“The Unsectarian Sect” Mark W. Harris

 January 8, 2017 –  First Parish of Watertown,  MA


Opening Words – from Edward Schempp


“Unitarian Universalism is faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child,

confidence in a continuity that spans all time. It looks not to a perfect

heaven, but toward a good earth. It is respectful of the past, but not

limited to it. It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change. It is

spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.”


Reading from Born Again Unitarian Universalism by the Rev. Forrest Church,

Longtime minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City.


In the book, Church recounts a dinner-party conversation.

Seated between strangers at the party, he is caught off guard when someone asks:

You are a what?

A Unitarian Universalist.”

“Oh, I see,” says the questioner, but obviously doesn’t. He is rescued by the woman on the right.

I’ve never really understood just what it is you Unitarians believe. You are Christians, aren’t you?”

“Not exactly. I mean, we were and some of us still are but most of us are not.”

“You don’t believe in Jesus?”

“Not in an orthodox way, certainly. Many of us value his teachings but few, if any of us, believe that he was resurrected on the third day or that he was God.

“What about immortality?”

“Well, I guess you’d have to say that we’re pretty much divided on that one.”

“But at least you all believe in God?” interrupts the man across the table.

“Not exactly. Many of us do, if each in his or her own way. Others of us do not find the concept of God a useful one.”

“What then do you believe?” the bewildered hostess politely asks.

“Actually, nothing,” you sputter. “Well, not really nothing, more like anything.” You then rush to assure them that you don’t believe that Jesus was born of a virgin or resurrected on the third day, you almost never read the Bible, and you certainly agree that religion is the most dangerous force in the world, especially today. To which your friends respond that these are the very reasons they don’t attend church.



A little more than two months ago Jolie and I led a workshop here on multicultural welcome. The basic idea behind the session was to encourage First Parish members to be welcoming to all visitors who pass through our doors. I began the workshop by telling a true story about a visitor to the UU Congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee on February 12, 1960. Jim Pearson walked through the front door, and then he noticed a sign which said, “Everyone Welcome.”  As he prepared to enter the church, he approached the greeter, and said in reference to the sign, does that include me?  Why do you suppose he asked that question? He wanted to know if, in that time, and in that place,  a black man was welcome at that church,. Is a person with a strong foreign accent welcome at this church?  Is someone who did not go to college welcome at this church?  Is a transgender person welcome at this church? Is a Christian welcome at this church? Do all our visitors feel welcome at this church?   This morning we have some evidence that at least four people felt welcome here, at least enough to join the church.

We began that evening by asking the participants how they would define greeting. Every Sunday morning at least two people are assigned the volunteer task of welcoming all those who come to church.  The participants variously described their job as welcoming people, making them feel comfortable, orienting them with orders of service and hymnals, answering questions and being friendly and approachable. Eventually I asked the question, Does anyone think of themselves as an ambassador for Unitarian Universalism?  Let me be honest, and tell you, I was shocked by the response.  People invariably said that they thought their job was to welcome people to our church, or to our community, but it seemingly had nothing to do with Unitarian Universalism. Does that mean that people’s religious identity is with this specific church or the community and not the faith?

Perhaps there are two issues here, and one is clearer than the other. First, Unitarian Universalism has an organizational element.  It is a religious movement that is governed by a bureaucracy. It  has an administrative headquarters, and regional offices.  In fact, the regional office for New England is located in Watertown.  How many of you knew that?  There is little evidence that most members of churches are especially interested in the political organization, except the ministers and a few rabid adherents.  That is to be expected.  But there is also a larger world wide faith that is not only has an organizational structure, but also has devoted followers or practitioners of a particular religious orientation. But this becomes complicated immediately. Most Unitarian Universalists would say religious authority lies with the individual, and so these freedom loving folk begin to balk when they words like practitioners or particular orientation. They think of liberal religion as “freedom” to pursue your own truth from whatever source seems spiritually nourishing at a particular time in your religious journey. It is all very personal with few people believing there is a particular path to follow.

All of this makes it complicated for the ministers and active lay followers who are charged with defining what the faith is, and then figuring out how to hand the faith on to those who follow. More often than not we have made jokes about the lack of belief, such as they pray to whom it may concern, or they believe in one God, at most. The message may be that we are not serious about our faith. Jokes or not, it is difficult to capture a religious identity that can be easily disseminated to new followers. Even long term members have difficulty explaining exactly what Unitarian Universalism is. I don’t know if that is the reason that our greeters do not consider themselves ambassadors of our faith, but it doesn’t help. They don’t know how to explain it. Newcomers often like the people they meet and the values they espouse.  They feel they belong in this liberal community that is open and welcoming, and so they love the community, but are less clear about the religion.

I would suggest that the community is what it is because of the faith, and grasping that might help all of us feel a deeper kinship to Unitarian Universalism. The great Unitarian leader Henry Whitney Bellows once referred to us as the “Unsectarian Sect.” Our faith has always included people who wanted to be part of an organization that was anti-organizational, and have an identity but not want to claim a sectarian name. Remember the old song, “Don’t fence me in.” Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters once collaborated: “Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, Don’t fence me in. Let me ride through the wide open country that I love, Don’t fence me in.” Are we so open and free that no one can figure out where our boundaries lie?  Someone once said there is “No sectarianism in God’s work.” Perhaps our freedom leads us closer to a universal spirit of love or God.

I would like to hope that is true, but there may be some pitfalls. There is a new history of nineteenth century America called A Nation Without Borders.  A review in the New York Times quotes the poet Charles Olson, “I take space to be the central fact to man born in America.” Space can be defined as geography, property, intellectual expression, or even Emersonian nature. While we may think of space as freedom to adopt whatever ideas about faith we wish, it can become a kind of consumerism where everything is valid, and so nothing means anything anymore, or everything is meant to be devoured.  Historically this meant that people within the borders of America were conquered, and expansionism and colonialism went hand in glove with American freedom.  Listen to a later verse of “Don’t Fence Me In.”  “I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences, And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses.” So, we must ask if there is an element of the American appetite for conquest, or refusal to accept borders in this liberal theology, and if so, what is the antidote? Do we just lose our senses in trying to absorb so many perspectives?

The temptation, as with the jokes about UUism, is to focus on the negatives, that UUism rejects this belief or that, or that we are always on the defensive trying to explain ourselves, and so we may end up feeling like Forrest Church does in the reading, that we don’t believe in anything, and so we go to church for the community, not the religion. But again I believe the community is created from the religion, and I will spend the rest of the sermon telling you why. Several years ago Andrea told me the story of a former member of this church, who while she was still active, used to refuse to recite the church affirmation that we repeat every Sunday. She said this refusal was based in the truth that we don’t practice the words: “Love is the spirit of this church.” I think part of the reason she said this was the expectation that love meant being nice to everyone no matter how they behaved. In this case, some boundaries had been set restricting the freedom of one particular member. We all define love differently, but perhaps the more pertinent point is that love is an aspiration, and not a fact. Most of us are only able to act loving some of the time.  The rest of the time we are difficult, stubborn, unforgiving and judgmental. In other words, we are human. Love is a goal, and not a fact of our existence. We say love is an aspiration, not a fact.

Now we come to William Ellery Channing. Today I have asked you to donate to an effort to restore Channing’s grave at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  I do have a local angle, so it feels like we are centered in our community, and we are especially fortunate because our backyard includes this amazing historical, natural and artistic wonder. As someone who teaches aspiring ministers the particulars of our liberal religious history, it is dismaying to visit Mt. Auburn Cemetery only to see the grave of the spiritual founder of our Unitarian faith looking like it is slowly washing away. We need to honor Channing’s memory and the UU tradition by restoring this stone to its original beauty.  I hope all those who love our free faith will back this important project. Channing was special because he had an enduring message, delivered with a spiritual depth that not only provides the foundation of our faith, but created a new spirit in America that gave a sense of personal worth and hope to countless people.

A native of Newport, RI, Channing served only one church in his life, what is today the Arlington Street Church in Boston.  Once upon a time, his words were included in literature anthologies, but now he is unfortunately considered a literary relic of the past. From the pulpit of his church and in his essays he was the first to call for a national literature, he became an advocate for the abolition of slavery in the later years of his life, he was a peace activist, and a progenitor of Transcendentalism.  Emerson referred to him as our bishop, and one sermon called “Likeness to God” affirmed the basic radical belief that humans have the potential to be like God. He said divinity is within us, and we have but to realize it: “The adoration of goodness,–this is religion.” We can encounter the divine in the world through God’s creation.  In 1819 he delivered what became the manifesto of the movement, the sermon “Unitarian Christianity.”  These were among his contributions to the foundations of our faith.

Can Channing help us cultivate more of a sense of ourselves as holders of a Unitarian Universalist faith? The long standing issue we have with identity is that right from the start, Channing and others were trying to create a different sense of religious identity than one that had been known before. Christianity was grounded in correct belief, and not right action. Liberals didn’t want to define Christian as dogmatic beliefs, but instead advocated a broad Christianity that was to be founded upon how we behave towards one another.  As Channing said, the adoration of goodness embodies religion in our ethical actions. This was true for Bellows when he named us the unsectarian sect. He defined Unitarianism as a movement away from dogmatic Christianity to spiritual Christianity. It was not a body of opinions, he said.  It is a habit of mind, a principle of conduct.

Part of the reason they did not want to call themselves Unitarians was that it meant defining what was necessary to be part of the faith, or a particular theological correctness. Channing wrote that Christianity had dishonored its founder, and the way many people experienced Christianity.  He said it had been dishonored by gross and cherished corruptions. Channing’s faith provided a salve to people who had been wounded by Calvinism and its tenets that each person was totally depraved and there was nothing you could do to redeem yourself in God’s eyes. What happens when you are told over and over again that you are a horrible person? This was the faith I rejected as a young person because it continually reminded me that I would remain sinful until I accepted Jesus as my savior. As a graduate student it was Channing who converted me to Unitarianism with his balm of affirmation in human potential rescuing me from bigoted and irrational beliefs.

I think what happens to members of Unitarian Universalist congregations is that they begin to stumble when questioned about whether UUs believe in God or Jesus or the Bible, and because much of our authority is found with the individual we get tongue tied, and end up saying some do, some don’t, and it all becomes confusing. Think of Channing’s approach to some of these basic questions. Is the Bible the revealed word of God?  No, he says, it is a book meant to be read and understood like other books. We have always seen it as a chronicle of people’s struggles to understand truth in the world, and find meaning. Is Jesus God? No, Jesus is someone who understood divine truth because he lived with great integrity. He is true to what is in you and me, Emerson later said.  Is there a God? While Channing would have said that God is moral perfection, the idea is that you find God in life the more you strive to achieve personal truth and love. It is not that you already have it, but it is the goal of spiritual fulfillment.

Channing saw how cruel people could be.  He lived in the South for a time as a young man, and served as a tutor. He was sickened by the evil of slavery. The potential of the slave to experience moral development was destroyed. The story we have repeated here about Channing was when he was a young man, and he heard a preacher put the fear of God in his heart, convincing him that the world was going to end because God was so angry.  But then he saw that his father didn’t seem to even notice that these horrible words had been preached.  He went home, lighted up a cigar, and acted like it was nothing. But the young Channing was fearful of a thunder storm that day which seemed to predict the very end of creation. He took words seriously, and did not want to be afraid.  He grew up to preach a faith that did not promote fear, but true words of hope about human potential and worth; that people could elevate themselves, and learn to live in love.

What this means is that you as greeters might be worried about telling someone or even understanding for yourself what Unitarian Universalism is, but you already know by your striving to live the truth in love. Many of you may remember my short definition of Unitarian Universalism – “DEED NOT CREEDS.”   Your faith journey is a process of living into the truth and not a wordy definition of what is the truth. We are followers of Jesus, not worshippers of Christ. And we might add Buddha, Mohammad, and many others.  As a greeter you are a human doorway to Unitarian Universalism, and you reflect the faith by making it a practice to be welcoming to all because you have a faith obligation to see the divine, or see God in that person.  Channing was a person who was full of doubt, and constantly questioning his positions. He speaks to us in the 21st century as one who worried, as he told a young colleague that “there was a danger that your mind may be frittered away by endless details, by listening continually to frivolous communication.”  This sounds like electronic communication at its worst.

Because we have to live amidst endless details, he said, “the great art of wisdom, is to seize the Universal (the one inner spirit) in the particular.” Channing related this to the slavery crisis, when he said that if you cannot see a brother (or a sister) under a skin darker than your own, then you long for a vision of a Christian, but you cannot have it, because you worship the “Outward.”  Unitarian Universalism is embodied in you, and in your striving for a spirit that knows love for all brothers and sisters, based not on the Outward, but on the loving spirit you embody with your life. Earlier this fall I told you the story of being greeted by a woman as I came down from the peak of Mt. Kathadin. She noticed my yellow t-shirt emblematic of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. We UUs have always been reluctant to proclaim our affiliation because it seems so sectarian. But she named our faith by saying thank you for all you do to make the world a welcoming space for all.  But it was nothing I did.  It was her recognition of our UU faith, and how important it is to let others  know such a faith exists. Would you be an ambassador for it? Your calling as a greeter is to greet one another in the spirit of love. You are already ambassadors of Unitarian Universalism, but have only to proclaim it. Channing preached lofty goals for people imbued with faith, but he knew that it is not what we are already, but rather what we might become.


Closing words – from David Bumbaugh – 

We are here dedicated to the proposition that beneath all our differences, behind all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one and binds us forever together, in spite of time and death and the space between the stars. We pause in silent witness to that unity.