Searching for unity in theological diversity
by Donald E. Skinner
Where is the unity in our theological diversity? It is a question that ministers, congregations, and individual Unitarian Universalists have grappled with since at least the 1840s.
At sixty-two-member Epiphany Community Church UU in Fenton, Michigan, Sunday worship includes Scripture readings, a version of the Lord's Prayer, and a sermon in which God is a featured presence. Sunday after Sunday the congregation follows the Christian calendar. Members take Communion and observe Lent and Pentecost. And interwoven into this are distinctly UU occasions such as a water service and flower celebration.
Two states to the west, the Michael Servetus Unitarian Society in Fridley, Minnesota, has services in which God is generally not named. Instead there are occasionally references to the “spirit of life.” There are meditations or reflections, but not prayers, in keeping with the fellowship's long history of humanism.
In Hoffman Estates, Illinois, members of the Panthea Pagan Fellowship meet to do earth-based rituals, which include a lot of dance and other movement, calling the five directions, and invoking the God and Goddess.
These three congregations, one Christian, one partly humanist, one pagan, represent just part of the theological diversity within the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the more than 1,000 other congregations in the association there are many different blends and varieties of Unitarian Universalists––humanists, Christians, pagans, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and those still searching for an identity.
The question,“Where is the unity in our theological diversity?” is currently being addressed by the UUA's Commission on Appraisal. The commission, a group of nine elected volunteers, is charged with investigating “any function or activity of the Association which in its judgment will benefit from an independent review.” The commission delves into a different topic at least every four years. In January 2002 the members selected theological diversity as their topic and will deliver a report at General Assembly 2005.
At the same time, Unitarian Universalists are asking themselves another question, suggested by UUA President William G. Sinkford––whether we have or should have a common language of reverence and what, if we did have it, that language would sound like. The two topics are coincidental, say commission members.
The study has attracted a great deal of interest.
At Fridley, the Rev. Laurie Bushbaum views the study as an important moment in Unitarian Universalist history and hopes it will lead to more liturgical resources “to help us name and frame our differences and what we have in common. The hymnal is great, but we need more––more opening words, chalice lighting words, responsive readings, a whole meditation manual. ”
Melanie Silver, a member of the Panthea Pagan Fellowship, hopes the report will help congregations such as hers by opening a dialogue about diverse religious practices. Paganism is widely misunderstood, she believes. “We need to support each other, to work on our misconceptions and correct them.”
The Rev. Peter Boullata, minister at Epiphany, said that for a long time UU Christians felt marginalized within the UUA, but that's beginning to change. “Once we establish what it is we all hold in common, our theological differences can be seen through that light.”
In its examination of theological diversity commission members have talked with many groups and individuals. They have held workshops at two General Assemblies and conducted hearings and focus groups at several congregations. Part of the commission's work included a survey asking congregations about their worship practices as a means of determining the range of theological diversity.
The survey, which includes responses from 369 of the association's 1,000-plus congregations, found that 86 percent of congregations do joys and concerns orally and 75 percent have responsive or unison readings. The most popular annual special services are flower communion/ceremony, 88 percent; Christmas Eve, 82; children's religious education service, 71; and water communion/ceremony, 70 percent. About 45 percent said that the recitation of a covenant or affirmation is a standard part of their services.
Both the Unitarian and Universalist faiths have had periodic bouts of anxiety about their doctrinal integrity. Unitarians have struggled with the issue of “who we are religiously as a people” every twenty to forty years, starting as early as the 1840s when the Transcendentalists challenged the “orthodox” Unitarians about the importance of biblical miracles in validating the authority of Jesus.
By the 1870s, Unitarians were arguing whether a commitment to Unitarian ethics was all that a member—or even a minister—needed to affirm in order to join. At issue was whether a Unitarian church was Christian. By the early 1920s, Unitarians were debating whether a belief in God was a defining characteristic of Unitarian faith. Humanists argued that a belief in humanity was the truly Unitarian doctrine.
The Universalists argued about the immediacy of salvation in the 1830s—did it follow a period of punishment for sin, or did it happen immediately at death?—and about the extent to which Universalism was Christian in the early to mid-20th century.
While the commission's study has been a source of excitement for some, it has been a source of anxiety for others. Commission member James Casebolt of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Ohio Valley in Bellaire, Ohio, and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, said that some UUs feared the commission might be trying to write a creed. It is not. “For the most part,” he said, “the response has been one of anticipation and excitement over what we may have to say––mixed with some incredulity that we're willing to stick our necks out by taking on such an issue,” he said.
Commission member Janice Marie Johnson, president of Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and cochair of the Metro New York District Committee on Antiracism and Diversity, said, “I came into this faith with the understanding that beloved community is a goal. These discussions around the core of our faith have given me hope that all of us who engage in this dialogue are articulating and creating beloved community.”
Other commission members are Joyce Gilbert, Mark Hamilton, Manish Mishra, and the Revs. Orlanda Brugnola, Linda Weaver Horton, and Thomas Owen-Towle.