To Burton, it was what a UU service should be, drawing meaning from the spiritual wisdom of various faiths. Instead, Burton said, "That was one of the most controversial services ever held in that church."
"Theists and Christians are almost unwelcome in many UU congregations," said Burton, an attorney who lives in northern Virginia. "It's rare to hear a UU minister discuss God from the pulpit. On many occasions, when a minister does discuss God from the pulpit, it leads to division because there's such a strong humanist or atheist representation."
The problem, as he sees it, is that the Unitarian Universalist Association--the denominational organization of UUs--has strayed far from its roots, emphasizing diversity and pluralism and in the process leaving no room for traditional belief. To counter that trend, he has started a new organization seeking to return Unitarianism to its roots as a God-centered liberal religion based on spiritual exploration.
The new Unitarian organization has taken the name American Unitarian Association. To those with knowledge of UU history, that name speaks volumes about the intent of the new organization: Before merging with the Universalists in 1961 to form the UUA, the main Unitarian denomination was called the American Unitarian Association.
And that has the UUA crying foul, and planning to file a lawsuit against the new AUA within the next few weeks.
"The UUA doesn't have any problems with this group's theological and political perspectives," said John Hurley, spokesman for the UUA. "We do have a problem with their use of the name, which is the name of one of the antecedents of the UUA."
But to Burton and Dean Fischer, co-founder with Burton of the new group, adopting the AUA name sends the message that its members want to return to a Unitarianism they think has been abandoned by the UUA.
In recent months, several Episcopal parishes have opted to associate with an African Anglican diocese, rather than their local one, claiming they are theologically closer to the more conservative Africans. In 1999, Reform Judaism, after a bitter debate, adopted 10 principles pushing the denomination toward more traditional Jewish ritual. And in the United Methodist Church, the conservative Confessing Movement, launched in 1995, declaring that the UMC "is now incapable of confessing with one voice the orthodox Trinitarian faith."
While conservative movements are particularly strong today, they are an ever-present element of liberal religion, said William Hutchison, a historian of American religion at Harvard.
"It's not only natural, it's a good thing. Liberal movements at some point need corrective measures," Hutchison said, explaining that without them, faith groups can veer too far from where they started.
The new Unitarian organization, which was incorporated in September 2000 but only became public in late December, remains small; its founders declined to discuss how many members it has garnered so far, saying only that membership is growing at 20% per month. Co-founder Dean Fisher said a quarter of the group's members are clergy or have a pastoral care background, and that several UU congregations are considering affiliating with the new group. The organization's first major event will be held April 21-22 in Alexandria, Va.
The UUA bills itself as a "non-creedal" religion, which means members decide for themselves what to believe and how to act. Founded as a Christian faith, the modern Unitarian movement was formed in the early 19th century. Unitarianism, as the name implies, rejected belief in a divine trinity in favor of believing that God is one and indivisible.