Nov 23 2009
I resumed my spiritual smorgasbord with a trip to Hyannis to attempt to attend services at the Brazilian Assembly of God church on Mary Dunn Road. I pulled into the parking lot at 9:45 – having had no luck in finding the service times as the church has no website – but things looked very sleepy, so with only a few minutes left on the clock until 10 am (which I assume is the default start time for many Sunday services) I fell back on Plan B and continued north to Route 6A, the Kings Highway, and turned into the Unitarian Church of Barnstable across the street from the Trayser Museum on Cobb’s Hill above the intersection of 6A and Captain Phinney’s Lane. This was not an entirely compulsive decision as I have admired the church for many years and wanted to have my first Unitarian experience somewhere in the course of my 52 visits.
The service didn’t begin until 10:30, so I drove down to Barnstable Harbor, parked the car, and listened to an excellent 1973 Boston Music Hall concert by the Grateful Dead that featured a flawless Here Comes Sunshine/Weather Report Suite from the Wake of the Flood album. That was an appropriate warm-up for my introduction to what may be one of the most liberal of the Christian denominations, if indeed “Christian” is even an appropriate label to fix to the “UU”. Unitarianism is very much a Boston tradition – the church has its headquarters on Beacon Hill and the church is identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Unitarian minister and perhaps the foremost American philosopher of the mid-19th century along with his peer, Henry David Thoreau. When I studied 19th century American religious and intellectual history in college, the influence of the Transcendentalists on the Unitarian church made me make a mental note to check it out one day – a note that took 30 years to realize.
The Unitarian Universalist Church is a liberal religion – more a congregation of people bound spiritually than by religion – which has no overt Christian dogma or reliance on scripture. Wikipedia has a long definition, here’s an excerpt:
“Although Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions, such as Sunday worship with a sermon and the singing of hymns, they do not necessarily identify themselves as Christians, nor do they necessarily subscribe to Christian beliefs. The extent to which the elements of any particular faith tradition are incorporated into one’s personal spiritual practices is a matter of personal choice in keeping with Unitarian Universalism’s creedless, non-dogmatic approach to spirituality and faith development.”
None of this was known to me as I entered the church, so I entered with an open mind after wrestling with the front door for a few tugs until a nice woman (subsequently identified as the Reverend Dr. Kristen Harper) popped it open and bid me to enter. I took a back row corner seat in the straight backed pew, and pulled a guest card and history from the hymnal rack. The church was built in 1905, and was the eastern parish in the original Congregationalist parishes of Barnstable founded in 1646 (the western parish was the last church I visited, but that congregation is Congregationalist ((which is the antecedent for Unitarianism according to Wikipedia}). Reverend Harper, as luck would have it, posted some thoughts on how to define Unitarian Universalism on the church website last month. I suggest reading her reflection for a more personal attempt to define the “UU”.
The choir was rehearsing with great gusto as I filled out the guest card and blinked wetly with feeble eyes at the big room (note to self, need to read a basic guide to church architecture so I can show off with words like “narthex”). The podium, or altar, was simple, with a back wall displaying several bas relief carvings of a Star of David, Islamic Crescent and Star, Yin and Yang, Cross, and of course the Flaming Chalice symbol of Unitarian Universalism. No Jesus. No Virgin. No overt displays of any religion’s totems over another’s. The church was built in 1907 — replacing an earlier structure destroyed by fire in 1905 – and was designed by Guy Lowell, the architect of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
The pews filled up and folding chairs were brought in to accommodate the late arrivals. Reverend Harper rang a bell and the organ played a nice prelude of Thanksgiving hymns, including one I remember liking as a ten-year old, the classic Dutch hymn of Thanksgiving, “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.” Reverend Harper made her introduction and welcome, noting that the congregation welcomed gay, lesbian and transgendered visitors. The chalice was lit, the congregation rose, and in unison made their affirmation. A hymn was sung, then a nice communal type of ritual was performed, with the congregation rising and walking up the center aisle to the altar where each picked a pebble from a bowl and dropped it into another while giving silent thanks. I was tempted to participate, but have decided not to engage in any rituals such as communion or other altar activities out of respect for the congregants and for fear of giving offense through lack of protocol.
At the back of the hymnal was a series of readings, or prayer-like statements, known as “responsive readings” written by many noted authors including Abraham Lincoln and Rabindrinath Tagore, the Indian Nobel Prize winner. We read “To Loose the Fetters of Injustice” (I forget who the author was).
The reading was “The Arc of the Universe” by Charlie Clements and the sermon was entitled “Guest at Your Table: Water Justice,” which fit neatly into my preconceptions that the UU would carry on the Transcendentalist koan of a “sermon in every stone.” Reverend Harper was a very eloquent and persuasive speaker and rooted her message that inequities in the distribution and availability of fresh water in the Third World and among the poor in local realities of drought and water use on Cape Cod. She kept me wide awake, the Churbuck test of any sermon.
- Christ was never mentioned, nor any Bible quoted
- The music and the setting were traditional. Juxtaposed with the absence of any overt Christian trappings, the music made this an unChurch-Church experience.
- Barack Obama and Martin Luther King were cited by Reverend Harper, who is of African-American descent and who did a wonderful job quoting Rev. King’s “If not now, when?” speech
- The average age of congregation tilted to 50
- There were two dozen children and teens present
- I didn’t see many twenty or thirty year olds
- The sexes were equally represented
The parking lot had a high quotient of Mini Coopers and Subarus, this was not an SUV or BMW crowd
Next week — I have to catch up on a missed Sunday due to travel from San Francisco to Boston earlier in the month — so I may attempt a double-header this coming weekend with a synagogue visit on Saturday and a church on Sunday. Oh, and church recommendations are always appreciated. My neighbor, the Right Reverends Jeremy and Nicole are giving me some pointers in exchange for the loan of my clam rake. I will be in San Francisco over the Christmas holidays and thought I’d hit the Zen Center and perhaps Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, Glide Memorial on Van Ness or the North Beach church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio tied the knot.