25 December 2005

A Unitarian Christmas

Imagine a flat table top, without legs, held in several people's hands, with a circle drawn in the middle of it, and a smooth round ball atop it. Even a slight imbalance will make the ball fall off the table and onto the ground. Yet, the people holding it like the ball to roll everywhere it can within the circle. Occasionally, the ball drifts slightly out of the circle, but quick tilting almost always corrects the lapse and everyone playing this game agrees not to notice when it does. This is what it feels like to attend a Unitarian Christmas Eve service.

The Unitarian Church, whose mission statement seems to be the proclamation of welcome to all with which Reverend Mike Morran (of the First Unitarian Society of Denver) opened the service, despite having Christian roots, treads a delicate path designed not to severely offend anyone's religious beliefs. It is a church service that could weather the First Amendment's establishment clause.

Fair enough. The Unitarian Church has long been a church of compromise. Many couples come to it as a resolution of the fact that they come from different faiths. To some extent it serves that role in my own family. My wife wants to have involvement in a church community, and has some vestigial Christian attachments, although she does not strictly hew to the evangelical leaning Presbyterian faith in which she was raised. I am, as you probably know, a pretty strictly secular humanist (although the American Humanist Association, of which I am a member, in a confused fit of self-pique calls itself a "religious" humanist association) with little place for a church of any kind in my life and little room in my life for the careful nurturing of mystical possibility that I associate with the Unitarian Church. Still, the Unitarian Church is the one church where I can feel somewhat comfortable with the children going irregularly and seeing as "their church." It is less dogmatic than most churches, isn't Christian - even if it has people who consider themselves Christians in it, and promotes a moral code and ethical philosophy with which I generally agree.

The 5 p.m. service on Christmas Eve was true to type.

The sanctuary is devoid of any specifically identifiable Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist symbols, although wreaths and candles arguably have ambiguous animist/pagan connotations. The five sided room avoids easy comparisons to the usual Christian Nave or a six sided Star of David, yet isn't a regular polygon and has each wall as a broken line rather than a complete one, and hence avoids clear identification with Wiccan Magik as well.

Much of the music was absolute (i.e. instrumental music without lyrics) leaving it open to interpretation and played by a string quartet (which also is not a musical form with strong religious traditions attached to it). Vivaldi's "Winter" and selections from the Nutcracker Suite, both seasonal works which one generally thinks of as secular, and in one case a tune that most people associate with Christmas, Greensleeves, was identified by its pre-Christian appropriation title rather than by the carol it is associated with What Child is This?. Likewise, several of the carols sung had verses more obviously religious in content strategically omitted for length (Unitarians seem to prefer two or three verse hymns to the four plus verse hymns preferred by Lutherans).

Christmas was honored as "a Festival of Giving and Sharing", "a Festival of the Birth of Jesus", "a Festival of Mid-Winter", and "a Festival of Joy" in that order with a candle lit to mark each aspect. The Christmas Story was read, with attribution to Matthew and Luke, but without its designation as a Gospel or citation to Biblical chapter and verse, and in one of the looser translations of that text that I have heard. The minister's mediation could have come from Carl Sagan almost as easily as it could have from an ordained minister. Several of the readings wouldn't have made much sense unless you had some familiarity with Winter Solstice traditions, even as the readings didn't necessarily demand that you embrace those traditions as your own beliefs. Indeed, the Unitarian's dance is to a large extent made possible with its lack of "credo" (i.e. "I believe"). It presents information, rather than demanding assent, the vast majority of the time. It offers a Christmas "Story", rather than "the Good News."

Studied ambiguity and complex compromise extended beyond the service itself. Most congregants, even those who were presenters for the evening to offer readings to the church, wore neither the traditional "Sunday Best" that I grew up with when I attended church -- I'm not sure that I saw more than one or two men in a traditional suit and tie, nor the slovenly Saturday clothes of true casual wear. Instead, the full range of "dressy casual" and "casual Friday" wear was in evidence.

The mix of congregants looked like what one would expect from the graduating class of a selective liberal arts college, neither monoethnic, nor dominated by non-WASPs. Many couples were mixed race couples. And, while the poor and rich alike were welcomed, the feeling I got was that the congregation was decidedly upper middle class, and I saw no one manifestly poor. Given the service, I'm not too surprised. The delicate etiquette of Unitarian sensibilities requires context to be comfortable with, and even among the regulars, fragile truce rather than absolute embrace seems not uncommon.

The overall impression wasn't bad. You enjoy a Unitarian service with a certain sense of superiority that comes from being among educated and thoughtful and caring people who appreciated classical music, the ancient context of our culture and science. As a secular person, I was reassured in not being threatened that my children are part of the community, even though my own appearance is just a once every couple of years thing. The etiquette worked in its mission of leaving neither me, nor anyone else there, offended. It was pretty, indeed even beautiful, carefully poetic, and more sincere that I might have expected. Fervent moderates are a rare thing, yet that is what Unitarian leaders seem to be, at least in this service.

I'm not signing up any time soon, and I don't see how Unitarianism will ever become a mass movement, despite being so inclusive, as it is so demanding, in subtle, non-categorial ways, of its congregants. But, it is something that has its place and Denver's contingent fills that place well.


Anonymous said...

John Quincy Adams was a card-carrying Unitarian, as was Thomas Paine. Many of the country's founding fathers subscribed to Unitarian theology, though the Constitution predates the official organization of the church by about 10 years. I think they've been a mass movement basically forever in terms of this country's history.

That being said, I'm not one. I'm agnostic, but I do occasionally attend services at Mile Hi Church of Religious Science, which is sort of Unitarian+. It's kind of cool in that you're as likely to hear words of wisdom quoted from the Bhagavad Gita as the Bible, and the church makes no apologies about drawing from either of those or from any other text.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Prior to about 1967 when the Unitarians and Univeralists merged, Unitarianism was a Christian denomination that rejected the divinity of Christ (viewing him more as a prophet), but otherwise was simply a liberal Christian denomination, based mostly in New England, and largely arising of its predecessor the Congregational Churches of New England. The Unitarian Church of the Revolutionary era was closer in terms of social stances to today's United Church of Christ (one of the most liberal of the mainline Christian denominations today) or the Episcopal Church, than to the existing Unitarian Universalist Association of which the First Unitarian Society of Denver is a member. (Incidentally, the Universalist Church was also a liberal Christian Church at the time, with geographically similar roots, but was a working class church with services closer to modern Pentecostals, while the Unitarians were a staid well established middle class church which was demographically closest to modern Episcopalians).

Anonymous said...

These people do not really know what they are doing because as you described it there is nothing that lines up with the Bible. God is not a man pleaser and is happy to offend peoples minds because the wisdom of this world is just foolishness. It sounds like one day a group of people sat down and decided to make up a way of honouring God the way they wanted instead of the way He wants to be honoured.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Most Christian Christmas traditions have very little Biblical basis either. Christmas trees, Christmas wreaths, the date of the celebration and many other associated traditions are pagan in origin, something that the Puritan colonists in the New World were aware of, they banned celebrations of Christmas all together with the force of law, as they felt that it was an example of pagan corruption of the Christian message through Catholicism which had insufficiently been cleansed from the Anglican Church.

Modern Christmas traditions themselves date roughly to the Victorian era.

The stories of Luke and Matthew about Christmas are likely themselves fanciful additions to their sources the most important of which was the Gospel of Mark, an earlier Gospel which does not contain a Christmas story, and even Christian theologians agree that the date of the Christmas celebration is arbitrary.

Unitarians don't claim that certainty about the nature of God that you do.

Gina Groom said...

An interesting comment by 'Anonymous'. A group of people sitting down and making religion go just their way - sounds like the Council of Nicea too.
Thanks you Andrew for this information on a Christmas service. I recently visited Boston (I am from Wales, UK) and attended a glorious, inclusive, loving and wise service at Arlington St UU Church. A genuine attempt to accept everyone and be inclusive of world religions and wisdom. Jesus would have liked it!