An “Unprecedented Experiment”

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.

13 Replies to “An “Unprecedented Experiment””

  1. Most Unitarian-Universalists do not realize that they are Unitarian-Universalists. [Does that presume that Unitarian Universalism is a set of preferences/values, or does it require actual involvement in a congregation? I would argue the latter is true. – PB]

  2. Well, that is very disheartening. I can see many people just reading that first bit and, confirming their suspicions, moving on to another article without reading the rest of it.

  3. You know, it’s strange – people seem to make such a fuss over saying the word, “God,” in UU churches that we forget that the church was founded on generally Christian and Jewish principles, based on the Bible, etc. When John Murray set foot in New Jersey in 1770, I wonder if he ever thought nearly 250 years later that we’d be afraid to speak of God in any aspect for fear of driving away a humanist, atheist, or any other person searching for and/or interested in the Divine. If we can’t talk about God, we can’t get to the heart of what it means to be religious or spiritual, and that strikes at the heart of what our church is supposed to be about – welcoming everyone.

  4. I agree with the bummer. I love the word “God” – I’ve made it my own, it has a very personal meaning to me (which has little to do with a personal god), and I NEVER apologize when I use it.

    The reporter was looking for a peg to hang the story, and it was found. Tant pis. Let’s do better next time, folks!

  5. Scott, you took the words right out of my mouth!! The verbiage of the divine is far too often a stumbling block to actually having spiritual dialogue. As a born-and-raised UU, I find myself open to the word “God” because I consider it simply a label to help us discuss the spirit as we experience it (my formerly Catholic parents are more reluctant). One of my biggest frustrations with my church has been its paranoid politically correct attitude; heaven forbid that a CHURCH be remotely spiritual! Humanism has its very firm place in Unitarian Universalism, but so does Christianity and Judaism (the faiths we evolved from, lest we forget).

    Additionally, as a (young) adult returning to active parish life, I agree that the youth attrition is a cause for concern. I’m entering seminary in the fall, and I’m drawn a ministry with youth and young adult populations for that very reason.

  6. I don’t know about anyone else, but I get really annoyed when people say that we can’t possibly have religious communities without creeds. Because I don’t care whether it works in theory, in practice we do.

    Anyway. The newspaper article sounds a bit rubbish, but of course we must be rooted in spirituality. I happen to be atheist, so technically my worldview doesn’t require religion or church. But I enjoy worship – I find good worship meaningful and uplifting. So I’m a [British] Unitarian, where else could I be myself? [Hi Angela! I will be arriving in London next week and hope to meet you there! – PB]

    I don’t use the word ‘God’, I don’t apologise for it, and I find that I can get to the heart of my religious experience without it. But I wouldn’t want people to confuse my personal lack of God with a general lack of spirituality. Worthwhile worship is not merely a lecture on ethics. Unitarianism (and UUism) is more than just liberal politics.

  7. As one of those young members “who just drifted away” folks are wringing their hands over I’m here to tell you, that’s not what happened to most of us at all. For many of us who were extremely involved in the work of the church (whether on a congregational level, a district/continental level or both) we felt that our work went largely unappreciated. For an association that claims to support everyone’s spiritual journey and accept people for who they are UUs are a fairly homogeneous group in terms of age, class, race, and belief; factors that can alienate all kinds of people from those who want to talk about God in their worship, to people of color, and more radical youth. Also a factor in the drastic loss of youth and young adults was the decision by Bill Sinkford a few years ago to defund all youth and young adult programming in the name of “congregational polity,” a decision that largely erased the spiritual communities we had devoted years of our lives to building. I served as worship coordinator for the youth of both the Mass Bay District and at GA for a number of years as well as attending my home congregation every Sunday, and I have to say while youth worship rarely, if ever, mentioned God, there was a far greater appreciation for both the divine and for our spiritual community there than in any church service I’ve been to. A lot of us felt the loss of that community deeply, and couldn’t continue to find a home in an association that would not support its existence, either for the next generation of youth or for those of us who are now “adults.” I still actively miss the role that UUism played in my life, but visits to local congregations have left me dissatisfied, and while I continue to maintain friendships I made through UUism, I have pretty much stopped trying “be a UU” in any other ways. Obviously mine is just one perspective, but “drifting away” is far from how I left.

  8. In response to Flo, I’m curious at the heyday of YRUU how many youth went to national cons. And what percent of total youth in youth programming that actually was. Because from where I see, as a young adult who didn’t grow up UU, the main conversation on youth and young adult programming is dominated by, well, angry former YRUUers who were the national con folk. Which I believe to be a very vocal minority.

    I admit to only being good friends with a handful or two of folks who grew up UU, but the ones actively involved in our congregation have all individually told me…they didn’t like the con culture of yruu and didn’t participate in the cons very much. And if the goal, from an institutional standpoint, is for youth programs to retain youth after they’ve bridged in our congregations, then it certainly appears to me that YRUU was a failure from an institutional standpoint. Yes, it changed the lives of countless youth. (Well, we could probably count, but I don’t have the number.) In the end, what’s better for the faith, what’s better for congregations that make up the UUA? Passionate UU young adults who actively refuse to be in congregations, or a youth program that does lead to eventual congregational involvement? (And that is a legitimate question we should have a collective answer to when designing youth programming.)

    I’m curious to know what the percent of youth who left the faith was during the YRUU heydays, and what percent now after it’s demise. Because I’m willing to bet the numbers aren’t all that different. Blaming the lack of youth retention on YRUU demise and Sinkford’s decision seems a little too convenient to me.

  9. @ Kinsi and Flo:

    As I said in my earlier comment, I’m a born-and-raised UU, and I was active in my congregation throughout my childhood and youth years. I went to GA as a freshman in high school and felt marginalized by the Con/YRUU culture of youth in attendance. They all knew each other, they all hung out, they all had their inside jokes that didn’t include me. I spent the entirety of GA going to adult panels (fascinating!) and hanging out with the adults of my delegation. I returned to my home church and found the YRUU community there lacking as well, and instead focused my spiritual energy on worship and the main congregation. In high school I participated in some youth-related activities, but I primarily related to my church through non-youth activities. I had felt like I was on the outside looking in, a feeling that was unusual for me to experience through church.

    I have never drifted far from Unitarian Universalism, maybe BECAUSE my participation was through traditional worship; I wasn’t part of some subculture of the church, but instead spent my time in worship and with adults, understanding our congregation and our faith. I’m starting seminary this fall, and as I grow even closer to Unitarian Universalism, I wonder where we can fill in the gaps for UU youth and young adults.

  10. I’m torn between not wanting a Young Adult Caucus in the sense that I don’t feel the need to marginalize myself while at the same time recognizing the need for a Young Adult Caucus because older people seem to run everything. It probably should be telling that at GA where there is a young adult caucus, the young adults appear to be much more involved in the proceedings than in any congregation I’ve ever attended. If anything the young adults seemed far more in the thick of things and the youth much less at GA than in my congregation at home.

    (Also torn between “Old people have time and money, you have neither, maybe they should be running things” and concerns that we’re going to miss out on some important opportunities to do good and grow because our churches tend to be so set in their ways.)

  11. I’m also one of those people who grew up in the UU church but then “drifted away.” My family joined a UU church when I was in third grade, and I was pretty involved growing up, participating in Sunday School and so forth. In high school, I was an assistant with the younger kids’ Sunday School, and in college I taught Sunday School for a couple years. Two things were pretty off-putting to me when I was in college, though. One was that I, after quite a bit of thought and consideration, considered myself Christian. I got very tired of having people think I hated gay people and stuff when I said so. The second thing was a minister who rather boasted in a sermon that we UUs were so much better than everyone else because we didn’t need sacraments. I was involved with one of the Christian groups on campus at the time, which had a weekly Communion service, and I didn’t like the implication that I was somehow spiritually inferior for participating in it. In the end, I decided it was easier to be gay and Episcopalian than Christian and UU.

  12. I am an atheistic “UU” (member only because I was in need of friends at a vulnerable point in my life, and found them in my UU congregation.) I have no personal experience as a youth or young-adult UU, but I do believe that moving in the direction of more religiosity will turn off folks like me. I realize that the UUA is making more traditional religious people as priority for “recruitment”, if I can use that term. So be it.
    I think almost every religion loses its young adults, whether because of teen rebellion; relocation to college; busyness with career, social life, etc.; the “uncool” factor; or other reasons. I also wonder how many return to their religion in a later phase, when it seems that they believe that (irrational though I find it) their young children “need” religion/religious training. I suspect most of those UUs return to UUism at that point, rather than look elsewhere. (Not sure where I would find those data.)

  13. I’m excited to find all this dialogue about UU-ism. I found the church as an adult and have been a staff member, volunteer, and attending non-member for years at a large congregation. This is what I wonder: has UU-ism backed itself into a corner? Our traditions – like Scott pointed out – are Judeo-Christian yet in the years after the merger, UU-ism has welcomed so many faiths into the tent that any attempt to articulate more limited boundaries is bound to run afoul of previously-welcomed groups – and possibly the 5th principle. One possibility is to form fellowships that clearly stake a claim in particular territory – a UU Christian Fellowship, for instance, would proclaim loudly and clearly that your congregation was going to be using the word “God” unapologetically. I’m not saying this *should* happen, but I think it would be a more honest alternative than, for instance, suddenly ditching the Sweat Lodge portion of a Coming of Age program because leadership considers it cultural appropriation (as has happened at my congregation). Again, if after years a practice is going to be purged because of a decree from leadership, at least be consistent and also remove “Native American religion” from your web site’s list of places where UUs “seek wisdom.”

    My 2 cents 🙂 Thanks again for the conversation.

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