Lapsed Unitarian Universalism

This past Sunday, a person introduced themselves to me as a Lapsed Unitarian Universalist.  We didn’t get a chance to discuss this concept so I do not know what the person fully meant by this statement.  They might have simply been referring to their attendance.  The Lapsed Catholics, Lapsed Baptists I have met in the South and elsewhere tend to have moved away from some piece of the doctrine that those Christian sects teaches.  Sowhen you are a member of a creed-less faith, what have you lapsed into if your faith lapses?  

I don’t know the answer to the question entirely.  But perhaps it lies in another phrase I recently heard by a colleague of mine:  Essential Faith versus Discretionary Faith.   An essential faith as my colleague defined it is one that is held so dear that one would sacrifice for its existence.  A discretionary faith is one that can be disposed of if personal time and money is demanded elsewhere.

A recent poll indicated that there are about 675,000 people in the USA who identify as Unitarian Universalist.   Our official numbers as of 2006 indicate that we have about 158,000 members in the US and Canada.    So are all these other people lapsed Unitarian Universalists with a discretionary faith? 

I found my faith as an Unitarian Universalist to be essential to who I am.  It is part of how I identify myself to the world.  It speaks to the values that I hold dear and want to emulate into our society. 

I gave a talk on Sunday about Judith Sargent Murray based on the excellent biography by Sheila Skemp.  Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) was a woman who enjoyed the privilege her family’s prestige and social status gave her.  When she and her family embraced Universalism she lost that prestige and social status in the community.   They lost the ability to do business with people in Gloucester.  People they considered through the generations as family friends no longer associated with them.  Her faith in Universalism became a hardship for her.  Yet, this faith was an essential faith to her.  It enabled her to find her voice regarding the rights of women.   It gave her a basis from which she could discuss the financial independence and full citizenship she thought all women should have. 

Her faith was not discretionary, it was essential to her living her values.  She received support for the developing and sustaining of her values from her church community.   I doubt she could have journeyed this path alone.  

And perhaps that is the key to defining a discretionary faith.  Are you walking alone in your journey or are you somehow connected to a community of people who share your values and support your attempts to live those values in society?  

Unitarian Universalists value the independent spirit American society has fostered over the generations.  Yet, it is a value that has its corollary in community.  Without the two values, juxtaposed and in a dynamic tension likened to that tension that a belt on a pulley has in play in order for the pulley to work, the faith cannot sustain itself and grow; either for the individual or for the community. 

Here in the rural south, it is quite possible that the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation is several hours away.  Yet, a person who believes their Unitarian Universalism is an essential faith can find a community of resources to help them stay connected and to be sustained by their faith.  The Church of the Larger Fellowship is a resource for these individuals and small groups of people who find themselves isolated. 

Have a faith that is essential to living your values in the day to day.  Find a community who will support you in doing so.  You may find as Judith Sargent Murray did that having a faith that is supported by a community empowers you to live your values in society.  Blessings,


  1. Congregationalism is perhaps the last dogma in UUism. And yet statistics show that there are more UUs outside congregations than in them. One way of dealing with that fact is insisting upon the existence of CLF (which is not a “real” congregation, no matter what they say, it is a mail service and now also a podcast). Another way would be to do a reality check, be true to the liberal spirit, drop the dogma and be creative, so that nobody feels “lapsed”.

    Jaume, interesting point. Congregational polity or congregationalism is how we govern ourselves within a community setting. It is democracy at its most primal form. Humans are both a communal and individual species. While individuals can exist alone, it is often in communal settings where the human species true potential for good or ill is revealed. I believe it is the tension between the individualistic drives within us and the communalistic drives within us that allow a faith, any faith to be either discretionary or essential.

    Another interesting note is that the poll I quoted revealed that many faiths have more people identify with them than the official number of that faith. One example against that trend were the Mormons, where the official count exceeded the number of people who identified as Mormon. These other faiths do not all practice congregationalism. Congregationalism as a so called dogma cannot be then the deciding factor of defining lapsing from a faith. Thanks for expanding the conversation.

  2. I usually tell UU’s I meet that I am a “lapsed Unitarian”. This is in reference to the fact that I was once a UU but have since joined another faith (In my case Presbyterianism).

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