Crossing the Cuyahoga

There’s a saying among some Protestants that when one of their own becomes a Roman Catholic he or she “has crossed the Tiber.” Orestes Brownson, at different times a Unitarian and Universalist minister, but most famous as a Roman Catholic lay writer is an example.

What about Unitarian Universalists “going over” to the United Church of Christ? (Their headquarters are in Cleveland, Ohio, where the Cuyahoga River flows into Lake Erie.) I have spoken in the last week to four different Unitarian Universalists in different settings about plans or discussing logistics about transferring to the UCC.

Oh, I won’t say whom, even between those four. It is a sensitive and private matter after all, and frought with emotion. For a long time, “going over” left those (Unitarian Universalist Christians) who remained with another time of self-doubt and self-recrimination. That seems to be changing. But four? I’ll make five, sooner or later.

Is there something in water?

By Scott Wells

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


  1. I like this metaphor, even though it is geographically not quite right. The UCC headquarters is on the East side of Cleveland, and since the UUA is in Boston, you actually don’t have to cross the Cuyahoga to get there. But, I do like it.

    But in any event, having crossed the Cuyahoga myself, as you know, I have my own sets of ideas about what’s happening now. I think that the UCC is really what’s going on – it is seeming more and more of a viable alternative for UU Christians, given its increasing progressiveness on a number of countsand it seems to be able to provide what feels to many of us to be a more hospitable home for us than the UUA. A colleague of mine said something like (I’m paraphrasing, this is not exact at all) that beloning to a UCC church gave her the opportunity to embrace and explore the mystery of God, without having to deal with doctrine. I really liked that.

    One of the things I’m also noticing is that although there are many very progressive UCC congregations, I get the impression that they, for the most part, have not been engaging in developing, as someone put it at one point (I wish I remember who) a “theology of what I don’t like” – that process tjat seems to be endemic in UU congregations (and the UUA at large) of continually reducing what gets said and used in liturgy and worship and conversation because something insults someone (oh. like the word ‘God’ for instance). I don’t know why that is, but I find it intersting. I’m sure there are some congregations somewhere that are going through that, perhaps, but it’s just not a process I’ve at all been aware of in the UCC.

    There are at least 4 people I know right now who are seminarians or recently out of seminary that are crossing the Cuyahoga. In fact, a student I know from Starr King said to me “all PSR UUs defect.” I hadn’t thought of it that way, and he is not actually correct (I know of at least three who have no such plans.) But it’s interesting that that perspective is out there.

    And unfortunately, the more people that cross the Cuyahoga, the smaller the UU Christian Fellowship will be, which kind of has the effect of accelerating the process.

  2. I think this crossing is something that needs to be done with eyes wide open. There is no such thing as a perfect church. God knows I can find poorly done theology and bad liturgy in the UCC, just as easily as I can find it in the UUA. And the UCC’s NEW CENTURY hymnal makes me gag. But I still sometimes go to an 8AM service at a high-church (lineage goes back to the Reformed Church side of the UCC family tree) UCC congregation. And despite their hideous hymnal, I honestly enjoy getting to pray without apologizing, and taking part in Christian rituals without constant disclaimers. And that part I find liberating from the much more limiting mainstream UU approach to spiritual practices like prayer, and rituals like communion. [An irony that I find the mainstream UU approach limiting, since I often hear mainstream UU’s quip, “Universalist Christianity? That is so limiting!” But I guess one liberal’s trash is another’s treasure.] I haven’t felt this free since my time worshipping at Epiphany Community Church (UUA) in Fenton, MI. And Epiphany’s Judeo-Christian focus certainly runs counter to prevailing UU culture.

    I’ve also seen the ministers cross over to the UCC. And I’ve seen the looks of dismay from lay folk, the grief of loss among colleagues, and even the rare accusations of betraying the UU Christian Fellowship’s cause. But the transition now makes sense to me at the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual levels; when I think about what it means to follow your spiritual path with a community, where you aren’t constantly apologizing for following Jesus. [Sad when we think it wrong for the GLBT community to have to apologize, but we so seldom think it is wrong for us to require UU Christians to do the same apology dance {and there is significant overlap between the UU Christian and UU GLBT populations).

    As CS Lewis once wrote, “Christianity is one of the few things you can not do on your own.”

  3. Geography fails with “crossing the Tiber” too, as the Vatican (hill) is to the north and west of the Tiber, closer to Ol’ Blighty. I guess one crosses river to get to one’s hotel, cafes and meetings!

    As for diminishing the UUCF, I think that the “shame” associated with leaving imposes silence and that’s its own kind of diminishment. Whatever my future with the UCC, I’ll keep my UUCF membership (with plans to attend Revival this Novemeber.) And talk about it publicly all the way.

  4. On of the interesting things for me, is that there are 2-3 Chirstian UU churches in roughly the same general mileage as the one nearest UCC Church. (All of them over 70 miles though- for the record: there is also an Unity and a Friends 70 miles away too).

    I havent heard much of the shame of leaving the UUCF (cant deny it though), although I admit that I do get extremely tired (and yes cranky) at the UU bashing that I sometimes get with some ex-UU Christians who’ve turned to other denominations. I often feel like I am being chased by rabid cult deprogramers. While I understand that folks want to share their personal joy with others, I wish people would understand that some of us happen to currently like being UUs (although we might like the warts removed). * To be fair I havent heard much of that this year, but 2004-2005 gave me enough to last for years….

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