You will find more about Unitarian history under the “Unitarianism” menu, so this is just a brief introduction, firstly to what Unitarianism is, and secondly, to the particular history of the Cheltenham and Gloucester congregations.
What is Unitarianism?
Unitarianism is a liberal religious movement open to insights from all the world’s religions as well as from literature, art, music, science, philosophy and nature. It is rooted in the Jewish and Christian traditions but has broadened to include a range of religious expression extending from liberal Christianity to Universalism (in the sense of an ‘all-faiths’ approach to religion and spiritual practice) and to Humanism.
Unitarians believe that no religion holds a monopoly on truth. They encourage people to seek their own truth and explore the limits of their own belief. They endeavour to meet the spiritual needs of individuals in the context of a loving community, and encourage the fulfilment of all human potential.
Unitarianism began as a Christian heresy emphasising the oneness of God, rather than the trinity, so it was part of post-Reformation rational dissent, but now it highlights being a religious movement without religious dogma (authoritarian teachings) or a creed (statement of belief) as its defining characteristics. This appeals to many people who have developed a faith arising out of their own experience, which longs to be acknowledged, developed, strengthened and expressed in some outward way – and it is in this celebration of individuality that we find our unity of purpose.
The beliefs of Unitarians today cover a wide spectrum. Some call themselves liberal Christians and attach great importance to the teachings of Jesus, while some are more broadly theist. Others, however, prefer to be identified as religious humanists. Some years ago the late Arthur Long, a leading Unitarian minister and academic, wrote of those of us who are distinctly agnostic about the traditional idea of a personal God but are nevertheless:
“Genuinely religious, believing sincerely in the importance of public worship, interpreted primarily as an acknowledgement of human values and a celebration of life.”
Arthur Long went on to say that Unitarian humanism does not, necessarily, entail the rejection of theism adding, by way of an example:
“When asked if he believed in God, … [Victor Hugo] is said to have replied: ‘Yes! . . . No! . . . Sometimes!’ Maybe there is such a thing as a genuine Christian Agnosticism.”
Unitarians come from many faith backgrounds and require no creedal affirmation or statement of belief from members. Some may not even feel that we are, as individuals, “Unitarian” but they may be on a spiritual journey that takes them through the ideas of Unitarianism and, perhaps, on to something else. Such is the nature, and the openness, of this eclectic movement. Others, on the other hand, will have always regarded themselves as, quite simply, “Unitarians”.
History of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Unitarian Congregation
Just a brief synopsis by our Minister, Reverend Don Phillips
Histories of non-conformity in both Cheltenham and Gloucester refer to groups of dissenters meeting in each of the two towns from 1662 and in some instances they call them ‘Unitarian’. This is the date of the “Great Ejection” of a large number of clergy from the Church of England who were unable to accept the terms of the Act of Uniformity of that year. Local clergy are known to have been involved and some may have had Unitarian views, but it’s more likely that their Unitarian position developed over a longer period of time and organised Unitarian congregations came into being rather later.
We do know that the Bayshill Unitarian congregation in Cheltenham dates from 1832 and that the present church building was built between 1842 and 1844. The hall, in Royal Well Lane behind the church, was built in 1874. In 1983 the congregation began to use the hall as its worship space while the church building in Chapel Walk was let commercially (in use today by the Cotswold Auction Company).
Barton Street Chapel in Gloucester was built in 1699: “for a society of Presbyterians and Independents…the Independents left in 1715 to form a separate church in Southgate whilst the Presbyterians retained the building… and … by 1815 it had become Unitarian.”
The building closed in the late 1960s and was demolished in the 1980s for redevelopment, but the Gloucester congregation continued to meet regularly in the Quaker Meeting House in nearby Greyfriars until very recently.
From 2005 the Gloucester congregation has supported the development of a new Unitarian Fellowship meeting at the Quaker Meeting House in Ross-on-Wye, now known as the Herefordshire Unitarians. It is believed to be the first Unitarian community ever to meet in the county of Herefordshire.
In 2013 the Congregations of Cheltenham and Gloucester merged to form one. The new combined congregation meets weekly at Bayshill Unitarian Church, still in Royal Well Lane, Cheltenham. It also meets from time to time in hired premises in Gloucester.