What’s in a Name? The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups there is an acronym KISS that stands for Keep it Simple Stupid. But in the Unitarian Universalist church we don’t do that (or at least not all the time.)

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote Shakespeare BUT have you ever tried to teach a preschooler to say the name of our church – the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church? To quote Shakespeare again, the words do not come trippingly off the tongue. If you have ever tried to teach our name to a youngster then you can understand that this business with names is more complicated than the bard suggests.

This morning Bob Porter has asked me to preach a sermon about why we should change our congregation’s name. Our name is a mouthful. So, this morning I am going to honor Bob’s request and make a powerful persuasive argument for why we should change our name AND for no extra cost I will tell you why the very prospect fills me with a nameless dread.

Here’s another way to say the same thing. Once a complete stranger came up to me and said, “”Do you know the difference between Unitarians and Baptists?” I took the bait and answered no. “In the Baptist church when the preacher really gets to preaching someone may shout Amen or Hallelujah whereas in the Unitarian church when the minister really gets to preaching someone may shout out Bullshit!

So today, it is my goal to preach a persuasive sermon arguing that we should change the name of the church but if you object (and one hopes that you will be more diplomatic that story suggests) no one will be happier than me.

As a former Sunday school teacher I totally get how cumbersome our name is especially for the very young. Indeed when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged into one denomination in 1961 they entertained other options. Some names considered were The Liberal Church of America or the Council of Liberal Churches. In the end, it turns out both the Unitarian and Universalist congregations where too attached to their distinct historic names leading to our current denominational name the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

This name creates a paradox because as Unitarian Universalists we like to say that “ours is a religion of deeds not creeds.” Ours is a non-creedal tradition. The reason we do not have a creed can be summed up in the words from a conversation between Michael Wohlfahrt and Benjamin Franklin. When asked why his church did not have a creed Wohlfarhrt replied, “we are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should print our confession, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.’

Benjamin Franklin would later write of this encounter, “This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong.”

So for similar reasons as stated the Unitarian Universalist Church does not have a creed or a doctrine that can be used as a test for membership BUT our name involves to two specific theological positions. Historically, the word Unitarianism is an affirmation of the oneness of God in contrast to the doctrine of the Trinity. Likewise Universalism is an affirmation of the universal salvation of all souls in contrast to the idea that some souls will be damned to hell for all eternity.

I believe it was Alfred North Whitehead who once said that “Unitarians believe in one God at the most.” Here’s the problem with the word Unitarian, in every congregation I have served there have been people who have told me, “I am a Trinitarian Unitarian,” Similarly, there is always someone who says, “I am a Unitarian atheist.” Because I am a Unitarian minister I honor such independent thinking. In other words, as your minister it is not my job to limit the scope of your thoughts.

The same principle applies to the word Universalism. Many people will think outside the box of these two historic theological positions and it is not my job to try to prevent this from happening.

Thus we live with a paradox. The name for our noncreedal tradition seems to imply we do have a creed or a doctrine. Contrast this to the names of other denominations like Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, none of which have any doctrinal connotations but are all about organizational structure.

Another problem with the name Unitarian Universalist is that it means we are sometimes confused with the Unification church or the “moonies” or the Universal Life church which is an on-line church that sets a low bar for leadership including a place on the website where you can “Click here to be ordained.”

For all these reasons the name Unitarian Universalist is a problem. So now let’s take a closer look at the word church. In the Unitarian Universalist Association not every congregation calls itself a church. According to the UU world magazine almost half (474) use the word “church.” Just over a quarter (273) say “fellowship,” while 146 use “congregation,” 104 “society,” and 58 “parish.” Thirty-four use “community.”

The word church can be an obstacle if you are coming through our doors from a Jewish upbringing or Buddhist or Muslim or humanist or some other tradition that does not use the word church. The word is a reminder that although ours is a free faith we do have our roots in the Christian tradition otherwise we might be the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Synagogue or the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist mosque or Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Sangha or ashram or temple or pagoda. So by using the word church we do identify with a particular tradition from which our free faith emerges.

So these are some very good reasons for changing our name. It’s a mouthful. Our name is an albatross around our neck. It’s a curse. It’s a vexation. It is hard for kids to say. People mistake us for other faiths. It does not accurately convey what we believe and think to the world. Add to this the trend that many church are distancing themselves from denominations or their denominational names by choosing names like One Life or The Table or All Souls. And so let me state categorically that it is imperative that we change our name.

Now let me tell you why the prospect of changing our name fills me with a nameless dread. Many years ago I serve a church that decided to undergo the process of changing their name and it was during this process that I learned it is possible to take offense at every conceivable name that you can imagine. I learned that the word church was too traditional, the word fellowship was sexist because it had the word fellow in it, the word congregation too formal, the word society to abstract which eventually left us with the word community. Thus we chose to be the Hopedale Unitarian Universalist Community – but the truth is even the word community was not universally popular. One argued it made us sound like a subdivision or a condo complex.

The process was more excruciating than I can possibly communicate and it took forever. And while the congregation was leisurely debating its name it was almost completely neglecting it’s long range planning process and establishing goals and objectives and missing opportunities for social action and outreach.

And it occurred to me that this whole process of deciding a name has an adolescent quality because it focuses on the questions of identity, “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our purpose?” BUT once we have a sense of identity then we are focused on being who we are, knowing why we are here and taking action to fulfill our purpose.

And let me make it clear here at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church we know who we are, we know why we are here and we are actively engaged in fulfilling our purpose. Of course, there is a paradox here too. I often say “At our church we know exactly what we believe even though we may not be able to explain it to you.” But I do believe our beliefs are nicely summarized in the words we say each Sunday,

Love is the spirit of this church,
And service is its law. To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another,
This is our great covenant.

We have freedom of thought and common values. Earlier this year I got a call from a reporter when I was travelling out of state who asked, “Is it true your church is hosting the local organizational meeting for the Woman’s March in Washington DC?” I told the reporter that I was driving and I would call back when I pulled over somewhere safe. So I pulled into a parking lot and called the church office and asked, “Is it true our church is hosting the local organizational meeting for the Woman’s March in Washington?” And the answer was, “Yes.”

I tell this story because it illustrates that here at TVUUC we know what we are doing even when we don’t know what we are doing. Our congregation has roots in the suffragist movement. We know who we are, why we are here, what our purposes is, so much so that we can act decisively when the minister is out of town or out of touch.

We can show up for a march for refugees on Market Square on a Wednesday at noon in large numbers with our churcg banner in the air on almost no notice because we know who we are. We know why we are here. We know our purpose.

Here in Knoxville the name Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church means something. When I was a brand new minister I would walk into a room somewhere in the community I was immediately given more respect than I deserved because the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church means over half a century of commitment to civil rights, it means a spirit of resistance to segregation, Jim Crow, bigotry and hatred. Our name means a spirit of resistance to sexism and discrimination everything that belittles, undermines and oppresses the sacred worth of every human personality. Our name means that fear will not silence us nor hate crimes deter us for we will meet hatred with love, fear with courage, prejudice with understanding, hostility with goodwill, chaos with community.

Here in our community the name Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church really means something and I am unspeakably proud of what it means. We are not a perfect community. We are a progressive community, which means we are a church in progress, always growing, always changing, always learning as we go.

I would go so far as to say that the abbreviation TVUUC means something. In most cases the use of an abbreviation obscures the meaning of an organization. For instance it is common in our city to shorten the term Vacation Bible School to VBS. Once a member of this church drove by a congregation that had a sign out front that gave the dates for their “Vacation BS” Just one way an abbreviation can be a problem.

But here in our community the abbreviation TVUUC means something. The term TVUUC is a brand. If you say it people will know what you mean. So while I wholeheartedly agree with Bob Porter on all the reasons we should change our name I also believe that ours is a name to be proud of. And when I say that ours is a name to be proud of it’s not just bullshit.

Of course, I also agree with the bard, that rose by any other name would smell as sweet and just as Romeo was willing to give up his name in order to be with Juliet I would be willing to give up any name that was an obstacle to love and say as he did, “Call me love, and I’ll be new baptized.” Or we can say together to each other, “Call us love and we will be new baptized.”

But just in case you think it is impossible for us practice simplicity let me share with you something I learned from watching Jeff Mellor teach our preschool class. He would begin the class by asking the kids to repeat after him some opening words that he would break down into bite size pieces.

“Here we are/at the Tennessee Valley/Unitarian/Universalist/Church/with our friends/and we hope/that one day/all the people of the world/can be friends.”

Which just goes to show that when we try we can keep it simple.

(This sermon was preached at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 5, 2017 by Rev. Chris Buice)

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