When I think of a Unitarian Universalist community, my thoughts first turn to our congregations–gathered communities with common values.  Together, members sing and reflect, they celebrate and mourn, they support one another and serve those beyond their walls–all  in a shared liberal faith.

A little history

We are free from bishops and distant councils of elders, free to form our own understanding of and relationship with the transcendent because our form of church, called congregationalism, began as a response to the information revolution of the mid-1400’s when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.  As copies of the Bible became readily available, the Church of Rome was no longer the sole distributor of religious truth. Suddenly, lay people could read the word of God for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Martin Luther described the change as an opportunity for “the priesthood of all believers.” In other words, the priests no longer had a monopoly on religious truth.

But the potential chaos of unlimited interpretations precipitated new protestant church hierarchies with new dogmas and doctrines. This is where our Congregational ancestors took a different path. Instead of reacting to the potential of theological chaos By vesting power in a central authority, they created a structure that relied on mutual accountability and shared values as they—as a community—discerned the word of God. We call this way of being together a covenantal relationship.

When I use the word faithful, I mean it in this context –that we are faithful to our shared values and faithful to our promises to one another and to the transcendent values that are worthy of our ultimate commitment.

Back to today

Let’s fast forward to today, where we are experiences huge societal shifts. One shift is an even greater information revolution than the printing press, the advent of the interactive internet, what is often referred to as Web 2.0. We can interact in real time with people all over the globe, from sharing cute kitten pictures, to editing an article on Wikipedia, to practicing a foreign language with a native speaker using Skype, to organizing a political revolution. You might say we’ve gone from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg.  (groan!)

The other is the shift of Americans away any organized religion. The fastest growing category of religious affiliation is “none” and more and more people are identifying as “spiritual, but not religious.” Our UUA president Peter Morales wrote a white paper called Congregations and Beyond as an invitation for us to address these challenges head on.

This blog series (adapted from this sermon) is part of that conversation.

I agree with Rev. Morales that Unitarian Universalism is uniquely positioned to respond to these societal shifts, because our organizational DNA has developed in the spirit of being our being connected, yet decentralized.   Just like dogs come in all shapes and sizes yet are still dogs, our faith communities also come in different sizes, temperaments and cultures, yet are still Unitarian Universalist.  You can see it in all sorts of Unitarian Universalist communities that are not congregations. Check out Camp Beagle at the UU Church at Annapolis, or the Lucy Stone Cooperative in Boston or the Church of the Larger Fellowship with their online worship services and their smart phone apps.

As the possibilities expand for different expressions of faith communities, I believe it is important that we identify the metaphorical DNA that a faith community must include in order for it to be Unitarian Universalist. You might call it mapping the Unitarian Universalist Genome.

The first place Unitarian Universalists usually go is to the Seven Principles and Purposes.  These are a careful articulation of our shared values. But I don’t think they completely reflect our complete genetic code. I also don’t think they go deeply enough as an expression of a faith.   In the next five posts in this series, I’ll share what I believe should be included in the DNA of any UU community.

About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
  • P.S. Re: Leaves of Grass: Walt Whitman began his career, as a soochl teacher, in Southold, where apparently his beliefs were received badly the story is that he was tarred and feathered, and run out of town on a rail! It seems that most of the local inhabitants were not so accepting as the Universalists.