Follow by Email

Friday, 1 December 2017

British Unitarianism and the Lutheran Reformation

On 31 October 2017 I was honoured to be invited to attend a Service at Westminster Abbey to mark the 500th Anniversary of the 95 Theses and the Start of the Reformation. To experience Anglican and elements of Lutheran worship in the Abbey brought both joy and surprise and will live long in my memory. 
It is not usual that Unitarians and Free Christians get invited to such ‘grand’ public events as ecumenical partners are drawn from Churches Together in Britain and Ireland from which the General Assembly has been excluded. I have however over recent years met regularly with the General Secretary of the Lutheran Council of Great Britain and other paid leaders of smaller faith groups and was pleased to be invited by him to attend. 

I did have an allocated seat in the front row of the North Choir so had an excellent view of those leading the Service and sat immediately beside the truly excellent choir. Archbishop Welby preached. I was seated next to my good friend Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of British Quakers who wondered what George Fox would have thought of it all! He also caught me checking in on Facebook although I was not so crass as to actually use twitter during the Service. It was fun to join the tail end of the procession as we left. 

The focus was on what increasingly unites the Churches. Part of the Service involved the Anglican Communion affirming its support for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which was signed by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1997. In 2006 the World Methodist Council adopted the Declaration and the World Communion of Reformed Churches signed a statement of association in 2017. The significance is that there is a common understanding of justification by faith which was, of course, one of the dividing issues underpinning Luther and the Reformation. 

Unitarians can rightly claim to have their roots in the Radical Reformation with a desire, as for example, the Hibbert Trust later stated, for ‘Christianity in its most simple and intelligible form’. Joseph Priestley saw the Church as being corrupted and for Reformation to continue. Lutheranism has had a minor influence of the development of Unitarianism. Rev Andrew Hill has written that the Transylvanian Unitarian leader David Francis had been a Lutheran Bishop and that Lutheran pietism influenced George de Benneville and early Universalism. German Unitarianism has its roots in break-away German free -thought congregations; however, the only seceding Lutheran congregations have been the Icelandic and Norwegian Unitarian churches of the North American prairies. 

One effect of the Lutheran Reformation that remains a powerful influence is our focus on every individual as well as recognition of gifted leaders. H. John McLachlan wrote ‘For it [Unitarian tradition] has taken over from Protestantism Luther’s concept of the “priesthood of every believer” and it has sanctified the right of individual conscience and promoted a sense of moral obligation amongst its members which makes them, or should do so at least, good citizens of the community’ (TUHS, vol XV1 No 3 sept 1977, p128). This lies at the centre of Unitarian life today and is a legacy of the Reformation which merits recognition.

(Published with the permission of “Waymark” the newsletter of St Mark’s Unitarian Church, Edinburgh)

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Open letter in support on UN Nuclear Ban Treaty

I was pleased to give support to the following peace initiative reflecting the General Assembly's longstanding condemnation of nuclear weapons and support for disarmament:

As the United Nations open the historic Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty for signatures, church leaders in the UK have signed an open-letter, coordinated by Christian CND, calling for the government to sign up.

The text of the letter is:

At the United Nations today a ground-breaking Treaty banning nuclear weapons opens for signature. The Treaty is the result of multilateral negotiation and is supported by more than 120 states. Unfortunately the United Kingdom is not among those set to sign the Treaty.

We believe that nuclear weapons pose a threat to the survival of humanity. History has shown us the complete devastation these weapons deliver and the human suffering they cause. The Bible teaches us that we are stewards of the earth, with a duty to protect all life. Nuclear weapons are the antithesis of this teaching.

Jesus describe peacemakers as blessed and the prophet Isaiah wrote of “beating swords into ploughshares”. The world stands closer to nuclear war now than it has done for a generation. At this time, while the world debates use of sanctions, diplomacy or military force, the Treaty represents a unique opportunity for the nuclear weapon states to walk together towards a total ban.

Successive UK governments have pledged their support for a world free of nuclear weapons. We believe that this Treaty offers a significant step towards that aim. By signing the Treaty the UK can show moral leadership. We urge the government to reconsider its position on the Treaty and join the international consensus in signing it.

Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning – Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
Bishop Stephen Cottrell – Bishop of Chelmsford
Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning
Derek McAuley – Chief Officer, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches
Revd Loraine N. Mellor – President of the Conference of the Methodist Church
Alan Yates – Moderator of General Assembly, United Reformed Church

Monday, 7 August 2017

Religious Freedom and Blasphemy Laws

The following article in Faith Initiatives  (no29 October 2013) is based on a talk I gave to a joint International Association for Religious Freedom/World Congress of Faiths conference in Horsham, Kent in August 2013. I am circulating it now four years on to make it more widely available.

Religious freedom is one of the challenges of the age as we seek to appropriately balance rights and responsibilities.  British Unitarianism is currently commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the achievement of its legal religious freedom with the passage of the Unitarian Relief Act. This highlights the concept of Blasphemy and the challenges it presents to religions and law-makers.  In seeking to explore the issue of blasphemy I have found the definition used by the Pew Research Centre is of value, namely “remarks or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine”.

Unitarians in Great Britain in July 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the passing of what is known as the Unitarian Relief or Toleration Act. It was only in preparing a worship pack (1.) on these events for the General Assembly that the significance of the long-standing Unitarian opposition to laws on blasphemy became clear to me. The legal penalties against those holding Unitarian views were grounded in the Blasphemy laws. The Blasphemy Act of 1698 explicitly held the denial of the Holy Trinity by someone who had made profession of the Christian religion as a crime. This was repealed by the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act.

Unitarianism had emerged as an intellectual movement within both the established Church of England and Dissent (Presbyterian, Baptist and Independents). The legal penalties were rarely pursued although Dissenters still faced limitations upon their liberties; two of the most important, the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act, which places restrictions on religious activities, were abolished in 1812. The Unitarian toleration Act built upon these moves and was spear-headed by Williams Smith MP, the leading Dissenter in the House of Commons. Indeed, the legislation was popularly known as “Mr William Smith’s bill” (2). William Smith was chairman of the Dissenting Deputies from 1805 to 1832 and a leading opponent of slavery. (As an aside he is perhaps now best known as the grandfather of Florence Nightingale).

Smith has been accused of accepting an Act which would protect “respectable Unitarians” leaving the “wilder Deists outside” (3.). This is a challenge for all liberals; are you prepared to give others the rights you desire? At the time Smith was challenged that he had not gone far enough. He justified his position by claiming that he had set himself a limited objective which if he had not restricted himself to it would not have been achieved. As he said the Act enabled every denomination of Christian to preach their respective tenets without let or hindrance, “none, legally daring to make them afraid” (4). He publicly acknowledged that his religion did not need the protection of Blasphemy legislation; “let Truth stand or fall as she is able to support herself”.

Laura Tomes has argued that the “criminalisation of blasphemy is, historically, the attempt to secure doctrinal conformity in speech. Laws against blasphemy maintain fixed parameters by which to locate the religious “other” and serve to demarcate the speech and practices of the other from that of “true” believers.” (5.). She argues that blasphemy is not an inviolate standard but a boundary that has shifted according to the various meanings invested in it by religious communities. As theological constructions, laws against blasphemy have therefore been adapted and re-interpreted to fit changing social and cultural contexts. She highlights that English canon law criminalizing blasphemy was seen as an extension of seditious libel – an act of violence against the King and government. With the Reformation, the 1697 Blasphemy Act “judged the refusal to adhere to the doctrines of the Church of England as an offence against the statutory law of the realm”. By 1813 it seemed that the Church of England was more relaxed about implications of accepting the existence of “Unitarian” thinking.  

In England and Wales prosecutions for blasphemy declined during the nineteenth century. It was re-defined from an act of sedition to one of incivility. In 1967 in a purge of obsolete offences it was further re-defined as purely a common law offence; indeed there had not been a prosecution since 1922. The remaining common law offence of Blasphemous libel, having been subject to debate from the 1970’s and some controversy (the private prosecution of Denis Lemon, Editor of “Gay News” over the publication of a poem), was abolished in 2008 as part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. Significantly this followed the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which legislated against hatred of persons on religious grounds.

Laws penalising Blasphemy, as well as Apostasy and Defamation of Religion, are widespread and are regularly in the news. Pakistan, India and Greece have in the past year pursued prosecutions. The Pew Research Centre’s Forum for Religion and Public Life has found that in 2011) 32 (16%) of the countries and territories of world have anti-blasphemy laws (6.). They found that such laws were particularly common in the Middle East and North Africa (13 of the 20 countries in that region). In Asia-Pacific (9 of 50 countries) and in Europe (8 of 45 countries) the percentage was less and in Sub-Saharan Africa it was only 2 of 48. It is surprising that in Europe these included what we would regard as “liberal” states (Denmark, Netherlands, Germany) as well as more “traditional” (Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta and Poland).

Blasphemy legislation is used to violate religious freedom; which is, of course, guaranteed under article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A recently published report by the British All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom  entitled “Article 18 : an orphaned right”, whose launch event I attended on 26 June 2013, states that “While the UN has declared that everyone has a right to freedom of religion or belief, it has done relatively little to make this a reality”(7.).

It is used to harass political as well as religious dissent and also abused to settle personal disputes. Whilst there has been a lot of media attention of cases where those of other faiths are accused of blasphemy it is also used as a tool to suppress alternative, and also sometimes ironically, the majority traditions within a religion in a particular country. An accusation of blasphemy is particularly pernicious and dangerous. It is hard to refute and the legal system finds it difficult to address. The public can easily be inflamed by emotive rhetoric. Justice is rarely done even if the accused is cleared.

Unitarians are in many ways inheritors of the English Enlightenment tradition. It is therefore important to read defences of religious freedom from other perspectives. James Clark Kelly has gathered the views of Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers in his valuable book “Abraham’s Children” (8.).Those of each tradition were asked to write persuasively to those of their own tradition but also to those outside. I was particularly struck by the words of Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia’s first democratically elected President and who served as chairman of the world’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama for fifteen years, with the title “God Needs No Defence”:

“Those who claim to defend God, Islam, or the Prophet are thus either deluding themselves or manipulating religion for their own mundane and political purposes, as we witnessed in the carefully manufactured outrage that swept the Muslim world several years ago, claiming hundreds of lives, in response to cartoons published in Denmark. Those who presume to fully grasp God’s will and dare to impose their own limited understanding of this upon others are essentially equating themselves with God and are unwittingly engaged in blasphemy”. (9.).

He argued that religious understanding is a process and that “anyone who is sincere in understanding his or her faith necessarily undergoes a process of constant evolution in that understanding, as experience and insights give rise to new perceptions of the truth”. Severe blasphemy and also apostasy laws has the effect of narrowing the bounds of acceptable discourse within the Islamic world. This was of course what took place within the Christian world.

I would argue that it is only from within a tradition that real change can take place and that religious liberals must work with and think critically about the religious tradition to which we belong. We must be careful and respectful when we address issues of deep theological sensitivity. This does not mean acquiescing whilst the human rights of individuals and collectively of peoples are trampled upon. It means engaging with the others in ways that reject stereotyping. This will not be without controversy as early Unitarian thinkers found when they critiqued the Christian tradition from which they emerged and found they could be accused of Blasphemy. Those of other faiths find a similar challenge. The position of atheists or those with no religious belief is equally to be acknowledged.  

Derek McAuley is Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches and a Committee member of the British Chapter of the International Association of Religious Freedom. He has recently been elected as a trustee of the Inter Faith Network of the UK. It is based on a talk to the IARF/World Congress of Faiths conference in Horsham in August 2013.


1. (2013) McAuley, Derek, “200th Anniversary of the Unitarian Toleration Act 1813”, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, London
2. (1971) Davis, Richard W. “Dissent in Politics 1780 – 1830”, Epworth Press, London, p. 190
3. Henriques, quoted in Davis (1971), p. 193
4. Norfolk Chronicle, 24 July 1813 quoted in Davis (1971), p.194
5. (2010) Tomes, Laura, “Blasphemy and the Negotiation of Religious Pluralism in Britain”, Contemporary British Religion and Politics, pp. 237-255
6. (2102) Pew Forum “Laws Penalizing Blasphemy, Apostasy and defamation of Religion are Widespread”, 21 November
7. (2013) All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom, “Article 18: an orphaned right”
8. (2012) Clark, Kelly James “Abraham’s Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict”, Yale University Press, New Haven and London
9. Abdurrahman Wahid in Clark, Kelly James (2012) p. 212.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Celebrating the Declaration of Religious Freedom and Tolerance

Unitarians and Free Christians in Great Britain and Ireland join our Hungarian co-religionists in celebrating the Declaration of Religious Freedom.

On January 13, 2017 the Hungarian Unitarian Church honours the 449th anniversary of the Declaration of Religious Freedom and Tolerance, an edict which might be considered as the first legal guarantee of religious freedom in the Christian Europe.

449 years ago, in 1568, on January the 13th, the Diet of Torda (Transylvania) proclaimed:
„His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that 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 for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.”

The Hungarian Unitarians are celebrating this special day with events in Torda and Kolozsvár. The celebrations start in the morning in the Unitarian church of Torda with a worship service led by rev. Márton Csécs, minister of the Torockó Unitarian congregation and an address delivered by Zoltán Balog, the Minister of Human Resources of the Hungarian Government. The service will be followed by a visit to the Museum in Torda, which hosts the famous painting by Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch, commemorating the event.

The celebrations will continue with an evening worship service in the 1st Unitarian church of Kolozsvár, with rev. Csaba Mezei, Unitarian minister of 2nd Congregation of Kolozsvár as preacher, followed by an address by Lajos Mile, the Consul General of Hungary. A concert featuring the Flauto Dolce quartet and the Choir of the János Zsigmond Unitarian College will enhance the festivities.

The day will be closed with a reception at the Unitarian headquarters.

In 2015, the General Assembly of the Hungarian Unitarian Church voted in unanimity to recommend to Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists around the world to join in the proclamation and celebration of January the 13th as Day of Religious Freedom.