Who Do You Say We Are?

Transcript of Sermon by Rev. Melora LynngoodFirst Unitarian Church of Victoria

March 2, 2014

Near the end of Jesus’s life, so the story goes, he is said to have asked his disciples about their understanding of his ministry.  “Who do you say I am?”
I use the question to ask all of you about your understanding of our shared ministry here, the work we all do together in this congregation, “Who do you say we are?”
Recently, questions have come up about our name, the “First Unitarian Church of Victoria.”  Do we want to keep that name?  Does it accurately reflect who we are?  Does it welcome in everyone who wants to be here?
Whether or not we actually change our name, the conversation is important.  How do you understand who we are and what we do as a congregation?  Who do you say we are?

Let’s talk a bit about names.
Names are the vessels by which we carry and convey parts of our identity.
Names say who we are as unique individuals.  Names indicate to whom we are connected– whether by historical relationship, as in the case of a surname passed down through generations, or by relationship of choice, as in the case of a surname that is shared in marriage.
A name can be given to you by someone else or it can be self-selected.  A first name that is bestowed upon you by a loving mother can carry the love of that relationship.  My own name, Melora, feels distinctly me, and also has, around it, a soft happy sense that ‘I am my mother’s daughter.’  People who are actually named after their relatives might feel this even more strongly.  If the parental relationship is not a good one, or if the name given just doesn’t fit, some people will change their name, sometimes as an active rejection, sometimes as an indication of some change in identity, a new chapter, a spiritual awakening.  I had one friend who changed her name after a mystical experience, and another friend who changed his name to better reflect his gender identity when he transitioned from female to male.
A last name too can be given or chosen.  You can inherit a last name from your parents or in-laws, or you can choose a new one.  When friends of ours got married, instead of hyphenating their inherited names, they chose ‘Spring’ as a family name, an appropriate choice for their new beginning.
When Shana and I got married, we wanted our family name to reflect a little of each of us.  We tried blending our last names.  Mine was “Crooker” and hers was “Goodwin.”  But we didn’t think anyone would ever hire us if we were the Reverends Goodcrook.  So, we used my middle name instead, Lynn.  Lynngood.
The thing about creating new names is that while they may feel like a better description of who you are, or who you aspire to be, new names can also have the effect of cutting yourself off from your history.  I think that may be one of the reasons people sometimes look down on someone who creates their own name – the accusation is, “you just made that up!”  like a made-up name is less real, less valid.
I myself couldn’t let go of my dad’s and granddad’s name entirely, since I wasn’t preserving any piece of it in our new last name, I kept “Crooker” as my middle name.
Think about your own name – first, middle, last.. You might want to share with one another at coffee hour – What is the story behind each of your names?  How have your names changed over the course of your lifetime?  What do each of you names say about your identity, your history, your relationships?

Turning now to our congregation… You heard earlier in our service that we were founded in 1950 as the “Unitarian Fellowship of Victoria,” then, when we got a minister, we became the “Unitarian Church of Victoria,” then when a second congregation was founded in Victoria, we took on the title, “First.”
Two years ago, we created and voted on our mission.  Now, we are doing the work of living our mission – welcoming everyone who wants to be here into our two fold striving:
transforming ourselves – through personal and spiritual growth, – and
transforming the world — through compassionate action
Put another way, we are striving to live as our best selves- in our personal lives and in the larger world.
As we have reflected on our purpose, it makes sense to consider as well our identity– and the identity we convey through our name.  Does our name say who we are– who we want to be?  Does it welcome people who would like to join us?

Let’s take a moment to do a little meditation on each word, one by one.
Breathe in, breathe out. If you feel comfortable doing so, Close your eyes.

How does the word make you feel?
What associations are stirred up in your mind?
What does the word “First” say to you about who we are?
What do you think it says to others about who we are?
How does the word make you feel?
What associations are stirred up in your mind?
What does the word “Unitarian” say to you about who we are?
What do you think it says to others about who we are?
How does the word make you feel?
What associations are stirred up in your mind?
What does the word “church” say to you about who we are?
What do you think it says to others about who we are?
Of Victoria
How does the word make you feel?
What associations are stirred up in your mind?
What does the word “Victoria” say to you about who we are?
What do you think it says to others about who we are?

Still in a reflective stance, take a moment to notice what stood out for you in your meditations on these words.  Did particular words stir up more intense feelings than others?  What else did you notice?
When you are ready, come on back.  I invite you to bring your reflections to one of our two Listening Circles on this topic – either today’s, from 12 to 1pm in the Farmhouse Common Room, or the one 3 weeks from now on March 23, after service in the Lion Hall.

The word that often gets the most attention when Unitarian Universalist congregations have these conversations about their identity is ‘church’ or its possible alternatives – ‘fellowship,’ ‘congregation,’ ‘society,’ and so on.

Some people find the word ‘church’ off-putting.
Some, because they had painful experiences growing up in a church that was dogmatically narrow-minded or, worse, actively condemning of differences.  If you grew up in a church that tells you that you will go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior or that your sexual orientation is an abomination, then I can understand why the word ‘church’ might make you feel queasy.
Some don’t like the word ‘church’ –not because they have a strong aversion to it,– but simply because they feel it doesn’t describe them.  They have only known the word ‘church’ to be associated with people who are theologically Christian, people whose spiritual life is centered around the figure of Jesus.
Some people are in the middle of those two positions – they feel the word ‘church’ denotes Christians, and they have a negative impression of Christians.  They are more familiar with closed-minded fundamentalist Christians than they are with justice seeking, open-hearted, progressive Christians.
There is one more reason people are put off by the word ‘church’ – I’ll get there in a minute.

First, let’s turn to people who like the word ‘church.’  I’ll use myself as an example.  I grew up in a progressive Presbyterian church in Los Angeles, California.  I never really bought the theology- their set of beliefs; but I loved the community – intergenerational community, taking care of one another and working together to make the world a better place.
The teachers in Sunday school were nice to me. I loved our kids’ choir director, George Pegg.  I chose him to present my bible to me when I was 10.  I made good friends in the youth group.  When I wrestled with theological questions in our confirmation class at age 13, the associate minister responded with gentle patience.
As a teenager, I loved my job working in the church office on Sundays, folding the programs, making the coffee for coffee hour, being at the hub of communication, chatting with the gay African American tenor in between services (he was in the first service quartet as well as the second service big choir), taking messages for the kind and intelligent senior minister, handing out sack lunches to the homeless people who came to our door, writing letters at the Amnesty International table that was a permanent fixture of coffee hour.
I get all warm fuzzy, even now as I remember it. “Church” to me carries a welcoming warmth of home- it’s a place where you can feel at home, even if you didn’t know everyone.  In the church of my childhood, I felt like: I belonged, I was valued, and I could make a difference in the world.
The only thing that didn’t fit for me was the theology, so I was thrilled when I discovered that there were churches that didn’t require me to sign on to any particular creed at all – there were churches that would welcome me even if I didn’t believe in god.  Unitarian Universalist churches—halleluiah, and praise the lord-I-usually-don’t-believe-in!
I know there are others that have had similar experiences with Unitarian Universalism.  I know that for some gay/ lesbian/ bisexual/ transgender people, finding a church that will accept and affirm their inherent worth and dignity, a church that welcomes their whole authentic selves, has been a tremendously powerful experience.  I like that being a Unitarian Universalist allows me to say, in interfaith dialogues, “in my church, we welcome in all people – we were one of the first denominations to ordain women, to marry same sex couples, and ordain GLBT people.”  If I’m speaking to a Christian, I can frame this radical inclusion in terms of living out Jesus’ teachings about loving your neighbour and embracing people on the margins of society.

But as much as I know that using the word “church” can be a powerful tool of inclusion, I am also aware that the word can exclude.  For example, many of our Jewish friends find that, though they love Unitarian Universalism, they just can’t bring themselves to belong to a ‘church.’  I think this may have something to do with the fact that Judaism is an ethnic & cultural identity as well as a theological identity.  So even if a Jewish person rejects Jewish theology, even if he or she, for example, doesn’t believe in god, he or she is still Jewish by culture and ethnicity.  Though the word ‘church’ has some pre-Christian origins, it has since been commonly associated with Christian tradition.  So, even though the Unitarian church is radically progressive and is no longer theologically  Christian, for a Jew, to join even that ‘church’ can feel like giving up –or even betraying –one’s own identity.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have recognized this limitation of the word ‘church,’ and have thus sought more welcoming alternatives.   Of the 48 UU congregations in Canada, 15 of them use the word ‘church,’ 14 use the word ‘congregation,’ and 19 use the word ‘fellowship.’  As we noted earlier in the service, ‘fellowship’ in Unitarian Universalism has come to signify a lay-led group.
In the states, other words have been tried as well.
There is the traditional New England ‘parish’ – as in the “first parish in concord, MA,” (gathered in 1636). Not a terribly relevant word in our Canadian context.
There are several UU [-that’s Unitarian Universalist-] Societies – the UU Society of Cleveland or Sacramento or wherever.  People find that the downside of ‘society’ is that it doesn’t necessarily indicate a religious community.  Think of other societies you know – the medical organizations like the “Canadian Cancer society,” the academic groups like the “Royal Society of Canada,” the social justice organizations like the “Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals.”
A few UU congregations have chosen the world “community,” but again, that can be unhelpfully vague.
Some UUs try to avoid the issue of what to call their gathering place by just naming the people –“Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg” or the “Unitarian Universalists of West Hawaii.”  The puzzle for me there is what do you call the place?  “I’ll meet you Sunday morning at … you know, that place where we do worship.” “The class is being held at… ah… that building where the UUs hang out.”
There is one congregation called the “Unity Temple UU Congregation” but for the most part, it seems Unitarian universalists try to avoid words from other faith traditions, like ‘synagogue’ or ‘mosque’ as that may be both- misleading, and a case of misappropriation.
Of all the alternatives to ‘church,’ the word ‘congregation’ seems to have risen as the strongest.  Unlike ‘fellowship,’ congregation does not imply the absence of clergy. Unlike ‘society’ or ‘community’, ‘congregation’ lets you know that we are a religious organization.  And the word is open to various faiths.  The dictionary says a congregation is “a group of people assembled for religious worship.”  It can refer to Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Unitarian Universalists.

Who do you say we are?  What word to you think best reflects our identity?  What word would make you feel welcome, what word would welcome others?

Now let us turn to our family name, our surname, Unitarian.  This is the word that tells to which religious tradition we belong – we’re not Anglican, not United Church of Canada, nor Lutheran nor Presbyterian.  Unitarian is the name that tells of our relational identity.  It connects us to our history, our Unitarian forebears; it connects us to other Unitarians.
As a result, this term has become core to our identity.  If you tell someone you belong to a Unitarian congregation, they can google the word, and learn that you affirm 7 principles , including  freedom of belief, the inherent worth of each person, and respect for the interdependent web of existence.   To be Unitarian means that we have different beliefs, but share these common values.

Some congregations, when reviewing this part of their name, choose to include the word “Universalist.”  Of our 48 congregations in Canada, 12, one quarter, call themselves ‘Unitarian Universalist.’
If you’d like to know more about the meaning and history of both Unitarianism and Universalism, I encourage you to sign up for the course I’ll be leading on Tuesday nights, starting March 25, called ‘Articulating your UU Faith.’ For now, I’ll give a brief overview of Unitarian Universalism in North America.
Unitarianism and Universalism were once separate religious traditions.  They shared enough in common that eventually, they merged.  Most notably, both were progressive traditions without a creed. Neither Unitarianism nor Universalism asked you to sign on to a particular statement of religious belief; both encouraged its members to follow their own spiritual paths.
Unitarians and Universalists were very similar in thought, but each had a slightly different culture.  The Unitarians tended to be upper class; their ministers went to Harvard.  The Universalists tended to be more working class; their ministers were the circuit riders, the ones that went around on horseback from town to town preaching to rural communities.  Unitarians were known to be intellectual and scholarly.  Universalists were known to be more open to matters of heart and spirit.  Despite all their other commonalities, these cultural differences kept them apart for a while, but when they finally merged in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association in many ways became a more complete whole, a tradition that welcomes people from all classes, a tradition that integrates mind, heart, and spirit.
The same year that the north American Unitarians and the north American Universalists merged, a Canadian subset of those congregations, banded together to form the Canadian Unitarian Council.   The Canadians went with ‘Unitarian’ instead of ‘Unitarian Universalist’ because, by that time, the number of Canadian Universalist congregations had dwindled down to 3-  Halifax, Nova Scotia; North Hatley, Quebec; and Olinda, Ontario.  In Canada, the Universalists were subsumed into the Unitarian majority.
In 2002, the CUC disaffiliated from the UUA, so they could focus on issues particular to our Canadian context, but the UUA which consists of over 1000 congregations, still shares with us tons of resources –leadership resources, music resources, program resources for adults and kids.  Through these resources, whether we use the word or not, we absorb a good bit of the Universalist and Unitarian Universalist influence.  This includes core aspects of our identity.  For example, our 7 principles were created through a democratic process by Unitarians and Universalists and a lot of Unitarian Universalists. [Passed by the Unitarian Universalists Association of congregations in 1984/5, later adopted in a separate process by the CUC.]
Adding the word Universalist is like adding a married name, it indicates a chosen relationship.   So what do you think?  Is Unitarian Universalist like one of those hyphenated last names that is just too darn long? Or does the nickname “UU” assuage that problem?  Do you like the idea of integrating into our identity an openness to spirit, heart, and working class culture, making a more complete, more welcoming whole?  Or does the UU identity feel too American; do you wish to stand distinct and separate as Canadians?  On the other hand, perhaps you like the idea of lifting up the underdogs, the Canadian Universalists that were marginalized in the creation of the CUC, the Canadian Unitarian Council?
Who do you wish to say we are?

How about the word ‘first?’ The First Unitarian church of Victoria.  Five other Canadian UU congregations name themselves as the “first” UU congregation in their town– usually to distinguish them from a second UU congregation in the same town.  Of course, in our case, the second congregation chose its own name that makes it distinct from us – Capital UU congregation.  Which begs the question, is the word “first” important to our identity?  Is it important to tell others that we are the older of the two?  As many of you have noticed, the word does give an unfortunate shape to our acronym – FUCV.

The last word of note in our name is Victoria.  Is location important to our identity?  The First Unitarian church of Victoria is most certainly different than the First Unitarian church of Toronto.  -Or Winnipeg.  There is also a welcoming function to including location in our name.  If folks are trying to find us, especially if they are moving here from elsewhere, they will likely google ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Victoria.’  Of course, technically, we are in Saanich.  But I doubt someone moving here from Calgary would think to google ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Saanich.’  Besides, we serve people from all over the greater Victoria region – from Sidney to Esquimalt, from Oak Bay to Sooke.

What do you think? Is Victoria an important part of our name?

Some of you may be wondering – what about creative options?  Like our friends who chose the surname “Spring,” you may wonder, “hey, it’s our congregation, it’s our identity, we can name ourselves however we want!  Why not think outside the box?!” Only 3 of the 48 congregations in Canada named themselves anything aside from variants on Unitarian Universalist church/congregation/fellowship of Such and Such location:
Beacon Unitarian Church, which is in New Westminster,
Neighbourhood UU Congregation, which is in Toronto, and
our own Capital UU Congregation, here in Victoria.

The larger sample size of congregations in the states lends more examples of original names.  I’m embarrassed to say I spent over an hour pouring over the list of names – [I’m such a UU church geek,] I found it all so fascinating.
There are the names that evoke great Unitarians and Universalists – Emerson, James Reeb, Thomas Jefferson, Star King, John Murray.
There are the names that include a poetic image of their natural setting:  Prairie Circle UU Congregation, Mountain Light UU Church; Countryside Church [comma] UU; Heartland UU Church; UU Church in the Pines; Nature Coast Unitarian Universalists ; River of Grass UU congregation.  River of Grass?  How can you not find this fascinating?
There are the ones that had the conversation we are having and ended up trying to please everyone with a name that was surely too long to please anyone:  Pacific Unitarian Church, comma, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  Apparently, they tried again because their website now calls them Pacific Unitarian Church, comma, a Unitarian Universalist Community.
There are congregations that try to lift up the inclusive aspect of our identity with names like Tapestry, A UU Congregation; Mosaic UU Congregation; People’s Church UU; All Faiths Unitarian Congregation; And the many large UU congregations that use the moniker “All Souls,” an allusion, in some cases, to the inclusive message of Universalism.
There are also a few that double down on the UU identity with names like: Spirit of Life UUs, or Chalice UU Congregation.
One down side of the creative names is that, while they retain our family name, Unitarian Universalist, they tend to sacrifice the identity of location, which makes them harder to find.  I did not do a statistical analysis, so I could be wrong, but it did seem that the congregations that made this trade-off, tended to be small in number.   But who knows, maybe you could come up with a creative name so fantastic, that it’d be worth it.
So, who do you say we are?  I look forward to hearing from you in the listening circles.  Whether or not we proceed with a name change will depend on what we hear.  If a consensus starts to emerge, we may move forward with some sort of name re-creation process.  If no consensus if forthcoming, then perhaps it is not yet time.
You may recall that when we went through the mission process, I said that I don’t care as much about the particular words we end up with in our mission statement. What I care most about is that through the process, we all ponder and learn to articulate our congregation’s purpose.  I want us each to be able to answer in our own words, ‘what are we here for?’
I feel the same way about our name.  I don’t care so much about the particular words that end up in our name.  What I care most about is that through this process, we all ponder, and learn to talk about, our congregation’s identity.  How would you describe who we are, and what do the words you use   mean to you?

We say we strive to be our best selves, to live with compassion.  So here’s the spiritual task of this process – to listen to one another’s experiences with open hearts and minds, to allow ourselves to be transformed by the conversation. So may it be.

Sunday Services

Join us at 10:30 a.m. for the Sunday worship service. You can connect by phone or online, or attend in person.