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Unitarians Debate How to Talk of God

Official's call for a return to a vocabulary of reverence stirs fears among denomination's humanists and atheists.

May 24, 2003|From Religion News Service

The president of the liberal Unitarian Universalist Assn. has touched off a controversy by suggesting that the denomination needs to reclaim a vocabulary of reverence by not being afraid to talk about God.

In a series of sermons and articles in the last five months, the Rev. William Sinkford has called for a reexamination of beliefs, because current principles "contain no hint of the holy."

"I'm not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language," he said in January during a Fort Worth talk. "But I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms."

Sinkford's call has worried some atheists and humanists who fear that they may no longer have a home within the Unitarian tradition.

The Rev. Sydney Wilde, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Va., said she is not opposed to the discussion but wants to see more of it grow out of the pews, with enough room for diversity.

"It's the definition of 'God' that concerns me," said the self-described mystical humanist. "I have no difficulty with the use of that word, but I want a broad enough definition that includes all of us."

Last month, in an article in the church's UU World magazine, Sinkford responded, writing: "Many of you, I know, are bothered by the use of the word 'God.' " He said, however, that " 'religious language' doesn't have to mean 'God talk.' "

Sinkford, who was elected in 2001, said he is responding to a growing desire within the 220,000-member church for a spirituality deeper than the group's traditional anything-goes philosophy.

"The new persons who are joining our congregations -- most of them are coming in wanting to engage religion through religious language," he said in an interview. "They're not afraid of talking about God and what that means."

Although all faith groups periodically revisit their beliefs, the phenomenon is especially interesting in a church in which about 3% of congregations identify themselves as Christian. Some Unitarian Universalists predict a religious revival of sorts.

All this comes as a nine-member elected committee is examining whether the church has any unity within its theological diversity. The Rev. Earl Holt, pastor of King's Chapel in Boston, has sensed a move away from "lowest common denominator" religion.

"Whatever you want to call it, the Holy Spirit or whatever is definitely stirring," said Holt, a member of the panel.

Sinkford said that, if the church wants to be taken seriously, particularly by other faiths, it needs to move beyond the "reactivity" to religious discourse.

"For us to be more effective in that realm, we have to be comfortable with people for whom religious language is where they live," he said.

The Rev. Scott Wells, pastor of Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, agreed. Without religious language, he said, it is impossible to be a religious voice.

"If we're not willing to step up to the ecumenical and interfaith table, then we will find ourselves increasingly marginalized and could go the way of the Shakers," he said.

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