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Authority and Unitarian Universalism
Serving as a leader in any place of worship comes with challenges, but leading a Unitarian Universalist church poses unique challenges due the fluidity of beliefs that exist within the church. Many religions encourage that congregants live by particular rules, but in the absence of strict guidelines at The First Universalist, congregants follow their own pathways.
Wide Range of Beliefs at the First Universalist:
Congregant Michael Dotson, for example, identifies as a doist. In one of his daily meditations, the main message is that “there are many roads to the top of the mountain in terms of spiritual growth and spiritual maturity. What difference does it make what route you took or what donkey you road to get to the top of the mountain? What’s significant is your journey to getting there and the view of the experience once you are there.”1 Channing similarly noted that her faith “doesn’t have clear cut answers.” Because she grew up Unitarian Universalist, she said, “I always saw religion or faith or spirituality or however you defined it, as a means for you to help make sense of the world that helps you move forward.”2 Because many congregants see their faith as a journey of exploration that is guided internally, being an authority figure in a Unitarian Universalist church, in some ways, comes into conflict with this emphasis on individualism.
We Unitarians and Unitariversalists became and can become very prickly when someone tries to exert some kind of authority over us.
UUs and Anti-Authoritarianism Through History:
Not only does Unitarian universalism embrace a wide range of beliefs, but it was also founded upon the very ideals of anti-authoritarianism. Karen Hutt, a Unitarian Universalist minister visited the First Universalist in May 2016 and gave a sermon entitled “You Can’t Be Off the Hook if You Keep it Real.” In her sermon, she discussed this deep history of resistance to dominant hegemony.
She said: 3
“Authority- it’s complicated for Unitarian Universalists...We have historically challenged authority with intellect, reason, curiosity, facts, science, and my favorite-- righteous indignation. Much of how we learn our UU history… has been through the inspiration of individuals and events that illuminate, that highlight, our oppositional relationship with some form of authority, be it the authority of Calvin’s church in Geneva or the authority of George Wallace’s state in Alabama. We resist authority. We Unitarians and Universalists took aim, straight aim at the doctrine of hell and trinitarianism…Our radical reformation which we are apart of challenged the centrality of Christ and the manifestations of the human Christ. We debated the authority of theism… we embraced religious and secular humanism, and we continue to reconfigure and construct new theologies that provide us with collective meaning and purpose.”
This emphasis on questioning leaders and defining one’s own set of beliefs is a core part of Unitarian Universalism. This focus draws many congregants to the faith; in her sermon, Karen said that the “Narrative of freedom and resistance” was what attracted her to the faith. As essential as this narrative is, it poses challenges because whether or not congregants embrace this fact, Unitarian Universalism does operate under a system of authority. As Karen Hutt reminded the First Universalist congregants, UU churches are filled with “Pews, all wooden facing forward, and the preacher up top.” Furthermore, she said, “We do have, in many of our churches, an environmental presentation problem.” Not only that, but in the Unitarian Universalist faith, the dominant “form of governance derives from the cambridge platform and the puritans, our ways of training and calling ministers are Protestant...and our understanding of authority and responsibility have a specific relationship with the Protestant traditions.”
Resistance to Authority at the First Universalist:
Despite this reality, she said, “We Unitarians and Unitariversalists became and can become very prickly when someone tries to exert some kind of authority over us.” Ministers Jen and Elaine both acknowledge and grapple with the First Universalist’s anti-authoritarian bent. Jen expressed that at Unitarian Universalist churches, “there’s not a lot of value on authority or religious authority figures-- there’s not a deference there." Jen feels that in some ways the lack of deference is “great because we’re very equal, but it also means charting a course and moving together can be more difficult. There’s such a value on individualism and doing what you need to do to follow your values, so there can be a lot of ideas pop up and that can be both good and disruptive.” 4 Several of my interviewees, including the Reverend Elaine referred to the “herding cats metaphor.” Elaine described it as:
“a group of people with a shared commitment to a certain set of values, to the covenant that we share every Sunday in the service, to the seven principles that ground UU congregations” paired with a “certain skepticism that we’re always asking questions. We’re always doubting. We really believe that each one of us has some still small piece of the truth within us. We each have our own path.”5
Michael Dotson, Interview with Natalie Jacobson, May 8, 2016. ↩
Channing Mckinley, Interview by Natalie Jacobson, May 8, 2016. ↩
The remainder of this section's quotes retrieved from: “You Can't Be Off The Hook if You Keep it Real!” last accessed June 3rd, http://firstuniversalistchurch.org/sermon/you-cant-be-off-the-hook-if-you-keep-it-real/#description-tab. ↩
Jen Crow, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 15, 2016. ↩
Elaine Tenbrink, interview by Natalie Jacobson, March 8, 2016. ↩