Some thoughts about UUCM

Some thoughts about UUCM
Hugh Stewart
June 2016

Mission

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead is a liberal religious community that celebrates spiritual and intellectual inquiry and growth. We are inspired to practice and promote our Unitarian Universalist values and principles with acceptance, compassion and love both within our church and in the larger world community
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This is our mission statement. It is a good one.
We are in fact a liberal religious community. We do celebrate spiritual inquiry in many ways – small groups, meditation sessions, pastoral care, sermons, and more. And we celebrate intellectual inquiry with seminars, sermons, and discussion.

We promote our values within our congregation and in the world community through black studies, participating in Family Promise. Concern for immigration issues,me&thee, the Meetinghouse Series, and many other activities.

Implied, but not explicit, in these words is a duty to make our journey available to those in need of spiritual support.

It has often been said that the country is full of people who share our beliefs, but don’t know that there is a home for them. Most of these closeted UUs are wandering through life without support.
In the past two decades, this situation has become more critical. Millions of people are dissatisfied with the religion they have known, and are leaving. Many feel rejected by a religion that denies gay members, same sex marriage, unwed couples, abortion, and other intrusions into their personal life. Others find the hypocrisy of their religious leaders unacceptable.

Those who are newly unaffiliated – sometimes called “nones” for their answer to their religious affiliation – are a fast growing segment of our society. In the past 25 years, their number has grown from just 5% to 20% of the population. This is, of course, not a majority, but it is a significant portion of the population, and the trend has not stopped. It was recently announced that for the first time I U.S. history, Protestant Christians constitute less than 50% of the population.
Many of the unaffiliated have no interest in any form of religion. But there is a segment that feel the need for association with some form of religion – just not the one they left.

UUism, of course, can fill the gaps in many of the unaffiliated’s needs. We certainly do not impose rule on the life of adherents. In fact, we applaud many of the things that their former religions abhorred. And to my knowledge we don’t have leaders who systematically misbehave. Certainly such behavior would not be tolerated. Either by the congregation or the UUA.

UUA Past President Peter Morales came to our congregation years ago to conduct a workshop on membership growth. He said that to not welcome newcomers is like withholding food from the starving.
We are good at welcoming those who come in to our home. Typically, many members introduce themselves to a strange face among us, welcoming, answering questions, and encouraging their return.

Trouble is, there are not that many coming into our home.

We should be clear as to what we are attempting to do. It is tempting to say we want to grow our membership. Certainly the Board of Trustees and especially the Treasurer, would like to see that happen. But growth for growth sake is a bad goal. Our goal must be to make our spiritual support available to those in need. We can’t sit back and wait for them to find us, it is our duty to tell them that we are here for them, and what we have to offer.

Barriers to Entry
When a company is interested in entering a new market, it typically examines the barriers: high capital cost, heavy competition, lack of image, and so on. So it should be with us. What barriers does a person face when looking for a new spiritual one? Or, perhaps, a person who would take an interest in UUism if they stumbled across it. It would be instructive to conduct a survey of the congregation to learn how the current members came to UUism.

First, it is necessary to know that such a religion exists. UUA attempted a national advertising campaign years ago that fell flat. The reasons are not known to this author. But a few ‘elevator speeches’ is not enough to introduce a new product. And to the intended audience, UUism is the equivalent of a new product.

To many people, a UU congregation is just another religion, akin to the many Protestant congregations in their community. If they are recently unaffiliated, they may not even be looking for a new place to go. But if they are, they are likely to dismiss us as another Protestant congregation.

How can we lower this barrier?

Everyone has some concept of what Catholicism is about, what Judaism is about, and what Protestantism is about. Very few people know what UUism is about. If they know anything, it is likely that UUs can believe anything they want. Not helpful.

We need to be able to respond that UUs are seekers of truth, that we believe all persons have dignity and deserve respect, and that love is the basis for all life. We believe in democratic and scientific methods as opposed to direction from hierarchical leadership. We need to learn how best to spread this word so that our community understands us.

Beyond that, there are some subtler things that stand in the way of being recognized for who we are. Our building was intended to be a Christian church – and it looks like one. Most of us are proud of the look and feel of the building, and to suggest any changes would probably cause rioting! But our name is another matter.

Our name is misleading, inaccurate, and a turnoff for many who might otherwise find us.

Unitarian
In what we now call the fourth century of the Common Era, the Council of Nicea – called together by Emperor Constantine – declared that (the Christian) God was in fact three: the father, the son, and the ‘holy ghost’. With the force of the Roman government, this became the religion of virtually all of Europe. The only religion allowed was the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and those who took exception seldom lived out their lives.

In 1455, Johannesburg Gutenberg began printing Bibles. Prior to that time, only hand copied Bibles were available and only clergy had them. So the masses only knowledge of the writings is what they were told by the priests. Now, suddenly, anyone with some money could read it for themselves. The impact of the printing press on world history was enormous. Lay people, reading the words instead of hearing them filtered through a priest, realized that there were great differences in what they were being told and what the Bible said, and great inconsistencies within the Bible itself. This led to the formation of many new religions – all Christian, but based on different interpretations protesting in one way or another about the teachings of the mother Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation was under way.

In the 1500s, the little country of Transylvania (now Romania) which had been alternately occupied by countries on either side of it, found suddenly that it was being left alone for a while. An underground group who did not accept the idea of the Trinity could now speak publicly. They called themselves Unitarians.

Two centuries later, a movement called the Enlightenment, was becoming popular. Again starting with Gutenberg, the new ability to share information led to scientific discoveries that had impact far beyond the discoveries. For instance, Galileo’s discovery of the moons circling around Jupiter led ultimately to scientists (called natural philosophers in that day and age) to come to believe that God had no part in the day to day operation of the universe. At best, God created the universe and its laws, and set everything in motion, to continue running on its own. A natural outcome of this line of thought was the rejection of the Trinity. Although they did not know of the Transylvania movement, this new movement was also called Unitarian. Actually, it was considered a highly derogatory term by its opponents, but it held on and became a new Christian Protestant religion. Defined by Ellery Channing, Unitarianism quickly took hold, especially in New England, and many Congregational congregations adopted Unitarian beliefs.

John Bartlett, then minister of our congregation, was a very close friend of Channing. He was one of the first to convince his congregation to adopt Unitarianism, and our name was changed to Second Congregational Church (Unitarian).

It is interesting to note that early Unitarianism was a religion of the educated upper classes. Many if not most ministers were also university professors. That is why most Unitarian congregations did and still do not hold Sumer services – if the minister didn’t teach, he didn’t preach!

Universalism

Around 1500, a new movement of reformed Catholicism was evolving. By the 18th century, this movement – known commonly as Calvinism.- had come to America and was very popular in New England and elsewhere.

It is based on five principles:

• Total Depravity – As a result of Adam’s fall, the entire human race is dead in trespasses and sins. Man is unable to save himself
• Unconditional Election – Because man is dead in sin, he is unable to initiate a response to God; therefore, in eternity past God elected certain people to salvation. Election and predestination are unconditional; they are not based on man’s response because man is unable to respond, nor does he want to.
• Limited Atonement – Because God determined that certain ones should be saved as a result of God’s unconditional election, He determined that Christ should die for the elect alone. All whom God has elected and for whom Christ died will be saved.
• Irresistible Grace – Those whom God elected He draws to Himself through irresistible grace. God makes man willing to come to Him. When God calls, man responds.
• Perseverance of the Saints – The precise ones God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith. None whom God has elected will be lost; they are eternally secure

In short, God selected a few to join him in heaven, the rest are lost, and there is nothing you can do about it. (Why this was ever popular Is beyond me!)

Anyway, again due to new thinking from the Enlightenment era, Universalism arose in opposition to Calvinism. This new religion claimed that all humans either may or will be saved through Jesus and eventually come to harmony in God’s kingdom, i.e., go to heaven.
Universalism spread among working classes largely through tent revivals in the 19th century. It probably lost its distinction as Calvinism declined and other Protestant religions that also proclaimed universal salvation.

Unitarian Universalism

By the middle of the 29th century, both Unitarianism and Universalism had evolved to a more liberal footing. In Atlanta, the local Unitarian and Universalist churches merged in 1918. Discussions of a national merger took place over many decades. Finally, in 1961, the two denominations formally merged to crate the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Inc. The merger was in part motivated by strengthening the two movements – both were small by comparison with just about any other denomination.

Thomas Starr King is credited with defining the difference between Unitarians and Universalists: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”

A website called European American Evangelistic Crusades has write ups on each of what it considers cults. UUism is one. They say in part:

The defining belief of Unitarian Universalism is that religion is a matter of individual experience, and that, therefore, only the individual can decide what to “believe.” The roots of this belief can be found in the Unitarian insistence on freedom of personal conscience in matters of faith. As a result, while Unitarian Universalists have no required creed, they treat as a sacred value complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. Unitarian Universalists believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs and adhere to morals from a variety of cultures or religions. They believe that what binds them together as a faith community is not a creed, but a belief in the power and sacredness of covenant based on unconditional love. That love is enough to hold together such variety derives from their Universalist heritage which affirms a God of all-inclusive love.

Current concepts about deity, however, are diverse among UUs. While some are still monotheistic, often from a Judeo-Christian perspective, many profess atheism or agnosticism. UUs see no contradiction in open atheists and agnostics being members of their community because of the rich Unitarian legacy of free inquiry and reason in matters of faith. Still other UUs subscribe to deism, pantheism, or polytheism. Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the “spirit of life” that binds all life on earth.

Cult or not, this description of UUism is pretty accurate. You will note that this does not define Unitarianism as belief in one god although Universalism still is god oriented.

In defining the merged organization, seven principles were adopted. It is significant that there is no mention of Jesus or God. Having originated as liberal religions in comparison with most of the religions of the day, the combined organization took another big step farther left. Yet by providing that congregations should operate in a democratic manner, each congregation is free to adopt whatever theology it chooses, and many remain theist or even Christian.

I believe we should abandon the use of the terms Unitarian and Universalism for these reasons:

o We are no longer Unitarians. Although individuals may believe in a god, we no longer as a movement profess there is a god.

o We are no longer Universalists. Again, individuals may choose to believe that all will be accepted into heaven, but it is not part of the UU belief.

I suggest we call ourselves UUs. This neutral term honors our heritage without claiming what we are no longer.

There is ample precedent for such a move. The Radio Corporation of America – on recognizing that radio is an obsolete term, and that America in its name did not help overseas sales, changed its name to RCA Corp. it was later bought by General Electric, who is now named GE Corp. The American Association of Retired People is now AARP. In each case, the organization was able to retain its identity while shedding reference to obsolete images.

Using that model, replacing Unitarian Universalsm with UU retains the identity while discarding the obsolete concepts.

It has one further advantage – I am not the first to call Unitarian Universalist a mouthful. UU is already in common use to shorten the long phrase.

Church

Most definitions of church have to do with a Christian building, or with the hierarchy of a Christian organization, as in the Roman Catholic Church.

We are not a church, we are a congregation.

We are a member of the Unitarian Universal Association of Congregations, not Churches. In fact, less than half if the members of UUA have church in their name. We should call ourselves a congregation.

Our building was once called a meetinghouse. I have to admit that it I s nearly impossible to say “I am going to the meetinghouse”. So I concede that we call the building a church. But we need to learn how to use these words.

I am a member of a congregation. I am not a member of a church. I go to church on Sunday.

In2015, the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Congregation voted to remove the church for it name. Here are their arguments:

Reasons to keep their name
Those who prefer to keep our name gave many reasons, including these.

• The word “church” gives us a stronger influence when supporting various social justice issues in the public eye; gives Eric more “clout”
• UUs come from a primarily Christian tradition and our name should reflect that
• Keep our present name and re-define what church means
• Church implies morals and values, not Christianity
• Church indicates a spiritual place, which we are, not a political or ethical group.
• Our actions are more important than our name
• A word other than church could confuse
• Most people know church to be a religious place and it is an accepted term
• More than half of the fastest growing UU congregations had Church in their name, so it does not prevent growth. (CRW Note: about half of UU congregations nation-wide have “church” in their name according to a survey that Andy Anderson assembled).
Reasons to drop the word “church”
Those who favor dropping the word “church” and changing the name offered many reasons including these.
• The word “church” connotes Christianity while we honor many faith traditions
• Members raised Jewish find the word “church” very uncomfortable, even painful
• Some newer members were put off by “church” and almost didn’t try us out, but found we were actually more inclusive than our name implied
• People with no previous religious affiliation avoid “church” because of religious right/evangelical connotation
• To many, church means Bible-based and conservative
• We’ve changed our name before with no negative effect (from Sno-King Fellowship to Edmonds Unitarian, to Edmonds
• A name that connotes inclusivity (like congregation or community) better reflects us
• We need a name that is an incentive to attend, not a barrier
They removed church from their name.

A new era
This congregation has always been left of center. The Puritans left the Church of England and became the more liberal Congregationalists. Rev. Holyoke’s congregation left the First Congregational Church to form the more liberal Second Congregational Church. Rev. Bartlett took us to an even more liberal Unitarianism, which took a big left turn when it merged with the Universalists. This congregation continued to liberalize under Rev. Hill, and is now under the leadership of Rev Von Courter – a Humanist – to lead us into our fourth century.

Now we have an opportunity to greet our fourth century by making ourselves more accessible to growing ranks of unaffiliated.

And it can start with a name change. I submit that the name

UU Congregation of Marblehead.

This has a fresh modern look that is not misleading, is not so cumbersome, and is better suited to telling our story.