The banner in front of the Unity Church in Upper Street is sure to catch every passer-by’s attention. “Heathens and heretics welcome!”, it says in big bold letters. This phrase is not something normally associated with a church, if at all. But then, churches don’t normally have an atheist minister.
Rev. Andrew Pakula is from America and he came here six years ago to head the Unitarian churches in Upper Street and Newington Green. He earned a PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and joined the biotechnology industry. Eventually, he left his career as a scientist to pursue a ministerial vocation. Nonetheless, he remained an atheist and even anti-religious in some ways.
A common way of dividing the world is into the religious and the atheist. Here arises the conflict between Rev. Andy’s stance about faith and religion and his job. It is intriguing or rather confusing because of the whole baggage of stereotypes associated with religion. On the contrary, he said that the word religion can mean a bunch of different things and “Depending on how you use that and what you consider to be a religion, it can be quite different.”
When you look at the fundamental core of Unitarianism the fog of confusion starts to evaporate. Rev. Andy said, “I call it a ‘way’. Let’s call it a way.
It’s not ‘We are all going to believe the same thing’. It’s about moving together, growing together, working together and making ourselves grow and the world more whole”. It’s clear that the emphasis of Unitarianism lies on being a better person, being in a community and making a better world without the dogma.
As it seems, Unitarians are encouraged to ‘believe what they want to believe’ but Rev. Andy differs. He argued that this is very different from ‘believing what your search or journey leads you to believe’, which is what they do. He explained further by saying “Personally, I want to believe in all-powerful supernatural being that will take care of all of us. I really do! I would love to believe that. That is what I want to believe but it is NOT what I can believe. What my search has lead me to believe is that everyone is sacred, that we are all connected and that we’re here to make each other more whole and happier. That’s were a search has led me to and it might change.”
Just like any other institutions, Unitarianism doesn’t go without criticisms. Many people say that this kind of open-minded religion is not sufficient for people who are really suffering. In response, Rev. Andy said he doesn’t mind other beliefs. “Even if I don’t think it’s true, I think any belief is fine as long as it encourages you to be kind, loving and compassionate.” Certainly, it has also been criticised for being too open – “Whenever you are not a doctrinaire… If there is any flexibility, they will say ‘Well, that’s too flexible’. ” This isn’t a problem for them though, as they identify Unitarianism to be in the grey area in the first place.
With this kind of openness, a lot of barriers and differences can exist. The minister admitted that when he does a service he always tries to use languages which are inclusive to all sorts of beliefs. He said there’s a range of people within the congregation but since they’re all rather open-minded it’s really hard for them to have conflicts.
As he tries to explain how the congregation works for very different people, he grabbed a box of power cord beside him and said “There are people who receive a package and the first thing they do is read the instruction from the first letter to the last letter and maybe read it twice. And other people just plug it in.” He then continued about how they created “a thing with very open sort of steps” – “Decide for yourself how you’re going to be a compassionate consumer, write it down, and commit to it.”
Although very different from the traditional types of religion, Unitarianism remains attached to a certain label or ‘ism’ and that comes as a challenge. Rev. Andy recognises that it is very hard to be associated with the stereotypes, especially in this country “where a lot of people want nothing to do with anything that looks, smells, or tastes like religion.” On the other hand, people need categories to think about things and Unitarianism is commonly dropped on the religious category because what else would you call it or how else would you present it? It cannot be avoided but he also doesn’t mind. In the end, he doesn’t care whether they are called a religion or not – “If people don’t want to call it religion because, by their definition, religion has to have central beliefs, then fine… It’s not a religion. I don’t care. It’s a way of being.”
With the Unitarians’ position between the religious and secular sphere, he said that “It’s very comfortable for me to remember that things are changing and we’re always midstream, somewhere. We are in the process of changing from one thing to another and we don’t know what that other thing is yet or how the world is going to change around us. What we do is stay with it, ride with it, recognise the ambiguity and keep going.”
We live in a society where everything is polarized and it is easier to identify things as black or white. But in reality, the world we live in is very much within the grey scale. There is no one truth and certainly nobody holds a monopoly on what it is. Unitarianism reflects that fact and allows individuals to live in harmonious disagreement within a community with a system that supports them into becoming the best person they can be. In the advent of increasing religious scepticism and secularism, it is indispensable that such institutions exist. Whether it comes in the form of Unitarianism or not, it’s good to know that it is there for those who need it.