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Unitarian faith growing nationwide

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.”


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Bill Dilworth

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

Bill Dilworth

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.

Geoffrey McLarney

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).

Bob McCloskey

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.


Emma Pease

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).

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