smith describes as “the most radical attack on orthodox Christianity ever to have appeared in Great Britain”. He also published several articles from Polish Unitarians on the use of reason in religion.

He was imprisoned on two more occasions but escaped the death penalty when Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, stopped the legal proceedings and exiled him to the Isles of Scilly in October 1655. He was a State Prisoner until 1658 and then returned to London and resumed his ministry. The restoration of the Monarchy and reinstatement of the Church of England posed a threat and in June 1662 he and followers were arrested and imprisoned. His friends were fined £20 each and released. He was fined £100 and ordered to be kept in prison until the money was paid. He died within five weeks as a result of disease contracted in gaol. His congregation did not long survive him with his successor, John Knowles being imprisoned.

John Farrington wrote in a memoir “that the aim of this reformer of religion in all his efforts was to promote holiness of life and manners. He valued not his doctrines for speculation but practice….he called upon his hearers to practise the truth as well as to study to find it out.”

(1. Smith, Leonard (2006), “The Unitarians: a short history”, Lensden Pubishing, Arnside p55-56).

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

How many Unitarians and Unitarian-Universalists are there in the world?


Good question! And now we kind of know an answer. The reports of member groups to the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) Council meeting in The Philippines last week reveal some interesting statistics. We are truly minnows in the international faith arena.

Overall the member groups report a total Unitarian and Unitarian-Universalist community of 343,473, comprising 261,621 adults and 82,852 children. There are 1603 congregations and 2279 religious leaders.

62% of adult members are from the United States; another 26.7% are from the Translyvania in Romania and Hungary (soon to re-unite after many decades of separation as the Hungarian Unitarian Church). The remainder include long-standing and new communities of varying sizes.

The meeting was pleased to welcome into full membership from The Netherlands Vrijzinnige Geloofsgemeenschap NPB (Liberal Faith Community) with 4381 adult members. In contrast they also welcomed “Assemble des Chretiens Unitariens du Burundi (ACUB) with 80 adults and 98 children. Groups in Kenya (already 12 congregations) and Hong Kong were accepted as emerging groups. 

Professor Paul Rasor told the conference that UUs were present in 50 of the 200 countries of the world and in all continents. “The liberal way of being religious is reaching more and more people…we are already becoming the global religious community we envision”. He emphasised that “we are a multi-cultural religious community” as well as embracing theological diversity. 

This data is of course incomplete and is not gathered on a common basis. It simply gives an indication of the size of the Unitarian and Universalist community associated with the ICUU. Some groups are not included, such as Uganda and there are also Unitarians in other religious bodies eg within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland there are many Unitarians, with Dublin Unitarian Church being one of the largest churches in the British Isles. Other groups are presently emerging in French speaking Africa in DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville and Kigali-Rwanda.

Photo - thanks to UUA

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Struggle for Religious Freedom 2. – the Unitarian Martyrs of 1612


In 1912 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association published a four page pamphlet entitled “Tercentenary of the Unitarian Martyrs” which I recently found stuck in another book from around the same period. Who where these Unitarian martyrs? Where people really burned at the stake for Unitarian views? Surely we should mark there 400th anniversary of these deaths.

Last year we celebrated the birth of Servetus, the Unitarian thinker tried and burned in Calvinist Geneva. Servetus is an important figure as the reaction to his death led to the first serious challenge to the belief that the State should combat religious “heresy” by judicial murder.

Sadly, this ideal took some time to spread. In 1612 we find the last burnings for heresy in England, of Bartholomew Legate at Smithfield, London on 18 March and Edward Wightman at Lichfield on 11 April. Both suffered for denying the Trinitarian doctrine in an appalling repetition of the days of religious conflict in the previous century with the Protestant-Roman Catholic wars.

Bartholomew Legate, according to Fuller’s Church History of Britain, appears to have been a man of fine personal appearance, of high character, scholarly attainments and a very conversant with the Bible. He was a native of Essex, aged about forty. Fuller states in a vile phrase:

“His conversation, for aught I can learn to the contrary, very unblameable; and the poison of heretical doctrine is never more dangerous than when served up in clean cups and washed dishes”

Legate openly expressed his Unitarian views opposing the Athanasian and Nicene creeds. He was cast into Newgate Prison but later released. He resumed preaching and was summoned to appear before the Ecclesiastical Court presided over by the Bishop of London. Convicted of heresy he was handed over to the secular judges.

King James (I of England and VI of Scotland) apparently had many interviews with him to persuade him to recant but failed. On one occasion he ended up kicking Legate when he learned that he did not pray to Jesus Christ. On 18 March 1612 he was fastened to the stake at Smithfield and burned to death surrounded by a huge number of spectators. He was the last that died at Smithfield for religious truth. These events are described in a fictional account of Legate’s life by the author Florence Cregg in 1886 which is in the General Assembly’s online document library.
       
Edward Wightman died less than a month later in Lichfield in the Midlands. He appears to have been “a visionary person whose eccentric opinions would be best met by patience and friendly counsel”. He unfortunately petitioned King James who remitted his case to Bishop Neile of Lichfield. He was tried and condemned and taken to the stake twice; he recanted on the first occasion, then refused to do so in Court and was burned on 11 April 1612. on Easter Saturday.

Fuller interestingly concludes that public execution had the effect of increasing public sympathy for those burned amongst the common people and that King James decided that “heretics thereafter, though condemned, should silently and privately waste away in the prison”. Many years later in September 1662 we find John Biddle, the founder of Unitarian worship in London, dying in prison after suffering six terms of imprisonment. (see the forthcoming “The Struggle For Religious Freedom 3. blog entry)

Ironically then, these deaths had the effect of rendering public execution for religious belief unpalatable in England. The were the last burnings for heresy in England.

This article is based on “Tercentenary of the Unitarian Martyrs” (B&FUA 1912) and  Robert Spears (ed) “Record of Unitarian Worthies” (1870)


     


  




    

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The 3rd National Conference LGBT LIVES: achieving our equality, challenging faith-based homophobia & transphobia


Faith-based Homophobia and Transphobia unfortunately remains a problem and needs to be challenged.

I am therefore pleased to give my support to the 3rd National Conference organised by The Cutting Edge Consortium which will take place on Saturday 21 April 2012 10am-5pm Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL

Speakers will include:

. Andrew Copson, British Humanist Association
. Angela Eagle MP
. Nicholas Holtam Bishop of Salisbury
. Aidan O’Neill QC
. Sarah Veale Trades Union Congress

Workshops include:

• ensuring equal access to health & public services
• ending religious exemptions in employment relating to sexual orientation
• promoting inclusive education
• making schools safe for LGBT young people
• celebrating our relationships
• accepting the right to found a family

Individuals: £10/15 Delegates: £25/50 Corporate: £100

For more details and Conference Registration contact: CEC, PO Box 24632 London E9 6XF.
cuttingedgeconsortium1@googlemail.com

www.cuttingedgeconsortium.co.uk

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches has given its support to The Cutting Edge Consortium,

The boundary of people of faith and LGBT people is truly at the "cutting edge" and explodes the myth of faith versus LGBT rights. I is therefore important to work with a range of faith and non-faith organisations to achieve equality.

.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Struggle for Religious Freedom 1. – The Great Ejection


This is the first of three blogs about significant events in the struggle for religious freedom in the history of British Unitarianism which are marked in 2012.

2012 is the 350th anniversary of what became known as “The Great Ejection” when nearly 2000 clergyman were ejected from the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity which became law on 19 May 1662 laid down that all clergymen that had not complied with its requirements by the following 24 August would automatically forfeit their livings or positions. The Act made compulsory the use of the new Book of Common Prayer, much of which was not acceptable to many puritans in the national Church. It required immediate re-ordination of all clergymen who had not been ordained by a bishop; this cast doubt on the validity of the ordination of many who had been ordained by their fellow ministers following the abolition of the episcopacy in 1647. It rendered the Solemn League and Covenant to maintain the Reformed Religion, imposed on all adult Englishmen in 1644, as not binding nor indeed lawful.

The ejected could not remain within the national church in true conscience. They went out into the wilderness with, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Reformation”, the hard-line stance of the re-established Church of England creating “Dissent” out of those who had been part-and-parcel of the pre-war united church. From these events was formed “nonconformity” as a permanent feature of English religious life, ironically laying the basis for the religious freedom and diversity we know today.

We should not forget the courage of these men in giving up so much – including financial security, social status, and freedom to pursue their calling. Their integrity speaks out loud and clear. Many refused to keep quiet and suffered persecution in the years ahead with more punitive legislation being enacted.

About of half of current Unitarian congregations in England and Wales owe their origins to this period of religious ferment, being founded before or as a result of the Toleration Act of 1688, when the dissenters’ right to freedom of worship was finally recognised. Many lay people followed their ministers out into the wilderness and stood by them for many years until congregations were established.

It is a mistake to believe that any of the 2000 were followers of unitarian thinking and ejected for denying the doctrine of the Trinity. This is unlikely; indeed some of them had previously criticised Oliver Cromwell for his leniency towards the Unitarian John Biddle (see “The Struggle for Religious Freedom 3.” forthcoming). In the main they were “Presbyterians”, with a desire to maintain the catholicity of the Church of England.

Just down Fleet Street, a few hundred yards from Unitarian Headquarters (Essex Hall) is the church of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West. Its clergyman from 1656 to 1162 was Dr William Bates. On 17 August 1662 Dr Bates spoke for the last time to his congregation, with the diarist Samuel Pepys standing in the gallery. He chose as his text Hebrews XIII. 20,21 on “the Everlasting Covenant” between God and Man. Bates refused to accept the Act of Uniformity. “It is neither fancy, faction, nor humour that makes me not comply but merely fear of offending God”.

Let the words of John James Tayler (the distinguished son of James Tayler, the first minister at High Pavement Chapel in Nottingham openly to declare his Unitarianism) define the situation (quoted by C G Bolam in “The Inquirer”, 14 April 1962):

“We became non-conformists not from choice, but from necessity; not because we wished to restrict other men’s liberty, but because we could not forego our own; not because we desired to impose our dogma on the Church, but because the Church would force hers on us; because we saw before us the possibilities of a future when the Spirit of God might demand a freer utterance and a wider agency, and when, if we still maintained communion with a system so tightly fenced in with creeds and articles, we must either remain ignominiously dumb when the Spirit bade us speak in accordance with our convictions, must belie the professions that we had solemnly taken on ourselves, and blight all our efforts for truth and liberty with the withering taint of inconsistency.”