" In order that Unitarianism preserves its position amongst Christians throughout the world "
The Avignon Manifesto, 17 August 2007,
on behalf of Unitarian Christian associations
Since the 1990s, "Unitarian Christian associations have multiplied: the Unitarian Christian Association (UCA, founded in 1991), l’Assemblée fraternelle des chrétiens unitariens (AFCU, 1996), l’Assemblée des chrétiens unitariens du Burundi (ACUB, 2002), la Congregazione italiana cristiano unitariana (CICU, 2004), et l’Assemblée des chrétiens unitariens du Congo (ACUC, 2004). They are contributing to the growth of Unitarianism in countries where previously this tradition did not exist. The last four of these groups were recognised as ‘emerging groups’ by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) in April 2006.
This manifesto is neither a creed nor a confession of faith but the result of a process of reflection in order that these new associations can position themselves in relation to our historic churches and congregations which exist in Transylvania, Hungary, Great Britain and the United States of America on the one hand and, on the other, in relation to Unitarian-Universalism, which presents itself as a new religion detached from its Christian roots.
This positioning is made in a positive and constructive manner and is complementary to the forms of Unitarianism already in existence; in no way is it in opposition to them. But it should be explained clearly and distinctly in order to avoid being presented in a confusing, evasive, not to say ambiguous, way. We are perfectly aware that the diversity of contemporary Unitarianism is a valuable resource but this diversity should not, in any fashion, be confused or give the impression that it is lax theologically and without any points of reference.
Born out of the anti-Trintarian currents at the heart of the Protestant reforms of the sixteenth century, Unitarianism is a movement which has its origin in Christianity characterised by:
- A radical monotheistic theology (God is One) which implies a rejection of the dogma of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation; even if we think that God dwelt fully in Jesus, a condition we are all invited to experience, Jesus remains a man like us all.
- Jesus' teaching, as it has been transmitted to us by the evangelists, the other texts of the New Testament, and by the contribution of some of the apocryphal gospels, for example the Gospel of Thomas.
- An acceptance of reason and scientific progress, notably modern exegesis and the discoveries of first century archeology which have allowed us to understand better who Jesus really was.
- An affirmation of freedom of thought and the rejection of all imposed dogma.
- Episcopalian (found in presbyterian/synodical forms), congregational, or even associational styles of organisation in which each Church or local community is free to choose its own direction and develop relationships with other communities.
Unitarian Christians affirm their solidarity with their historic Churches which have maintained this faith. Notably, they have the greatest respect for the Hungarian-speaking Churches which they feel, are worthy of the same order of consideration as that accorded to the Jews by Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (1:16) and John of Patmos in Revelation (7:4-9). The deep respect held for these churches' seniority is voluntary and filial; it is not at all subservient nor is it an obligatory duty. Moreover, these historic Churches demand no such deference.
Christian worship is not limited to discourse (sermons, preaching, meditations, etc.) even if it is very interesting and eloquent. Worship is neither a lecture nor a discussion club. The assembly addresses God (or uses an equivalent term); praises him as creator of the world; thanks him for the life which he has given us; it is in this sense a Thanksgiving.
Christian worship is also the opportunity to reproduce the precise actions of Jesus which are significant for our faith and which have been adopted by our tradition: baptism and the The Lord's Supper (in French le partage du pain et du vin), to which one can add the historic gestures of feet washing, anointment with oil, the laying on of hands, etc. On its own, the lighting of a candle cannot replace these rituals. Our ceremonies should not be diluted or rendered insipid under the pretext of modernisation or by attempting to make them accessible to the greatest number of people.
Because God has already given us life and all his grace we do not think that the sacraments will give us additional rewards. These acts simply connect us to our spiritual master, Jesus, whom we love and to whom we wish to be faithful. They establish a fraternal spirit amongst us and invite us to love all people.
Further to these Christian rites, it is well understood that each community will find other modes of spiritual expression which suit them.
When Unitarian Christians find themselves in multi-faith meetings (in French assemblées composite) where there are agnostics and non-believers for whom Christian rituals no longer have any significance, they can invite all to share in the spiritual traditions of those present. In this case, each person can present what is meaningful for them; Christians can offer bread and wine in the sense found in the Didache: the fruit of the earth and of the work of humankind.
Likewise, they can offer the Flower Communion as created in 1923 by the Czech minister Norbert Čapek, or the lighting of our chalice (explaining its historic significance as a symbol of liberty and of resistance in the context of Nazism).
Unitarianism has at its disposal a theology, a history, a tradition both spiritual and cultural, and its own rituals (the flaming chalice and the Flower Communion). We are extremely proud of this and have no reason at all to abandon the field of Christianity which saw the birth of our movement. On the contrary, we should collaborate with all other Christians who wish to construct a modern Christianity with a liberal spirit more faithful to its origins. As such, we launch a pressing appeal to European Unitarian Christians to actively participate in the European Liberal Protestant Network (ELPN).
In reaffirming a radical monotheism (God is One), Unitarian Christianity allows the establishment of theologically continuous relations with Judaism and Islam. The major obstacle to inter-religious dialogue with these religions lies, in effect, in the divinisation of Jesus.
During the twentieth century, some Unitarian congregations decided that a belief in Christianity (One God and reference to the teachings of Jesus) was no longer a prerequisite for the recruitment of new members. These assemblies have thus become progressively multi-faith (hétérogènes). It is because of this that Unitarians who remain faithful to their original tradition call themselves "Unitarian Christians." (Previously this was a tautology because all Unitarians were Christians.) In order to remove ambiguity about our faith and for clarity's sake we recommend the use of this name.
Unitarian-Universalism presents itself as a new religion which concentrates on immediate universal approaches to the concept of religion. We share with it many things, notably the first part of our history (up to the American thinker William Ellery Channing), our reference to Michael Servetus (his work and his martyrdom), our solidarity with the Transylvanian Unitarian Church, the Unitarian rituals of the Flower Communion and the flaming chalice and our liberal conception of the Christian religion and other sources of religion, etc. We have to establish solid and friendly partner relationships with Unitarian-Universalists, as is already the case within the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). The same attitude advised in whichever country a UU communinity exists.
The ICUU was founded in 1995 from three spiritual families: Unitarianism (including our historic Churches and Unitarian Christian associations); Universalism (namely the sphere of influence which was that of the Universalist Church, a Christian Church in the United States between 1779 and 1961); and, lastly, Unitarian-Universalism (created in 1961 by the merger of American Unitarian congregations and the Universalist Church). Those Unitarian Christians and historic churches remaining faithful to the origins of Unitarianism in the sixteenth-century form an important part of this whole and intend to preserve their own identity. Respectful dialogue and fruitful exchange is conditional on the avoidance of any confusion and ambiguity as well as any cultural and religious imperialism. For this reason, we ask that ICUU should be written with an 'and' (i.e. Unitarians and Universalists), and not with a hyphen (in French), nor with an asterisk.
The ICUU is an entirely appropriate meeting space and Unitarian Christians intend to participate in it with complete loyalty. It would be a mistake to envisage a separate international organisation reserved solely for Unitarian Christians. Likewise, all our activities are open to Unitarians of all kinds.
As the ELPN has existed since 1998, it makes sense for European Unitarian Christians to make the most of this network so as to meet and consult with each other more easily and maintain close relations with their liberal Protestant friends.
We hope that all believers and humanists around the world will participate in the advent of inter-convictional societies where liberty of conscience prevails and not just a single system of thought, where the mutual benefits of engagement with each other rather than forced encounters are recognised, where laity and democracy (necessary for dialogue that is free from any kind of fanaticism) are found, and where respect for life and our environment exist so that we can pass on a better world to future generations. We Unitarian Christians can contribute joyfully to a creation, made by God at the beginning of time, still growing, ever progressing and moving towards greater fellowship, the bearer of understanding and love.
English translation by Marie-Claire Lefeuvre, Susanna and Andrew Brown