Unitarian Universalist Provides a Home for Seekers; Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Even Atheists Attend the Church

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Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

As Unitarian Universalists, Jacksonville residents Kay Olliff and Jim Dwyer believe every human being is divine, that the search for truth is sacred and that fellowship and community are essential to their spiritual journeys.

But that is where the similarities between the two pretty much end. Olliff, 65, is a life-long Unitarian who identifies with the historic Christian roots of the liberal denomination, while Dwyer, 45, is a former Southern Baptist-turned-pagan who looks to ancient Egyptian religion for answers to life's big questions.

Yet they are both members of the same congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary today.

As a pair, Olliff and Dwyer symbolize tension and harmony that defines the Unitarian Universalist Association and the local church founded in 1906 by Duncan Fletcher, a one-time Jacksonville mayor and U.S. senator.

"We can have our differences and still have our fellowship," Dwyer said of the mix of pagans, Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics and others who belong to the church.

CHRISTIAN ROOTS

The congregation's anniversary comes years after Unitarianism left its Christian origins for a more eclectic, humanist-based spirituality. Church members, ministers and scholars say the denomination is held together by an appreciation for questioning theology and tradition rather than agreeing on it.

"Holding the community together is no easy task," said the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the 200,000-member Unitarian Universalist Association.

Unitarian Universalism traces its roots to the Protestant Reformation and has been part of the American religious scene since colonial times.

The evolution of the Jacksonville congregation, together with home-bound fellowships it has spun off in Mandarin, St. Augustine and more recently in Fernandina Beach, has followed that of its denomination away from a Christian church.

The church always had a reputation for being on the liberal cutting edge, said the Rev. John Young, minister of the church.

It had women ministers in the 1930s, supported Civil Rights in the 1950s and '60s and has embraced gay and lesbian rights, Young said.

The church is growing, Young added. In 1999 it had 180 adult members and 20 children, compared to today's count of 300 adults and 80 youths.

JESUS: SON OF GOD?

Also growing is the variety of spiritualities in the congregation, he said.

There are pagans, Wiccans and all other manner of New Age practitioners who worship beside atheists and agnostics.

Some members were raised in purely secular homes while many others are refugees from Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and other world religions.

"We have several Buddhatarians," Young said, describing Unitarians who embrace Buddhism.

There is still a place for Christian Unitarians in the church, Young said.

"Our view of Jesus Christ was that he was modeling the principle that all people are children of God," Young said. "It isn't that Jesus isn't divine, but that you're divine too."

But "God" is a term being used less frequently in the tradition. It's often used interchangeably with "life force," "creation" or "the creator," Young said.

"Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer," says an affirmation read by worshippers every Sunday.

"That's as close as this congregation gets to a creed," Young said. …

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