Sermon for Membership Sunday

April 16, 2000


Once or twice a year, the First Parish Church of Norwell officially welcomes new members into its religious community. These new members have, we expect, gotten to know the church, its minister and congregation a little and have been attracted to something in our theology, our programs and/or our community. Maybe their children have begun to attend the Sunday school or youth group. Hopefully, they have attended a group session on Sunday after the service designed to introduce potential members to our programs, staff, and the myriad of activities that take place here. And finally they have made a decision to formalize the relationship and join us as members. We are so glad that they have made that decision and welcome them with open arms.

What kind of community is this exactly? What do we offer these new members? And what do we, in turn, expect from them?

First, we as a Unitarian Universalist congregation call ourselves a liberal religious community. We require no oaths to any church doctrine or creeds and in that sense are a free church. We ask instead that members agree with the spirit of our UU principles and practices... and to the covenant of this church. The existing covenant dates back to 1880 and reads, "In the love of truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of humankind." It may seem a little dated to some who are of a more humanist bent, but this covenant has been broad and liberal enough to have lasted for 120 years... and it acknowledges our historic roots in a liberal Christianity which honors the spirit and religion of the human Jesus, rather than the divinity of Christ. In general terms, most UU congregations covenant or agree to walk together in community with mutual responsibility.

As you may know already, the Norwell congregation is at this time considering the adoption of a more detailed and modern covenant. We are considering the covenant that you read this morning in the Unison Affirmation. I think the fact that we are considering a new covenant attests to the common UU belief that "divine revelation is not sealed," that our religious or spiritual beliefs change over time. This process also attests to the fact that we can openly discuss, even debate, what we believe and are willing to accept for ourselves as a community. Hopefully we also listen to each other with open minds and with mutual respect.

This process represents to me the most interesting and the most challenging aspect of being a Unitarian Universalist congregation. While seeking "knowledge in freedom," we as strong individuals sometimes struggle to come to agreement, to be in community and "to dwell together in peace." When we are successful, we form a strong dynamic community... fulfilling the "doctrine"... or moral guide... of love. As we say in our chalice lighting each week: "We are the church of the open mind, the church of the loving heart. And together we care for each other and for the earth."

Secondly, ours is an autonomous Unitarian Universalist congregation agreeing to be in association with other autonomous congregations. At the time of the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961, the group which was working on the merger affirmed the right of the churches to order their own affairs. Denominational organizations provide resources enabling churches to be more effective. Four rights are reserved explicitly to the local churches:
1) the right to admit members in accordance with its own definition of qualifications;
2) the right to select its own leadership;
3) the right to control its own property; and
4) the right to enter freely and voluntarily into association with other churches.

Therefore, a UU congregation is a self-governing body which can call its own minister and hire its own staff. It also controls its own finances and property, which gives it a lot of control over its own affairs... and responsibility for its own fate. This form of government or polity has its roots in early Puritan history in America. Its the same form of self-government which is also practiced by the United Church of Christ and the Baptists. It is also the model, we say proudly, for democratic institutions in all areas of society, particularly in the American form of government.

The free and voluntary association of autonomous congregations I referred to a moment ago is called the Unitarian Universalist Association, the UUA for short. (Although it is not free in the financial sense; we still have to pay annual dues.) We are made up of about 1,000 congregations across the U.S. and Canada, as well as two in Mexico and seven more churches around the world. All together, we have a membership of over 150,000. This doesn’t count our "sister" organizations in Great Britain and Romania. Ours is a small, but growing denomination... while in recent years many mainstream Protestant denominations have slowly lost membership. We are justifiably proud of this growth, although many of us feel we could be growing even faster. We speak wistfully about a liberal evangelism which will spread the good word about a creedless religion that celebrates diversity.

Now briefly some nuts and bolts about the UUA. The UUA’s main headquarters are located in Boston at 25 Beacon Street. Actually, offices are located in several buildings, but we lump them together into the term "25 Beacon Street" for convenience. There’s also a satellite office of our Faith in Action Department in Washington, DC. It is geared toward lobbying Congress and the Administration and participating in national coalitions around issues of social justice. The denomination is divided into 22 districts in the U.S. and Canada, and each district has an office, a district executive or consultant and support staff. District offices provide services directly to member congregations. Our district is the Ballou Channing District. It has 47 member societies and its office is located on West Elm Street in Brockton.

Each year in June representatives of this North American network get together for our General Assembly in a U.S. or Canadian city. The assembly votes on major issues of the denomination and on candidates for offices. This year GA will be held in Nashville, Tennessee. Several lay members of the Norwell church; the minister, Dick Fewkes; community minister, Judy Campbell; and I are planning to attend.

The UUA President, who has always been a male minister, is not a Pope. He (and... someday... she) is elected by us, by the lay members and clergy, every four years when we meet in our General Assembly in June. So the President is answerable to congregations through the General Assembly process. The UUA President, presently Rev. John Buehrens, is responsible in general for the operation of the staff and the overall programming of the organization, along with Executive Vice President, Kay Montgomery. We also have a Board of Trustees which is made up of a combination of district trustees, trustees at large, a moderator and a financial advisor. UUA districts also have boards of directors. Our congregation is proud that Jackie Magazu, a member of this church, is currently serving as the President of the Ballou Channing District.

Okay, that is the general outline of our organizational structure. But what does that mean in real terms? What does it mean to you as a new member of our congregation? I’ll bet you didn’t join just so you could give us money... or to volunteer to raise money through our annual fair and other fund-raising events. Those are all necessary to support the church and the latter can even be fun, especially when many people are involved. You may have joined the church to make friends or to sing in the choir or to enroll your children in Sunday school. That’s great. But a church as a religious institution is something more. It deals with matters of the spirit... in a way no other organization or institution does.

In the Free Church tradition, every member is viewed in some sense as equal to every other member. We are inheritors of the beliefs and practices of the Radical Reformation, which formed in reaction to the hierarchy and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church and conservative Protestant churches. Each member is open to receiving the Spirit directly... however you may define that... and interpreting the meaning of that divine inspiration for themselves. In classical Greek terms, this is framed as seeing and understanding the True, the Beautiful and the Good. In our day and age, we shy away from such absolute sounding terms and protest that there’s no one standard for truth, beauty and goodness. But they serve the purpose of suggesting what we mean when we talk about matters of philosophy and religion.

But why then, you may ask, do we need a church in order to be "visited by the Spirit" if we’re all meant to be prophets? James Luther Adams, perhaps the greatest UU theologian of the 20th Century, spoke out against the radical individualism that dominated our culture in the 19th and early 20th Century... and which still affects us to this day. To him, such individualism led to the lukewarm liberalism and moral drift that allowed for the rise of modern social evils. He wrote and spoke out against all forms of authoritarianism and human oppression... particularly Nazism, communism and right wing nationalism. Adams preached and taught that only in free, democratic communities, where the dignity of all human beings is respected, are people able to reach their highest potentials. The Free Church was to him the best place (but not the only place) to nurture the human spirit. He spoke frankly and openly of the spiritual transformation of human beings. This transformation was not an instantaneous change brought on by baptism or sudden conversion experience. It was rather a gradual transformation... a process of natural growth, a maturation of the soul. I found his description of transformation greatly appealing. This sentiment is echoed in the line of the proposed covenant, "To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine."

Ah, but you might ask what do UUs mean by the Divine? What do we mean by God? That’s a slippery concept for many of us since we’ve rejected the authoritarian Father image. I like Adams’ concept that God is what we put our ultimate confidence and faith in. In my interpretation, our confidence lives in the order of the natural world and of human social relations, the order of existence that sustains us. Having faith in God is admitting that we are not the Power of the universe, the Creator and Sustainer, but that there is something beyond us which calls us to respond in love and awe. That is why I am not embarrassed, as I once was as a secular humanist, to use the word "God." And that is why I feel it is somehow right for us as a church to covenant not only with each other, but to covenant with "the transcendent creating and sustaining power of the universe"... giving our covenant a holy sanctity. That phrase, however, is too long and not very poetic. So we often chose to use a more shorthand form and call this power God.

Through our freely-chosen and solemn covenant, we are held to a mutual responsibility for each other’s welfare. In a healthy, supportive church, people are empowered to minister to each other and to the world as both priests and prophets. As we read this morning in our responsive reading, "All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us."

In the words of one UU minister, "We gather in this community, sometimes in fear, sometimes in trust, sometimes in pain, sometimes in joy, but always in hope that we can support and strengthen one another in our common quest for healing and wholeness." (Rev. Jay Atkinson, Davis, California) Amen. Blessed be.