The Decision To Leave
It’s not easy leaving a church. We stayed with the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship (KUF) for as long as we did because we valued the friendships we made there. I also very much enjoyed my volunteer duties within the fellowship, which included managing the website and editing the monthly newsletter.
Our decision to leave KUF was several years in the making. Over a period of about three years, our dissatisfaction gradually grew. By December of last year, we both knew it was just a matter of time before we would submit our resignations from the fellowship. That time came in the Spring with the selection of a candidate for settled minister.
Regarding that candidate minister, we read every word on her biography website. We both came to the conclusion that, although she seemed very qualified, and certainly very personable, she was not our minister.
The Theist – Humanist Divide
Unitarians are a varied bunch. One of the biggest challenges for any church is to balance the needs of all of its members. The biggest divide is between the theists who want a more spiritual church and the humanists who generally want a more rational, issues-oriented church. This is the so-called “theist-humanist divide”.
When we first went to KUF back in 2010, its services reminded me of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, where I sometimes attended service back in the 1980’s. In 2012, I gave a short talk in a series called “Personal Theologies” which reflected my views on Unitarianism: “A Personal Theology – Heresy and Universal Truth”. As far as I could tell, it was well received at the time. Here’s the key paragraph from my talk:
But finally, I come here to be challenged. To me, the most important avenue to personal growth is to stretch the limits of your comfort zone. I don’t just want an environment where people are unconditionally accepting of my beliefs and values. Although we should be respectful of each others’ beliefs, I believe that you honor my beliefs best by understanding them and expressing your thoughtful disagreement with them if necessary.
Since then though, a gradual change occurred. The word “covenant” kept cropping up, defining how KUF members were expected to behave towards one another. I cringed whenever I heard that word, since it was often used in a context of criticizing someone. I often heard people accuse someone of acting not in accordance with covenant.
For us, Unitarianism was losing its edge. Accord among members was being seen as more important than issues. The fellowship was shifting that delicate theist-humanist balance in favor of some sort of feel-good spirituality. And the choice of candidate minister just seemed to shift that balance even more into the spiritual end of the spectrum. This was not the Unitarianism we embraced six years earlier.
We know that many people joined KUF because of social activism. We also know that some people checking out KUF don’t stay since they didn’t find the social activism they expected.
The Wider Context
Over the Summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened. My research led to an interesting finding, that the trend to a more spiritual church was not limited to KUF. Rather, it seemed to be a more widespread trend. The decision to re-brand Unitarianism was made at the UUA back in 2012. This was described in an article in Boston Magazine called “Selling God”. This paragraph sums it up:
What UU needs to survive, he [Dave Ruffin] believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”
When I read this, it hit a nerve. After announcing our decision to leave KUF, I often told people that we left when it stopped feeling like a church and started feeling like a religion.
Another article I came across described exactly what I was feeling. At the TheHumanist.com, you can find a piece written by Michael Werner called “Regaining Balance – The Evolution of the UUA”. It’s worth reading the entire article, but here’s its conclusion:
Can humanism in the UUA be revived? I think so, but it must be led by a ministry that sees the need for the humanist lifestance to be unapologetically embraced as it once was. It will require courage and open minds to balance tolerance and reason, heart and mind. This form of humanism won’t appeal to everyone, but a return to humanism offers the UUA a chance to revive itself for the twenty-first century’s secular revolution.
To be clear, I don’t want to be seen as bitter about what happened. I still very much value my experience as a KUF member. And I certainly don’t want to burn bridges. I offer this in the spirit of the Unitarianism I used to know, to encourage people to think about their place in a changing church.