I spent about two and a half weeks this summer in Europe–the United Kingdom and Italy. Over the next few weeks I will be posting some reflections on my time there. Unlike my trip last summer, which I mostly posted about while traveling, I am writing about my journey after the fact because I was so caught up in things and had little time to work on my blog while I was gone.
My time in the United Kingdom was almost entirely spent at Harris Manchester College. It is the constituent college of Oxford University that has a historic connection to Unitarianism. It was founded as a dissenting academy in the eighteenth century and for much of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries was a primary site for the education of British Unitarian ministers and, arguably, the central node connecting the global Unitarian network. Numerous Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist ministers from the United States spent time there, including John Frazier who served as the founding minister of Cleveland’s now defunct Black Humanist Fellowship of Liberation. Until quite recently, it has functioned as a major training ground for Transylvanian Unitarian academics and a site where Unitarians, or those affiliated with the tradition like the Brahmo Samaj, have come for academic studies.
This is, of course, largely due to the fact that England was for most of the college’s existence the center of a far reaching empire. It is not a coincidence that, with the exception of the Transylvanian tradition, most of the folks who have come to study Unitarianism at Harris Manchester have come from one of the colonies (now former colonies). Today this mean that the college has an exceptionally fine collection of international materials. When I was there last summer I was able to find stuff from Unitarians in India and Transylvania that I was unable to even locate at Harvard.
The precipitous decline in the fortunes of British Unitarianism has meant that the college is at somewhat loose ends in terms of figuring out how to relate to its Unitarian heritage. Its statues require that it offer “a course of education and training” for Unitarian ministers and laypeople and also stipulates that it will employ a tutor for the training of Unitarian clergy. There are perhaps 3 or 4 people pursuing the Unitarian ministry in the United Kingdom and all of them are doing so through the new, non-accredited, Unitarian College.
The Governing Board of the college is interested, therefore, in figuring out if they can honor the statues by establishing a Centre for Unitarian and Dissenting Studies. I was invited to Oxford to be part of the conversations around the possibility of forming the centre. It looks rather promising and I have been invited back next year with the hope that an initial series of events around the centre will be able to be launched in the summer of 2025–coinciding with the two hundred year anniversary of the establishment of the American Unitarian Association and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. If the centre does get established I am hopeful about its potential to celebrate, extend, and transform the Unitarian tradition. I look forward to sharing further updates.