8/18/08

A Non-Believer in Church: Unitarian Universalist in Oxford

I am branching out by visiting the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, which is the first non-Christian church that I have visited. Their creed is that they have no creed. For this reason alone I would like to return. In May, vjack floated the idea of atheist churches. If you read through the comments (all 79 of them), the response was mixed: some liked the idea, some didn't, some said that science class was good enough, and a few suggested UU churches. UU is a church for atheists, but it is also a church for people of all other faiths. At this church, God is good and God is optional.

The service began at 11 AM. There were 34 people in attendance. I introduced myself to the door greeter, who then gave me a name tag. For the most part, the service was in the style of a typical Christian worship service. A collection plate was passed around. We sang from hymn books. A man lead a few songs with a guitar accompaniment. The door greeter stood in front of everyone to announce all of the visitors, including me.

The man leading the service asked if there were any "joys" to be announced. This is where members could speak freely to the group. One person thanked "modern medicine" (and not God) for helping her relative survive cancer. Already, I realized that I was among a different kind of people. Following the "joys", the minister called for "concerns". There was no prayer over these concerns. The minister struck a chime bar and told us to think on these things.

The sermon was titled "Why I am a Universalist". It was about the life of John Murray who started the first Universalist Church. Universalism is a form of Christian-based theology that centers around the idea that God loves everyone regardless of who you are or what you do. To support this view, the minister said that he agreed with the biblical writer Paul in the passage of Romans 8. (It would be difficult to convince me that Paul was a Universalist.) At one point the minister mentioned that he was asked to leave his former church when he revealed that he was a homosexual. He used the story to contrast mainstream Christianity, which will reject or reform homosexuals, with that of Universalism, which accepts homosexuals. Given that I don't believe in God, I don't have much use for this idea of Universalism, but it is certainly better than the viewpoint of many followers of mainstream Christianity.

There was a song following the lesson. It's probably best just to copy one verse of the song for you to read.
Some say once you're gone you're gone forever, and some say you're gonna come back. Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack. Some say that they're comin' back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas. I think I'll just let the mystery be.
The lyrics in some of the songs were a little silly. The Unitarian Universalist call their theology a "laid-back theology". They are taking a passive stance on the big questions on our existance: Why are we here? Their answer: it is a mystery; let the mystery be. I'm sure this position is taken to maintain harmony among a diverse group. I would still like to know if anyone within this church attempts to answer this question. Perhaps I'm operating under the warped viewpoint that religions should attempt to explain the unknown.

The service concluded with everyone getting in a circle and saying the words "Go in peace, believe in peace, create peace." I stuck around for several minutes to see if anyone would greet me. I think I shook hands with half of the people at the service. One lady went out of her way to make sure that I had a caffeinated coffee with cream. I noticed that many of the members shared a similar story. "I was from X religion, but then I realized that I couldn't be a member of X because of Y, so I left. Then I found Unitarian Univeralism." The former religions that I heard mentioned were Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, and Catholic. They wanted the ability to question their original faith without feeling ostracized for thinking, so they came to this church.

I talked with the minister some about how his faith has changed since leaving his former church. He mentioned that it's changed dramatically and it's always changing. I mentioned that my own views on faith have changed over the past year and will probably change more over the next year. Without knowing anything about my views on faith, he said, "And I hope they do."

One last thing: Oliver now has a twitter page. Follow me! (But not in any sort of divine sense of the word.)