What's Possible for UU Pagans Like Me?

What's Possible for UU Pagans Like Me? April 20, 2016

I’ve recently made a commitment, on my personal blog and in my life, to a deeper authenticity, a deeper vulnerability. I am sharing more of who I am and who I have been with the world so that I can serve those I need to serve and who need me.

How does authenticity play in the context of Pagan spiritual and religious life as I know it and have practiced it? What do I really think about Paganism, UUism, and the permutations of their combining?

In my tradition, Authenticity is the Virtue of the East. It is the Virtue of Air, of clarity, realness, the chaff shaken and blown away, and the fertile grain left behind.

Authenticity is where we begin, turned toward East. We begin with reality.

For example, in my honest, authentic experience, I have found practicing Paganism as I know and prefer it is impossible inside UU contexts.

While I am an ordained UU minister and an initiated Wiccan priestess, I cannot say I am a UU-Pagan, and much less a Pagan-UU. I am Pagan. And I am UU. I am Christian-adjacent. I have relationships with several other spiritual, religious, and discerning communities.

Really, though, in my heart of hearts, I’m a priestess of Wicca who is an ordained UU minister. I bring my Pagan sensibilities to my preaching and worship design, but I can’t imagine I’d ever be an “acceptable” congregational minister in our tradition. Neither acceptable to a congregation, nor acceptable to myself.

Why? Because I can’t figure out what Paganism as I know and love it and UUism have to do with one another. I can do one and the other, but it’s sooooo hard to do them together.

For one thing, my practice is a blood-sweat-and-tears practice.

Stones and altar at Four QuartersMy practice was honed in a community that raises multi-ton Stones with ropes, sledges, rollers, pulleys, concrete, and winches. Oh, and hundreds of people pulling those ropes. No trucks. No complex machinery.

Did I mention that sometimes a Stone may be pulled half a mile in the dark, silently, up and down hills, a procession lit only by people bearing torches?

My practice was sharpened in a community where people have been pierced with hooks to be pulled one against another, practiced Sweat Lodge, and where a Native American community has come to offer Sun Dance.

My practice was built out of New Moons and Full Moons spent in common with ceremony (and dinner) made every two weeks (sometimes “thweeks,” depending on the calendar). I am used to a place where East, South, West, and North are not just directions. They are the compass by which I oriented my life.drum circle

I am used to a place where drums of all kinds, mud, face paint, masks, a two-hundred-by-160-foot elliptical ritual space, and a lovingly tended Fire Circle are integral parts of ceremony.

Not only that, but this is a place where Divine possession is the order of the day. Where my passion for religious ecstansy and mysticism can live side-by-side with religious naturalism and atheist environmentalism.

How am I to reconcile these ways of relating intimately with the Ultimate with the biggest, most powerful UU Pagan-style ceremonies I have attended–writing wishes on flash paper and lighting them from the chalice or, at best, an eight-inch cauldron? Or folding origami cranes to share or–and this one is, to be fair, quite lovely–regular labyrinth walks?

How am I to reconcile the practice that shaped my heart, soul, and sense of Divinity with the neck-up practice I find in the great, great majority of our congregations, whether fellowships, societies, or churches?

I don’t know.

I just don’t know.

CUUPS is marginal at best, and in many congregations and UU communities, definitely viewed askance. In the fellowship to which I first belonged, the CUUPS group comprised mostly cis-women who did not belong to the Fellowship and weren’t interested in joining. They knew where they weren’t really welcome and where thesilver bowl with foot, as a chalicey could get at least a taste of some kind of Paganism. They came to the building, but they didn’t come to the Fellowship.

Not only is CUUPS marginal in the larger UU community, but the ceremonies I’ve observed have been tepid at best, and disorganized and appropriative at worst.

While I am a member of CUUPS and I respect much of the work being done by the Board, I haven’t been to a CUUPS or Pagan-UU ritual in a while because honestly, it hasn’t seemed worth my time to risk a lukewarm experience.

Part of the problem is something we UU’s have over and over again:  We (and I use “we” advisedly) try to include everything but the kitchen sink. We call Directions with invocations that don’t resonate with one another under the guise of “inclusion.” We invite white people claiming to channel indigenous elders into our ceremonies. Our ceremonies are far too often egregiously appropriative and divorced from community. It’s not just burning sage and playing djembes I’m talking about. For better or for worse, those actions are now standard issue in Pagan ceremony by white people.

My thing, though, is that at bottom, folks simply aren’t trained to make powerful ceremony. It’s another version of our not having worship associates who understand worship or hosting services that are more lecture than liturgy.

Furthermore, I’m not sure what to do about it. I know that when I’ve made rituals in UU congregations, they certainly haven’t been my best.

What can be done indoors in a sanctuary full of pews, or even full of chairs that are cumbersome to move? I mean, I’ve done full-on, no-mic, voice-projection Quarter Calls in interfaith services with pews, but it’s a commitment.

My ordination included the Five-Fold Blessing, but it was considered notable and extreme. Many of us say that we honor the spark of the Divine within each of us and yet a ritual action honoring just that is extreme.

Some of you are saying that I’m doing the equivalent of complaining about the government and yet not voting. (Which I consider totally valid, by the way.)

Some of you—rightly so—are saying I’m yearning after a past I can no longer have.

Some of you are saying I don’t even have a ball to take home.

I’m trying to explain why I essentially took my ritual ball home a long time ago.

I’m trying to show how many Paganisms there are among us, and how some of us long both for the intellectual rigor of UU contexts AND the sheer power of transformative, psycho-emotive ritual. Ritual that changes people’s lives.

Is there a space for both these things?

And is it a UU space?

I’m going to continue to explore issues like these, issues of authenticity, magic, transformation, and power in my weekly loveletter, Reflections. Curious? I invite you to sign up! Reflections is a place where I write intimately and (I hope) thoughtfully, about the spiritual life, practice, awareness, discernment, and other fun topics like Shitty Rough Drafts (thank you, Ann Lamott).

five-fold blessing


"I was just wondering about the connection between ritual and UU Service yesterday. My UU ..."

Pagan Ritual Lessons for UU Services
"thanks for once more taking something that was there, nebulous, in the back of my ..."

Waking the Wild
"I see no realistic chance that humanity will engage this problem on the time scale ..."

Is It Too Late?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I hear you. Denton CUUPS tries to do better. We don’t always succeed, but we usually do. There are two main reasons.

    The first is that if we do a ritual in a given tradition, we do _that tradition_. If we’re doing Wicca, we do Wicca. If we’re doing an Egyptian temple ritual, we draw from Egyptian texts (they left a bunch!) – we don’t do Wicca with Egyptian Gods. If we’re doing a Celtic polytheist ritual, we’ll pour offerings to Danu and Brighid and Morrigan, not The Goddess. Inclusiveness is a good goal, but not if it turns everything into mush.

    The second thing is that we aren’t afraid to tell our non-theistic UU friends that yes, we work magic and yes, we believe the Gods are real, in any way you care to define “real”. Everyone is welcome at our public circles and there is no creed to recite, but the ritual is going to be written and presented with the expectation that the Gods will show up… which They usually do.

    Of course, it helps that we have a core membership that takes all this seriously and puts in the work to make it all work out… and it IS a lot of work.

    UU Paganism can be done well. It needs to be done well.

  • And I wrote this a couple years ago about why I’m still a UU.


  • This warms my heart. Thank you.

  • Jerrie

    Okay…breaking years of being cautious or quite in response to blogs!

    I think this dynamic is present due to the lack of training UU ministers have around many aspects of Paganism. The hymnal makes it easy to appropriate and ministers are not aware of what they are creating. In my new church I participate I find this at times sad and in my own congregation the ministers always called and dialogued with the CUUPS members to see what would work. I think CUUPS chapters and members have as much of a responsibility to train ministers and congregations in Paganism as best as they can and ministers have a duty to continue their education, stretch and step outside of their own comfort zones to bring forth services that are more authentically Pagan not weaving cultural traditions of Native American world into something like that Starhawk says.

    What I do like about being a UU Pagan or Pagan UU is that it is up to me to create my own balance and support others in finding their own. My rituals in the CUUPS chapter I led for 13 years were not tame for the most part especially on the Sabbats. We even brought new traditions into the congregation such as Samhain rituals on the Sunday of that holiday and Beltaine rites with Maypole dancing. It saddens me when adults stand around thinking children are the ones who should dance the Maypole and it is too silly for them. Still grappling with how to make a difference there in my new congregation.

    I don’t expect ministers or congregants to do things “right” in creating a Sunday services that is Pagan based but I do think it is imperative to reach out to those who have the knowledge.

    I know the power and sound of a ritual with drums loudly blasting and bagpipes blaring in a 1807 sanctuary in a church in New England that the likes of Browning, Ballou, Channing and so on spoke in. These are places build usually by Freemasons! IT IS MAGNIFICIENT!!! There is nothing like it even in an open field! There a collective of power comes forth that bridges many theological areas of thought and presence. As I write this the memory chills me to the bones!

    I personally look forward to CUUPS Convocation this year in a church that has its roots in the Puritan Church and Salem Witch Trails of 1692. Holy moly! Catherine it would be great to have you there! I hope you will join us. Rev. Amy Beltaine is creating workshops for UU Pagan/Pagan UU ministers and UU ministers of all beliefs to come and learn! Rev. Shirley Ranck will be there too!

    CUUPS from my vantage point is still young and the work being done with the UUA and others is increasing in a way it never has in my tenure with the organization.

    Thank you for dancing the skinny branches of this conversation and discourse. Together we all can be the training agents, the change we hope to see! Blessings to you!

  • I’m so glad you wrote. Does my heart good.

  • Thank you so much for your writing. And yes, I too have been in the presence of the Black Watch playing in a church. Un-be-liev-a-ble. Beautiful. I’d love to be at the convocation, but it won’t happen for a few reasons–health, finances, etc.–though I love your enthusiastic invitation!

    The conversations that have emerged — here and on on the CUUPS list on FB — have really helped me not feel so tightly wound about CUUPS in general and UU-Pagan/Pagan-UU ritual. There’s good stuff happening, it seems. I just haven’t seen it.

  • Wolf Dreamer

    Thank you Catharine for this post. It resonated for me on many levels. I’m not involved with CUUPS but I have been to too many Pagan rituals that fell flat and were far from emotive or transformative. I’ve been working with my local group to develop more powerful rituals and I feel like we still have a lot to learn. I think of the ancient mystery schools and wish we had more of their ideas to work with. Honoring the season is good but it doesn’t deepen our spiritual lives very much. I signed up for your newsletter and will look forward to the continuing exploration of these kinds of ideas.

  • Thank you so much, Wolf, for writing. I think we can dig deeply enough to find the Mystery within us and to make it manifest in powerful ritual. But it’s not easy, and it requres the commitment of more than one lone wolf, as it were. 🙂 And thank you for signing up for Reflections. I hope you enjoy it.

  • S Deasy

    What you are doing at Denton CUUPS is wonderful John. The local UU fellowship is open to pagan rituals. Since I moved here, (about 9 months ago) they have done two. One was very disappointing and the other was better but both were squeezed into the middle of the regular order of service. They were both “generic pagan/Wicca” which was not affective in my opinion. I know the answer is to get more involved and I may do so but I don’t get much out of the regular UU service so I don’t go often. In addition, joined OBOD last fall and am not qualified and don’t have the training to lead a public Druid ritual yet.

  • As a UU Pagan, I also experience the clumsy fit between these spiritual identities. I’m in Dallas, where many Pagan activities are hosted in UU churches. Selfishly, I sometimes wish they weren’t. Though I’m grateful for UU community-building efforts (and their sweet real estate), the partnership between UUs and Pagans always feels tenuous. UU “rituals” are too inclusive, cautious, and wordy to resonate with this Pagan. They usually leave me cold.

    So how do I weave together Paganism and Unitarian Universalism? Every time I feel that I don’t belong, I read the UU principles or the current magazine issue. And I’m reminded, “Yes, this is what I’m for.” Worth and dignity. Common ground. Constructive discussion of what’s meaningful to each individual. For me, UU sums up my social and (to some degree, political) beliefs–which are connected to my Pagan spirituality. I just don’t walk into UU churches expecting really lively or transformative ritual.

  • Rev. Clarenbach – thank you for this. I’m a UU Pagan (UU and studying Witch) who just started classes at seminary (Starr King) with the goal of becoming an ordained UU Minister in the future. I’m also beginning my first round of studies with Christopher Penczak and the Temple of Witchcraft in October. I sincerely and passionately want to meld / weave the two together in my own life, and perhaps show others the way if that opportunity arises. I was involved in a CUUPS chapter founded in my church by a group of witches / pagans several years ago, but when we weren’t quite ready to do things THEIR way, they left the church. I am hopeful that I’ll be able to find ways to bridge the gaps between UUs and Pagans in my church. I’ve signed up for your newsletter and will be visiting your blog.

  • JA Myer

    Wow this is such a good and spot on article! thank you for writing it, I have recently left my beloved UU because of these very concerns the feeling of being fractured spiritually, the UU politically is my heart but spiritually is so lacking.

  • Rebecka Clement

    I keep coming back to this article. Thank you for writing it and the work you do on the way of the river. When I first attended my UU congregation (shared space in a Jewish Temple) the ceremony was done as part of the service. It surely was not appropriate for the space. They were watching it, not participating. Now we have ceremony in the social hall after service, which is much better. Surprisingly, my experience with other congregation members has been very positive in regards to paganism. It is a small congregation. Maybe 40-50 people show up on any given Sunday. The first time I offered to do a ceremony half of the congregation stayed after service for it. That has remained the trend. It’s been a great mix of men, women, straight, lgbtq, and just people of mixed backgrounds. This is a blessing. Anyway, I do feel that sometimes a ceremony feels flat spiritually. I definitely get something at a UU church that I don’t from some of the pagan spaces I inhabit. I get a better sense of community, people show up more, and we do a lot in regards to social justice. Although, in my personal pagan practice I am much more spiritually connected than at church. I love both and embrace both. If you have any links to more topics like this I would be grateful. Also, I am always interested in tips and trick for a better UU ritual, especially with larger groups of people. Thank you, you rock!

  • I know this is a bit of an older article, but I’ve just stumbled upon it…and YES! My husband and I are both Pagan and we are both UU, and are raising our children in both, but we are not Pagan AND Unitarian Universalist. I’ve often said to my husband that I felt like UU was spirituality for my brain and Paganism was religion for my heart…and I think this post explains why perfectly.