The Elephant and the Emperor

Sean from Across, Beyond, Through asked the following in the comments of the entry, “Is being many harder than being one?”:


Just checking here–your position is that Unitarianism and Universalism were intentionally changed in order to be more palatable? To each other? To society at large?

I think that there was an embarrasment about the way Unitarianism and Universalism had been, and a fear that these older modes of being wouldn’t carry the religion — and perhaps not support America — into postwar living. Since the two groups that would accomplish this transformation (of themselves, of society) were the Universalists and Unitarians, they needed to be closer together. So yes, to all of the above.

Doing so cut us from our roots and traditions, despite protestations that we “draw” from them, and that was the big mistake, even if it was earnest and (at the time) sensible.

But Sean also challenges me: “And I think my knickers get in a twist because I don’t hear anything that passes as respect or affection for Unitarian Universalism in your posts.”

Fair enough. My loves within the institutions of Unitarian Universalism include the churches I serve and have served, my colleague-friends, and those supports that make maturity as a Universalist Christian possible. As such, I don’t love Unitarian Universalism, in part because I’m not sure it’s an it.

The most I can concede is that Unitarian Universalism is a complex of ideas and assumptions, bound more by historical accident than philosophical cohesion, that infuse so many congregations, schools, and other institutions. If some of the ideas that animate me weren’t present, I would have left long ago. Indeed, I become a real crab when denounced by persons (including colleagues, to their shame) as an ontological impossibility. I may be a minority, but I am real, and since when as excluding minorties been a part of Unitarian Universalism.

Well, in fact, it has been. Theological and social minorities anyway. But that says more about human nature than a denomination.

But this is more than about being member of a thin theological minority hanging on; it is about the soul of the fellowship.

I’m of the age — thirty-four — that I cut my political teeth in the tail end of the Queer Nation/ACT-UP era. (I’ll give you a moment to digest that visual.) I was never a member of either group (mainly because I was closeted during their years of greater vitality) but the ethos did bring me out. (If they were juvenile, well then look to the White House in those days.) I continue to insist that silence equals death.

My experience is that we’re all supposed to agree and be alike, even if it is alike in a perverse criticism of culture (as I’ve seen in some fellowships) or in socio-economic norms (as in worshipping NPR) — and that real dissent isn’t really welcome. Again, human nature. OK, fine. But it doesn’t give us a sense of commonweal or trust, and it can’t help us be a reasonable participant (I refuse to call us an “alternative”) in American and Canadian religious life.

So I’ll even act like a crab to the nude Emperor, it it helps him find some clothes.

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.

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.

What to profess?

I never thought so many people would take an interest in this humble blog. Thank you.

Some of the well-wishing inquiries came with the question, “how do I get one of my own?” I’m not using any web-logging software; just this CSS (thanks, free-of-charge, to Firda Beka at bookofstyles.org [site defunct], modified a bit).

In time, I hope to “power it” with MovableType, but that’s a learning curve I’ve no time to climb.

Much after Sunday worship.

I read a section from Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession in worship, and led it with
a review of Adin Ballou’s influence on him. I should have gone to Friends of Adin Ballou first! This site keeps growing, and is clearly one to watch.

What to Profess? My friend Derek Parker, an Earlham seminarian and the lay pastor of the Universalist Church of Eldorado, Ohio asked me (and I post here with his permission)

If you were building a new Universalist church from the ground-up, what are 3 or 4 essential theological convictions you would like to see in a contemporary Universalist profession? Or would you just repeat the Winchester Profession with updated language?

What a tantalizing question, and one that I hope to spill into this blog and the pulpit in months to come. But first things first. I wouldn’t reject, update, or adopt wholesale the Winchester
Profession in a new church, no matter how much I love it. (And I do.)

Instead, the Winchester Profession deserves its role as the foundational theological standard for Universalism, and one can build on it.

I have sometimes been criticized for not “correcting” the gender language of the Winchester Profession. For the record, I’m trying to uphold the letter and the spirit of what the 1803 Convention asked of future generations in its adopted Plan of the General Assocation:

Section 10th. The Association reserves to itself, under the direction of that divine wisdom which was to accompany the followers of Christ to the end of the world, the right of making hereafter such alterations of this General Plan of the Association, as circumstances may require. But there is no alteration of any part of the three Articles that contain the Profession of our Belief ever to be made at any future period.

(You can see the whole document and much more at www.winchesterprofession.org/eddy1876.html.) [22 April 2005: I let that site lapse in 2003.]

The 1899 and 1935 documents (a “declaration” and a “avowal” respectively) recall “encapsulated” that which came before it.

Thus the Winchester Profession had official standing, not just pious sentiment, until the Universalists consolidated with the Unitarians.

But there are examples — I’ll have to see if I can dig them up — of local churches and state conventions before 1899
(and perhaps after) adopting theological symbols for the fellowship of ministers and churches (locally, I assume the members, too) which stated more but never less than the Winchester Profession. (Of course, there is also the 1903 composite creed, which though it had no official standing, did make it into a denominationally published
prayerbook for more than a generation.)

This might be the theologically appropriate approach to composing a new theological symbol for Universalists. But this also begs a reading of the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws:

Section C-2.3. Non-discrimination. The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief. Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

So, what constitutes a creedal test? And who decides?