CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


It’s 10:15 on a bright morning. I’m sitting in “the room” in “the big house.” All about me there is a hustle and bustle: the choir is rehearsing on a low riser at the left of the pulpit, children are being children, people are greeting each other. As I sit here, trying to center myself, lower my irritation level and find calm for my spirit, I find myself asking, silently, the same queries I have put to others over the years: “What brings you here? What keeps you here?”

For it is Sunday morning and, as I have for most of the past 600 Sundays, I’m sitting in the sanctuary of a UU congregation. This is a liberal group, with a warm community feeling often remarked on by newcomers but one which cannot bring itself to call its building a church (it’s most often just referred to simply as “the fellowship”).

I’m a late comer to public religious activity and especially to corporate worship. But here I am and why am I here? Perhaps the best place to start answering this question is to report what I have gathered from others.

People come to UU churches and fellowships for a variety of reasons. Some, a very small percentage, are birthright UUs, continuing a practice they took for granted as they grew up. Many are parents in religiously mixed marriages with young children, now entering the period when questions about God, life and death are beginning to be asked (and answered with difficulty!). Some are singles, of long standing or newly separated or recently left behind, looking for adult community. Others, at any age, are “shopping;” looking for a response to a vague loneliness or incompleteness in their life or for a replacement for their present church which has ceased to serve their inner needs. And still others are strong witnesses and workers for social justice, looking for ones of similar intention.

For my part, I first came to a UU fellowship at the beginning of my sixth decade. My father had died recently, I had relocated to a small highly churched community in the southeast and, for a while, was living by myself. My first encounter with the fellowship community was at an annual holiday meal, held in a local Chinese restaurant. Good food, good fellowship and, yes, good disputation! I was soon caught up in the business of the congregation and, hearing the first small whispers of a call, began to preach and teach.

Although not now a member of the fellowship I attend, I’m still here frequently. This community is strong although deeply challenged by both common and original problems: personality conflicts, financial difficulties, pressures of growth and accommodation to professional ministry after nearly three decades of solely lay led worship.

Of these stresses, perhaps the most troubling is the question of professional ministry. We UUs are the inheritors of the Protestant reformation, although we were declared heretics a millennium before Luther. However, we have taken part in the revolution: the priest has turned around, begun to speak in English and preach from texts accessible to all, stepped down from the altar and now takes coffee with the congregants. There is even brave talk, books and workshops about “shared ministry;” about taking the next step in which the ministry, traditionally the domain of priest, rabbi or minister, is returned to its rightful place, the congregation, such that all, laity and professional alike, can bring their separate gifts and share in the privileges and duties. This is a subject onto itself and I write of it elsewhere.

Yet here I sit. It’s Sunday morning – why do we, in a faith practice which is profoundly post-Christian and 40% of whose adherents are self-proclaimed humanists, still meet at the same time on the traditional First Day? Why is there a pulpit? Why is there a Board of Trustees, committees beyond committees, newsletters, directories? Why, when we have abolished sacred space, do we maintain a building which stands empty 95% of the time? Is there some inbreed ancestral memory which draws us here and keeps us here, despite corporate worship which is often, in its didactic dryness, no better than the “corpse cold” Unitarianism which Emerson railed against?

And if we are drawn here by the sense of community why can’t we answer our own original calls and emulate our neighbors, the Society of Friends, in simple direct worship? We need to ask this question in a profound and deeply reflective way. For modern UUism is often called the “tunnel religion” – one through which people each pass from what was to what may be. This is reflected in the often repeated understanding that people who sign the book and become members remain active, on the average, only two years. For that matter, what does it mean to “sign the book”? Why have we no ceremony of “unsigning the book?”

Much of this flux can be explained by American mobility, for today the average person changes addresses every 4 or 5 years. But I think that it is symptomatic of a much deeper issue: what brings one here is different from what keeps one here. And in so far as remaining here, I have a suspicion that there may not be any here. Our seven covenantal principles; our six sources, our list of ten things that UUs believe (that is most UUs, most of the time!) are all dry, dusty dry. There does not seem to be anything there that one would be prepared to die for to defend. Do not mistake me: these are all, in themselves good and elsewhere I have much to say about them, especially the seven covenantal principles which bind the congregations into the union of the UU Association. What is missing is the weight of truth, the soar of mystical involvement, the encounter with the transcending spirit.

So, for those who stay, what keeps them here? For some, it is community – here is where many of their adult relationships are centered. For some, it is a sense of obligation to support an activity to which they have made significant investments. For some, it is the children. For some it is spiritual nourishment. And for some, like myself, it is hope.

I have hope that the UU movement, with its magnificent and moving cultural history and spiritual heritage, can evolve into a true religious practice. Across its congregations there is a hunger for greater spirituality, for more ritual and a more articulated liturgy. I have hope that this will continue to mature and strengthen.

Recently, on a long bus trip, I spoke at length with a young woman who is a member of a large UU congregation. She has three young children and is pursuing, as time in her life permits, a developing career as a professional craftperson. She is “at home” with the children; her husband works full-time. She is a partner in what appears to be, from the outside at least, a healthy, modern marriage.

Here is her “testimony”:

We go to church every Sunday, we value the quiet hour and come away refreshed. The children enjoy their classes and come each time without trouble. I would really like to do more for the church, but I can’t; there is simply no time in our lives today. (And, I may add, very little money!)

I think that this is what most people want: to go to a place, with a community, where they may find peace, if only for an hour. Where there is comfort for the afflicted and affliction for the comfortable; where we will be called and recalled to our better selves; where we can be filled up or emptied out. And where, in a safe and nurturing circle, our children’s moral intuition can be guided as it unfolds and develops.