Religious Terrorism meets Religious Liberalism

Brian Kiely:

An excellent example of living our Principles into the world. It’s also a good reminder that our congregation (every congregation) has a plan in place for handling an intrusion like this. Many years ago I remember attending a service in San Francisco which was disrupted by a disturbed individual In that case as well, the minister graciously stopped the service, spent a few minutes with the man, arranged for a further meeting after the service while ushers respectfully led him to a safe place where they could begin to help get him the care he needed. Nothing makes me prouder that seeing moments where our UU values are put to the test and come up as more than adequate to the situation. Bravo, NO UU’s.

Originally posted on And the stones shall cry:

This past Sunday, something pretty scary happened at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans (First UUNO).  Operation Save America, a fundamentalist anti-abortion organization that is known for descending upon abortion clinics and making life a living hell for anyone coming or going, chose to land in one of our congregations.  Several members of OSA showed up at First UUNO as if there to attend worship, and during the service stood up and began verbally accosting the worshippers and pushing anti-abortion pamphlets into their hands.

I don’t think they were prepared for what followed.  That Sunday, First UUNO was commissioning the College of Social Justice youth leaders who had been gathering all week.  The youth leaders immediately circled in and began singing.  Rev. De Vandiver, a New Orleans-based Community Minister who was leading worship that morning, asked the protesters to please respect the worship space and if they couldn’t…

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Pride: Parade and Interfaith Celebration

Saturday, June 7 about 40 of us marched in the Pride Parade.  If you missed it, there is a clip of us passing the Media Stand on the UCE Facebook page. You might have to scroll down a bit.10423839_10203213026679566_9107738674686155921_n

The next day at Churchill Square, Rev. Audrey Brooks and I were among a host of participants offering insights, wisdom and prayers at the First Annual Interfaith Pride Service, backed up by the combined voices of Chorealis and Edmonton Vocal Minority (pictured)


Here is what we offered.

A Unitarian Pride Prayer

Brian:  The Unitarian Church of Edmonton has been a friend of the Pride Movement since before it was a Pride movement, since before the acronym LGBTQ was even coined.

Audrey:  In the 1970’s our minister at the time, Rob Brownlie encouraged our congregation to support Gay and Lesbian people and so we started holding pot-luck dinners and dances so these marginalized folks would have a safe place to meet.

Brian: in 1974 Rob performed our first same sex wedding – called a Service of Union – and we have been doing them ever since.  Nationally our Unitarian Church raised a strong liberal religious voice for getting same-sex marriages legalized in Canada.

Audrey: Since the 1970’s LGBTQ people have openly held every office available in the Unitarian Church in Canada including congregational leaders, ministers, Lay Chaplains, Religious Educators and national President.

Brian:  The First of the Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles we honour affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  To us that means EVERY person

Audrey:  We are proud to be allies of the pride movement in Canada and around the world, so let us pray:

Brian:  Spirit of Life, as we gather in our wonderful city’s public square celebrating Pride, let us first give thanks.

Audrey: Let us give thanks for all that has been accomplished in the past 40 years.  Let us be grateful for the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement who had the courage to speak out, often at great personal risk.

Brian:  Let us be grateful for the allies who joined them in declaring hate and prejudice to be wrong.  Let us be grateful for the legal minds who set aside personal prejudices and determined that the law of human rights must apply to everyone equally and without reservation.  Let us be grateful for the political leaders and the police who choose to see people – not Gay and Straight people.

Audrey: And let us acknowledge that the struggle is far from over.  As long as there is hate, as long as there is bullying of LGBTQ teens and adults, as long as there are places in the world where being different is a threat to life, then Pride must keep marching.

Brian: Spirit, help us not grow too comfortable with our victories and our progress.  Help us remember those who are still trapped in places where their rights are not honoured and their lives are not safe, both here and abroad.  This week let us celebrate, but let us not forget that next week there will be work to be done…by all of us.

Together: Amen


Gathering the National Clan

It was the yearly gathering of the clan…about the 28th or so version I have attended. The Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) Annual Conference and Meeting happened over the May long weekend, this time in Montreal. But today I will just speak to the Friday business meeting and not the conference itself.


So what goes on? Well, there are reports of course, and the receiving of financial statements, the passing of a budget in principle (a largely balanced one) and elections – though they are never contested. Being a Board member is a lot of volunteer work. New members are usually recruited by a hard working Nominating committee.

But the meat, if you will, usually falls into two categories: new national initiatives and social justice.

Last year there was a huge report on democracy and transparency within the CUC that was well debated and adopted almost in its entirety. This year we learned about plans for implementation of that report and approved a board work plan (see below).We also approved the budget in principle and heard some extensive discussion about the staff plans for the next few years. Most exciting will be the development of communications platforms and opportunities to better connect Canadian UU’s. (See the funding t-shirt photo item after this column!)

Passive Surveillance Urgent Motion
There was one an urgent action item (that means that it’s ‘breaking news’ and could not fit the regular resolution timeline. Read it here:.

The motion objected to the “pervasive surveillance” news that broke in January. Essentially the government is making warrant less requests for private telecommunications info to the tune of millions each year. This is deemed legal even though there is no Parliamentary oversight. It is a challenging issue: balancing national security versus of right to privacy. There was some discussion but overall a great deal of support. It passed easily.

The surprise debate!

The surprise debate came over what is typically an easy vote. The CUC has a study process where a team of volunteers sends out information about an issue for study. From the feedback is developed a proposed justice resolution.

Usually the creation of these study groups is a no brainier, a fait accompli, a near unanimous vote to go ahead. Not so this year!

The issue was Palestinian-Israeli conflict. You can read the proposed resolution here: resolution

The actual call for a study group was benign enough, but the supporting documents were seen by many to be heavily pro-Palestinian. The perceived imbalance was a cause for concern. The other issue that got raised had to do with a larger question of should we be expending limited volunteer resources on a question on which we have little chance of having an effect when there are so many significant social issues to address in Canada.

The debate was long and passionate. There were many who perceive a call to action on any injustice we see must be done. Others equally argued that this was likely to be divisive in many churches even as we discuss it.

In the end – in a nice procedural move -the motion was suspended without vote in hopes that a better approach be crafted. Why a nice move? It was clear that there was too much division and concern about the way the proposal was written. Few wanted to defeat it, but even fewer wanted to pass it. So it was suspended by an over 2/3 vote. This suggests it was the best solution. To make it better the ‘leader of the opposition’ rose to make a lovely short speech in tribute to the good hearts and good intentions behind the proposal. Loud applause ensued.

This is democracy in action. It’s messy, passionate, heartfelt and even hurtful at times. But decisions get made given the best information at the time.

See you in our beloved church

Religious Conviction and Choice

“Can you speak to some first and second year medical students about abortion and strong religious conviction?” Sometimes my job offers interesting opportunities.

The request came from the Medical Students for Choice club at the U of A.  About a dozen of them gathered in late April for a lunch time conversation.

Of course I revealed that I do in fact have a strong religious conviction on the issue.  I have long supported a woman’s right to choose and to make decisions about her own body.  I base my stand in part on our Principles. I have felt that way since back in the early 1980’s when we were marching in defence of Dr. Morgentaler’s clinic in Toronto.  Naturally others with different religious values can and do take a different view.  That’s fine.

But the real conversation was about the limits religious conviction must have in the public discourse and the making of both law and hospital practice.

For example, my religious belief in choice (grounded in our Principles) does not allow me to insist that any given physician should be forced to perform a procedure against their conscience.  Indeed, if I believe in choice, I have to concede that a doctor may choose to refuse.  No problem, especially in a city like Edmonton where there are a lot of doctors.

But what is the responsibility of a faithful physician of any stripe to their patient seeking an abortion? Doctors today must seek ‘informed consent’ before any procedure can take place.  The consent part is clear enough.  The informed part can be the challenge.  I suggested that the physician’s responsibility was to provide the full range of options to their patient no matter how they felt about those options.  That’s a professional obligation, one in which personal belief should play no part.

To me that means that a willing service provider should be discussing options other than abortion, just as an unwilling doctor must be open to referring a patient to another doctor.  The religious belief of the doctor (or any health care provider) cannot be a factor in determining what information will or will not be shared.

In the same vein, I also suggested that some of these young people would no doubt be in a position one day to set hospital policy.  It would be unethical for them to use that power to block the provision of services that are legal and covered under public health care.

But the richest part of the conversation came when we discussed the emotional needs of the whole patient.  We shared some case studies that showed clearly that few women decide to abort lightly on in a cavalier fashion.  The doctor needs to respect the process that led to the woman’s decision.  It can be emotionally torturous and isolating.  It is a decision that lasts a lifetime no matter how ‘right’ it might be for that woman.

The physician’s personal views are irrelevant, and trying to influence the decision one way or the other can be emotionally hurtful.  And since their professional obligation is to the total well being of the patient, they have to be willing to treat the emotional need as well as the medical concerns.

Any physician who abandons compassion is not acting out of sound religious values, for all faith teachings are grounded in compassion.

“The difference between a good physician and a great one,” I concluded, “is not technical competence, but their compassion and concern for the complete needs of their patients.”


Including Christianity in our Search

A couple of weeks ago our choir Chorealis offered a remarkable service revisiting the Lord’s Prayer in words and the 23rd Psalm in Music.  It was beautiful and well done.  The service was entitled, “A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning: A Case Study”.  I began with Chorealis Co-Director Karen Mills offering this personal reflection and issuing a challenge to the open mindedness of UU’s.  It bears reprinting.

You can see the entire service at our UCE website. – Brian

Reflection by Karen Mills

When I first came to UCE, about 24 years ago, one of the very first conversations I had was with a (then) matriarch of the congregation. She asked me about myself and I said I played piano and was interested in music. She replied, almost with a warning tone, “That’s nice dear, but we DON’T sing.” Hmmm…. that bugged me.

One other thing I noticed over my first few visits was that any time words like spirit, prayer, soul, or what might be considered “spiritual language” was used in a service, there was an immediate, physical, negative reaction from congregants. Eyes would roll, arms would be crossed, and there would be harrumphing. If the Bible was quoted, the eye rolling would change to glares. That never happened with readings from any other source.

Now, these words were usually uttered by a guest speaker. But, if the minister or a member or the congregation did use them as part of the service, they immediately apologized or couched it by saying something like, “or substitute the word of your choice.”. Hmmm… that REALLY bugged me.

It bugged me not because I have any particular affection for or connection to biblical language, but because this behaviour seemed to be such a complete contradiction of the very principles that the congregation advocated so strongly for in every other situation.

Here was a group that publicly and adamantly advocated for diversity and tolerance.

Here was a group who held open-mindedness, seeking for truth and meaning, and the inherent worth and dignity of every human as their unifying bond and duty to uphold.

These were the values and principles that drew me to UCE. But why did they only apply if the person or source was anything but Christian? How could you have a free and responsible search for truth and meaning if you rejected one of the most influential and wide-reaching sources – Christianity – out of hand?

And why did I keep coming back?

Well, the answer to that last question is easy; I’m made up of about equal parts of optimism, naïveté, and stubbornness. If I see something I think should be changed, I’ll either charge in to change in – not really thinking about the consequences or details until I’m well into the thick of things – or I’ll trust that reason will prevail and people will change to my way of thinking ☺.

And, I really liked the people. They were interested and interesting. Their curiosity was insatiable. They truly wanted to make the world a better place.

So, with a lot of encouragement and support, I started organizing some singing. And, as it turns out – we do sing!

And as I got to know the people in the congregation, I found the answer to my question about the reaction to Christian sources.

Through conversations, I learned that it wasn’t so much the words themselves that they were rejecting, but the associations that came with those words. Many in the congregation at that time had painful experiences in Christian churches. They were told not to question. They were shut down if they offered a differing viewpoint. They were shunned in their communities and workplaces if they questioned the church or the Bible. More than one person told me that if they didn’t belong to a church, they couldn’t have been promoted at work. It’s hard to imagine now, but that was the world as it was in the 50s and 60s. And there weren’t many other faith communities for them to seek out. And if they were gay or lesbian, the rejection was even more severe. So UCE became their safe haven and longed-for community where they could finally question and discuss and be with like-minded people.

It appeared to me that, as a way of coping with the hurts from their pasts, many sort of “threw the baby out with the bathwater.” Any Christian references were simply rejected. But, in rejecting the “biblical packaging” they lost any of the wisdom that might have been inside the package.

All of us do the same thing, in different ways. Perhaps we’ve had a bad experience with a co-worker – after that, it’s hard to hear their ideas and feedback with an open mind.

Or maybe we attend an event that features a speaker with very different political leanings. Can we set that aside effectively enough to really hear them and see if there is something in their message that may have value for us?

To me, this is the “responsible” part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are called to consider every source and weigh its potential and only then can we reject or accept it.

And then, when we do find a message that has meaning, can we reframe it in a way that makes it more palatable to our ears, minds, and hearts?

Can we really do this? I believe we can. In fact, I know we can, because I’ve seen it. And here’s where the “case study” part comes in. Just from my story this morning, you can see that this congregation has changed. As new people joined and new ideas were put forward and some of the old hurts became less intense, our collective outlook changed.

We’re much more open to “spiritual” language now.  We’re more open to looking at all sources for wisdom. This was most recently illustrated by the high attendance at Brian’s course on Jesus this past fall.

And I think this shift is great; but it has taken 20 years. Can we speed it up? (In truth, I’m made up of equal parts optimism, naïveté, stubbornness, and impatience.)

Well, I think we can do that too. Being open-minded was the first step. Now, if we become more adept at taking the wisdom we find and “packaging” it in a way that speaks to us, acceptance may come more quickly and we can start incorporating that wisdom into our lives more easily.

So, here’s part two of the case study. This morning, we’re taking two classic Christian texts – the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm (The Lord Is My Shepherd) – and showing how different composers and authors have adapted their messages into packaging that better suits their own needs and styles. We hope some ideas will strike a chord with you and open doors to new meaning in old messages.


What Do You Do All Day, Dad?

“So what do you do at the office, Dad?” asks my younger daughter.  If you venture down the office hallway on Sundays after church you might have noticed that my office has become one of her and big sister’s favourite hangouts.  I guess she is naturally curious about what goes on there when she isn’t using it.  As often happens in our home, I am about to give her a much longer answer than she actually wants…preacher’s disease, I guess.

While I like my office very much and like writing and researching there, my actual work seldom requires that I be there.  It’s a switched on world.  Give me a laptop or tablet and good wifi and I am in business and connected.  But the questions does stand: what does a minister do outside of Sunday services?

I am blessed with work that is delightfully varied and even unpredictable.  This week, forIMG_2443 example, I spent the morning working with Bryan Reid and John Turvey disassembling our scaffolding and rebuilding it in the Sanctuary so we could switch the platform lights over to long lasting, environmentally gentler LED bulbs.  Then I had my weekly check-in meeting with Linda, our Administrator.  In the evening, I was back for wedding appointment followed by a planning meeting for the Fall Gathering in October.  The next morning I was at the Catholic Pastoral Center in the morning for a meeting of the Interfaith Coalition on Homelessness Steering Committee.  In the late afternoon I worked with Audrey Brooks to host a visit from the Edmonton Interfaith Center for Education and Action and presented a session on Unitarianism.

IMG_2432In between those fixed points on this week’s calendar I would e-mail and our church Facebook page, followed up on a couple of people with medical procedures and arranged a home visit and a coffee date with congregants.  With no sermon to write this week, Chorealis has the service, I will try to get ahead on the next couple of sermons in April.  Last weekend was marked by getting to some of the historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission meetings and the Sunday night rally (after t’ai c’hi at the church).

But to draw back from the calendar a little, what is the job of ministry?  A century or so ago a teacher named Niebhur defined the four roles of ministry: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet and Priest.

The Preacher label is pretty easy to define.  That’s the part that takes place on Sundays, but also anytime I get a chance to teach or promote our church or our faith either in our building or in some public setting.IMG_5139-1

The Pastor role comes into play whenever I get to listen to or talk with the members and friends of the church.  Being a sympathetic ear or someone who is willing to celebrate the high moments of your lives, that’s being a pastor.  Having coffee or a phone conversation about your life and your concerns, that’s pastoral.  Increasingly even e-mail chats and text messages have become part of that role, and surprisingly effective with some people.  I have never billed myself as a professional counsellor and to be honest, I think this might be the role where I am weakest.  But I do my best to respond to every call that comes my way.

The Prophet is not a fortune teller.  Rather this is the ancient role of truth teller.  It is the act of calling a people back to their best selves, back to their beliefs and Principles.  Social IMG_2437Justice services are prophetic in nature.  That’s kind of obvious, as is participation in things like the Pride Parade and the TRC rally on Sunday.  But committee, Board or Congregational meetings can also call on the Prophetic role (from me or others).  How so?  Sometimes  tough decisions have to be debated and made.  It is important when tension rises to recall why we gather as a community, to consider the Principles that underpin our connections with one another.  Sometimes my experience and training can be useful.

The Priest is the function that comes into play when we touch our ritual lives.  Rites of Passage like weddings, memorials and child namings are obvious cases.  UCE offers more of a ritual life than that.  We light the chalice weekly and share Candles of Care and Connection.  We have Blue Christmas and the Mitten Tree and Flower Communion and the Blessing of the Pets.  These are rituals.  All of that is part of the Priestly role.

In every case, the people of this church fill these roles for one another at times.  I surely do not own the roles nor am I even the best person in every case.  But it is my job to try my best to see that these functions are met.

But for all his wisdom, I think Niebhur missed a fifth ‘P’.  Laughingly I call it Plumber.   Sometimes someone has to help change lights, or shovel snow or rearrange the chairs or proof read the newsletter, or find some information for a committee.  Sometimes, I’m the one who is here and able to do them. There are a lot of daily and weekly little administrative tasks that need the attention on top of the work Linda does for us in the office.

So, my darling daughter, that’s what I do at the office.

Or perhaps to shorten it to an answer you might prefer, I write and read, I talk and answer email, I meet people who are happy and who are sad and let them talk, I help plan things around the church and I prepare services.  And sometimes I move the chairs, and yes, kiddo, I would love your help with that.


Fun? In Church? Yeah!

In March we held our Annual Fellowship Dinner. Just for fun the Board chose the theme of a 50’s Night. They encouraged costumes, booked the right kind of music, and we served up a culinary take on TV Dinner meals. It turned out to be one of our largest crowds ever for the event with about 40 people choosing to wear costumes. We ate, danced and hung around enjoying the company for several hours. We had fun…in church!SONY DSC SONY DSC

I was recently chatting with two program staff members from the Canadian Unitarian Council and talking about the dinner. “Fun is becoming important in church again,” they said. What a thought! They told me that around the country the traditional forms of adult education classes, circle groups and formal events are being rebuilt around enjoying the company.  It’s not that we have lost respect for the value of traditional programs – they still have their place.  We just seem to be in an age where the emphasis is shifting to something more communally focused.  “Having fun is a way to remind us of what it means to be human together,” they said. In an age when we are pulled in so many directions something that is just fun with other people is kind of a relief.

It was a bit of a revelation. The funny thing about people who give voice to revelations is that they are often pointing out what already exists, but that you (or maybe just I) hadn’t noticed.

ShirazIn the last little while we have been almost accidentally adding fun to church. Religion on Tap, our ‘pub ministry’ is growing in popularity. But now Shiraz and Lauren Kay have added Sunday afternoon t’ai c’hi classes – open to all.

tai chi



Our young adults get together for fun events. Will Adair has started a Sunday afternoon UCE Discusses group, and the Bread Throwdown put on by Kathy Stanley and Liz Cloutier sold out in no time. Even the Board has embraced the practice of getting together for a pot-luck agenda-free dinner once in awhile. Chorealis always has been good at having fun, as has the children’s programs. And there was the Fellowship Dinner, of course.

The thing is, ‘fun’ is not to be confused with ‘frivolous’ – though there is nothing wrong with frivolous. What this trend teaches is that people today don’t want church to be heavy or ponderous…at least not always. Whether it’s a work bee or a class that teaches or a service that inspires it does not have to be heavy or solemn. That doesn’t seem to suit the age in which we live.

More importantly, it makes being together the most important aspect, whether it’s learning together (as opposed to listening to a ‘teacher’), doing something useful together, planning together to just thinking about church or spirit together. Fun is one kind of glue that holds community together. And when we have learned to laugh and relax together, it makes it a whole lot easier to cry together and embrace when those hard times comes.

So, let’s have fun! …in church