At 50, Unitarian Universalists examine mission

July 9, 2011

A recent Sunday service at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore ended with an apology.

Laurel Mendes, a neo-pagan lay member who led the service, feared that a reference to God in the hymn “Once to Every Soul and Nation” might have upset the humanists in the pews. So, Mendes explained to the congregation that religious doctrine had been duly scrubbed from hymns in the Sunday program.

“I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by reciting something that might be considered a profession of faith,” Mendes, 52, said after the service. “We did say ‘God,’ which you don’t often hear in our most politically correct hymns.”

Welcome to a typical Sunday in the anything-but-typical Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious movement with a proud history of welcoming all seekers of truth — as long as it’s spelled with a lowercase “t.”

Dramatic readings from the biography of 20th-century labor leader John L. Lewis? Sure. An altar crowded with Christian, Buddhist, Islamic and Jewish symbols? Absolutely. God-talk? Umm, well . . .

For 50 years, the UUA has conducted a virtually unprecedented experiment: advancing a religion without doctrine and hoping that welcoming communities and shared political causes, not creeds, will draw people to its pews.

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 say a “midlife” identity crisis — trying to be all things to everyone — is hampering outreach and hindering growth.

Nearly 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered in Charlotte on June 22-26 for the association’s annual assembly, during which they celebrated their golden anniversary. But 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.

Many UUA members say they find meaning and purpose in the familial bonds forged in congregations, regardless of religious beliefs. But some say the UUA is held back by members’ reluctance to proclaim religious tenets — a tricky situation for an association that includes Christians, Buddhists, Jews, pagans, humanists and spiritual refugees from a host of more dogmatic faiths.

The Rev. David Bumbaugh, a professor of ministry at the UUA’s Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, was present in 1961 when the association was founded. 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 members to wrestle publicly 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 the whole association could go toes up if members continue to muffle religious discussion. “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 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.

Nineteenth-century Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing 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 UUA president.

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 that 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.”

— Religion News Service

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