A decade ago Unitarian Universalist Association insisted on a language of reverence. Our then president, William Sinkford, gave a sermon that we needed to embrace words that were theologically meaningful. Words like worship, sermon, church, altar, and sanctuary. Since we are enmeshed in a society that favors Christianity it seems we developed a collective allergy to using these words and came up with our own secular versions. Congregations were saying we don’t have worship; we have fellowship or meetings. We don’t have a sermon; we have talks. We don’t belong to church; we belong to an ethical society. We don’t have an altar; just a nice table for the flowers. And so on.
Reverence is a deep and almost mysterious respect for something. It doesn’t require that we have to literally believe in it. We may not literally believe in ghosts; yet we don’t disrespect the dead, for example. We honor other people’s religious traditions even as we don’t understand them. The person next to us on Sunday morning may believe in something totally different than us yet we have a deep respect for their belief, because we respect the person. Even if we know it doesn’t work for us.
Rather than try to codify language in our congregation, to say that we must never use the words ‘sermon’ or ‘church’ we should learn to respect them. We should allow people to use them if it has a deep meaning for them even if it has no meaning for us. We should act with a sense of reverence for these words and what we do. The point is not that we get into a deep semantic argument, reclaiming old words to give them new power or invent a new rhetoric that exemplifies our current world view.
The point, as Unitarian Universalists that welcome many different religious experiences, is to allow for many different words to exist in our space. For some people they will only hear a talk on Sunday morning and that is fine. For some people they will hear the word of God through a sermon and that is also fine. For some of us, we grew up in a church and always like going to church and belonging to a church. For some of us we grew up in a congregation and will always like being part of a congregation. The beauty is the difference we find in one another and our spiritual experiences, the difference in the language that we use to describe what we experience spiritually.
It is spiritually immature to insist on a supremacy of language or a certain type of reverence; to say that there is only one way to worship, one set of words to use, one Truth to know with a capital T. Of course, we love language communicated clearly and simply to each person’s spirit. However, that beauty does not need to be in the same form. Language is infinite. To revere universally is to appreciate other’s way of manifesting their spirit whether you literally believe in it or not. The deep respect matters.
To work on your own spiritual maturity, notice what words you are comfortable with an uncomfortable with in a religious setting. What raises your hackles, what sings to your soul, what do you need to transform? Think about your attachments to these words, both positive and negative. When you can hear all of the words and they do not impact you negatively, when you have your own working language of reverence that brings joy and meaning to you, then you can consider yourself spiritually mature when it comes to a language of reverence, something our own association still hasn’t quite settled on just yet.