Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Flexibility of American Religion

As part of my American trip during my sabbatical to the 2016 Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Studies I took part in a tour of local Unitarian Universalist congregations. The conference was in the Minneapolis/St Paul area and so we were taken around several UU congregations in the Twin Cities.

We visited the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis:

If you look at the main external picture here you will see the words "Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one."

This might seem to be a surprising thing to find on a Universalist church (though it is of course classically Unitarian). But that's because the building used to belong to a Jewish synagogue. Certain features like that still looked fairly synagoguey including Stars of David at the end of each pew.

We were told that the Universalist church bought this building, while simultaneously selling their old building to a different synagogue.

We were also shown a Roman Catholic church.

This church was originally a Universalist church in the nineteenth century. The Universalists then sold the building to French Canadian Catholics as they started coming into the area. It is still a Catholic church today, but no longer French-speaking. The basic structure of the building though was built by the Universalists.

Later on that same trip I visited our partner church, Spindletop Unitarian Universalist Church in Beaumont Texas.

They had just a few months ago moved into a new building that has previously had a lot of different secular uses. They're just settling into their new home. For a while they had no building of their own and worshipped in an art studio space.

All this made me think about the flexibility of American religion. How American congregations don't seem to think much of selling one building and moving to another one, even if it's several miles away. A building serves them for a while, and then it no longer serves them any more, and they sell it and buy another building.

Although I know this does happen in the UK, it doesn't seem to happen quite so easily. Americans seem to see congregations as societies of nomadic people, capable of moving from place to place. Whereas there's something in the British psyche that tends to see churches as part of geography, like mountains and rivers. They have always been there and they always will be. They were pagan sacred places and then a thousand years ago a parish church was built on the spot, and it continues to be part of the sacred geography.

There are advantages and disadvantages of course to these attitudes, but I thought they were worth noting and musing upon.


Meanwhile I might just put some more pictures of my trip to Convocation here as well:

Me giving my talk.

Keynote speaker Rosemary Bray McNatt, talking quite a lot about British Unitarians condemning lynching of black Americans more than America Unitarians did.

First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

Unity Church, St Paul


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