Dealing With Pagan-phobic UUs

UU Pagans – Faith in Action

Sometimes I forget how good I have it.

Denton CUUPS had been in existence for three years when I arrived. There were still a few people in the Denton UU Fellowship who were skeptical about Paganism in a UU church, but by the time I was elected Congregational President in 2005 that was pretty much over. Our current minister is very Pagan-friendly and attends many of our circles, our long-time members understand us and our new members are respectful even if they aren’t all curious (though many are). CUUPS is both a ministry of our church and an outreach program for the church – we bring in people who wouldn’t otherwise show up on Sunday mornings.

So it was more than a little unsettling when I read a Facebook post from someone who is attempting to form a CUUPS chapter at her UU church. A member of their Program Committee expressed concern about “the Pagans getting all this time for programs” and said he was “unclear what Paganism has to do with the Unitarian Universalist Church.”

I’m not going to address the specifics at this church. The Board of CUUPS Continental (on which I serve) is aware of the situation and will get involved to the degree that is desired and helpful. But I do want to talk in general about dealing with a phenomenon I thought was pretty much gone but clearly isn’t: Pagan-phobic UUs.

I’ll begin with the assumption that the Pagans in a UU congregation are doing things the right way: they’re actively involved with the church, contributing their money and time to the congregation, and not just interested in “the Pagan stuff.” And just so I’m clear, I’m not talking about very many UUs… but one is still too many.

The first step is to acknowledge the person complaining. Even if they’re being rude (up to a point, anyway), hear them out. Ask clarifying questions. Would they have a similar problem with Buddhist services? What about Christian services? Are the Pagan services displacing something this person thinks is important?

Maybe there really are too many Pagan-themed services – particularly in a small congregation, there’s only so much people want to hear about anything. I’ve been Worship Committee chair in a lay-led congregation: when you’re staring at a blank calendar you have no idea how to fill, and you’ve got an in-house group who’s ready and willing to lead services and who you don’t have to pay, it’s easy to tap them more often than you should.

Shortly after I became President I had a long-time member tell me “you know, we’re not all Pagans.” I got a little defensive and explained that I knew that and that I valued all our religious sources and expressions. As the conversation deepened, it became apparent she had nothing against Pagans or Paganism. She missed the Christian hymns of her childhood. I spoke to the Worship Committee chair and the musicians, we added a few Christian hymns and readings to our services and this long-time member was happy. And our services were more diverse and broad-based than before.

By acknowledging and engaging the complainer, you can find out if there are legitimate complaints and you can start to get an idea of what the real problem is.

The second step is education. Some people have a very limited idea of what Unitarian Universalism is or should be. The sixth source of our Principles and Purposes is “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.” If anyone thinks Paganism doesn’t have anything to do with UUism, this says they’re wrong.

Pagans have been a part of Unitarian Universalism since the 1985 General Assembly and informally for longer than that. There are Pagan and Earth-centered songs and readings in our hymnals. We have numerous Pagan-identified and Pagan-friendly ministers.

And the common roots go much deeper. You can’t read Emerson and Thoreau without seeing Pagan concepts. You can’t see the social action of Starhawk and Circle Sanctuary without seeing UU concepts. How about the UU Ministry for Earth? The sacred story of evolution belongs to Pagans as much as it belongs to Naturalists, confirming our connection to the Earth and our kinship with all living things. Dark Green Religion does a good job of showing how theists and nontheists can come together religiously around our common concerns for the only planet we’ve got.

A CUUPS circle should speak deeply to Pagans. Denton CUUPS circles typically follow a fairly standard Pagan liturgy and our events are usually held on Saturday nights. We cast circles, call quarters, invoke gods and goddesses, make offerings, and share a Simple Feast. We try to make it accessible for newcomers (we don’t do High Magic or Drawing Down rituals in public circles), but we plainly, clearly, and unapologetically work magic. If you think worshipping ancient deities or working magic is silly you won’t be comfortable at our circles. This is how our free and responsible search has led us to truth and meaning and we won’t change our rituals to accommodate you… though if you’d like to lead a Humanistic Pagan circle we’ll happily participate.

On the other hand, a UU Sunday service has to speak to Pagans and Christians and Buddhists and atheists and the visitor who doesn’t know a thing about UUs but who decided to come check us out today. When Denton CUUPS leads a Pagan-themed Sunday service we keep the generic Protestant order of service our congregation uses every Sunday. We occasionally use one of the quarter calls in the hymnal (#446 “To The Four Directions” or #703 “Spirit of the East”), but we rarely ask people to stand and face the directions – we want to keep things familiar. We may use some of the Pagan-friendly songs in the hymnal, but for last Sunday’s service on The Cauldron of Transformation the prelude and offertory were African-American spirituals. Why? Because they’re energetic and they support the theme of transformation better than anything else we could come up with.

When you’re planning a Sunday service, what’s in it for the non-Pagans? Will a first-time visitor be able to follow along or will he be freaked out?

There is much you can and should do to acknowledge, educate and include Pagan-phobic UUs. But for some people it’s not a case of not understanding or feeling left out – it’s a case of control. They want things to be like they’ve always been and they don’t want to consider something new. Or they don’t want to be embarrassed by a “bunch of woo woo stuff” in their church.

Don’t take it too personally, Pagans. I once had someone ask me “do we have to do so much for the gays?” Thankfully, that person is no longer part of our church.

These people are toxic to your congregation, no matter how long they’ve been there or how much money they give. They act as self-appointed gatekeepers, bypassing elected leaders and subverting the democratic process. They limit our scope and reach and effectiveness as a church.

Go around them. Or go over them. Or go through them. Don’t let them be a roadblock on your search for truth and meaning and on your congregation’s path to growth and maturity. And if they’re too entrenched and too powerful and too dead-set on keeping things the way they’ve always been, take your time and your effort and your money some place that’s interested in being a religious community and not a social club.

My experience as a UU Pagan has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve encountered very few Pagan-phobic UUs and almost all of them became Pagan-friendly with a little acknowledgement, education and inclusion. The ones who didn’t realized the Pagans were here to stay and either stopped complaining or went elsewhere.

I hope and pray that my good experience will be repeated at this and every Unitarian Universalist congregation.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09393130637355764229 Velody Dark

    Wow, every UU we have locally also has a CUUPS branch. I'm not involved in one myself to know the inner workings. I've been considering checking one of our local ones out for awhile though.

    Your tips are great too, and could be applied to many situations. Thank you also for mentioning the Humanistic Paganism, I had never heard of it and it may possibly help answer a few questions I have.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09575410695782447489 AmethJera

    I appreciate your sensitive and well thought out post, particularly in light of the most recent experience I'm had in my now former UU Fellowship.

    I have been a UU for over a decade and a member of this particular congregation for over four years. I am an ordained interfaith (non-UU) minister who has preached in this particular congregation (on subjects other than Paganism) and helped with successful public rituals (100+ attendance)for them. My experience within the UU framework has been generally positive, however, the evening I found myself being singled out and attacked at a circle dinner by people who are supposed pillars of the church because I am a Pagan was enough to turn me-at least against this particular congregation. There is only so much harassment one can take by being assaulted with," But we thought you were a critical thinker and so intelligent! How can you believe in such utter bullshit?!" while others sit and smirk (including several well known members of the congregational care and social justice committees!)Their belittlement and disrespect of my chosen faith was not only shocking but hateful. They thought CUUPs was "cute" and a big joke. I was informed that Paganism is not a legitimate spiritual tradition,and that "those who practiced it lack a grip on reality". I guess when you hold the purse strings in a congregation you can feel relatively assured you can spew any form of bigotry and get away with it.

    Yes, I understand we each have our own path,and that every congregation is different… but it will be a very, very cold day in hell when I will feel safe in another UU congregation due to the nastiness of this group within a denomination whose first principle is respect of the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

    Your post has at least given me a glimmer of hope for associating myself with any UU congregation again.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    Wow! I can't believe you "memory holed" my perfectly legitimate comment which is validated by AmethJera's comment that followed it. I am reposting the comment you censored now John and I expect you to allow it to stand on the side of love for any and all people who have been demonized and marginalized by *toxic* U*U bigots. . .

    "These people are toxic to your congregation, no matter how long they’ve been there or how much money they give. They act as self-appointed gatekeepers, bypassing elected leaders and subverting the democratic process. They limit our scope and reach and effectiveness as a church."

    John surely you are aware of the fact that all too often "these people" *are* the elected leaders of the congregation or even its minister, and it is all to easy for them to go about subverting the democratic process when they are sitting on the Board.

    end quote

    AFA*I*AC concerned that comment is echoed by –

    "I guess when you hold the purse strings in a congregation you can feel relatively assured you can spew any form of bigotry and get away with it."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    Robin, I've made it very clear – I have no desire to be a part of your crusade against Unitarian Universalism. You get zero benefit of the doubt. If you post anything negative toward UUs or UUism, it will be assumed to be part of your crusade and it will be deleted – even if it's true, even if it affirms or repeats something I've already said.

    Occasionally you have something relevant to say that isn't intended to knock down UUism, so I haven't banned you.

    Yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    I am no more engaged in a "crusade"against Unitarian Universalism than you or AmethJera John. My "crusade"if you want to call it that is against U*U injustices, abuses and hypocrisy, including but not limited to U*U anti-religious bigotry and U*U negligence towards and complicity in U*U clergy misconduct of all kinds.

    If you censor me again or ban me I will have little choice but to consider you to be an enabler of those injustices and abuses that I am exposing and denouncing and I will govern myself accordingly.

    I may mock and ridicule U*Us in my "crusade" but my main purpose in doing so is to try to persuade U*Us that they should not allow U*U clergy and other U*U leaders, to say nothing of "ordinary" U*Us to verbally and psychologically abuse me and other people with complete impunity. If I post a comment that is civil and pertinent you have absolutely no excuse for "memory holing" it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    Velody, I'm glad you found the post helpful. If there had been a Druid grove in North Texas in early 2003 I probably wouldn't have gone to a CUUPS circle. But there wasn't and I did, and it's been a very positive experience for me.

    AmethJera, sorry to hear about your experience, but I can't say I'm surprised. There is a declining but still significant minority of UUs who see anything supernatural – whether traditional Christianity or Paganism or even theistic Buddhism – as childish superstition. If we have any of those folks left at my congregation they don't express themselves to me.

    A lot of the credit for this goes to Summer Cartwright (soon to be Dr. Cartwright), Monique Gulyas and Cheryl Monroe, who were the driving force behind the founding of Denton CUUPS. They didn't back down from skeptics.

    A lot of credit also goes to Rev. Don Fielding, DUUF Minister Emeritus. Despite being a staunch Religious Naturalist ("there is only the natural world, and it is enough"), he supported the founding of Denton CUUPS and has remained a good friend in his retirement.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    One more thing John. . .

    If UUA leaders actually practice justice, equity and compassion in human relations my alleged "crusade" would never have begun. The only reason this "crusade" has gone on for so long is because UUA leaders and U*Us more generally are pathologically allergic to responsibly acknowledging wrongdoing and seeking reconciliation with those people they have harmed. I for one am not the least bit surprised that anti-pagan bigotry is alive and (un)well in the UU World today.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    Robin, if you don't think you're on a crusade, you aren't being honest with yourself.

    Your next anti-UU post on this blog will be your last.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    I did not deny being on a "crusade" John. I denied being on a "crusade" against Unitarian Universalism as a religion. Do you *really* think that a U*U minister concerned about the UUA's "terrible track record" re. U*U clergy misconduct would express *appreciation* for my "prophetic work" and say, "Your persistence is a ministry" if they thought I was on a "crusade" against Unitarian Universalism?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    "Your next anti-UU post on this blog will be your last."

    For the record John,

    AFA*I*AC I have never posted one single "anti-UU" comment to this blog. In fact I doubt that you can point to one single comment or blog post that I have made anywhere at any time that properly fits the description "anti-UU" aka anti-Unitarian Universalism. Are the Roman Catholics who "crusade" against RC clergy abuse anti-Catholic John? Were Jeremiah & Isaiah etc. etc. anti-Jewish? I think not. . .

    I will tell you what *is* anti-UU John, the anti-religious intolerance and bigotry of Unitarian Universalists that is descried in your blog post and AmethJera's follow-up comment. This kind of anti-religious intolerance and bigotry, which is very often manifested as anti-Christian bigotry and indeed anti-Catholic bigotry, may or may not be on the wane in the UU World but I have seen very little evidence of UUA leaders and/or UU clergy addressing this serious problem of anti-UU behaviour firmly and forthrightly in a head-on manner. In my opinion this failure of UUA leadership has a LOT to do with why Unitarian Universalist pagans are still "dealing with" Pagan-phobic UUs as you put it and why Christian oriented UUs are still far from being genuinely welcome in many Unitarian Universalist "Welcoming Congregations".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    Typo correction:

    "descried" *should* have read as "described" but it occurs to me now that "decried" works too, at least in terms of the follow-up comments from me and AmethJera.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06208142626285495635 Robin Edgar

    Correction: I have seen very little evidence of UUA leaders and/or UU clergy addressing this serious problem of anti-UU behaviour firmly and forthrightly in a head-on manner, until quite recently. . .

    In the form of Rev. Tony Lorenzen's "anti-UU" blog post titled 'Unitarian Universalist attitudes towards Christianity as Aversion Addiction' and Rev. Matt Tittle's "anti-UU" Tweets which Tweeted -

    "UUs are woefully ignorant (uninformed) about other faiths. It shows in our rejectionism."

    And, more to the point. . .

    "Almost every UU congregation is reactive to Christianity, God talk, etc. Why?"

    Yes, there have been similar things said in the last year or two by UU clergy but I am not aware of any top level UUA leader making any such statements that acknowledge UU anti-Christian bigotry or broader anti-religious intolerance such as the anti-pagan intolerance this blog post addresses.

    Can you or any other UU direct me to any public statement by a UUA President or other top level UUA leader that speaks openly about UU anti-religious intolerance and bigotry and, more importantly. . . condemns such intolerance as being in violation of claimed UU principles and ideals and thus unacceptable?

  • Raven

    Xtian hymns in a UU service are highly inappropriate. If a place is to be inclusive of all religions then you obviously cannot show a “worship” to any particular god.


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