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This is a Unitarian congregation. But this was not built as a Unitarian Meeting House.
The first Service held in this building, in December 1716, was held by a General Baptist meeting. We know from the history that it was most likely led by John Calverly, who was the leading General Baptist Elder here at the time. But even he wasn’t the first leader of the congregation.
That honour falls to William Jeffery, who first led this congregation, this group of people with a continuous connection from today, this morning, all the way back to 1640. Each of us knows, or knew, someone who was in this congregation before them. And so did they, And so did they.
All the way back to that first gathering in 1640. And, on the way, here at the newly built Meeting House in 1716.
I find that quite amazing really.
1716 was a time when non-conformity was, in many places, illegal. By then tolerated, but still illegal. In 1715, just one year before, at least 30 Dissenting chapels were destroyed in the ‘Church and King’ riots which were sparked by a continuing conspiracy of a connection of dissent to treason.
As I mentioned before, the members of the congregation that met in 1716 were General Baptists – a liberal wing of the Baptist movement – too liberal to be tolerated by the growing hardline Calvinist Particular Baptists – and this congregation, like many other General Baptist congregations, turned toward Unitarianism around 100 years later.
These heretical people, as your predecessors undoubtedly were known, would have seen this building as a sanctuary for more than just Sunday worship. This was, and is, their building – a second home for its members. A place to meet like-minded souls for social time as well as worship. Just as it remains today.
And we retain many links to our past.
We were, as I mentioned, a General Baptist Meeting House. Now, the General Baptists were, as I also said, dreadful heretics. They believed that it was appropriate for them to read the Bible in English, and interpret what they read there for themselves.
Not necessarily agreeing with other authorities. Thinking for themselves. How terrible is that!
Even worse, most General Baptists determined that there was nothing in the Bible that indicated God would be selective in who was saved at the end of time, or after death. They read God as a God of love. So of course everyone would be saved.
This, again was not what the authorities liked to hear – everyone saved, all equal, no hierarchy, thinking for themselves.
Eventually, General Baptism died out. The Particular Baptists – with an authoritarian stance on the notion of salvation – became the dominant Baptist strand.
But we retain some links to that wonderful piece of history. As a General Baptist congregation, this congregation was a member of the General Baptist Assembly – an umbrella organisation, founded in 1648, bringing almost all General Baptist congregations together – providing support for ministry, community and solidarity in the face of oppression.
Astonishingly, the General Baptist Assembly is still around, and has been in continuous existence since 1648. It still meets annually, in London, each May, and it still provides grants towards settled ministry in those remaining, former General Baptist congregations.
There are, sadly, just 15 member congregations to the Assembly now – and Bessels Green – here – is still a member. Of course, as I mentioned, there are no practising General Baptist congregations left. It is, in fact, the case that all 15 member congregations of the General Baptist Assembly are now Unitarian congregations – 15 of the 174. It is not true to say that all General Baptist congregations across the country became Unitarian – but it is the case that many did.
And they still support each other. Recognising the strength in numbers. They still gather. And what is more, they still agree to help the weakest. The Assembly members have recently agreed a new policy whereby the largest grants it gives are to the congregations that have least money, and want to spend what little they have on ministry, in whatever form that takes.
Just as this congregation gathered to support one another in adversity and against oppression all those years ago, the Assembly still meets, and still looks out for the weaker members. Those that need a bit more help than the others.
For me, this starts to explain how and why these congregations became Unitarian. It’s a bit chicken-and-egg, but this sense of community and independence in matters of religion remains important to us today.
Unitarians, like the General Baptists, were considered heretics for many years. Still are in some quarters. Many Unitarians in the 1500s and before were killed for their beliefs. And they were still being imprisoned in the 1600s.
Yet they persisted. Why? And in what way might we consider ourselves the natural heirs of this mantle of dissent?
Unitarians like to think for themselves.
Following in the footsteps of those dissenting Protestants who insisted in interpreting the Bible in a way that made sense to them, we continue to aspire to freedom of thought and freedom of belief.
That, for me, is what makes Unitarianism special – and it is why it can be so hard to explain to others exactly what we mean by Unitarianism.
As Cliff Reed’s book title says, 'Unitarian. What's That?'
Freedom to think. Freedom to believe.
We are lucky. We are, generally, people who are willing to listen to religious and philosophical ideas that will sometimes conflict with our previous thoughts. We are prepared to change our view on religious matters. And we are, usually, still welcome as Unitarians no matter what. For Unitarians are allowed to explore, to test, to change, to draw their own conclusions.
I’m not saying for one minute that members of all other churches are unable to think for themselves. That would be ridiculous. But I am saying that the freedom to question the answers is a right that we must thank our predecessors for.
I went to St Paul’s Cathedral earlier this week, in London, to hear a speaker from the US. Part of the Cathedral’s recent series of talks by ‘new Christian thinkers’, a series called 'The Case for God'. The speaker this week was Brian McLaren. Brian was raised as a fundamentalist Christian in the US, and was taught very clearly that the Bible supports all manner of repressive and unloving ways of life. One of those extreme churches we all see and hear on the television and radio.
As a child, Brian believed it all. Until he went to college to study English. As an English student, he began instead to look at the Bible in an open and critical way. He started to look for new interpretations.
He became more open. He saw the Bible was not as clear-cut as his parents and his church had told him.
His talk this week, to a large (I guess) mostly Christian crowd, was on the need to read the Bible in a different way. To stop reading and using the Bible to defend illiberal and repressive acts, but instead to read and use the Bible to support acts of loving kindness in the world. To recognise the stories as images of creation, liberation and reconciliation.
To use the Bible to bring transformational change and justice to the world, in the form of loving kindness.
He was unashamedly Christian in his approach – but he did not mention once the notion of atonement of sin, nor the Resurrection, nor the idea that Christ died for us. Nor did he believe any of the ‘rules’ in the Bible should be left unchallenged. They were written in the context of the time. If, in the modern day, we cannot see them as messages of creation, liberation or reconciliation, then lets just drop them and move on. Brian was clear that, from his reading and interpretation of the Bible, there was nothing repressive or judgmental in Jesus’ actions and words. How can anybody, therefore, use the Bible for repressive purposes.
This approach rang true for me. Here was a man using sacred texts – the words of a people struggling to explain the purpose of life. Yet he was prepared to read them in new, loving ways. Freedom of thought. Freedom to interpret. Freedom of belief.
I was able to speak to Mr McClaren after his talk. I explained I was a Unitarian (and whispered he should keep it quiet lest I be ejected from St Paul’s). He laughed, put his hand on my arm, and whispered back that the Unitarians were amongst his friends and supporters back in the US.
Well, this is all well and good. We are able to interpret words for ourselves. And we believe this is a right for all people. And it is. But what is the true value of this?
The commentator Morris Joseph put it well,
‘the test of a person’s worth is not their theology, but their life’
Another way of putting this, perhaps, is to say that we need not be concerned how others interpret things – we should be concerned only that people are doing the very best they can to live a life of loving kindness.
Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Pagan, Ba’hai, Humanist, Atheist, and so many, many more. It matters not what the core text or scripture is – if there is one – rather it matters how these are interpreted in a loving and open way, to support participation in building a world more fair, and more just.
This then is how I believe we should celebrate the Anniversary of this Meeting House.
We must recognise the value that those who stood up for freedom of belief and freedom of reason have brought to our world. As I said before, we are the lucky ones. We are able to gather and worship freely. Our predecessors, General Baptist and Unitarian, have always supported the idea that God’s love is bestowed on all – in modern practical terms, there are no people that deserve to be shunned or treated unfairly by society. For the General Baptists, God saves all. For the early Unitarians, God is One, and we are all brothers and sisters in that single God. For modern Unitarians, we have evolved our freedoms to encompass new ideas, new ways to live in the modern world, the worth of all people and all sacred beliefs.
We are celebrating today the 296th Anniversary of this Meeting House. Yet, as John Andrew Storey puts it so well in the final part of our second reading:
The church is me, the Church is you,
Not mortar, brick and stone;
It is with all who love the true,
And where true love is shown.
Mark Morrison-Reed picked this up too with the promise that it is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community.
We must surely honour all those who have gone before us here by continuing their loving approach to the community and to the world. That is the living memorial we can hope to provide. As Brian McClaren put it, let us create, liberate and reconcile with love. Let us endeavor to ensure that all our actions, all our thoughts, words and deeds are carried out in a loving manner, without malice and with the aim of peace and togetherness.
I finish with a quote from Doug Pagitt, the author of a book called ‘Church in the Inventive Age’:
“The past is not our standard. It is not the test of whether something is right or good. But it's also not an albatross we need to shuck off as quickly as possible. The past is our constant companion. It is always with us. The question is what do we do with it - return to it, let it rule, or take its best efforts with us into the future?”