A Thousand Silent Schisms

The idea of a “schism” in Unitarian Universalist has gained a limited salience this summer. Todd Eklof proposed some kind of separation between the Unitarians and Universalists in The Gadfly Papers, and a limited number of people who have longstanding issues with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the continued findings of the Commission on Institutional Change have been attempting to stir up some sort of breaking off.

One might think that Unitarian Universalism was, unusual in the Protestant-influenced tradition, an anti-schismatic faith. Whereas the Reformation church was already splintering within the lifetime of Luther and the initial Protestant rebels over shades of dogma, UUism attempts an almost impossible attempt to be theologically inclusive. An ongoing discussion in the UU Discord is how typical Unitarian Universalist worship and texts like Singing the Living Tradition are full of a type of compromise that attempts to provide something for everyone, while being at least a bit unsatisfying for many. Hymn lyrics, sermons, readings, etc. are all attempting to fit God, god, gods, god?, and no god under one framework. Schisms have allowed Protestant churches to speak to one very narrow band of individuals. The obstacles of putting together a cohesive UU service are manifold. It’s part of why becoming a minister requires such a broad and comprehensive theological education.

But the idea of some large schism seem pretty unlikely. Grievances about church governance are nothing new, and exist in the day-to-day living of basically all religious institutions. What’s more concerning to me are the many “silent schisms” that exist within Unitarian Universalism. People who come once and never return. Long-standing members who begin to drift away because the congregation hasn’t kept up with their interests and spiritual needs. The loudest in the faith, that so utterly dominate inter-congregational UU spaces online, drown out the people with initial and ongoing doubts about their place in the faith and how their congregation and ministry relates to them. I’ve devoted a lot of attention to a developing Unitarian Universalist pipeline to the political Right, but there are plenty of people who might leave the church or drift away for reasons unrelated to UU efforts to create a social justice-oriented, authentically anti-racist faith.

I’ll admit that worship services, hymns, and sermons often don’t speak to me. I have a pretty eclectic background in pop culture, I’m not spiritual in the slightest, and so I’m not, as my mom often says about herself, “the target demographic”. What keeps me around is the knowledge that service has to speak to a very broad group of people, and can’t always be targeting my particular interests and needs. Every so often I get a service that hits me right in my emotional center, and that can sustain me. But not everyone is willing to wait like that. It speaks to the importance of a congregation to do what it can to extend beyond Sunday service- an hour or so a week can only cover so much ground. Small group ministry has been a very fruitful development, which we can extend all the way back to the Unitarian efforts to launch lay-led fellowships, which created many smaller congregations in communities that could benefit from a church. A ministry that is reciprocal and based in dialogue can do much that a broad Sunday morning service cannot. It’s a way of engaging the full membership, and recognizing that there is much to be gained from sitting towards one another, rather than all towards the pulpit.

The San Diego cycle: First UU Church of San Diego

This is part two in my series on UU congregations in San Diego county. The first, on UU Fellowship of San Dieguito, is located here. Please note that this is a personal reflection, and I seek to be honest here.

Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego

What are the core elements that make a congregation the right fit for you? Is it solely the people who attend alongside you? Is it convenience within your other commitments? Is it the theological flavor of that particular minister? Maybe some, maybe all, and maybe it’s just a deep, innate feeling of belonging. When you move into a new house or apartment, there is an invisible line when it stops being a place to live and becomes a home. How that comes to be is not quantifiable, but it emerges. Well, hopefully.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego (website here) is the sixth congregation I have attended services at. What constitutes right for me has become clearer. Three of the congregations were mid-sized or smaller, while three, including First UU, were quite large. Some were very modern and neutral in their language, while another used quite a lot of Christian language. I encourage those who have the geographical fortune to live next to multiple UU congregations to explore and find out what they are about. As one should expect from a liberal, noncreedal religion, each congregation has their own strain of radical individualism.

Meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Meeting house, First UU of San Diego

First UU is a gorgeous campus. The chalice pictured first in this article is one of several carved wood pieces of art, with the component pieces engraved with donors. In their parlance, the ‘meeting house’ has lots of natural light from the back and with one wall stage-left being a giant window. The organ is a spectacle unto itself. Everything fits into a rich wood-tone landscape. Outside are grey and sand tones, mixed with desert landscaping. No visitor can doubt that First UU has been built on love and communal sacrifice to make it a reality.

Perhaps the greatest effort the church has made is not its aesthetics, but accessibility. The 11:30 service has a sign-language interpreter. Song lyrics and benedictions are projected on large, easy to read screens. The church maintains a separate branch to the south where the same sermons are given (on different Sundays) with simultaneous Spanish translation. One of the continual struggles UUs address is diversity, and moving towards new types of inclusion. This kind of outreach is very forward, and appreciated.

Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.
Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.

The amount of programs offered is overwhelming. Each part of the website is overflowing with tabs and sub-pages explaining the different parts of their youth program, the various fellowships for Buddhism, Hinduism, and earth-centered spirituality. Social action, community work- even without attending a service I could tell that this was a very large and ambitious congregation by standards of Unitarian Universalism.

So we reach the point where my personal preference ran up against First UU. Large meeting halls and huge arrays of programs don’t gel well with me. My previous visit in August to the First Unitarian Church of Portland gave me an initial inkling, but I did not have enough information to figure out what precisely gave me a bad feeling. Despite being very different in many ways, the Portland and San Diego churches share a sense of scale and spectacle. As unfair as it is, anytime I enter a church of a certain size I get very negative associations flowing in. Megachurches powered by money and consumerism. Those vast gilded cathedrals in Peru, side-by-side with crippling poverty on the streets of Cuzco.

Size is weird to me. I don’t seek large groups by nature. I am happy being in the political or social minority. When I enter large gatherings like protests, I do so with a firm individual (or small group) identity. On May Day I was in a San Jose immigration march, but when an organizer yelled at me for not being the right portion of the march, I left. A flaw, perhaps, is that I associate large institutions with conformity. In the end, I did not like my experience at this church.

Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego

Such a visit allows me to do serious personal reflection. It also allows me to dispense a bit of advice: one cannot think that a bad experience in one congregation means that Unitarian Universalism is just not right for them. If you know someone who was discouraged by their first visit to a UU church, or are yourself discouraged, please seek opportunities in your own area, or perhaps seek out the Church of the Larger Fellowship that can provide another perspective no matter where you live.

And ultimately I have the luxury of joining UU social action and community work even if I ultimately choose not to spend my Sunday mornings alongside its congregants. Each community is much more than a meeting house, a preaching style, a sociopolitical focus. We have much available to enrich ourselves, as long as we create a niche that is right for us.

Vista from First UU of San Diego
Vista from First UU of San Diego