General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches

The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches is the umbrella organisation for Unitarian, Free Christian and other liberal religious congregations in the United Kingdom.

The Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland maintains very close links with the General Assembly of Unitarian & Free Churches (GAUFC).

The GAUFC has several constituent and related traditions - English Presbyterian, General Baptist, Universalist, Methodist Unitarian, and Unitarian-Universalist.

The GAUFC was only formed in 1928 but its denominational roots go back to the Great Ejection of 1662, more particularly to the English Presbyterians.

Unitarianism in Early Modern Britain

Christopher Hill, the world-renowned historian, explains that ideas such as anti-Trinitarianism, which scholars solemnly trace back to ancient times, were an integral part of “the lower-class heretical culture which burst into the open in the sixteenth century”. The cornerstones of this culture were Anti-clericalism and a strong emphasis on biblical study, but there were specific heretical doctrines that had “an uncanny persistence”. In addition to anti-Trinitarianism, there was a rejection of Predestination, and an embrace of Millenarianism, mortalism, and Hermeticism. Such ideas became "commonplace to seventeenth century Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Seekers, … early Quakers and other radical groupings which took part in the free-for-all discussions of the English Revolution" [ Hill, Christopher (1977) “Milton and the English Revolution” Faber & Faber, London, pp.71 - 76; ] .

After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy and the resulting Act of Uniformity 1662, around 2000 ministers left the established Church of England. Following the Act of Toleration 1689 many of these ministers preached in 'non-conforming' congregations. The modern Unitarian denomination’s origins lay within this group of respectable Protestants who were reluctant to ever become ’Dissenters’, that is the English Presbyterians. However, by the late 18th century, the influx of General Baptist congregations to the denomination established a direct lineage to this radical milieu although, by now, much of the ‘heretical culture’ baggage had been jettisoned.

Unitarianism in Modern Britain

Until the passing of the Unitarian Relief Act in 1813 it was a criminal offence to deny the doctrine of the Trinity. By 1825 a new body, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, was set up to co-ordinate denominational activities. However, there was a setback in 1837 when “the Presbyterian / Unitarian members were forced to withdraw from the General Body of Protestant Ministers which, for over a century, had represented the joint interests of the old established nonconformist groups in and around London” [ Goring, J & R (1984) "The Unitarians", p.23; ] . Around this time Presbyterian / Unitarian opinion was once again divided about how far the denomination should be associated with the label ‘Unitarian’. James Martineau, a Presbyterian minister formerly based in Liverpool, pleaded for a ‘warmer’ religion than the ‘critical, cold and untrusting’ Unitarianism of his day. In 1881 he helped to found the National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations – “a triumph, one might say, of Victorian verbosity. But the length of the name reflected the breadth of Martineau’s vision” [ Goring, J & R (1984) "The Unitarians", p.24; ] . Thus, from 1881 to the establishment of the GAUFC the denomination consisted of “two overlapping circles, one labelled ‘Unitarian’ and eager for organisation and propaganda, the other rejecting labels and treasuring comprehensiveness. Each side had its own college, its own newspaper and its own hymn book” [ Goring, J & R (1984) "The Unitarians", p.24; ] .

By 1928 these two 'overlapping circles' had been reconciled in the same organisation: the GAUFC.

Today, the GAUFC contains diverse opinions. "At one extreme are the 'Free Christians' who wish to remain part of the Church Universal; at the other are those who wish to move 'beyond Christianity' to a universal 'theism' (or perhaps even 'humanism') that embraces the insights of all the great world religions and philosophies" [ Goring, J & R (1984) "The Unitarians", p.59; ] .

English Anti-Trinitarian Martyrs

*Bartholomew Legate - The inspiration behind the Seekers
*Edward Wightman - Early General Baptist

ee also

*Religion in the United Kingdom
*Free Christianity
*Rev. Joseph Cooke The inspiration behind Methodist Unitarianism
*Unitarian Christian Association


External links

* [ General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches] official site
* [ Unitarian Christian Association]
* [ Unitarian Earth Spirit Network]

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