Concerns, vindicated

I’m not much of a fan for the Stand Up for Universalism day held today. I debated whether I should write or not, and yes, I know that other people feel warmly towards it.

For one, I don’t drum up support for a book launch uninvited and without an advance copy. The book launch is, at root, a commercial effort and the whole affair has been good for sales. How it benefits the truth remains to be seen. Which brings us to . . .

Two, oops — seems the author denies being a universalist. To which I add: I told you so.

Three, the kind of universalism that people identified with him — the one I know and love — has been run roughshod in the UUA for as long as I can remember. No fair trying to get (back) on the wagon now. And it’s positively unfair to suggest that people drawn to Rob Bell will find a welcoming home in any but perhaps a dozen churches in the UUA.

My diagnosis: Stand Up for Universalism looks like a whistful lament about has been lost in Unitarian Universalism, and the recognition that it has at least as much, if not more, theological weight and emotional resonance than what is considered mainline within the UUA. But that argues more for Universalism independent of the UUA than within it.

And how, at last, can I celebrate that?

Giving up Unitarian Universalism for Lent

I wrote this three years ago, and on March 1, 2014 — for some reason, perhaps Google searches — it was the number one item read here. So I thought I’d give it some attention.

I’ll keep this short.

I have a maxim I live by: if something you desire or rely-on continues to fail you, hurt you or inhibit you, get rid of it. The initial pain is nothing like the eventual relief. A collorary: you can’t change some situations, and eventually you’ll wonder why you thought you could.

I keep running into this phenomenon with Unitarian Universalists, in no small part because there’s so little choice. Most areas have a single Unitarian Universalist church. There’s only one functioning denomination (and a few independent movements, which I shall discuss in coming weeks) and its theological breadth seems narrower than when I joined my first church some quarter-century ago. There’s an implied bargain: accept the status quo, or leave. But don’t you dare make a fuss on the way out. Certainly, on the Christian end, the United Church of Christ has been the winner in that bargain.

I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship — and this is the first time I’ve mentioned this in public — because it was the only game and I had fond memories and friendships, but I let my membership lapse because its offerings were skimpy and quietist, and its direction haphazard. I let my membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association lapse because its programming was never directed toward my professional needs or station, never offered meaningful services, not to mention being shockingly expensive. And I’m more-than-usually weary of the Unitarian Universalist Association itself because it confuses busyness with services, and the current leadership — well, some — is engaged in a power-centralizing campaign. Monopoly, with appeals to emotional and professional dependence (perhaps not so much with the UUCF), makes for a bad bargain at the grassroots. If I hear covenant used as a coded message to clam up and step back in line, I’ll scream so loud that Cotton Mather will rise from his grave. I didn’t come to Unitarianism or Universalism for its threadbare institutions or the opportunity to conform.

I still think we can do better. But not if there’s some existential fear that, without current Unitarian Universalist institutions — I’m thinking of the appeals surrounding Meadville-Lombard, but not exclusively — the whole movement will drift into the Void. Indeed, I think we would fare well without some. Call it a Lenten meditation on self-reliance, and to a degree, self-respect. We can do better.

And I gather some people have figured this out, when I read Bill Baar’s comment in a recent blog post where he states that “I’m aware [that some districts] are contemplating a life post UUA.” Or when I read Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Elz Curtiss in the comment following or at her blog, Politywonk, lay out the moral and historical situation from the Unitarian side.

Just keep telling yourself we can do better and remember it needn’t be with what we have now.

Independent Universalist watch:

Yesterday, I was scanning through good, possible Internet domains to keep anti-Universalists from squatting on good names. (It’s happened before.)  I do this every few months. Lo and behold, following up on one that had been registered, I discovered (Larger hope is a common self-description for Universalists, and the title of the standard two-volume institutional history of Universalism.)

The site a mapping tool to “provide a way for others who believe the word of God to connect with one another”; that is, those who believe in Universal Salvation. Quite the blessing, and a very good idea. Go and review the theological statement — not to all convictions of those who read this blog — and if you’re a good match be sure to put your name on the map. Be warned; you’ll be sharing your email address too, so you might want to use a forwarding address.

Fresh crop of universalists?

There’s some buzz, buzz, buzz because evangelical darling Rob Bell may (or may not) be a universalist.

That tickles me, not because “our” number might be increased by one, but because this kind of proclamation is so common in Universalist history and was vital in its self-defense. (Style point: I use universalist to describe the theology and Universalist to denote the denominational affiliation or customs.)

“We” were happy when Partialists — a particular and sectarian term coined by, and used exclusively by, Universalists; it means “everyone else” — gave up their ways, even if they didn’t formally affiliate with us. Do you note a hint of scepticism, even sarcasm?

It’s because if the anti-Universalists have any case it is that universalism is something of a gateway doctrine to more eccentric and esoteric modes of belief. Think about Universalist minister Abner Kneeland‘s early and celebrated exit to blasphemy (and Iowa.) Or William Vidler’s early slide to Unitarianism. Or the fact that many well-established New England Swedenborgians came out of Universalist churches.  Or the fascination of Universalists with Spiritualism. (I wonder if Unitarianism cultivated the same trajectories, conditioning the pair to identify with one another?) And latter-day universalists will sometimes compromise and land in the more palatable (but morally horrifying) halfway-house of annihilationism. Others will make their faith into a fan dance and never quite answer “do you so believe?”

So, in short, I’ll believe in a celebrity conversion if it sticks. Call me in five years.

Most constant Universalists — speaking historically — are largely unknown, but it’s easy to read between the lines of the newspapers and reports imagine them as institutionalists: the hymn-writers and committee-members, many of whom only have a living legacy in the mind of God. Those who threw themselves into world-changing work, and those who adopted a lower-case-c catholic approach to their faith. The hope that by re-grounding Christianity on a historic, reasonable and well-balanced footing many of the old conflicts and errors that Christians made might be overcome. And above all, that God was better, more just and more loving that what we imagine ourselves to be. It was lived, at its best, as a cultivation of Christian character in communities — not always particular congregations — and in solidarity: a challenge to the Unitarian cultivation of Self.

But it was not a successful campaign in the larger sense, or it would be more a part of our denominational consciousness today, and this is why Unitarian Universalism seems more like a busy airport with many airlines offering endless arrivals and departures and no comfortable place to rest. Again, this is not new.

At least one Universalist — Orestes Brownson, a writer who, if he lived today, would almost certainly be a professional blogger — was drawn to something more capital-C Catholic . . .  and crossed to Rome.

Of course, today’s celebrity universalists have no need to cross to anywhere. Like Judith Sargent and her ministering second husband John Murray, this new generation is more likely to be independent of denominational connections. This weighs on me, because — perversely — there is really no more liberty or support to be a Universalist Christian in the UUA than there is to be a universalist Christian in other denominations. And if it takes a fight of self-assertion, what does one win if successful? Where will Bell — or Carlton Pearson or Jim Mulholland — be because of their stands.

Constant, catholic Universalists lost the larger fight, but oh! to know the inner lives, the congregations and the families so many must have built. That’s worth something, and sometimes small successes need celebration. I have to tell myself that as I ponder this new church start. Ask me if I feel the same five years hence.

Universalist alt-history

If this lighthouse had existed in 1770, warning the Hand in Hand, it might not have run aground, depositing John Murray in New Jersey to meet Thomas Potter. And the rest, as they say, would have not been history

Of course, there would have probably been Universalists anyway, though they might have been more of a back-country affair, more identified with the Connecticut and Savannah river valleys than Boston or Philadelphia. Ot perhaps a breed of low church Episcopalian. Or yhey might have been more like Baptists in polity and theology. But since God has seen fit to keep the Universalists going this long, I’m sure there would have been some other miracle and some other apostle.

Gardiner, Maine Universalists disband

Sad news from Doug Drown emailed to me earlier today and  reprinted with permission:

Thought you would like to know that it has been reported on the Maine Conference UCC website that the Gardiner United Church of Christ in Gardiner, Maine (former First Universalist Church) has closed. The property and assets have been turned over to the Conference to help provide funding for its ministry.

This was not a “former” Universalist church; it WAS the Universalist Church, having elected not to join the UUA at the time of the merger and to subsequently cast its lot with the UCC instead. The building is a particularly lovely example of New Brunswick-type “Bishop Medley” Carpenter Gothic, of which there are few examples in Maine. It’s painted yellow, which is also unusual. I’ll try to find a photo.

Thank you, and a photo would be appreciated. There are other unaffiliated Universalist churches formerly associated with the denomination, of course. Some are independent or locally federated, but this situation is unusual. (There was a church in Ohio affiliated with the NACCC but it was small and I’ve not seen it in the directory lately.)

Again, a sad word, worth noting with thanksgiving.

Christian Universalist Association to meet in Cincinnati

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Christian Universalist Association — why form central, outward-facing organizations when the internal community is so small? —  but my instinct is to be encouraging and wait. And when I heard that the CUA is holding a conference this fall in Ohio, I started thinking about attending.  Call me selfish, but these kind of things are so much better if well-attended, so if you want to meet with real, live Universalist Christians, look at the details and consider coming to Cincinnati on October 23 and 24.