We Unitarians sometimes like to contrast our liberal faith with that of "traditional religions", emphasizing the modern, broad-minded, inclusive character of our own with the opposite characteristics of some others. Ours must be a creature of enlightened 20th century North America, wouldn’t you say? Well, your sceptical response is right, our liberal faith did not originate either in the 20th century or in North America.
We are just the latest beneficiaries of centuries of liberal religious thought and engagement with the world. Modern liberal religion arose in Central Europe in the middle of the 16th century and put down its sturdiest roots in Hungarian-speaking Transylvania. In stark contrast with most of Europe at that time, Transylvania enjoyed a high degree of religious tolerance, at least among the four major faith traditions that were well established there, including Unitarianism. The high point of those early years came when Francis David, a priest who had converted to Unitarianism through his own study of the bible, succeeded in convincing King John Sigsmund, and the Diet (or parliament) meeting in the town of Torda, to issue an edict institutionalizing that official toleration. It provided that no citizen could be persecuted because of his or her religious beliefs. The year was 1568, and the Unitarian Michael Servetus had been burned at the stake in Geneva by John Calvin for expressing his beliefs only 15 years earlier.
Now let’s segue to the late 20th century and the Partner Church Program. This program began as an effort by North American Unitarian Universalists to save Transylvanian villages from demolition by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu. Once that danger had passed, North Americans realized how rewarding their interaction with the Transylvanians had been for participants on both sides of the Atlantic. So instead of folding up, the Partner Church Program expanded to include Hungary and several other countries. Our congregation "signed up" for the program in 1994, and we were paired with Budapest Second Unitarian Church, which is now renamed for Bela Bartok whose family were members.
In recent years, we have brought two successive ministers of our partner church to Canada to get to know us. The first one, Jozsef Kaszoni, is now the minister of First Unitarian Church of Budapest, the cathedral church in Hungary. The second one, Csaba Razmany, has now become the Unitarian Bishop of Hungary, though he retains his position as senior minister of Bela Bartok Unitarian Church. Our Partner Church Group is now corresponding with the new assistant minister of Bela Bartok, Sandor Leta, who was brought in from Transylvania to take over the day-to-day ministerial work from Csaba. We had hoped to bring Sandor to Toronto this Spring, but his Romanian passport wouldn’t allow it.
A number of our members including Ellen and myself have also visited our partners in Budapest. Last August following an international meeting in Budapest, the two of us spent a memorable afternoon with Sandor and his very charming young family, which reminded me that our Hungarian counterparts have a great deal to give us North Americans; our partner relationship is certainly not a one-way street. Our relationship challenges us to recognize our faith as the result of a long period of development, not as a New Age Johnny-come-lately on the religious scene. It also challenges us to apply our avowed principles of tolerance and appreciation for diversity to their more conservative theology and traditional institutional forms. And they have things to learn from us such as the way our ministers and congregations interact in a non-hierarchical way.
We also toured parts of Transylvania after the meeting with a busload of (mostly) other Unitarians, led by the assistant to the Unitarian Bishop of Transylvania. Among other places we visited was the ancient Roman Catholic church in Torda from which the Edict was issued. The interior looked like it had hardly changed in 4½ centuries. How do I know? Because there is a famous painting depicting Francis David orating before King John and members of the Diet. The resulting Proclamation of Religious Freedom is so important in liberal religious history that this painting can be found hanging in every Unitarian church in Central Europe. In fact, Jozsef Kaszoni recently wondered aloud how there could be a Unitarian church without this painting on the wall. Well, we’re going to have to rectify that. Your Partner Church Group is proud to donate the Edict of Torda to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.