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COMPASS ROSE: THE UU SAN MATEO BLOG

By What Authority?

Benedictions … a few good words from your Minister Rev. Ben Meyers

from the archive, March 2020

In the early ‘80’s, when I first became a Unitarian Universalist, I read a book by Marge Piercy, a UU herself, entitled Fly Away Home. In her novel, she has a character talk about introducing religion to their children by saying:


“The girls had been raised Unitarian (Universalist), which seemed a nice, sensible compromise between having no religion at all and having to lie about what we really believed. Enough religion to be respectable but not enough to get in the way.”


From the viewpoint of traditional, orthodox religion, we UU’s are a strange lot for many reasons: Because we don’t profess specific beliefs, or follow prescribed practices; And we don’t follow conventional definitions of what is holy; Or prescribe creeds or professions of faith. In short, we are not what religion is supposed to be, in conventional terms. So it is generally thought that ours is not a real religion…certainly not something important enough to ‘get in the way’ in living our lives. This can make it difficult for us to describe or explain our faith and difficult for people to put it in context to what they understand religion to be.


But, the truth is that it is fairly easy to address those misperceptions and misunderstandings about our different approach and practice as a religion. It just requires a change of context about what religion is and could be in people’s lives. I believe when we delve more deeply into Unitarian Universalism’s different and liberating approach to spiritual life and practice, we not only understand ourselves better, but become better able to articulate just how we differ from what most people think religion is and introduce them to another way—one not based on beliefs, methodologies and creeds, but on the practice of living from values, principles and covenant.


For instance, most Fundamentalist-leaning religions insist on the primacy and inerrancy of scripture, e.g., the Bible, or other holy writings, and claim them as a central source of religious authority. Clearly, we don’t, as these beautiful words written by the Unitarian poet Walt Whitman proclaim:


“We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine; I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still; it is not they who give the life—it is you who give the life.”


My colleague, Lisa Doege, suggests:

“These lines sum up … the Unitarian Universalist attitude toward scripture and religious authority… Our lack of a single authority, scripture, or authoritative law, calls us to do the demanding, often subtle, at times confusing, at times exhilarating work of examining each text or idea…. We refuse to accept something as true or even good, simply because tradition or someone else tells us it is so, we must instead learn to read carefully, to listen closely, … to know ourselves more deeply and more fully, so that we might hear our heart’s reaction to and our mind’s experience of the idea.”


But we do not do this alone, isolated, in a bubble. We do it in community, with other seekers. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal, in 2013, defined authority as “the ability to influence and bring about growth and change in an institution, or the ability to block and derail growth and change in an institution.”


This definition of authority has led us to a more collective locus of authority: that of Covenant. The ability to offer genuine influence among us is the heart of covenantal leadership. Within an institution like ours, it is the model of shared leadership that prevails as the center of authority. And what defines and secures the authority in our ‘community of influence’ are our relationships with and covenants to one another. Listening and allowing influence to happen within us is the signal and sign that we are engaged in the power of religious authority as Unitarian Universalists. Simply put, covenantal religion creates Beloved Community.


Since the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961, there has steadily emerged this central and fundamentally different change in the way in which our religion is practiced: we have moved from a sense of the primacy of one’s individual belief system to the power of Beloved Community, based on covenant. Not that the responsible search for truth and meaning does not begin with the individual or isn’t important… but it doesn’t end there… it leads us to an understanding that we live not by ourselves alone… that we belong to one another… and that our salvation, our strength and our power lies in the communal… as individuals coming together to covenant in love for the transformation of life.


These two sources of religious authority; Love and Covenant, guide us in our mission, vision and purpose as a religious community and as an association of congregations in covenant with one another.


They haven’t always been at the center of our religion, but as we continue to learn and grow and mature as a pluralistic, ever-changing, living tradition, we must learn to know and speak about what is central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. As we do, we will move forward into our future plans to renew, reconstruct and rebuild both our spiritual home, and to better identify, articulate and expand our circle of loving embrace.


See you Sunday,

Ben