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Number of practicing Unitarians spikes nationally, in Iowa City

BY LAUREN COFFEY | OCTOBER 08, 2012 6:30 AM

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As a candle flickers early Sunday morning, church members keep rapt attention. Soon, ceremonial words begin to fill the silence. This could be a typical scene in a number of churches in Iowa City, except for these spoken words do not include a pivotal aspect of most religions — God.

The Unitarian/Universalism Society of Iowa City has focused on being a nondenominational conglomeration of Christianity and Judaism, but it does not have any dogma, doctrine, or follow a holy trinity. Instead, Unitarians follow seven principles to live their lives.

“Many believe heaven or hell is a sanction we’re all too busy focusing on instead of living right now,” said Steve Protzer, a minister for the Unitarian/Universalism Society of Iowa City. “There’s a greater power at work, but we hesitate to give it a name.”

Many people enjoy this freedom and, as a result, numbers have risen 15.8 percent nationally in the past 10 years.  The total number of people identifying as Unitarian members has reached 211,000 members, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

There are 275 official members of the Iowa City chapter and 125 unofficial members. The society had 11 new members in April, and 14 additional members joined Sunday morning.

Raymond Mentzer, a UI professor of religious studies, said he does not know the specific cause for an increase in Unitarianism membership, but he believes there has been a decrease in membership in more traditional religions such as Catholicism.

“I think that, under my impression, the traditional, more mainline churches have seen a decrease in their membership,” he said. “The members who have stayed, such as with Catholics, have become an increasingly conservative group. Maybe that could explain the increase in the Unitarianism group.”

Many members of the Unitarian/Universalism church have come from religious backgrounds, and, as they have grown spiritually throughout the years, joined the Unitarian faith as a way to stay more fluid with their religion.

“I recognize that spiritually I was not in the same place I was 38 years ago,” said Diane Martin, the vice president of the Board of Directors. “That doesn’t mean I had to change churches.”

Newest member Carol Adamson plans to still keep her Christian faith in addition to her new Unitarian faith.

“I identify as a born-again Christian, but it will always be a part of my life,” Adamson said. “[Joining the Unitarian faith] is me embracing more than Christianity.”

Protzer himself joined the religion after his partner, a member of the Jewish faith, introduced him to Unitarianism.

“I like that we were accepted as a gay couple; no questions were asked,” Protzer said. “It’s a very open faith.”

Unitarianism’s beliefs include supporting women’s rights, world peace, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights, protection of the environment, and fighting against homelessness and racial injustice.

The unifying factor of Unitarianism/Universalism is a commitment to helping the community and help with social justice, while bettering oneself and growing within their faith.

“Is [Unitarianism’s focus] to change the world or become better?” Protzer said during a Sunday sermon. “It isn’t an either-or-question; we’re here to do both. It’s just about the order in which things happen.”


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