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Unitarians thrive on diversity, tolerance


At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Anne Arundel County, they are asking musical questions about God -- "Is it he? Is it she?" -- in a musical revue that celebrates the sudden growth of the congregation and tries to explain their religion.

"We don't have restrictions we impose on people religiously," the Rev. Fred Muir said. But the congregation does have "guiding principles -- most people who come believe strongly in a 1,500-year tradition of freedom, reason and tolerance."

The mixture is working. More than 60 new members have come to the glass-walled sanctuary off Bestgate Road in the past six months, and the 360-member congregation recently completed a square-foot, $450,000 addition.

Nadja Maril and Peter Crilly joined the church shortly before they married a year ago. Ms. Maril's background is Jewish. Her husband was a Protestant Congregationalist.

She has been assigned to interview the newest members and has found that the church's philosophy is its drawing card.

"The fact that it's more open-minded and provides exposure to different viewpoints, that we don't have all the answers, that's what's attracting a lot of people," Ms. Maril said. "There's an atmosphere in which you're exposed, even as an adult, to a lot of different approaches."

After her first husband died unexpectedly in his mid-40s, Ms. Maril said, spirituality became more important to her.

"I came to realize the importance of friendships with other people. That's what I relate to in the church community, the sensitivity to other people's needs and pain," she said.

Phoebe Coe, rector of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton, said there are two types of religious seekers, those who want answers and find them at fundamentalist-style churches and those who are comfortable with questions.

"A lot of people, I'm one of them, realize that questions lead to more questions," she said. "The Unitarian Church provides a community of support and nourishment for people asking questions."

But critics see the church as a sort of "religion lite." Other Christian ministers condemn Unitarian theology as distinctly non-Christian.

The Rev. Philip Foster, pastor of the Pasadena Assembly of God Church, said he opposes Unitarian teaching because it runs "contradictory to the Judaic-Christian beliefs found in the Bible."

Unitarians claim openness, he said, but are open only to what they don't disagree with.

"For example, they deny the deity of Jesus Christ and affirm the divinity of mankind," he said. "They believe in the ultimate salvation of all and reject the concept of eternal punishment. I love them as fellow human beings, but I don't agree with their doctrine."

The church does not claim to be Christian, but members emphasize that they do have strong beliefs.

"People make the mistake that we don't have strong points of view, but Unitarians are fierce in adherence to their beliefs," Pat von Schwerdtner said.

"We are intolerant of intolerance. We feel very deeply about intolerance," Jan Sprinkel added.

Unitarian congregations can range from something that closely resembles a Protestant church to an ethical society, but "it doesn't mean you can believe anything you want," Mr. Muir said.

"There are a lot of people who would be very uncomfortable in this church. We don't impose a creed on anyone, but that doesn't mean people don't have a common understanding of shared beliefs," he said.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has a set of seven principles and purposes that the minister said are "statements of faith." One principle emphasizes the "interdependent web that brings all of life together."

A statement the church gives visitors points out that Unitarians stand for "that natural and human approach to religion, unclouded by the vagaries of a lingering supernaturalism and a supine otherworldliness."

The denomination has a history of moderate to liberal leanings, although the Annapolis congregation is "eclectic" -- at one point including a supporter of U.S. Labor Party founder Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., Mr. Muir said.

The 30-year-old church, the county's only Unitarian congregation, defines itself as a liberal religion in the sense of "open-minded and open-to," he said, and the denomination has long supported equality for women and minorities, as well as the rights of gay men and lesbians. Evelyn Spurgin, the congregation's president, said 95 percent of Unitarians grew up in another religion. They were attracted to Unitarianism, she said, "because we're not told what to believe."

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