The bit of Jewish liturgy hidden in plain sight in the red hymnal

For reasons too long to go into now, I was tracking down threads in the Classic Reform tradition of Reform Jewish liturgics a couple of weeks ago. Suffice it to say that it was in parallel with some of the liturgical developments in Unitarian churches in the late nineteenth century. There were some friendships crossing the divide, or at least cooperative parterships. It’s hard to tell how far or wide without a deep dive.

So, I was reading the Adoration ending sequence from the Sabbath evening service in the Union Prayer Book, in wide use in Reform temples through the early 1970s. This is the Aleinu, for those familiar with the traditional Hebrew name. I thought, “this looks familiar.”

As well it should. Capitalization aside, the first part of the Aleinu was dropped in almost verbatim as the Exhortation — that is, a beginning sequence — of the First Service of the Services of Religion, the services prepended to the 1937 joint Unitarian-Universalist Hymns of the Spirit.

So, it reads:

Let us adore the ever-living God, and render praise unto him who spread out the heavens and established the earth; whose glory is revealed in the heavens above and whose majesty is manifested throughout the earth. He is our God and there is none else; wherefore in awe and wonder we bow the head and magnify the Eternal, the Holy One, the Ever Blest.

That’s the same hymnal that has the Jewish text translated by a Unitarian minister, “Praise to the Living God” as its first hymn.

And if you’ve read this far and are at the UUA General Assembly in New Orleans, you may be interested in Shabbat Worship, presented by Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness on Friday, June 23, 5:00 pm in the Hilton Riverside Windsor Room.

Cross-posted to HymnsoftheSpririt.org

How I’ll approach the Unitarian Universalist Association

A couple of centuries ago, had I been a General Baptist — a group later folded with the Unitarians — I might be at the annual conference, held in London each Easter Monday. This Easter Monday I want to revisit my relationship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. You may see your experience in my words.

First, I’m not storming off in a huff, but hasn’t this last week been a challenge? Or is that the last year? Last decade? But there is this malaise, and it’s only improved by not thinking about the UUA.

In fact, not being in a pastorate since 2003, I’ve had little functional connection to the central institutions of the UUA, but had thought it better to stay as engaged as possible. I felt that was my responsibility. Even now I have some forms on my desk to fill out. So I follow the programs, read the Board minutes, stay informed and attend General Assembly when possible. But even though there aren’t fewer words, there’s less to read. Theological conversations? Engaging with counterparts overseas? A new hymnal? (New churches for that matter?) I look at the work of the UUA that appealed to me twenty years ago, and see less every year. Much of what continues has been sourced outside the UUA (or dropped), and with unseating of the independent affiliates (and the undermining of the Commission on Appraisal) that “outside” is also sidelined. GA workshops, save the UUCF communion service, are worthless to me. (Lunch is always an option.)  If I seem farther away from the center, maybe it’s because the scope of the UUA has shrunk, and I’ve spoken to others who feel the same way.

Instead, so much of the work of the UUA seems invested in maintaining the UUA itself. And the language of “your UUA” and “our saving faith” (definition forthcoming) seems to replace program with identity. But as Universalist Christian, that’s a non-starter. I could use programs, but the majority identity, itself under stress from demographic changes that all the old mainline churches face, actually makes it harder to make a claim a place in a theological federation.

So, what’s left that mostly works? Ministerial credentialing, the retirement plan, and (for those in search) settlement. I read the UUWorld, and I really like Elaine McArdle‘s writing. If everything else magically vanished, I might notice, but might not care. (Others will have other lists, of course.)  If the other work is meaningful, it would find a new home anyway.

There are, of course, friends and colleagues who do good work, and I want to support them; I can do this directly. There’s a vacuum (vacUUm?) that will needed to be filled. But there’s no reason I should examine UUA membership data if it’s clear from the outset that the outcome is “smaller.” If the UUA does not make communal religious life easier and richer, then others will find a way to do it better. Maybe the next president — I have no opinion about who that should be — will improve things, and if that happens I hope someone will tell me. In the meantime, I will focus on the innovators, the activity at the fringes, co-workers in the ecumenical world and my personal friends. I don’t have time to worry about the UUA, and so that’ll be the last I have to say on the subject.

Where the discussion about BLUU financial commitment?

Earlier this week, the UUWorld reported (Elaine McArdle, October 17) that the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees awarded a $300,000 grant to the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalists (BLUU), with a commitment to raise another $5 million, “guarantee[d] against the endowment.”

I have so many questions, not the least of which “why has there been no public commentary — apart from the immediate parties, and not much there — about this extraordinary step?”

And will there be room for an examination of what happened, or what this will mean to the Unitarian Universalist Association? There should be room; I’m not sure there will be.

Another story from the UUWorld is coming next week; perhaps then?

Universalist Christian Initiative at #uuaga

I’m soft-launching my new project, the Universalist Christian Initiative at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, which begins today in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s mainly about creating resources and finding direction for Universalist Christians, and at this point I’m looking for people interested in this work.

Please join the newsletter list here, and follow our Twitter account (@universalistci) here.

If you’ll be at GA, meet me at the UU Christian Fellowship booth (#115 in the exhibit hall)

  • Thursday, Jun 23 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Friday, June 24 from 11 a.m. to 12 noon

… or send a direct message to the @universalistci Twitter account if you’d like to talk.

A new church applying to the UUA, but…

The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association posted the packet for its forthcoming (April 15-16) meeting — and the April meeting is always the best. Why? It’s when you’re most likely to see applications for membership, and the most applications — and this is no exception. [Fixed typos.]

So I will presumptively congratulate the forty-two members of the (PDF link) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas, and wish them well and many years of prosperity and ministry.

But the summary memo (PDF) that announced the Bentonville congregation application also noted that two other churches — All Souls Church (Belgrade and Oakland, Maine) and the Hattiesburg (Miss.) Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — had disbanded, and that the Redding, California congregation has applied to re-classed as a “covenenting community” which by definition  (PDF) is not a member congregation. So not all good news.

Unitarian Universalist church planting, a document review

Several years ago, I wrote about a then-new resource called EmergingUU.org, and was hopeful it might spark new churches. That page has since vanished as a free-standing resource, but re-appeared as a page within the UUA Mid America Region site. But new church planting is as low as I’ve ever seen it.

There used to be quite a bit of church starting literature, both historically and within “career lifetime memory” but about the time I was coming on the scene in the 1980s, it was already drying up. Perhaps in repudiation of the Fellowship Movement model? The new model was to create a highly developed, programmatic church with high-commitment donors. This has worked in a couple of places, though I wonder if there has been any net gain in those areas. In any case, this is not the kind of church start that you leave new start publications out for. There’s not a new model that’s yet emerged, and it would be helpful for the appropriate authorities within the UUA to produce some, particularly as the “primary purpose” (as in “Principles and Purposes”) of the UUA is “to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.” (By-Laws C-2.2.)

Scanning the web this morning, I found:

The thing that first hits you is that the most important goal of a congregation is to affiliate with the UUA, without much of a case of why a congregation would want to do so. Oddly enough, there’s almost nothing said about what a congregation is, and while the site mentions some things (faith development, social justice, environmental concerns, for instance) it doesn’t go further to say why these are important. Administration trumps ecclesiology. It’s hard, without a huge amount of commitment and training, to come up with pathway for starting a new church without help, and it seems to me that the UUA ought to be generous this way. What better way could it earn its reason for being? Who better to lead this important work? Keep this in mind as the new congregations are welcomed at General Assembly. If any are welcomed at General Assembly.

The UUMA Guidelines and the limits to criticism

It’s funny — I am, quite deliberately, not a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, but its Guidelines continually affect me, and all Unitarian Universalists. In particular, there is a troubling culture that has grown up around one of the expectations of conduct:

I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation concerning a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately. I will not solicit or encourage negative comments about a colleague or their ministry.

These Expectations of Conduct apply to all forms of public or private media including electronic and internet communications.

Which is fine, as written, and a bit embarrassing that it needs to be spelled out.

But the rule, as applied, has grown legs and can run. Too often, it claims the power of “covenant,” which so far as I can tell means “because I said so” and which really comes from our Unitarian and New England-ish approach to interpersonal power.

That power gave us strength — in the past. The kind of principled, theological debate that once marked our traditions is long gone. So, there’s a decided chill to not only not “speak scornfully or in derogation” but to not speak negatively about another minister, his or her thoughts or behavior or conduct in the ministry. Or really say anything that could be read negatively. I’ve spoken to several ministers over the years who have decided to self-censor and not criticize or challenge bad ideas for fear of being hauled up on charges of unprofessional conduct. There’s no reason someone’s reputation should be menaced by a fragile personality, yet our system allows it.

And we are the more bland, insular and stupid for it.

We are at the beginning of an over-long campaign for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a position that (for the life of me) I can’t imagine anyone wanting. Two ministers were nominated, one has since dropped out. Another candidate, almost certainly a minister, will be presented by the same nominating committee to be run though an ersatz grassroots nomination by petition. I suspect others will see the opportunity and run. The process is in tatters, but where is the analysis? Ministers are candidates, nominators, campaign supporters, whips, funders and voters. What, in our subdued culture, is right to say?  I suspect we can demand little from ministers, and get less. How is that leadership? What can we demand of the candidates in public, however nominated?

I add in public because when there’s a pressure not to speak candidly, back-channels and coded language takes its place, in this election and in all our business.

So, first, let’s look at this rule and not over-function. To “speak scornfully or in derogation” assumes the application of emotion over reason, and presumably to speak against the person — ad hominem — and not the ideas, prospect, record or plans. It means to use the rhetorical skills associated with the ministry carefully, and the care means asking those tough questions — in public — among the ministerial college.  Apply the rule as written.

Our heritage, dignity and reputation demand nothing less.

Deeply bad news for the UUA

I don’t have time to write about it now, but Sue Phillips announced this morning that she is withdrawing from the race for the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This is bad news for her and for the UUA, and it sets up a crisis for the new and untested process for selecting a new president.

It also creates an unequal power relationship for any candidate that may now come forward, and privileges established power centers that might want to put forward a candidate.

I’ll be writing more on this subject later, and as the news develops.