The place of Unitarianism in modern Wales

It is striking how conservative Welsh Nonconformity has become in recent years. This is in sharp contrast with its radical dynamic beginnings in fighting against injustice and its contribution to educating an illiterate population through Sunday schools. In the past it was also supportive of the trade union movement and the radical political parties of Wales – Liberal Labour, and Plaid – in the genesis of their formation through the 19th and 20th Centuries.

However, today’s reality is that the pews are emptying while the shops are filling. Traditional religion does not now have the manpower to muster large-scale support for social justice campaigns. The new Atheists dream of a secular Utopia where all of us will have rational scientific minds like Captain Spock. Yet that has not materialised and never will.

At present we have a society plagued by dissatisfaction, alienation and stress, coupled with a lack of imagination and intelligence from our political leaders. Every day an increasingly privileged elite becomes wealthier, with the wholehearted support of a political class that worships the rich like Gods. The changing of Sunday trading laws to suit the Olympics was an illustration of how far we have come as a society of consumers. We work, eat, consume, and we die.

Is this what we really want as a society? Or is there an alternative that is more fulfilling? Religion does not claim to answer everything, but its function is to teach us what it is to be a fulfilled civilised human being. It teaches us to support the downtrodden, to give to those who need, to display compassion, and be civil. True, it is not a necessary condition to be religious to comply with these values. However, it is a near impossible task to have these values permeating a whole society without religious community, fellowship and support.

Does religion have a place in modern Wales? Or have we placed it on the shelf of our history? Should we just ccept that we are now a post religious society with new icons to worship in our out of town retail parks on Sunday, and celebrity personalities gaining more attention than theology.

Unitarianism is the only religion in modern Wales that is taking the lead on these questions. However, it is ostracised by the main denominations because of its theology.  It holds a liberal view that all individuals are welcome. It celebrates that each individual has his or her own mind and journey of spiritual and intellectual enquiry, but understands that we need to share a common fellowship and adhere to a sustainable community in pursuing social justice.

Religion has a place because it challenges the avarice that is a plague of modern times. It teaches acceptance of ourselves as we are and to be tolerant of others. It provides a map that we can follow on life’s journey towards fulfilment. It holds to the doctrine that all human beings are of immense value. It believes that religion is part of our very DNA. It has created supportive communities and created a legacy in music and literature that has enriched our nation.

However, if Nonconformity is to survive it needs to let go of the dogma that there is only one way to such religious values. People can think for themselves and will not blindly accept a doctrine. The way forward is to celebrate diversity and embrace all human beings for who they are. We will then have a civilised society where equality can really have a chance, and where our communities will support social justice.

Dewi Owen is Development Officer with the Cardiff Unitarians.

9 thoughts on “The place of Unitarianism in modern Wales

  1. A welcome article. However it’s not absolutely true that Unitarianism is the only religion in Wales that addresses these questions. Quakers also hold the kind of values he describes so well.

  2. An interesting essay and whilst personally I have never sought my ‘soul salvation’ from any religion but instead used my temporary presence on this planet to do my best for the less fortunate and bring into the open the folly of perpetual wars for perpetual peace that has become the norm for the US lead ‘free and democratic world’ which successive UK Government’s followed blindly and obediently in the recent years.

    Specific to Wales Dewi Owen has highlighted in his article important philosophical and in part religious notions such as ‘liberal values, value of humanity, spiritual and intellectual enquiry, support of social justice and so on’ all very noble and valid but as yet I have not heard a single uttering from any religious quarter in Wales on the current Welsh realities and forced social engineering by ‘legalised dictate’ imposed on Wales by the Welsh Assembly Government.

    I am specifically referring to the ‘Road to Bilingual Wales’ concept introduced in 2003 by the Welsh Labour Government and subsequent measures that have driven roughshod over the fundamental Human Rights and have created conditions of unparalleled social divide and misery for the majority of Welsh people.

    Welsh Government is disregarding the fact that English is the first language of Wales and has been so for a long time and in historical terms and ‘we are where we are’ but what is unacceptable in any ‘democratic society’ is to artificially re-engineer minority language and culture and impose it upon the majority.

    We have already seen the results and without doubt there is no enthusiasm from Welsh majority to go this route, and the initiative is failing but as long as it stays in the format that we have it now it’ll only further damage Welsh children in academic and social terms and damage Wales economically as the only beneficiaries of this approach are the Welsh speaking ‘intellectuals’ that have been vociferous and vocal for ‘Welsh Language Above All Else’ and in turn creating a ‘privileged elite’ using Dewi’s words to control who can live or who can work in Wales and this privileged elite that currently controls Welsh Media, Civil Service and Education only represents at best 7% of the Welsh population.

    Wales needs a referendum upon the language issue and sooner than later and only after people have spoken or have been given an opportunity to speak then and only then this experiment can continue if it has the popular support.

    Divisions are huge and we have seen this by often vicious debates on fringe web sites in the absence of opportunity to debate this issue in the main media through BBC Wales and other media’s censorship (For doubters see http://www.gogwatch.com / http://www.truewales.org.uk and our website http://www.glasnost.org.uk).

    Finally, where do the ‘people of God’ stand on all of this?

  3. Thank you Putyatin, you’ve just reminded me of another excellent value that Unitarians and Quakers have in common – respect for the Welsh language!

  4. Jon Jones – see what I mean? Here we are back with the Welsh-speaking elite. They have a powerful hold on the imagination of Mr Putyatin and others even though they are themselves imaginary.

    A big majority of AMs reflect their consituents and speak only English. Only one member of the Cabinet speaks Welsh. At the top level of the civil service, 5 of the top 8 posts are not Welsh at all, never mind Welsh speaking. One of the 8 is first-language Welsh. Policies to preserve Welsh are the result of English-speaking Welsh people sympathising with the wish to preserve the language.

    A statement like “driven roughshod over the fundamental Human Rights and have created conditions of unparalleled social divide and misery for the majority of Welsh people” defies comment. Are we talking about Rwanda?

  5. Thoroughly agree with Dewi and see strong parallels with the news that the Vulcan is to be moved – for some it seems for Wales to be modern it must adhere to the form of “progress” concocted by retailers, banks and multinationals eager to keep people addicted to a consumer lifestyle.

    J Putyatin – The importance of maintaining (and re-establishing) a regional language may not be immediately clear to some, just as the need for regulations and human rights laws may seem like needless red-tape to a few corporations. I think Pam Petro (an American who learnt to speak Welsh) said it well when she said “To lose the precedence of Welsh is to fall out of [our] difference and into the murk of the sprawling, TV-broadcasting, radio-playing, earth-sized Anglo-American abyss”. [from “Travels in an Old Tongue”]. If we truly want to maintain a strong community with a shared respect between those who live in it, then it is a small minded individual who ignores the benefits of reviving the Welsh language.

  6. The Church in Wales has also made good progress on all fronts in recent years. In our Parish, the new Vicar is from England but is now running services in English, Welsh and bi-lingually with ease. We mix the services and their content so that all are included and feel included. Indeed, attendances have improved since Welsh was brought back for celebrating the Eucharist and our monoglot English speaking members support this, because they were a part of the changes from the outset.

    Now for female Bishops. Then we will be a truly inclusive Church.

  7. “Unitarianism is the only religion in modern Wales that is taking the lead on these questions.”
    Well, given that only one anything is likely to ‘take the lead’ on anything, maybe it is. But how can we know? This article is combative in tone, doing down other religions and denominations (terms it uses interchangeably in a confusing manner) in order to claim the lead on questions to do with religion and modern Wales. Odd choice of tone. Does Unitarianism want to take the lead or does it want to collaborate?

    “However, it is ostracised by the main denominations because of its theology.”
    Ostracised from what? I’m on the Unitarians’ side already but I need to know what they’re being ostracised from.

    Please tell us what ‘the main denominations’ find so objectionable. That would be usefully enlightening.

    “It holds a liberal view that all individuals are welcome. It celebrates that each individual has his or her own mind and journey of spiritual and intellectual enquiry, but understands that we need to share a common fellowship and adhere to a sustainable community in pursuing social justice.”
    I would think every denomination would claim to do the above. Would they not? At least they’d probably CLAIM it.

    ‘The way forward is to celebrate diversity and embrace all human beings for who they are. We will then have a civilised society where equality can really have a chance, and where our communities will support social justice.’
    I agree. So tell us what organisations, circles, consultations etc Unitarians are being kept out of. I’d like to celebrate diversity with you. I haven’t knowingly ostracised Unitarians from anything but perhaps I’ve done so unknowingly or participated in groups which were, unknown to me, keeping Unitarians wrongly on the edge. Dewi you should be more specific othrwise what can we do?

  8. Thank you all for the above comments, in response to Alun you are right the Quakers do share the same theology as Unitarians and have been very influential in public life all across the world.

    In response to J Putyatin. There are other minority languages in Europe, such as for example Galician, Basque and Catalan in Spain and these co-exist with Spanish without a problem. In Ireland the civil servants must do the Irish O level. Imagine if this was suggested in Wales. The response would be how dare you impose Welsh on us. The reality is there is not a Welsh élite. We do have an élite but they are those who have attended private schools and are affluent, and their wealth increases each year by huge proportions.
    Well done David Lloyd Owen, it sounds as if your congregation are flexible to change. This will make things easier to attract more to the pews.

    Angela Graham, my intention was not to do down other denominations at all, but to illustrate that if religion in Wales, whichever denomination, needs to change to attract new blood. This includes flexibility in dogmatic theology. Unitarianism is ostracised not from you or most people but from National Christian Forums due to its theology on the Trinity.

  9. The nature of religion is changing, particularly the credal basis for religious belief and the dwindling numbers fuels a ‘back to basics’ mentality, often clinging to vestigial outward features of the socio-religious edifices of the recent past. In that sense Dewi is absolutely correct.

    The numbers game is misleading, though, and whilst church attendances are dropping, the nature of what we seek in spiritual terms is constant. We still ask the Big Questions and we still stumble about in the dark. The next generation will do things differently, but they’ll be asking the same questions.

    As a Quaker, I am comfortable with not being described by a credo – it forces me to think what it is that those words would mean and what I can do in response. In that silence there is nowhere to hide and spiritual sensitivity is deepened.

    I believe that this is a common approach to a spiritual dimension in our lives – well beyond the confines of organized religion – and it is our job – and Dewi’s – to give it depth and the space to broaden to encompass our fellow ‘seekers after truth’.

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