Stronger Together

Stronger Together

February 21st, 2016                     Rev. Fiona Heath

This morning I want to speak about the ways the Canadian Unitarian Council has worked over the past fifty years to help us be a truly welcoming denomination.

We have sought to draw the circle ever wider, to reach out to those shunned by other religions and let them know that this is a place of openness. From the lay chaplaincy program to being advocates for the marriage of same sex couples to supporting dying with dignity, we can be proud of our heritage of widening the circle.

At the same time, we struggle with being a small denomination, with serious limitations in our capacity to widen that circle. We have always been a tiny religion – a hummingbird in contrast to the elephants of Christianity and Islam. In Mississauga there are at least 80,000 Muslims. 300,000 Christians of all denominations live here. There are 141 Unitarians. So we are the hummingbirds. Tiny and beautiful and active.

It doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference, indeed we make far more of a difference than we often realize, leading the way on social liberation, often decades ahead of the curve.  A tiny bright little bird leading the way. Back in the 1970s, there were very few Unitarian ministers in Canada, which meant that Unitarians outside of major cities, who wanted to marry within their own tradition, could not. The Canadian Unitarian Council decided to create the lay chaplaincy program. This training program allowed the small fellowships to have a person they could call upon to offer wedding and funeral services to members.

Over the years, the lay chaplaincy program evolved into an outreach program.  Lay chaplains began to focus on outreach, offering their services to the larger community. Long before the marriage of same sex couples became legally recognized, ministers and lay chaplains would perform services of union, honouring the love and commitment of all people. These days, with the province of Ontario opening up marriage licenses to a wider variety of officiants, lay chaplains no longer have a niche in the wedding market.

But we began that trend, setting the stage for meaningful weddings to take place outside of traditional church settings.  Decades ago, we saw that people wanted to marry in their homes, in parks and at cottages, and we widened the circle of choice. Now that weddings are opening up, our lay chaplains are turning to the funeral industry. It is clear that traditional services and burial practices don’t meet the needs of many people.  So this fall, our lay chaplaincy committee is organizing a Natural Death Expo to bring together ecological alternatives.

And so we continue to widen the circle. Canadian Unitarian Universalists were at the forefront of the fight for marriage equality back in the early 2000s. Our Executive Director of the time, Mary Bennett, and various ministers, spoke at federal legislative hearings in support of marriage equality.

Youth from the Calgary congregation created the longest rainbow banner in Canada and took it to Parliament Hill.   Over 500 feet long, portions of it have appeared at pride parades across the country. The first lesbian couple married in Canada, minutes after the new legislation was passed in parliament, included the daughter of a Unitarian from Grand River.

Most recently, we supported the efforts of Dying with Dignity, the advocacy group for choice in dying which includes physician assisted death.  Our Executive Director Vyda Ng made submissions to the federal panel last year about the need for new legislation. Congregations across the country have held workshops about end of life choices and raised awareness.

We made a difference. Our spiritual community helped pave the way. And we did it together. Congregations across the country made it clear that our religious faith stands on the side of love. We are often to be found at the forefront of progressive social thought, tugging at the circle, making it wider, bringing more people in a little bit at a time.  A busy little hummingbird!

Our national body, the Canadian Unitarian Council, has helped us lead the way since 1961.In the beginning, our national body, the Canadian Unitarian Council, was volunteer run, and part of the American Unitarian Universalist Association. It was intended to be a way to keep UU communities across Canada connected.  We also wanted a national voice that could speak for Canadian Unitarianism both here and internationally.

Today, the CUC is formally our national denominational body, independent of the much larger UU Association in the States. We have a small staff and a board of trustees, of which I am one. Now, we take pride in being a religious tradition that honours the self-governance of its communities.  Democracy is one of our core principles. With the exception of Transylvania, the birthplace of Unitarianism, we have no Bishops!
We don’t have a theological authority,trusting that in conversation together, our theology will be revealed. Yet, if we are to grow and thrive and know one another, If we are to keep working at enlarging the circle, we need a central body to keep us connected.

I can’t in good conscience talk about the CUC as if it is some faceless entity beyond us. We are all, in very real, meaningful ways, the CUC. The Council is comprised of its member congregations, that is to say,
us and Don Heights and First Toronto and the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of Halifax and the Vancouver Unitarian church and all the rest of the communities across the country.

The Council exists because we are stronger together than apart. You might know of that old trick with that now obsolete thing – the phone book.It is so easy to tear one page. You might even be able to tear five or seven all together. But try to tear the whole darn thing, even the smallest directory, and you can’t do it.
We are stronger together. And so this community supports the larger whole through an annual financial contribution.

The Council depends for much of its annual budget on its member congregation’s contributions. We contribute because Council staff help congregations figure out what they need and how to find it, whether it is a truth easy to hear or not. Linda Thomson was with our UCM board just last week to help us develop a strategic plan. We contribute because the Council keeps us connected across the country through e-news, on-line webinars, regional gatherings and annual meetings. We contribute because the Council speaks for Canadian Unitarian Universalists on the national and international stages, promoting essential human rights and speaking against injustice in its many forms. We contribute because the Council holds the larger vision of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist in Canada.

This past January UCM affirmed a new mission: to deepen in spirit, to nurture community and to act for an equitable, sustainable world. Deepen, Nurture, Act: our DNA!In April, our delegates to the CUC’s annual meeting will vote on a new vision for Canadian Unitarian Universalism.  The new vision is that we seek a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice. We envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice. This vision lights the path to the future, shining its light towards a world we want, a world we can help create, that we can imagine into being.  It will help us focus our mission to Deepen, Nurture and Act.

As the Rev. James Ishmael Ford says, “we are completely woven out of each other and the cosmos itself.”
Canadian UUs can participate in the difficult, challenging and worthy task of creating a society that reflects that deep knowledge. We can work together – as individuals, as communities, as a faith tradition, reaching out to others - to create a society of mutual relatedness, one that calls each of us to love and justice.

Rev. Kathleen McTigue calls love “a force that has moved our human world toward goodness for thousands of years.” Pagan activist Starhawk says that “when a system is whole and healthy, when it is based on relationships of interdependence and cooperation that further resilience, diversity, abundance, sustainability, creativity and freedom, it exhibits what humans call ‘justice’”. We are called to live this love and this justice.

We envision a world in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice. This is the society we wish to live in, one that is intertwined with ecological systems, nourished by love, kept healthy by justice. This is the work we have been doing for the past 55 years. It won’t be easy to keep working towards this.
Religions are dying as a source of influence. People are finding community and spirituality on-line, in pubs and pretty much anywhere except within a church.

All Christian denominations are shrinking in Canada. We are too. Always small, we are now less than 4,000 people in a country of 35 million. This means our task is twofold, to continue our path to a world of true interdependence, based on cooperation and sustainability, but also to let people know about the chalice. If we don’t there may not be anyone to carry the chalice in twenty years.

We must widen our own circles through going out and sharing what we find here.Our way of being in the world matters. A society of interdependence is needed sooner than later in the face of climate change.  A society nourished by love, not hate, is desperately needed in the face of the Republican presidential nomination race.

Our way of being is one worth talking about, worth sharing. May we continue to be that brave hummingbird flying into the future, opening the circle wider and wider.

So Say We All.


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