Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Free Churches for Free Minds

Perhaps you’ve heard of St. Frances X. Cabrini Church, located just outside of Boston. 12 years ago the diocese closed the parish to sell the land. For 12 years, parishioners held vigil in the building as they fought the diocese in court. The Vatican rejected their appeals and US courts confirmed that the real estate was the property of the Diocese, and not of the parish. This was, to me, a foregone conclusion. The Roman Catholic Church and communions like it are episcopal or connectional in nature, with property in the hands of the hierarchy. Could such a thing happen to Unitarian Universalist congregations? The simple answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that the Unitarian Universalist Association is a fellowship of congregationally-governed local churches, all of which have full ownership rights to any property they hold, including real estate.

This free church, congregational approach is expressed in other ways as well.

Yesterday I talked about how Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome people into a community of shared progressive values, without regard to individual differences of belief. I noted that most UU congregations attempt to walk a middle path with their services, crafting them to be as inclusive as possible. That is all true, and yet it is also important to note that not all UU congregations are the same.

While most will have the familiar chalice lighting as the service begins, all affirm the Principles and recognize the Sources that inform this tradition, many are more Christian in style. In some cases this happens because the congregation is dual-affiliated with a mainline Protestant denomination, and the service and homilies reflect this other tradition. In such churches you may see infants being christened, communion being passed, and hear the Revised Common Lectionary used for readings. Even UU congregations with no other affiliation will at times adopt more Christian language and worship styles.

As a Humanist, I would advise other non-theists who find that their local UU congregation uses some theistic language, and who are uncomfortable with this type of church, to look into Ethical Culture, Oasis, Sunday Assembly, or one of the many American Humanist Association groups.

For everyone else, I recommend giving Unitarian Universalism a chance. See if there are more than one UU church in your area. Try them out, perhaps a couple of services each. You could get lucky and find one that is solidly neutral or even tends Humanist (if that matters to you). On the other hand, if you find that there is some muted Christian content in the services and don’t feel it to be too much, why not also consider starting a Humanist group in connection with that congregation? It could be open to all non-theists, not just Unitarian Universalists. The intent, of course, would be to have the company of others who share your outlook, encourage atheists and agnostics in a larger society that tends to distrust them, and establishing a positive Humanist presence in the local UU community.

UU congregations, whatever their style, are free churches for free minds.