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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds

Are Unitarians Christians?

An article based on a reflection given by Stephen Lingwood in January 2010

There’s an old joke that goes along the lines of this: Question: why do Unitarians sing hymns so badly? Answer: because we’re always reading ahead to check if we agree with the words in the next line. There’s an element of truth in that. I certainly do that, especially in an ecumenical Christian context if I’m singing words that I’m unsure I agree with: words about worshipping Jesus, or about the “sacrifice” of his death, or words that suggest the Christian way is superior to other faiths. I check the words, and if I can’t in conscience sing them, then I won’t. This tends to happen when I’m joining in ecumenical Christian worship, which I do quite often; and which we all do as a congregation at least once a year.

Every year during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in January the churches in the town centre come together for their morning worship. In many ways this is a wonderful thing. But it does leave us, as Unitarians, checking if we agree with the words. We may feel a bit uncomfortable in such situations, so it’s worth exploring that discomfort. It’s worth exploring our relationship with the Christian community.

The first thing I want to say about this is that I genuinely think Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre (CTBTC) is unique. It must be one of the most active, progressive, friendly, and diverse ecumenical groups in the country. It’s a wonderful group to be part of. But I do sometimes feel a tension in our ecumenical relations because Unitarians are different. We are a very different kind of church to most others. Sometimes we can be afraid to say this. Sometimes we can be afraid to be loud and clear about how we are different for fear of being thrown out of ecumenical groups. We know this has been the experience of many Unitarian communities around the country. We know that in many local Christian ecumenical groups Unitarians are not welcome. And we know that in the national ecumenical structures Unitarians are not allowed to be members. We often paint ourselves as victims of intolerance when we talk about such things, but frankly I think that is a bit unfair to these ecumenical organisations. Because, let’s be brutally honest: not all Unitarians view themselves as Christian. You don’t have to view yourself as a Christian to be a Unitarian. And yet we also demand to be counted as Christians by other Christians. It seems to me that we want to have our cake and eat it. If we want to belong to such organisations then we must be able to speak more clearly about how we relate to the Christian tradition.

 

So that leads us to that over-arching question: are Unitarians Christians? Are

we Christians?

 

I want to give my own thinking here, with the proviso, as is the Unitarian way, that you are free to disagree with me. The first thing I’d want to say when tackling this question is this: the life and teaching of Jesus is a vital source of faith for us. It has been for four hundred and fifty years, and there’s no sign that we’ve completely discarded it. There is a still a huge amount of inspiration and wisdom we can get from Jesus. But what is Jesus to us? I would say that Jesus for us remains the primary prophet. When speaking of prophets we could call Jesus a first among equals.There are many other prophets, and we recognise that. And Jesus was not the only prophet, not the first prophet, not the last prophet, not even necessarily the best prophet (it’s difficult to know what “best” would mean in this context), but for our community the primary prophet. The first and most obvious voice we turn to for spiritual guidance.

The second thing I’d want to say is this: each of us is as much a child of God as Jesus was. What Jesus was we can be too. Just as Jesus was filled with God, so we can be too. This is an important Unitarian understanding, incarnation (God-dwelling-in-flesh) is as true of you and me as it was of Jesus.

That’s what Christianity is for us. Theodore Parker, a nineteenth century Unitarian minister said this, “Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God. It demands, therefore, a good life of piety within, of purity without, and gives the promise that whoso does God’s will shall know of God’s doctrine.”

Paul of Tarsus wrote ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” If the same mind, the same way of being, the same spirit of love, the same Godcentredness is in us that was in Jesus, then we will live in a Christian way. Note that this doesn’t means you’re called to be Jesus, to behave in exactly the same way. Rather you’re called to be you. But you’re called to be you in a Christ-shaped way. What does that actually look like? Well Jesus gave us a very simple formula for judging this. He said, “By their fruits you will know them.” Our Christianity, our Christ-ness, is show by the life we live. The fruits of the Christian life include humility, creating equality, care for the poor, forgiveness, love of enemies, and sharing of material goods. As the Gospel of John says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.”

As Unitarians we believe we can live this way while receiving inspiration from Buddhist meditation, pagan rituals, or Hindu scriptures. All that helps us in a life of love is welcome. We can receive inspiration from anywhere. And we can also live in this way while having all kinds of doubts about metaphysical doctrines. Or even throwing out ideas and doctrines that are unhelpful.

So, are Unitarians Christians? Well the answer is yes, if what we mean by “Christian” is a community whose members are trying to become more Christlike: more filled with God, more filled with love, practicing care for the poor and outcast. And that’s very challenging. It’s challenging because if we say our Christianity is not about beliefs, but about what we do, then we are inviting people to judge us by what we do. We are inviting people to come and see how Christlike we are. That’s a tough challenge. But one that is worth meeting. As I believe the Way of Jesus is a joyful, life-giving adventure that can transform lives and the world.

Stephen Lingwood

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