Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Newington Green Unitarian Church, Newington Green, 10.12.11

File:Unitarian chapel newington green.jpg

In 1967 The Beatles broadcast a performance of "All you need is love," into 26 countries watched by 400 million viewers, creating a global profile for the hippy movement of late 1960s. Long before Beatles, hippies and bad fashion it was the Christian radicals of the 1700s that pioneered such humanist values and in particular the non-conformists of Hackney.

The non-conformist movement of the 1700s was Britain’s original Christian counter culture. They believed that liberty, freedom and equality were essential values of the Bible that had been lost under the oppressive dogma of the Catholic and the Anglican churches of the time.

Visiting the Newington Unitarian Church built back in 1704 I stepped on to the grounds that were not just the longest practising non-conformist church in London but also one of the most historically important churches outside the Protestant/Catholic hegemony. In these walls the role of Christianity drastically changed from being an oppressor to a liberator and even now the current Unitarian service has developed away from the religious dogma of so many churches into a diverse community with a shared sense of spiritualism. The service did not mention God, Jesus, and The Holy Spirit but did allude to the concept of a shared higher consciousness. The congregation were not asked to simply pray to God, but were given the choice to pray, meditate or reflect on ones thoughts. We had no Bible readings or scripture heavy hymns instead non-religious fables and speculative stories were used in the sermon and the music was a collection of organ reworkings of pop classics and gospel songs focusing on the need to change society through love. How had this church become so politically correct? Was it so politically correct it was blasphemous? And had I found the first church that would accept me as a voyeuristic agnostic and not see me as a potential convert? All these questions raced through my head and led me back to the history books.

The Newington Unitarian Church only stands out because of its age, lacking the gothic architectural glamour so common in the Anglican churches of 17 hundreds. An almost square building, its modest front entrance was decorated with understated Tuscan pillars, a small pediment and low key arched windows. Inside the tiny church is a collection of wooden pews, boxes and a gallery that makes the space feel not cluttered but close; The miniature size unavoidably but pleasantly smothering you with its presence. Sitting in the boxes I found it impossible not to contemplate the legacy of the church’s past congregation.

File:Richard Price.jpgThe Newington Unitarian Church history of radicalism began in the 1700s when Newington Green was an agricultural village outside the city of London. After The Restoration of Charles II many non-Anglican church groups faced persecution. Non-conformists found refuge around Newington Green in which alternative theological and political ideas could freely circulate. Alternative education establishments were formed by Non-conformists named Dissenters Academies, creating the only alternative non-Anglican higher education. Most notably the Newington Green Academy is praised for its intellectual aristocracy and for propagating new ideas from The Enlightenment. By the late 1700s Newington Unitarian Church became the haven for political and social reform under the leadership of preacher Dr Richard Price (looking very stern in the far right). Price was a republican,
libertarian and supporter of the French and American Revolutions. Enormously influential, Price gave counsel to the founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pain and was a mentor to Mary Wollstonecraft (a key founder of feminism). Price died before Newington Unitarian Church could practice non-Trinitarian worship publically (After the government Act of 1813) but many history books have vaguely described his beliefs as "Unitarian,” due him criticising the claim that Jesus had eternal existence. After Price’s era the church continued to propagate liberalism within society, many of the congregation were abolitionists, supporters of the suffragette movement and campaigned against the legal persecution of Jews in the1800s. I have become particularly interested in how the Unitarian Church, from its radical roots, has continued to adapt The Bible so it challenges the inequality within society instead advocating the status quo.

In recent years the church has continued to challenge institutionalised inequalities in our society by supporting gay marriage. In March 2008, Newington Green Unitarian Church became the first religious establishment in Britain to stop any weddings at all until all couples have equal marriage rights. The current incumbent minister Andrew Pakula stated that the same-sex couple "are being treated like second-class citizens when they are forbidden to celebrate their unions in a way that heterosexual couples take for granted." Andrew Pakula is sweetly small, warm and charismatic New York Jewish man who has been Minister of Newington Green since 2011, Pakula, like Price, shares a belief in equality but I wonder would Price recognize the origins of Pakula’s liberalism as his own? Unitarian faith more than any other strand of Christianity seems to have helped develop society for the better and in doing has developed itself away from the Holy scripture and towards promoting a shared social consciousness. In the development of the Unitarian faith God has not been lost but he now shares the throne of omnipotence with Buddha, Shiva, Allah and many more.

So what is Unitarianism in the modern world? The You Tube videos below give you a general impression.

A key facet I personally took from Unitarianism is the rejection of the concept of original sin and the conscious decision to not ask the congregation to believe in something they know not to be true and respect their individuality. So this Sunday was a service without communion, sharing the peace, liturgy and Bible readings and instead new rituals replaced them from the reading of a poem, lighting of a candle, shared prayer/mediation/contemplation, a sermon on the importance of hope and individuals sharing the highs and lows of the week. The general atmosphere was like a group therapy session except nobody had experienced a real trauma (to my knowledge) but that did not stop people from "sharing," and nor should it. It was refreshing that a service was dependent on the congregation’s participation and lucky that they were an affable bunch. Personal stories ranged from the touching to the slightly mundane but at least everyone felt they had something to say and more importantly people wanted to listen. Oddly this inclusive environment did leave me in limbo as I did not feel I had anything to "share."

The lack of scripture and context led to words being debated instead of parables. We were asked to contemplate the meaning of "hope," and I imagine other services may debate the importance of "tolerance," "freedom," "equality." The problem with the lack of context means the debates become hugely personalised which is good but does lead to the parishioner being unchallenged in their views. The congregation were asked to write down a subject on a postit which they had lost hope in and then decorate the nave with their reflections.  I and the incredibly warmed hearted elderly woman sitting next to me both felt we had never lost hope in anything on principle but after longer consideration I could use the exercise to cathartically express my feelings. I wrote "I hope I don’t feel guilty." I found it strange that in a church environment that did not believe in original sin and advocated the acceptance of all I would feel so guilty but I did. I felt I was not participating to the extent I should and no longer had the excuse of being unbeliever.

The reason for myself loathing is that I don’t go to church for myself, I go because I am interested in people and enjoy meeting people who hold a different theological perspective, these people fascinate me and asking to look to myself I was caught off guard. My views on spiritualism had been defined in opposition to the people I had met over the last year but when asked to form a belief without countering my experience I was lost.

The Newington Unitarian Church was built in opposition to corrupt religious institutions and continues to advocate equality but when you do feel free and have nothing to oppose, what are you left with? I have never viewed life as a struggling trial that leads to heaven and have been critical of religions that advocate this perspective but faced with spiritual freedom I can see the comfort. I would like to think "All We Need is Love," but love means many things to many people and the cost of love can be great. The highest praise I can place on The Newington Unitarian Church is that in the more modern and liberal era it continues to ask questions than provide answers and for a church that’s hugely refreshing.

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