Is French Unitarianism specific ?
by Jean-Claude Barbier *, translate by Kelly Kilmer Hall **
* founder in 2002 of the French-speaking network "unitarian Correspondence", General Secretary of the Fraternal Assembly of the Unitarian Christians (AFCU) of 2004 to 2009, then permanent administrative member of this association, founder in 2008 of the French-speaking Unitarian Church, editors of several sites and the copy-books Michel Servet
** Degree in journalism and writer, seminarian at Meadville Lombard Theological School (Chicago) for a Master Divinity, member and assistant to First Unitarian Church of Rochester (New-York State)
An internationalized Christian movement
From the anti-trinitarian Churches of European Protestantism of the 16th century, which developed in Central and Eastern Europe, Poland (1565-1658) and Transylvania (since 1568), and thanks to the publication of works of the Italian theologist Faust Socin by Remonstrants of Holland (the "Library of the Polish Brothers" published in Amsterdam in 1665), Unitarian Christianity developed in Great Britain during 17th and 18th with Arians, Socinians, then Unitarians, while being based then on the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, then in the20th century in the United States within the congregationalism (which was from Calvinist theology) of New England.
Later, Unitarianism continued its international development, initially within the Anglo-Saxon geographic area (in the 19th century in Canada, in South Africa, in Australia, and in India, with appearances in Denmark and in Norway, etc.), then in Central Europe with Czechoslovakia and Germany in the 20th century, finally, at the beginning of this century, within other geographic areas : French-speaking people in Western Europe (1) and Africa (2), Hispanics in Spain, Latin America and in Cuba ; Portuguese-speaking in Portugal and Brazil ; Italy ; countries of Far East like Japan and the Philippines, etc. The creation in 1995 of an international network, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), devoted to this global growth.
(1) France, Wallonia and French-speaking community of Brussels, French-speaking Switzerland, and the Andorra and principality of Monaco (2) Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo RDC, Togo
… and opened with all the religious and philosophical traditions
Meanwhile, from US American transcendentalism starting in 1830, US American congregations at the end of the 19th century implemented liberal Christianity (acceptance in their faith agnostics and non believers who practice moral virtues) ; then straightforwardly, especially in the year 1960 (3), became "interfaith" in their communities by accepting all religious and philosophical beliefs. Unitarianism thus diversified well beyond its historical Christian roots. Chritian Churches remained in Transylvania, Hungary, Norway and in Boston (King's Chapel).
What today we call "contemporary Unitarianism" (4) is a large range including the Unitarian sensitivities around Unitarians Christian, Universalists (within the meaning of the Christian doctrines of the universality of the faith) (5), Unitarians with beliefs in reference to revealed monotheists (6) or to theism (7), Unitarians-Universalists, and Universalists without more traditional reference (8)
(3) in 1961, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) merged with the American Universalist Church to create the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of Congregations
(4) to see our article of August 28, 2008, published by the French-speaking Unitarian Church (EUfr), in its rubric "The Pillars of the Church": "A theology for the use of Contemporary Unitarianism" http://eglise.unitarienne.francophone.over-blog.fr/categorie-10451416.html
translated into English: "Theology Adaptable to Present Day Unitarianism ",
(5) which was that of the Universalist Church, mainly developed in the United States, but also in its missions in the Far East (Filipino and Japan)
(6) case of the Unitarian community of Nancy in France, http://www.unitariens.org
(7) case of the Unitarian communities of the Kashi country in India of the North-East,
(8) case of Unitarian German of Deutsche Unitarier Religionsgemeinschaft (DUR) http://labesacedesunitariens.over-blog.com/article-cu-97-novembre-09-manifeste-des-unitariens-allemands-en-1995-38796090.html
Owing to the fact that contemporary Unitarianism accepts this broad diversity in its faith, and also that the Protestant heritage wants that each community is a local Church, and more particularly of the congregationalist tradition which affirms full sovereignty with each one of these local Churches, one can wonder whether there is a global specificity of Unitarianism, according to the countries, geography, linguistic areas, etc.
We will answer here with regard to France.
Although France was the residence country, from 1531 to 1553, for the Spanish anti-trinitarian Michel Servet, Unitarianism is very recent here. It was in July 1986, at the time of a European meeting of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF, attended by the Free Faculty of Protestant theology of Montpellier), that a French Unitarian Association (AUF) was formed by ten people.
Until now, only one local Church (in Nancy)
We do not have in France and French-speaking countries a history of Unitarian churches. Our American friends are often surprised, because they expect to find many Unitarian churches in France. Admittedly, there were tests to constitute local communities which, in the American vocabulary could have been "fellowships" as much : in Paris, Marseille, Digne-les-bains, Bordeaux, Nantes. Only a small community of ten people constituted Nancy, since 1990, within the framework of an association law 1905, Unitarian Fraternity. This association was entitled in vain as from 1997, Unitarian Church of France/Unitarian Fraternity, it remained only in Nancy except some external members.
It should be noted that the Unitarian english-speaking stay in France, founded in the years 1980 (recognized juridicially in 1986 like association law 1901) a community in Paris, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris (UUFP) (9), which is a member of the European Unitarian Universalists (EUU),a federation which gathers the english-speaking who are the same in stay in the principal capitals of Western Europe (Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, Brussels and Amsterdam). A monthly worship is practised in a place of rented worship (at present, the protestant temple of Pentemont-Luxembourg). The ministers of religion come from Great Britain and United States.
… but a French Church online
It is finally a Church on the Web ("Church online") and on the level of the linguistic area of the Francophonie (thus it is not only French), the French-speaking Unitarian Church (EUfr), which was born in June 2008 with my initiative (10). It obtained since the institutions worthy of any Church : an executive council (of 7 members for the moment) (11), a titular minister of religion for the chair (reverend Maria Pap, Minister for the Unitarian Church of Transylvania) (12), a space of prayer and meditation (13), a monthly worship (14), a spiritual accompaniment of particular cases (15), the beginnings of a choral society (16), a library (17), humanitarian activities (18), without counting a framework of formation to the pastoral ministry (19), etc
It is an innovation since it is the first Unitarian Church which functions thus, entirely online. It takes again the experiment, with the means which the Internet places today at our disposal, of the Churches by American correspondence (Unitarian Church off All Souls in 1903 and, since 1944, Church of Larger Fellowship (CLF) (20), charged to connect isolated, except local congregation, in the United States then in the whole world.
(20) to see our article "a Church by correspondence in the United States" in the bulletin n° 37 of November 2004 of the Unitarian Correspondence. http://prolib.net/pierre_bailleux/unit/cu037.info.htm#document
The affirmation of a Christian component
The first president was Mrs. Lucienne Kirk who, after been student at Manchester College in Oxford, came to make a report with the Free Faculty of Protestant theology of Montpellier under the direction of professor André Gounelle about the Christian American theologist was James Luther Adams (1901-1994) (21). She was ordered minister of religion in December 1986, with the Unitarian Church of Kolozsvar (Cluj-Napoca), in Transylvania. She served a parish of the Reformed Church of France (ERF) in the Cevennes. On its return to the United States, in 1990, she is invested within Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship (UUCF), an national association launched in 1938 to defend and maintain the Christian version of the American Unitarianism (22) which was then threatened by a humanistic wave (see humanistic Proclamation of 1933).
The scientist naturalist Theodore Monod (1902-2000) brought his sponsorship to this new association. He was a liberal Protestant, member of the Reformed Church (ERF) of the Oratory of Louvre, and he liked to say himself "Christian preceding-nicean", i.e. of before the first council which, in 325, ratified the Trinitarian dogma.
The mainstay of French Unitarianism was Albert Blanchard-Gaillard, teaching in history at Marseilles, as a Christian freemason. He was general secretary of the AUF to his foundation, then president in 1990 at the time of the departure of Lucienne Kirk. Whereas the first statutes of the AUF envisaged an association only mainly Christian, it made register in the statutes, in 1992, the reference to God and the teaching and the person of Jesus. Then, when a circumstantial majority, at the time of the general assembly of 1996, wanted to give up this explicitly Christian reference to allow a broader reference to God alone, it merged, with the other cofounders of the AUF and always with the patronage of Theodore Monod, a new association, this time under Christian articles, the Fraternal Assembly of the Unitarian Christians (AFCU). He is the honorary president of this association. See its bibliography (23).
Contrary to American Unitarianism-Universalism, then European (for example in Great Britain as from the years 1950), French Unitarianism affirms its full and total legitimacy in the Christian sphere. By its Christian component, the AFCU, it is in trade-guild with the liberal Protestants (association and the Evangile and Freedom review, liberal Protestant Unions UPL of Strasbourg and Geneva, association and Théolib review) and with emergent liberal catholic mobility since the end of the 20th century (basic Christian communities CCB, Friends of Marcel Légaut, the Federation of the networks of the parvis, association and review Christian freethinking based in Brussels, etc). Since 2002, the French Unitarian Christians are in contact with this liberal catholic place and, in May 2006, the AFCU was accepted as member by the Federation of the networks of the parvis (24).
At the European level, the French Unitarian Christians are in contact with European Liberal Protestant Network (ELPN), a network of the IARF, where one finds, in addition to the liberal Protestants (of which Remonstrants in the Netherlands and Non-Subscribing Irish), our historical Churches in Transylvania and Romania and the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christian Churches. (25)
It is precisely this role of the Churches or Unitarian Christian associations, which exist in several European countries (Great Britain, France, Italy, Norway) and Africa, to maintain this Unitarian presence for a non-creedal and liberal Christianity, which was reaffirmed at the time of the meeting of Avignon in August 2007 by a proclamation which was translated into several languages (26)
A pluralist democracy based on the identities
Is it possible to put all the Unitarians in the same association or the same Church ?
Unitarian French knew to learn the lessons from the failure of their first association, the French Unitarian Association (AUF), founded in 1986, become "French-speaking" (French-speaking Unitarian Association) in 1992 and which was dissolved in January 2006. The conflicts of orientation and people were there indeed very numerous. In spite of a "unified" start in November 2006 with the foundation of A Fraternal Unitarian whose attempt was to join together liberal Protestants members of Théolib (a twenty people), the Unitarian ones of the community of Nancy and the Unitarian Christians of the AFCU, but which finally failed as of the following year, it is the pluralism which was concretized little by little with the installation of networks (Unitarian Correspondence since October 2002, the participation of French in the French-speaking Unitarian Universalist Regrouping RFUU), the opening of forums (French-speaking Unitarians since April 2005, on the initiative of the Unitarian Christians, and The Family of U which functioned in 2006-2007), the launching of individual websites, the foundation of associations of which, in November 2009, a French-speaking Unitarian Universalist Association (AUUF).
The "address book" the French-speaking Unitarian Church (EUfr) testifies to this wealth of initiatives of the French Unitarian landscape (27). It corresponds, in the United States, with the flowering of Unitarian-Universalist associations at the national level.
Except for the community of Nancy which practises isolationism compared to the others, the majority of French Unitarians are in relation and good agreement: they contribute to the network of the Unitarian Correspondence and with the drafting of its bulletin (many authors, 250 recipients), exchange within the Yahoo group "French-speaking Unitarians " (more than 100 members, more than 800 messages per month), are registered on the website, take part in the monthly worship of the French-speaking Unitarian Church, etc. Unitarian French can be evaluated, starting from their participation in these various activities, with nearly 200 people.
They are represented by a national instance which was installated in March 2008, the Council of Unitarians and Universalists French (CUUF) (28). It is this one which represents them at the ICUU and it intends to develop the various initiatives in France by her website (29). It is only a relational institution and not some federation. Associations, groups or persons in charge of websites and forums send each a delegate (30), but remain completely free and independent to it in their activities. Generally, the activities of the ones are opened to all the others for text-editing, forums, occasional meetings, meetings, worships, etc.
(28) It was installation on the initiative of the Unitarian Christians of the AFCU in order to take over their association which had been accepted like emergent groups by the ICUU in April 2006
(30) for the moment, the Fraternal Assembly of the Unitarian Christians (AFCU), French-speaking Unitarian-Universalist Association (AUUF), the network of the Unitarian Correspondence, the forum French-speaking Unitarian, and soon the Islamo-Unitarian Friendships.
This same catch in consideration of the identities exists on the level of our linguistic Church. The faithful ones are invited to be expressed there with their own culture and tradition, without any reserve nor taboo. The Christians can there speak about their attachment to the person of Jesus, practise the sharing of the bread and the wine, give the baptism and the confirmation to faithful which wish it ; believers to address itself directly to God, without euphemism ; the unbelievers speech of their convictions, etc. It is not a question to round the angles in order not to obstruct the others, even less folklore the religious times in a insipid interfaith and made general stereotypes, if not images of Epinal, but to affirm high and strong our own spiritual convictions and our precise engagements and to propose them in sharing by releasing some the universal values.
The community is not then established in any common denominator or a soft consensus, but in the expression, the listening of the others, the sharing of spiritualities and ritual, osmosis and not fusion, the liberal practice of the religion being of course at the base of such an operation. The particular religions thus are fully accepted since they can share. In that our Church is not only "Unitarian Christian" (because it practises the interfaith), but it is not either only "unitarian-universalist" because it admits that each one can live the universal values within the religious corpus of his choice.
A critical reflection on religious heritages
It is precisely with liberal mobilities that we can practise interfaith relations and not with all the Christians or Christianity in general, and the same for all the religions. French Unitarian has relation only with the other liberals and the non dogmatic ones. It is not a religion which is important, but the way in which one practises it. That is accompanied by a necessary critical spirit with respect to the religious movements whatever they are and, from there, by a selection in our foreign relations.
Compared to the Anglo-Saxon tradition which accepts in a way with laxity all the religious movements in the name of the freedom of conscience and tolerates the communautarisms, we think that the religious actors are subject to the rules which govern our modern and laic societies and must conform to them as well as all the other actors of the civil society.
Just as Unitarian Christianity did not cease to think of the religious corpus which ithad inherited, in the same way, we invite all the other religions to make in the same way in order to release what has universal value for everyone. It is this effort, demanding, which we can call "the unitarian work" and which must be the engine of our interfaith.
Gandhi heard it thus which required of each one to live his own religion with excellence or Theodore Monod who perceived each one walking according to his own route towards the same top of mountain. There is a call, not for a simplification or a secularization of the religious, nor for a universalist syncretism, but with the deepening of each way in order to allow a sharing which, is carrying for its universality. In other words, that each one keeps his faith but can from now on share it, inviting the others with the communion of the word and the rites, to celebrate God and/or Life with several voices.