Faithful America, Religious Liberal Traditions, and Why I Belong to a UU Church

I came across the activist group Faithful America a while ago and really appreciate the message they stand for. Political discourse in this country around religion has been very much shaped by the religious right. Faithful America aims to reshape the discourse to include members of more liberal religious traditions. Their latest campaign is to shape some of the debate happening during this year’s presidential campaign. There’s a “compassion forum” live on CNN this Sunday at 8pm. You should vote on which issue to have the candidates address: click here to do that.

Whenever I talk to someone new, I feel self-conscious saying things like “I know her from church” or “I do lay ministry,” because as soon as people hear the word “church” slip from my lips I know they’re making all kinds of assumptions about my religion, my politics, and my beliefs. For the record (are the new viewers gone yet?), I have been a practicing witch for more than a decade. Most of that time I spent as a solitary practitioner, although I did study with a coven in Connecticut and also ran a website for About.com on the subject that included virtual ritual in chat rooms (not to mention mountains and mountains of emails, and the time-sink-hole morass of bitchy pagans forum). I belong to First Parish Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Years before I attended a Sunday service at the church, some friends of mine introduced me to the CUUPs rituals that take place on Fridays near the Sabbats of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, and sometimes Samhain. I appreciated CUUPs’s eclectic approach to pagan practice and was also impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge possessed by the facilitators.

While the notion of a liberal religious tradition is not entirely new to me, my experience at First Parish Cambridge really was life-changing. To steal the words of my ex-girlfriend, it was an important part of my re-churching. It wasn’t until Sunday services at First Parish that I actually heard the man up in the pulpit saying the exact same things I believed. The words in the hymnals weren’t full of things about Jesus, only-begotten Son of the Father saving us from eternal damnation. They were about a hard-working Mother God, a loving Father God, a Spirit of Life that imbues us all. Instead of the “thou shalt nots” of the 10 Commandments, the seven principles talked about things like the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, the importance of social justice, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

People like to make fun of the UUs for having wishy-washy beliefs. At the beginning, I used to laugh along with those jokes. But I don’t anymore, because I see the Unitarian Universalist movement as a group of people with very deeply held beliefs. They’re beliefs not based in shame however, but in the irrepressible presence of the Divine in all aspects of existence: in human beings, in society, in the earth itself. People need deeply held beliefs to fight the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, or speak out against the excesses of the McCarthy era, or take practical steps to fight racism, or get arrested protesting the genocide in the Sudan, or support the rights of gay families to equal treatment under the law.

The UU tradition allows for a heterogeneity of beliefs that includes secular humanists, deists, Buddhists, “Jew-U’s”, pagans, Christians, and others. It also has something sadly missing in the Catholic church of my youth: democratic governance. All members of a congregation have a say in how the congregation is run, and all matters of theology and the like come up before the General Assembly each year. Ministers don’t get any more say in the running of the church than lay people.

I never expected to find a congregation that so completely shared the same views as me, and certainly not one as active, welcoming, and thriving as First Parish Cambridge. As a result, I give back a great deal to the church, both with an annual pledge and with a fair amount of lay ministry. I’m co-leading a Sunday service for Beltane this year on May 4. If you’re in the neighborhood and would like to hear me preach, please come by. It’s the second lay-led service the Women’s Sacred Circle has done in the past 12 months, and I hope there will be more to follow.

Author: Frances Donovan (aka Okelle)

I like poetry, long walks on the beach, and net neutrality. Tending the Garden of Words (www.gardenofwords.com) since 1998.

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