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Thursday, 13 October 2016

The International Vision of British Unitarians - 2016 Channing Lecture

This blogpost is based on the William Ellery Channing Lecture which I delivered at Golders Green Unitarians on 23 April. 2016.
Channing Statute in Boston
Channing was the foremost American Unitarian of the 19th Century and when I was recently in Boston I was pictured alongside his portrait which is one of only two that have been displayed in the new headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

My lecture had the title “The International Vision of British Unitarians”. The UUA has a project “Heritage and Vision at 24” using new technologies to tell their story. The intention is “to expand on our storied past, and connect it in a living stream to our dynamic present and our exciting future”. This inspired me to look for some stories of our international engagement that would do the same.

I would suggest that in taking forward this international vision that the work of British Unitarians can be characterised in four ways; Mission,  Solidarity, Generosity and Inclusion. I have drawn from a period of our history; 1890s to the 1920s when we were strong yet it was a time of great change.


India remains a key part of our international story right from the foundation of the Madras Church by the former slave, William Roberts to Rev Margaret Barr working in the Khasi Hills from 1933 until her death in 1973. I told the story of the first visit by a representative of the BFUA to India in the 1890s. Rev Dr Jabez T. Sunderland had only intended spending a quiet summer and autumn in England in1895 before travelling to Egypt. He was prevailed upon by the “men from the B&FUA” to go as their representative on a four month trip to India reporting to the Annual Meetings in May 1896.

We remember today that Hajom Kissor Singh as the founder of the Khasi Unitarians in 1887 when he rejected the Calvinistic Methodism brought to his homeland in North East India by Welsh missionaries. He was given a volume of the works of William Ellery Channing and found he was a Unitarian. He began to hold services in his home and slowly gathered a small group. Sunderland visited and ordained a former Methodist evangelist as their first minister.

Yet at the time the more significant work he undertook was to develop closer relationships with the Brahmo Samaj, the liberal theistic Hindu group established by Raja Rammohan Roy, with whom English Unitarians had had a long association. Sunderland also spoke to huge audiences including on education to 6000 people at the National Congress of India; the forerunner of today’s Congress Party of India.

As a result of Sunderland’s visit the B&FUA appointed a missionary; initially only a visit by Rev James Harwood and then a three year appointment of Rev S Fletcher Williams. The latter believed that the best way to spread liberal religion in India was to support the Brahmo Samaj and his most enlightening experience was to join the Brahmos in conducting a religious service at the Albert Hall in Calcutta for several months each Sunday which drew Brahmos, Christians and Muslims in a united congregation.

Today our work with India continues especially in the Khasi Hills and Unitarian talent and money has gone to support the causes close to the heart of Rev Margaret Barr, however, our links with the Brahmos are weak.


My second theme is solidarity, meaning support and assistance to existing Unitarian groups. The links with the Transylvanian Unitarians go back to earliest day of the B&FUA. This story was the support and advocacy given the Transylvania in the post-World War One era and is I believe the most important contribution of British Unitarians to public affairs certainly in the last century. It shows a high degree of political mobilisation and sophistication due to the leadership of B&FUA Secretary, Rev W. Copeland Bowie. The campaign was widely covered in “The Inquirer” of the day whose role as a campaigning tool at the time has not again been recognised.

The end of World War one say the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the harsh military occupation of Transylvania by Romania. Reports were received that the Unitarian Bishop Joseph Ferencz had been imprisoned – it seems held hostage for the good behaviour of his community - and British Unitarians began to use all their political muscle to raise their concerns. By the end of 1919 “The Inquirer” was reporting on expulsions from Kolozsvar, “pillaging and executions” and of historic significance to Unitarians, the destruction of the memorial stone in Deva to the memory of Francis David – what we would call cultural genocide today.

In November the Rev W H Drummond was sent by the B&FUA to Transylvania and was the first Englishman to visit after the end of the War. He returned via Paris where he reported to the British and American delegations to the Peace Conference. His three page report was published in full in “The Inquirer” and reproduced as a supplement. Such was the Unitarian influence that on 30 January 1920, Rev Copeland Bowie was invited with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Rev F B Meyer to meet the Romanian Prime Minister of Romania at the Carlton Hotel. When Transylvania was transferred to Romania under the Treaty of Trianon safeguards were given on minority rights and violations remained a concern to Unitarians.

Today we recently joined ICUU in supporting the Unitarian Church in Burundi when its leader and members suffered as a result of political unrest. Rev Fulgence Ndagijimana has fled to Canada seeking refuge and his family are in the US British Unitarians raised funds for the Church and I used political contacts to raise his persecution and imprisonment directly with the Foreign Office. Others in Canada and the US did the same.


The third feature of British Unitarian international engagement is that of generosity. In five years the Special India Fund raised the equivalent of over £530,000 at todays value. An appeal for the “Starving Children in Europe” was launched by the B&FUA for a collection at the services on Sunday 28 December 1919 and raised £2,569 which is about £131,000 at 2016 prices. This was at a time of “home” demands, including an appeal for £20,000 (£1million) to support the “Stipends of Ministers and the Education of their Children” and £10,00 for the National Unitarian War Memorial – “The Florence Nightingale Convalescent Home” in Great Hucklow..

Today the Unitarian Clara Barton Red Cross Fund has raised what must be fast-approaching £100,000 for emergency and crisis relief and locally Unitarians are active fundraisers for many causes.


The story here is a desire to bring together religious liberals in an inclusive way and led in 1900 to the establishment of an International Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers (Now IARF).. Great international congresses took place before the advent of World War One. It had been intended in October 1914, had war not intervened, to have a World Pilgrimage of Religious Liberals funded in part by the B&FUA, which entailed a group of diverse western theists journeying round the world but especially to encounter the East.

Today we continue to participate and lead in IARF both globally, regionally within the Europe and Middle East region and nationally in co-operation with others such as the World Congress of Faith, Religions for Peace and the Interfaith Network. Having led the way the interfaith scene is now much fuller and rich.

In conclusion I feel that the tension – I hope creative tension – between the various themes still raise issues for us. The International vision of British Unitarians was not about expanding Unitarianism across the globe but more a commitment to promoting liberal religion. This is a staggeringly open and inclusive perspective for the time and indeed for today.

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