This pilgrimage has been characterised by comparisons. I have been struck by the similarities between churches working under the Christian banner. But I have been even more surprised by the differences. For a huge swathe of humanity nominally following the same God and (more or less) the same teachings of one man, there’s an awful lot to choose from. And it is a choice. I’m reminded of a whisky map I once saw. Two axes charted the desired level of smokiness or peat influence, the darkness or lightness and so on. By sliding around to your favourite area (dark and smoky with the merest hint of peat) you could read off the single malt that’s right for you.
Today’s visit to the Unitarian Chapel in Warwick sees me among people who have sited their choice on the equivalent spiritual map a long way from the pomp and circumstance, the regalia and ceremony of many churches, without - it has to be said - actually making a decision to stay on that part of the map. There’s prayer and bible reading and some lustily-sung hymns but it’s very low-key and there are constant reminders to make up your own mind about what you believe. Keep that finger free to choose wherever it wants to go. Unitarianism is all about what you want it to be about you could say.
The Unitarian Chapel is a lovely little single-room space much loved by chamber concert organisers and meditation groups among others who share this venue with its resident worshippers. There are only about a dozen people here and we sit is a wide semi-circle to focus on the plain table and lectern. There’s a coffee table in the centre with a simple bunch of flowers and a single candle.
Talking to a few people at this short service, it seems that many are on a journey (apologies for using that hackneyed word but Strictly Come Dancing has just returned to the Saturday evening schedule). I had a long talk with one chap whose spiritual travels have taken him from his Catholic roots, through a spell with Anglicanism and then via short bursts of experimentation including Evangelism. Comparing notes,I find his experience not dissimilar to my own.
More than one person spoke to me of having arrived at Unitarianism through a liking of its lack of dogma. There’s no creed to recite and it’s clear that all those present can hold slightly (but importantly) differing views and yet be happy with that position.
Today’s service is led by Angela, a visitor from a chapel in Birmingham. She gets to do pretty much everything - prayers, readings and (in lieu of a sermon) an address on the theme of the day, who was Jesus?
Angela peppers the service with a clutch of readings from Khalil Gibran’s collection of character studies of Jesus from the perspective of people who may have shared experiences with him. We hear reflections on, among other aspects, Jesus the prophet and Jesus the bespoke carpenter.
During her address Angela relates what was said at a recent funeral she attended. In listening to a member of the family saying a few words about the departed, she noted how we can all have a different view on what a person was like. Broadly we’ll probably pick out the same things, but to a greater or lesser extent. and with a different priority.
Perhaps Jesus is a bit like that. Certainly to Unitarians. Unlike more dogmatic faiths which preach a particular view, however broad or narrow that might be, it’s for Unitarians to make up their own minds. We have no particular reason NOT to accept some historic evidence that Jesus lived. What you believe beyond that, and what you think that means for your own life, will dictate your answer to the question Who was Jesus?
It would be easy to view Unitarianism as being some sort of Christianity-Lite - a religion with all the bits you object to removed. But that wouldn’t really be fair. This gathering did not feel like at all like watered-down worship. There was a palpable commitment to follow the Christian path and to respect the right of others to tag along for any part of the route they wished to cover.
This pleasingly ‘suit-yourself’ approach to faith is attractive in many respects, perfect for someone forming their own opinions whilst enjoying swapping views with others. Not happy with the creed up the road or the evangelistic outpourings across town? There’s a place of calm acceptance right here.
It is easy to see how this casual approach would tempt many away from faiths where they may feel at odds with parts of what goes on. Given, however that there are so few people here, it would perhaps be more instructive to know what tempts them to regard this as a stopping point on the journey rather than a lasting destination.