Q: Why such a long and complicated name?
Both sides of our precious heritage were recognized when the American Unitarian Association united with the Universalist Church of America to become the Unitarian Universalist Association. We call ourselves UUs. Some congregations have taken identities as “fellowships” or “religious societies” rather than “churches.” In New England some “parishes” are 300 years old.
Q. Unitarian means…?
From the beginnings of Christianity, many have argued that God is a unity, that Jesus was a human being sent by God to teach us how to live, and that the Holy Spirit is a name for the divine. From the Council of Nicea in 325 CE until the Protestant Reformation, such doubters were deemed heretics. After the Reformation, religious freedom was allowed in some places, and Unitarian churches formed in England and Eastern Europe. In the United States, Unitarianism was a school of thought within the Puritan churches. Unitarianism (liberals) and Congregationalism (traditionals) split off in 1825 and spread throughout North America.
Q: And Universalism means...?
Universalists believed in universal salvation: that God wants every person to be enfolded in divine love after death (hence the nickname, the “no hell” religion). Universalism was very popular in frontier America, especially after the Civil War, because they preached against hellfire and damnation and supported the emerging disciplines of evolution and Biblical scholarship. Such heresies drew of flack, so we placed a high value on religious freedom and the right of individuals to form their own faith.
Q: So what do UUs believe today?
Unitarian Universalist churches are no-creedal churches; we don’t have one set of beliefs that everyone must share in order to join. Theologically, UU churches are places where a variety of beliefs are encouraged, discussed, shared.
Q: How coherent is your congregation if not everyone believes the same things?
Adherence to the seven principles that promote mutual respect enable Christians, Buddhists, Jews, atheists and others to get along quite well, thank you. Like most other world religions, we emphasize practice over belief, and our natural curiosity prompts us to explore same with open minds.
Q: Do UUs believe in the Bible?
There are a variety of beliefs among UUs. Most of us think the Bible is a document that describes human creativity. It contains wisdom worth studying, worth demonstrating. Bible stories are a window onto the history of our culture, so knowing them makes us culturally literate. Because we study the Bible using modern scholarship methods, we honor it as a resource rather than as an authority, and look to other world scriptures, such as the Tao Te Ching, for inspiration.
Q: Dare I ask what you believe about God?
We do believe that asking questions is important, and that the answer to such questions as “What is God like?” can be found in our own hearts. Some UUs look into their hearts and find a God who loves them, consoles them in difficulty, guides them, and hears their prayers. Others look into their hearts and see a feminine or earth-based energy. Some believe God is love. Some are content with the mystery of it all. Would it help you to know that we eliminate the word “god” from our texts (as well as gender-specific pronouns)?
Q: And life after death?
Many UUs believe that this life is all there is and our immortality comes from the contributions we’ve made to life and how we live on in the hearts of others. Some UUs believe in a form of reincarnation, others in an ongoing life of the human soul. A few speak about heaven; Universalists hardly talk about hell. Most admit that we don’t really know. We may face death with sadness but without fear, or we may see it as a great new adventure.
Q: Where do you stand on hot buttons issues like abortion, gay marriage, poverty, and evolution?
UUs value justice, human autonomy, and equality of opportunity, which puts us on the progressive side of the political aisle. But just as there are some progressive evangelical Christians, so too are there politically conservative UUs.
Q: How do you practice what you preach?
If we believe that how we live is more important than what we believe, it’s easy to love our neighbors, work for a better world, study the wonders of creation, and appreciate the beauty around us.
Q: Do you worship? If so who, and how?
If “worship” means “the consideration of things of worth,” then it can be used by people who believe in God and those who don’t. What, then, do we worship, exactly? Moral values, family relationships, the spiritual quest, sex, pets, books, coffee. Each congregation develops its own style of worship but, we confess, most are patterned after Protestant services that last about an hour. Besides singing, listening, and communing, we make room for the comfort and depth of inner silence.
Q: What does the flaming chalice mean?
During WWII, the Unitarian Service Committee commissioned a symbol that represented the multi-ethnic refugees they were working with. The flaming chalice originated with a heretical group in Czechoslovakia, called the Hussites, who were notable for an independent spirit like ours. Over the next 50 years, that spirit has been universally been invoked by lighting the chalice at the beginning of worship.
Q: I love holidays and rituals. Do UUs honor them?
We try to expand traditional celebrations to meet universal implications. UUs are known to celebrate solstices, Christmas, Jewish holidays, the Hindu Dwilli, the Hispanic Day of the Dead, and others. We celebrate national holidays such as Thanksgiving, hold our own baby dedications and, in the spring, have a Flower Communion that comes from Unitarian Transylvania.
Q: What do you teach children?
We teach children that they are capable of looking into their own hearts and minds for religious truth. We teach them that their natural response of awe and wonder to the beauty of the world is a spiritual response. We teach them to think deeply about moral and ethical issues, and to be curious and respectful rather than frightened or angry when they meet persons who are different from them.
Q: What about weddings, baptisms, funerals?
We value committed, loving relationships and perform weddings and holy unions for opposite and same-sex couples. We help each couple craft the words and rituals that express the meaning of their relationship. Babies are welcomed into life and into our congregation by dedication with a touch of water to symbolize the life we all share and a flower to symbolize their unfolding beauty. Parents and congregation pledge to do their part to nurture the child, “that she may grow in beauty, love, and truth.” Ministers who are of a Christian bent do perform baptisms. We honor the deceased with a formal service, with the body present, or a less formal memorial service. Our focus is on comforting the bereaved by remembering the deceased and honoring her or his life, rather than on doctrine theology.
Q: How does a person join a UU church?
Each congregation has a different set of requirements for membership. Generally, membership to a UU church is open to any adult or older teen who has informed themselves about the church, made a contribution, and signs a document attesting to their sympathy with the church’s aims and program.
Q: How are your ministers trained?
How do they come to be at a particular church? UU ministers have a degree from an accredited seminary, which attests to three years of post-graduate work in religion, including scripture, religious history, religious sociology, psychology and counseling, current affairs, theology, and more. They complete two internships, usually one in a church and one in a hospital. They are certified by a body called a Ministerial Fellowship Committee and ordained by local churches. Each congregation is democratically governed and is sovereign over its own affairs. It chooses, and dismisses, its own minister by processes outlined in its bylaws. The UUA consists of member congregations that pay dues. It uses that money to assist and provide resources to its member congregations.
Q: What do your ministers do?
“Minister” – a beautiful old Latin word meaning “to serve.” UU ministers serve congregations by being spiritual leaders. They preach, guide individuals and groups, and offer classes and retreats. They assist lay leaders with the institution’s management and programs, supervising staff, serving with the board of directors, conducting building programs, and so on. In addition, many ministers serve their community in social justice and community-building activities.
Q: How do UUs govern their affairs?
Each congregation governs itself in a democratic fashion, usually with an elected board of trustees. Churches call and dismiss ministers and other staff, buy and sell property, set goals, and establish policies and budgets according to their own bylaws. This is called “congregational polity.”
Q: How many UUs are there in the U.S.?
Is this a growing denomination? There are about 150,000 Unitarian Universalist adult members and another 100,000 children registered in our Sunday schools. About 5000,000 American adults tell pollsters they are UUs but don’t actually belong to a congregation. There are about 1,000 UU churches in North America, many clustered in New England, but at least one in most cities with a population over 50,000. There are Unitarians in England, Eastern Europe, India, and the Philippines, as well. Unlike most of the mainline denominations, Unitarian Universalism has slowly grown in the U.S. over the past 30 years.
Q: Where can I get more information?
The Unitarian Universalist Association website is www.uua.org. Check out Wikipedia and Beliefnet. Libraries have many books about Unitarian Universalism. Most churches, have classes on basic UU history and theology. Call the First Church administration office to see when we offer ours!