1981 Sermon of 100 Years since
the first Park Street Unitarian Church, Hull

One hundred years is still considerably more than the average life span of we human beings, but there are, perhaps, about a dozen people in this country alone who will have some actual memory of 1881. It is perhaps difficult to comprehend the changes they will have seen, since that year.
Imagine it: towns bustling with horse-drawn carriages, the streets often deep in what we now have to search for to feed our roses. Skyscrapers did not exist even in America, which was mostly untamed, and in great part unexplored. Here in England, Victoria had been on the throne for 44 years, and might have spent a part of November 29th 1881 - a Sunday like today - going to church, then reading from her favourite poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, then at the height of popularity, though not yet a Lord. It is unlikely that Victoria would have agreed to see her Prime Minister that day - after all, it was that man William Gladstone, in for his second term, and far from her favourite. She may have been worrying a little about the Empire. There was trouble still, in India, but she had just sent Lord Roberts there as Commander-in-Chief, so there may be hope, she probably thought. Cecil Rhodes had just returned to South Africa, another potential trouble spot. He would sort them out. Back at home virtually unknown figures wanted their turn for fame. George Bernard Shaw had moved to England, and was writing political tracts for the Fabian Society - yet to become a really strong voice in social reform. His great rival of later years, Oscar Wilde, was just as obscure in 1881. Still, he was young, and his first book of poems, published that year, promised well, some thought. Among the popular, older generation of poets, Robert Browning was still something, although some considered him past his best. In the other arts, the so-called Pre-Raphaelites had taken printing and to a lesser extent sculpture by storm. Certainly, in the 1870s and 1880s many, many churches commissioned Burne-Jones, William Morris and the others, to decorate their new buildings, especially to design windows of stained glass. Many of our Unitarian churches from that time still possess lovely examples of Pre-Raphaelite art. In music, Victoriana was taking over from good taste, but not without, some might consider, a stand-up fight. After all, in Germany, Wagner had just finished [the] composition of his last great opera, Parsifal; in Russia, Tchaikovsky his first symphony, thought by some one of the great symphonies of that age; whilst here in England we had - well, Gilbert and Sullivan. Patience was first performed 100 years ago, and Iolanthe was well on its way.
In the world of science Thomas Edison had just become famous for his Wireless Telegraph, but the king of the sciences in this country in the 1870s and 1880s was -as it is becoming again - Biology. Darwin's Origin of Species was in its sixth printing, and was still the subject of bitter controversy, as it still is in the southern United States. Some things will never change, as long as people fear for the pride of their humanness.
Certainly, 100 years ago there were not the first hints of most of the things that give our present age its character. No internal combustion engines. No radio, and certainly no television. Not even cinema. Photography was still a relatively young science - more an art in all ways. The streets were more often cobble stones than smooth, whereas now it is a quaint novelty to feel the jar of cobbles beneath foot or wheel.
Country borders were different; country names also. The great powers were fewer, and indeed most countries were still enclosed in the mysterious walls of their own cultural traditions. Britain, of course, was at the height of its power in the world, and in some sections of the populous were riches and influence as never before. For most people, of course, a pound a week was a fortune, and fed a large family. Most families were large - they had to be, to account for the loss of children through disease or simple malnutrition. Few people lived over fifty years of age. In the streets pickpockets were as common and expected as vandals are today - just a change of emphasis, in some ways.
Anyway, one could go on and indeed you may feel I am going on and on, setting the scene in 1881. It is the changes in everyday experience over the 100 years I wish to point out. I often look at a tree, say, and wonder what extraordinary changes could be recorded by one large oak, should it speak to us. It doesn't, of course; trees are wiser than us. They know that things do change, yet somehow remain the same, so who needs to worry overmuch about the details?
In one sense, nowhere is this theme of change yet no change seen better than in our own Unitarian history in this last 100 years.
In 1881, James Martineau was at the apex of his influence. He was at that time Principal of Manchester New College, as it was known. At that time it was settled in London, in what is now Dr. William's Library, in Gordon Square. From that respected seat of learning. Martineau led many in a campaign to get rid of the name Unitarian. He favoured Free Christian. In recent years, another Norwich-born minister started a debate about our name that caused a stir, which the latter regretted. I should know - it was me! oh, well, there must be something in the East Anglian air that breeds nonconformity, even among nonconformists.
But back 100 years, the debate was that 'Free Christian' was a more apposite name for our ragbag of rationalists than Unitarian. Today we hear from the Fellowship of Liberal Christians arguments of which Martineau might have been proud - if he hadn't better ones! Certainly, back 100 years very few Unitarians, or whatever they chose to call themselves, would have denied being Christians, in an albeit rather loose sense compared with the other denominations, most of whom were very antagonistic toward us - especially when we claimed to be Christians. Many still are, of course. Everything changes, yet nothing changes.
In my forages down in the Black Hole of Essex Street - our Headquarters storeroom, I found several books from that period which caused me to raise an eyebrow or three. One, published only 80 years ago, was called Denials and Beliefs of Unitarians by John Wright, written, in fact, in the 1880s.
Doctrines denied by Unitarians, according to Mr. Wright - and who would deny someone with that name - included, of course, The Trinity, Original Sin, The Atonement, and the Deity of Christ - but also the Word-Inspiration of the Bible, the existence of the Devil, and Eternal Torment. More to the point, doctrines believed by Unitarians - note, not some Unitarians, or even most Unitarians - included, beside The Right and Duty of Individual Judgment, and the Responsibility of Man - The Existence of God, The Love and Providence of God, The Immortality of Man, the Final Salvation of the Human Race, and - wait for it - Retribution for Human Conduct. Retribution! Perhaps we had best not wait for it!
Now I think there are few in the denomination today who would be so sure of what doctrines Unitarians believe or deny - indeed, our uncertainty about these limitations of thought is increasingly characteristic. Yet the arguments persist, that most Unitarians are Christians, that most believe in a loving God, that most believe in the use of reason and personal judgment.
Yet it seems to me that we are no more agreed on these factors than we were 100 years ago, for there can be no doubt that what we see today is a realisation of arguments very much alive in 1881. True, our world has changed - our society has changed - in particular our knowledge, in widening, has made us aware of how little we do know. Doubt has become not only more acceptable but almost intrinsic within our understanding of ourselves and the Universe. One hundred years ago the seeds had been sown. Darwin had shattered human pride with evolutionary theory, yet soon such ideas were to be applied to the very way our societies develop, our knowledge develops, and it became more and more obvious that ideas evolve, also - that we feed off the sowings of the past, but in the process of our own living make something new from the elements of the old.
It is, I think, not only a mistake to hark back, to call for retrenchment, to reverse trends, to seek old ways and old language because the new is unfamiliar, and in its strangeness, feared. It is more than a mistake, it is contrary to the very nature of our changing selves. Traditions will maintain an influence, but when they become sacred and unchangeable, they stifle new growth, new life. The past is the rich soil, but the plants change, flower differently according to the conditions, according to the race to survive, to be part of today.
Nor, I think, would our Unitarian forbears want us to stagnate, to deny the evolution of our faith. As it is unquestionable that our uncertainties are less, so it could be seen that the possibilities of a changing, growing faith are more than a set, doctrinal system with a fixed religious language, with unalterable ideas. In the huge changes of the last century we see the unexpected flowering of many new branches of thought, whilst the roots remain, offering sustenance, but not limiting the reach of new growth. That is the meaning of change which contains, yet, stability. That is what we, in 1981, offer to the world 100 [years] hence - a sense that we have a life and understanding worthy of respect, but which it offered to the future not as a strait-jacket, but as, shall we say, old cloth, fine in embroidered detail, but ready to be refashioned, used to beautify in the way the future seems fit, times we, today, cannot really dream of, or comprehend.


The late Revd. Ernest Penn

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful