Unitarian Universalist leaders wrapped up their national assembly in Spokane this week by adding Native American and other “Earthcentered” traditions to those used in worship services.
General Assembly delegates called the vote the major accomplishment of the session.
The decision will encourage the 1,000 Unitarian churches throughout the country to incorporate ceremonies that celebrate nature and the Earth’s cycles into their services.
Supporters see the proposal as a way to attract African, Native and Latin Americans to the church.
Opponents said they worry the move will put Unitarians on the same level as New Agers, who have come under fire for stealing sacred ceremonies from Native Americans.
The delegates were deeply divided on the issue, which has been debated at five consecutive general assemblies. When the votes were counted, the measure received the two-thirds margin it needed, plus 14 more votes.
The General Assembly adjourned Tuesday afternoon after six days of policy-making decisions by the delegates. The vote on Earth-centered traditions was the most important action of the session.
A primary sponsor of the amendment was the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, many of whom said they were attracted to their churches because Earth-centered traditions already were being practiced in them.
Earth-centered traditions celebrate “the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature,” according to the new bylaws.
“It’s not just Native American ceremonies,” said Deborah Weiner, spokeswoman for the Unitarian Universalist Association. “It’s African American, East Indian. It’s stuff from Celtic and Druid traditions as well as pagan.”
Locally, Native Americans were hesitant to judge the Unitarians without knowing what traditions will be used.
“I respect all roads to the Creator,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the Yankton Dacotah Tribe. But she added, “When people take shortcuts and mimic other people’s religion, they lose the sacredness of the ritual.”
Some Native American traditions are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old, she said. Many are connected to a specific event or family, even a specific spirit helper.
Buzz Desjarlais, a member of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe from Montana, said he chuckles when he sees other cultures using Native American traditions.
“It is America. And people have the freedom of religion,” he said. “Some people are always looking for a better way.”
That’s exactly how Unitarians see their faith. Unitarian congregations use traditions from a variety of world religions and disciplines.
The old bylaws stated that Unitarian Universalism is a living faith that draws from many sources, including direct experience, the teachings of prophetic men and women, Jewish and Christian traditions and humanist teachings. Now Earth-centered traditions are added to that list.
Unitarians are primarily white and middle- to upper-class. As a group, they are well-educated and liberal in their politics as well as their theology.
The church is well-known for welcoming gays into its congregations and hopes to do the same with minorities.
General Assembly moderator Denise Taft Davidoff said she disagrees with those who said adopting Earth-centered traditions would make the church look “freaky and foolish.”
However, she said congregations will have to exercise taste and discretion when using various ceremonies in their services.
“In my own congregation of Westport, Conn., we have heard drumming,” she said. “In the circles I travel in, I sing a lot of spirituals and I don’t think that offends my African American brothers and sisters.”
She said congregations need to take risks if they want to attract a diverse membership. She said she hopes ministers will work with various groups who already practice such Earth-centered ceremonies.