Beginnings – The Channing Gathering
There has been a Unitarian Universalist presence in Howard County since 1964. In the two decades prior to that, Unitarian Universalism had been growing rapidly in the ring around Washington, D.C., primarily because of the intentional efforts of the Reverend A. Powell Davies to spread this liberal faith. Baltimore had been a center for religious liberalism since 1817, when the First Independent Church of Baltimore (now the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore) was organized. In 1964, some Howard County Unitarian Universalists organized a congregation called the Unitarian Universalist Society of Howard County (now known as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia).
But Unitarian Universalism is always growing and changing. In 1992, about 15-20 Howard County Unitarian Universalists established an informal group called the “Channing Gathering,” which aimed to study the religious and theological roots and values of Unitarian Universalism. William Ellery Channing’s ideas and life were chosen as the center of study. Since Baltimore was the location of Channing’s famous sermon Unitarian Christianity, which in 1819 defined Unitarianism in the early 19th century, this seemed like a good place to start.
A portion of the Channing Gathering subsequently began to consider forming a new congregation, which explicitly recognized and valued this heritage and these values. The theology, tradition, and style of ministry they sought would ground itself in the radical left wing of the Protestant Reformation, which included Unitarian Christianity, religious humanism, the use of reason in religion, and other Enlightenment ideals. That particular history would provide the taproot, even as other ideas and new interpretations would always be welcome.
A core group of about 30 people met informally on a regular basis in people’s homes to discuss who they were religiously and what spiritual and other needs a new religious community in Howard County could meet. Basically, but not exclusively, this core group was comprised of the “Channing Gathering” participants. The group appointed a steering committee, which met for three hours every Saturday morning for approximately eight months to develop a corporate charter, a governing structure, and permanent bylaws to be voted on at the first congregational meeting. A bylaws committee and a finance task force were appointed to do some of the legwork needed.
Mission and Vision
Although there were some skeptics — practical types who thought that organizational and structural issues should be dealt with first — the general consensus was that determining the mission and vision of the new congregation was the first and most important step. A visioning process was established that would allow us to adopt a common mission and vision for Channing, which people could embrace, and which would guide our future development as a congregation. As part of this process, through discussions and questionnaires, we assessed theological mindsets, worship preferences, and other church priorities. The larger core group discussed many issues, including whether Channing should affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association or simply remain an independent congregation. The group, being composed to a significant degree of people with experience as Unitarian Universalist church leaders, had a strong sense of Unitarian Universalist identity and wanted to formally retain this identity for the new congregation. There was a strong consensus that children should take part in every Sunday service. It was also agreed that the church would celebrate our Unitarian Universalist heritage and be accepting of traditional religious language. The deliberate use of the word “church” in our name was a reflection of this consensus.
Based on these discussions within the core group, the steering committee developed a draft mission and vision statement. The final version was revised and refined in a meeting of the core group to ensure that it reflected the nascent congregation’s views. After a lot of give and take regarding the precise wording, a consensus was reached that the church should work to develop a religious center (but not a creed). It would seek to develop this religious center from the Unitarian Universalist movement’s Christian and Jewish roots, while drawing wisdom from other world religions. The church would emphasize worship. The church would be a source of religious education for all ages–adults as well as children. Its mission would include our desire to be welcoming to all, to be concerned with outreach to the community at large, and to be of service to others. The result of this visioning process is reflected in the Mission and Vision Statement that is printed in our Order of Service and in each issue of our newsletter, The Channing Connection.
Channing Memorial Church Starts Up
On January 23, 1993, the wording of our Articles of Incorporation was approved and signed by the interim board (comprised of four members of the steering committee), and was ready to be filed with the state of Maryland. These were our operating rules until Bylaws could be drafted and approved by the entire congregation. Channing’s first service was held on January 17, 1993, at Pointers Run Elementary School in Clarksville, with the Rev. Eric Haugen, a Methodist (and former Unitarian Universalist) minister from St. Paul, MN, conducting the service. From that time until late summer, we met every two weeks, alternating worship services with adult education sessions featuring guest speakers and a pot luck breakfast. After being snowed out on the day it was originally scheduled, Membership Sunday was held on March 28, 1993, at which time 38 people signed the membership book. Another eight people signed over the following month.
Our First Congregational Meeting
The first Congregational Meeting was held in May 1993, at which time we approved our bylaws and elected our first Board of Trustees and Nominating Committee. In keeping with Channing’s desire to have full-time ministry right from the start, we voted to appoint both Interim Minister and Settled Minister Search Committees. We also passed our first deficit budget — not without some qualms — we knew it was risky. But there was a great deal of faith in what we were doing. We felt that it was important to establish a culture of generosity within Channing. We knew that if people felt that they were being served in worship, in religious education, and in community they would find the means to support Channing’s mission and purpose. And this proved to be correct. We voted to devote 3% of our operating budget every year to Social Responsibility concerns, as a concrete example of our vision to respond to the needs of the larger community, and we have successfully met that commitment in most years since. We further agreed to affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and we were chartered by the UUA in June 1993.
Ministers and Staff
In the spring of 1993, Channing called a full-time interim minister, the Rev. Garry LeFevre, who was beginning his career in the ministry. Channing Memorial Church ordained him on December 3, 1993. Garry served as Channing’s minister for two formative years, during which time we developed our distinctive worship services and began a full program of worship services and life-span religious education. We also added a pianist and a part-time music director at that time. Due to an influx of young families, we called our first part-time Director of Religious Education in September 1994.
In September 1995, Channing called the Rev. James Shumacker to be its first settled minister; James served Channing for two years. In September 1999, the Rev. Victoria Weinstein became our second settled minister, serving until August 2002. In September 2003, CMC called the Rev. Susan G. LaMar to be its settled minister.
Unitarian Universalist History
Both Unitarianism and Universalism grew out of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Unitarianism as an organized movement can actually trace its roots to liberal religion in Transylvania in the 16th century, during the Reformation. As its name implies, Unitarians believed in the unity of God and also in the inherent goodness of people. Universalist theology had English roots and, as its name implies, Universalists believed in a universal salvation for all.
John Murray is considered the founder of Universalism in the United States, and William Ellery Channing, for whom the church is named, is credited with having most successfully articulated Unitarian thought in the early 19th century. Later in the century, Transcendentalist thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker emphasized the natural dimension of religion over the supernatural and, in the early 20th century, religious humanism gained prominence in Unitarian thought.
In 1961, the Unitarians and Universalists formally merged and established the Unitarian Universalist Association. Today, Unitarian Universalism embraces the liberal religious traditions of both heritages and welcomes all who search for a community of religious freedom.