Congratulations to Birmingham New Meeting, on the excellent evening they arranged with the Birmingham Council of Christians and Jews. The session aimed to help those from this Council gain a better understanding of what Unitarians both believe and do.
Following a prayer and introductions by the Rev. Simon Ramsay, Winnie Gordon commenced the evening with a resume of how Unitarianism originated. She mentioned its emergence in both Britain and Continental Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, following the Protestant Reformation, and the sufferings of those such as Michael Servetus, to its subsequent growth in Britain and North America. She outlined the central tenets of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance, and the application of these to religious text, creeds, and indeed to life in general. ‘Deeds not creeds’ was something that she emphasised. She explained the attitudes prevalent towards the traditional Christian view of the Trinity, but was also at pains to point out that Unitarianism was indeed a ‘broad church’.
Mina Coalter then gave a talk about the prominent role Birmingham Unitarians had played, both locally and in the wider world. She naturally focussed strongly upon the life of Birmingham New Meeting member and minister, Joseph Priestley, a genius of a man, renowned for his contribution to the discovery of oxygen; but who amongst other things was a theologian, political activist, philosopher and social reformer. She reminded us that he too suffered for his beliefs, with his house and laboratory being destroyed during the Birmingham Riots of 1791. She also declared herself an ardent admirer of Henry William Crosskey, former minister at New Meeting and prominent in the establishment of the non-sectarian movement in education. Mina also demonstrated through reference to Christian and Liberal Jewish experiences and her own personal journey, the breadth of links that existed with those two religions among many others.
Winnie then concluded the first part of the evening with a summary of the social action that Unitarians locally and nationally, both in the past and the present, have undertaken, including the Send A Child To Hucklow scheme.
The Rev. Simon Ramsay then invited questions from the audience. After a hesitant pause, these began to flow. What exactly was the Unitarian approach to the Trinity? How does Unitarianism manage to operate without its own set of creeds and stated beliefs? How can a service accommodate such a diversity of opinion and belief (or non-belief) in the congregation? How does a Minister cope in such circumstances? What was a typical service like? How do individuals progress from attendance to becoming members? What do Unitarians think about Jesus? What is their view about The Lord’s Prayer? How does the cross feature in a Unitarian church? Are all Unitarian churches the same in terms of approach and congregation? The list went on. The questions were to the point, but were asked in a genuine spirit of friendship and the desire for understanding.
Suffice to say Simon gave an excellent and sensitive summary of the position he believed Unitarianism took on all these matters, emphasising the oneness of God, and the notion of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance in relation to all things. Everyone was entitled to make their own spiritual journey. All were therefore welcome in a Unitarian church. His answers and openness were appreciated by the audience. It was clear to see that many had no real awareness, prior to this evening, of what Unitarianism was about.
This was a very worthwhile evening in which Unitarians and friends from the Birmingham Council of Christians and Jews could exchange views openly, with a view to mutual understanding and support. Most, if not all, left New Meeting enlightened, and hopefully a little wiser. We need more evenings like this. Our thanks to all at Birmingham New Meeting for their organisation of this event.