from Signs of the Times No. 61 - Apr 2016
May I gently respond to Lorraine Cavanagh’s comment (Signs January 2016) that ‘Ebionite language and hymnody’ stall ‘our growth into spiritual maturity’.
Our knowledge of ‘Ebionite’ and similar early forms of Jewish Christianity is limited. Ebionites did believe that Jesus was a man anointed by God, not ‘divine’, whatever exactly that means, but their belief was shared by many early Christians! Their non-Pauline Christianity survived on the margins for some centuries, Islam owing something to it.
In the 16th century some (only anachronistically described as ‘Ebionites’) found it again, in the Scriptures, for example, those who formed the still lively Unitarian Christian Church in Transylvania. Some encountered harsh opposition. Archbishop Cranmer in his court had two simple Bible Christians burnt to death for denying Trinitarian doctrine. As late as 1697 a Scotsman was executed for the same reason.
In the 18th century, a Church of England priest, Theophilus Lindsey, author of two very readable defences of his beliefs, after unsuccessfully seeking through the Feathers Tavern Petition to have the requirement of subscription to the Articles abolished, founded Britain’s first Unitarian church. (Subscription was not abolished until 1865 after a long campaign that Dean Stanley of Westminster has described, replaced by a never legally defined general assent.)
Later in the 18th century, after the Revolution, Massachusetts’ oldest Episcopal church, King’s Chapel, Boston, became Unitarian, producing its own revision of the Book of Common Prayer, based on Lindsey’s. Its 1986 8th edition is about to be re-printed for a church that today is flourishing.
In England, the Unitarian Christian Association keenly maintains its Christian faith within a larger body now not exclusively Christian and the same is true of the US Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. In Ireland, the eirenic Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, with more than 30 congregations mainly in Northern Ireland, is Christian, Biblical, and Unitarian.
As for the ‘language and hymnody’ of Unitarian Christians, King’s Chapel in particular has preserved much of the beauty of the BCP and the AV, and continues to address God as ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, to my mind more euphonious, and more appropriate than ever for the One who is not ‘a person’ but the under-girding, encompassing personal Mystery beyond our comprehending.
Earlier, Unitarian Christians did avoid any address to Jesus, and Unitarian Christian liturgies are still addressed to God alone. However, the King’s Chapel Prayer Book and the excellent English Unitarian Hymns of Faith and Freedom both include the poetry of hymns sung to our Lord. The latter, for example, has Charles Wesley’s beautiful eucharistic hymn, O thou who this mysterious bread, absent from most Church of England books! Even without those hymns, their hymns would encourage not stall growth into spiritual maturity (very different from the rather lifeless deist hymn-books, for example, of former Christian, Stopford Brooke).
King’s Chapel retains the Matthean words at Baptism, and the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, and Apostles’ Creed on its sanctuary wall, and its Communion table cross, its Prayer Book states symbolise the Christian tradition to which it holds, though with members free to follow that tradition as they understand it. Its once wordy worship is enriched, for example, with ashes, palm crosses, and an Easter vigil, a continuing great musical tradition, and social outreach.
In the reformed Church of England, there probably have always been Unitarian; in the 17th century, for example, the philanthropist Thomas Firmin, in the 19th century, though less explicitly, Bishop Colenso. (He objected to Hymns Ancient and Modern, because of its hymns to Jesus!) In the 20th century, G.W.H. Lampe, in his Bampton Lectures, God As Spirit, explains what he means if he is thought Unitarian.
I write all this because as well as being a licensed priest in the Diocese of Sydney, a parishioner of St John’s, Canberra (200 miles away), and an ‘adherent’ of St Stephen’s Uniting Church in central Sydney, I am a long-time member of that King’s Chapel. (And long-time member of the UCA, the UUCF, Modern Church, and the Prayer Book Society!)
Great Roman Catholic scholars such as Hans Kung, James P. Mackey and Roger Haight SJ have made helpful and valiant (though not always appreciated) attempts to re-state or re-interpret the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity. I find myself rather closer to the views of A Richard Kingston in God in One Person: The Case for Non-Incarnational Christianity (available now as a print-on-demand but expensive paperback). With his views, Richard felt he could not remain as a Methodist minister. I remain an Australian Episcopalian priest, assenting to Prayer Book and Articles in so far as they are in accord with the heart of the teaching of Jesus (Luke 10.28) and the great Hebrew prophets, and in accord with reason. But what knowledge we have, through study of the Scriptures, of the ministry of the truly human Jesus, and our present scientific, biological insights regarding the human person makes impossible, I think, belief in him as in any literal sense the sinless, absolute embodiment of God the Word, the Logos or Second ‘Person’ of the Trinity. This does not lessen the value (and significance?) of poetic, Trinitarian imagery– in some ‘Celtic’ prayers or in Rublev’s icon, or of speaking of the divine Reality as Creator, Word, and Spirit, one God.
My personal prayers (not the hymns I sing) have always been addressed to God rather than to Jesus, much as Jesus has inspired my whole life. I sense the ‘presence’ of God but not any presence of Jesus although I am impressed by the two brief life-changing visions of Jesus seen by the young Sundar Singh and Hugh Montefiore.