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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.

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.”

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Proclamation of the Act on Religious Freedom Celebrated by Transylvanian Unitarians

Religious freedom is not to be taken lightly and there are still examples in many countries of people of faith and those of none, being denied their freedom. This can be through force of law or informally through violence or political and social pressure. A key event in the struggle for religious freedom in Europe was the Patent of Torda issued in 1568 which is being commemorated tomorrow, 12 January 2012. Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial "Reformation" (page 262) describes this as "extraordinary by the standards of the time" and "the first time that radical Christian communities had been officially recognized in sixteenth-century Europe" (with one brief and ill-fated experiment in 1526 in a town in  Moravia).

This statement has been issued by Transylvanian Unitarians on the events to celebrate the 444th Anniversary and the re-opening of the National Museum of Torda with the display of the famous painting of the events. 

"On January 13, 2012 the Consistory of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church honors the 444th anniversary of the proclamation of the first law on freedom of belief and conscience, and religious tolerance. In January 1568, King Janos Zsigmond and his court preacher, David Ferenc had the Diet of Transylvania pass, at its session held in Torda, the Patent of Toleration, which stated:In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well; if not, no one shall compel them but they shall keep the preachers whose doctrine they approve. Therefore none of the Superintendents or others shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion, according to the previous constitutions, or allow any to be imprisoned or be punished by removal from his post on account of his teaching, for faith is the gift of God, this comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

celebrations start in the morning in the Unitarian church of Torda with a worship service that includes a history lecture on the importance of the Act on Religious Freedom. Then, the congregation will walk over to the National Museum of Torda which was reopened in fall 2011 after many long years of restoration. The purpose of visit is to salute the new exhibition of the famous painting on the 1568 event, which was also restored over the past decade. The painting entitled The Proclamation of the Act on Religious Freedom at the 1568 Session of the Transylvanian Diet was painted by Aladár Körösfői Kriesch in 1896.

The celebrations will continue with an evening worship service in the Unitarian church of Kolozsvár, and a concert featuring the children’s choir of the Unitarian High School. The day will be closed with a reception at the residence of the Unitarian bishops, built in the 15th century, currently expecting the launching of a major restoration work.

The Consistory of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church thankfully acknowledges the contribution of the Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist international community to urging the completion of the restoration works at the museum in Torda. Among other things, it was due to the international campaign lead in 2009 and 2010 by the International Council of the Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC) and the International Relations Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) that the renovation works were speed up, and eventually finished. This way, the painting, a symbol of the struggle of our liberal faith for the recognition of the religious freedom, became accessible again for the public."

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Quakers challenged to embrace outreach; what should Unitarians do?

I was intrigued by the opening quote in a recent article in “Quaker News (Winter 2011, No 81):

“As Quakers, we don’t do outreach … when people need us, they will find us”.

I have heard similar remarks amongst Unitarians. We say that as a free and open faith we do not proselytise and never have done! (Well actually we have done but that is history).

The article, by Alistair Fuller, recognises an ambivalence amongst Quakers to outreach and also that to be truly effective, outreach needed to be an integral part of how Quakers live, both as individuals and in community.

“Effective, enthusiastic outreach flows from a meeting that is vibrant, rich, warm and welcoming, involving Friends who are deeply rooted and nourished in their own faith”.

So it is more about how one lives as much as what one says. Quaker meetings are more successful in attracting, and holding, attenders and enquirers when they have paid proper attention to the quality of their life together and have similarly together thought about and planned their outreach.

Quaker Week is a national initiative with a focus on local activities which has now been running for five years. The impact appears to have been in two ways; meetings have been bolder and more imaginative in findings ways to be more visible and accessible and they have been more effective in outreach when Friends are excited by their own Quakerism and more confident to share it. “This relationship between inreach and outreach has been the most significant piece of learning as a result of Quaker Week”. Nationally the Quakers plan an outreach conference in January 2013 to explore and develop this thinking.

This rightly confirms my own thinking that the quality of experience offered by Unitarian communities is in the end the vital factor of whether people who find us will actually stay. Raising our visibility nationally, and as importantly, locally is crucial but what the Quakers call inreach is so important. What would it be like to enable us to truly say that our congregation is vibrant, rich, warm and welcoming?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Dickens 2012 and Unitarianism

2012 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens with a host of celebration events and coverage across a range of media. “Dickens2012” and “Dickens at 200” are just two of the popular slogans.

When I was in Boston recently I participated in a walking tour of significant Unitarian-Universalist locations. In Downtown we heard how Charles Dickens had been treated as a celebrity and been mobbed by huge crowds on a visit. When he first visited the US, in 1842, at age 30, Dickens met and interacted with a number of Unitarians who impressed him deeply. He met Dr William Ellery Channing, the foremost Unitarian leader of his day and ardent opponent of slavery, whose statute we also saw opposite Arlington Street Church.

Charles Dickens is sometimes referred to a Unitarian but this needs explanation. He was born and raised as an Anglican. Soon after his return to England he heard news of the death of Dr Channing and Dickens attended a Unitarian service in his honour at Little Portland Street Chapel and met the Minister Rev Edward Tagart.  Subsequently he "subscribed" and took a pew there. According to an inscription composed by Dickens on a silver salver presented to Tagart for his labours, his minister, had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none."

Dickens wrote to Unitarian Harvard professor Cornelius Felton, "I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration."

During this period, he wrote the “A Christmas Carol” and most of his other Christmas work. According to Rev Cliff Reed the values expressed “are broadly and liberally Christian, the sort of values that Dickens had come to associate with his adopted Unitarianism”.

He also wrote “The Life of Our Lord” that was intended only for his children and not published until 1934. The book begins:

“My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”

In many respects this represents much of the thinking of Unitarianism of his day. His social and political concerns echo those of contemporary Unitarians. In later life Dickens as he moved out of London returned to the Anglican Church, but remained friends with many Unitarians including his ex-minister.

Dickens is important as an Editorial in "The Guardian" on 23 December 2011 put it because "More than anything, though, Dickens's writings engage our sympathies because we identify with the rights and wrongs of what is happening.". Similarly modern day Unitarianism needs to engender the broad sympathies of right-minded people. It won't be in the same way as in the 19th Century but needs to connect in ways that are meaningful and true for today.

For further information see the entry on Dickens in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

The Hibbert Trust have also produced material for school assemblies on Dickens.