I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My Uncommon Denomination

Being the minister of the Eliot Church is, for the most part, like being the minister of any congregation. However, Eliot’s status as a community church affiliated with both the UUA and the UCC does, at times, give me something of a “bird’s eye” view of the happenings in these two affiliated institutions. As I have mentioned before, we do not, as a congregation, spend a whole lot of time thinking about our two “denominations.” Mostly we are concerned with the community of the church and the community in which the church rests.

Sometimes I miss the close connection that my previous churches had with district and association events in the UUA. However, upon closer inspection, I usually conclude that the distance may be necessary. Distance has been hard to maintain lately. Both the UUA and the UCC are engaged in marketing campaigns. The UCC “God is Still Speaking” campaign is going great guns while the UU “Uncommon Denomination” campaign is moving a bit more slowly. In both a great deal of time and energy has been put into promoting them. There are brochures, mugs, T-shirts, stoles, banners, and a million other things. The most ubiquitious example of this is the “UCC Comma.”

I am impressed by the work that went into these programs. However, I have also seen a darker side to this enthusiasm. As I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have probably seen it more on the UU end than the other so my comments rest primarily in that direction.

The "Uncommon Denomination", other marketing materials and, yes, even the new focus on the “language of reverence” all seem to me to be a product, not just of a desire to “brand” the institution, but to explain a new direction. In fact, often in feels like there is an urge on the part of many in the UUA to found a new religion from our previously loose confederation. I am concerned.

I am concerned not so much, as some seem to think, because I am feeling nostalgic for the good old days or because I somehow fear a brave new world where the “truth” is told by our visionary UU faith. I am pastor to a young and energetic congregation that is not afraid of either change or a growth in perspective. The reason I am concerned is that I do not see much vision or grounding in this conversation outside Eliot and other local churches. I do not see much growth in perspective coming from the UU Leadership.

Let me tell you a brief parable that may help to illustrate what I am saying: I know a teacher who once made an assignment for her class where she told everyone to use their imagination to paint a picture of spring. It could be anything that came to us. To show folks what she was looking for, she provided a picture that she had made of a big yellow duck on a pond.

Everyone got to work painting. There were baseball players, baby animals, assorted flocks of birds, one person even decided to paint a night scene! Everyone was having a good time and things seemed to be going well until the teacher started to get upset. Why you may ask? It appears she meant that we could paint anything we wanted as long as it was a yellow duck on a pond.

That is how the UUA culture feels to me right now. Our tradition is one that encourages exploration and creativity in matters of faith and spirit. Yet the messages I am receiving seem to point in one uniform direction. When this happens I feel like I am back in that classroom. What if I want to paint a lacrosse player eating a hot dog instead of That Duck? What if I want to have pasta instead of lukewarm oatmeal? What if I want to be a Christian in the UUA instead of a “Unitarian Universalist,” whatever that means once it is fully divorced from its historical roots? What if I wanted to be a Secular Humanist or a Neo-Pagan for that matter? When I have asked these questions (and I have repeatedly) to people who claim to lead the UUA, they do not have an answer but to point back to "the plan". Some, in fact, get annoyed that I even brought it up.

I ask these questions now and I will do so again because I have to. I am the minister of a church that sees itself as part of a liberal Christian movement--one that is ecumenical (interfaith, in fact)—and one that is dedicated to spiritual growth within its own tradition. This is a tradition that belongs to neither the UUA nor UCC so much as it belongs to the Eliot Church and other individual congregations. This idea of many diverse communities coming together is something that attracted me to the UUA in the first place. While people still talk that game. In reality, it seems to have taken a back seat to centralized programming.

So, will there be a place for us? I certainly hope so.