OXFORD – Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister Gail Tapscott of Oxford has spent a lifetime thinking about life’s biggest questions, but the 72-year-old Gulfport native is the first to say she still doesn’t have the answers.
“Some people seem to be waiting for me to show them the secret handshake, but there isn’t one,” she said. “I’m just another well-read bozo on the bus. The UU mantra is, ‘You know, we could be wrong.’”
Now semi-retired, Tapscott lives in Oxford and comes to Tupelo once a month to conduct services for the UU congregation that shares space with Temple B’Nai in the Joyner neighborhood.
Raised in a mainline Protestant denomination, Tapscott said her natural appetite for difficult questions sometimes got her into trouble.
“I was a born liberal,” she said. “I was a Sunday School teacher’s worst nightmare – always getting referred to the minister for questions. I took it all very seriously.”
As a child working her way through her denomination’s catechism, Tapscott said she could recite the answers perfectly without understanding their content.
“I was a great mimic, but I didn’t understand any of it,” she said. “I was always looking for a place to ask questions and get thoughtful answers. Those questions didn’t get addressed in most churches.”
After moving from Mississippi to Pennsylvania when she was 12, Tapscott discovered Unitarian Universalism in high school, and was immediately drawn to its embrace of “glorious uncertainty.”
“People desperately want certainty,” she said. “Ambiguity is terrifying. But with certainty comes a certain rigidity of mind that is unhealthy for the individual, and it can become pathological for the society.”
Tapscott said the hunger for certainty is not unique to any particular religion or ideology.
“It’s true in all religions,” she said. “You have to be willing to live with ambiguity, but most people have no interest in the dark night of the soul. They don’t want to wrestle with God. It’s too much work.”
Tapscott earned a bachelor’s degree from American University in Washington, D.C., and a master’s degree from St. John’s University in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She worked as an environmental journalist, teacher and as a Greenpeace coordinator. When she was 38, she began to explore a possible new career in ministry.
“I wanted to be more useful to more people, and I wanted to use my natural gifts for writing and speaking,” she said. “I liked preaching and teaching. It worked for me.”
Tapscott earned a master’s of divinity degree from Harvard at 43 and was ordained as a UU minister at 53. She served a church in Flagstaff, Arizona, for five years and another in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for 17 years.
According to the Unitarian Universalist Association website, the UU was formed in 1961 as the result of the merger of two groups: Unitarians and Universalists.
Founded in 1793, the Universalists rejected the Calvinist teaching that only the “elect” would be saved, believing instead in the universal salvation of all. The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, and taught the “oneness of God,” as opposed to the trinitarian formula of one God in three persons.
Tapscott said while UU congregations have no creed or official dogma, they adhere to a set of seven guiding principles, among which are: “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Tapscott said the UU has given her a framework for her search for meaning that is both intellectually honest and spiritually nourishing.
“Everybody needs to feel loved, to feel accepted,” she said. “Everyone is afraid of death and helplessness. When you are affected by tragedy, you turn to religion. In the UU, you don’t have to leave your mind at the door. You can really explore and feel like you have a community.”