uuworld.org: liberal religion and life

Gloucester's revival

How the oldest Universalist church in America came back to life.
By Jane Greer
Spring 2006 2.15.06

Printer friendly version


Sunday morning greetings

The Rev. Wendy Fitting (left) greets congregants of the oldest Universalist church in America—the Independent Christian Church, Universalist, in Gloucester, Mass. (Photo by Marilyn Humphries)

On a narrow street in the coastal fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, just two blocks from the waterfront and a block from a fish processing plant, you’ll find Church Street. The streets are crowded here; small shingled and clapboard houses have doors opening right on the street—the kind of houses that betray an old, working-class past. There are no historic plaques here, just families. Right next to St. John’s Episcopal Church is the Independent Christian Church, Universalist, a simple clapboard building with a 100-foot spire. It’s an unusual name for a Unitarian Universalist church. But there’s a lot about this church that’s unusual.

The church, the oldest Universalist congregation in America, was in critical condition fifteen years ago. The building was in a state of decline and was sustained by an aging congregation of sixteen active members. A “No Trespassing” sign was posted prominently on the front of the building to deter vandals; after the members gathered in the sanctuary each Sunday, the usher would lock the door behind them.

Today the church counts one hundred eighteen members. Thirty children are registered in its religious education program. The “No Trespassing” sign is long gone. The congregation has an active social justice committee, a restoration committee, and a Welcoming Congregation committee that promotes inclusion of bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people. A capital campaign last year raised $820,000 for a new roof and for painting the front of the building “palladium buff,” the church’s original color. The building, which turns 200 years old this year, is frequently used for community events, such as town meetings and concerts. The congregation marked the bicentennial of the laying of the cornerstone in September with a special service featuring numerous local politicians. A series of historic talks is planned throughout 2006.

How did Universalist, as it’s known in the community, get from there to here? What convergence of elements and circumstances was necessary to move this congregation from moribund to thriving?

The answer, of course, is complex.

Many attribute the church’s revitalization to the arrival of the Rev. Wendy Fitting, who started as the church’s extension minister in 1989. Under the now defunct extension ministry program, more than 130 congregations received three-year grants from the UUA to help pay a minister’s salary until they could support the minister on their own. After her extension contract with the church ended, Fitting was called by the church to be its settled minister.

But much of the church’s success can be assigned to the city of Gloucester, a fishing town that was receptive to the spirit of Universalism in the eighteenth century and has retained that spirit over two centuries.

Universalism is largely a North American movement with roots in eighteenth-century England. Many of early Universalism’s ideas came to New England through the writings of James Relly, an English theologian who taught that Jesus’ death had saved everyone. The Universalist idea that all human beings are saved was eagerly seized upon by many who rejected the Calvinist idea that salvation was only available to the predestined few. Universalism offered welcome relief from Calvinism’s hellfire and damnation.

Relly’s writings found a receptive audience in Gloucester. Some members of First Parish, the town’s only church, formed a group in the 1770s to discuss these ideas, meeting at the home of Winthrop Sargent, a leading merchant and intellectual. This group would later leave First Parish to form a Universalist congregation.

Then John Murray entered the scene. In 1770, Murray, an English preacher, was on board a ship heading toward a new life in America after a series of misfortunes that included expulsion from the Methodist church because of his Universalist views. The ship ran aground off the coast of New Jersey, and the passengers disembarked. While ashore, Murray happened to meet Thomas Potter, a farmer and avid Universalist. Delighted to discover that Murray was also a Universalist, Potter invited him to stay and preach at the meetinghouse he had built on his farm. Murray, who had hoped to disappear into the New World, was soon persuaded that he had a message to deliver and began preaching to eager audiences at churches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. Murray’s message is crystallized in his famous words, “Give them not hell, but hope!”

When the Gloucester coterie heard that Murray was preaching in Boston, they invited him to visit—and persuaded him to stay on as their minister. In 1779, thirty-one men and thirty women signed the charter of corporation, and in 1780 a new meetinghouse, called the Independent Church of Christ, was dedicated. The original building was replaced in 1806 by the building used today.

The town’s Congregationalists were not pleased by the arrival of Universalism and launched a series of attacks on Murray, trying to have him driven out of town. But the Universalists rallied around their minister and put up a staunch resistance. This resistance also took the form of a protest over paying taxes to support First Parish. A long legal battle ensued, which the Universalists eventually won. The case was historically significant as an important part of the years-long legal process defining the divide between church and state.

Murray made his home in Gloucester for the next twenty years, marrying Judith Sargent, Winthrop Sargent’s widowed daughter. Judith Sargent Murray was one of the original signers of the Universalist charter and an early proponent of women’s rights.

Universalism was in many ways a renegade faith preaching the equality of all. In addition to the equality of the sexes promulgated by Judith Murray, one of the first signers of the Universalist charter was a freed slave named Gloster Dalton.

Although Universalists later established seminaries and colleges, early Universalist ministers rarely had formal theological training and built their following largely through oratory. Because so much depended upon their preaching, the earliest Universalist ministers were noted for their quick wit. When one of Murray’s opponents heaved a rock through a window narrowly missing his head, he picked up the rock and said, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.” Many Universalist ministers became circuit riders covering broad swaths of territory.

The spirit of that early Universalism lives on at Universalist. Sunday morning services usually include the Lord’s Prayer and a benediction with the sung response, “God Be with You,” harkening back to the church’s Christian Universalist roots. But in addition to these Christian elements, services can also include contemporary poetry, Jewish prayers, songs and readings from different countries and other world religions, and brief talks about the church’s history.

“Putting the service together is an amazing collaboration,” says music minister David Bergeron, who together with Fitting plans the services. “We have our own liturgical calendar. We draw stories and themes for anthems, readings, and hymns from the various traditions that relate to the calendar.”

This liturgical calendar is based on the Christian calendar, Fitting explains. But it is actually in the form of concentric circles. The Christian calendar is one circle, the Jewish calendar is another circle, and the pagan/agrarian calendar is the third. The calendar also includes secular holidays like Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and UU events like UN Sunday and “Guest at Your Table,” a yearly family fundraiser for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

Universalist’s worship reflects twentieth-century changes in American Universalism. In the first half of the twentieth century, Universalism began to move beyond the Christian doctrine of universal salvation and toward a celebration of “universal religion” and the wisdom of other faith traditions. This modern spirit of Universalism is reflected in the religious diversity of Universalist’s members—and in the diverse elements of the liturgy.

The diversity of traditions represented at Universalist isn’t simply for the sake of variety. Fitting says, “That those traditions have personal meaning for the members who bring them to the congregation contributes to the necessary integrity of the worship service, and the life of the church as a whole.”

This respect for individual congregants is key in helping the church bridge theological differences. “I don’t say the Lord’s Prayer,” says Kate Ruzecki, chair of the finance committee. “And when we do the Doxology, I say ‘love’ instead of God. If I wasn’t comfortable, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. Many congregants feel the same way as Ruzecki.

But the liturgy plays an important role in transcending these differences, says Bergeron. “Something happens in the celebrating that is electric and palpable. Members talk about this in our liturgy, and we seem to feel empowered to face the week and to do our best to make a difference in the world as a result.”

In talking about the church’s success, Fitting likes to use the analogy of the blue china cups. When she arrived at Universalist in 1989, she discovered that the congregation was still using china during coffee hour. “They were actually ahead of the game,” says Fitting. “They never used styrofoam so there was nothing to get rid of.” But beyond holding tea and coffee, the cups were emblematic. They represented the way things had been done at the church for a long time, and Fitting was reluctant to abandon this. “The first constituency I had here was the elders,” she said. “It was going to be based on them staying. We had to pull together.” That meant that the cups stayed, the old hymnal stayed, and the Judith Sargent Murray Guild stayed. “I said to them, ‘I promise you that you will not lose your church.’” No one left.

As a result of Fitting’s “go slow” approach, she won the congregation’s trust. “We adopted this rule: Before you take something away, think about adding something,” she says.

Bergeron agrees. “We kept the cross, but added the chalice. We kept the red hymnal, but we added the gray one. We kept the Lord’s Prayer, but we added prayers for the feminine [nature of God].”

When the church had its first opportunity to hold a same-sex ceremony of union a dozen years ago—the first in the Cape Ann region that includes Gloucester—Fitting was equally politic. She met with the board chair to ask for her support before the meeting at which the ceremony was to be discussed. During the meeting, the board chair indicated that she supported Fitting. The board gasped, Fitting recalls, but they realized that banning the ceremony would be a violation of the church’s principles. In the end, almost the entire board attended the ceremony.

“She didn’t ruffle feathers,” says member Patricia Poore. “And eventually younger people started coming back.”

Fitting has focused on the organic growth of the congregation, rather than a surge in attendance. “I wasn’t going to do a job where I’d be insane about numbers. I’m too old for that,” she says. “The real kiss of death is to jump on visitors and hold them; to hand them a hammer and tell them that they’re chair of the restoration committee.” Instead, Fitting has patiently built relationships that have resulted in memberships.

The key is communication—and respect. “There’s an acceptance of those whose beliefs might be in many different places that makes it a comfortable place to be without being judged and evaluated,” says Charles Nazarian, a recent member. “But there’s also a healthy dialogue that goes along with it.”

This dialogue has kept the congregation together over issues that might have divided another. When the church became an official Welcoming Congregation last year, there was conflict over displaying the rainbow flag. “The connotation is that it’s the gay flag,” says Fitting, who is openly gay. “Emphasizing one part of the membership over another just didn’t feel right. All are welcome here.”

The solution? Talk, lots of talk, about the meaning of symbols. Fitting said the congregation finally hit upon the idea of creating a sign with a series of religious and other symbols, including a rainbow triangle, to be posted outside the building. “So far, people’s only criticisms are that some of the letters are too small,” Fitting says. But she admits relief that what could have become a crisis resulted in an acceptable compromise.

Part of the tolerance that Universalist practices is also a respect for people whose theological views change. Fitting tells the story of a parishioner who after a few years at Universalist went back to the Roman Catholic church. “Universalist was a safe way station where she could, with support, freely examine her faith,” she said. “That’s wonderful. We hope people will stay. But we can’t say we support the free and responsible search for truth and meaning and then close the door.”

There are few overt signs of Gloucester’s fishing past at Universalist. The most dramatic memento is Universalist’s 100-foot spire, which was built to hold a light that could be used to guide sailors back to harbor. It is probably accidental that in the back of the sanctuary, the floor creaks like the sound of a wooden ship on the water. Yet, fishing is part and parcel of what this place is, although the industry has become fragmented and complex over the years. Conflicts have emerged between fishermen using different equipment and targeting different stock, and between fishermen and scientists and public policy makers.

In 1994 the church was involved with many other community groups in banning U.S.-flagged factory trawling fishing ships from Gloucester harbor. These ships not only catch fish but process them onboard. Foreign-flagged factory trawlers were banned but many international companies were partnering with American fishing companies and sending in ships under the U.S. flag. Together with the other groups and the support of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, the church saw the law changed.

But aside from the politics of fishing, there is a spiritual element to the occupation. “When you go to sea,” says Bergeron, who besides being music director at Universalist is also executive director of the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership, “you’re coming face to face with the power of the ocean, the mystery of it, life and death. The closer you come to that mystery, the more of an understanding you get of what’s important.”

The hazards of the fishing industry were recently portrayed in Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book The Perfect Storm, which told the story of the Gloucester swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail, lost in a 1991 storm. Although this particular storm was of freakish proportions, fishing has always been dangerous: 10,000 Gloucester fishermen have lost their lives in fishing accidents over three centuries.

Universalist has always had strong significance in the community. Says Fitting, “The root system of the church is so entwined with the root system of the community that there are people in Gloucester who really feel like this is their church even though they’re really members of the Catholic church, because they grew up in this neighborhood.” She has been asked to do funerals for people who never set foot in the church but staunchly maintained that it was their church until the very end. “When the distraught family calls, it’s not the right time to discuss it,” says Fitting.

Fitting’s arrival at Universalist seems almost serendipitous. A longtime resident of Cape Ann, she wanted to find a ministry job in the area. When she heard about the availability of the Gloucester church in her last year of seminary, she decided to apply to the UUA’s extension program specifically for that position, and got it.

Fitting came to the ministry later in life, although she says that she first had ministerial ambitions in junior high when she fell in love with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. After attending New York University during the countercultural heyday of the 1960s, her interests took another tack. “After a series of strange jobs, I ended up at the Fernald School [a state-run institution for developmentally disabled youth and adults] in Waltham, Massachusetts,” she says. There she moved up the ladder in mental health administration. Then, she says, “I had experiences of grace in some pretty unpleasant places with people who had been rejected. I felt changed.” She was further influenced by the L’Arche movement, begun in Canada, that established spiritual communities for those with developmental difficulties. Ministry seemed to be her calling.

Fitting attended Harvard Divinity School, graduating at age 40. She then interned at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Rockport on Cape Ann, which ordained her.

Brought up as a Unitarian Universalist, Fitting says that her formative years in the denomination had an unintended effect. “The UU church I grew up in was like a debating club,” she recalls. “People were very rude.” This rudeness has led her to an appreciation of civility that has stood her in good stead. “We need to agree to walk together although we might disagree. One person doesn’t say the Lord’s Prayer, and others do. We’re not going to beat one another up about it.”

Universalist lives with a visible past that is very much a part of a vital present—for better or worse. The building and its upkeep require an ongoing infusion of energy and money.

But the congregation seems to have achieved a balance between the old and the new that works whether it’s about the liturgy or restoring the balcony. “We have something very special in our church that draws mysteriously from our unique connection to history,” says Bergeron. “We feel like we are living the present-day chapter of a still-unfinished story that extends back to the very beginning of the American experiment.”

more spirit
more ideas
more life