Everyone likes a good anniversary. Yet one bicentenary seems to have slipped right under the media radar this year. Despite its soporific title, the Doctrine of the Trinity Act of 1813 did something truly revolutionary. Through an amendment to the Blasphemy Act, it gave legal protection to Unitarian worship after three centuries during which religious radicals in England who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ had faced vilification, ostracism, persecution, the prison cell – and, in some cases, the burning pyre.
Edward Wightman, a Staffordshire cloth merchant, was the last man burned for heresy in England. He died in agony at Lichfield in 1612 in large part because he rejected the Trinitarian belief that orthodox Christianity grants divine status to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons but one essence. Wightman had recanted once already, when he began to feel the flames. Condemned again, and led back to the stake, he tried a second time to save himself, but “for all his crying the sheriff told him he should cost him no more and commanded faggots to be set to him whence roaring, he was burned to ashes”.
If you ever find the social consequences of religious toleration and pluralism silly, illogical or wasteful, just try the alternative: in 17th-century England, maybe, or in the Central African Republic today, where rival militias butcher those from the wrong “faith community”. Two hundred years after the forgotten Act, nobody would say a bad word about the Unitarians – that enlightened congregation of gentle seekers whose notable adherents stretch from novelist Elizabeth Gaskell to Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. Along with Quakers and liberal Jews, Stephen Fry – the supreme pontiff of a certain brand of British pluralism – finds them “very easy to get along with since they are not concerned with conversion, with proving themselves better or righter than anyone else, nor with splitting up into factions”. Yet Unitarianism was once, in Christian terms, the foulest heresy of all.
Their church stands for “the nurture of life’s spiritual dimension”, “the use of reason and honest doubt in the search for truth”, “mutual respect and goodwill in personal relations” and “constructive tolerance and openness towards the sincerely held beliefs of others”. Crucially, it aims to “uphold the liberal Christian tradition” rather than to bear witness to any specific metaphysical credo. But should such a non-dogmatic value pack rank as a religion at all? That question blazed into the pre-Christmas headlines this week to divert a people in thrall to pagan winter-solstice rituals of gift, fellowship and feast, and who appear to worship a department store’s cartoon hare and bear.
The Supreme Court has decreed that a Church of Scientology counts as a location of religious worship, and so a fit place for the solemnisation of a faith-based ceremony of marriage. Whatever you think about the disciples of L Ron Hubbard, Hollywood A-listers or otherwise, the judges followed the logic of history. In England, the circle of social and legal protection for belief has widened inexorably since the first permanent chink in the wall of the state monopoly in faith was opened by the Toleration Act of 1689 (only for Protestant Dissenters, and only in registered chapels with licensed ministers).
Challenge that hard-won process, as some fuming monotheists have done in their dissent from Lord Toulson’s judgment, and you have to rewind a lot of other legislation too – not least the 1813 Act that blessed those airy-fairy Unitarians. That, year, Unitarians voiced the hope that an “invidious and limited Toleration shall give way to UNIVERSAL RELIGIOUS LIBERTY” (their capitals). Here, at least, history – and the law – has utterly vindicated them. Would even the flintiest dogmatic theologian care to go mano a mano with Sir Tim Berners-Lee? You could pack a stadium, let alone a church, for that.
A winding and often blood-stained path runs from the 1534 Act of Supremacy, which confirmed Henry VIII as the head of a uniform national church, to the 2001 census in which 390,127 Britons declared their religion to be “Jedi”. (The number of Star Warriors, by the way, had dropped to a mere 176,632 by 2011.) First the door of legal acceptance opened to other Christians – although Roman Catholics had to wait for full emancipation until the Relief Act of 1829. With glacial slowness, other creeds glimpsed a little light. The 1855 Places of Religious Worship Act, which the Supreme Court reinterpreted this week as it overturned Lord Denning’s ruling in the Segerdal case, allowed that sites of Jewish worship could also host marriage ceremonies. In fact, even Denning’s repudiation of Scientology’s religious claims in 1970 contained the seeds of its own reversal. He conceded then that Buddhism deserved the “religion” stamp despite its conspicuous lack of a “supreme being”.
In 1917 came a groundbreaking case – alluded to by Lord Toulson – which changed the rules of the toleration game. As so often in the Dickensian melodrama of the English law, it all turned on a contested legacy. In 1908, Charles Bowman had died and made the Secular Society a beneficiary of his will. His relatives protested that, since the non-religious society existed to promote an unlawful “blasphemous libel” – that is denial of the Christian faith – it could not legally receive the gift. So they should trouser the dosh. Five law lords, however, upheld the Bowman will. Lord Sumner stated that “the phrase ‘Christianity is part of the law of England’ is really not law; it is rhetoric”. Good heavens! In the depths of the First World War, fought on all sides with the aid of jingoistic prayers and military padres, an appeal judge baldly admits that England is not, in law, a Christian country.
Bowman vs Secular Society has lately given rise to an especially forceful insistence on the secular nature of English law. Sir James Munby, head of the Family Division, was the judge who in 2011 upheld a local authority’s refusal to let a Pentecostal couple resume work as foster carers – because they had said that their beliefs could lead them to transmit their disapproval of homosexuality to children in their care. Sir James affirmed that “we sit as secular judges serving a multicultural community of many faiths”. He went on to underline that “the laws and usages of the realm do not include Christianity, in whatever form”. Sir James reinforced his point in a recent Law Society lecture, arguing: “It is not for a judge to weigh one religion against another. The court recognises no religious distinctions and, generally speaking, passes no judgment on religious beliefs.”
Except, perhaps, to consecrate a belief system as a “religion” in the first place. Read in full, Roger Toulson’s verdict – lucid, literate and wide ranging – may stiffen your faith in the Supreme Court. However, his licence for the Hubbardist nuptials carries a sting in its tail. Far from succumbing to anything-goes relativism, Toulson does try to define a religion. And he does so even though he admits that “there has never been a universal legal definition of religion in English law”. All the same, the learned head then pops above the parapet to offer a “description” of the concept rather than a “definitive formula”.
For Toulson, a religion means “a spiritual or non-secular belief system … which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system … Such a belief system may or may not involve belief in a supreme being, but it does involve a belief that there is more to be understood about mankind’s nature and relationship to the universe than can be gained from the senses or from science.” Partisans of any creed or none may chew on those words until long after the Christmas bird has shrunk to skin and bones. Might the Jedis soon invoke Toulson to stage their own state-sanctioned nuptials? I can see no reason to object. If all this sounds absurd – and even if you distrust the Hubbardists and their Hollywood acolytes for reasons of behaviour rather than beliefs – then the grumbling theists have to tell us where they would draw the line.
During Britain’s long Christian twilight, traditional believers have routinely complained about the rise of what they see as wacky sects and fringe faiths. Many claim that G K Chesterton argued that “when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything”. The words are, aptly enough, apocryphal: the great Catholic apologist never wrote them. But his best-loved creation, Father Brown, certainly expresses the sentiment in the story “The Oracle of the Dog”, when he says: “It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition … It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are.” The clerical sleuth maintains that this return of the “bestial gods of the beginning” comes about “because you are frightened of four words: ‘He was made Man’”. That is the Incarnation – the orthodox meaning of Christmas – that the Unitarians and their many forerunners braved prison and pyre to deny. Thanks to the courage of such “heretics”, a judge can now strew legal confetti over a Scientologist wedding. So be it. The blessing of “superstition” is also the triumph of freedom.