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Tuesday, January 14, 1997

Authority in the Spirit: Developing a doctrine of the liberal church.

Every Unitarian Universalist at some point runs into the perennial question: "So, Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want?" The question sometimes arises not only for the newcomer, who finds after two months of regular attendance on Sunday mornings that she still cannot pinpoint the religious vision of the church, but also for the child in the Sunday School who finds himself at a loss for words when a friend asks what a Unitarian Universalist believes. When I was teaching second grade students at the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, a little boy announced that he didn't have to believe in anything because he was a Unitarian Universalist. On one level, I suppose I had to commend him for his audacity, but the comment troubled me much more than it charmed me. Apparently the problem has troubled many other Unitarians and Universalists for more than a century. However clearly individual Unitarian Universalists understand their personal faith commitments, Unitarian Universalists apparently have no clearly articulated sense of the faith that binds them together. Some Unitarian Universalists proudly celebrate this lack of common commitment in their religious movement, but other Unitarian Universalists recognize that a tradition which celebrates only individualism has no reason to exist institutionally.

I suggest that the uncertainty about what unites Unitarian Universalists can best be resolved by articulating a doctrine of the church — an interpretation of the meaning of the participation of individuals in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Although the theological diversity of the Unitarian Universalist Association makes any kind of denominational consensus about such meaning virtually impossible, individual congregations and their ministers must develop some conception of the church and its mission. If the liberal church has a reason to exist, religious liberals must take seriously the task of articulating that reason. This task of definition gives shape and focus to the answers liberal ministers and congregations can give to the questions, What do you believe?, What do you intend to do?, and Why should I join you? In other words, the doctrine of the church formulated by religious liberals expresses the authority by which the church pursues its mission. The doctrine of the liberal church gives Unitarian Universalists a standard by which to judge the success or failure — the faithfulness — of the community to its religious vision. Without such a doctrine, it is unclear why the church should exist or why women and men should feel called to commit their lives to ministry within it.

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Posted by Philocrites, January 14, 1997, at 07:00 AM

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