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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