by D. J. McAdam.
I am not a Unitarian Universalist. Until age 52, I had never attended a Unitarian Universalist service, nor had I met - at least, to my knowledge - anyone who practiced that faith.
Why, then, did I attend a Unitarian Universalist service today, and what was I hoping to find? I was raised a Roman Catholic. My ancestry includes persons who were Anglicans, Episcopalians, Reformed Dutch, Quakers, and early Baptists. My intention in attending a Unitarian Universalist service was, simply, to broaden my understanding of religions other than my own.
Unitarian Universalists, to their credit, are very welcoming. Their websites beckon. They have committees that deal with new members. They have, as I found out this morning, greeters waiting at the door. But let me not get ahead of myself, and instead take things step by step.
It is Sunday morning, and my companion and I have chosen to attend the 9 a.m. service, rather than the 11 a.m. service. The church is located in a nice area in northern Virginia, nestled amongst a small forest of trees, the leaves of which are showing signs of gold and russet on this crisp autumn day. We park our vehicle, and enter at approximately 8:45.
There are two "greeters," a male and a female. They ask if we have name tags, and we tell them this is our first visit. This revelation is taken as good news. We write our names on temporary name tags of the Hi-my-name-is variety, and fill out a short form which will cause us to be put on the church's monthly mailing list.
The greeters sound us out. We are asked how we learned of the church, and I mention the internet. We are asked about our reasons for attending, in a light, non-interrogatory sort of way. I mention my connections with Catholicism, and Quakerism, a response which does not really answer the question, but which seems to satisfy the need for a response. My companion mentions an interest in earth-based beliefs. The male greeter appears to misinterpret this as an interest in environmentalism, and tells us about the church's walking path. The female greeter comes closer to the mark by mentioning Wicca. They are nice, friendly people, these greeters, and they invite us to enter the church.
We enter, and I look around, attempting to assess the environment. The dress code is casual. A few men, like myself, wear sport jackets. A few individuals wear jeans. Most are somewhere in between; it is primarily a sweaters-and-chinos crowd. Everyone looks relatively pleasant. Everyone wears a name tag. Two women sit together. They could be a lesbian couple - the church welcomes gays and lesbians, which I consider a good thing - or they could just be two women sitting together. There are, I guess, about fifty people present, filling one half to one third of the available seating.
The church is pretty, with nice windows through which one can observe birds flitting through the fall foliage. There is no crucifix, no overt religious symbolism of any kind, other than some white, shell-shaped thing which will at some point in the service be called a "chalice," and will be lit with a candle. I know a small bit of the history of Unitarian Universalism, but find myself wondering whether modern-day Unitarian Universalists consider themselves Christian, a question that will, today at least, remain unanswered. There is nothing to kneel upon, as Unitarian Universalists do not kneel during service. A young woman plays a piano. Some announcements are made from a speaker at a lectern.
A bell is rung, and service officially begins. We stand, and sing a hymn from the book. It is, as are all the hymns that will be sung that morning, a bad hymn. The lyrics are trite. The musical composition is poor. The copyright date is 1979. My mind begins to wander, and I begin to feel sorry for Unitarian Universalists who have to sing such hymns. Catholics have some beautiful songs, like "Ave Maria," and Protestants have hymns I greatly admire, like "Amazing Grace" and "Rock of Ages." Quakers, at least initially, were opposed to all music. I begin to wonder if Quakers adopted the policy after hearing Unitarian hymns.
The hymn ends, and a bearded, burly man in a fairly bright green sport jacket and tie invites the children to come to the front and to sit on the floor while he speaks to them. He tells them a story about the late actor Ossie Davis, and how Mr. Davis participated in a civil rights march in Birmingham when he was thirteen years old. The children, mostly white and from affluent families, don't know who Ossie Davis is, or was. I am unsure as to whether they understand what a civil rights march is, or whether they know where Birmingham, Alabama is located, but they are polite, and cute, as children of any denomination are, and when the talk is over they are told they can go downstairs. This news seems to delight them, and they all skip away, leaving the adults to soldier on through another bad hymn.
A sermon follows, by a female minister who reads her speech from the lectern. We are told that the topic is "spiritual justice," a term which appears to be interchangeable with "social justice." Current events, such as the crisis in Darfur and the war in Iraq, are mentioned, though not expounded upon. A knowing eyebrow is occasionally arched. The "religious right" is criticized. Michael Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God, is liberally quoted. God, or other subjects one generally associates with religious or spiritual thought, is not mentioned, except for one aside, when we are told that the speaker, following Universalist thought, does not believe in Hell. I begin to feel less like I am at church and more like I am in a PBS studio. The sermon, like most sermons, lasts too long.
A "choir" of five individuals approaches the front of the church, along with a man with a guitar. We are treated to what we have been warned will be a "rousing" rendition of, "If I Had a Hammer." It is, at least, a good song, though this particular rendition fails to rouse. I look around. Two members in two different areas of the church are drinking coffee out of Starbucks containers. This annoys me. I cannot say that they are being disrespectful, since no Divine Presence has been invoked, but it bothers me nonetheless. I begin to wonder if this is the beginning of a disturbing trend, and if churches, like bookstores, will one day serve only as mere excuses for a Starbucks. Will there be splinter groups? Will Lutherans go with Caribou Coffee in a show of nonconformity?
There is some sort of ceremony where members are invited to light a candle on the table up front and share momentous news with us. People actively participate. Some are joyous issues, such as the birth of a nephew or the recovery of an ill family member. Some are issues of concern, which also mainly have to do with illness. More than one person lights two candles, to share two bits of news, and my companion and I feel that this is a bit on the selfish side, since there are only so many candles on the table. But it is not our church, and we are unfamiliar with the ways of its members.
There is one last hymn. It is, if possible, worse than the others. It is called "We Are a Gentle Angry People," written by Holly Near. We are enthusiastically told, before we start, that we will sing all six verses, which includes the fifth verse, "We are gay and straight together." I begin to wonder whether the song is actually that tuneless, or whether the piano is simply out of tune.
A collection plate is passed, most people putting in a five-dollar bill. I do the same. We are told that there will be coffee and cookies at the end of the service, and that we are all welcome to have some. Finally, we all hold hands to form one large circle around the interior of the church, and recite something.
After the service, two more people introduce themselves to us. They seem genuinely nice, pleasant people, and very welcoming. Still, we decide to forego the coffee and cookies.
I wrote the above sketch some years back, when living in Virginia, and now and then readers have contacted me to say that it seems a bit (or more than a bit) unfair to Unitarian Universalists.
If you want to get an idea of just how nice Unitarian Universalists can be, consider that no Unitarian Universalist has ever read the above and then sent me a probably-well-deserved rude e-mail telling me to go to that place they don't believe in. Instead, I get e-mails like this one from P.H.:
"I was looking on the internet for lyrics from the Unitarian hymnal for a blind church member and bumped into your commentary on your visit to a Unitarian Universalist worship service. Sorry about those hymns. But I wanted to tell you, UU churches vary widely. If you find yourself interested, try visiting another one when you find yourself in the mood again. I wasn’t able to ascertain what part of the country you are in from your website, but it may be well worth it to try again.
I can only speak about the church I am most familiar with, First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston, but we actually do teach our little ones about social justice and world religions. Of course, the older they get, the more sophisticated their understanding. And here (and in most other churches I’ve been in) we do not allow beverages in the sanctuary! We have a nice mix of Christians, pagans, Buddhists, and humanists.
UU's tend to be pretty sincere folks, seeking spiritual support along a self-defined path. I found reading about your visit a bit painful and hope you’ll give it a try again sometime!"
So, my thanks to P.H. for taking the time to write, and for giving me (and, I hope, readers of this website) food for thought. When an organization like the Unitarian Universalist Church can count among its members such consistently thoughtful and open-minded people, I believe that fact in and of itself should make others accord the organization great respect.
Update (November, 2011):
For yet another perspective . . . The following comments were received from a reader who, unlike myself, had a long association with UUism, and was kind enough to grant permission to have them shared here:
Believe me, there was no need for you to apologize, for you nailed the contents of a representative UU service precisely.
I was a member of two UU churches for a little over a year each and spent most Sundays longing to be elsewhere, caught between ennui and stultifying boredom. The only times I truly enjoyed a "service" was when there was a panel discussion, a play performed by the RE kids or some other un-church diversion.
You described what was probably my least favorite hymn, "We Are a Gentle Angry People," exquisitely. And the last church of which I was a member sang that so frequently I wanted to scream. It and the bizarrely entitled, "Enter, Rejoice and Come In," were high on my list of hymns I wish I'd never heard much less heard more than once. (Wouldn't one already have come in if one has entered and begun rejoicing? That one never made any sense at all in a faith that prides itself upon being rational.)
I've sometimes thought I might've stuck it out had I remained as I began, a member of the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship, the then church-by-mail for those too far from a UU church to make attendance possible. However, the more I experienced of this presumably inclusive faith supposedly respectful of diversity, the less I found it to be as it claims.
I considered myself a UU for nearly 30 years, in truth at least 20 years too long for comfort.
The very last straw was reading an article in the current UU World about a Massachusetts couple who've spent the past year sleeping outdoors in their backyard all but about two weeks' worth of nights. With a geodome tent, sleeping bags, a down comforter and a space blanket beneath them to insulate them from the harsh reality of New England weather, they found themselves feeling more in touch with nature, more spiritual and more appreciative of those less fortunate than themselves. The first two were such predictable UU sentiments that I nearly yawned; the latter caused me to laugh aloud at the sheer audacity of these pampered Caucasians roughing it in cozy splendor with their bathroom a few feet away in case of need in the night. What astounded me even more was that the editors thought such an account worthy of inclusion as if it constitutes some kind of model; it does--a bad one.
Having flirted within the past year with reaffiliating with the UU's since there are three UU churches from which to choose where I live, I am now more resolved than ever to go it alone, an Emersonian Transcendentalist forging my own spiritual path.
Thank you for your account of what too many UU services are like. You strengthened my resolve not to have anything further to do with this watered-down excuse for a religious faith.
Glad To Be Former
As might be imagined, there are strong proponents of Unitarian Universalism who take exception to my comments, some even staunchly defending the songs that failed to stir me, and I have the utmost respect for those opinions. My intention when I wrote the above was to record a personal experience, not to issue a verdict on the validity of a particular religion, and that is the lens from which the above should be viewed. I feel myself to be fairly open-minded when it comes to religion - in addition to Catholicism, I've read numerous works on Buddhism, Taoism, Vedic thought, Sufism and more, and regularly visit the World Spirituality website - but I personally want some practical benefit from religion and spirituality. Put simply, I want religion to make me a better person, not in a shallow and politically correct way but in a real and tangible way where I am performing service for others; and by others, I don't just mean humans, but all the creatures of this earth, all the flora of this earth, and Earth itself.
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