In Boston, Unitarian Universalists ponder nature of their faith
The Boston Globe, June 28, 2003
By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/28/2003
They’re all here this weekend — the Christians and the Jews, the Buddhists and the Wiccans, the theists and the atheists, and the agnostics and the humanists — all members of one religious denomination not sure how it feels about God.
Prodded by a new president, a onetime atheist who had a conversion experience in a hospital room, the Unitarian Universalist Association is embarking on a freewheeling debate over whether to reverse its decades-long drift away from what the president, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, calls the ”language of reverence” and instead begin to ”name the holy.”
That doesn’t mean a full-blown religious revival, but for a church whose members for decades have been more comfortable with ”humanism” than Christianity, Sinkford’s words are causing a stir. With 7,400 Unitarian Universalists gathered here for the group’s general assembly at the Hynes Convention Center, Sinkford’s suggestion has captured the imagination of a crop of younger ministers and lay people who say they want to reclaim some of the language and ritual their parents had abandoned. ”I don’t want to drown in euphemism anymore, and I certainly don’t want to play that old game of, `If you can’t prove it, I don’t want to hear it,’ ” said the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, the minister of First Parish Unitarian Church of Norwell, who freely talks about God and objects to what she calls ”liberal fundamentalist censorship” in one of the nation’s most liberal religious movements.
”I’m talking about the hot-button words, like `God’ and `spirit’ and `spiritual’ and `soul’ and `sacred’; the intangibles that frighten people because they’ve been used against them at some point in their religious life,” Weinstein said. ”The culture today tosses words around in a thoroughly despicable way and that offends all of us, but that doesn’t mean we refuse to use the language, because then we’ve conceded defeat.”
Many Unitarian Universalists are wary, however, fearing that Sinkford’s embrace of a ”language of reverence” will lead to an expectation that members of the denomination should join in venerating God.
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”This is an unusual church in the sense that you can, with some comfort, say you’re an atheist and still go to church,” said W. Lance Haworth, 62, of Falls Church, Va., an atheist and secular humanist who is active with an organization called Humanists, which represents Unitarian Universalist humanists. ”I’m more than a little concerned that Bill Sinkford’s message is going to make agnostics or atheists feel they are not included,” Haworth said. ”. . . If I feel God is part of the necessary language, then I’m probably going to leave.”
Unitarian Universalism is a democratic, open denomination in which the nature of faith is regularly reconsidered and redefined. Sinkford’s advocacy of ”reverence” has sparked a raging debate on a Unitarian Universalist Association electronic bulletin board and in the movement’s 1,010 congregations around the country. At this weekend’s convention, some are wearing stickers saying, ”Happy Humanist,” and there was some audible gasping during Sinkford’s opening speech yesterday, when he remarked that ”souls are saved one at a time.”
Although individual congregations have been grappling with what kind of role, if any, there is for traditional religious language on Sunday morning, the debate began in earnest in January, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram erroneously reported that Sinkford wanted to add the word ”God” to the denomination’s statement of principles. The newspaper published a clarification — Sinkford actually spoke of ”a language of reverence . . . that can acknowledge the presence of the holy in our lives,” but the debate had begun, and Sinkford said that he is not unhappy to have sparked the discussion. ”God, am I having fun,” he told delegates yesterday, triggering much laughter.
Sinkford said he is not, at this point, advocating anything more than a conversation among the denomination’s 223,000 members, and is ”certainly” not ”trying to move Unitarian Universalism to an adoration of a deity.” He said that that conversation could ultimately lead to a change in Unitarian Universalist ”principles.”
Sinkford said he believes in God, and has prayed regularly ever since his son nearly died of a drug overdose six years ago.
”There is a shift that is taking place, a generational shift in large part,” he said. ”. . . [T]he new generation of Unitarian Universalists are much more open to religious language, want more spirituality in their worship and in their religious life.”
Unitarian Universalism is one of the more unusual strains of American religion, with a rich history here in the Boston area. The nation’s first Unitarian church, King’s Chapel, is located downtown, and the nation’s first Universalist church, the Independent Christian Church, Universalist, is in Gloucester.
Their theological beginnings were decidedly Christian, but also born out of opposition to central elements of traditional Christian theology. As the names suggest, early Unitarians rejected the Trinity, while early Universalists rejected the notion of a permanent hell for the damned, instead endorsing a concept of salvation for all.
Adherents of the movements began to question the role of God in the 19th century. Unitarianism, which was a liberal offshoot of the Congregational church established by the Puritans and Pilgrims, spawned Transcendentalism, which rejected the notion of an anthropomorphic God. Then, in the early 20th century, humanism emerged as a major force in Unitarianism, drawing in people who wanted to focus on the role of humans, rather than God, in the world.
The Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged in 1961, and the resultant association has no creed, meaning adherents do not need to subscribe to any particular religious doctrine.
Its members have the highest level of educational achievement and the second-highest income level of any major American religious group, according to the denomination. The denomination is also overwhelmingly white; Sinkford, elected in 2001, is Unitarian Universalist’s first African-American president.
Sinkford’s push to reconsider the role of traditional religious language comes as he is actively trying to boost membership rolls and is claiming that ”we have moved in from the margins.” The denomination has been piloting an advertising campaign in Kansas City, Mo., aimed at luring new members, with a slogan, ”The Uncommon Denomination,” and with messages such as ”A Different Trinity: Respect. Freedom. Justice.”
Unitarian Universalists have been moving away from humanism since the late 1980s, according to scholar David M. Robinson.
”This shift reflects the general spiritual desert that is present-day American culture — a general sense that there is something lacking in contemporary American society and that people are not being nurtured effectively,” said Robinson, director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University and the author of ”The Unitarians and Universalists.”
Many ministers are wary of alienating those Unitarian Universalists who cringe at anything that smacks of superstition or mythology.
”It feels uncomfortable to me that we might be pushing into something that doesn’t include all of us,” said the Rev. Sydney K. Wilde, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Va. ”I’m a humanist — I believe we have made God in our own image, rather than the other way around.”
And the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, the senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, describes herself as ”bemused” by the debate but concerned about anything that hints of a God who
”is spying on you and sees everything you do, and if you’re bad you’re going to go to hell and burn forever.”
Still, a growing number of Unitarian Universalists — and, unlike many mainstream Protestant denominations, Unitarian Universalism is growing — are eager to see a change.
”I would like for Unitarian Universalists to be able to express, in inspirational language, what it is that moves and guides us through the world,” said Melissa Quirk, 25, of Cambridge, who grew up in a Unitarian Universalist church in Manhattan and now attends the First Parish in Cambridge. Many younger clergy are experimenting with use of words like God, practices like prayer, and, in some cases, ritual and iconography.
To a person, Unitarian Universalists who say they believe in God are careful to explain that they reject traditional conceptions in favor of a mysterious divine presence at work in the world. ”I talk about God all the time, but do I talk about an old white man with a beard? No. I talk about a presence that’s larger than ourselves,” said Rosemary Bray McNatt, minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in Manhattan. ”There’s been a tradition over the last 30 to 40 years to talk about what we don’t believe, and what’s happening now is a shift, where many of us want to have a conversation about what we do believe, and we are using language that people have thought was not ours to use.”