Pondering the new House of Studies

So, an interesting bit of news: that a Unitarian Universalist House of Studies is opening at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio “early in 2016.” This was announced yesterday.

No, at first I thought this an audacious move. There are two Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-related houses of study, respectively affiliated at Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago. These have buildings, including student housing, a developed program and formal denominational recognition. Likewise, the “General Convention” Swedenborgians transformed its freestanding seminary, taking from a small Cambridge, Massachusetts institution and embedded itself into Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. These are seminaries in miniature, and the UU program at MTSO isn’t that. And that’s worth noting in case it’s written off as a pale imitation.

But Duke Divinity School has two “houses of study” (for Baptists and Episcopalians/Anglicans respectively) that’s more of a student nexus with an academic track. Something more programmatic than institutional, and that may be the model Dean Lisa Withrow and Susan Ritchie, the house of studies director, who the announcement describes as the minister of her church and “immediate past trustee and secretary on the national board of the Unitarian Universalist Association.” Nothing about her role at the Starr King School for the Ministry, which is itself strange and noticeable. But as a program with in a school, rather than alongside a school is quite reasonable.

In this light, perhaps this house of studies will be seen as a rival of Starr King, or even the much closer Meadville Lombard. But aren’t all schools that aren’t one of these — I didn’t go to either for what it’s worth — and the house of studies still functionally in the experimental phase. I am concerned that MTSO is one of the smaller contributors to the Unitarian Universalist ministerial college. If I were to develop one strategically, perhaps Boston University or Wesley here in D.C., where there are a significant number of congregations for field education. (There are only five UU congregations within 50 miles of MTSO, and only one has more than a 150 members. Field education needs field supervision.)

Which brings me to my point: this looks less like an alternative to Starr King or Meadville Lombard than an alternative to the fading option of Andover Newton. And its role in forming Unitarian Universalist ministers will be hard to replace, so good luck to the UU house of studies. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

Change of leadership at the UUCF

I’m glad to share the news that went public yesterday: that Jake Morrill, the minister of the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) Unitarian Universalist Congregation has been named the new Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. I couldn’t be more pleased.

He follows Ron Robinson in the role, who for many years to his retirement admirably held the position.

Thanks to Ron, and the UUCF Board, lead by Kim Hampton. And congratulations to Jake.

Unitarian Universalism is not heresy

I’ll not hide the lede: Unitarian Universalism is not heresy, even when it’s not right.

It’s hurtful and vexing that it’s a common assertion that Unitarian Universalism is a heresy, and that it is built on heresies. [Here’s a link to a Google search for “unitarian universalist heresy” to underscore my point.] At worst, this claim demonstrates an adolescent rebellion against ghosts of authority. At best, it’s an assertion of choice in religion, with faulty etymology that overlooks the possibility of bad and harmful choices. Somewhere in between, proud heretics radiate the message “doesn’t play well with others” and “is impressed with own self.” Little wonder we’re the butt of jokes: we don’t even know when we’re insulted, or insult ourselves.

And you can see, off to one side, the more shark-like of opponents nodding in agreement. Unitarian Universalism is a heresy, and surely a damnable one, and their own opinions are — of course — true and edifying. That’s some deflective cover for their own shortcomings.

I don’t think it’s too controversial — though I’ve been wrong before — to say that people do make choices, so far as they are capable, and intend to choose the right. Praising heresy isn’t about valuing good choices, but devaluing the possibility of making the right choice, sticking to it and building from it. And I think that’s why so many people who enter Unitarian Universalism by the front door leave by the back. If one choice is as good as another, there’s a better chance the right answer is out there. Because if one choice is as good as another, then Unitarian Universalists — collectively — won’t work to cultivate it among ourselves. And if a spirit of heresy is true, why is there such little high-level discussion about theology, or indeed any serious disagreements?

Harsh words, perhaps, but look around our general fellowship. What do we have to show for ourselves? Are you satisfied with that?

Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

Tool to search news broadcasts

Internet Archive has a tool that searches news broadcasts back to 2009, but since it’s fairly new, you may not have heard about it. Lots of uses, but I’m thinking particularly of those preachers who heard of, or were told of, a news segment but then don’t have access to it.

I thought a demonstration was in order, but so many of the searches were old or sad (funerals, vigils) that when I came across this 2014 Fox News segment with a Unitarian Universalist named John “Mac” McNichol, who is a living kidney donor, I knew I had to share it.

Congratulations…

Congratulations to Crystal St. Marie Lewis, who received her Master of Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C. today. She blogs here (Window on Religion) and tweets here and is well worth reading.

Do we have a gospel?

So, dear Unitarian Universalists: today is Palm Sunday and Passover starts tomorrow. You’re probably busy, so I’ll keep this brief.

Do we have a gospel? Not a bunch of gospels, or pieces that can be grouped into a gospel, but a story that makes it possible for a group of disparate persons into a particular people? I don’t think we do. I think we have a context for ministry, where we bring gospels, but I don’t think that’ll be sufficient for long-term survival. And so the people will perish.

We may be too big to share a gospel (from this point) and too small to re-organize around multiple centers.

An unhappy thought, but not having the though won’t save us. The comments are open.

If you don't have millions to buy a Bay Psalm Book

This week one of the eleven surviving copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, sold at auction.

The owner was Old South Church, Boston, and the sale reminded me of all the old Unitarian communion plate that was sold to keep the staff paid, the furnace stoked or the roof on.

Though I respect our history, I respect the institutions more. And there’s something sad when a communion cup or psalter becomes so valuable as an artifact that it loses its intended use; it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit in reverse. As treasure, the silver and the printed pages become less real. They were real because they were instruments of praise and thanksgiving. Better then, I think that they can be sold, conserved and placed on display, as indeed the new Psalm Book’s owner, David Rubenstein, intends to do. (He owns two of the eleven.)

Better still to keep the Great Thanksgiving at table, and our praises in song. And if you want to pray from the Bay Psalm Book… well, then thank God: you can read it online, in this 1903 facsimile reprint.

Do you use Github?

A call out for Unitarian Universalists and kindred: do you use Github? Asking for noodling a proof of concept. And you can follow me (bitb) here. (There’s not much there. Yet.)