When I first started getting involved in a Unitarian congregation, I had the same problem that many of you have told me you face. How do I explain this to my friends?
Although the US is a much more religious country than the UK, the circles I travelled in were mostly populated by liberals, scientists, and rationalists. I didn’t know anyone I admired who was – or at least who admitted to being religious. My friends and I looked upon religion as a bunch of superstitious nonsense at best. We figured that it was a crutch for those people who couldn’t manage for themselves or think for themselves – the people who couldn’t make it in the ‘normal’ system.
Worse, we thought of religion as the opiate of the masses that anesthetizes us against the suffering imposed by the greedy people who hold power in our society. Religion was the divider of humankind into us and them, the starter of wars, the fanner of the flames of persecution.
It took a while to get me in the doors of a Unitarian congregation for exactly those reasons, and when I did go, I started to recognize that even if I had been 99% right and that most religion is bad, that there are some few exceptions. I had found one.
So, what could I say about my newfound faith?
In some ways, the easiest thing was to say nothing unless I had to. That was my initial plan.
But it wasn’t a perfect plan. I had to say something to my friends and my extended family. Eventually, as I got more involved, I had to say something to the people asked why I was busy on a Sunday morning or an occasional Tuesday evening.
And eventually, I realized that I not only had to say something because I was on the spot. I had to say something because I had found something that was incredibly great. Unitarianism changed my life even before it changed my career. It awakened me to the connectedness of humanity and to my responsibility in the world. It showed me that there is more to life than material success. More than climbing the ladder of increasing affluence and power, more than having better and better stuff.
Having found something so transformative, it felt selfish not to share it.
So, I was in a position where I needed to tell people about… you know… religion.
It’s not easy to do that when you’re a Unitarian. Our way of being religious is complicated and it’s different from what others may expect. You may have already had the conversation: “oh, you are a Unitarian! What do Unitarians believe?”
Well, uh, umm… and before you know it, you’re saying exactly what you don’t want to say which is “we don’t believe this and we don’t believe that and…”
And the reason we can’t answer that question is because it’s the wrong question! Unitarians, like Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists and many others do not base their religiousness around what they believe. Christians do, and since this is a Christian country, the “what do you believe” question is a natural one to ask, but it’s the wrong one for us.
Another mistake I’ve made is to explain Unitarianism without thinking about what the person I’m talking to actually wants to know: “well, you see, at the council of Nicea in 325 CE, there was a dispute about the doctrine of the trinity and then in 1553 in Spain…”
This did not work out too well. Most people don’t want a 20 minute discourse on the history of religion, they want to know what that place is and why you go there! They want to know if it’s some kind of a cult or a trick to get you them into some fundamentalist group. They want to know what made you – a seemingly normal person – do something so strange as to get involved in a religious organization! And if they think highly of you, they might just want to know if this community is something that could interest them as well!
In both the US and the UK, there has been a lot of discussion about the challenge of explaining our faith succinctly. In both places, people have been taken with the idea of being prepared with a description that you could say in the time it takes a lift to travel a few floors. In the US, it’s called an elevator speech. Here, it’s a lift pitch. Whatever you call it, it’s probably a good thing to think about.
So, today, I’d like to give you a chance to hear some lift pitches and a chance to develop something that you might want to say the next time someone asks you about Unitarianism.
Every one of you should also have received a blank piece of paper. Later on, I’ll be asking you to come up with a few sentences of your own, so you might want to start jotting down a few words and thoughts.
Let’s start with some words that might help you to formulate your own ideas. One source of inspiration comes from the words we sang this morning. Our first song – As tranquil streams that meet and merge…
It is a hymn that speaks of the freedom of Unitarianism, which remains relevant today any time we compare what we have here to more traditional religious traditions. We “build a church that shall be free…from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed” and “Free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need.” And the line I like best “A freedom that reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more;” showing our faith in the future and in change.
Our second hymn also emphasizes freedom. “Faith of the larger liberty.” And although it touches on our ongoing struggle against oppressions of every kind, these words are very anchored in a past when Unitarianism represented a truly radical freedom from religious traditions that were anything but.
We might wonder how much relevance that emphasis really has for us today. The failing of these words and many others is that they are created in the context of an oppressively dominant church. As that becomes less and less the case, it’s important that we explore what may be more relevant today.
I’d also like to tell you about one more sort of statement that comes from the past.
In almost every Unitarian congregation in the US, and in several here, every service includes a kind of affirmation of our shared commitment. Most of these are based on a statement written at the end of the 19th century by James Vila Blake. We might even want to think about doing something like this here.
One version goes like this:
Love is the doctrine of this church
The quest for truth is its sacrament
and service is its prayer
This is our great covenant
To dwell together in peace
To seek the truth in love
And to help one another
To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine
I have actually found this useful in explaining Unitarianism because it says some things that are very radical. Love is our doctrine. The quest for truth is our sacrament. Service is our prayer. For anyone who is steeped in the Abrahamic faiths in general and in Christianity in particular, this affirmation turns expectations on their heads. It shows that we are a faith of caring, searching, and serving rather than a faith based on believing the ‘right’ things.
“This is our great covenant” – it clearly and firmly states our purpose and our commitment to be about helping the world and each other.
It’s not a bad place from which to start.
And now, I’d like to bring you into the discussion. Twenty of you received slips of paper with printed words on them. These are lift pitches from a variety of sources. Would you please stand one by one and read those words loudly and clearly.
READING OF THE PRINTED STATEMENTS
I hope that this has given you some food for thought and perhaps a few ideas. Take a moment now to jot down a possible statement that you might want to use.
Now, if you like, turn to a neighbour and say your draft lift pitch to one another. This may make you want to change it a bit more. Go right ahead and do that.
SHARING WITH ONE PERSON
Now, finally, I’d like to invite anyone who is happy with what they’ve written to stand one at a time and share it with the rest of us.
SHARING WITH THE CONGREGATION
These are the statements that members of the congregation shared aloud or in writing:
I come to church because I like to sing hymns, listen to the Minister’s sermon, and especially if there is a story. It makes me feel good. Also I like to be among friends and especially the young people. They are our future. We welcome all people, there is no creed. I do believe in God, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.
It is a community of people that value spiritual traditions and support each of its members through their individual lives.
Unitarianism is a place of sharing, exchange and support where open hearted people seek to grow spirituality and socially together while avoiding to impose any strict views of the world, beliefs or moulds.
Belief in the Sacred and interconnectedness of all and everything. Search for truth, love, harmony and appropriate action. Total acceptance and challenge to move beyond.
I know I am new here but have been Unitarian for 10 years so I get this a lot. Unitarianism: We dig everyone! All great religious leaders taught love, kindness and understanding and we keep those ideas minus the negative stuff.
Unitarianism offers me a community of support, encouragement and spirituality in a context where I can bring who I am and I can offer that same support and encouragement to others, different from me, while honouring those differences.
Why I want to join the Unitarians: It’s not that I want to join a particular denomination; it’s rather that I want to be part of a group. I want that group to be inclusive and caring for each other; also, I am looking for a concern for others, both in this country and around the world. I am looking for a group that is guided by logic and where ideas and principles are thought through and discussed. On a negative side, I cannot any longer be part of the denominations I have grown up through, because I cannot accept the various principles on which they are based. I am looking for more discussion and debate on the issues that are of concern at present, a more outward concern and more concern for social justice.
Hi, I’m new! (I heard about you on Twitter-believe it or not) I am hoping to find a group of people with whom I can share my ethical and moral development. I am hoping not to feel like the only liberal scientist who feels strongly about ethical and spiritual questions. I’d like to find people like me and renew my faith in humanity!
I’m new today. I am hoping to find a community to share a journey of learning about the spiritual world, taking good ideas from all religions, while I search for direction in my own life. Thank you for a great introductory service.
I am drawn to this church because I believe it celebrates the divinity in each human being in the world around us.
Unitarianism provides us with the freedom and encouragement to explore our own individual spiritual needs and development. We respect and care for one another as a community. Together we share ideas, consideration, joys, sorrows, wisdom and words of intelligent discussion to help one another grow and become more fulfilled. We celebrate life together.
Unitarianism cheers me up and gives me hope. It takes me out of myself to trust in others and kill the killjoy in me.
The Chapel, Minister and congregation offer you a welcoming place with support to cultivate your own inner light.
Unitarianism is a petrol station for everyone to pull up to and then leave full with which ever fuel they choose to be right for them.
Unitarianism is a religion which taps into the deep undercurrents of love which are already present in all other faith traditions, and gives primacy to the expression of compassion within community. PS: I liked “not people into heaven, but heaven into people” very much!
Unitarianism is based on shared values, not beliefs. We value love, community, searching and service. We not only support each other, but also collaborate to enhance our understanding of and experience in this life.
A place where you can find your own spiritual pathway. Friendship, love.
The chance to sing
The chance to share
The chance to think
The chance to debate
The chance to participate
The chance to listen to Andy’s words-usually wise, sometimes humorous.
The chance to laugh and be uplifted
The chance for my spirit to fly
I come to New-Unity to learn how to listen with all my being, especially my heart.
A disorganised, radically liberal religion, where we are all on a spiritual search. It’s more about what you do in the world than what you believe.
Unlike Christianity it is not about what you believe. But Unitarianism does have attitudes. An attitude of helping others, an attitude of being for social justice.
Unitarianism is a free faith where everyone is able to follow their own spiritual path. It is a very liberal movement, with services both in the USA and the UK. We seek peace and love amongst one another. God is not openly worshipped. It helps me to reflect.
Unitarianism is a movement that recognises the value in all the world religions, but offers all the insights that they have revealed so that one can take from them what makes sense to each individual.
Unitarians are a friendly community that easily welcomes everyone they meet.
Unitarianism: Service, acceptance of diversity, community and belonging, individual paths to the divine...
Everyone is and everything is welcome and something meaningful may well happen when we meet.
Unitarianism provides a sense or feeling of collective belonging around a commitment to a beloved community and to the common good.
Thank you all for the words you’ve shared.
Let’s join together in singing some words that, for many people, capture much of what this free faith is about. Roots to anchor and strengthen us, wings that give us the freedom to explore, and the essential goal of bringing justice to all. Spirit of life.