Established around the concept that religion and religious beliefs are constantly changing, the Unitarian Universalist Church was created when two separate sects of Christianity joined together in 1961.
"In the Western world, we are used to defining religious communities by their beliefs," said Rev. Rebecca Benner, minister at the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church. "In the Unitarian Universalist church, there isn't an operative question. Fundamental to us is individual religious freedom."
Members of the Unitarian Universalist church are free to believe what they choose on the existence of God, the role of Jesus as teacher, prophet or God made man, Benner said, provided they are true to what they've experienced in their own lives.
"A lot of what binds us together is the commitment to asking religious questions in community," Benner said. "We continue to lead meaningful, moral lives. We ask questions together and explore their answers together."
At the center of the Unitarian Universalist church is the belief that "all life is ultimately one," Benner said. As a result, whatever happens when someone dies will be experienced by all people, regardless of faith, lifestyle or belief in heaven or hell.
People within the Unitarian Universalist church have the "freedom to believe whatever your mind and your heart and your experience call you to believe," Benner said.
A person's religion should change as his or her life progresses, Benner said.
"We want people to test their beliefs, not necessarily against the authority of the church but against their own experiences, their wisdom, the experiences of others," she said. "The ultimate test of that is what kind of life do the answers lead you to live."
UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS have often "found themselves at the forefront of social justice issues," but have not "taken an official line" on issues like homosexuality, civil rights or abortion, Benner explained.
"We've taken strong stances in some issues, but respect for all human beings" is the main objective, she said.
Because the church is based on the Christian calendar, Easter and Christmas are still celebrated in traditional ceremonies. To incorporate other practices, however, Accotink Unitarian Universalist also offers a Passover seder, solstice ceremonies and a feast to commemorate the end of Ramadan.
"In the summer, we celebrate a flower communion, which is a Czech tradition," Benner said. "Everyone brings in one flower, and then we put them all together in a big, beautiful bouquet. At the end of the service, everyone takes home a different flower as a symbol of everything we share."
New members of the religion are not baptized but are dedicated into the church, she said, one of the major differences between Unitarian Universalists and most Christian sects.
Weekly services are also conducted in a way that would look familiar to "most liberal Protestant churches," Benner said. Announcements are read at the beginning of the service, followed by a hymn, a reflection and the lighting of candles to share people's joys or sorrows from the previous week. Children are then taken to religious education classes while the adults pray, sing another hymn and listen to a homily given by Benner or another member of the congregation.
At the close of every service, the congregation recites a statement reinforcing the unity of all people: "This church is dedicated to the proposition that behind all our differences and beneath all our diversity, there is a unity which makes us one and binds us forever together in spite of time and death and the space between the stars."
With 180 families, the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church conducts Sunday services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., through June 11, and one Sunday service at 10 a.m., from June 18 until Labor Day weekend.