Of Faith: A widening of the window into spiritual life

The Reverend Jill Cowie of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha's Vineyard. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Martha’s Vineyard is home to diverse houses of worship. According to a schedule of services published weekly in The Times, more than 28 congregations meet regularly year-round. This is the sixth in a continuing series in which The Times profiles Island houses of worship.

At the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard (UUMV), the Reverend Jill Cowie begins the service with a call to worship sounded by striking a small brass bowl. It makes a sound like a temple bell. The side walls are decorated with eight small plaques by Vineyard artist Margot Datz. The plaques represent some of the spiritual wisdom of the world: ancient Greece, Islam, Hinduism, Naturalism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and Universalism (which includes a cross). Both sides of the proscenium arch carry a ninth symbol: the flaming chalice of Unitarian Universalism (UU). This is a Protestant Christian church, but it is also something more, a widening of the window into spiritual life.

The UU church draws from many traditions, including Jewish and Christian teachings which call on worshippers to respond to God’s love by loving their neighbors as themselves, but also from many of the world’s other religions which inspire ethical and spiritual life, as well as from humanist teachings which heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and from the spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life.

Some might complain that it is also something less than Christian. There is no central cross. Today, most Unitarian Universalists (UU) would reject a literal interpretation of accepted Christian beliefs such as the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus, and the Resurrection. While UU Christians would accept a symbolic interpretation of these events, most view Jesus as a moral and ethical teacher. The service is designed to welcome a diversity of beliefs, and so there are changes from more familiar Christian services — some subtle, some not so subtle. The words that refer to God are drawn from many traditions. The hymnal contains spiritual songs about connection, rebirth, and life forces, but not many of the old familiar Protestant hymns, and some of those have small changes in the words. Prayer is called “Words of Connection.” Candles are lit to commemorate joys and sorrows, but (on this day) there are no requests for divine intervention. There is a “Closing Circle” instead of a benediction. If you insist on traditional Protestantism, this is not the church for you.

Perhaps symbolic of the flexible and intellectual nature of the gathering, the pews are not fixed. The wooden chairs were arranged in rows for the service, but after the close, some were drawn into a circle for a 15-minute discussion of the sermon (“What stories have shaped your life?”).

In the first three centuries after the birth of Christ, Unitarians were Christians who didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), but in the unity, or single aspect, of God. Later, Unitarian beliefs stressed the importance of rational thinking, a direct relationship with God, and the humanity of Jesus.

In New England in the 18th century, a small number of itinerant preachers began to disbelieve the strict Calvinist doctrines of eternal punishment. They discovered from their biblical studies the revelation of God’s loving redemption of all. Universalism emerged as a Christian denomination with a central belief in universal salvation; that is, that all people will eventually be reconciled with God.

Unitarian Universalism was formed from the consolidation of these two liberal churches. In America, the Universalist Church of America was founded in 1793, and the American Unitarian Association in 1825. After joining in 1961, these faiths became the new religion of Unitarian Universalism through the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

According to the UUA website (www.uua.org): “Unitarian Universalists may engage in prayer, meditation, silent contemplation, worship, and other types of spiritual practice as individuals or congregations. Because Unitarian Universalism welcomes a diversity of belief, our congregations are made up of individuals who engage in differing spiritual practices, which can include Atheism, Agnosticism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Paganism. The Bible and its many interpretations have largely shaped our Unitarian Universalist history. Today, the Bible is used in most Unitarian Universalist congregations as one of many sources of inspiration and reflection. Many Unitarian Universalists identify with and draw inspiration from the teachings and practices of Buddhism.”

Because Buddhism is important in the lives of many of the Vineyard congregation, Reverend Cowie, who herself comes from a Bible-centered tradition, works to include Buddhist writers in her services. “The Margot Datz plaques are a little misleading, because all those religions are not dealt with equally,” she says. “The main sources of wisdom are Christianity and Buddhism. The others are drawn on, but less often.”

The UUMV has been providing a liberal religious presence on Martha’s Vineyard since 1860. Its website reports that on July 18 of that year, “a small group of men seeking religious opportunity” founded what was first called The Unity Church of Holmes Hole, Massachusetts. The UUMV has been an active part of Vineyard life both winter and summer for a century and a half. Many old Island names — Smith, Luce, Bodfish, Daggett, Packer, Tilton, Crocker — are found in the membership book. With the growth in the Island’s population in recent years, people from all parts of the United States and the world have moved to the Island and joined the society. There are 95 adults on the rolls; in addition about 18 children are active in two youth groups. The chapel on Main Street in Vineyard Haven was built in 1901.

According to UUMV church historian Sarah Shepard, 19th-century Universalist minister Thomas Starr King defined the difference between Unitarians and Universalists: “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”

Reverend Cowie puts it a little differently: “Unitarians stress the development of the self, seeking knowledge and wisdom. Universalists are more outward oriented, seeking to change the world. Both are important. One can’t happen without the other.” UU members are active in peace groups and support the food pantry.

Jack Street of Vineyard Haven contacted The Times to suggest an article on the UU Society. He is most impressed by the diversity of thought he encounters there. “I always learn something interesting,” he said.

At the service described above, Peter Palches of Oak Bluffs told The Times that he was drawn to the UU Society after feeling uncomfortable in other churches. “Here,” he said, “I don’t have to tell any lies.”