Interim Minister Judith Downing challenges some sacred cows (she prefers Dunkin' Donuts coffee to Starbucks), but you don't mess with Christmas.
Other traditions aren't considered so hands-off these days at a church that's older than the nation.With a morphing membership no longer quite as Christian as it once was, First Parish
is in the midst of a profound discussion about how to mix other beliefs with the Christian pigments on its religious palette.And to do that, this congregation that has survived centuries is turning to a woman whose tenure will be deliberately abbreviated.Downing is a professional interim minister who arrived in August for a two-year stint.
Unlike a permanent minister, who must bond with a congregation and exercise a certain diplomacy, interim ministers are trained to "be very assertive" about needed change, Downing
said. (So far, the most blatant break with tradition is Downing herself, First Parish's first female minister.)
Walking the line between being assertive and still communicating "in a kind of ministerial, pastoral way" may be made easier by parish sentiment.Downing
cited a survey showing that 91 percent of the congregation support change.But "there are also a number of people who don't want to see any change," she
added."This is an old, old, historic church with much tradition."
First Parish traces its founding to 1717.Along with other Congregationalists in the early 1800s, parishioners at the church found themselves disagreeing with the Christian notion of God's trinity; unlike other churches, First Parish
didn't undergo theological mitosis and split in two.Rather, it evolved into Unitarianism, and over the years, those with a diversity of views worshiped together, Downing
The Christian heritage is reflected in a "covenant" statement that is sometimes said at services: "In the freedom of truth, and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of humankind."
Yet today, Downing
said, a majority of the congregation favors broadening the church's worship to include non-Christian perspectives -- "Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, earth-centered, pagan, all kinds of things."She's
experimenting with less-Christian affirmations in place of the covenant.
"There's nothing wrong with it.It's just that it is meaningless" to much of the congregation, she
, who said the non-Christian direction of the parish conforms with her
personal beliefs, has a very different style than her
predecessor, a long-serving and erudite cleric who practically wallpapered his
office with books."You could barely get in here," she said with a chuckle, adding that she put the bookshelves on a diet when she moved in. Downing, 64, was ordained in 1984 and spent 15 years as a minister in two parishes.
In 1999, looking for a change, she
trained as an interim minister.
One of religion's benefits is community, and she
admitted that the planned obsolescence of an interim ministry, with its early adieu to a parish community, can be hard.The job takes the right personality -- Downing
independent and enjoys variety in her
work -- and it helps that she's
single.To avoid living entirely out of her
only accepts assignments within commuting distance of her
home in Medway.
Even with a short commute, she
knows the clock is ticking on changes at First Parish
, where the trick will be balancing the church's history and another tradition, its skill at evolving and surviving.
Or, as she
puts it, "To honor that history without making it the center of what this church is about. . . . What's more important is the people who are here now."