The house I have just moved into is situated directly opposite Cambridgeâ€™s Unitarian Church. I knew nothing at all about the Unitarians but was curious to discover that these ones appear to spend most of their time having salsa evenings. It is clear from without (and I havenâ€™t dared look upon the within) that they have some disco lights and a glitter ball, and they were kind enough to post an invitation through our door asking us to join the salsa fun.
Not that thereâ€™s anything strange about salsa per se. Indeed, Latin American dancing has for many centuries played a vital role in church history. And I like a glitter ball as much as any man. (Probably more, to be honest.)
No, the curious thing is that the Unitarians appear to do very little else. Youâ€™d imagine that a church might house some kind of regular worship, but no â€“ itâ€™s salsa all the way.
Things began to get even more curious when a church historian friend of one of my housemates explained that the Unitarians donâ€™t believe in the divinity of Christ, or in the Trinity, or even necessarily in God.
So it appeared that what we have here is not so much a church as a full blown cult, based on a multiple heresy. Suddenly, they seemed like a much more interesting group to have living opposite us, and I was quite keen to discover more about their dark activities.
Though not quite keen enough to go to the salsa evening.
Fortunately, the website for the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches has all the answers. Note that they use the word “Christian” â€“ on the surface, it looks like perhaps rumours of their heresy have been greatly exaggerated.
And yet when they come to tackle this question themselves, they ask: Christian or More Than Christian?
More Than Christian, eh? Now that sounds more like the kind of cultish claim that I was hoping for.
“Among Unitarians,” they explain, “there are those who find the focus of their faith elsewhere than in liberal Christianity, for example in religious humanism or Creation Spirituality.”
Ah…so that would be…Less Than Christian, surely? Religious humanism or Creation Spirituality being, essentially…not Christian.
Their perspectives on Jesus and the Bible shed further light on them. It seems that generally speaking, they think of Jesus “as a major figure” but “as divine only in the sense that his life and work revealed – or came to symbolise – the divinity and high potential inherent in everyone.”
Again…not Christian. I mean â€“ lovely, of course, to meet regularly and recognise that Jesus was a nice man. But I could do the same thing in recognition of Sue Perkins â€“ who is very nice â€“ and I hardly think it would qualify it as a religion.
And as far as the Bible goes, “Bible extracts may be incorporated in Unitarian worship, as may readings from any sacred or secular literature or poetry which is felt to be appropriate and relevant.”
So â€“ thatâ€™s just about anything again, isnâ€™t it? Itâ€™d be like reading Edward Lear at my Sue Perkins meetings.
So â€“ hereâ€™s the big question – what do they believe? The website has answers here as well, in a section titled “Unitarian Theology” â€“ though theology seems a slightly generous word to use when “hotchpotch philosophy” would suffice. In short, the page explains that “God” could be anything of importance in your life, a symbol, a mystery, or â€“ if you prefer â€“ altogether meaningless.
So essentially Unitarians can believe…well, anything they like. Or indeed nothing.
In other words, they are the same as anybody else.
It therefore seems a little unfair on real heresies to dignify the Unitarians with the same name, suggestive of something radical and daring, when they donâ€™t really believe in anything.
Except, it seems, salsa.
So not so much a cult, then, as a social club.
And I suppose itâ€™s inevitable that when a group of people who have no system of beliefs to unify them decide to meet regularly, theyâ€™re going to have to find something else that draws them together. Iâ€™d imagine the salsa just emerged as the one thing that they were all really interested in â€“ though perhaps that was many decades ago, and now itâ€™s just an inbred tradition which most of them go through the motions of without any real passion at all.
Itâ€™s all a bit disappointing. But if I want a freakish cult nearby, I suppose I could always check out Eden Chapel, which if nothing else is home to various central CICCU* meetings.
*Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union; like the Spanish Inquisition, but without the nice red costumes.