Heartbreak at a lost church

I cannot approve of what seems to be a last-minute derailment tactic by conservative Episcopalians in the nomination of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.

And I also cannot pretend that the conservatives are not faithful people, and, if this vote passes, they will personally lose something.

Consider this excerpt from a presentation by a lay member of the Fort Worth diocese delegation, widely accepted as one of the most conservative places on the Episcopalian landscape, found in full here [dead link]:

I am a lifelong Episcopalian. I love this Church. But my Church is drifting away, and I am afraid that I am going to lose it forever.

I came to the Episcopal Church as a little girl. I walked down to our little neighborhood church and entered an amazing place of beauty and reverence. You could say that I have had the Episcopal Church in my blood since I can remember. . . .

But now, it’s our Church that is drifting away. If you vote to confirm Gene Robinson, I cannot go with you.

Compare that with any number of “if the UUA accepts God, I’m leaving” posts at the “Reclaiming a Vocabulary of Reverence Within Unitarian Universalism” discussion forum.

In each case, the individual needs and assumptions of the remontrant are treated as objective realities in need of a well-orchestrated defense, even though the Episcopalians, Unitarians, and Universalists each have histories and experiences broad enough to muster people who would have diametrically opposite experiences. I can repect the feelings of the Fort Worth delegate, and even those UU Humanists, but not enough to adopt the status quo.

Like it or not, in this kind of denomination-tearing fight, there usually are winners and losers, and, no, I don’t like it. Some action must be taken, even if it is only the action of recognition.

Unitarian and Universalist Christians have, until fairly recently, had to live with a continuing series of losses with the implied message that, as the “old guard,” we would have a diminishing stake within Unitarian Universalism. The assumption, both within and without the Christian cohort, is that eventually the “grandfathered” Christians would die out: terrible news from the inside, and one (apparently) blithfully ignored from the outside. I am no longer amazed that there are people who deny the existence of those who are both Christian and Universalist or Unitarian, or both. But neither will I accept this dismissive behavior, and that’s one of the reasons I write.

But not all was lost. Something happened in the Nineties — a change of leadership and generation, yes, but more accurately a change of attitude — that gave the Christian cohort a new sense of confidence and less of the defensiveness that had marked times past. We acted like God had an active plan and future for us, and, indeed, I believe God does.

Now it is the Humanist cohort that seems pained at a future of loss and (dare I say it?) dismission. But it seems to be that the Christian response is not to lord over the grief, and say “you had it coming” but be present and more than a little understanding. After all, we’ve been there, and there no guarantee we won’t know those feelings again. (If not institutionally, then certainly personally.)

Today, I hope the fighting factions of Episcopalians will experience enough grace to continue as one church, whatever the outcome of the Robinson election. After all, the world is watching and asking if there are Christians in that Convention. There are times I wonder if there are Christians anywhere: those living in knowledge of their redemption, identified by grace, and hopeful for unity with one another, the compass of creation, and with God.

Let there be peace in Minneapolis, and, I pray, next year in Long Beach.

A change of venue

Well, it took long enough but I was able to

(1) learn Movable Type, and

(2) get it loaded onto one of the hosts I have, but clearly not the one that supports uuchristian.org. (Lesson to self: keep all your websites hosted through one, convenient service.)

So welcome to all of those who have read “boy in the bands” before. There are a few things that need to be cleaned up, and I need to get my links finished.

And get enough entries to push the right-hand column over into the right-hand space.

I lift mine eyes to "Rocky Top Tennessee"

Utah-born and bred Philocrites recalls how the Mormon anthem “Come, Come Ye Saints” moved him to tears when sung at King’s Chapel, Boston.

The closest experience I have had to this was at the Opening Ceremony at Nashville 2000 GA. Mind you, I think Opening Ceremony has been a disorganized rah-rah shambles and needs to be better orchestrated. I even forgave them the 80s-Metal-Band-Reunion-Tour-with-Special-Guest lighting when a bluegrass group broke into “Rocky Top.” OK, this is less “God’s providental care leading us to Deseret” and more “I’m being destroyed in the city and am home-sick for my mountain home where we fornicate, drink hard liquor, and murder Revenuers.” But those are my people. (Except for the murdering part. Probably.) So what are you gonna do?
And this is quite a concession: “Rocky Top” is the fight-song for the Univerity of Tennessee, a football rival of my own alma-mater, The University of Georgia.

At that GA, for the first time I felt “a part of the team” and not in spite of being a Southerner. The usual, but fading message from the Unitarian Universalists, as implied by a fascination about “what happened in Selma”, is “look at those hateful crackers. We’re better than them.”

Bringing in the bluegrass group showed more cultural awareness than the atrocious theme hymn (refrain: We pledge ourselves to diversity.) we were forced to sing. But I cried, not from principle, but because, like Philocrites, I never never never thought I would hear it in a Unitarian Universalist context.

Entirely proper

Here’s what I promised, based on what we’ll have in worship this Sunday, as suitable for a commemoration
of George deBenneville.

  • first reading: Malachi 2:5-7 (see)
  • second reading: Ecclesiasticus/Sirach/Ben Sira 39:1-10 (see)
  • responsive reading: Wisdom of Solomon: 10:16-21 (here, NRSV, gently adapted.)
  • Wisdom entered the soul of a servant of the Lord,
    and withstood dread kings with wonders and signs.
  • She gave to holy people the reward of their labors;
    she guided them along a marvellous way;
    She became a shelter to them by day,
    and a starry flame through the night.
  • She brought them over the Red Sea,
    and led them through deep waters;
    but she drowned their enemies,
    and cast them up from the depths of the sea.
  • Therefore the righteous plundered the ungodly;
    they sang hymns, O Lord, to your holy name,
    and praised with one accord your defending hand;
  • All: For wisdom opened the mouths of those who were mute,
    and made the tongues of infants speak clearly.

The hymns were chosen for their propriety, familiarity, and ease of singing for
a somewhat smaller summer congregation.

  • A Mighty Fortress
  • Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty
  • For All the Saints

DeBenneville's Life and Trance

The Life and Trance of George deBenneville can be now found at www.universalistchurch.net/faith/lifeandtrance.html, which is another of my web persuits. Enjoy it with your July 26 G. deB. observances. I’ll work up a suitable list of “propers” (worship elements appropriate and particular to an occasion) to be posted here.

And I cannot help but notice in reading the other Unitarian Universalist weblogs that, as far as a “vocabulary of reverence” goes, God isn’t doing too badly on the World Wide Web.

Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round

There’s a hymn — sadly missing in the 1993 Singing the Living Tradition but present in the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit we use at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington; you can also read the full text at CyberHymnal, even though I prefer it matched to the tune Stockport (Yorkshire)‘ — that informs my ministry and faith, and is probably my favorite: “Eternal Ruler of the Ceaseless Round.” The last verse is my favorite, particularly when things get hairy at church.

O clothe us with thy heavenly armor, Lord,
Thy trusty shield, thy sword of love divine;
Our inspiration be thy constant Word;
We ask no victories that are not thine;
Give or withhold, let pain or pleasure be,
Enough to know that we are serving thee.

The hymn survives, if not in today’s Unitarian Universalist hymnals, than in
ecumenical hymnody. If nothing else, it makes a rousing sing, like
“Rank by Rank, Again We Stand.”

But what is this business about heavenly armor? A reference to Ephesians, I reckon, where Paul exhorts his hearers to “put on the whole armor of God” (6:11) Then the next verse (NRSV):

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Charismatics I have known — and others — stand on guard against spiritual forces of evil, and more often than not pitch battle with Satan in prayer. Liberals, in turn, more often than not treat these “prayer warriors” as cranks or fools, and little wonder with this generation of liberals’ ambivalence towards military force and religious observance.

John Chadwick, the hymn’s author, seems to add constancy and abiding faith to the arsenal, assumes that life (and in particular the work of the ministry) is, in part, a struggle with forces over which we have no control. To my mind, that has a greater grounding in pastoral theology than the new songs written for General Assembly worship that usually can be filed under “Big Happy Family.”

Chadwick, like other Harvard Divinity students of his day wrote this hymns, and this one was for his class of 1864. Long gone are the days that Unitarian ministers were likely to be reasonably accomplished hymn-writers (the Universalists wrote a lot of hymns, but few were worth singing then, much less now) but, then again, I live in hope for better, richer, and deeper things to sing.

Philocrites, though unordained, is a hymn-writer, and I believe a graduate of a certain divinity school on the north shore of the Charles. He and Mrs. Philocrites (a divinity student in her own right, though I’m sure it is a different school north of the Charles) seem to have returned to Massachusetts after their honeymoon. Blessings to both.

UU customs and growth

Do UU customs undercut new church growth? That’s a big question, so I hope my readers will excuse me thinking out loud. (I reserve the right to retract any statement later.) First, I’m not talking about a resistance to evangelism, real or imagined, but systems that discourage new churches from growing to their full potential. This line of thought comes from
some comments after the Opening Ceremony at the UUA General Assembly. At that service/meeting, the churches that joined the UUA in the past year are formally welcomed. This year’s crop was slight, with few members each. A quick review of their certified memberships showed each new congregation had a membership in the 30s or 40s. Going back a few more years — I looked as far as 1999 — you do find a smattering of memberships over a hundred, and a few more between sixty and ninety-nine, but far too many are in the 30s and 40s, with some even smaller and a couple which seem
to have disbanded. Why is this?

I have to think that the minimum number of members for a congregation to be a member of the UUA has to play a
factor. It currently stands at thirty, so I’m thinking that a congregation hits thirty members and joins the UUA as soon as possible. The problem is that thirty is a periously small size for a church to launch with. I’m basing that opinion on a Southern Baptist study cited by Aubrey Malphurs in his Planting Growing Churches for the 21st Century (Baker Books) suggesting that new churches that have more than fifty members at the time of their launch have a better chance of surviving and thriving than those that have fifty members. So, perhaps, the thirty-member Unitarian Universalist new start is too small at birth.

But can’t a far-thinking UU new start “delay its birth”? Two factors discourage this. First, and I would want to review past Annual Program Fund (APF) Honor Society lists before taking this too far, a new start has to pay a full “fair share” to the APF to be admitted, but once admitted there is no mechanism to mandate this level of giving. (Though it should be noted that the proportion of APF Honor Societies is going up.)

There would seem to be an incentive to join the UUA as small as possible. Second, and perhaps more damaging to the future of the Association is the creeping rhetoric that a church doesn’t really exist until it joins the UUA. When you hear what should be called “Association Sunday” or “Affiliation Sunday” called “Charter Sunday” you can’t help but assume that membership in the UUA is ontologically essential for these young (and vulnerable) congregations. Belonging (to the UUA) becomes the church’s mission.

A dose of congregational polity memory might be helpful here.

Prematurely stunted churches help nobody, and I hope we’re big enough to recognize habits that make them.

Back from Rome

So, no, I didn’t post from Italy, and I’m not convinced that anyone even noticed. (This
is something of a specialized weblog.) Yes, the wedding was lovely. And, yes, Rome was grand (and quite hot, but
better that than the perpetual rain and mist that typified Spring 2003.) Perhaps I’ll
get a few pictures up in time, but only after General Assembly and my wedding have passed.
(Chris a.k.a Philocrites says essentially the same thing.)

One thing that is different than when I last wrote is that it may be possible for my partner
Jonathan and I to actually get legally married in Ontario, even if that marriage would not then
be recognized when we returned to the relatively liberal environs of the District of
Columbia. No need to make links, it is the big news related to Toronto, squelching the SARS story.

Rest in peace.Two very different men died today: my great-uncle Israel “Pat” Coatney, and
former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, who died nearby. May God bring them, and in time each of us, home and close to one another.

Married, Universalist style

When I commented at my “Wedding
in the Universalist Tradition” site [link down: 21 April 2005] that the 1839 Menzies Rayner service has “little to commend itself for use today” I was clearly mistaken. Ths evening, I will officiate the marriage of two church members with an abridgement of this rite, which you can read here.
The couple really liked the service, in part, I’m sure because it leaves open a ring ceremony at the solemnization service I’ll lead overseas. Feel free to use it if you like it. Perhaps I can even get a photo online later. (Send yours, too, if you use the service!)