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The Horsham Unitarian Church

Horsham Unitarian Church

Published: 1st April 2018

 

The Unitarians meet in what is undoubtedly the most unassuming of Horsham’s churches. 

Set back from the road, at a glance you could easily miss the gravestones and mistake it for a charming cottage. Which is precisely why it made an ideal meeting place for the Unitarians.That’s because its members, initially known as General Baptists, would meet in secret. As the oldest dissenting body in the district, keeping a low profile was once very important!It wasn’t until the passing of the Toleration Act that meetings of such groups were made legal. Yet, even today, the Unitarians are outsiders, to a lesser degree. There are 32 churches involved in Horsham Churches Together, but the Unitarian Church is not among them.

So, what is the Unitarian Church and who does it attract?The answer is difficult to define, as Minister Maria Curtis explains: “Fundamentally, Unitarians believe that the individual conscience doesn't have an external authority. We are not a creed based church, so joining the congregation doesn’t require you to make a statement of belief.

“We are a free-thinking church. It's true that we have within the Unitarian Church ‘religious refugees’, who have a strong sense of religion, but are not satisfied by religions based on scripture that say, ‘You must believe this and accept that.’ “nstead, the Unitarian Church is more about values. It was formed because some people didn’t believe in the Trinity (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit) and the idea of Jesus dying for our sins. We don't believe in original sin; we believe in original blessing. We don't believe people are intrinsically bad and need to be freed from that. However, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. It covers the whole spectrum.”

Spiritual Awareness

Maria makes an unlikely Minister. She recalls times when she was inspired by the words of “evangelical atheists” like Richard Dawkins and would even try to convert people to atheism.In many ways, she represents a typical Unitarian in that there’s no such thing. Just someone who questions faith and religious beliefs.

“I attended a Church of England Primary School and became a bit annoyed with God, because of various life events, for most of my adolescence and adulthood,” said Maria. “Then I walked into a church in Brighton, within a building I knew as a concert venue. Looking around, there weren’t any crucifixes and I wondered what kind of church it was.The Unitarian Church doesn’t impose any beliefs, so there was nothing for me to object to! 

“I always retained a spiritual awareness, so the idea of a church that wasn't belief-based appealed to me. I didn't believe in a God ‘out there.’ I believed in a God within. A God between us; a God of love. But not a person, and certainly not male! Jesus of Nazareth is an amazing person and means something to me. But there are many other prophets and philosophers from other religions who mean something else. Traditionally, it is an accident of history and geography as to an individual’s religious beliefs. So, we take a rational approach and trust our own discernment.”


Sending Empathy

 Whilst the Unitarians doesn’t offer traditional Church of England services, there is something familiar about the Sunday morning routine, as it has a Christian ethos.Hymns are sandwiched between readings and prayer, whilst there are moments of silence and contemplation. 

Church member Patrick Wynne-Jones jokes that Unitarians are known to be bad at singing hymns as “they’re always checking the next line to see if they agree with it!”

 Maria and the congregation take inspiration from a wide range of literary sources.“I always have time for prayer,” she says. “You might ask who I'm praying to. For me, prayer is a statement of intent. I’m not asking someone out there to interfere with the world, as I don't believe in divine intervention. But I believe in sending empathy and to acknowledge that dreadful things happen in the world. “We have a world of literature and poetry to dip into. I look on the Bible as a collection of literature. I don’t see it as the word of God, because it's written by human beings. But if a Psalm speaks to me, I will use it during a service. We can take inspiration from anywhere. 

“We’re also quite a scientifically-based religion, as truth matters more than fantasy. “Some evangelical atheists treat religious language like it’s scientific language, which in my view is a big mistake, as religious language has a different way of apprehending truth. That doesn't mean that it's not truth. After all, humans have many different ways of using language.” 

Total Immersion

The church was built in 1719 and was first used two years later, making it the second oldest in town, after the Parish Church of St Mary’s.The land was purchased for the sum of £36 & 15 shillings and the church was built during the joint ministry of Thomas Southon and Matthew Caffyn. Caffyn’s father (also Matthew) is generally regarded as the founder of the Horsham Unitarians. He was born the son of a poor local farmer and was imprisoned five times in Horsham gaol for unauthorised preaching. He is commemorated with a window in the church, although he is buried in Itchingfield.

Over three centuries, there have been many alterations, with a porch added in 1727 and a Baptistery built in 1771. By the 1870s, the name of the General Baptists was dropped and the congregation became Unitarians.An organ was installed in 1850, although the present one arrived in 1914. It required a costly but necessary rebuild in 1991.

Patrick Wynne-Jones, a member of the Church, said: “We still have a total immersion baptismal tank, with a well hidden under the floor of the kitchen, although it hasn’t been used since 1840. “The church has many interesting features, including a Parliament Clock, and dedications and memorials to the early ‘dissenters’ who were often imprisoned under the Blasphemy Act.

“The building has Listed status and is therefore costly to maintain, with features like a Horsham stone roof. “But it’s always had a role to play in the community. The Horsham Museum Society was founded by members here in 1890 and exhibits. In the 19th century, Minister Robert Ashdowne established the Horsham Free Christian Church Public Lending Library. We still have some of those books here today.“

"Even now, the hall is used by a number of local clubs and societies, from barbershop singing quartets to discussion groups. Just last month, the Unity Players hosted a very popular Edwardian Extravaganza. “We also host special services and community get-togethers, including a special service in memory of Joe Cox MP, which was attended by Horsham MP Jeremy Quin.” 

Warm Welcome

Such an approach would appear to suit 21st century society and the Unitarians are proud to move with the times.It has a licence to perform same sex weddings and played an influential role in changing the law. Unitarians also hosts weddings for couples from different religious backgrounds. Yet it struggles to attract people to the congregation.

Patrick said: “People are reluctant to talk about beliefs, and yet most of us live by some sort of belief and code which they find difficult to express. “Many of us find it hard to accept absolute statements of faith and that's one of the strengths of the Unitarians, as we don’t ask for that. “In this respect, our approach is very modern. Yet we have a small congregation.”

Maria believes it might soon be time to look at how and when the church convenes, to reflect modern society. “We have to question the model of people going to church on a Sunday,” she said. “People do many other things with their weekend now. The Unitarians does have online services. But in my opinion it’s important for people to meet here physically, rather than living a virtual existence. “That’s why we come together; to be the best we can be, and to gain strength from others. “We are very hospitable in terms of warmth and tolerance. When anyone walks through the door, they do not feel threatened, as we know it’s difficult to cross that threshold.”

 

Visit the Horsham Unitarian Church at Worthing Road, Horsham, RH12 1SL, call (01403) 256788 or visit http://www.ukunitarians.org.uk/

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WORDS: BEN MORRIS

PICTURES: TOBY‚ÄąPHILLIPS


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