Unitarian faith growing nationwide

Bon Smietana of USA Today writes of the growing popularity of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the US:

The denomination grew nationally by 15.8% from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Although they remain small in total numbers with about 211,000 adherents nationwide, Unitarians believe their open-minded faith has a bright future as an alternative to more exclusive brands of religion.

They might be right, said Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Bass, who has studied thriving progressive churches, said Unitarian Universalists can fill a niche in conservative religious cultures such as the Bible Belt.

"I think there is a role for these kinds of more open and liberal spiritual groups," Bass said. "They provide a nice counter-cultural community."

The denomination, which started in New England, has been growing more in the South than in other parts of the country, said Rachel Walden, a public witness specialist from the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.

The church hopes to appeal to the rising number of "nones" — those with no specific religious identity. A recent poll from the Pew Center for the People and the Press showed that about one in five Americans falls into that category.

Part of the story is defining the Unitarians. Smietana begins by describes them as "a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine."

The article then goes further:

Gail Seavey, minister at First Unitarian Universalist in Nashville, said some of her more conservative neighbors aren't sure what to make of her faith. Some think that inclusive means anything goes — but that's not the case, she said.

Instead of a common theology, Unitarian Universalists have a set of common values. They believe in the worth and dignity of every human being, she said.

That belief in the individual choice in faith can been seen in a practice known as water communion. In most churches, communion bread and wine start in a common vessel and then are passed out to church members. In water communion, everyone starts with a cup of water and pours it in a common bowl.

"We are bunch of individuals finding our own path — but we are doing it as a group," (Nathan) De Lee said.

The article includes a Southern Baptist scholar who says that inclusive groups are made up of "nice neighbors, even if their take on faith is wrong", suggesting that drawing a crowd doesn't mean you are speaking truth.

In contrast is Unitarian Anthony David, who says that Unitarians would rather be kind than right.

"In our tradition, you get to be wrong," he said. "God is big. God is magnificent. You can't tell me that we know everything there is to know about God yet."
Comments (10)

Does this tell us that Trinitarian Universalists need to be a clearer and more present voice in Christian discourse? In my experience of conversation with friends and strangers outside the church, the perceived "Christian" stance that a denominational or the sum of Christian churches have a corner on the truth and know the only way for people to find God prompts people to take their questions and search for community and practice elsewhere.

Marilyn Adams recent piece at the Cafe -
gives some good context for thinking about Christian universalism - trusting that we'll find the presence and work of God in every human life, especially in conscientious work of justice and compassion.

It would be helpful if we also had the statistics for longevity (for want if a better word) - how long people stay UUs. It's my understanding that there is considerable turnover in UUA congregations. I'm also curious if the figures reflect attendance or people who actually sign onto the congregation's covenant.

One thing I've found surprising is the low profile UUs seem to keep here in New England. There are more churches than back in Texas, but they don't seem to be much in the public eye. I had expected them to be fairly active on college campuses, but that hasn't been my experience.

In June 1967 the week I was ordained in TEC a new pastor arrived at the UUA church across the street in Medford, Massachusetts. We developed a strong friendship and I occasionally preached in his church. We travelled to/fro anti-Vietnam marches in Washington together. He was a former Episcopal priest, for whom supposedly the last straw with TEC was the refusal of his Texas bishop to allow intergration of the diocesan camps.

Here was a man saying his Daily Office, celebrating Communion monthly in his UUA church and a member of what was then the UUA Trinitarian Fellowship, which met at King's Chapel, Boston. I learned that the UUA in its breadth had no problems with such things.

Eventually I persuaded him to be restored in TEC where he belonged and the saintly Bishop of Massachusetts, Anson Phelps Stokes, Jr. approved with the requisite approval of his Texas bishop. Since there were no available parishes for him at the time Bishop Stokes gladly allowed him to continue in his UUA parish until an opening occured.

Two years later I became part of an Episcopal/RC chaplaincy with the Paulist Fathers at Tufts University, a UUA college and theological school. I can agree with Bill that there was little if any UUA chaplaincy work there ar that time.

"UUA Trinitarian Fellowship"

I had no idea there was such a thing. I was aware of the UU Christian Fellowship, but not that they were quite so paradoxically tolerant as to allow Unitarian Trinitarians. The UUA already held a claim on my affection because it was there I found comfort and strength after my father's death, and the fact that there are Trinitarian UUs further raises my opinion of them.

Thanks for sharing the story about your friend.

I think the 211,000 is signed up members and not just attenders or people who put down UU when surveyed (signed up members vote so have significant power). The UUs are one of those groups where a lot more people claim it in surveys than are actually on the denomination's rolls (ARIS 2008 estimated about 586,000 adult members).

Bill: I may have got the name wrong - I don't think so. In any event the group held/holds firmly to the doctrine of the Trinity and baptizes in that name.

As a matter of fact, there are a handful of Trinitarian congregations which are holdovers of the pre-merger Universalist Church: the non-credal nature of UUism really does cut both ways! (And that's to say nothing of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland).

Geoffrey, here in Rhode Island we've got at least two of the congregations from the old Universalist Church, First Universalist and Bell Street Chapel. I had assumed that they were like other UUA congregations except in name, but I went to First Church's website this morning and was pleasantly suspended to find this in their FAQs:

"Aren’t you part of the Unitarian church?
We became part of the Unitarian Universalist Association when the two bodies combined in 1961. It was a decentralized, locally-governed consolidation; each congregation can vary greatly from one to the next. Here, we remain a Universalist Christian church with a continuing Trinitarian and ecumenical tradition of worship."

I'll have to check them out some Sunday I'm free.

By the way, calling the UUs "the Unitarians" is a bit of a faux pas.

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