After 74 years, the Unitarian Church in Westport is no more.
But the diverse, welcoming community on Lyons Plains Road is not going anywhere.
The new name is “The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Westport.”
The simple change was years in the making. And it speaks to a recognition of changes in the congregation itself, and American life.
The local church was founded in 1949, as The First Unitarian Fellowship of Fairfield County. It became The Unitarian Church in Westport in 1964 — a year before their move to the modernistic building in the woods, designed by Victor Lundy.
Three years earlier, the Unitarian and Universalist sects had formally joined. (“Unitarian” means rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. “Universalism” refers to the belief that all will eventually be saved.) The Westport congregation is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The local mission statement says the church is “free of creed and dogma, and open to people of all backgrounds and beliefs.”
The Westport church has 350 members. Another 150 people participate in their programs. Among the best known: Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education for various ages; social justice work, and outreach to singles and the LGBTQ community.
For quite a while, there was discussion about including “Universalist” in the name. More recently, another issue arose: the word “church.”
Some members were raised Jewish; to them, a church is a gathering of Chrsitians. Others are former Catholics; they associate “church” with Catholicism.
Though Unitarians are known for addressing hot-button issues, a name change was put on the back burner. During COVID, however, they began addressing it.
According to board member Beth Cliff, a name is “an invaluable part of our identity as a spiritual and religious home. it creates a sense of who we are, of our community in which we belong, and our place in the world.”
It also identifies the community to others who know nothing about them, and distinguishes it from other religious institutions.
In February 2021, the board of trustees discussed whether the name “The Unitarian Church in Westport” limited its reach to newcomers, and if it was “as diverse, inclusive and open as we are in practice, as a non-creedal, non-dogmatic congregation that is welcoming to everyone from all faith traditions.”
Dozens of people participated in virtual meetings, discussing pros and cons of possible names. A November 2021 meeting sparked plenty of energy, questions and concerns.
A Naming Committee was formed. The goal was to oversee a process that was “inclusive, transparent, neutral, democratic, and designed to empower and give voice and vote to the congregation.”
Members — not the committee — were to come up with options.
Ultimately, 85 different names were offered. They included not changing at all, incorporating words like “sanctuary,” “fellowship” and “association,” plus references to the ship-like roofline, and locations near Silver Brook and the Aspetuck River.
Another discussion involved Westport itself. Should it be “in” Westport? “Of” Westport? With members coming from as far as Greenwich and West Haven, should there be no reference to the town at all?
The process played out in Zoom meetings, services and a town hall. The 3-step selection process culminated in ranked voting. 232 members participated.
The final choice — The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Westport — incorporates both branches of the faith. And “in” Westport is a descriptor, for those who may not know where it’s located — without limiting it to one town, the way “of” Westport might.
The name change passed with an 87% majority in a December vote. It was ratified late last month, almost unanimously.
Rev. John Morehouse — who served 2 previous congregations that changed their names while he was there — says:
Our new name embraces the full depth of our religious identity, Unitarians known for their fearless questioning and the Universalists known for their radical welcome of all people.
We decided to drop the word “church” and replace it with “congregation” to recognize that we are as diverse theologically as we are culturally. This name invites all who are spiritually searching into the midst of our beloved community.
In a congregation that honors the worth and dignity of all, it is a hard process to come to consensus on such an important issue; we worked hard and got to know each other better, and came out stronger. This new name may open new doors for us as we connect with new groups of people in our neighborhoods who seek a spiritual home where they can be accepted simply for who they are: a “judgment-free zone” for themselves and their children.
It’s difficult to make sense of so much in our world that seems off-balance. Getting strength and solace with one another helps keep us all moving in a direction that feels right and purposeful, in the spirit of peace, love and justice. We hope our new name will signal to many what we’re about as a spiritual community.
So let us welcome our “new” friends: The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Westport.
Just as they welcome us all.
“Congregation” means a group of people. “Church” is a building where people worship. Since people cannot do not go to and from a congregation, the members will still refer to the place they’re going as “church,” and so will all the members of the community passing by.
“Judgement-free zone” — the tagline for the Planet Fitness health club, by the way — is an unfortunate choice for a congregation because it claims an impossible moral high ground: their members do not judge. Of course they do, just like everyone else. (Imagine what members would think if you walked in wearing a MAGA hat!)
What they should say is that the UU movement is anti-sectarian, rejecting traditional concepts like being condemned to hell if you don’t believe a certain way. I’d buy that (if I weren’t already an affiliated Jew), even though I don’t go for all the hashtag signs in front of the building.
And this Sunday is “Bring a friend day.” Of course we like to see new friends every week! Come by; we would love to welcome you, and share what we have to offer all people of all faith traditions…young and old!
Mr Blau, we trust that folks will understand we have chosen the best language to send our message of inclusiveness and our belief in the value and dignity of all people.
Another strategic exercise (war game) in navel contemplation from the navel industrial complex formerly known as Machamux. I’m Episcopalian but even from that lofty perch of privilege I’ve always known that universalism is a tenet genetic to the Unitarian movement. Read Counselor by Ted Sorensen. Westporters need to get out of the spa by the Merritt (formerly known as the Westport Y) once in a while and stop sniffing self generated methane bubbles while lording over rubber duckies.
We moved from Westport after I completed 8th grade in 1962. But around 2000, I met a former minister of the U-U church in Westport on a long-distance Amtrak train. He was head of the national group after they merged. In his speech at the time of the unification, he jokingly said “Today we bring together two religions, each of which thinks that one religion is one too many.”
Mr Buchroeder, ahh, yes, we are certainly flawed and imperfect people doing our best to make a difference in a flawed and imperfect world. But, many of the folks whom we have supported through social justice action, and financial resources appreciate us anyway- just as the members of our community appreciate the support and connection of one another.
Mr. Brownstein, I am a supporter not a critic of Unitarian Universalists and Unitarian Universalism. I am a critic of limousine liberals that tend to co-reside locally in Westport. I have no issues with the rebranding strategy I am simply inferring that a victory lap is premature.
Change can be hard but it’s also how progress happens!!
Thank you Mr. Buchroeder,… I’m actually a woman btw:) I don’t think we intended to take a victory lap – we’re just excited to be standing together at the starting gate.
Dayle (pls call me Eric) I think your church and its tenets are wonderful. I was raised by my twice war widowed mother at Christ and Holy Trinity. When the Unitarian (Universalist) Church in Westport was built/announced I asked her why we didn’t go. She said: “Because we’re Episcopalian and they don’t believe what we do.” I always thought that was Freudian. As I hope I’ve clarified, I probably should have kept my mouth shut in the first place this AM but that’s what I do. Congratulations on the new nom de guerre!!!!
Thank you Eric…and, we would be happy to have you join us any Sunday – unless, of course you are still happily affiliated with the Episcopalians (Whom we love and appreciate!) We have a just-for-fun cabaret coming up this Saturday at 8:00 if you are free. No cost – and you are welcome to bring snacks and beverages – and friends of course.
“I’m a proud member of this remarkable “congregation” for 37 years. As a teen living in NYC in the mid sixties, I visited the new modern building by Lundy during a youth conference and fell in love with it. Moving to CT decades later, I immediately joined with my young family. I was happy my son learned from the wisdom of many spiritual sources, and from poetry and science. The thoughtful and interesting friends I met are like my extended family. I enjoy the passion for acting on racial and social justice.
My wife and I were members of this congregation for 15 years (until we moved out of state in 2016) and it is a wonderful place full of wonderful people and a welcoming message of inclusion (and the music is amazing too!). I always thought the name “The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Westport” would be a more appropriate name and I’m so glad they’ve finally adopted this name. Congratulations!
As a member of this community, I’m ecstatic this name change can include “Universalist” now. We are welcoming all to our community. I hope you’ll join us for a service on Sunday sometime to feel our welcoming energy. And please don’t be shy to let someone know you’re visiting us for the first time!