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Monday, 10 October 2011

New Book - An introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist traditions

As a minority faith with a small number of members finding material about Unitarianism can be difficult and I would therefore recommend a new book from the prestigious Cambridge University Press. By Andrea Greenwood and Mark W. Harris, “An introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist traditions” does what it says on the tin!

The book is an introduction over 250 pages to the Unitarian and Universalist movement. These traditions came together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in the United States. But this is not a book about the origins of the Association. It describes the historical and global context for a worldwide liberal free faith.

The first half of the book is an historical journey from the beginnings of Unitarianism in the Reformation with a focus on Poland and Transylvania. Unitarianism was snuffed out on the former but still survives in the latter region of modern Romania.

British and Irish Unitarians will be interested in the short chapter on Great Britain. This is quick canter through key events in our history; all the key figures are there. The paragraph on Ireland is scant and inadequate not just in understanding of historical events (speaking as someone with an Ulster Presbyterian background) but also in describing the relationship between the British General Assembly and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The stream of Unitarian thinking which influenced America and then India is enlightening. A niggling error is to describe William Gaskell as ministering in Birmingham for over fifty years; particularly as five lines later Gaskell is described as remaining in Manchester.

The conclusion that institutionalized Unitarianism in Britain walked a precarious line of claiming legitimacy, yet fearing the constraints of any affiliation seems a fair assessment. The “dramatic” membership loss is starkly set out; 80% in 65 years yet it is wrong to say that buildings lost or damaged in World war Two were not replaced; the 1950s saw a stream of rebuilding that many hoped would auger well for the future. It was not to be and at least one of these multi-purpose buildings, Cross Street Chapel in Manchester, has since been replaced by a stunning worship space.

There follows a description of development in America and then of the global reach; India, Japan, Jamaica, Korea, Czechoslovakia and Canada. It ends with the efforts to establish the International Council of Unitarian and Universalists (ICUU).

What is most shocking is how liberal religion was harnessed to US colonial interests in the Philippines through the founding of the Philippines Independent Church led by Gregorio Aglipay. The group splintered after World War Two and independence. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, a current member of the ICUU, owes its origins to Universalism not these developments. Surely an ironic lesson on how a religious institution, even a liberal one, can be manipulated by state authorities.

The second half of the book is topic based with chapters on congregational polity, worship, sources of faith, science and ecology and education and social justice. British Unitarians feature by name and the diversity of the movement is reflected.

It is fascinating to realise how developments in one country can, and don't, influence others. This is a theme of the concluding chapter. Technology will foster bonds by making outreach, support and connection easier. The need to keep people who are currently attending as well as attracting new ones is raised as a question. The conclusion is that Unitarian Universalism is a this-worldly faith which surely unites churches in all parts of the world.

Available from all online book stores and to order from your local bookshop at around £16. Prices will vary.

1 comment:

  1. "80% loss in 65 years" Counting from 1945 ,I presume ; coincidentally the date of "A Free Religious Faith" - the last GA sponsored attempt to define what Unitarianism is. The difficulty that Unitarians have in presenting their faith and the amount of time that they spend agonising about what they believe may well account for its numerical decline.