The congregation that won’t marry anyone – yet
“We are refusing to marry any couple until the day when we can marry every couple.” Andy Pakula on the church which practices what it preaches on equality.
I was invited to write something for HumanistLife because I am the minister of a congregation that took a very strong stance in support of full equality for same-sex couples. We are refusing to marry any couple until the day when we can marry every couple.
I am a Unitarian. And yet, my beliefs do not differ greatly from those that might be labeled humanist, in the sense that I do not believe in any supernatural entity that intervenes in human existence or dictates our behaviour.
Unitarianism is a faith that grew out of Christianity and became something more diverse and broad. So diverse, in fact, that my own congregation includes quite a few self-defining humanists, agnostics, and atheists in addition to people who would define their perspectives using terms including Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, and many more.
My own life journey tood me deeply into angry atheism. I was raised in a secular Jewish family and then, in my teens, rejected all established religion as a bunch of superstitious nonsense – and dangerous nonsense at that. As many have concluded, I felt that the impact of religion througout history been more a source of divisiveness and hatred than of kindness, love, and compassion. In my thirties, I stumbled upon Unitarianism – expecting to hate it like all other religion. I was shocked to find that this religion not only does not insist on any particular set of beliefs, but actively encourages each person to find their own personal path.
What I had stumbled upon was exactly what I had needed without knowing it: a community where I felt supported and yet free – a community that offered challenges that made me think and acceptance wherever my thinking and searching led.
My path eventually led me to leave a career in biotechnology – leaving behind a Ph.D. in biology, a masters in business, and a good income – to become a Unitarian minister. This is not at all what I expected from my life!
My path most certainly did not lead me to believe in a personal God. I do not believe that there is something or someone out there that controls what happens in our lives, that holds up or crashes planes, that causes or prevents earthquakes, that causes or cures cancer, or anything of the sort.
It did lead me to believe in connection, in love, in compassion, and in the many ways that, working together, we can make life better for humanity and for all of the Earth’s beings.
I recognize that many would say there is no need for religion in order to do these things – that a religion that does not impose beliefs is benign but unnecessary. For anyone who is able to find and strengthen their own sense of purpose, engage in the betterment of the world, enter into deep connection with others, and engage meaningfully with people of different experiences and perspective on their own, I completely agree.
For me, and for many others, doing this on our own is difficult. We are too easily affected by the daily media and advertising onslaught that teaches selfishness, vanity, fierce individualism, and materialism. If we do not want to live that kind of life, we need to find a place that supports us in pursuing the opposite. A Unitarian congregation does that for us. It provides a safe place where we can take our sorrows, joys, needs, longings, struggles, and energies. It provides opportunities to stop and reflect, opportunities to learn how others see the world, opportunities to engage with diverse teachings and philosophies, and most of all, a safe, accepting space where we can increasingly become the best people we can be.
Unitarianism is not perfect, but it is a religion in motion – it is ever-changing and evolving to adapt to the needs and realities of the times. Today, an important justice issue is equality for same-sex couples. We recognize the importance of that struggle and have engaged fully in it. We also understand that any group that calls itself a religion has a special responsibility to help right the wrongs perpetrated by religion in the past.
We also recognize that some of the things any ‘religion’ does – even the most inclusive and radical one – seem increasingly odd as norms and expectations change. A Unitarian service can seem oddly quaint and even naff to a generation raised on music videos, computer games, and the world wide web. Hymns – even with inclusive language – do not speak to everyone! Like all institutions, we experience some inertia and change more slowly than we would like. But, like any institution that will survive, we are changing and evolving to meet the needs and expectations of today’s context. We engage in the struggle to change our practices just as we struggle to grow as people and to do what we can to help make a more just and peaceful world.