Edited extracts: my emails on defining Unitarianism
(UK Unitarian and UK Unitarian academic and history lists)


Barth and Bultmann were in some disagreement, Bultmann thought the individual could make an effort to meet/ find God, though God still had to reveal himself, whereas Barth thought this was irrelevant to the sovereignty of God. And Barth does not allow one to rely upon experience. Experience, after all, may be false. In revelation, you are just chosen.

But I have to say I find all this argument incredible. Just as it is getting very difficult in these modern and postmodern times to justify the continued separation of certain main denominations, because we can no longer justify the differences as significant, so these theological differences really do seem to be arguments about - well what? They are exercises in internal logic, but they seem to relate to nothing of contemporary importance. They are highly sectarian. And Unitarianism has always struggled (and may not be successful any more) in trying to avoid being sectarian. It took the creedlessness it inherited to mean that it would evolve and change to find the essence of truth beyond all clutter. Now I think it cannot find the objective "truth" (at least any more), because it is not available (the illusion is over), but it still must attempt to relate to the way people think and have their being.

It seems to me that Kings Chapel is an esoteric sect. It is way out of even British Unitarianism. It seems to me further that British Unitarianism has lost that edge of change too - but this seems to be about loss of nerve, British religious culture, unbalanced generations, female traditional gender roles in congegations - and not in the end the deliberate intention of British churches. It seems to me that with an Anglican background Kings Chapel is as conservative as Transylvanian Unitarianism with its history of treading carefully and maintaining a catechism.

Kings Chapel is an oddity, and surely more conservative than much of the Episcopal Church too (as indeed British Unitarianism is more conservative than much of the contemporary mainstream, but again with less deliberate intent). Being unitarian or trinitarian today seems to me to be exactly that loss of argument about positions that dissolve. The trinity now means of so much variety that to be unitarian or trinitarian loses any anchor in contemporary times. But Barth, who hung on to the past by making God absolutely remote from culture, was trinitarian, because the biblical narrative was, in the end, interpreted! The criticism of Barth was how was it he was privileged to know (exactly the same criticism made of Marx about false consciousness!!)?

Marxism too has been through that dissolving process, in that it also cannot maintain objective truth, in its transference of Kingdom theology into a secular form of hope through struggle. But it still retains a function of criticism, which of course should also be a function of religion, especially Unitarianism, which I see as a form of critical religion rather than something that should be frozen as at Kings Chapel.


We would try to advertise Unitarianism on the basis of roughly four belief types and that the function of the church is to hold difference together, like we should in civic terms society as a whole, against trends like Kosovo or even English nationalism for that matter. So Unitarianism is a collection and a dialogue between liberal Christians, religious humanists, eastern believers and pagans who believe that they wish to mix with others rather than simply their own kind. They believe and practice amongst themselves inter-faith dialogue. They have a variety of religious practices consistent with their beliefs but come together at least once a week (if a local community church) to share their differences and worship together. It believes in attracting people of other faiths and none who are postive about the role and practice of religion in the future for building communities and keeping everyone in contact with everyone else as a means of overcoming fear and division at large.

I think this is consistent with Unitarian tradition, and is also consistent with plural times and postmodernism. Notice that there is no claim to find or get the truth, not claim of oneupmanship, simply a statement of the constituency at present and the purpose as it goes into the future. It gets us away from this long Puritan shadow because we also share different practices. It also aims to get over the inevitable tendency (say in the USA) towards separation of the parts; the idea must always be to bring people together, otherwise Unitarianism has no gospel.

Beyond this, then, there is no Unitarian gospel, we may as well then just have the Anglican church (etc) which has light-touch creeds (in places). The Unitarian position must always go that bit further, and this I believe today is embracing pluralism and different groups, recognising difference, because the world in its parts needs to live together. This should be its gospel.


There is little that unites Unitarians in that they come in from different directions (and the small family inheritance element is another way in). As for catching falling Christians it does not then follow that they are looking for marginal arguments about the trinity - they should have long demythologised the trinity, and then in a Unitarian context will find that the very basis of their Christianity is under challenge and requires some thought to maintain it or they will go on to embrace other kinds of faith expression.

Creedless congregations have a tendency to maintain themselves and their outlooks, and they do this through what might be called backdoor creeds - by hiring certain ministers and preachers and not others, or making clear what is acceptable and what is not. There is a regionalism present. For example, Lancashire in the UK is traditional, by and large, with room for notable exceptions, and so has been Yorkshire if a less less so, with Hull near here being an exception for all sorts of accidental reasons, until relatively recently.

But the question is whether indeed these churches are little individual concerns doing their own thing or whether they are members of a wider movement with wider obligations. This is why I do argue for pluralism as what makes Unitarianism distinctive, and I also argue that for a marketplace of ideas and forms to function this is must be through communication. A theology of communication is not unique to Unitarianism. One of its best proponents in one form is the Roman Catholic David Tracy. Of course it is postmodernist (though he has a modernist sting in his tail). Communication also has secular approaches, both objective (Habermas) and liberal-postmodern (Richard Rorty - very influential in Sea of Faith). However, I think plural communication is particularly useful for Unitarianism, and it is against coming to a consensus or agreement that excludes minorities. Of course it does have implications for truth, and perhaps best proponent of religious "truth", Karl Barth, saw it become invisible and out of touch with the world with some later followers becoming postliberals.


A great number of British churches function with far fewer activists than American churches where the internal sub-culture can more easily maintain itself, and therefore regionalism does, but it is curiously decline that can be the engine of change if the personnel become available to activate the change. And it is my view that churches of all denominations in this country, on any sort of traditional presentation, are in deep deep trouble - you either have to have some sort of charismatic revival or a change to something far more circular, in the round, thoughtful, meditative, postmodern and fluid.

Is Unitarianism a theology or is Unitarianism principally a decision to be creedless. My view is that creedlessness was a principle decided in pre-Unitarian days in mainly Presbyterian (UK) and mainly Congregational (US) churches and passed through several forms of theological unitarianism to something far more plural now. Many have said that the name Unitarian is an anachronism, but it does lead to the question of what is the main principle, theological or constitutional. If it is theological, then the theology needs protecting in these culturally plural times (unlike before); if it is constitutional then any theology is likely which agrees with the basic constitutional principle.


I have no problem with Christians in Unitarianism, though inevitably they will and others will have to share in unsatisfactory compromises with the ongoing expressions from a church, unless several people make several contributions. For example, should the Lord's Prayer or bible reading be in every service, and how often excluded?

The problem with any theological definition is when it becomes a demand and a description. Again, no problem with something that says "At the time of writing this range of expression charecterises the theological spread of Unitarianism... But a theological definition of Unitarianism usually suggests something fixed, and yet the theologies of Unitarianism were never fixed, even within the clearer Christian period.


The mainstream churches use the ancient trinitarian terms, and a great number believe this, but a growing number do not and see the terms as tradition-defining and museum like (like saying Mary was born of a virgin). The relativity goes right through to the trinity itself. Whilst there are many unitarians, it is still quite difficult being a "nonitarian" in the mainstream, as some of my Sea of Faith pals have discovered, but that is not impossible either. So the constitutional principle seems to be the main difference regarding the institutions.


The core of Unitarian belief certainly was not fixed between these nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. It might seem that way to us, but certainly not to them. For one thing it was divided, between those who developed a Presbyterian mythos about their past which had dreams of the national Church but not its militancy, and those who developed a biblical mythos almost as certain as the first trinitarian non-subscribers in their attachment to the bible (this time Unitarian) but without the breadth of ecclesiology. For Martineau, the biblical drama was a cultural detail for what was really important about the mystery of God, whereas the biblical Unitarians saw that detail as vital revelation.

And one thing I noticed looking at the theology expressed in just one church, Hull, down the ages to the nineteenth century, was just how much it changed, not just in its swings of allegiance between the broad types and denominationalists, but how what was once a biblical faith became much less based on miracles and the resurrection, and how the broad Christians with clearly Unitarian Christian liturgies had mythologised these towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The broad faith evolved in itself to a more Christian evacuated and multifaith position, and it can be argued that the rationality of a once biblical faith (and at one time that meant miracles and resurrection) is seen later in the clarity of humanism. The Christian wings in effect merged, having more in common with each other than against one another, but this is a comparatively recently development, one that maintains the bipolar nature of Unitarianism.

The engine of change was creedlessness through and then out of a clearly defined surrounding Christian culture when churches were seen as relatively important in society. Unitarian theology was never one thing and then suddenly became another, it has slowly evolved according to its inheritance and still does.


I think there is general agreement that the term Unitarian is problematic. Unitarianism as a theology was heavily influenced by the winds of Islam, both in the Turkish influence and into Spain. The Anglo-American Unitarianism is a quite different movement of Presbyterians and Congregationalists who adopted a no-creeds stance. This had a bipolar nature with Unitarianism as such. As for whether this creedlessness is a religion or not, well this reminds me of the argument whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy that one often hears. Ritual activity and worship of some kind (including meditation) is symbolic religious activity and this makes it religious. Religion and faith and spirituality are not defined either by having a defendable belief, creed or God, but by the activity of individuals and groups.


Unitarianism, before we get to the postmodern thing, is individualist. So the Unitarian church of itself does and claims nothing; it is the individual who builds a faith that does the saving, as the individual sees it. The church simply allows the benefit of gathering together, and the ideal is that it allows people to so gather, to communicate with one another in their diversity, with the least claim made upon them possible as an organisation can do. And this is what makes it unique, if it so behaves. In industrial organisation the equivalent is "human relations authority" and is the very opposite of traditionalism or hierarchical modernist bureaucracy, in Weberian terms. In other words, it is the people, as individuals, who do the building of theology, not the church: definitely not the church.

And yet... and yet there are patterns of evolution and change by which, from the bottom-up process, we see something that might be called traditions, which in the Unitarian case have tended to be bipolar and slowly changing through the decades.

I don't call Unitarianism a religion but appoaches to religion. Funny how I find myself defending the Unitarian Church, or its potential. It is more than a "coffee house" promoting diversity (when it does) because people choose to conduct worship which is its primary core purpose; this is why it is different, say, from meetings of Sea of Faith, which is also creedless, and diverse, if with a one-liner about "religious faith as a human creation", because its worship activity is a sideline only from time to time. In this sense the Unitarian Church produces churches, meeting houses (Quaker term, that's secular!), because of what its function is, but it is up to its individuals to do the hard work faith-wise.


Some of us in the UK quite like how Unitarian Universalism, by two labels being joined together, has given changed meaning to both Unitarian and Universalist, both of which were transitional theologies given to each Church, and where the Universalists were full of unitarians (small u) and Unitarians were full of universalists (small u too).

If Unitarianism was restricted to liberal Christianity or any other single faith expression then there would be no point in it existing, because these are better catered for elsewhere. So I'd invent a body that brings people of different faiths together. The Bahais did this until Shoghi Effendi took over, until when a member of any religion could also be a Bahai. But people might prefer to be Unitarians because they believed in others' and their own evolving faith.


Uniqueness is not of itself the only valid reason to exist. However, it has been said that there is "no need for Unitarianism" when liberal Christianity is catered for elsewhere.

The point is that so called mainstream churches have the full inheritance of the Christian tradition at hand, and a great many of its adherents, lay and ministerial, are liberals within that tradition. They, but a very few, would never think it worth the upheaval to move to a Unitarian church where, of course, there are other traditions also being heard.

And we are talking about a denomination struggling for identity and survival, and what is the best strategy for a future.

I am certainly interested in a more regionally based, come-together, Unitarianism of interested people who have an ethos of discussion and debate. It is very different from the chapel subculture, but still interested in spiritual expression or what we can call worship.


The reason Wiccans are in the Unitarians, or Buddhists, or Christians or Humanists is because they are "liberal about" these faith types, and wish to mix with those who have other faith types. So they may well also mix with their own faith types in their communities, but they come to the Unitarians too or alone. This is NOT postmodernist, this is simply modernist. It becomes postmodernist only when one goes further regarding the concept of truth. This liberalism is often still objective, still seeking the truth, and creedless, still theistic. It is linked to the culture and surrounding institutions, once almost wholly other churches and a general Christianity, but the change institutionally proceeded with Martineau himself (he was reluctant about interfaith, but others saw the logic of his position), and now the surrounding culture is multifaith and (as others have said) increasingly an abandonment of organised religious practice and identity in the UK.

But what I say is that creedlessness, as an organisation (each individual has their creed), which de facto is Unitarianism as a body, is particularly suited to the postmodern condition, to conversation, to relativity, to a non-objective view of religion as a form of art and self-reference.


The decline in religion is largely a class thing. The working class were never involved in organised religion in any large numbers, and when they were gone in more recent times the middle class lost interest too. The Church of England was part of the state and class system, the denominations were middle class or aspiring, and although once important educationally, socially and politically, all the social connections have gone. They are now purely voluntary, and no social or poiltical point or purpose, and so they are for enthusiasts only.


The evolutionary view (Darwin?) of religion and humankind practised by Unitarian ideology was also linked to imperialism via a sense of hierarchy. The most superior religion was liberal protestant, then other protestant, then Catholic, then other near eastern religions, then easterns except Hinduism which was at the bottom of the pile above folk religions - by order of familiarity and rationality. Unitarian was top of the tree, of course, rational and enlightened.


Religion that is non-objective is not a delusion if sources of art and literature still assist in the orientation of an individual or group, who can meditate to clear the mind or put words to this reflective act of reconsideration, who can light a candle and let it mean what it comes to mean to them. The delusion is where one is forced to believe in a theistic condition in order for the psychology of religion to work. You don't need objective references to be inspired in an art gallery or museum and so why should you through symbolic worshipful activity?

The consequence of a Barthian view is no relationship to culture, no relationship to ordinary life, the intellectual argument for God is gone except in its own distant circularity. The criticisms have long been made, and why Barth had his day but lost it, except, surprisingly enough, in the take up by Hans Frei in biblical method and Lindbeck in doctrinal method for which, of course, there is no objective reference at all. In other words, Barth's God is so distant, so unconnected, so dependent on revelation that it becomes as unobjective as any postmodernism. The circle meets up at both ends, except the Barthian end is dogmatic and prison like in its illusions about what is permissable and what is not.


It is intolerant to demand inclusion into Christianity and to pray for those who reject this, and indeed this is a theme of many theologians who actually pursue inclusiveness and have developed theologies to be fully inclusive - for example, John Hick's theology of pluralism, whose Christianity is indeed tolerant. I do not happen to agree with him, but that it is tolerant is clear. We are all inclusive when it is done on our own terms: the difficult task is always to include the other whilst they stay on their terms. That is why I like the theologies of conversation.

There are many Christians who value the fellowship and association of those who are quite different from themselves.


One justification of the Unitarian label is that lack of credal support and the need to build and support and justify the faith one holds, and clearly permits the likelihood of personal change. This is not to say that people who follow or aspire to creeds lack integrity, but that without creeds there is no defence, no show, nothing other than personal resources to make and defend one's beliefs.

The reason why, after everything, I still associate with the Unitarian name, is precisely because I wish to associate with the ideal and people who indeed do take tolerance further. Now of course this has much to do with my view of truth, in its ultimate unknowability and practical relativity, and I certainly do not believe in revelation or that we know of it, either through the words of the Koran or the teaching of the Church about its claimed saviour. But this does not make me indifferent about taking a critical view of all the working out that went on in these texts, and a great many more, and seeing what people have aspired to and whether I measure. The reason why I value conversation with people of other beliefs is because everyone has something of value to say and do (well there are exceptions - why was Hitler a vegetarian??) and I want to see the world operate as harmoniously and painlessly as possible with all peoples of very different stances. We come to a judgement about what is wrong, and make a stand. So whilst I have happily worshipped with Anglicans and Methodists and Buddhists and Bahais, and would with Reform Jews and Hindus and Wiccans, I do so critically, and will talk with others, and so the closest position ideally I come to is the Unitarian, because in the end I wish to pursue the ability to change without limit and to understand the other.

This is why, then, I can make a Unitarian confession, even if practically my involvement is such a pain.

Christianity is not simply about conducting Christian services (in some "let's do it this way" voluntaristic manner), it is about a relationship of the Incarnation to the Church holy. The Christian with a Unitarian label could be committing an apostasy, because this church is defective by intention, or at least the believer sells oneself short. I do not sell myself short, because I do not believe it, but I do believe in trying to work with different people of different outlooks in a practical world of the here and now. So with the Unitarian label I try to aspire to something.



Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful