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What Does It Take to Make a Unitarian Universalist?

This past summer I did something pretty radical for a Unitarian Universalist seminary Me, right before the communion service, as filmed by ABC newsstudent… I performed a communion service adapted from a Universalist service from the late 1800’s. It was at the U.S. Army Chaplain School, so my “congregation” consisted of Baptist, Methodist, Evangelical ministers and Catholic Priests. After the service, we had a lively debate about it. Not about a Unitarian Universalist performing a communion service, but about what that communion said. In specific, these words…

“Therefore as Jesus welcomed all people to his table all people are welcome partake in this act of communion as an affirmation of the divine truth which unites all being.”

I was focusing so much on this being a rare opportunity for me to practice doing this kind of service that I did not think how outside of the realm of accepted behavior it was for my colleagues… and how deeply it pointed to a unique aspect of our Unitarian Universalist Faith. For my colleagues, you could not simply open the communion table to anyone and everyone. Each of them had some way of defining who was “in” and who was “out”… even if those ways were quite different.

But when George Tyger and I each performed this service over the summer, the communion table was thrown wide open, much to the consternation of our colleagues.

Recently, the community of UU Bloggers has been discussing the focus on congregationalism that is occurring in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. In this discussion, there are really two different things being discussed.

The overt discussion is simply about where the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is placing its primary support and resources. The Association is moving that support away from broader based understandings of their organizational mission to direct congregational support, a move well within their charter and purview. I may or may not agree with that decision, but they are doing so with good intent and purpose.

The more disturbing debate is the one happening in the shadow of this one, and that is a debate over who is, and who is not, a Unitarian Universalist. Some people want to define being a UU as being a pledging member of a congregation affiliated with the UUAoC. Some want to define it as belonging to some organization affiliated with the UUAoC.

If we accept either of these two definitions, then there are a lot of “Historical UU’s” that we need to quit claiming… Men and women who were connected to Unitarian or Universalist congregations or organizations, but never officially members. Our tenuous claim on Henry David Thoreau is one that comes to mind… our childhood claim to Clara Barton is another.

My internship supervising minister, Rev. Barbara Pescan, defines it this way… and it is a definition I have come to accept. “When you enter the doors of our free faith, there is but one rule. You cannot close those doors behind you.”

In other words, the only person I get to decide is or is not a Unitarian Universalist is myself. The only person you get to decide is or is not a Unitarian Universalist is yourself. Neither you nor I can close the doors behind us.

Accepting that only congregation membership can define Unitarian Universalist identity is closing the doors on a large number of people who connect with the ideals, the theological premises, the values of our faith… but perhaps do not connect with our fairly standard protestant worship. Perhaps they can connect with communities of Unitarian Universalists that are not based upon our traditional congregational model. This is the premise for the work that Rev. David Owen-O’Quill is doing on the Westside of Chicago, called Micah’s Porch.

In our work with recruits to the U.S. Navy at the Great Lakes RTC, we have found that the message and ideals of our Unitarian Universalist faith connects with the reality of the lives of those young men and women… but many of them would not be comfortable in our middle class, highly educated, politically liberal, and profoundly protestant congregations. We have developed a more conversational style of worship that does connect with them, and we are working on how to build community among them once they leave the RTC. What that will be, I do not yet know… but I believe it is a precursor for what my ministry as a Chaplain in the Army will be like.

I believe that there are many people out there who are inspired by our Unitarian Universalist faith, ideals, values, and principles… but who just don’t connect with the style of worship and community in our congregations. The prophetic call of our faith in this age is to get outside of our comfort zone and find ways to build communities that connect with those inspired by our ideals and values but not our churches… not to require them to adapt to our churches in order to become a Unitarian Universalist.

What makes a Unitarian Universalist is not membership in a church… but rather a commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to the ever changing nature of revelation, to justice, to equality, to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to the right of conscience, to the inherent goodness of human nature, to the interdependent web of all existence… and to so much more.

Many of us (including myself) find that we do connect deeply with our faith as it is expressed in the lives of our congregations… but that connection does not give us the right to “close the doors” of this faith behind us. Our movement does rely on the foundation of our congregations… but a foundation alone is not something you can live in. We need to build, support, and honor the broader movement that rests upon that foundation.

What does it take to make a Unitarian Universalist? A communion table kept open to all… and a commitment to never close your heart to others, whether they are in or out of your church.

Yours in Faith,


7 Thoughts on “What Does It Take to Make a Unitarian Universalist?

  1. Wonderful post, and i couldn’t agree more!! I know SO many who love our principles, but do not feel comfortable with our worship style–mostly young adults. Thank you for offering such wonderful examples of inclusive outreach– and for your work as a military chaplain. I am inspired.

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  3. What a wonderful, welcoming post. You have figured It out.

    Bless you for the work you do–


  4. I think you’re onto something with open baptism.

    (Mod comment: I think you meant “open communion” 🙂 Although, “open baptism” is not a bad idea…)

    Moravian love feasts could serve a similar function. Replacing the wine with water or some other liquid removes it enough from Christian connotations that more UUs might be comfortable with it.

    In college, I was in a Christian service fraternity that celebrated a short love feast every month. We saw it as a celebration of our community and commitment to one another. They were usually much better attended than our weekly business meetings and bible studies. People had a real hunger for the ritual.

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  6. Pingback: A ritual to widen, deepen UU identity: Love feasts» Making Chutney

  7. Hi David and community,
    Very interesting account, and I’m glad to know of your unusual mission as a UU in the Army itself. I have been pursuing reconciliation with my Christian roots and interests for some time as a UU, as perhaps many of us, UU’s in particular, have. While I would find the idea of water interesting and inspiring, I would value and suggest it as a choice of water or wine, personally. I have come to appreciate three dynamic factors: first that our UU ideals are not a Greek ideal first. Fundamentally, they reflect our origins as a Christian church, and the essential teachings of Jesus, to love God, neighbor, and self, as the Good Samaritan and the Great Banquet in Luke 14, and Old Testament Joseph, Moses, and Ruth, for example. Also we can know that we are loved by Jesus and God, as in his prayer for future worshipers in John 17. Secondly, Jesus advocated and understood that his followers could achieve more, as with modern education, science, and government. Thirdly, that while he understood the need for diversity, he also warned against greed and other deviations from the love and understanding communicated by the aforementioned, and the washing of the disciples’ feet.
    For me then, as a UU amongst other UU’s, I have the obligation to respect others, but also to respect my own beliefs and understandings. For this reason, then, the open love of UUism is important to maintain in its inclusiveness. I advocate including vigorous reference to Jesus Christ’s original expressions and thoughts, and other advocates like Matthew Fox, Mary Baker Eddy, Karen Armstrong, Thomas Berry who reflect the perspective of a modern, interfaith Christianity that conveys the full dynamic spirit of modern Unitarian Universalism, which can embrace different denominations and creeds without neglecting its original roots.
    God blesses us all through Jesus, and God bless you.

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