Unitarians walk together toward faith

For Unitarian Universalists, the spiritual journey is more important than the destination.

They call themselves a fellowship, a community of inquirers who reject the dogmas and creeds of other denominations.

“We believe in people thinking for themselves, connecting with their own belief system,” said Rick Koyle, consulting minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap.

“We believe in the conversation, the process,” He said. “Walking together is a metaphor we use a lot.”

The non-doctrinaire approach has found a following on Bainbridge, particularly in the 18 months that Koyle has been involved.

While actual membership has grown from 59 a the beginning of 2000 to 88 today, the Sunday services at Hyla Middle School are drawing upwards of 120 people.

As is true in so many contexts on Bainbridge, the challenges of growth are provoking healthy debate within the group.

Some, including Koyle, think that fellowship may need its own building. Others think resources are better used elsewhere.

“That’s one problem with a fellowship that values all opinions equally,” Koyle said. “It’s not easy to determine who, if anyone, speaks for the whole group.”

Local legend has it that the Bainbridge fellowship was formed by accident in the late 1950s.

The story Koyle hears is that the Unity Church – an unrelated congregation – was planning a meeting on the island.

But someone at the local newspaper mixed them up, and when the announcement was printed, it said the Unitarians would meet.

And those folks who showed up decided to start a congregation.

“The idea of an accidentally formed fellowship is really appealing,” Koyle said, “because it’s in keeping with the lightness of spirit that we treasure.”

In the spirit

“Spirit” is one of the words heard a lot at the UU Sunday gatherings, along with “light” and “love.” The generic references reflect the fact that members’ beliefs vary – some are Christian, some Buddhist, some don’t believe in any traditional sense of God.

The convergence, Koyle said, inspires “a free-form, all-embracing way to follow one’s own path.”

Sunday services reflect that inclusiveness. The hymns often have traditional tunes and themes, but the lyrics delete creed-specific references. Members informally share their experiences. The meditations and the sermon are spiritually based, but the emphasis is on rationality.

In an Easter-time sermon, Koyle talked about the biblical accounts of Christ’s miracles, particularly the stories of healing. Suggesting that those may have been spontaneous recoveries from psychosomatic maladies, he said that skepticism about the miracles may create an unfortunate skepticism about Jesus’ body of teaching.

“We can honor the miracle stories without abandoning our reasoning and our doubt,” Koyle said, “and so leave ourselves free to look at Jesus the remarkable teacher in spite of the side show of the miracles.”

On a more recent Sunday, Koyle spoke about a spiritual approach to the winter holidays.

“Think of what you most want for the holidays, then give it to someone else,” he said. “If you want family, create a family for others. If you want a surprise, surprise someone else.”

Religious education for the congregation’s children is also non-doctrinaire.

This year, the curriculum is world religions, covering Christianity one month, Hinduism another, Islam a third and others throughout the year.

One reality of such a broad-based religious education is that those exposed to it might choose paths other than Unitarian Universalist.

“That’s the trouble with encouraging people to think for themselves,” Koyle said.

“Sometimes they do it.”

Koyle only conducts two of the three Sunday services each month. The other is led by a fellowship member. The second week of the month, a Saturday night dinner substitutes for the Sunday service.

While respecting the diversity of approaches found in the fellowship, Koyle was attracted to the ministry by what he perceived as a common need for spirituality.

A graduate of Columbia Law School, he taught and practiced in the San Francisco Bay area before entering the Unitarian seminary.

“I was able to help people solve their legal problems, but there was often something left over,” he said. “I found the spiritual malaise more interesting than the legal problem.”

It was the acceptance of questions and doubts that attracted him to the Unitarian Universalists.

“I could bring all of myself – my doubts, uncertainties, aesthetic sense and politics. I felt all of me is welcome,” he said.

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