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[Chalice] Why Church? [Chalice]
Why THIS Church?

Presented September 20, 2009, by Ellen Taylor

Listen to a recording of "Why Church? Why THIS Church?"
24:51 minutes - 9.95 MB - Why Church? Why THIS Church? .mp3 file.

Opening Words:

God made so many different kinds of people. Why would he allow only one way to serve him?
- Martin Buber


The Unitarian Church of Quincy presents an interesting paradox. Most people would say we are very unlike a traditional church. Our altar is not adorned with a crucifix or star of David or any religious symbol. We do have a cross and a star of David as well as several other religious symbols over the door, all given equal prominence. We don't use the Bible any more frequently than we use the Torah or the Koran, or a book of poetry, or a work of philosophy, or a classic novel. And we don't have regular services in the summer months. But it's not like we have no tradition. There has been a Unitarian church in Quincy since 1839 and we have been in this building since 1914. We hold our services on Sunday mornings and these services include certain rituals. We employ a minister, and we mark the passages of life and death here, just as those in traditional churches do. I invite you to consider your personal tendencies to follow tradition or break from it, and your perceptions of others who adhere to or divert from tradition.

Why Church? Why THIS Church?

It has become our tradition in recent years for the president of our Board of Trustees to speak on our second Sunday back. While these talks are individually as different as the people who give them, they are generally a combination state-of-the-union and pep rally, designed to help us transition from summer break to church year.

As I thought about what I wanted to say today, I re-read the talk I gave the first time I was in this position 9 years ago. In that talk, entitled "Playing the Church Game", I discussed the evolution of my perceptions of organized religion in general and my feelings about this church in particular. I had already submitted my title for this talk - Why Church? Why THIS Church? And realized that much of what I'd said in September 2000 was similar to what I wanted to say in September 2009. While I regret the lack of a new idea, I do think the topic is still pertinent. And what I think is most important about the topic is that our choice of church has more to do with personal preferences and less to do with being right or wrong. My choice of this church does not make me more correct than my friend who chooses a different church. Or my friend who chooses no church.

In "Playing the Church Game" I recounted a conversation with my sister-in-law about what she looked for in a church and why she went to church. She had replied that her reason for going to church was to worship and give glory to God.

More recently, I was talking to a friend who belongs to a relatively conservative protestant church but who visits this church occasionally. She said she wished we held our services on Thursday evenings because she enjoys coming here for the intellectual stimulation and socialization, but feels like she needs to worship on Sunday mornings. And we don't' really do that here.

One of my aunts, who belongs to an Anglican church, told me once that her early impression of Unitarians was that the only thing they worshipped was their own intellect. I think she was referring to an academic snobbery, but I can't totally disagree with her statement. We Unitarians do revere the human capacity to think.

In all three of these conversations, the word that kept coming up was "worship." Now most people probably would not find that strange - isn't that what church is for- to worship? After all, another term for a church is a "house of worship." Even this church calls its speaker-scheduling, service-planning committee the "worship committee." But we also tease ourselves about using that term because I don't think any of us considers what we do here on Sunday mornings "worship." In fact, the focus question for the final meeting of the summer discussion group was whether or not worship is a sufficient reason for church to exist.

My sister-in-law told me 9 years ago that the purpose of church is to give glory to God. That fascinated me then and it fascinates me now. That's never been my reason for attending church.

In "Playing the Church Game", I examined what my reasons were, if not to give glory to God. At first I thought it was to be inspired and reminded to be a good person who cares for others and treats them with respect and kindness. But, I said, if that's all it was, I could probably get that from reading on my own. So if it was for something I couldn't get on my own, was it just socialization? To make friends? No, believe it or not, I have friends. I knew it wasn't the need for a minister to serve as intermediary or for others to validate my prayers, which is what I thought people used church for when I was young.

I came to the conclusion then that because we have hearts, minds, and soul for spiritual connections, and family, friends and co-workers for social connections, being part of a church congregation must be about the integration of social and spiritual connections.

The fact that we all choose to come to this church, that we covenant with one another to dwell together in peace and seek the truth in love, creates a bond among us. The social connection of caring for and attending to that bond is very much a part of our spiritual connection.

Having said that, I have to say I'm not crazy about the term "spirituality." Where "worship" is a term that conjures up tradition and old-fashioned bible-thumping in my mind, the word "spirituality" brings to mind people wearing white gauze dashikis and burning incense. (Maybe that's why my son calls this the hippie church.)

But the need for and limitations of a shared vocabulary leave me with no better option than spirituality, so let me define. I use the term "spirituality" to encompass all that relates to what others call God, the Holy Spirit, a higher power, the supernatural, and even Mother Nature.

You may have something else in mind when you use the term, just as we all tend to have different mental images when we hear the word "God." As we all know, there are as many different concepts of God in a Unitarian church as there are people in a Unitarian church. Because of those differences, we have all struggled when faced with questions about Unitarianism.

In a talk entitled The Meaning of Membership, Earl Holt, former minister of the First Unitarian Church of St Louis, discusses the variations in the thousand or so Unitarian congregations. He says:

These congregations differ from one another in a variety of ways, theologically, liturgically, historically, stylistically. It sometimes seems easier to see the differences between them than what unites them. Because what unites them is not common beliefs but a common spirit. Reverend Holt said he had preached in at least a hundred UU congregations and visited many more. And what he noticed most was this: In their worship and other activities some are more congenial to me personally than others, but none seem foreign, none seem alien. However great the differences, I always come away with the feeling 'These are my people.' It is a commonality of spirit, something intangible but nonetheless real.

I said in 2000 that a function of religion in any culture is to provide the explanations that we humans tend to need. As anyone who's ever met a 2 year old knows, we have an innate need to know "why." We use science to help us make sense of the world, but science alone isn't enough. Being able to name gravity doesn't explain its existence. So when earthly answers seem incomplete, we come up with other-worldly answers. For example, the pain we feel when a loved one dies can be so excruciating we must find a way to cope or go mad. Earthly, or scientific answers aren't always comforting. Logical maybe, but not comforting. Some people choose to cope by thinking of resurrection and eternal life. Many want to think of their loved ones as being elsewhere - in a better place, such as heaven. And regardless of what we think happens beyond death, the ritual of a funeral helps us cope.

If that is the function of religion, the function of church then is to provide a community of people with whom to seek the explanations and who find comfort in similar rituals. Reverend Holt says that although we UUs collectively have almost more committees and organizations than we do members, most people do not join churches to serve on denominational committees. Instead, he says:

They seek to be in immediate relationship with others who have religious, moral, ethical and social concerns similar to their own. Some come with particular personal needs, perhaps resulting from some shattering personal experience of trauma, grief or loss, but most come . . . out of a motivation to enlarge their life by joining themselves with others in shared commitments and the service of a larger good. They seek in the church a place to use their talents and give their gifts. They come because they want their lives to make a difference.

Those of you who have been coming here a while may be experiencing a sense of déjà  vu. On the third Sunday of September 2009 you're in church at 16th & Hampshire. Rob Manning is the minister and I am giving the Board president's back-to-church talk, just like on the third Sunday of September 2000. You've even heard bits of the same talk and sung the same hymn. It may seem as if nothing has changed. And yet . . . .would those of you who are likely to have been here in September 2000 please raise your hands? Now everyone look around. Notice how many hands are not raised. It's true that some things about this church have not changed, but obviously some have. The common spirit remains though it's a little different because there are different individuals joining with us in shared commitments and the service of a larger good, using their talents and giving their gifts here. Since September 2000, our congregation has had about a 50% turnover.

In his talk on membership, Reverend Holt says that when someone joins a church, the church itself is not quite what it was before; it is to some degree reconstituted, changed, reformed.

But we also are to some degree reconstituted. At least I have been; I guess I can't speak for the rest of you. I don't mean that I was born again or miraculously transformed from sinner to believer. I'm "reconstituted" in that participating in this church helps me think beyond myself and my own life. We're all busy and it's easy for us to get busy to the point of self-absorption. I spend so much time during the week trying to keep up with my own schedule and my children's schedules, that church is often the only hour of my week in which my mind is on something other than my own life. I want my life to make a difference. So I come here - for Rob's reminders that a young woman named Nada died in Iran this summer, for Paul Miller's suggestions to live simply and appreciate our planet, and for Chris Mackenzie's story of an orphanage in Ethiopia. I need to hear what other people have to say. I need this opportunity to join with others in shared commitment and service of a larger good.

So what is the "larger good"? Is serving a larger good different from worshipping? It is to me, though I suspect the difference may be in the semantics. I define "worship" as paying homage. To give worship or to give glory implies the object of worship receives. And receipt implies acceptance. In my mind, a deity worthy of worship would not accept. Ironically, only a deity too humble to accept being worshipped deserves to be worshipped. A deity worthy of worship would tell us to quit wasting our time and effort praising Him and get our butts to work doing something useful for our fellow man.

Some of you may remembers the summer of 2002 when the big story was the phrase "under God" in the pledge. Rob said that with all the real problems in the world, he couldn't believe people were getting so worked up about "God" in the pledge of allegiance. To those protesting inclusion of the phrase, Rob said there were more important things to worry about. To those defending it, he said, "God can take care of Himself. He doesn't need us to defend Him." And I don't think He needs us to worship Him. I think it is more important that we work than that we worship.

Of course many worshippers also work. Unitarians are certainly not the only people who join a particular church to serve a larger good. Many people see the work as part of the worship. I appreciate and respect that. I just don't see the need personally to worship.

To me, serving a larger good means working to make the world a better place. In the Unitarian Universalist context, it means doing what we can to see that our seven principles become superfluous. When all humans are treated with dignity, we won't need to say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all. When all people are free to exercise their right of conscience, we won't need to say we work toward it. When all people take proper care of our planet and its inhabitants, we won't need to say we respect the interdependent web of which we all are a part.

So . . . why church? Church meets our need to integrate social and spiritual, and to search for explanation. And for many, church provides a venue for worship. Why THIS church? The overall reason we have chosen this church is the same reason anyone chooses a particular church - we have found here people whose religious or spiritual beliefs, ideals, and aspirations are more like our own than we have found in other places. Not identical - just less different. We find commonality of spirit here, just as other people find it in other churches. More UU-specific reasons would be that we aren't looking for that worship component and that our search for explanation is a little different. We're not really searching for an explanation. I mean we're not trying to find the single correct answer. Our ideas are just different enough that we don't believe in a one-size-fits-all answer. Besides, that would be boring. In this church, we're not just allowed, we're encouraged to pose the questions and ponder all the possible answers. It's not the church for everyone, but it is a church for those who want to pose and ponder with others who see things differently enough to keep the conversation interesting. And it is a church for those who share a similar commitment to the service of a larger good. We may not have exact beliefs in common, and we may not share a common dogma. We don't even share a common definition of God. But we do share what Reverend Holt called the commonality of spirit and I know that because regardless of the beliefs of any given speaker or the thesis of any given talk, I, like Reverend Holt, always come away with the feeling "These are my people." And for me, all of THAT is why THIS church.

Closing words:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said 'Stop! Don't do it!'

'Why shouldn't I?' he said.

I said, 'Well, there's so much to live for!'

He said, 'Like what?'

I said, 'Well...are you religious or atheist?'

He said, 'Religious.'

I said, 'Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?'

He said, 'Christian.'

I said, 'Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?'

He said, 'Protestant.'

I said, 'Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?'

He said, 'Baptist!' I said, 'Wow! Me too!

Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?'

He said, 'Baptist Church of God!'

I said, 'Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?'

He said, 'Reformed Baptist Church of God!'

I said, 'Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?'

He said, 'Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!'

So, I said, 'Die, you heretic scum,' and I pushed him off.

~Emo Phillips

©2009 Ellen Taylor

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Taylor, Ellen. 2009. Why Church? Why This Church, /talks/20090920.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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