Godawmighty and Lawks a mercy and other charming Southern sentiments of dismay. This article by Daniel Burke came out yesterday and has caused some consternation among Unitarian Universalists. One one hand, it’s great for our teensy tinsy religious movement to get mainstream press, and the hip HuffPo; feather in the coolness cap!
On the other hand, the article begins with a monster bummer.
It starts with this cringe-inducing phrase, “A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology.”
Oh, God no.
It seems that a self-identified neo-pagan from the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore felt the need to apologize to Humanists in the congregation who might be offended by the fact that the word “God” appeared in a hymn. Because, you know, people shouldn’t expect to hear the word God in a worship service.
But Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in “Once to Every Soul and Nation” might upset the humanists in the pews.
“I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,” said Mendes, 52, after the service. “We did say ‘God,’ which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.”
So right away we come off as bizarre-o. This isn’t just a word I’m throwing out there to be funny; it’s one Unitarian Universalist’s reminder to the rest of us that when it comes to our image in the broader culture, we appear to be so far off the beaten track of what constitutes religion, the wheels have fallen off our truck.
That first paragraph reveals us at our weirdest and worst: irrational, “pre-offended,” entitled, immature and quarrelsome. Politically correct hymns? No “God” allowed for fear of chastisement? Why else would a worship leader feel the need to apologize to anyone for anything said in the service if not for those pre-existing conditions in an obviously sick system? When a lay leader in any spiritual community feels obligated to offer a prophylactic “mea culpa” for the slipping in of one mention of “God” on Sunday morning, that’s all you need to know, isn’t it? This introductory tidbit immediately reveals the indulged quality of our individualistic, consumeristic approach to church life.
I’m not sure if the reporter edited Mendes’ remarks or not, but there is the further issue about why a profession of faith is in the least objectionable in a Unitarian Universalist congregational context. It is not: we recite them all the time as unison affirmations, covenants and credos. But someone has taught this conscientious lay woman well: she is on red alert for offense and is obviously walking on eggshells, the hallmark of a highly anxious system.
There will be those among my tribe who bristle at Daniel Burke’s inability to move outside the traditional definitions of religion when discussing our “experiment,” but again, why do we expect the larger world to understand us when we insist on so radically re-definining religion as to make it unrecognizable as such to the typical, even educated, person?
For 50 years the UUA has conducted a virtually unprecedented experiment: advancing a religion without doctrine, hoping that welcoming communities and shared political causes, not creeds, will draw people to their pews.
Helpful! Thank you! That is exactly what we have been trying to do — and it’s not really working. The rest of the article gets much more interesting, and to my mind, much better. We move out of the poor eggshell-walking scenario of the lay worship leader apologizing for the mention of “God” and into some really well-articulated expressions of what we could/should/hope to be about. There’s some good stuff here. It doesn’t entirely redeem the wackadoodle impression made in the first paragraph, but I think it helps:
Leaders say its no-religious-questions-asked style positions the UUA to capitalize on liberalizing trends in American religion.
But as the UUA turns 50 this year, some members argue that a “midlife” identity crisis is hampering outreach and hindering growth. In trying to be all things to everyone, they say, the association risks becoming nothing to anybody.
The UUA does promote seven largely secular principles that emphasize human dignity and justice.
Membership in the UUA dipped in 2011 for the third consecutive year, to 162,800, a loss of about 1,400 members. The number of congregations fell by two, to 1,046.
The UUA was formed in 1961 by the merger of two small, historic groups: Unitarians, who believe in one God, rather than Christianity’s traditional Trinity; and Universalists, who hold that God’s salvation extends to all, regardless of race, creed or religion.
Nearly 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered in Charlotte, N.C., last week (June 22-26) for the association’s annual assembly, where they celebrated their golden anniversary with hymns, remembrances and a large cake.
As usual, progressive politics prevailed, with pledges for an “institutional commitment” to ethical eating, an anti-discrimination rally and a special collection taken for ministry to immigrants.
Such activism dates to 19th-century Unitarian godfather William Ellery Channing, who argued that the aim of religious life is to encourage public virtue.
“That sense that religion must be practical and influence the moral and spiritual context in which we live remains absolutely central to Unitarian Universalism today,” said the Rev. John Buehrens, a former president of the UUA.
Like the UUA, one in four Americans sample from a variety of faith traditions, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A separate Pew survey found that 65 percent believe multiple religious paths can lead to eternal life.
“There has certainly been an increase in the amount of people who are open to the kind of ideas the Unitarian Universalists have championed,” said John C. Green, a political scientist who worked on the Pew studies and has studied the UUA.
“Whether they can convert that into members joining them is an open question. But the opportunity is certainly there.”
The Rev. Peter Morales, the UUA’s current president, calls those trends, as well as the exodus of Americans from most Christian denominations, “an amazing opportunity.”
“Millions of people are actively seeking a progressive, nondogmatic spiritual community,” he said. “Our challenge is to be the religious community that embraces those people.”
But some say the UUA is held back by members’ reluctance to proclaim religious tenets — a tricky task for an association that includes Christians, Buddhists, Jews, pagans, humanists and spiritual refugees from a host of more dogmatic faiths.
Many UUA members say they find meaning and purpose in the familial bonds forged in congregations — regardless of religious beliefs.
The Rev. David Bumbaugh, a professor of ministry at the UUA’s Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, was present at the founding of the association in 1961. He says the UUA has always shied away from God-talk for fear of offending members and shattering congregations.
But Bumbaugh has made the rounds recently at regional UUA conferences, encouraging them to publicly wrestle with foundational questions.
“What do we believe? Whom do we serve? To whom or what are we responsible? Those are the questions with which every viable religious movement must wrestle,” Bumbaugh has said.
“So long as those essential questions remain unaddressed, the dream will remain unfulfilled.”
An internal UUA report from 2005 suggested that more than dreams could die. The whole association could go toes up if members continue to muffle religious discussion, the report said.
“The consensus of experts from an array of fields — from organizational development to systematic theology — is that to grow effectively, a religious organization needs clearly defined boundaries,” the report states.
“And one cannot put even the most permeable boundary around nothing.”
The son of a Unitarian Universalist minister, Michael L. Scott, said the UUA has stepped — albeit gingerly — in a spiritual direction.
But a lack of defined beliefs has led the UUA to lose 85 percent of its young members, according to several reports, said Scott, an active member of his Unitarian Universalist congregation in Rochester, N.Y.
“Lacking any need to rebel against childhood orthodoxy, they simply drift away; they don’t see the point of what we do here,” he said.
Morales had a different experience leading a growing congregation in Golden, Colo.
“I actually don’t believe that religion is about what people believe. Religion is about what we hold sacred, and that’s very different from assenting to a set of propositions,” he said.
The Rev. Michael Franch, an affiliate minister at First Unitarian in Baltimore, has his own credo boiled down to three sentences:
“All living things are connected. Your behavior counts. Act on the basis of the first two sentences.”
Interesting gender and authority breakdown in this article: the one woman interviewed is also the only lay person the reporter talked to, and she is portrayed as being insecure and apologetic. Five ordained men contribute quotes that cast the vision for the movement. A male researcher is referenced, one Unitarian historical figure (male), and the reporter is a man.
Chewy stuff. How about that 85% loss of youth stat, huh? “They simply drift away. They don’t see the point of what we do here.” You want to know what a prophetic utterance sounds like? It sounds like that.