Spirituality and the First Unitarian Church

Spirituality and the First Unitarian Church

By Allan Ainsworth

Among the first feelings that people experience as they step into the First Unitarian Church is having entered a 19thcentury New England (Georgian Colonial) chapel. Austere in its physical structure, one notices the high ceilings and windows and a rather modest pulpit. There is no cross, no Star of David, or other religious symbol such as can be found in other places of worship, but there is a very unassuming chalice on the right side of the pulpit. The chapel and its chalice exude a sense of stillness and spirituality. 

To paraphrase Paul Tillich, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century (The Courage to Be (1952), and Dynamics of Faith (1957) are popular examples of his works), spirituality puts a name to a deep inner longing, a search for a “depth dimension”, that helps people connect with that which may run deeply within themselves. Like Tillich, William James grappled with the concepts of religion and spirituality. James, a 19th century philosopher, psychologist and author of The Will to Believe (1897) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), examined spirituality and its shifting role in a world that was becoming more secular at the beginning of the 20th century. As he pondered the meaning of our universe, James defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual(s) … in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” 

Throughout his professional life James contemplated how ideas of scientific inquiry might take the place of religion. He believed that developing systems of ideas derived from science were pointing to a very diverse universe and that no one isolated thought system was necessarily true. He advocated for being open to a variety of systems of explanation. His ideas seem to encapsulate the beliefs of members of the congregation of First Church.

The church has always welcomed avowed agnostics and atheists among its most loyal membership, alongside those who may not have been raised in any particular religious affiliation, or who left their former religious teachings for a more progressive take on the meaning of worship and spirituality. Indeed, there has always been room for those who do not believe in a metaphysical world at all. Some church members in the past formed a solidly secular group known as the Humanists, who held their meetings in Eliot Hall for a number of years.

One can find former Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, Catholics, Episcopalians and Muslims in regular attendance. Some members may still attend services at other congregations in addition to being regulars at the Unitarian Church. There is an acceptance of a variety of understandings of what it means to be spiritual. Whatever the background of those who attend, a unifying attitude is that of inquiry.

Ministers prior to Tom Goldsmith’s arrival in 1987 had often been more comfortable reflecting their own and their congregants’ predilections for the head (secular), rather than the heart (spiritual), in weekly services. This dichotomy appears to have been prevalent throughout the history of the church. The Reverend Goldsmith noted upon his arrival that the pulpit had previously been referred to as the “God Box” by some congregants. It was not to be spoken from, or even approached, during services. A simple lectern, located on the chapel floor below the pulpit, was where the minister spoke. 

Indeed, many congregants bristled at the notion of traditional religious concepts, including any discussion of “God”. While there was an implicit understanding that the God Box was not to be spoken from, in reality it held a prominent physical and architectural place within the Chapel. With a change in ministers and an evolving view on the part of the membership since 1991, spirituality, in whatever form it takes for the individual, has become more prominent in regular services.

Goldsmith reflects that it took about a year for members to adapt to changes he instituted when he first arrived. He felt that the introduction of more opportunities to experience spirituality was necessary to meet the needs of a changing congregation. As he sought, with help from lay members, to focus more on the concept of spirituality, he experienced both positive and negative feedback from members. “Some of the more disgruntled members and friends who did not appreciate change referred to me as a ‘New England Episcopalian’ says Goldsmith. “It was not meant as a compliment”, he added.

There is spotty physical evidence in primary documents such as annual reports and other printed archival documents that point to a pivot in time from the secular to the spiritual in services from 1991 to 2020. The contents of the Sunday, March 10, 1991 Order of Service (a printed, folded pamphlet that is handed out before each service), for instance, was beginning to reflect a more ritual quality to the Sunday service compared to earlier Orders of Service. The Order for that day included: Introit, Opening Words, Hymn #14 (Morning, so Fair to See) a meditation, a choral response, Welcome and Announcements, an Anthem (“To Everything There is a Season”), a Reading: “The Collection” by Garrison Keillor, an Offertory, and a sermon entitled “True Believers and Troublemakers.” A hymn followed the sermon, and then a doxology and postlude. Without undue attention, the weekly Order of Service presented a ritual, a spiritual rhythm, to the Sunday services back in 1991 that is easily recognizable today.

The feeling of the Order of Service has become one of meditation and a certain calming order that congregants no doubt find comforting whether they lean towards the secular or the spiritual. At various times, the Order of Service has included notes like this one on November 19, 2000: “The prelude provides a time of peaceful meditation. Please respect the silence.”

Whether members or friends come to the service for a feeling of spirituality, humanism, or solace from daily strife, there is an opportunity to receive what is being sought. The weekly beginning of the service, the ringing of the chime – often found in Buddhist and Hindu rituals – by the music director, signals the beginning of each Sunday service. The second ritual of spirituality is a musical composition that comes mostly from classical music. The musical offering sets a meditative, reflective, tone for the remainder of the service. Then follows the lighting of the chalice, often performed by family members of the congregation.

While the printed Order of Service over the last 30 years may evoke a certain continuity of spiritual quality, the words of the Doxology have become one of the most traditional parts of each service. Goldsmith brought the Doxology with him in 1987 and it has imparted a sense of spirituality since that time. The Doxology is as follows:

From all that dwell below the skies 

Let hymns of faith and hope arise

May peace, good will on earth be sung

Through every land by every tongue. (Amen)

New interest in attendance at First Church by younger families in the early 1990s who were seeking spiritual education for their children further changed the direction of each service toward a more nuanced balance between what has been characterized as “the head and the heart” within each service. Goldsmith recalls that it took about a year or so for the congregation to get used to changes that included a more mystical and religious context without calling undue attention to the rituals.

Other changes have included the introduction of associate ministers like Silvia Behrend (1993 – 2003), who served as Director of Religious Education for her first five years and then as Minister of Religious Education. Matthew Cockrum served from 2015-2017 as Consulting Minister. Monica Dobbins (2017- present) replaced Reverend Cockrum, and currently serves as Assistant Minister. These ministers were tasked by Goldsmith and the board with increasing the footprint of spirituality not only during Sunday services but in their daily work with the congregation.

After numerous conversations among themselves and members of the congregation, Behrend and Goldsmith held a series of spiritual retreats beginning in 1993. Goldsmith, while on sabbatical, attended a Buddhist retreat that heavily influenced and deepened his own spiritual experience. He brought his increasing sense of his own mindfulness back to First Church. He had observed in his daily pastoral counseling that people were longing for something that had gone missing in their daily lives. They were, Goldsmith muses, reflecting on the delicate balance between occupation, family, and spirituality that was leaning heavily toward work at the expense of feeding spiritual needs. When work was all consuming, then family and spirit starved. Increasing a sense of spirit, as Goldsmith explains it, fed “the well stream of our being”.

Assistant Minister Matthew Cockrum came into his position without the earlier baggage of the prior humanist approach to Sunday services. Christine Ashworth states that Cockrum was brought in to “shake things up”. Cockrum was employed partially to bring a more holistic experience to the religious practices of congregants. His professional intention in fulfilling his consulting minister duties was to help members and friends of the church stay connected to hope, meaning, wholeness and purpose in their religious and spiritual lives. He studied, and then introduced, a regular yoga practice to the congregation during his tenure here.

Lay members such as Christine Ashworth, Adrienne Splinter, and Shirley Ray have brought large and influential presences to enhance the spiritual service. Ashworth, along with Splinter, are credited with introducing the Women’s Circle beginning in 2012, and Ray has brought meditation to a mix of generations in the Church. Goldsmith reflected that these additions have been appealing particularly to women in the Church today. He stated that these are clear and strong assets that fill a need that was not previously present.

The addition of the Religious Education building in 1992-3 marked an accommodation toward more young families and children in the congregation. Young children who have attended religious education services in this newer, adjacent, building have become spiritually attached to the current chapel as well.

Today, Goldsmith’s intention, with the support of past and present members of the Board of Trustees, is to have the weekly services support a sense of living a more meaningful existence that includes self-reflective and communal meditation during each service. These weekly meditations, led by Goldsmith or Dobbins, address loss, daily existential concerns and needs, and the feeding of the spirit that was deemed to be lacking prior to 1991. Both ministers’ spiritual work extends well beyond what the congregation experiences at a given service but reaches into the daily lives of the members themselves while they experience their losses, depressions, childcare issues, financial crises, and so on.

Dobbins accepted her position in July of 2017 with a clear understanding with the Search Committee that she is a Christian Unitarian Universalist. She feels (quoting from an interview on October 15, 2018) her “declaration of her spiritual beliefs makes it easier to talk to people about spirituality at a deeper level of personal acceptance.” She feels it important to re-claim spirituality in a 500-plus year Unitarian tradition that has emphasized the secular over the sacred. She sees a trend back toward the spiritual in the Unitarian tradition nationally. Dobbins credits Cockrum with laying the groundwork for her mission to amplify spirituality. She states, simply, that people in the church are not shocked at her more overt approach to spirituality.

Her efforts in her daily ministry are to get people more comfortable with Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Buddhist traditions and with the covenants that are the backbone of the Unitarian movement. These, she feels, are promises to one another in the midst of leading their daily lives. She talks explicitly about making religious promises in the present that go back to the traditions of the Puritans where the religious roots of American Universalism reside. This is in line, she states, with the Church’s direction of being more and more accepting of racial and sexual diversity.

As a lay leader, Christine Ashworth introduced classes on Unitarian Universalist theology and an earth-based spirituality. Over her several decades of membership in the church she has stressed a strong groundedness in faith. Ashworth, who is a past president of the Board of Trustees, was instrumental in creating the Women’s Circle in 2012 as a means to directly explore spirituality. As she describes it, social justice has been a strong element of the church on a daily basis but has not been sufficiently nourishing at the spiritual level for some in the congregation. There has been a prevailing feeling that big spiritual questions need to be explored. She and others have seen a need to invite women on an inward journey as well as together in formal gatherings. She has stewarded a movement within the church to continue an emphasis on spiritual growth, with the idea of holding a sacred space. 

Ashworth feels, along with others, that the Small Group Ministry and Young Adult groups provide a spiritual home to congregants that feeds the well spring that Goldsmith speaks about. She points to the weekly lighting of the Chalice at the beginning of each service as a moment of connection to the history of the church as well as an intentional honoring of the ritual itself – and end of the service when the chalice flame is extinguished. These are all threads in the tapestry of the church as she sees it.

The church’s High School group has traveled to the Hopi and Navajo Reservations, among other places, and have witnessed firsthand the spiritual connection that Native Americans are perceived to have with the earth. This has inspired them to share this awareness. John Shavers has introduced mystical spiritualism in his ongoing book group. Harold Straughn has held bible study groups on spirituality. Adrianne Splinter has been an influential leader in the Meditation groups that reach beyond the official membership and into the greater Salt Lake community. Some long-time members of this group are members of other area churches but find spiritual solace in these gatherings.

Shirley Ray cites personal influences prior to 1991 that affected her devotion to a spiritual life that first began in New Hampshire and then in Arizona. In New Hampshire she was introduced to Buddhist philosophy and did spiritual work that ultimately led her to introduce meditation into First Church on a regular basis in the form of a Buddhist sangha. Ray reflects that this has been an arduous process, primarily due to competition for a dedicated quiet space, to conduct the meditations inside the church building. As the church has grown, so have its needs for meetings and other events throughout the building that has precipitated competition for regular, weekly space to hold meetings.

Spirituality, as mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, can be appreciated by the spectrum of members and friends of the First Unitarian Church in any way they understand the concept, whether or not they are religious. The beauty of this congregation, circa 2020, is that both the sacred – or spiritual – and the profane – or intellectual – can be appreciated by all who enter the church through shared rituals. This is what makes up the community of the church circa 2020.

In interviews with a number of church members concerning spirituality, the overarching sense of the conversations involved people searching for a fulfillment of spiritual needs that they had not found elsewhere. First Church connotes what it means to explore what matters in life. Members are tolerant of both intellectual and spiritual experiences. An open approach to spirituality, they feel, allows them to explore meditation, yoga, and mystical books in addition to the writings of writers such as Paul Tillich and William James in their personal searches for spirituality. They feel they have found a church that honors participatory interaction in their explorations. This interaction is anchored in the common goal of social justice that includes room for a variety of possibilities in exploring spirituality.

[Proofread by TH, 10.4.20]