Derby Unitarians

Sharing Intimate Conversations

A colleague of mine tells the story of attending the dental hygienist; her hygienist is so keen on her subject that during her twice yearly check-up she endures not only the pleasure of a scale and polish but also the history of dentistry and the mechanical workings and functions of the oral orifice. She comments; "I don't want this, I just want clean teeth!"
Is it not a little like that when we are asked about Unitarianism, about our faith? Do we sometimes respond with a potted history of our movement, or the minutia of philosophical or theological debate, when all the enquirer requires is, what difference does it make to your life?

A few days ago I was asked to give a talk about Unitarianism to a group from the University of the 3rd Age. It was entitled 'In Search of an Honest God.'
This was a group of mature folks who all brought with them their experience of life and faith, some traditional, some not; some of faith, some not.
The experience for me was great because they asked some very searching questions about Unitarianism and asked me some searching questions about my faith.
Having thought about my answers to those questions, I know I could have done a better job on the day, like an argument, you always think of the better thing to say later on - why didn't I say this, or that, why didn't I retell this experience?
Unitarianism is so hard to explain to new people who enquire, so hard to explain, in particular to those who come from a more traditional faith background. Because they want their answers about Unitarianism to be framed in their language, couched in the language and formulae of a tradition that most Unitarians have walked away from, or at least no longer conform too.
And so I thought of the following story, which although may not be totally accurate, it is created from experiences that once I had at one of my previous congregations.

We were in the middle of a Religious Education Programme and we began to have a conversation about the church and why we were different from other churches. This was a course made up of Unitarians and none Unitarian participants.
"Why do you come to church?" I asked.
"To learn about God" was one reply.
"Looking for Salvation" said another.
"What do you mean by salvation? I asked, "I don't know" he said.
"Why do you come to church?" I asked again.
"I am looking for something?" began another voice, "What?" I enquired;
"God, a purpose, something larger than me, a sense of belonging"
"Belonging to what?"
"Belonging to a group of people with whom I can be open, unafraid to speak my truth."
"I like singing the hymns" said a new voice,
"And do they speak to you?"
"Sometimes - sometimes I don't know the tunes"
"It's hard to learn new tunes isn't it? But it is something we all need to do. We cannot always sing the hymns of our childhood, even though we love them for their simplicity and comfort." I responded.

"Why do you come to church" I teased once more.
"Because I am struggling to make sense of life, of what has happened to me in my life. To listen to what others have to say about their struggles, how they make sense of it all."
This was the first time that this lady, let's call her Linda, had spoken.
"And how does coming to this church help you?"
"Because I realise that I am not alone, others struggle too, with all this God talk. Understanding that others have had similar experiences to mine"
"And come to the same conclusions?"
"No, not necessarily. But that doesn't matter; there is comfort in knowing that my struggles are not just me, if that makes any sense, that there are others who share that same experience. That I can talk with people in the everyday language of life, rather than the language of the church, the language of 'belief'. "
"Are you saying that Unitarians have no beliefs?"
"No, but that beliefs are offered, shared, in intimate conversation about life, not in quizzical conversations about salvation and being 'one of the clan' so to speak."
"Please go on." I said. "I think you are on to something fundamental here."

"When I first came to this church, it was because I found something so different to the church of my upbringing. I struggled at first, I loved the freedom to think, to just be, but then the guilt of my formal upbringing kicked in, forcing me back to my roots. But eventually I came back and this yo-yoing went on for a while until I could break out, learn to sing a new song as someone said earlier." Linda continued. "When I first came to this church, no one said, 'have you found this or that, or do you believe x or y.' It was just, 'Welcome, how are you? Here's a hymn book, sit wherever you like and please stay for tea and biscuits after the service.' No one said what I had to do or say or believe to conform to this group, to be accepted. I was accepted as me, for who I am, as a person. I couldn't believe it; I had never experienced it before."
"You had found a spiritual home?"
"I had found a home, I was among friends."

Linda's story is not uncommon among the stories of people who find their way to the spiritual home that we call Unitarianism. It certainly was similar to my story.

What makes Unitarian congregations unique is that unequivocal welcome, that acceptance of you as a unique and beloved person, regardless of your specific personal spirituality, your gender, your sexuality or political affiliation.
Most church traditions require conformation to a doctrinal statement of faith to belong; not so in a Unitarian congregation.

What are the doctrines of the church but theological speculation, politicised by the Roman authorities in an attempt to bring about conformity and a quiet life. History is full of the blood spilt in the name of such conformity.

You are welcome into a Unitarian congregation merely by being a fellow human. It is founded on that golden rule, found in almost every religious tradition of human kind; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." In other words, we respect each other; both, what we individually believe and corporately stand for.
Respect is found in the way we listen to one another, in that intimate sharing of life's experiences of which Linda spoke.
This is what is uniquely Unitarian, that we find God (however, we understand that word) so ingrained in the everyday, that life itself is sacred.
This we offer to the world, a sense of being in community that is founded upon our common humanity; where diversity is celebrated.

In the USA, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Bill Sinkford, posed the question, "What do you say when you are going up an elevator (That's a lift to you and me) and someone asks, what is a Unitarian?" In other words, how do you answer such a question succinctly in the time it takes to go a few floors? Here are some of the answers he received.

We help each other in our search for God or the sacred, even though we realize that each person's vision of God or the sacred is different. We believe in the importance of individual conscience, spiritually and socially, as well as the responsibility towards the community and creation that comes with that freedom.
Erin Christman
Unity Church - Unitarian
Saint Paul, Minnesota

Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred, all existence is interconnected, and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds.
Ann Creech
Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North
Roswell, Georgia

And my personal favourite;

Most religions work to get people into heaven. Unitarian Universalists work to get heaven into people.
Roger Bergere
Church of the Larger Fellowship
Babson Park, Florida

We would stand in the Biblical tradition of John, who in his 1st Letter exhorts us to "love one another. Those who say 'I Love God' and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God, whom they have not seen."

And of Paul who in his Letter to the Romans wrote thus; "Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be convinced in their own minds."

The Taoist, Lao-Tse who said:
Existence is beyond the power of words to define; terms may be used but none of them absolute. In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words. Words come out of the womb of matter; words making them seem different only to express appearance.

The Buddhist tradition contained within the Metta Sutta:
Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm; radiating friendliness over the whole world.

It seems to me that the beauty of our tradition (Unitarianism) is better experienced than explained. That is the ministry that we all do, everyday of our lives; to take that sacred message out to the world; that we need not think alike to love alike, and invite people to join with us in this sacred journey of life.
As a University exists to be the bearer of the torch in the search for truth and knowledge, so the Unitarian congregation exists to carry the many truths of its members and to encourage that search within the beloved community.

From Sophia Lyon Fahs, a Unitarian educator, editor, author, and minister, with a special interest in and innovative approach to the religious education of children:
It matters what we believe: Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathy.
Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.
Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in the world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.
Some beliefs are like blunders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.
Other beliefs are like gateways, opening wide vistas for exploration.
Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood; they blight the growth of resourcefulness.
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.
Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

© 2007 Rev Chris Goacher