Liberation vs. Colonial Pews

First Parish in Cambridge Interior – Colonial Revival (renovation ca. 1914)

Listening to Rev. Joan Javier-Duval’s sermon at the closing worship of the UUA General Assembly, there was one word that resonated particularly deeply with me: Liberation.  Her message is a beautiful arc of what moving toward liberation can actually look like and I hope we take her challenge and continue crossing bridges to the other side.  But what does liberation look like for Unitarian Universalism?  Too often, and too easily, our energies get focused exclusively on the liberation of others.  So, I want to echo and amplify a significant part of Rev. Javier-Duval’s message, that the liberation must also be an internal ‘crossing over’.

Meetinghouse Original
First Parish in Cambridge Interior  – Gothic Revival (ca. 1870s)

The congregation of First Parish in Cambridge has an ongoing debate about getting rid of the high backed colonial pews in our meetinghouse.  These pews are not original. They were installed in 1914 when all of the New England Unitarian churches were embracing a colonial revival.   It was an aesthetic choice.  In fact, at that time the entire interior of the meetinghouse was gutted and done over in ‘colonial revival’ and the original Gothic revival decor (see image) was erased.  The congregation was trying to capitalize on something that had never been a part of the physical expression of the church building although the colonial history was inescapable in every other aspect of the community.

Today, these pews shape how we worship and how we experience our time together.  I cannot force the hand of my congregation…the church belongs to them.  Removing these pews will be their decision alone.  At the same time, I recognize that the potential removal of these pews is also a metaphor for the act of liberation that is most necessary across the wider Unitarian Universalist denomination.  Simply put, in order to liberate Unitarian Universalism we must first de-colonize Unitarian Universalism.  Intentionally, systematically and universally de-colonizing Unitarian Universalism is one step that will invite people of color, people with disabilities and people who otherwise would not have been thought of as fully human by the likes of our early Unitarian heroes, to feel whole in our our spaces our communities and our theology.

How can we cheer for the removal of Southern Confederate statues while our own congregations cling to celebrating Northern scholars and influencers who were apologists for slavery and white supremacy?  How can we reasonably invite land acknowledgement rituals in our spaces when we as a denomination never consistently acknowledge Unitarians as the theological progeny of the Puritans who were responsible for the removal, death and erasure of native people from their land and history? (See my previous post: Failure of My Faith for more on this subject.)

If we truly want to embrace liberation within our faith, then Unitarian Universalism should not get a pass in the national reckoning on histories and legacies of oppression.  Here are a few ideas for what de-colonizing Unitarian Universalism could look like:

  • Laying bare the disconnect between the colonial project and the modern inclusive, anti-oppressive movement.
  • De-centering Western religious history in what we teach, what we preach and how we practice; placing it instead as an equal in the global spiritual narrative.
  • Retiring harmful Puritan worship formats and content and/or reserving them for specific times and purposes when they are appropriate.
  • Asking white UUs to fully explore cultural whiteness, letting go of frameworks that regard people of color as problematic or the “other” to be solved.
  • Require congregations to assess their relationships with local communities of color providing them with resources, options and measures to build those relationships.
  • Rewrite the UU Principles to include the word “love” prominently along with an affirmation (not apology) of racial, religious and cultural diversity and a statement acknowledging the harmful colonial origins of the tradition.

We cannot continue to make excuses for our colonial roots if we are going to be the leader in creating modern inclusive spiritual community.  Our spiritual potential is too great and our future too important to be hampered by a brutally flawed past.  We cannot build a modern structure on the un-level surface of colonialism.  Doing so has already left the relatively new structure of Unitarian Universalism unstable.  It is not too late.  This is not cancel culture, but corrective culture.  This is liberation.  We have the opportunity in this moment of national reckoning to identify the flaws of the past, build a new foundation, and be informed by and aware of the past while placing it in its proper context.

We are not done.  Unitarian Universalism deserves a blueprint for change and a variety of actionable ways to make that change a reality. The question we are left with now is whether or not our faith is willing to be as strong in action as it is in words.  Are we willing to endure the pain of real liberation?  De-colonize Unitarian Universalism, NOW.


6 thoughts on “Liberation vs. Colonial Pews

  1. Here, here! So well put, Adam. If ever there was a time for a true reckoning for First Parish Cambridge and UUism as a whole of our history, this is it.

  2. Uh, just realized that I meant “Hear, hear!” 🙂 Though “Here, HERE” is good, too!

  3. ‘Our spiritual potential is too great and our future too important to be hampered by a brutally flawed past. ”
    Thanks for these words of hope and love.
    Let’s do it.

  4. Thank you for this! It’s incredibly useful to know that the pews– the entire colonial look of the church– is a recent phenomenon. I had felt odd about the idea of changing the pews when I had thought of them as being hundreds of years old, which was an impression I got when I first started coming to First Parish, and was not corrected until, um, today. 😛 It honestly makes so much more sense for the actual history to be much more complex– for the church have been repeatedly made and remade by people trying to claim the authority of something older. (You bring such cool knowledge of the history of the church, I love hearing about that!).

    And I’m eager to hear more about what decolonizing UU will look like. It’s sometimes hard to imagine a truly decolonized mindset, but the glimpses I get when I try make it seem very worthwhile to go in that direction.

  5. A lovely post, thank you. Our Congregation has looked at our own worship area, which is quite similar to yours except the center of the area is traditional pews. When we worship at our parish house, we do so in a circle and most of us like this format much better than sitting in a pew being preached at.

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