Horsham Humanists meet the Unitarians 8th April 2013

DUNCAN VOICE representing the Unitarian Church of Horsham visited together with Patrick Wynn-Jones, Catherine Andrews and Carol Chambers, for a general chat about the Unitarian Church and their inclusive views.  The meeting was well attended and good discussions developed throughout a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Duncan began by explaining that the Unitarian Church was first recorded in Poland around 1560 and first known in the UK in 1673, becoming legal with the Trinity Act of 1813.  The “Belief in the Oneness of God” has evolved since then, in opposition to the Trinity of the traditional Christian church, and due to this the Unitarian Church is not acknowledged by Christian churches.  Horsham itself is the second oldest place of Unitarian worship, recorded in 1721.  The ‘Flaming Chalice’ is the symbol of Unitarianism, which is lit at the start of a service and extinguished at the end.  It originates in the history of Jan Hus, Czech religious reformer, who was burned at the stake in 1415, and represents the love, spirit and humanity of his martyrdom.


Unitarians meet for worship with a frequency relevant to the local membership, always with singing of hymns (although a Unitarian joke was shared  “that we are very bad hymn singers, always checking the next line to see if we agree with it!”), readings, and time for meditation or prayer or reflection according to the individual, as a route to affirming their own values.  The church is small and numbers have dropped since the 1960’s, with under 200 churches across the country with about 3500 members. 

Their members have very varied views and reasons for describing themselves as Unitarian, all are free to seek their own path, and Duncan explained that on a recent course 30 different descriptions of Unitarianism had been expressed by people attending.  Unitarians have no written creeds, and some describe themselves as humanists also, and the overall idea is to allow each person to reach their own potential with no discrimination applied whatsoever.  HHG agreed this was the experience within our own membership and that Humanism shares the same freedom to hold wide ranging viewpoints without discrimination, although a fundamental difference exists in that the majority of Humanists understand that there is no god or supernatural influence to acknowledge. 

A HHG member asked whether Unitarians would mostly believe in a God or afterlife, which suggestion was met with fervent denial, and a further discussion developed around the term ‘God’.  It was suggested by the Unitarian visitors that with the breadth of life to experience there are elements that do not exist on a purely physical level, one expressing that ‘there is something there, not necessarily God The Creator’, another ‘human creation is in the mind’.  HHG members joined the debate, and a reasonable summary could be that overall there exists a spectrum of atheism-to-spirituality, parts of which overlap between Unitarianism and Humanism.  However divergence between the groups could be seen; Humanists having “a disbelief in mysticism, are Unitarians more open to mysticism?”, to which the reply was affirmative – “yes, ...open to everyone’s interpretation of what they think, whatever works for you”.

Further discussion developed, with suggestion that religion can be found at a boundary where science is pushing forward; that at the point where science cannot yet explain a phenomenon lies a basis for superstition and mystery however when science does explain that phenomenon this point becomes a part of knowledge.  This turned to a debate touching on the more radical religious views which are apparent, with a suggestion that both Unitarianism and Humanism can offer more simplicity, a gathering of like minds.  One Unitarian expressed a thought “...I feel there is more to our lives and our world than we are perceiving through our limited perceptions” which was expanded with a Humanist comment “but you don’t have to call it a God”.

This led to the next debate over whether ‘consciousness’ does continue in some way following death, for some Humanists this can be merely within memories of people still alive.  Unitarian visitors explained that they make no claim of a ‘life hereafter’ but leave this open for people to feel for themselves.   None had yet attended a Unitarian funeral service but believe this would be a simplistic service based on the family concerned, which was felt similar to the Humanist approach of a celebration of life for those living on. 

The debate wound on for a while longer, often finding common ground between our two groups – “having a moral feeling within you” and the need for compassion and kindness being strong links.  At other times our differences showed – there was agreement that spirituality is hard to explain but the Unitarian consideration that spirituality could be due to a renewal of the soul, or that there is an amorphous and unshaped spiritual element to our physicality were less understandable from a Humanist perspective.   At the end of it all it seems that Humanists and Unitarians have a great deal in common, with many views that overlap and sufficient tolerance and understanding to accept the differences with cheery debate. 

A good evening was had by all!

Erica Baxter


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