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Frequently Asked Questions

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by Marshall Hawkins


What are your church services like?

The services vary from church to church. Most last about an hour. The centerpiece is usually a sermon delivered by the senior minister. The sermons are usually thematic and rarely follow a lectionary. Ministers often preach about universal themes of life, truth and meaning. They use stories, myths and poems, as well as scripture from a variety of world religions.

Services often begin with the lighting of the chalice-the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. Brief words of reflection are usually read as it is lit, inaugurating the start of the service.

We sing from our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, which contains a wide range of traditional and contemporary songs, using gender-inclusive language. Many congregations have choirs.

Many congregations reserve a time in their services for lighting "Candles of Joy and Concern." Members are invited to come up from their pews and light a candle at the front of the church to honor an event in their lives, to share an idea, or to ask for the thoughts and prayers of the community.

After the service, most congregations sponsor "coffee hour"-a chance for people to socialize informally and to discuss the worship service.

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What do you teach children?

Our children are taught to think for themselves, while receiving guidance on moral and ethical behavior. They learn Bible stories and talk about them, allowing their individual beliefs to unfold without a dogmatic interpretation. We present them with thought-provoking themes and allow them the space to develop points of view and convictions. Our church schools often have chapel services, where children lead and participate in their own services and find their spirituality. Many churches include the children in part of the main worship service before they go to another part of the church for church school.

Children learn about the beliefs and practices of the world's major religions. They are encouraged to respect differences in theology-many even spend a year visiting other churches, mosques and synagogues in their area.

We have an award-winning, age-appropriate sexuality education program for our youth as well as a Coming of Age process that most churches use. Coming of Age is a program in which a church fosters the transition of its youth into young adulthood.

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What does it mean if a congregation calls itself only Unitarian or only Universalist?

The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961. Many congregations kept their original names after the consolidation, though fully consider themselves to be Unitarian Universalist churches. For example, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but retains its historical name.

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I've heard that Unitarian Universalists can believe anything they want to. Is that true?

No. One could not be considered a Unitarian Universalist and believe that subscription to specific doctrines or creeds are necessary for access to God or spirituality or membership in our congregations.

Unitarian Universalists could not believe that God favors any group of people based on any inherent qualities, such as skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc.-or that any group of people is more worthy of access to opportunities than any other as a result of these qualities.

We don't believe that autocratic, undemocratic or overly hierarchical systems are appropriate methods of organizing our congregations or the larger society.

We don't believe that humanity has the right or moral authority to exploit the environment or other life forms with whom we share this planet.

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What does a person have to do to join a Unitarian Universalist church?

Joining a Unitarian Universalist congregation generally entails signing the membership book of a particular congregation. By signing the book, people declare themselves part of that community. To become a voting member of the community, most congregations require an annual contribution to the church. Although some congregations are more specific than others in suggesting what they would like their members to give, few demand a particular amount as a condition of membership.

Most congregations periodically offer "New UU" classes for those considering or intending to join the church. These provide an introduction to the congregation and to the principles and history of our faith.

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Do Unitarian Universalists say grace? If so, what are some UU table graces?

That depends on which Unitarian Universalist you ask. Some do, some don't. Our congregations don't require their members to say grace before eating. As with all religious practices, the decision about whether to adopt this ritual is left to the individual.

A small collection of UU table graces can be found in the Handbook of Religious Services, available from the UUA Bookstore: http://www.uua.org/bookstore/

Here are two sample graces from that collection:

"May the love we share around this table with family and friends
renew us in spirit.
May the spirit of hope, joy, peace, and love dwell within our hearts
This day and forever more. Amen."

"A circle of friends is a blessed thing;
Sweet is the breaking of bread with friends;
For the honor of their presence at our board
We are deeply grateful."

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How are Unitarian Universalist ministers trained?

Technically, our congregations are free to call whomever they wish to be ministers of their communities. However, almost all our churches select from a group of ministers that have been approved by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA. To obtain approval from this committee, ministers must have earned a Masters of Divinity degree from an accredited theological school, completed a year of supervised internship, read materials from a required reading list, completed a course of clinical training in pastoral care, and met other requirements before interviewing in front of the committee itself.

There are two specifically UU seminaries in the United States: Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA. Many of our ministers graduate from other seminaries that are non-denominational. Both Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, and Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA, have sizable numbers of Unitarian Universalists enrolled in their programs.

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What is the significance of the flaming chalice, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism?

The flaming chalice is made up of two archetypes—a drinking vessel and fire. It is rich in symbolism as a result. The chalice represents sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love, among other interpretations. The flame symbolizes witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, illumination and more.

The origin of the symbol comes from the Unitarian Service Committee. The USC was founded during World War II to assist war refugees who needed to escape Nazi persecution. Artist Hans Deutsch drew the flaming chalice in 1941 so that the USC could have it as a symbol for official documents.

The director of the USC, Charles Joy, wrote this about the symbol when it was first drafted:

"It represents, as you see, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their alters. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol or helpfulness and sacrifice. . . . This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love."

Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the UUA. It also functions as the logo for hundreds of congregations. It is also a part of worship in many congregations -- services often begin by lighting a chalice while saying some brief reflective words.

There is no one official meaning of the flaming chalice. Like our faith, it stands open to new and ongoing interpretation and significance.

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Since Unitarian Universalists don't have a creed or doctrine, how can one describe a set of beliefs that they hold in common?

Our association of congregations has covenanted to affirm and promote seven basic principles. They can be found here: http://www.uua.org/principles.html

One of our ministers, David O. Rankin, described our beliefs in ten statements. They are:

1. We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theology, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

2. We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

3. We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

4. We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations which appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

5. We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

6. We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty and justice-and no idea, ideal or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

7. We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural products of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.

8. We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.

9. We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are open to criticism-so that people might govern themselves.

10. We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support.

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A member congregation of
UUA | SWUUC | NTUUC

Rev. Pam Wat, Minister

Thursday 21 August 2014

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