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Unitarian Universalism is a theologically liberal religion characterized by support for a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Unitarian Universalists do not share a creed; rather, they are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth and by the understanding that an individual's theology is a result of that search and not obedience to an authoritarian requirement. Unitarian Universalists draw on many different theological sources and have a wide range of beliefs and practices.
Historically, both Unitarianism and Universalism have roots in the Christian faith. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism espouses a pluralist approach to religious belief, whereby members may describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, deist, monotheist, polytheist, or assume no label at all. As of 2006, fewer than about 20% of Unitarian Universalists identified themselves as Christian.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was formed in 1961, a consolidation of the American Unitarian Association, established in 1825, and the Universalist Church of America, established in 1866. It is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves churches mostly in the United States. The Canadian Unitarian Council became an independent body in 2002.
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Unitarian Universalism was formed from the merger in 1961 of two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, both based in the United States. At the time of the North American merger, the theological significance of these terms had expanded beyond the traditional Christian understanding. Unitarian Universalists today draw from a variety of religious traditions. Individuals may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs. Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions, such as Sunday worship with a sermon and the singing of hymns. The extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into personal spiritual practice is a matter of personal choice for congregants, in keeping with a creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.
New England Unitarians evolved from the Pilgrim fathers' Congregational Christianity, which was originally based on a literal reading of the Bible. Liberalizing Unitarians rejected the Trinitarian belief in the tri-partite godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost/Spirit. Instead, they asserted a unitary notion of God.
New England Universalists rejected the Puritan forefathers' emphasis on the select few, the Elect, who were reportedly saved from eternal damnation by a just God. Instead Universalists asserted that 'all were universally saved'. Universalists rejected the hellfire and damnation of the evangelical preachers, who tried to revive the fundamentalist Christianity of the early Pilgrim fathers.
It is based upon the doctrine of universal salvation through Christ (universal reconciliation) and an interpretation of the "restitution of all things" (apocatastasis). In 1793, Universalism emerged as a particular denomination of Christianity in the United States, eventually called the Universalist Church of America. Early American advocates of Universal Salvation such as Elhanan Winchester, Hosea Ballou and John Murray taught that all souls would achieve salvation, sometimes after a period resembling purgatory. Christian Universalism denies the doctrine of everlasting damnation, and proclaims belief in an entirely loving God who will ultimately redeem all human beings.
Historically, Nontrinitarianism consisted of dissenting factions within Christianity. The term may refer to any belief about the nature of Jesus Christ that affirms God as a singular entity and rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and is usually distinguished from Arianism, which was rejected by mainstream Christianity, a consensus of Christian bishops at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. This resurfaced later in Church history, especially during the theological turmoils of the Protestant Reformation. A Spanish physician, Michael Servetus, studied the Bible and concluded that the concept of the Trinity, as traditionally conceived, was not biblical. His books On the Errors of the Trinity and Christianismi Restitutio caused much uproar. Servetus was eventually arrested, judged, and burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553 when John Calvin was leading the Reformation there.
The term Unitarian entered the English language via Henry Hedworth in relation to the teachings of Laelio Sozzini and the Polish Socinians. Unitarian churches were formally established in Transylvania and Poland (by the Socinians) in the second half of the 16th Century. The early Unitarian church not only rejected the Trinity, but also the pre-existence of Christ as well, in many cases, predestination and original sin as put forward by Augustine of Hippo, and the substitutionary atonement of Christ developed by Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin. There were several different forms of Christology in the beginnings of the Unitarian movement; ultimately, the variety that became prevalent was that Jesus was a man, but one with a unique relationship to God. These Unitarian thinkers and groups have gone by many names, including Anti-trinitarianism.
Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) revised the Book of Common Prayer, removing the Trinitarian Nicene Creed and references to Jesus as God. Theophilus Lindsey also revised the Book of Common Prayer to allow a more Unitarian interpretation. Neither cleric was charged under the Blasphemy Act 1697 that made it an offence for any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, to deny the Holy Trinity. The Act of Toleration (1689), the long title being An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes, gave relief to English Dissenters, but excluded Unitarians. The efforts of Clarke and Lindsey met with substantial criticism to stifle attempts at reform, from the more conservative laity, priests and bishops who held substantial power within the Church of England. In response, in 1774, Lindsey applied for registration of the Essex House as a Dissenting place of worship with the assistance of barrister Mr. John Lee. On the Sunday following the registration — April 17, 1774 — the first true Unitarian congregation discretely convened in the provisional Essex Street Chapel. In attendance were Mr. Lee, Joseph Priestley and the agent of the Massachusetts Colony, Mr. Benjamin Franklin. Priestley also founded a reform congregation, but, after his home was burned down in the Priestley Riots, fled with his wife to America, where he became a leading figure in the founding of the church on American soil.
Once laity and clergy relaxed their vehement opposition to the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813 (sometimes called the Trinitarian Act 1812 and also variously known as the Trinity Act, Unitarian Relief Act and Unitarian Toleration Bill) that amended the Blasphemy Act 1697 in respect of its Trinitarian provisions, the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was founded in 1825. It has its headquarters in Essex Hall, successor to Lindsey's Essex House.
During the late 19th Century there was tension between the "Biblical Unitarianism" of Robert Spears and Samuel Sharpe and those such as James Martineau as Unitarians began to move away from belief in scripture.
Unitarian congregations in Britain today meet under the auspices of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. Two that have been significant in national life are the Cross Street Chapel in Manchester and Newington Green Unitarian Church in north London.
In the United States, the Unitarian movement began primarily in the Congregational parish churches of New England, which were part of the state church of Massachusetts. These churches, whose buildings may still be seen today in many New England town squares, trace their roots to the division of the Puritan colonies into parishes for the administration of their religious needs. In the late 18th century, conflict grew within some of these churches between Unitarian and Trinitarian factions. In 1805, Unitarians gained key faculty positions at Harvard. In 1819 William Ellery Channing preached the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore, outlining the Unitarian position. The American Unitarian Association was founded as a separate denomination in 1825. By coincidence and unknown to both parties, the AUA was formed on the same day — May 26, 1825 — as the British and Foreign Unitarian Association 
After the schism, some of those churches remained within the Congregational fold, while others voted to become Unitarian. In the aftermath of their various historical circumstances, some of these churches became member congregations of the Congregational organization (later the United Church of Christ), others became Unitarian and eventually became part of the UUA. Universalist churches in contrast followed a different path, having begun as independent congregations beyond the bounds of the established Puritan churches entirely. Today, the UUA and the United Church of Christ cooperate jointly on social justice initiatives such as the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training project. In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and other transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present more pluralist form.
Unitarians and Universalists often have had common interests and communication between them. In the often-quoted words of Thomas Starr King, pastor of the San Francisco Unitarian Church at the beginning of the Civil War: "The Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned!" Mergers of local congregations and use of the term "Unitarian-Universalist" in printed publicity date from 1932 or earlier.
In 1961, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was consolidated with the Universalist Church of America (UCA), thus forming the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the same year, the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) formed. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was also given corporate status in May 1961 under special acts of legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York.
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There is no single unifying belief that all Unitarian Universalists (UUs) hold, aside from complete and responsible freedom of speech, thought, belief, faith, and disposition. Unitarian Universalists believe that each person is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues, such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife. UUs can come from any religious background, and hold beliefs and adhere to morals from a variety of cultures or religions.
Concepts about deity are diverse among UUs. Some are monotheistic. Some have no belief in any gods (atheism); others believe in many gods (polytheism). Some believe that the question of the existence of any god is most likely unascertainable or unknowable (agnosticism). Some believe that God is a metaphor for a transcendent reality. Some believe in a female god (goddess), an Abrahamic god, or a god identified with nature or the universe (pantheism). Still others may hold with the Deist notion that a creator God exists, but does not intervene in the world or reveal itself, and can only be apprehended (if at all) through the use of reason. Many UUs reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the "spirit of life" that binds all life on earth. UUs support each person's search for truth and meaning in concepts of spirituality.
Deliberately without an official creed or dogma (per the principle of freedom of thought), Unitarian Universalists instead typically agree with the Principles and Purposes suggested by the Unitarian Universalist Association. As with most actions in Unitarian Universalism, these were created in committee, and affirmed democratically by a vote of member congregations, proportional to their membership, taken at an annual General Assembly (a meeting of delegates from member congregations). Adopted in 1960, the full Principles, Purposes and Sources can be found in the article on the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Principles are as follows:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Unitarian Universalism is often referred to by its members as a living tradition, and the principles and purposes have been modified over time to reflect changes in spiritual beliefs among the membership. Most recently, the last principle, adopted in 1985 and generally known as the Seventh Principle, "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part", and a sixth source (adopted in 1995), "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature" were added to explicitly include members with Neopagan, Native American, and pantheist spiritualities. Unitarian Universalists tend to promote beliefs of a person that are based on their individual thoughts, and can range from strict monotheistic belief to less credal or more inclusive views.
Unitarian Universalists place emphasis on spiritual growth and development. Unitarian Universalism is a creedless religion. The Unitarian Universalist Association affirms seven principles: The official statement of Unitarian Universalist principles describes the "sources" upon which current practice is based:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Unitarian Universalists hold many different beliefs, but have no creedal test of membership. Unitarian Universalist congregations almost always contain members of a variety of different beliefs and religious practices. Some congregations emphasize this diversity and use it to enrich individuals' search for their own truths. Other congregations specialize in a particular theology or religious practice (UU Christian Churches in New England, for instance, or congregations which focus on the spiritual practice of justice and service). All congregations are open to any person, regardless of their beliefs or practices.
In spite of this freedom and diversity, there seem to be some basic theological/philosophical ideas which form a core of UU identity. UU's are often hesitant to articulate these basic beliefs because they don't want to form or imply a "defacto creed." However phenomena such as the uncanny accuracy of the Beliefnet religious survey in identifying UU's and potential UU's, and the number of people who call themselves UU's although they do not belong to UU churches suggests that there is a core of belief. Here is one attempt to formulate that:
1. The universe is a beautiful, intricate, complex place, the foundations of which are a Mystery. The "whole truth" is too large, and our minds/knowledge/intuitions are too small to grasp it all. Therefore, we cherish and learn from diversity. 2. If the Universe can be said to have a purpose, its purpose is for us, not against us, and it is for, not against, us all. 3. Given how little we can know for sure, our focus should be on this earth and life; beauty, justice, love. 4. We claim the rational, eschew the irrational,(contrary to reason) and question the non-rational (that which is neither provable nor disprovable by reason alone, i.e. life after death).
Poetically, this might be stated, "We come from One origin, we are headed to One destiny, but we cannot know completely what these are, so we are to focus on making this life better for all of us, and we use reason when we can, to find our way. "
Unitarian Universalists believe that the divine can be found in all people and in many faiths. Unitarian Universalists draw inspiration from a variety of other faith traditions. Many Unitarian Universalist churches celebrate observances associated with other religious traditions, including Buddhist-style meditation groups, Jewish Seder, Yom Kipur and Passover dinners, iftaar meals (marking the breaking of Ramadan fast for Muslims), and Christmas Eve/Winter Solstice services. Children's and youth's religious education classes teach about the divinity of the world and the sanctity of world religions. One of its more popular curricula, Neighboring Faiths (formerly Church Across the Street), takes middle and high school participants to visit the places of worship of many faith traditions including a Hindu temple, a Reform or Orthodox synagogue, and a Catholic church. Many Unitarian Universalists consider themselves humanists, while others hold to Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, natural theist, atheist, agnostic, absurdist, pantheist, pagan, Taoist, and other beliefs. Most choose to attach no particular theological label to their beliefs. This diversity of views is considered a strength in the Unitarian Universalist movement. The emphasis remains on the individual search for meaning among its members rather than adherence to any particular doctrine. Many UU congregations have study groups that examine the traditions and spiritual practices of Neopaganism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Pantheism, and other faiths. Some UU ministers, such as the Reverend James Ishmael Ford, are also ordained Zen teachers. Other UU ministers, such as the Reverend David Miller, are atheists. There are Buddhist meditation teachers, Sufi teachers, as well as gnostic and episcopi vagantes clerics. Some view their Jewish heritage as primary, and others see the concept of God as unhelpful in their personal spiritual journeys. While Sunday services in most congregations tend to be spiritual in nature (as different from theological), it is not unusual for a part of a church's membership to attend pagan, Buddhist, or other spiritual study or worship groups as an alternative means of worship. Some Unitarian Universalists are also atheist or agnostic.
In several surveys, Unitarian Universalists in the United States most often identified themselves as humanists, while smaller numbers identified themselves as earth-centered, agnostic, theistic, atheistic, Buddhist, Christian, or pagan.
There is great variety among Unitarian Universalist congregations, with some favoring particular religious beliefs or forms of worship over others, with many more home to an eclectic mix of beliefs. Regardless of their orientation, most congregations are fairly open to differing beliefs, though not always with various faith traditions represented to the same degree.
There is also a wide variety in how congregations conceive of themselves. Congregations call themselves "churches," "societies," "fellowships," "congregations," or eschew the use of any particular descriptor (e.g. "Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists"). Whether a congregation is a 'fellowship' or a 'church' sometimes hinges on whether it is led by one (or more) minister(s): those without ministers being fellowships, those with ministers being churches. Many use the name "Unitarian Universalist," (and a few "Universalist Unitarian"), having gradually adopted this formulation since consolidation in 1961. Others use names that reflect their historic roots by keeping simply the designation "Unitarian" or "Universalist" (e.g. "Community Unitarian Church at White Plains"). A few congregations use neither. For some congregations, the name can be a clue to their theological orientation. For others, avoidance of the word "church" indicates a desire to distance itself from traditional Christian theology. Sometimes the use of another term may simply indicate a congregation's lay-led or relatively new status. However, some UU congregations have grown to appreciate alternative terms such as fellowship and retained them even though they have grown much larger or lost features sometimes associated with their use (such as, in the case of fellowships, a traditionally lay-led worship model).
Also of note is that there are many more people who identify as UU on surveys than those who attend UU churches (by a factor of four in a recent survey), reflecting those who have never joined (and lapsed members) but nonetheless consider themselves part of the UU movement.
A Unitarian Universalist approach to the Christian Bible and other sacred works is given in Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions, published by the UUA:
We do not, however, hold the Bible – or any other account of human experience – to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. Much biblical material is mythical or legendary. Not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is. We believe that we should read the Bible as we read other books – with imagination and a critical eye. We also respect the sacred literature of other religions. Contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary are valued as well. We hold, in the words of an old liberal formulation, that "revelation is not sealed." Unitarian Universalists aspire to truth as wide as the world – we look to find truth anywhere, universally.
In short, Unitarian Universalists respect the important religious texts of other religions. UUs believe that all religions can coexist if viewed with the concept of love for one's neighbor and for oneself. Other church members who do not believe in a particular text or doctrine are encouraged to respect it as a historically significant literary work that should be viewed with an open mind. It is intended that in this way, individuals from all religions or spiritual backgrounds could live peaceably.
In 2004, UU World magazine asked for contributions of "elevator speeches" explaining Unitarian Universalism. These are short speeches that could be made in the course of an elevator ride to those who knew nothing of the religion. Here are examples of the speeches submitted:
In Unitarian Universalist congregations, we gather in community to support our individual spiritual journeys. We trust that openness to one another's experiences will enhance our understanding of our own links with the divine, with our history, and with one another.— Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, Oklahoma City, OK
Most Unitarian Universalists believe that nobody has a monopoly on all truth, or ultimate proof of the truth of everything in any one belief. Therefore, one's own truth is unprovable, as is that of others. Consequently, we should respect the beliefs of others, as well as their right to hold those beliefs. Conversely, we expect that others should respect our right to our own beliefs. Several UU's then, would likely hold as many different beliefs. Other beliefs they may hold in common are a respect for others, for nature, and for common decency, leading to a particular caring for the poor, the weak and the downtrodden. As a result, issues of justice, including social justice are held in common among most.— Gene Douglas, Harrah, OK
As in theology, Unitarian Universalist worship and ritual are often a combination of elements derived from other faith traditions alongside original practices and symbols. In form, church services might be difficult to distinguish from those of a Protestant church, but they vary widely among congregations.
The most common symbol of Unitarian Universalism is the flaming chalice, often framed by two overlapping rings that many interpret as representing Unitarianism and Universalism (the symbol has no official interpretation). The chalice itself has long been a symbol of liberal religion, and indeed liberal Christianity (the Disciples of Christ also use a chalice as their denomination symbol). The flaming chalice was initially the logo of the Unitarian Service Committee during the Second World War. It was created by Austrian artist Hans Deutsch, inspired by "the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice."
Nevertheless, other interpretations have been suggested, such as the chalice used by the followers of Czech Jan Hus, or its vague resemblance to a cross in some stylized representations. Many UU congregations light a chalice at the beginning of worship services. Other symbols include a slightly off-center cross within a circle (a Universalist symbol associated with the Humiliati movement in the 1950s, a group of reformist, liturgically minded clergy seeking to revive Universalism).
Religious services are usually held on Sundays and most closely resemble the form and format of Protestant worship in the Reformed tradition. Services at a vast majority of congregations utilize a structure that focuses on a sermon or presentation by a minister, a lay leader of the congregation, or an invited speaker. Sermons may cover a wide range of topics. Since Unitarian Universalists do not recognize a particular text or set of texts as primary or inherently superior, inspiration can be found in many different religious or cultural texts as well as the personal experiences of the minister.
The service also includes hymn-singing, accompanied by organ, piano, or other available instruments, and possibly led by a song leader or choir. The most recent worship songbook published by the denomination, Singing the Journey contains 75 songs and is a supplement to the older Singing the Living Tradition which contains readings as well. Hymns typically sung in UU services come from a variety of sources – traditional hymn tunes with new or adapted lyrics, spirituals, folk songs from various cultures, or original compositions by Unitarian Universalist musicians are just a few. Instrumental music is also a common feature of the typical worship service, including preludes, offertory music, postludes, or music for contemplation.
Pastoral elements of the service may include a time for sharing Joys and Sorrows/Concerns, where individuals in the congregation are invited to light a candle and/or say a few words about important events in their personal lives. Many UU services also include a time of meditation or prayer, led by the minister or service leader, both spoken and silent. Responsive readings and stories for children are also typical.
Many UU congregations no longer observe the Christian sacraments of baptism, communion, or confirmation, at least in their traditional forms or under their traditional names. Congregations that continue these practices under their more traditional names are often federated churches or members of the Council of Christian Churches within the Unitarian Universalist Association (CCCUUA), or may have active chapters associated with the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship or similar covenant groups. "Child dedications" often replace more traditional infant baptisms (though it should be noted that such "dedications" are sometimes practiced even in "orthodox" Christian communities that do not baptize infants for theological reasons). Annual celebrations of Water Communion and Flower Communion may replace or supplement Christian-style communion (though many pluralist and Christian-oriented congregations may celebrate or otherwise make provisions for communion on Christian holy days). Confirmation may be replaced by a "Coming of Age" program, in which teenagers explore their individual religious identity, often developing their own credo. After they have completed exploring their spiritual beliefs, they write a speech about it which they then personally deliver to the congregation.
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In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists were active in abolitionism, the women's movement, the temperance movement, and other social reform movements. The second woman's rights convention was held at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York.
Historically, Unitarian Universalists have often been active in political causes, notably the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement.
Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian and Quaker, was extremely influential in the women's suffrage movement. Unitarian Universalists and Quakers still share many principles, notably that they are creedless religions with a long-standing commitment to social justice. It is therefore common to see Unitarian Universalists and Quakers working together.
UU's were and are still very involved in the fight to end racism in the United States. John Haynes Holmes, a Unitarian minister and social activist at The Community Church of New York—Unitarian Universalist was among the founders of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), chairing the latter for a time. James J. Reeb, a minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was clubbed in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1965, and died two days later of massive head trauma. Two weeks after his death, Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist, was murdered by white supremacists after her participation in the protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights are best known as Bloody Sunday, although technically that refers only to March 7, the most violent day of the three.
The past head of the Unitarian Universalist Association 2001–2009, Rev. William G. Sinkford, is African-American, making Unitarian Universalism one of the first traditionally white denominations to be headed by a member of a racial minority.
While political liberals make up a clear majority of Unitarian Universalists, the UU movement aspires to diversity, and officially welcomes congregants regardless of their political views. Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists point out that neither religious liberalism nor the Principles and Purposes of the UUA require liberal politics. Like the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists, politics are decided by individuals, not by congregations or the denomination.
Several congregations have undertaken a series of organizational, procedural and practical steps to become acknowledged as a "Welcoming Congregation": a congregation which has taken specific steps to welcome and integrate gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender (GLBT) members. UU ministers perform same-sex unions and now same-sex marriages where legal (and sometimes when not, as a form of civil protest). On June 29, 1984, the Unitarian Universalists became the first major church "to approve religious blessings on homosexual unions." Unitarian Universalists have been in the forefront of the work to make same-sex marriages legal in their local states and provinces, as well as on the national level. Gay men and lesbians are also regularly ordained as ministers, and a number of gay and lesbian ministers have, themselves, now become legally married to their partners. In May 2004, Arlington Street Church was the site of the first state-sanctioned same-sex marriage in the United States. The official stance of the UUA is for the legalization of same-sex marriage—"Standing on the Side of Love." In 2004 UU Minister Rev. Debra Haffner of The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing published An Open Letter on Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality to affirm same-sex marriage from a multi-faith perspective. In December 2009, Washington, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty signed the bill to legalize same-sex marriage for the District of Columbia in All Souls Church, Unitarian (Washington, D.C.).
Many congregations are heavily involved in projects and efforts aimed at supporting environmental causes and sustainability. These are often termed "seventh principle" activities because of the seventh principle quoted above.
The lack of formal creed has been a cause for criticism among some who argue that Unitarian Universalism is thus without religious content. In May 2004, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ruled that Unitarian Universalism was not a "religion" because it "does not have one system of belief," and stripped the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church in Denison, Texas, of its tax-exempt status. However, within weeks, Strayhorn reversed her decision.
There are separate movements and organizations of Christians who hold to classical Unitarian or Christian Universalist theology and do not belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association or consider themselves UUs. The American Unitarian Conference and the Christian Universalist Association are the two most significant organizations representing these theological beliefs today. Christians who hold these beliefs tend to consider themselves the true Unitarians or Universalists and heirs of the theological legacy of the original American Unitarian Association or Universalist Church of America, and they do not wish to be confused with UUs and UUism. The Unity Church is another denomination that is often confused with Unitarian Universalism.
During the presidency of the Rev. William Sinkford, debate within the UU movement has roiled over his call to return to or create an authentic UU "language of reverence." Sinkford has suggested that UUs have abandoned traditional religious language, thereby abandoning words with potential power to others who will then dictate their meanings in the public sphere. He has suggested that Unitarian Universalists regain their proper seat at the interfaith table by making this language their own. Others have reacted to this call by believing it to be part of an effort to return UU congregations to more orthodox Christian worship patterns. Sinkford has denied this, citing the words of UU humanists as examples of what he means by the "language of reverence." The debate seems[original research?] part and parcel of an attendant effort at increasing biblical literacy amongst Unitarian Universalists, including the publication of a book by the UUA's Beacon Press written by former UUA President John Buehrens. The book is titled Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals, and is meant as a kind of handbook to be read alongside the Bible itself. It provides interpretative strategies, so that UUs (among others) might be able to engage in public debate about what the Bible says from a liberal religious perspective, rather than relinquishing to religious conservatives, and other more literal interpretations, all control over the book's contents and significance in matters of public and civic import. Also an important work by Rev. Buehrens, along with Forrest Church, is A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, in which the authors explore the many sources of the living tradition of their chosen faith.
The "borrowing" of religious rituals from other faith traditions by Unitarian Universalists was discussed at the UU General Assembly in 2001 during a seminar titled Cultural Appropriation: Reckless Borrowing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing by the Religious Education Dept, UUA. Of particular discussion was the borrowing rituals and practices that are sacred to specific tribes or using spiritual practices without real context.
When UUs pick and choose from these things, it trivializes their spiritual practices. The specificity [of their use] is so complete, that visiting Native Americans do not participate in another tribe's rituals, and to do so would be perceived as foolish. I would not even practice the rituals of my own tribe, because I am not an elder or spiritual leader. If this is true of her own people, then the use of these things by others who share no cultural context is seen not only as particularly foolish and inappropriate. Not all of this usage is inappropriate, though. Some taped music, written prayers, that kind of thing, might be alright, but it's not right to fool around with it. If it's not in context, if the user is not walking with us, if the user is not part of our struggle, then it is presumptuous.
— Reverend Danielle Di Bona, 2001 General Assembly
As of February 2011, congregations in the United States totaled 1,018, and 1,046 when including two congregations in the U.S. Virgin Islands, 19 in Canada, six in other countries[which?], plus 28 multi-denominational congregations affiliated with the UUA: 17 in Mass., four in Ill., three in N.H., two in Vt., and one each in Me. and D.C.. Seven of the ten US states with the most congregations are also among the most populous states; the state with the most congregations and members is the fourteenth most populous state, Massachusetts; Vermont is No. 1 relative to its total population. A map using 2010 U.S. Census data showing the relative number of congregations per 1 million people is posted here.
At the time of the merger between Universalists and Unitarians, membership was perhaps half a million. Membership rose after the merger but then fell in the 1970s.
In 1956, Sam Wells wrote that "Unitarians and Universalists are considering merger which would have total U.S. membership of 160,000 (500,000 in world)". In 1965 Conkin wrote that "In 1961, at the time of the merger, membership [in the United States] was 104,821 in 651 congregations, and the joint membership soared to its historically highest level in the mid-1960s (an estimated 250,000) before falling sharply back in the 1970s [...]". According to the 2008 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations claimed 214,738 members in 2002.
Estimates from the 1990s put world membership between 120,000 and 600,000.
In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey reported 629,000 members describing themselves as Unitarian Universalist in 2001, an increase from 502,000 reported in a similar survey in 1990. The highest concentrations are in New England and around Seattle, Washington.
The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and featuring a sample size of over 35,000, puts the proportion of American adults identifying as Unitarian Universalist at 0.3%.
While the 2001 Canadian census done by Statistics Canada put Canadian Unitarians at 17,480, the latest membership statistics from the Canadian Unitarian Council show as of September 1, 2007 they had 5,150 "official" members.
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