The charisma of the Universalists

Over the last few days, I’ve chatted with some minister friends about the appeal of the Coptic church, particularly with respect to its antiquity, perseverance under genuine persecution (particularly lately) and the beauty of its liturgy.

And I almost decided not to mention these attributes in blog post, and I wondered why I felt that way. Which means that I should write about my hesitance.

I’ve been around Unitarian Universalists long enough to know that we add practices and make decisions without appealing to reasons or traditions. We devalue our internal logic and traditions, and then wonder why we agree on so few things and tend to follow each passing fad. Tired of hearing that Black Lives Matter or about Nepalese relief or even about regionalism of seminarian in-care programs? Wait a while. Is that right? No. Is there a better way we can reply? Perhaps.

Over all, our tendency is to look wide and abroad for answers, resources and solutions. The Copts could easily — well, perhaps not so easily, but you get the paint — join a river of borrowed influences. What we could learn from them is that a church’s history, theology and customs create systems of thought, preferred methods and particular choices. This is what we do, and how we do it. At its best, it provides a matrix to know what’s essential, and what’s not. A recently announced Coptic initiative to plant churches relies on this ability to make choices. It’s anticipating the transition from immigrant Copts to their American-born children, and possible converts. The faith, liturgy and music would stay the same, but the name (Coptic means Egyptian) and language of worship (to English) will change. The essential gifts of their church will remain the same, or at least that’s the concept.

As Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, we need a better grasp of the gifts God gives us a church, so that we can apply these to our decision-making and contribute them to others who may benefit from our experience.

I can think of a few.

  1. While most Unitarian Universalist churches are non-Christian, they do somehow create and nurture a small (but not negligible) number of Christians.
  2. We have long histories of women’s ordination, and LGBT* ordination. We have worked out some (not all) of the cultural and professional details that churches that have made this decision more recently have not.
  3. We take cues from nature, time and seasons more seriously in our worship than many. This is not my original opinion, but that of an Episcopalian musician I met who had strong opinions on the subject.
  4. Yes, well, congregational polity, which is not the sell it once was. But it’s easy to underestimate it when there’s no bishop trying to shutter your church. And with it come some skills and resources for self-reliance.

And there are surely other gifts we should own up to.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. We have a lengthy history of taking inter-faith dialog seriously when we are functioning at our best. This should not be mistaken for the appropriation we sometimes do at its worst

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