Thursday, February 20, 2014

What's In a Name?

As the UUA has rolled out it's new logo, I've seen a number of places where folks have asked if we should consider changing our name.  Unitarian Universalism is a mouthful.  And it refers to old theological arguments that don't have a lot of relevance to some of our members.  For example, Tom Schade asks the question: "The biggest question of our public presence is should we try to build new congregations and liberal religious communities under the name 'Unitarian Universalism' or under more post-denominational language?"

When I was in my first year of ministry, I arrived at a church that was in the midst of a discussion about name change.  It was a new church that had started with a name that many understood to be a temporary one, but others understood to be the permanent one.  The congregation met and discussed and polled and came up with some top choices that were names like "Harmony Church."  After much discussion, it was time for a vote.  And by a narrow margin, they kept their original name.

My own church has members who every so often remark upon the idea that "Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty" is a mouthful.  There are other problems with the name. "East Liberty" refers to a school district that no longer exists; our mailing address is Clarklake, and the nearest city is Jackson.  (Our former minister, the late Rev. Ruth Smith used to say "East Liberty is a state of mind.")  "Church" is a problematic term for some, and may turn away people from non-Christian backgrounds -- a reason why "Society" and "Congregation" are used by so many other UU congregations.  "Universalist Unitarian" is designed to highlight our Universalist heritage, but it confuses many people who are familiar with our denomination. 

I think it's highly unlikely that Unitarian Universalism will change it's name as a faith or that the UUA will change it's name as an association.  {And thinking about the term as both a faith and a denomination/association needs to be unpacked more than I'm doing here.  For many "Unitarian Universalism" doesn't describe their faith, only their association.  For me, it does both.  It's as complicated is untangling whether the flaming chalice is a religious symbol or a logo, or both, when used by the UUA and our churches.)

Back in 2012 Chris Walton did an analysis of UU congregations' names in the UU World.  At that time 756/1054 congregations used "Unitarian Universalist" in their name, and that wasn't counting the "Unitarian Universalists," Universalist Unitarian," just "Unitarian" or "Universalist" or other combinations.  These added more than 150 more.  So changing "Unitarian Universalist Association" to something else would create a lot of work for the individual churches, not unlike what we went through at merger. 

That being said, it's not impossible.  It could be done.  And I think it's the right thing to be asking the question about our denomination's name.  What does "Unitarian Universalism" mean to you?  Can you imagine a name that would be a better fit?  What would be your choice to name your faith?  How do we capture this free-thinking non-creedal inherent-worth-proclaiming love-affirming historically-rooted faith of ours in a phrase shorter than "Unitarian Universalism"?  The Standing on the Side of Love movement has captured our attention in a few short years -- are we morphing to identify more as "the Love people" than as Unitarian Universalists?  Does SSL mean more to some of us than UUA?  Back in that analysis by Chris Walton, the most common theological term in our church names was "All Souls," which was used then by 22 churches including three of our ten largest.  Is "All Souls" something that is meaningful to you? 

As someone born after merger and raised UU, I've been a Unitarian Universalist most of my life.  The term does carry meaning and relevance to me.  But UUism by any other name would still be my faith. 

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

My suggestion for a new denominational moniker:

"A Larger Circle" or "The Larger Circle"

I take it from Edwin Markham's well-known lines: "He drew a circle that shut me out-/ Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout./ But love and I had the wit to win:/ We drew a circle and took him," together with my own elevator speech: "For UUs inclusion is the highest good, and exclusion is the greatest sin."

~ Paul Oakley

David Pollard said...

I think it's a good thing that changing the UUA's name would require a bylaws amendment (well, many really) as that process guarentees an lengthy Association-wide discussion on the topic.
While I have no strong feelings about the logo change, I cringe at the process of it being isolated to the board and image consultants. It seems we've reached a place and time where even a quick non-binding poll of congregations on the logo could have taken place prior to final adoption.

Jayson Grimes said...

I'm not a Unitarian Universalist, but I certainly follow closely what this progressive and compassionate community does in the world. I am continually filled with respect and admiration for Unitarian Universalists. Often, I have contemplated formally joining, but besides the fact that I live in Europe quite far away from any Unitarian Universalist congregation, there's also the fact that I find the name unbearable. Everytime I hear the name these fantastic people have chosen to call their living faith, I am reminded of things which are quite static, that don't represent my theological/spiritual perspective and which seem misnomers for the denomination in its current state. I know in the UK they go by, Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, which I somehow like better, but still isn't great in my very humble opinion. What I have noticed however is that many congregations are called 'All Souls', so why not be totally inclusive and rename the denomination something like, 'The Communion of All Souls' or 'The Society of All Souls' after our Quaker Friends? It seems if the church is interested in gathering a beloved community comprised of souls from various faith traditions and backgrounds, Unitarians and Universalists are the only ones being represented currently. Why not embrace exclusivity? Also, the word 'soul' is abstract enough that it can appeal to the interpretations of various groups of people with varying perspectives on what it might mean. In short, I have to disagree with Shakespeare on this one, names are indeed important!