All-encompassing Unitarians beginning to draw the crowds

May 12, 1991|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Sun Staff Correspondent

BOSTON -- The roof is stained and the paint is peeling, but the brown brick church across from the Commons still boasts the best collection of Tiffany stained-glass windows around. Arlington Street Church, a pillar of the small but plucky Unitarian-Universalist denomination, also boasts one of the denomination's hottest preachers.

The velvet-voiced Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie says Sunday attendance has almost doubled during her 18-month tenure because she "feeds the heart" -- a new direction for a denomination steeped in the life of the mind.

Unitarian Universalism may be known as a haven for starchy humanists and well-heeled liberals, but growing numbers of baby boomers are changing the church's profile. And, alongside these new families filling the pews are rising numbers of gays, lesbians, Buddhists and neo-pagans.

On Earth Day, a day dear to a denomination that believes in the interdependence of all creation, Ms. Harvie reminds her flock that each of their actions has reverberations. So, too, do the members of Goddess Gospel, the morning's musical guests, reverberate. Their boisterous vocal harmonies lift worshipers from their seats, transforming the patrician heirs of the Transcendentalists into a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, hymn-singing pack reminiscent of a rollicking Baptist revival.

"I kept thinking, 'This is terrific,' " said Gabrielle Whitehouse, who spent the service in the front pew since she was not needed in her usual spot, the choir loft. "This church has taught me the spiritual practice of being open and accepting. I have come to realize everyone is the same underneath."

Such a sentiment could not have been far from the minds of the denomination's founders -- Universalists, who believed in the universal salvation by God for all people, and Unitarians, who held to the openness, or unity, of God. The two denominations merged in 1961, and their legacy has been one of the most intellectually vibrant, theologically diverse and socially active strains in American religion.

But it's also one of its best-kept secrets.

Recent polls indicate that 55 percent to 60 percent of Americans have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. That's a challenge to denominational leaders, who have launched an aggressive advertising campaign -- Unitarian Universalists don't practice evangelism -- to make their movement more of a household name.

4 Unitarian leaders say they are already on track.

Unlike other predominantly white, liberal religions -- the Disciples of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ -- which are losing members, the Unitarian Universalist Association has posted modest gains among adult members and strong gains with children for the past eight years.

A new survey by researchers at the City University of New York Graduate School estimates that 500,000 Americans identify as Unitarians.

But only 192,000 adults and children are on the rolls.

"Our biggest challenge is whether or not we are able to generate the missionary zeal to take our message to people who would be responsive to it," said the Rev. Forrester Church, whose congregation, All Souls, in New York City, has met that task -- growing from 350 to 1,400 members in 13 years. "There is a tremendous hunger for what this movement represents, but few people know about it."

What the movement does represent is best described in broad strokes -- religious freedom, tolerance, social justice, spiritual seeking, democracy, world peace, the interdependence of all creation. What it teaches and preaches varies throughout its 1,019 congregations.

Mr. Church, who is considered a conservative in Unitarian circles, says he is a liberal Christian with a Bible-centered theology. Christian Unitarians represent 10 percent of the denomination. It's more likely for church members to say that Christianity is one of many traditions they draw upon. For these ++ churchgoers, God can be the creative urge in the universe, a force in nature, or an outmoded concept.

Given their multihued spiritual palette, Unitarians agree to disagree. And that openness seems to draw many baby boomers, the generation that is wending its way back to church.

"[Unitarians] represent ideologically where a lot of baby boomers are on a range of lifestyle issues: openness to different family forms, deep anti-authoritarianism, egalitarian sex roles," said William McKinney, dean of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and co-author of the book "American Mainline Religion." "They have carved out a niche on the religious left."

The liberal-left niche also has some appeal in the Bible Belt, where Unitarianism serves as a beacon for free-thinkers and progressives.

"Some people say we're growing because this is the Bible Belt: People want a reasonable alternative," said the Rev. John B. Wolf, pastor of 1,300-member All Souls in Tulsa.

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