UU Circle Worship and Tribal Legacies

UU Circle Worship and Tribal Legacies

Second Draft, Sharon Hwang Colligan, 29oct98


“…we are calling for a paradigm shift from individualism to interdependence…”
— UUA Commission on Appraisal, June 1997


What is UU Circle Worship?

UUs sometimes define Circle Worship in terms of the seating arrangements in the worship space: worshippers sit in a circle rather than in pews. We explain that this represents the equality of all participants, allows for the active participation of all circle members, and creates intimacy between worshippers. While this definition is adequate in its way, it is also sometimes misleading. The location of our seats is not the essential element in our worship.

Another popular way of attempting to describe the theological and cultural differences implied by the Circle is to use images of masculinity and femininity, to say that the circle carries feminine or feminist values of nurture, interrelation, egalitarianism, intuition, and respect for nature, whereas the pew-and-pulpit structure carries the patriarchal values of dominance, hierarchy, and elitism. While I again believe this explanation is adequate and can be a useful guide for inquiry and insight, it, too, can be misleading. Among other things, a purely gender-based analysis tends to erase complexities of culture and class, and can fail to speak to communities that inherit cultural traditions different than the dominant Western European Christianity– therefore excluding not only most communities of color, but also UUism’s own children.

Using a “women’s spirituality” framework to name circle-based vs. hierarchical values can sometimes reinforce sex-role stereotyping (women are inherently soft and giving, men are naturally born bullies) in way that troubles us as feminists and as UUs. My experience in pagan and UU worship circles tells me it is quite possible to create a subculture where women are dominant, and that bullying happens just as gladly when categories are reversed. Likewise it is quite possible to have an abusive “power-over” structure while seated in a circle, or to conduct strongly egalitarian community-building worship in a pew-and-pulpit meeting hall. For this reason, using either “patriarchy” or “pews” to define what we are doing (or not doing) is, while generally accurate, sometimes dangerous in its potential to be misleading.

One easy way to define Circle Worship is to say that it is a liturgical movement emerging directly from within our UU tradition, from our community values, principles, and sources. More specifically, it is the form of worship that emerges from those of us who were raised with UUism from childhood or early adolescence, those of us who escaped the formative imprint of an alien religion. We create worship that honors the inherent worth and dignity of each person and respects the interdependent web of natural community. That is how we were raised. We are not unduly concerned with gender, because our teachers gave us a genderless God, and encouraged boys and girls alike to be sensitive and strong. We treasure sexuality and sexual diversity, because that is what we were taught by our spiritual community elders when we came of age. We strive to honor one another with love and encouragement, rather than competition and punishment, because that’s how our spiritual classrooms were governed. We respect intuition and dreams alongside science and reason, and we find spirit in Nature, because that’s just how things are, among our people, where we come from, where we were raised.

I do not mean to idealize UU youth. Our Sunday schools, youth programs, and UU families are not perfect, our children are only human, and teachings that contradict our sacred principles abound in the culture and media that surround us. But, given the sense of smallness and inadequacy our parents and religious educators often struggle with, I think they frequently fail to see the power of what they do accomplish.

And the accomplishment I see is this: they have raised children in a minority culture. A culture where girls take leadership confidently alongside boys, and both trust that they will be held in kindness when they cry. A culture where the holy is seen in nature as well as in sacred teachings of many human traditions. A culture where the inherent worth and dignity of each being is treasured as part of the awesome interdependent web of all existence. A culture which organizes its sacred rituals in the form of a circle, governs itself with love and fairness, and stands up strongly to the oppression that confronts it. A culture where an individual spiritual path is respected as one among many. Our culture, our UU Circle Worship culture.

I am a Unitarian Universalist young adult, now 29, raised in a UU religious education program from the ages of six to sixteen. Like many of our UU youth, I identify as feminist, queer, and pagan. Unlike many of our UU youth, I also identify as a woman of color, with a keen awareness of how culture and class as well as gender and sexualuality affect my life and spirit. And unlike any other UU young adult that I know of, I did my divinity school years in the Pagan rather than the Christian tradition. I dropped out of my Ivy League college and pursued an education as a Witch, following a model of a shamanic leader/minister/doctor/scientist in pre-imperialist Europe. I spent a decade on a spiritual quest in the social wilderness outside our community, seeking to understand our tribe, our world, and my role in it. I journeyed to the edge of death; and I completed an initiation that now grants me the confidence to see, to guide, and to heal. I have returned to UU community to serve as a young adult leader, and returned to the academic system seek a degree as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine– a ministerial training very different from that of the Christian-based divinity schools, but one whose Taoist message joins with the Native American voices as one of the profound Pagan roots for our historical UU spiritual vision.

As a UU I see myself as part of a tradition of people that resisted the attempts of dominating political powers to impose a dominating religion. People who worked to preserve values of humanity, nature, and freedom in the face of European forces that taught alienation, servitude, and damnation. Our movement has taken different names at different times: Socinian, Unitarian, Universalist, Transcendentalist, Humanist, Feminist. Each generation of our ancestors struggled to preserve the same deep human values and to pass their achievements on for the community to carry forward and to build upon. As a UU child, I learned a nursery rhyme that for a lifetime would remind me of both the political and the spiritual dimension of our struggle:

They drew a circle to shut me out:
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in.

As a UU young adult committed to the struggle for human liberation, I ask myself: how do I carry on our precious tradition? As I write this paper, how do I define UU Circle Worship as both opposed to and embracing the agents of dehumanization? How do I, as a child gifted with the achievements of my Feminist teachers, carry forward my generation’s vision of the Pagan, while honoring the strong roots of the Humanists, the Universalists, the Unitarians, and all those who came before?


I am choosing to explain Circle Worship values using images of the Indigenous and the Colonial.

Colonialism is a historical process, not a gender, race, or religious identity. Any human being can choose to oppose colonialism– oppose assault, exploitation, dehumanization, imperialism, and genocide. Respecting the experiences of our ancestors and indigenous peoples, we can all choose to join the circle for humanity together, regardless of sex, color, or heritage.

I was taught that the word “worship” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “weorthscipe,” worth-shape, to shape worth. When we participate in worship, we not only celebrate our spirits, our values, and our lives, but we also shape those values that in turn will shape our lives. We tell stories and absorb images that tell us about the nature of our community and world– what will be celebrated and what will not, how pain or weakness will be responded to, where to look for experiences of spiritual joy.

Colonialist worship and indigenous worship tell stories that serve fundamentally different purposes. Colonialist worship shapes a culture in which people surrender to a distant ruler, scorn tribal people, and praise conquest and growth. It creates an outward conformity, and an inward insecurity. (By “colonialist,” I mean a culture that seeks to forcibly dominate other peoples in an ever-expanding empire, to deny their rights, dignity, and humanity, and to exploit their labor and lands. Other words that are used for this culture-form include “dominator,” “power-over,” “patriarchal,” “authoritarian,” “supremacist,” “imperialist…”)

Indigenous peoples’ worship, on the other hand, is a worship of interdependence and sustainability. By “indigenous” I mean a community that generally has lived on the same land for many centuries, and is not engaged in enslaving or exterminating other communities. The values of such a community tend to be on conservation: maintaining a balanced, cyclical culture that can continue in unchanged health for countless generations.

Theologically these two kinds of culture have notable areas of difference:

* Indwelling vs. distant Divine

In a colonialist culture, the individual does not have direct access to divinity, since truth must be mediated through the authority structure of the empire. The individual may not even be considered to have a soul, depending on membership in an enslaved or targeted group.

In indigenous cultures, spirit is heard as speaking to everyone. Truth has many voices, and may emerge to any person. Even the animals, rivers, and rocks have souls. In times of battle, enemies and captives are still considered fully human and endowed with spirit.

* Relation of Good to Evil

Imperialist cultures teach that evil is an enemy force that needs control and domination. Good must reign supreme and any problematic elements must be destroyed. Worship stories that begin with a struggle will end with the destruction or exile of an enemy and the crowning of a hero king.

Sustainable cultures see “evil” as resulting from an imbalance or inappropriateness, an element out of harmony that needs re-integration. Problematic elements are to be reminded of their proper identity and returned home to a healthy way of living. Worship stories that begin with a struggle will end with harmony. Tribal courts seek a restorative rather than retributive model of justice.

* Relation of Self to Nature

Tyranny is unnatural. Its worship stories thus forbid its captives from listening to Nature, and demonizes the messages of what is outside the control of the authorities: wilderness, dreams, the physical body, sexuality, emotional life, childishness, animals, tribal people, imagination, sensory experience are all denigrated as dirty, dangerous, or evil.

Traditional tribal cultures see experiences of Nature, dreams, sensory experience, etc., as sources of wisdom, fulfillment and guidance.

These last two differences (relation to the natural, relation of good and evil) can be observed in the use of metaphors of natural/civilized, black/white, female/male, earthy/celestial, ancestral/modern, etc., in worship images. Sustainable cultures portray Darkness and Light (and other metaphoric pairs) as a blended cycle of day and night, activity and rest, exterior and interior vision, which we seek to keep in harmonious balance as it nourishes our lives. Imperial cultures portray Darkness (femaleness, primitiveness, etc.) as a frightening, destructive, untrustworthy force we seek to dominate with Light and control.

Related to this is the way in which colonialist teachings make absolute “black and white” divisions between good and evil, male and female, colonial and indigenous, etc., rather than acknowledging the complexity, blending, and interdependence that occurs in the natural world. (I am aware that I am a making a colonial/indigenous division as I write, but I do it with awareness, and with the purpose of weaving black and white back together, not of making one reign supreme over the other.)

* Source of religious truth

In a colonial empire, truth comes from approved writings, hierarchical bureaucracy, and an elevated Ruler. Spiritual learning is by unquestioned obedience to doctrine.

In a indigenous cultures, truth comes from personal experience, ancestral teachings, and community tradition. Spiritual learning is experiential.

* Individual and collective self

Under colonialism, individuals are aliennated from their land, their ancestors, and their family, and taught a religion of personal salvation.

Indigenous worship portrays individuals as part of a larger whole, a plural self. Personal ideosyncracies are accepted, but wholeness is not possible outside of community. Worship focuses on respectful relationships and interdependence; “salvation” can only mean a return to right relations within community.


Most peoples in the world today live in some combination of the two culture forms. All human peoples once lived as indigenous tribes. Some still do, though struggling to keep the forces of colonialism at bay; some live as conquered peoples, with their former tribal life still held in living memory; some have been living under Empire for two millenia or more, and doubt the very existence of any other form of culture.

I perceive Unitarian Universalism as a tribal religion, hidden, like many others today, under a surface layer of Christianity. Separated, like many other tribal peoples, from its ancestral homelands. Like many others, we are hard pressed to find words to explain our traditional spirituality to the dominant culture. They expect a doctrine, a master, a creed, or at least a set of beliefs; we reply with our traditions, our friendships and family bonds, our ways of being with one another. We do not, after all, ask each other to “believe” in anything beyond the experience of heart and mind. We do have some words we use, strategies to explain ourselves to the theologians: we take our Principles of human relations and say they are “beliefs;” we use words like “process theology” or “feminist spirituality.” But joining with us is not a matter of theology, but of community, a recognition of kinship and a shared spirit. We teach newcomers our history, our world view, and our ways of relating to one another with respect and justice. When they have learned our songs and joined their heart to the love of our fellowship, then they are one of us, and the spiritual joining cannot be undone. We are a people, not a creed.

I see the Circle Worship of UU youth and young adults as our generation’s contribution to the long process of healing from conquest, damnation, and Inquisition. Each generation liberates us from another layer of the imposed religion: from Trinitarian dogma, from Hellish terrorism, from compulsory Christianity, from the ban on nature-worship, from gender oppression. It is time now for the Pagan generation, to heal our people from racism and the cultural ban on our tribal identities.

Like most tribal peoples today, UU’s have some historical baggage to sort out.

Some of it relates to cultural confusion and shame: like many non-dominant peoples, we find ourselves reluctant, or simply unable, to speak of our religion to outsiders with pride.

Some of it is historical trauma we pass on through the generations: over and over we send our youth and young adults away from the beloved community forever, as our adults reenact the unhealed story of fleeing in pain from the churches in which they grew up.

Some of it is the painful history of complicity, of the Empire using one tribe against another: we continue to pretend that our ancestors the Puritans came here from England seeking freedom from oppression, and not from Holland as part of a colonial force, signing an economic contract with an unsavory businessman in exchange for a chance to build a new world in their own image.

Some of it is the complex internal debates so many tribes are facing in the era of empire: To what extent shall we say we are Christians? In what ways shall we adopt, adapt, or resist the religion of the dominant culture? What can our ancient human traditions tell us about how to respond to a modern world of such rapid technological change and unthinkably explosive potentials? Should we attempt to widely broadcast the much-needed healing ways of our religion, and risk exposing ourselves to the destructive ignorance of too many newcomers and to the dangerous attention of our enemies? How can we make alliances with other tribes for our shared benefit and survival, given the significant cultural differences between us, weighted with our shared internalized fear and shame, mined with the histories of error and betrayal? How can we best preserve our traditions of community and the ecosystems that sustain them? How can we, in the face of so much anguish and destruction, continue to gather together and celebrate this beautiful world, to welcome children and newcomers, to transmit a peaceful, loving, and honorable heritage? And knowing the tremendous economic and cultural pressures they face from the dominant culture, how can we help our young people to remember and continue the tribal traditions?

Like the shamans of many other tribes and traditions, I want to keep my people’s spirit alive. To honor our elders and traditions, and strengthen our young people against the toxic influence of colonial values. To teach the children their unique tribal history, and offer ceremonies that will help keep them whole. To help the young adults become tender parents, smart warriors, proud lovers, steady workers, visionary artists. To teach them the healing power of community participation, and the wisdom of serving their people. To help make alliances between our people and all peoples who are struggling to keep the ways of human community alive and in right relation.

May this writing so serve.