Rev. Dr. Shirley Ranck
Ellery Channing was minister of the Federal Street Church in
Boston from 1803 until his death in 1842.
His sermons set forth the Unitarian theological position of
the day, but he is loved and remembered today especially for his
eloquent words on the supreme dignity of human nature and his
unfailing advocacy of the free mind.
call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights
and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or
hereditary faith: which opens itself to light whencesoever it may
come; which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.
I call that mind free which is not passively framed by
outward circumstance, and is not the creature of accidental
impulse: which discovers everywhere the radiant signatures of the
infinite spirit, and in them finds help to its own spiritual
enlargement. I call
that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of
society, and which does not cower to human opinion: which refuses
to be the slave or tool of the many or of the few, and guards its
empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world."
the religious education of children he said:
great end in religious instruction…is not to stamp our minds
irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own; not to make
them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with
century-long life of Sophia Lyon Fahs spanned the theologies of
both the 19th and the 20th centuries.
She was born in China in 1876 and became our leading
religious educator and one of the 20th century’s most
provocative theologians. She
respected the child’s ability to think, and she offered everyone
a broad new definition of what is religious.
religious way is the deep way, the way with a growing perspective
and an expanding view. It
is the way that dips into the heart of things, into personal
feelings, yearnings and hostilities that so often must be buried
and despised and left misunderstood.
The religious way is the way that sees what physical eyes
alone fail to see, the intangibles at the heart of every
religious way is the way that touches universal relationships;
that goes high, wide and deep, that expands the feelings of
kinship…When such a religious quality of exploration is the
goal, any subject, any phenomenon, any thing, animate or
inanimate, human or animal, may be the starting point."
this greatly widened definition of what is religious, we have
become more and more inclusive in our theology.
UU minister Kenneth Patton collected writings from all over
the world and from many religions for use in our worship.
He also wrote many beautiful words of his own. Of the church he wrote:
is a house of freedom, guarding the dignity and worth of every
person. It offers a
platform for the free voice, for declaring, both in times of
security and danger, the full and undivided conflict of opinion.
It is a house of
truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage devotion to their
quest, where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.
It is a house of art, adorning its celebrations with
melodies and handiworks.”
recent years we have emphasized the importance of community as
well as the worth of the individual.
Today our ministers often look to our everyday lives for
metaphors which can help us articulate our own living tradition.
UU minister Jane Rzepka offers this meditation:
World is a typical roller rink that rents foul-smelling skates
with fragile laces, and then pounds your ears senseless with
hard-driving rock music. Roller
World caters to people with no standards, no taste, and no class.
my family and myself.
love Roller World. No
one was born to skate, but there we all are, a roomful of unlikely
skaters, doing our best. A
few of course are hot shots, whizzing around on one foot,
backwards half the time, breezy as you please.
And another bunch, sad to say, is hopeless—their eight
little wheels completely ignoring mission control.
But round and round the rest of us go, steady and solid,
one foot and then the next, in careful time to the Beastie Boys or
look pretty darn good out there.
I suppose I do too. No
one knows that if even one word is spoken in my direction, I will
lose my concentration and hit the floor hard.
No one realizes that if they come up behind me too fast I
will panic and crumble into the wall.
No one can see that
this steady skater is so precarious that the act of skating, just
skating, takes everything.
we roll around the rink, uncertain of our stride and rhythm, may
we yet see the instability of those who surround us.
May we help when we are steady, holding those who falter;
may we calm the reckless and urge the timid forward; may we keep
gentle company with the skaters at our side.
Let us move with the spirit of love, and may some quiet
presence help us with our laces at the end.”
I was serving the UU Fellowship in Mobile, Alabama, one of our
members decided to run for mayor.
When other candidates found out he was a Unitarian, some of
them had flyers made up accusing him of not being a Christian and
insisting that Mobile needed Christian leadership.
All during the campaign the Fellowship phone rang
repeatedly every day with people wanting to know “What do
Unitarian Universalists believe?”
The questions came in a variety of forms.
Are you the same as Unity Church?
Are you the
same as the Moonies? Do you worship the devil?
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior? Are you Buddhists? What
do you teach your children? Do
you use the King James Bible?
What are your doctrines?
Are you a cult? Are
you a New Age group? If
you received those calls here, what answers would you give?
are fond of saying that ours is a living tradition; that we are
always reinterpreting tradition in light of our personal
experience, always growing and changing.
I think we had in those phone calls a most interesting
opportunity to look at ourselves and our religious in relation to
the wider community. Here
in this city, how shall we interact with citizens whose very
religious questions are so different from ours?
an interim year congregations often hold a mission/vision
workshop. Everyone is
invited to spend a day with a facilitator trying to put into words
who they are as a congregation and what they stand for.
What is needed is a short, crisp statement that everyone
can live with, one they might be willing to put on a wayside
pulpit sign outside the church for all the world to see.
When the UU church in Tulsa, Oklahoma went through such a
process they came up with a very short one:
Our mission is to civilize Tulsa.
At the mission/vision workshop of the congregation in
Olympia, Washington, one young man suggested:
Our mission is to save tots and trees.
That was not their final choice but I thought it said a lot
about that congregation.
quoted four of our leading Unitarian Universalist sages today, but
we must finally ask ourselves what we think, how we feel, what we
importantly we must decide what it is we wish to say to our
morning I would like to offer you my personal view, what is
important to me about Unitarian Universalism and what I think we
have to offer to the community.
didn’t think I joined this denomination for theological reasons,
probably partly because I grew up in a household where a great
of religion were discussed. My
reasons for becoming a Unitarian Universalist were
theological in a deeper sense, but I didn’t see that right away.
grew up in the Episcopal Church.
I went to a liberal Methodist theological school when I was
in my twenties and I knew about all the old theological issues.
I didn’t take any of them literally or even very
seriously for that matter. Mostly
I considered them quaint relics of past centuries.
Take for example the two issues which were central in the
development of Unitarianism and Universalism.
Unitarians objected to the doctrine of the trinity. They said it destroyed the one-ness, the unity of God.
So where was I on the question of the trinity?
No problem. Just
three ways of speaking about the divine.
The divine for me never had been a person out in space but
rather a power or an ideal of love or justice.
That power could be labeled God, it could dwell within
Jesus, or within any of us, and it could be described as a spirit
of love among us—and there you have the trinity.
At least that’s how I thought about it.
So much for Unitarian vs. Trinitarian.
Universalists of course denounced the concept of hell and
maintained that a loving God would save everyone.
So what about hell and heaven for me?
I would have said, come on, be serious.
I was taught by my parents not to believe in these concepts
literally. So heaven
and hell to me were just descriptions of life here and now.
I never was able to be more than agnostic about the
possibility of an afterlife.
I chose to live as if it didn’t exist.
So much for the issue of universal salvation.
I remained an Episcopalian for many years, translating the ancient
liturgies into modern concepts gleaned from psychology or
kind of liked Jesus. He
was a man of the people. Hung
out with publicans and sinners, had compassion for prostitutes,
held serious conversations with women.
Cared about people. Liked
children. Broke the rules if he thought it would benefit someone.
I never liked his choosing to be a martyr though.
I always thought that maybe someday I would come to
understand it but I never did.
loved Christmas, still do. I
can identify with the great event of giving birth, having done it
four times myself. It
should be celebrated, because as Sophia Fahs says “Every
night a child is born is a holy night.”
was no problem for a bright young psychologist. We all experience new life when we struggle through some pain
or suffering and rise again.
short, I had everything neatly psychologized and reinterpreted
quite satisfactorily. Except
for that martyrdom issue.
along the way though in my adult life I kept bumping into the
facts of my position as a woman.
In 1954 I was the only young mother in my neighborhood who
was going to graduate school.
At the theological school I was the only woman in most of
my classes. I thought
maybe I was odd. Of
course I was officially registered in religious education, but my
big problem was how could I justify leaving my baby with a sitter?
on when I decided to break some of society’s rules and
conventions, I found that life as a single parent was not
acceptable or even acknowledged
as existing in my church. The
women's group met during the day while I was working.
At night there was a men’s group and a couples club.
In the wider community I found that I could not rent an
apartment without a male to co-sign the lease.
I could not get credit or buy a car.
There was no day care for my younger children and reliable
baby sitters were expensive if available at all.
I was lucky though. I
had stayed in school, first in religious education and then in
psychology, so I was able to get a good professional job as a
school psychologist. I
was able to get that job because I had insisted upon being an odd
ball—a young mother in graduate school.
began to read the literature of the women’s movement and I felt
as if a huge burden of odd-ballness was lifted from me.
What I had been bumping into was a society not designed to
meet my needs as a woman. And
I met other heroic single parent women who were having to start college
while working full time as clerks and waitresses and raising the
large families so popular in the baby boom years.
drifted away from the church.
But I worried that my children were getting a message that
religion was not important. Is
it important I wondered? What
had kept me in church so long.
The ideals of love and justice and a community presumable
committed to caring about each other and about the oppressions of
this world. I went
back to visit the church and for the first time I noticed that
little girls were not acolytes, that women were not priests and
all the beautiful old liturgies were full of sexist language.
dawned on me that the authoritarian structures of the hierarchy
were rooted not in the teachings of Jesus but in the politics of
patriarchy. And just
as I was struggling to come to terms with these facts, my church,
the Episcopal Church, voted down the ordination of women.
They have since reversed that decision.
They even have a black woman bishop now.
Episcopalians change too.
But at the time it was for me the last straw.
I saw with increasing horror what most of Western religion
had done to women, excluding them from power and at the same time
calling them to an ethic of martyrdom.
Not because Jesus taught that, but because he did it; and
because the churches, composed as they are of human beings, had
found it politically expedient to use that ethic to suppress
people considered inferior or dangerous throughout history.
could perhaps have forgiven my church, recognized its human
fallibility and worked within it for change.
But something had happened
inside of me. I
realized that my neatly interpreted theology had never really
touched the deeper issues of authority, of personal self-worth in
the face of overt discrimination, of the psychological
unhealthiness of the martyr ethic.
I needed to re-think everything.
night at a single parent discussion group we talked about churches
and their general lack of acceptance of single parents at that
mentioned that the Unitarian Fellowship was fairly open and
accepting. I went
there the following Sunday. They
had a lectern there with the symbols of all the major world
religions carved into it. I
liked that. I found
a place where there was acceptance and a great variety of
religious ideas. I
began the long process of building a new personal theology.
express my deepest beliefs and yearnings a theology would have to
value women as well as men. It
would have to be democratic in process, and in behavior.
It would have to be inclusive in its language and in its
attitudes toward all sorts and conditions of people.
It would have to be caring in its work.
It would have to listen to the sciences and pay attention
to what is psychologically healthy.
It would have to respect the earth and its creatures and
not be about giving man dominion over anything.
not unique. I feel
sure that most of you have struggled with some of the same issues. In the early nineties Newsweek ran a cover story on the
return of Americans to religion.
They offered the opinion that Unitarian Universalism was
the quintessential religion for the nineties.
I would suggest to you that we have a religion uniquely
suited to a democratic and pluralistic
society. It is perhaps no accident that many of the founders and early
leaders of this country were Unitarians.
They had faith in the potential of each person to
participate in a democratic process.
They had the wisdom to insist on respect for all religions
and to prohibit the government from establishing any one religion.
As for dominion, they tried to set up a system of checks
and balances on power.
course they had some blind spots.
They neglected to give the vote to women or African
Americans or Native Americans, and they didn’t foresee our
ecological problems. But
they had faith in us.
minister Clark Olsen has suggested that we Unitarian Universalists
look at ourselves from a new perspective.
We often perceive ourselves as a small group of people who
tend to think differently from everyone else.
We see ourselves on the far left of the theological
spectrum, completely outnumbered by the mainline center and the
right wing fundamentalists. This
image makes us feel as if we’re on the periphery of our society
and unable to be very effective in the community.
to Olsen we could just as well see ourselves at the center of
present day society. There
is another spectrum today that ranges from those committed to
religious creeds all the way to those multitudes who express no
interest at all in religion.
On this spectrum we UUs would be in the center.
“Rather than be bound by creeds, we are committed to
openness and tolerance. Rather than walk away and ignore religious
questions—staying home to read the Sunday paper or heading for
the golf course—we choose to wrestle
with religious questions. We
could be the prophetic center, catalysts toward a new spiritual
foundation for democracy.”
points out that we have lots of experience with diversity.
In our recent history “when issues were drawn that
might have divided us we have opted for the larger vision: in
Christian vs. post-Christian we chose both; in theist vs. humanist
we chose both; in church vs. fellowship we chose both.
Our worship combines traditional and informal forms.
Our religious education programs celebrate diversity, yet
affirm Unitarian Universalism.
Our principles and purposes are a synthesis looking to the
spiritual basis for world
community: affirming the interdependent web of all existence of
which we are a part.”
think Clark Olsen may be right about our being in the center.
We tend to forget about the non-churchgoers and the
tolerant and accepting churchgoers in some of the mainline
churches. Whether the
image is true or not, I think we might benefit from trying it on. How would it feel to see ourselves in the center, as
catalysts in building a new spiritual foundation for
democracy—here in Williamsburg, Virginia?
It might enhance our sense of purpose, give us an overall
vision of what we are to do at this time and place in history.
We might see ourselves as helping to define a new spiritual
basis for an inclusive, supportive democratic community.
We could create a new religious language; we could engage
in public discussion and celebration of values and we could find
ways to experience more community, more affirmation and support.
We could see ourselves as taking on a noble task, one with