Neo-Traditional Liberal Religion? A Sidewise Glance at a Unitarian Universalist Congregation

Arthur Tooth, a priest of the Church of England, was part of that movement within the mid-nineteenth century to revive Catholic rituals within the CofE. As the Anglican church in England is a state religion, it is governed in many ways by law, and in reaction to the rise of ritualism, in 1874 a Public Worship Regulation Act was passed by Parliament. Mr Tooth was in regular violation of the act for use of vestments, incense, etc. He was charged but refused to attend the trial. Finally, on this day in 1877 he was arrested and thrown into the Horsemonger Lane Gaol. This event making him a martyr to what would come to be called the Anglo-Catholic movement…

So, what does this matter to me, A Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister serving for more than two decades in UU congregations?

Well, one of the things I’ve observed over these years is first a leveling off of attendance in UU congregations, even a tiny dip in our very small numbers reported nationally. And, then, what looks to be a turning.

I’m now some four and a half years into serving at the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

When I arrived here I noticed a sprinkling of younger adults in worship services. In the subsequent years every year there have been more. Last year we experienced significant growth, ten percent net over the previous year. It looks like the same thing is happening this year. And, much of the driver for this, in addition to the young families we’ve always assumed and the general churn of the professional classes bringing UUs here from around the country and elsewhere, are significant numbers of twenty-somethings. Sometimes married with kids, but just as likely couples without kids, singles, and small herds, that is people who like to come in groups…

I’ve come to like to ask these millennials, as demographers like to tag ‘em, a question. First, I say, okay, you’re coming to First Unitarian, where we offer most commonly what is essentially a high Protestant service featuring dead white guy music, done to the nines (really, really done to the nines), and with what amounts for the most part to a rationalist Buddhist sermon. Then the question. Are you attending in spite of this? Or?

One response summarizes what I mostly hear. “Could you please put robes on the choir?”

Now, I’ve been inundated with a literature of growth that assumes people want pulpits taken down, pews removed, and organs burned.

Rather, what it looks like I’m seeing in the actual real people who are coming into church I’m at least tentatively characterizing as neo-traditionals.

Within the Jewish tradition at least here in America there is a fourth wing emerging called Reconstructionists. They look like the Orthodox. And their services are traditional to the max, running hours at times, tons of singing, quite powerful, compelling. And, they count women for minun. And they have absolute personal freedom of interpretation of what is going on. It seems from where I sit some significant percentage of Reconstructionists are either agnostic or straight out atheist, or probably more appropriate usage, nontheist.

Maybe, possibly, it looks like it might be that we’re getting a “Christian” version of this. The scare quotes because I think it reflects Christian culture and a desire to mark major Christian holidays, but all deeply personally interpreted, and possibly without a single one of the people coming believing in a traditional, shall we say normative literalist straight ahead telling of the Christian story – and with lots and lots of room for those coming in from other religious perspectives, particularly Jewish, but also most notably earth-centered and Buddhist. And, as always, always a seat in the pew for the agnostic and atheist…


Now, I have no idea if this is a trend. Or, perhaps, just an interesting and ultimately meaningless blip.

But, I watch with interest.

Actually that doesn’t say it.

I watch with a heart full of excitement and wonder.

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  • Jim Barfoot

    I will respectfully and politely disagree.
    To my eyes, seeing one or more people up front who are dressed in distinctly priestly robes, with fancy sashes, big droopy sleeves, and even hoods sometimes, says to me that such people consider themselves better than we lowly members in mufti. I think it sends the wrong message—one which organized religion has developed and fine-tuned over many centuries—that what happens in the context of this building is separate from, and more sacred than, the rest of life. We, as Unitarian Universalists, seem to be strongly concerned with building a better quality of life for everyone, and recognize that that means including the conditions of everyday life. Not just including, but celebrating, honoring, holding everyone as an expression of the sacred. Again, to me, that means a leveling of all people, rather than elevating certain individuals to a position “above” the rest.

  • Adam Tierney-Eliot

    I would say that we have always had a Christian (or “Christian”) version of just that. It certainly has been my experience at the congregation I serve. That is, at least, in the case of a desire for a “deeply personally interpreted” non-literal interpretation of the Christian story. In a UU/UCC congregation it is normative for folks to question and re-interpret the Christian language to suit their experience. I am not sure, though, that I would directly link that urge to high liturgy. That appears to be more of a matter of personal taste and preference. In my setting I wear a suit and tie or a blazer and tie when I preach. Our choir doesn’t wear robes and no one has asked them to (but they have asked to join it). Our sanctuary is small and situated on a traffic island at a busy intersection. We are informal and yet we are attracting the same sorts of new folks. Perhaps you would find that some of the other liberal churches in town are also attracting the same sort of people with different worship tastes.

  • Tess

    I’m not sure if I’m exactly the demographic you’re speaking to, but I think I might be, so I would like to respond.

    I’m 30 and was raised very conservative Lutheran. I was self-proclaimed “allergic” to church for about a decade. I identify when asked as agnostic and Buddhist and have a strong, regular zazen practice and a great deal of sangha involvement.

    When my fiance (humanist/agnostic) and I moved to the area we currently live in, we didn’t know anyone and I realized that I missed some of the opportunities presented to one who was part of a larger “church” type group, so we vetted the local Unitarian Universalist church. We quite liked the people, the messages, the social events, and the minister was very kind and helpful in talking to me about my church past/difficulty with parents since leaving my church of birth, etc, and we decided to join.

    At first, all of the “trappings” of “church” were the only uncomfortable pieces for me. Gradually, though, I came to appreciate and embrace the discomfort and to use it as a source of growth and learning and letting go–oddly similar to what occurred with my initial discomfort with Zen ritual, as well.

    This year for the first time I attended my UU’s Christmas Eve service. It was nearly indistinguishable from those of my childhood–readings I could still recite from children’s services, hymns I still knew by rote, and a message of hope and peace for all humanity. I was astounded at how moved I was despite not being a habitually nostalgic person and despite not believing a lick of the literal “Christmas story.”

    Sometimes I struggle with the privilege and lily-whiteness and suburban-ness and almost comically over-educated-ness of my UU congregation, but I know there is no malice inherent and that the people of the congregation work hard to understand and connect with people who are different in myriad ways. And I still certainly struggle with resentment and bitterness over my conservative upbringing and the chasm between myself and my beloved nuclear family. But when you suggest that the UU is a safe, non-dogmatic, socially just container for experiencing the rituals and the feeling of transcendence and the liminal states of neo-traditional “Christian” cultural “religion,” I think you may have hit it pretty much right on the head for me at this point in my life.

    So, for me, it isn’t attending “in spite of,” although it may have started that way and although I may have thought I wanted it to be. Rather, it is “because.”

    How strange and delightful! Thank you for the opportunity to do some thinking about this!

  • Alex

    Thank you, James, for another fascinating column. I venture to guess that there are several themes at work here though I could well be wrong. The first is that Millennials in general don’t seem to have the hang-ups and angst that many other UU folks have about religious ritual or what is worn. At least what I have seen in the South and West for the last several years supports that idea. Second, your congregation is deeply connected to East Coast and in specific Northeast traditionalism for churches. I know of few out here in the West who have a lot of ritual and wearing things like robes, etc. So I do wonder if this is at least partially a cultural difference between New England/Mid-Atlantic congregations and those elsewhere. Third, perhaps the UU world is getting over its terror of rituals and being ‘churchy’ after several generations of rampant anti-ritual, anti-clerical authority especially in the Fellowship movement and as an outcome of the religious humanism movement. Fortunately that anti-everything-that-hints-of-religion mindset is dying out. Fourth, I wonder how your insights tie into the ‘spiritual but not religious’ community (which is larger than all our congregations put together) and how the community attribute of being ‘religious’ can balance the individual passion for being ‘spiritual’. This is not just true in UU circles. I was talking with several Zen teachers from CA recently and they are having many of the same questions arise about people who come to Zen centers and either love or despise all the ritual that is part of that tradition.

  • Gene

    I am a 65 year old former roman catholic, who has been attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation for 13 months in Southern RI. I have attended more church services in those 13 months, than I did in previous 45 years.

    Every week when our minister proclaims that we are the voice of liberal religion in Southern RI. Last week we kicked off 30 days of love with our focus on getting our legislators to pass gay marriage legislation. Last week a woman gave a service on buddhist meditation, which was very “cool”. Two weeks ago our Reverend(a woman) gave a sermon on peace and tied in Newtown nicely. Our eve of christmas eve is way cool and relevant.

    There is structure to our church and to our services, however it is not cumbersome.. it is very democratic and inclusive. We are known as a “Welcoming” congregation, meaning all are welcome no matter what you are, who you are and what you believe in.

    One of the things that I cherish is that our congregation is “women centric” and how it is translated really works for me. Being away from dogma, and being told what not to do, rather than what to do is refreshing. I am proud to be UU.

  • abb3w

    Very interesting.

    There’s been a lot of writing on the “nones”, and variations within them. There seems a spectrum — atheist, agnostic, Nothing-in-particular “NIPper”, not-very-strong generic-brand Christian (attending church not at all, a couple times a year, monthly), regular denominational churchgoers, fundamentalists, and perhaps more zealous fractions beyond that.

    The group you’re talking about sounds like it would fall in the cracks between the NIPpers and the unobservant generics — a species of “Anythingarian” to use a 1800s term. They prefer certain cosmetic trappings, but that’s about the strength of the brand attachment.

  • Judith Lindenau

    I am reminded of a conversation I had recently with two friends who are young parents. We were discussing education and schools and my friends seemed in agreement that what was missing was respect, respect for the educational process and discipline–not so much for the subject matter. “I wish we would go back to uniforms,” one mother said. And another: “It’s hard when the teachers wear jeans and sweatshirts to class.”

    I am heartened by an articulated desire to show respect, dignity, and discipline. I thought missing ritual, art, and lovely language and music was just a part of being old and reactionary and out of step with the Unitarian principles of love and democracy. But perhaps not. Perhaps many of us feeling the need to reconnect with cultural roots, to assert priorities of thought and culture and aesthetics, to observe ritual and honor a sacred space.

    I am in awe of creativity, of the act and discipline of making beauty in whatever form it takes. And if tradition and ‘trappings’ assist me in that worship, I will embrace them gladly.

  • Peter Boullata

    I’ve noticed this, too. My sense is that there is a need for something recognizably religious. What we do on Sunday morning is not a community meeting or a concert or a lecture but… something else. I don’t know about high liturgy, but there definitely is an expressed need for what liturgy offers, the poetry and gestures that are the native language of the soul. Perhaps millennials more than others feel unmoored from history and tradition and yearn for greater rootedness and historic continuity, but I have to say, I’ve seen this need expressed in my congregations by people of all ages.

  • James

    Perhaps I overstated a bit with that word “high,” Peter. But liturgy, without a doubt. We are now in our second year in a row of slightly more than nine percent growth of our adult membership…

  • James

    And kids! Kids everywhere…

  • irene adler

    sounds perfect. the uu’s should do more outreach to ex-catholics. they seem reluctant and i’m not sure why. it’s a goldmine for any congregation. there are A LOT of ex-catholics in this country and they want exactly what you’ve described–ritual without the emotional blackmail. politically conservative catholics are more often attracted to charismatic and non-traditional services for some reason, although there are some notable exceptions. and politically liberal catholics stay catholic precisely for the ritual. they are willing to put up with the rest of it. if someone out there was offering a credible alternative i think you’d see them come out in droves. they aren’t going to the episcopalian church because they aren’t anglo-saxon and they aren’t going to the orthodox church because they aren’t greek. and they aren’t going to the break-away church started by some priest with a girlfriend. the unitarian church has a long and interesting history and its willingness to embrace the best parts of every religious tradition, including paganism, should embace ritual which is, in case we all forgot, not a christian or catholic invention but a pagan one.

  • Marianna

    The request the author got was to put robes on THE CHOIR. So recognizing ritual but that’s a bit different than putting the focus on the priest or minister. Lots of way to do rituals, but of course of there are rituals then people can get ruffled when rituals are changed.
    I do think alot of young people have grown up without the ritual and are less likely to be reacting to it/getting away from it than earlier generations.

    • jamesiford

      Of course, Marianna, the minister is already robed. And, poor Jim has do deal with me parading around in robes with those droopy sleeves and fancy scarves, and as he knows me, he has a pretty good read on my character and so, well, I guess all part of what he has to deal with…