What do Unitarians believe?

An extract from a Sermon by Sandy Ellis
A conversation with a Visitor who comes in a spirit of enquiry:

Q: “What do Unitarians believe?”

A: “Our beliefs are centred about the three principles of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. In this church, people enjoy the freedom to form their own religious beliefs without being constrained by a rigid set of rules laid down by church leaders who claim to know better. For this reasons we do not have a Creed representing the received wisdom of senior figures who claim to be our elders and betters. There is therefore no catechism which you must learn to join us, no requirement to swear – as a precondition of membership – that you believe every word of what a church hierarchy claims to be the sole and only truth. It is enough that you are here to listen to what is said.

And that is where our second principle comes in. You are invited to apply logical reason to what you hear and offered the freedom to accept it or to reject it solely on what you as an individual perceive to be its merits. We positively encourage our members to question their own and others beliefs. We offer them the freedom to form their own opinions – about any or all facets of life. This is not an easy option. Far from it. In the Established Churches, your thinking is done for you. What is right and true is handed down as THE TRUTH. You are not allowed to question it – even if it seems illogical or improbable. THEY know better and if you wish to remain a member, you HAVE to accept it. That can be very attractive for those who don’t wish to think for themselves. But if you have doubts about the virgin birth, or the ability of Jesus to walk on water, then HERE you are free to apply reason and make up your own mind about what is true, and about things that owe more to the superstitions of a more primitive age, or to the rigid unalterable thinking of a church hierarchy entombed in the traditions of the past. But let us not overlook the fact that many people find that membership of an environment which proclaims to know and preach the known and only truth, to be a safe and secure place of refuge. In this church we sacrifice that certainty for the right to think for ourselves. And, as already said, that is not an easy path, It is one for the mentally robust rather than the fainthearted. But one has the comfort of travelling along it in the company of those of like mind.

And so to our third principle: Tolerance. The first two principles of Freedom and Reason, inevitably lead to an outcome of widely differing beliefs about many matters. There are, for example, widely divergent views about the nature of God – or even in some cases of the very existence of God. It is fairly safe to say that nobody believes in an avuncular grey bearded figure who sits “up there” on a cloud, passing judgment on all mankind. Some think of God as a disembodied “force for good”. Others as a sense of conscience within each one of us. The very existence of God necessarily calls for an act of faith. And that is where the third principle of tolerance applies. Just as we each claim the freedom to form our own beliefs, we believe that a respect for the beliefs arrived at by others is a necessary and vitally important counterweight. Nor is this confined to our fellow Unitarians – we extend that same tolerance to the beliefs of ALL faiths: Anglican, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever.”

Q: “Do you believe in the Bible?”

A: “We believe that the Bible is source of inspiration and that it contains a great deal of wisdom. But we also believe that it was written by mere men, who were as prone as any to human error, and also that the original authors were writing in a much less informed age, without the benefit of modern day knowledge. We therefore apply logic and reason to its words and accept only what seems sensible to us. But, just as we tolerate those of other faiths who hold different beliefs, we make no claim that Christians have all the answers. And we make frequent use in our services of readings from other religious faiths. We also encourage contact with other religious faiths and have occasional multi-faith services”.

Q: “And what about your view of Jesus? You said that Unitarians don’t believe that he was the Son of God. Yet describe yourselves as Christians, you read the bible and use it in your services. How do you reconcile that?”

A: “Well that goes to the heart of what Christian Unitarianism is about. It’s like this: we believe that if – as the Bible states and the Established Church states – that Jesus had God-like powers because he was THE Son of God, then the life he lived and the example he set of selfless service to his fellows, was not particularly remarkable. If he was a God, then so he jolly ought to have done. If on the other hand, he was A Son of God, in the sense that he was a mere man, with all the frailties of a man, then the life he led is a tremendous inspiration to us because if HE could do that, then each one of us – if we try hard enough – can at least aspire to the standards which he set. We therefore study his life and teachings and use these in our services. As an example, the Lord’s Prayer is an integral part of every service in the Unitarian Churches in the West Midlands, most of whom are proud to describe themselves as Free Christian.

Q: “So, summing it up, you – or certainly most of you in your West Midlands churches, believe in God – in one form or another – you regard Jesus as a particularly inspiring man – you described him as A Son of God – you make critical use of the Bible and use readings from it and also other Faiths in your services, and you use prayers in your services – including the Lord’s Prayer. And you do all of this in a spirit of Freedom, Reason and Tolerance. Your key strength – as I now understand it is that every member is free to develop his or her own religious beliefs on condition that he or she respects the absolute right of every other member to do the same. Is that it ? Have I understood you correctly?”

A: Well, yes I say, I couldn’t have put it better myself”.

Q: “So what you’re saying is that you concentrate on BEING good rather than DOING GOOD. I mean, I’ve heard nothing about your good works beyond the church”

A: “You’re quite right I was so busy explaining our religious life, that I didn’t mention the social aspects. During the life of this church in the City of Birmingham for example, Unitarians have played a very active role indeed in working for the Community. During the 19th Century in particular, members of that church played a leading role in Local Government which led to the introduction of clean water and gas supplies for all the homes in the city. We were also deeply involved in the founding of Birmingham University and supplied the first Pro-Vice Chancellor and one of his successors in recent years. During those years, Unitarians also ran Sunday Schools and two Missions in the City. In 1900, more than 2,000 children were attending the Sunday Schools. Our numbers are much smaller these days, but our members still play an active role in public service, In Civic life as High Sheriffs, as JP’s, as members of the St.John Ambulance, as members of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or in running activities such as Stroke Clubs. On a more topical note, it was a Unitarian, Tim Berners Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and then made it available to the world without charge – isn’t that a remarkable example of altruism? We are firm believers in the saying that ‘words without deeds are useless’. Thank you for listening to me. You are most welcome here and I hope that you stay to find out more about us”.