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Our Faith in the World

General Assembly 2007 Event 2078

Unitarianism has a long history but, for most Unitarian Universalists in North American, it is remote and distant, made up of weathered manuscripts, black and white etchings and old photographs without much relevance in their daily life. In this session, however, 450 years of history came to life in the person of Bishop Árpád Szabó, the first constitutionally elected bishop of the Transylvania Church.

In 1989, with the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, one of the last holdouts of the communist world opened to freedom and the cradle of Unitarianism became accessible to the West. Since that time, there has been a growing relationship between North American Unitarian Universalists and the Transylvanian Unitarian Church.

Together with Dr. Paul Rasor, director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College, they discussed the religious similarities and differences between Unitarianism in North American and Transylvania. The session was moderated by the Rev. John Gibbons, minister of First Parish Church in Bedford, Massachusetts and the Rev. William Sinkford gave an introduction.

"There is an enormous range of belief and practice in UU groups around the world. Not just in Transylvania, but in many places in the world, especially in post-colonial countries," said Rev. Sinkford. "It's a sign of our growing maturity that we're having conversations which will not guarantee that we'll have similarity, that differences can be not dangerous but spiritually challenging and as a source of deepening our faith."

There have been many historical influences on their theological thinking. After 1989, the relationship with North American Unitarians has had a big effect on Transyvanian Unitarianism. "The song Spirit of Life speaks about wings and roots." Bishop Szabó commented that "there is now a very healthy balance between our roots, our long history, and our wings, your influence.

The influence of rationalism on Transylvanian thinking is very strong. New Transylvanian ministers often train in the United States. Education and educating is considered a major part f their role in the church. "In the U.S., it would be nice if we had more of the roots part," commented Rev. Rasor. "And those deep roots come from where Árpád comes from. Those are really deep roots."

One obvious difference is that the Transylvanian church has a bishop. Having a bishop is one form of commonality that helped keep them together and allowed them to survive. Much of Transylvanian Unitarianism history has been shaped by oppression. They are a double minority, ethnic as well as religious. They have not had the luxury of rampant individualism as seen in North America. They have been oppressed, lopped off from Hungary and given to Romania, under Nazism and then communism. "In the American church, it seems like there is a sense of a need for more unity, more spirituality," commented Rev. Gibbons.

This fall, the Transylvanian Unitarians celebrate their 450 th anniversary. Their history is a continuous struggle for survival, in the 17 th century from Calvinists, the Counter Reformation in the 18 th century (all Unitarian buildings were confiscated). "This is why we preserve a bishop as a spiritual leader of the church. We are surrounded by orthodox Catholics, bishops and arch-bishops; a "president" wouldn't do it for us," Rev. Szabó joked.

North American UU is highly pluralistic while the Transylvanian church has many rigidities and form. But is there something constant at the core of Unitarian Universalism? Rev. Rasor replied, "We met in Transylvania last summer with UUs from over 16 countries. [On the surface,] it seems like we are split apart. There's a longing for something, to be sure. At the heart of our faith is ‘liberation'. The same root as ‘liberal' with roots in the enlightenment. The core of freedom is one of the lingering ideas. Ethics and social justice has been a constant through various philosophical paths."

"Channing was a big influence on Transylvanian Unitarianism. All of his works have been translated into Hungarian," commented Bishop Szabó. "Because we refused the divinity of Jesus, other Christian churches consider us non-Christian. But being a Christian means being a disciple of Jesus. It doesn't mean accepting all the dogma."

"In Transylvania, although we are a theist Unitarian religion, we try to express our conviction that our God is not a far distant transcendent being but also that we are living moving beings in God. God is very close to our lives. Beside God there is another center, the human being as children of God, having a huge responsibility to be coworker in preserving and conserving the whole universe as God's creation."

The audience was extremely interested and responsive to Bishop Szabó. The line at the microphone was extremely long. To Bishop Szabó : What is the new rendering of the bible that liberates women? "In Hungarian, there is only one third person in Hungarian, just one pronoun for he/she or him/her. We now have women ministers. It is true that men and women sit separately at service but that is a long tradition."

To what extent is the Bible authoritative, the roots of your religion? "The importance of the bible in our religion comes from the Reformation. We are living among very conservative Christians. We refuse the divine nature of Christ, but we still use the Bible. We have readings from the Bible in our worship services. The main idea of the sermon comes from the text of the Bible," said Bishop Szabó. Rev. Gibbons commented, " the Transylvanian reading of the Bible is not as a literal reading but as a tool to be used for human purposed. Likewise, Jesus is seen as an exemplar, a teacher and model for human teacher but not as a resurrected god."

What is communion in your tradition if you don't accept the tradition of Jesus? "By communion service, we remember Jesus' life, his sacrifice (not for humanity but for his own teaching and ideas), and his teaching. Communion is also an expression of community—with Jesus, with God, with each other," replied Bishop Szabó.

Rev. Rasor commented that we should be less worried about what the differences or what we hold in common. "The discussion opens a dialog which is more important than the specifics."

Bishop Szabó closed with these comments. "Like Frances David, we are heretics and thinkers. We are faithful to the heresy."

Reported by Dean Godette; edited by Pat Emery.

Transylvanian Bishop Arpad Szabo.

Bishop Árpád Szabó

Rev. Paul Rasor.

Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor