Break not that circle of enabling love,
Where people grow, forgiven and forgiving,
Break not that circle, make it wider still,
Till it includes, embraces all the living.
–Hymn 323, Singing the Living Tradition
Recently, the conversation has begun again about what makes a Unitarian Universalist. Are you only a Unitarian Universalist if you are a member of one of our congregations, or can you be a member of a larger religious movement that includes but extends beyond the walls of our bricks and mortar congregations?
This conversation has begun again in part because of a position paper that has been put forth by the Rev. Peter Morales, the current UUA President, titled “Congregations and Beyond”. In this paper Rev. Morales makes several arguments, such as how an expanded understanding of UU identity and connection would be beneficial to congregations, in that it would “lower the walls between our congregations and the larger world”. The case is also made in the article that some of the largest gatherings of people who identify as UU’s occur outside of the congregational environment. The article also implies, though I do not believe it directly says, that for many the traditional structure of a congregation is a barrier to their commitment to Unitarian Universalism as a religious movement.
I was somewhat disappointed in this article. Not because I do not agree with its intent… I certainly do. I have long said that to be a Unitarian Universalist should mean identifying with the movement, the values, and the principles of our faith… not congregational membership. I love and serve a UU congregation, and understand myself primarily as a Parish Minister… and I also serve as a military chaplain, and have regularly had to tell soldiers that the only way they can really be UU’s is if they join a church. I believe that strong churches are essential to the success of our movement… but the churches should serve the movement, not the other way around. Church strength is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
I agree with Rev. Morales on the idea that we should open up UU identity to many different ways of connection and relationship. I would love to see a formal structure of UU identity and membership arise out of the UU Youth and Young Adult Con movement. I would love to see a UU lay and ordained monastic order come into being. Perhaps several such monastic orders, each arising out of several UU centered spiritual practices and commitments. I would love to see a way for Social Justice Advocates and Activists to engage with UU Identity. I would love to see actual congregational identity and membership for the UU Churches on Second Life, and other such virtual ways of connection.
And so, so much more.
I was disappointed in Rev. Morales’ article because I believe he did not highlight any good reason why we should reach out to include the hundreds of thousands of people who identify as UU’s but are not members of our congregations. Much less, I saw no argument at all for why we should be concerned for the millions out there who are not even aware that Unitarian Universalism exists. He seemed to hint that there was an “opportunity” for growth, almost as if there were untapped resources that we were choosing not to engage.
Now, I know what I’m going to say will not come as a surprise to Rev. Morales. I’ve heard him say similar things. I know that what I’m going to say is already in his heart. I’m not ashamed to say that, knowing he felt as I do on this is why I supported him for President in the first place. And yet, his argument in this article was reminiscent of all too many conversations I have had with lay-leaders in congregations across 9 states who have told me that they were interested in “growth” to “meet a budget” or “be able to hire a minister”, or “build a building”, or for some other practical, if often nebulous, expectation that growth is something we are supposed to do.
Our world is desperately in need of the saving message of Unitarian Universalism. We are living in a society where people often are torn up inside because they have no understanding of their personal worth as a human being. Religious traditions abound around us that tell people that without divine intervention, they are worth only eternal damnation. Religious warfare and demonization continues unabated across the world. We have a culture and a politics built on denigrating others to try and raise one’s own sense of worth. We have built an economic system that is destroying lives, cultures, and the earth, because it is based on greed… and greed is anathema to understanding the interdependence of all things. We are killing each other because we cannot see our own worth is inextricably linked to the worth of another. Fiscal value has surpassed human value as our touchstone.
Friends of Faith, and dear President Rev. Peter Morales, I beg of you. It is time we stopped being ashamed of who we are, and started sharing our Radical Gospel, our Good News of Interdependence and Inherent Worth with the world. It is time we move away from the circles that are closing us in, and open up our religious movement so that we can transform and engage with as many lives as we possibly can, in any way that we can. It is time we stop preaching to our own choirs, and to train, empower, and send our choirs out to sing the message of love, inclusion, and hope to the rest of the world.
Let us open up membership and identity as a Unitarian Universalist to any and all who can connect with us. Let us join with them not how we are used to, or how we are comfortable joining with others, but however the hundreds of thousands out there need us to join with them. Let us accept that they will transform who we are, as our radical faith calls us to accept such transforming power and grace. Let us find any way we can to bring people to the point where they can say, in their hearts and with their voices, “I am a Unitarian Universalist”… and to know what that means.
But let us do this for the right reason… not because of what we might expect to gain, but because of what we have to give to this wounded, broken, hurting world. What we have to give is our saving, transforming, and healing message…
To paraphrase Rev. Dr. Lisa Presley, let us “Get off the franchise” of Unitarian Universalism, and share our faith with the world… because the world desperately needs us.
Yours in faith,