Unitarian Universalists ought to be paying attention to what is happening in mainline Protestant denominations in the United States these days. This may seem counterintuitive to some; our religion has a Protestant heritage, of course, but the content and focus of much of Unitarian Universalist religious life ceased a long time ago to have Christianity at its center. We are a small religious minority in this country, not obviously part of any kind of “mainline.” Nevertheless, it’s worth recognizing that while we are theologically distinct from mainline Protestant denominations, there are a number of things we have in common socially and culturally: both Unitarian Universalists and mainline Protestants tend toward liberalism in theology, emphasizing a faithful life rather than any “one true way”; in both Unitarian Universalism and mainline Protestantism we see women in leadership roles, and we both tend toward progressive positions on social issues like civil rights and equality for women; Unitarian Universalism has the Welcoming Congregation program to affirm the rights and dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and we find analogous stances in the Protestant mainline, such as the Open and Affirming congregations in the United Church of Christ, the Reconciling in Christ program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and of course openly gay leaders like V. Gene Robinson have gained prominence in the Episcopal Church. Like Unitarian Universalists, mainline Protestants tend to worship in white-majority congregations; we both have historically been socially, economically, culturally and politically prominent in American society; our congregations tend to feature a prominent representation of educated, middle-class or affluent persons.
Another thing we have in common with the Protestant mainline in America is that we are declining in numbers. In terms of the sheer number of people belonging to congregations, Unitarian Universalists are not in the precipitous numerical free-fall of some mainline Protestant denominations, but neither Unitarian Universalists nor mainline Protestants are numerically growing. Given all these commonalities, religious liberals such as ourselves ought to be paying attention to the so-called “mainline,” whether or not we ourselves consider ourselves a part of it.
Finley Peter Dunn’s memorable aphorism about a newspaper’s role of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable has also been applied to other realms of human endeavor, including the religious enterprise. There are ways in which both Unitarian Universalists and mainline Protestants might fit someone’s definition of “comfortable.” The idea that every mainline Protestant and every Unitarian Universalist is well-educated and middle-class or affluent is patently false, and even if it were true, it is a monstrous absurdity to think that material wealth equals happiness — given that, say, cancer, domestic violence, alcoholism, or bipolar disorder are no respecters of socio-economic status. At the same time, it would be irresponsible not to at least ponder the possibility that it is not difficult to find persons in a Unitarian Universalist or mainline Protestant congregation who are individuals of means and influence, and/or people whose anxieties do not necessarily include wondering where their next meal is coming from.
I can’t speak for any other religious communities, but my experience of Unitarian Universalist congregations is that we are often motivated by a strong desire to be comfortable. There is some insight (and perhaps even a tiny bit of truth?) to the old joke: “Why are UU congregations sing hymns so badly? Because they’re all scanning ahead to make sure they agree with the words.” It is almost axiomatic in some of our congregations that some of our people are going to become discernibly upset if they hear something they don’t agree with. Our familiar tensions around, say, “the G-word” are emblematic of this. For me this raises a broader question: why are we attending a worship service in the hope of being comfortable? If we truly wish to plumb the depths of life’s meaning and death’s truth, won’t that necessarily involve some discomfort?
I am increasingly persuaded of the possibility that between the phenomenon of stagnant or declining numbers and the desire for comfort there exists a causative correlation. Everything in my experience persuades me that human beings yearn for environments of challenge in which we can grow. Such challenges can’t be demanding beyond our capability, or threatening beyond what we can endure, but they do need to extend beyond our comfort zones. We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that our denomination is not growing numerically if we make comfort a primary goal. Whether or not we are indeed doing that remains an unanswered question, which is uncomfortable in and of itself.
Where we are most vital as a people of faith often seems to be in the places where we aren’t looking to be comfortable. The aforementioned Welcoming Congregation program, one of many things that makes me a proud adherent of this beautiful, flawed, human faith of ours, is a sterling example. It isn’t necessarily comfortable to confront the prejudices and injustices of our world and take a stand that some segments of our society condemn. Yet do we not feel called to this as our holy work?
Religious life should always be comforting: it should give us patience, strength and hope in our sorrow and pain. Being comforted and being comfortable are not the same thing.