Interview with Rev. Ed Townley, minister in the Unity Church

Written by Rev. Laura Derr, fall 2015

(My ministerial program at All-Faiths Seminary International in New York City required that each ordination candidate interview leaders in several different faith traditions. The questions were ones that I asked all of my interviewees. I took notes during the interview, so what is written is a summary of those notes. The interview was not recorded. It is an honor to offer this interview to those who love him and would like to know more about his faith journey, now that he has passed into Spirit. As he says at the very end of the interview, we honor where the person is going next.)

I thoroughly enjoyed my interview with Rev. Townley, I could feel his loving heart and his joy at sharing the truth of Love and Spirit.

1.  What called you to be a leader in your Unity faith tradition?

Rev. Ed’s “conscious cooperation” with his spiritual path began when he joined AA – out of desperation.  He was raised Catholic, but is gay, so needed to find a Higher Power that accepted him.  On Easter Sunday, 1976, a friend invited him to the Unity NYC service.  “My whole being was shocked.”  It was overwhelming, so he fled – he was not ready to release control of his life.  The minister was Eric Butterworth who wrote Discover the Power Within You, a text about the basics of Unity. Since then, Rev. Ed has read and re-read it multiple times.

Rev. Ed was a theater professional.  After NYC, he moved to Chicago where he was very successful directing theater, but he was not feeling complete.  So he looked up Unity in Chicago.  “I’ve been going ever since.”  Even though he intellectually understood the philosophy from Rev. Butterworth’s book, he still had a lot of “letting go of stuff I didn’t believe, but which was still in my mind.”  He had learned that Jesus had said, “All this you will do and more,” which he did not at first believe because the Catholic Church never taught this, and did not encourage reading of scripture.  But, shocking to him, there were those words right in the New Testament!  Thus began his fascination with the deeper meanings in scripture – more to be said in a bit.

The ministers in Chicago could tell Rev. Ed was on the ministerial path, but he resisted.  Eventually he agreed to apply to Unity seminary, sure he would not be accepted, but he was!  Through the first year there, he was still convinced he couldn’t lead a congregation.  He was, of course, comfortable with public speaking – his whole career had been in theater.  The problem was that, growing up Catholic, he had the idea that ministry equaled being a priest, which meant he couldn’t have a social life and couldn’t be gay.  But he eventually realized that he had been called “to use who I am in service to Spirit.”  So he started with writing plays for Unity congregations to perform, mostly Bible stories with a Unity interpretation.  A particular favorite of his is The Pool of Bethesda, which teaches about the necessity of changing your thinking – do you want to be healed?

Rev. Ed graduated from Unity seminary 25 years ago, when not many congregations would accept a gay man.  The Evanston, Illinois, church invited him to lead a Board workshop on “Using Arts in Ministry.”  During the first half of the day, something did not feel right; so he went to meditate by Lake Michigan during lunch.  The guidance came to him clearly that would set his ministerial path.  “It’s not about bringing arts to ministry; it’s about ministering to the arts!”

So he started his own ministry, called “Spirit Expressing.”  He moved to Portland, Oregon, and started a ministry for performers.  He used a theater on Sunday evenings, since performers are out late on Saturdays and need to sleep Sunday mornings.  “We did all kinds of crazy things.”  The nearby Unity Church was about to go under.  They came to him and asked him to be their minister.  He said no, but he was willing to merge his arts ministry with their church.  A decision-making and bureaucratic process later, the new combined arts ministry/church was born.  He learned how to blend these ministries.

After seven years, he had the sudden awareness that he was done, “I knew I had to be available.”  So he left, wrote a book, and did guest speaking for a year.  Then the central Unity office called him to apply to lead the church in Chicago, where he had been a congregant. Their minister had died suddenly, throwing the congregation into turmoil.  Rev. Ed resisted, but finally agreed to surrender and apply.  The congregation called him.  Chicago has a vibrant arts community, so it was “fertile soil” for joining the arts with Unity.  “We did amazing work.”  Then again, after seven years, he felt guided to leave.  The congregation held a meeting, 400 people strong, to urge him to stay.  One woman finally said they needed to support Rev. Ed’s guidance, because following his guidance is what had made him available to serve them in the first place.  And so they let him go.  Though he has moved on, the joining of arts with Unity continues to live on in Chicago!

Rev. Ed had no idea what was next.  The leader of the Unity church in Dallas, a friend of his, called and said, “I hear you are waiting for a sign of what to do next.  This is your sign – you’re coming to Dallas as associate minister.”  So he went.  He held that job for four years; then was interim senior pastor when his friend retired.  He planted his “Spirit Expressing” seeds in Dallas.  The theater group he started still exists there. They do an annual performance, classes for kids, etc.

Then the Harford, Connecticut, Unity church called him.  Rev. Ed got his trademark “Arts and Unity” ministry going.  The church grew with lots of younger people in the arts.  But the old-timers were not comfortable with these new people, so the Board asked Rev. Ed to leave after serving there for four years.

Since then, he has been semi-retired.  He leads the service at Unity in the City in Brookline every other Sunday, but does not have responsibility for running the church.  It is clear to him that he is not called to be a head pastor, run staff meetings, etc.  “It’s not for me.”

2.  What aspect of your religious practice is most rewarding?

“My focus has to be on the message.  I get an increasingly pure sense of truth.”  His service is to share this truth.  He recently published his second book, Kingdom Come, a mystical interpretation of the New Testament book of Revelation.  In fact, this interpretation of the Bible to reveal its deeper truth has always been his calling.  He had a wonderful Bible teacher in ministerial school who started him on this path.  “My gift has been to be able to bridge the Bible with New Thought.”   The founders of Unity, Myrtle and Charles Fillmore, had always recognized the universal principles of truth that are present in all religions, and showed how Jesus had taught this truth, so Rev. Ed sees that he is carrying on their work.  He now guest speaks, teaches Bible classes, and writes a lot.  On the website, there is a button to click called “Interpreting the Bible” where people can submit questions.  These are forwarded to him, and he answers them.  He has always been struck by how attached people are to the Bible, but are stuck on incorrect interpretations, so he sees that it is a great service to free people to see the deeper truth.  “It keeps me awake and aware.”  He has a half-hour on-line radio show on Unity Radio of Bible FAQ’s.  He sends out a regular spiritual message to his email list.  Rev. Ed is a loving messenger of God!

3.  What in your sacred texts appeals to you most?

The power of story.  Jesus worked in parables.  You can communicate truth at depth in stories; people remember stories far better than abstract philosophy. In Portland, adults would come early to hear his children’s stories because they spoke so deeply to them.  His interpretations are, “half Bible, half creative process.”  He particularly likes the archetype of the “Hero’s Journey.”  Harry Potter is an example of this archetype, which is why it speaks so broadly to so many people.  The Wizard of Oz is another example that he has used often. He’s currently working with the Gospels of Thomas, Phillip and the Beloved Companion.

4.  What answers to life’s big questions does your religion provide?

a)  Who are we?

We are beings of infinite Spirit.

b)  Why are we here?

To create a new level of consciousness that Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven.  The world is divided between those that believe we’re here to create, and those that believe we’re here to be obedient.  In Galatians, Paul says that Jesus completed the law so we could know about the Christ in us.  No need to obey old traditions.  Jesus said, “But I say to you,” meaning, “I know the law says this, but don’t get stuck there, be willing to learn there is a new way to understand.”

c)  What is consciousness?

Joel Goldsmith calls it “a parenthesis in eternity.”  It is a coming together of infinite Spirit, not a separation, but a part of God-mind that is expressing as consciousness.

d)  What is the world?

It is our creation that is divinely inspired, that is expressing our consciousness, i.e. expressing both love and fear, so an imperfect expression of the Divine, an out-picturing of our collective consciousness.

e)  What is God?

All that is, there is nothing that is not God, there is no power or place that is opposite to God.  Indefinable, any definition creates limits and God is unlimited. It is the energy of infinite possibility.

f)  What is death?

There is no after-life, there is only life.  Death is an opening and closing of a door.  It is the same as birth, moving from one realm of being to another.  There is no separation.  There is only the realm of Spirit, we’re always there, we’re only in this particular piece of it.  At death, we honor where the person is going next. 

One thought on “Interview with Rev. Ed Townley, minister in the Unity Church

  1. Thank you for this article! I’ve learned much more about my mentor Ed Townley.
    I came to Unity in ‘94 at Unity of Beaverton, Oregon. Ed brought me into a new philosophy of life, and encouraged me to write short plays and perform.
    I have carried on his idea of theatre in church, mostly at Unity of Fort Collins, Colorado. Last summer (2020), I was to give a workshop on doing theatre in church at the Unity People’s Convention. I was hoping to see Ed there; the convention was cancelled.
    I haven’t been in contact with Ed since he left Oregon. I feel great gratitude towards him for showing me new paths. His legacy does live on, I believe in a smaller way than the showman that he was would like, but it continues.
    Thank you again,
    JoEllen Fulton


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