The 21st of July 2013 marked the 200th Anniversary of the Unitarian Relief Act. This Act repealed the penalties detailed for non compliance with the Act of Uniformity of 1662 whereby the only legal form of public worship was as defined in The Book of Common Prayer published at that time. As a result of the Test Acts and the Blasphemy Acts the penalties for non compliance and deviance from the official Book were considerable.
Parsons who led such worship were not recognised and lost their living and among other penalties they and their congregations were fined, were liable to imprisonment, could not hold public office or attend the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The Toleration Act towards the end of the 17th century did offer relief to many dissenters but not to those who denied the Trinity or because the target was primarily Catholics those who believed in transubstantiation. So until the Unitarian Relief Act in 1813 Unitarianism was illegal. It is significant that our Chapel community dates from about the time that this illegality was removed. In 1697 a man was hung for his Unitarianism. Until 1813 Unitarians lived with the fear of prosecution. The Catholic Relief Act was not passed until 1829.
So the passing of the Unitarian Relief Act in 1813 was a momentous occasion for Unitarians and we need to celebrate it but perhaps we can understand it first. There was immense religious turmoil stemming from Henry the eighth’s separation from Rome and then the movements to and fro when Mary came to the throne and tried to return the country to Catholicism, followed then by the beheading of Charles 1st, then by Cromwell and the puritans, then by the restoration of Charles 2nd and finally the coming to the throne of James the second a Catholic. The country was in turmoil and it was necessary to try to create unity, stop rebellion and stop the influence of dissent whether it was Catholics or deviant Christians. The Act of Uniformity was an attempt to forge this unity and prevent rebellion. People were paranoid about rebellion. Catholics and rebels were imagined everywhere and the discovery of the gunpowder plot and later plots only added to the panic.
Many years ago I did business with a Czech company behind the iron curtain. One of the representatives was a young Czech woman who came to my house. I remember her distress when she told us that she had not been able to go to University because neither she nor her father were members of the Communist party. Neither could she get a government job or progress in her current one. So we can imagine some of the distress of the loyal Unitarians and Catholics in the 17th and 18th centuries as they were affected in the same way. Of course some people just joined the communist party although they did not believe in communism. Also I am sure many who took communion in the Church of England were more for themselves than their country. Outwardly they professed beliefs that they did not hold just to get on. This leads to the problem that if people profess beliefs simply to be part of the club to their advantage the result of their actions will not generally add to the common good. More solid is to give freedom to people to truly commit. Whatever people say it is what they think and believe that matters. However in a time when people believed in heaven and hell they did not always feel that they could say one thing and really believe something else. But they did and do. How many parents who go to church so that their children can go to Anglican schools really believe in the doctrine of the Church of England.
So what are the lessons we can learn from all of this.
First trying to control people by making them assert loyalty publically is mostly a waste of time as we cannot control what people think. People will often say anything if it suits them. If enough people do so even the opinion of their friends will not put pressure on them. You will get some who will hide what they really believe and they will justify this. Sometimes the pressure can be very great. If there is a threat that you will be killed you or imprisoned, then people will profess something they do not believe in. There is nothing anyone can do about it. It is sometimes the lesser of two evils. If you forfeit your life there is nothing you can do about the evil. In some circumstances people can often convince themselves that they do believe even if they really don’t. I sometimes wonder if the ascent of Hitler was a question of the lesser of two evils or so people thought it to be the case. While in the short term the Act of Uniformity might have succeeded it was doomed to failure.
Creating a privilege group is not a long term way to control. Creating a ‘safe’ privilege group as did the Act of Uniformity is something that we can recognise. Street gangs have an initiation ceremony where to belong and get the gang’s protection you have to commit crimes. People do this for the supposed advantages. So the Act of Uniformity and the later Test Acts said that you could not hold public office unless you took communion in a service following the rite of the Common Book of Prayer nor could you go to Oxford or Cambridge. You can see what they were getting at. They wanted the country run by loyal citizens. But it does not work. The tenor of the 1699 Book of Common Prayer can be seen in three special services detailed at the back. The first is a thanksgiving for the foiling of the gunpowder plot. The second a service for the murdered martyr Charles 1st and third the thanksgiving for the restoration of Charles 2nd .
What does it do to us to say one thing but really believe something else. I think it is deeply damaging to live a lie. It creates confusion and is disorientating. It can create depression. It is unhealthy. If people suppress their true feelings or actively live a lie they cannot be themselves. They cannot release their energy. So a situation where this is forced on people creates lethargy and eventually the subversion that it tries to avoid. It creates resentment. To pretend is hard work.
Our Unitarian forbears did not pretend. They took the risks. They did not take up public office or go to Oxford and Cambridge. It is probably why we broke so many barriers with people like Priestly and Florence Nightingale. They were prepared to be different and make sacrifices to be true to themselves. Their ideas were not fossilised in the law or the church. Creating an exclusive single group deprives the country of the energy of some of the best. Why did it take so long to repeal. I think the reason is that it was soon realised to be nonsense and nobody ever imagined that it would be enforced. Being illegal did our cause damage as it meant that certain trusts were taken out of our hands, though legislation later tried to prevent that.
So the Unitarian Relief Act in 1813 and the Catholic equivalent moved our civilisation on and acknowledged that no longer were there to be excluded groups of this type. Over time this has moved to women and other religions and more recently to people with different sexual orientations and colour. It opened the door to the 19th century expansion of which we are part.
However we are still beset by some attitudes that stem from the Act of Uniformity and attitudes of the traditional church still reflect as they do in this town the idea of an exclusive club and a frigid fossilised religion. At one time it coincided with the law – it does so no longer as a result of the repeal of the Toleration Acts of 1813.
We can recognise, in general way today, all the dangers of the 17th century. Many groups try to blow up people and buildings. There is also a great temptation to exclude some groups and in some countries many groups are disadvantaged. It can be as a result of religion or colour or for other reasons. We can see that it could happen here in the UK not just in other countries..
So the real message for our celebration, I believe, is that we cannot confine the human spirit with exclusive unchanging dogmas, laws and exclusions and the 1813 Act 200 years ago finally acknowledged that in respect of Unitarians