In Europe, parts of Russia and modern Turkey the civilisation of the Post Roman Empire was firmly rooted in the Judaeo-Christian values and tradition which profoundly influenced every aspect of human life. Law, social organisation, ethics, education, care of the sick, literature, the graphic arts, architecture, music - all sprang from and were widely nurtured by the Christian Churches: Roman Catholic, Holy Orthodox, Protestant, mainstream and heretical offshoots alike. Pockets of Judaism established throughout Europe, and Islam in the Iberian Peninsula had their parts to play, but sixteen hundred years of Christian faith and practice remained the platform on which our whole culture and values, our taboos and justice were founded.
With the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ intrusion of Theism and Deism, of Rationalism and Utilitarianism, of secular philanthropy and the increasing secularisation of education, of aggressively secular political theory and organisation into European and American thinking and society, our Christian foundations came under prolonged attack. Out of this maelstrom of new ideas advanced and old beliefs cast aside, there also developed on the one hand more liberal and less hierarchical new religious organisations - the Society of Friends for example, but on the other hand a tendency for some of the existing churches of the Reformation themselves to be reformed - amongst others Anglicans into Methodists and Unitarians. But whatever the new organisations or theologies the majority of the new denominations regarded themselves as Christian even if the old establishment condemned them as heretical.
It was I suppose inevitable and reasonable that over the next two hundred years when oppressed people revolted against all the institutions of the illiberal state, including against the churches established and supported by those illiberal states, Christian teaching and preaching became the butt of the new scientists, political thinkers and radical activists. Many Christian folk responded by proclaiming and acting out “the social Gospel” - Evangelicals, Christian Socialists, Congregationalists, Quakers, the Salvation Army, and Unitarians. The Christian foundations may have been rocked, but remained more or less intact.
Soon the demarcations of the Christian denominations became even more complicated. Universal principles gained ground in both main stream and fringe churches; tolerance of individual and “different” beliefs became increasingly important. Ideas new to the West were infiltrating from eastern religion and spirituality into European and American chapels and churches; God Himself was denied by agnostic theologians and militant atheists; whole denominations became hotbeds of controversy and secularism laughed to see the infighting amongst Christian denominations. A disgruntled Quaker lady Universalist said to me: “These Christocentrics within the Society are very hurtful people.” While another told me “Of course I’ve had a lot of trouble with the G-word. I don’t use it in my writing now.” I might have laughed, but I thought perhaps the circumstances were too tragic - their wonderful respectful tolerance to all faiths, and none, was being eroded now by tired old factionalisms, and fresh prejudices.
One Sunday morning in Canterbury Cathedral amidst a great company of folk at the Sung Eucharist I realised that in conscience I could no longer recite the Nicene Creed. In the words of Norbert Fabian Capek in a letter written in 1910 to Thomas Masaryk the first President of Czechoslovakia describing his deconversion from the Baptist church:
“I did not believe that Jesus is God, and that Jesus’ father, as the first person in the holy Trinity, asked his son to become a human being and to shed his innocent blood in order to appease God the Father for people, that is to say, those who believe in Jesus in this sense. I did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible … I did not believe that God condemned the whole humankind for Adam’s sin, and I did not believe either in hereditary sin or never ending suffering in hell, and other orthodox doctrines.”
So I slipped out of the Church of England, and eventually into the un-gathered congregation of the National Unitarian Fellowship. I had held very dear the rituals of the Anglo Catholic Church of England, the drama of the celebration of the Mass, the sense of two thousand years of continuity of worship and love, and I still do. But I believe that Jesus was a man, a spiritual teacher and leader of immense power and influence, and he always was and still is my prophet and spiritual director. Thus as a disciple, a student of Jesus Christ, I nominate myself as a Christian. I nominate myself as an Unitarian because it was my un-belief in the Nicene Creed, and most particularly in the doctrine of the Trinity, which brought my worshipping membership of the Christian Church to its end. I did not leave to escape from Christ but rather from the promulgations of the Early Fathers and the Council of Nicea. I did not slip onto the Unitarian Raft to denigrate Christianity and abandon my Teacher, but to pursue my own individual spiritual search in the company of open minded, tolerant, careful and caring friends. Such friends I have found in our virtual congregation and I thank God for them.
I do have the greatest sympathy for those Christians who have escaped from Christian denominations and individual churches where the weapons of choice are submission and fear and spiritual blackmail, and who have small wish to be reminded of those horrors here in the safety of our open Unitarian Fellowship. Nor would I expect them to subscribe to a neo-Christian identity. The Christian institutions and the hierarchies I left behind were mercifully benign and I am able still to honour my Judaeo-Christian roots and the teaching and example of the Man of Peace who lived and died in Galilee two thousand years ago. Would that this were so for all of us.
If you find a flower, an Oxeye Daisy an ancestor of whom once gave you a rash, now encroaching on the margin of a smart new bed of low pollen hydrangeas, do you dig it up and chuck it into the efficient eco-friendly incinerator? Or do you forgive the bitter memory of its great grandmother and make room for both the modest daisy and the opulent hydrangea in your tidy court-yard garden? Do you poison the roots of the centuries old Derbyshire Newton Wonder apple tree to make way for the new Japanese Sayaka variety, or do you love and nurture them both in a sunny corner of your quiet orchard, side by side and harmonious in their differences?
“The Crown Imperial bloometh too in yonder place,
'tis charity, of stock divine, the flow'r of grace.”
Illustration: Fritillary 'Imperial Crown' from John Edwards' British Herbal , 1769