Beyond These Walls

The Changing Landscape of Unitarianism
Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert with Amber Dawn Bellemare, 23 February 2014

Two weeks ago, I was in New York City for the biannual meeting of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, which in the spirit of alphabet soup we call ICUU.  One morning my dear friend, Tet Gallardo, a newly-ordained Unitarian Universalist minister in the Philippines, led us in worship.  She looked out across the sanctuary of the Shelter Rock congregation where our meetings were taking place and she saw us scattered throughout the space in that typical uptight, Western fashion. “I want you to move in closer,“ she said, “closer, like the way we do it in the Philippines, because we don’t have the luxury of room.  Get closer so that you’re squeezed in together, Filipino style.”

So we squeezed in, and then Tet invited us to get up, walk around and rub elbows as we sang the morning’s hymns.  There were some 120 of us in attendance from every continent except Antarctica, and there we were, with our very different levels of what-feels-culturally- comfortable, rubbing elbows, singing and laughing.  Every time a bell rang, we sat down in a different space, squeezed in next to someone new.  That, Tet would say, is what life is like in her community, a deeply visceral way of being together, of expressing what it is to be part of this liberal religious tradition. 

I loved what she brought to us because it took us out of our protective shells.  The atmosphere shifted and, as we spoke of our intercultural and theological differences, we became closer to each other.  We built a temporary global community of Unitarian Universalists.  Tet gave us license to connect with joyful playfulness.

There are Unitarian and Universalist communities in places that would surprise you: There have been Unitarians in Transylvania and Hungary since the 16th century, and Unitarians in the Khasi Hills of India, Australia, New Zealand and Germany since the 19th century.  There have been Unitarians in the Czech Republic and Nigeria since the 1920s, and Unitarian Universalists in the Philippines since the 1950s, just to name a few.  More recently, we’ve seen the emergence of Unitarian Universalist groups in Kenya, Burundi, Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico, Colombia, Italy … and that’s only part of the list.

It is amazing to meet and to share ideas with people from all around the world, some who have known Unitarianism for generations and others who have only recently found us, each shaping a liberal faith to meet their local needs. Many are living in parts of the world where standing out as a religious liberal truly takes courage.  Of course there are challenges. There are vast difference in terms of culture, privilege and theology.  There is no one single dogma that holds us together, yet every time we gather, we find there are certain values that bind us. We are thinkers and questioners.  We are spiritual seekers.  We are called to work for social justice within our own contexts.  We are each striving to create communities of love and support, often gathering around the lighting of a chalice – a symbol that has become nearly universal for us.

Among the many workshops offered during the ICUU conference, there was a session on social media, on how to network and how to build virtual congregations online.  It was a high anxiety affair for many.  “What? No church building?  No coming together to break bread?” someone asked, feeling dismayed. 

“This is the future,” the workshop leaders from the U.S. told us.  “It’s not a matter of choice.  It’s how the next generation interacts.”  It is true that many of our newest groups have found us through the internet, and some groups are forced, by the necessity of distance, to meet mostly online, yet they tell us that they long for their own buildings, for a physical place to call home. In other communities, internet access is so sporadic that gathering in person is the only option.

But here in North America and in Western Europe we worry that our days may be numbered as we face our changing landscape. Are we moving beyond congregations into an era of cyberchurch? What will we do with our buildings if the next generation doesn’t value them in the same way we do?  As Rev. Shawn Newton told us in his confluence lecture at the Canadian Unitarian Council’s annual meeting last year,

“The more things change, they aren’t necessarily staying the same.

“Long gone are the Sunday Laws in many of our cities that once prohibited all manner of fun and commerce on the Sabbath.  Gone are the days when church attendance was the norm and everything else happened on other days, including hockey games and road races …
“To be relevant not only in the future, …we must ask the hard question about whether what we’re about – what we’re selling, if you will – truly satisfies people’s needs. 
Once upon a time, Unitarianism was filled with people who came to us as refugees from mostly Christian denominations.  They came seeking religious freedom…

“[Now] the younger new people who are arriving in our congregations are coming in search of some structure, some boundaries, some evidence of clear commitments – signs that we actually walk our talk.  They usually aren’t coming to us as refugees from some restrictive faith tradition,’ though a few still do.  More often they are arriving without any real knowledge at all of how a religious community works …”

As the Canadian and Quebec landscape changes, can we be relevant to coming generations that may have no experience or interest in our traditional ways of being? As Shawn asks, “What would it mean for us to be not merely relevant, but a truly transformative religion for the times in which we live?”

This was the question that inspired the Canadian Unitarian Council board to host a visioning session with a small task force this past November. (I am very proud that our own Caroline Balderston Parry participated as the representative for religious educators, and Curtis Murphy as a member of the CUC board.)  The board and task force tell us that Unitarianism in Canada has come to a watershed moment.  If we are to survive, we will need to re-envision what Canadian Unitarianism Universalism will look like in the next five to ten years, and we will all need to be engaged in the process.

The result of the board’s gathering was to draft new vision and mission statements for the future.  Here’s an abbreviated version of the proposed new vision:

In five to ten years, Canadian Unitarian Universalism will be theologically alive, spiritually grounded, embody our principles, be boldly inclusive, move beyond congregations to build bridges with those who express their faith through diverse avenues such as urban ministry, faith-based social enterprise and online communities.  It will be deeply connected and engaged regionally and nationally, and technologically current. 

And here’s the proposed mission:

The Canadian Unitarian Council increases love and justice by nurturing spiritual growth, encouraging social responsibility, and honouring our interdependence.

As the up-and-coming new generation, community minister Carly Gaylor and seminarians, Curtis Murphy and Sean Neil-Barron put it, this is the church of their imagination:

We love our congregations and we are called out of them.
We imagine church without buildings…
We imagine church embedded in neighbourhoods – with deep roots and porous walls.
And we imagine our present churches, vibrant and sustainable, embedded in a dynamic web of symbiotic relationship. 
The new vision and mission statements for the CUC will be brought to a vote during the CUC annual business meeting on May 16, not far from here in Dorval.  (Just a little plug here: There is still time to volunteer to be a delegate to represent this church, to be part of the process and to vote.  Let me or our president, John Inder, know if you are interested.)

The business meeting is followed by a conference and there’s so much amazing stuff planned for that weekend – including a Saturday night event featuring the flavours of Montreal with circus performances and more, organized by our own Amber Bellemare and emceed by our own Susan Grey.  Sunday morning worship will be led by yours truly, with music from Sandra Hunt, Kerry-Anne Kutz and others.  It will be big and free of charge.  We’ll be providing buses from here to get to the conference centre. Please don’t miss it! 

I can’t stress enough what an important conference and meeting this will be, or how enriching it is to move beyond the local congregational level to the wider world of Unitarianism.   This is how we solidify our faith, and there are some wonderful people out there waiting to share this journey with you.

But surely you are wondering, how do we get there?  Not to the Airport Sheraton for the conference, but to the future.  What is our saving message of love and justice?  I can tell you what it is to me. 

On Thursday, I presented testimony (en français) at the National Assembly in Quebec City along with Dr. Victor Goldbloom -- Quebec’s first minister for the environment, first member of the Jewish community to become a Quebec cabinet member as well as former commissioner of official languages for Canada -- and with Professor Jean Duhaime, former dean of the faculty of religion and sciences at l’Université de Montréal.  We were there to present a brief to the commission for Bill 60, the charter for the secularization of Quebec on behalf of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal.

Over all, I think we succeeded in emphasizing the importance of dialogue in bringing people together. Our position is clear.  We are concerned that the government’s ultimate goal through its proposed bill is to make all religion invisible, something that we believe will be a great loss to Quebec. 

Through much of our presentation, the minister, Bernard Drainville, was busy looking at papers or talking with his deputies.  I began with these words:
…je sers une communauté qui est vraiment diversifiée. Certains d’entre nous sont théistes, agnostiques et aussi athées. Donc, j’ai beaucoup d’expérience avec la richesse de vivre ensemble…  (I serve a truly diverse community that includes theists, agnostics and atheists.)
As I said these words, Drainville suddenly looked up, clearly surprised.  “What?” his face seemed to say,  “a community of what?”

I went on to say that when I use the word “religious,” I am referring to my personal choice to live by certain values that bring me together with a loving community.  These values are love, tolerance, integrity, the freedom to question, a commitment to peace and to the earth, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

You know, there are days when I may stand on the theist or the agnostic side of the table, but I am always clear that my Unitarianism is the moral compass in my life.  Go out into the world in peace.  Have courage.  Hold onto what is good.  Return to no person evil for evil.  Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering, honour all beings.  This is my religion.  This is what has saved me, again and again, when I find myself in the depths of confusion or despair.

We are in a unique position to speak to both sides of the table, and I can’t tell you how invaluable it has been to be a Unitarian in this dialogue.  I know that I stand on the shoulders of others who have come before me.  I think of our past ministers and the long history of our members who have stood on the side of social justice; who have reached out a hand to the stranger, as the late Rev. Angus Cameron did by forming the Montreal Civil Liberties Association in 1946 when he witnessed the oppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses here.  He may not have agreed with the Witnesses on many points, yet he knew what his own faith called him to do.

This is at the core of who we are.  I continually learn from you, my beloved and diverse community, and I am so proud to say I serve you.  We turn basic assumptions about what it means to be religious and non-religious on their heads.  

I’ve never wanted to be part of a debating society – debate means trying to win the argument at all costs.  I want to live in a place of dialogue.  Dialogue is not about changing each other, but about creating an invitation to the potential for change through listening openly and honestly.  As I am learning from my colleague, Dr. Victor Goldbloom, it is better to meet people where they are, than to never engage with them at all.

I want to build my own theology and do it alongside you. Finally, I want to build lasting community.   I want to squeeze in closer, to have a living, visceral experience of sharing this tradition and this future with you.  I want us to rub elbows, to sing, to find some joyful playfulness together. 

Call it spirit or joie de vivre, we need to move beyond our usual ways of doing things.  We need to be bold.  So, will you sing with me?  And would you dare to move around rubbing elbows with each other?

Download Beyond These Walls: The Changing Landscape of Unitarianism