Sorry Dr. Channing, I want more

William Ellery Channing

The Unitarian preacher and theologian Dr. William Ellery Channing is often quoted by Unitarian Universalist religious educators:

The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own…to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life.”

These words are at the cornerstone of UU religious education.  Sunday schools in UU churches can be quite different from the religious education in other churches.  It is our stated goal not to tell children what to believe or fill their heads with memorizing prayers, scripture and rules.  Instead, in our churches, we encourage children to, as we say in the fourth of our Principles, to undertake a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  We want our children to develop a spiritual curiosity and a critical mind to embark on a life long adventure with the sacred.

I am totally down with that.  At First Parish Church in Taunton, our Sunday School program gives our children room to explore and experience the sacred in themselves and in the world around them.

With all due respect to Dr. Channing, though, we need to do more.  While his words may well equip our children for the journey ahead, I fear that Dr. Channing has left them without any roots, without an anchor, without a home to base their spiritual journey.  I didn’t grow up to be exactly like my parents, but I have always known who I am, who my family is and where home is.

In addition to the spiritual awakening and curiosity that Dr. Channing wrote about, I have 2 other goals for our children.

The first is that I want our children to love coming to church.  I believe that our children learn best when they are having fun.  While there are lessons in each activity, the kids are busy at Sunday School doing things that are fun – art projects, skits, singing, dancing, getting dirty.  It’s the fun times that families spend together that forge the bonds that carry us through the difficult times.  Happy memories call us home when we get lost.

One parent told me last year that her children had woken her up at 5am, “Is it time to go to Sunday School, yet?”  It was Wednesday.  Winning!

The second is that I want our children to feel that they belong at our church – that we are a part of them and they are a part of us.  One of the first things that children learn is their first and last name and their address.  Their first name tells them who they are.  Their last name tells them to whom they belong.  Their address tells them where home is.  I believe that there is a monumental difference between hearing someone say “I go to a Unitarian Universalist church” and “I am a Unitarian Universalist.  This is my church.”

I agree with Dr. Channing that our children do not need to memorize our seven principles or even know that William Ellery Channing was a Unitarian minister, but I think we can set the bar higher.

My name is Barry Sanders.  I am a Unitarian Universalist.  First Parish Church in Taunton is my spiritual home.

I pray that our kids can say the same.  Except for that first part about my name is Barry Sanders.  That would be weird.

Family fun

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  1. Imagine you are a musician performing for an audience. At no time during your performance does anyone smile, cry or laugh. At the end, no one claps – or even boos. That’s what its like to write a blog and not see any comments. I’m just sayin’. Don’t be shy.

  2. Loved your comment – as a musician, too, I would be mortified if it was just silence. Anyway – I couldn’t agree more with your blog post. I often worry that we are doing our children a disservice by not giving them a stronger foundation to fall back on. While I appreciate the encouragement to explore, I wish we had more of core to claim as our own. Your congregation is lucky to have you!

    • Thank you, Tracey. UU theology has a wonderful core message of the power of love to transform lives, that we are all part of the sacred and filled with potential to do good in the world. We “draw from many sources” as a way to illustrate that the best of humanity shines through while we are seeking the divine. I am lucky to have such a supportive congregation. Thanks again.

  3. Nice post, Barry. But it’s not fair to dis’ Dr. C like this. He never imagined our context, where children wouldn’t be brought up in a church with a good grounding in Scripture. Please respect his extraordinary contribution as the founding father of American Unitarianism, the one who threw down the gauntlet to the orthodox after years of infighting, and who set out the basic tenets of Unitarian Christianity and set the stage for the founding of the AUA. His essays are brilliant. I hate to see anyone dismiss them in such a casual manner and for such unfair, ahistorical reasons. His uncomfortable, unwanted and heart-breaking role as defender of liberal religion was thrust upon him by the key Unitarians of his day who needed a spokesman. He was a true ecumenist who believed in Christian unity. At any rate, his call to “stir up the minds of the young” was radical and inspiring in his time. Dr. Channing never could have imagined a Unitarianism whose roots and anchor were not in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rootlessness and theological shallowness is our failure, not his.

  4. Christine

     /  September 3, 2012

    Thank you so much for initiating this conversation! I am a new DRE adding it to my 20 year career as an inner city, after-school program, art teacher. For some reason my attention was drawn by the small word “a” and how its use may influence perception of connection.
    I am a Unitarian Universalist,
    I am Unitarian Universalist,
    We are Unitarian Universalists,
    We are Unitarian Universalist.
    Just playing around with melodies and harmonies and wondering. Thank you again!


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  • Barry Sanders

    Barry is the Director of Religious Education at First Parish Church. He is also a husband and father of two, a social worker, an avid soccer fan and an aspiring harmonica player.

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