What hymns are distinctive for Unitarian and Universalist Christians? Lists proffered.

Yesterday, I blogged wondering what might constitute a Unitarian and Universalist Christian hymn corpus. In essence, this would seem to me to be those hymns most commonly found in Unitarian and Universalist hymnals (the Universalists wrote few enduring hymns themselves and tended to rely on the Unitarians as much as anyone) less those hymns commonly found in any number of hymnals.

I steeled myself for a bit of a research project — we all have our hobbies — then discovered a tool that probably give as good a result in a fraction of the time. The Hymnary.org site indexes American hymnals. Ideally, each hymnal should have each consituent hymn notes withits particular version of the text, plus the tune and distinguishing metadata. In many cases, however, all there is is a list of hymns, noted by a standardized name. This includes a large number of Universalist and Unitarian hymnals. (The 1993 Singing the Living Tradition is noted, but alas doesn’t even have a list of hymns.)

A feature at Hymnary.org is the ability to compare two hymnals by common content. So I thought: if someone took a list of the hymns found in both the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit and the 1964 Hymns for the Celebration of Life, less those hymns found in the Consultation on Ecumenical Hymnody list, you might have a working list of distinctively Unitarian and Universalist hymns.

A few caveats:

  • Some hymns thought as distinctly Unitarian might not be on the list because they were adopted ecumenically.
  • Some ecumenical hymns were re-written for a particularly Unitarian audience — usually to remove references to the Trinity; Holy, Holy, Holy leaps to mind — and so may be thought of distinctive, but remain with the ecumenical list.
  • Several hymns on the “distinctive” list were not written by Unitarians and Universalists; this is only a reference to adoption.
  • Some hymns, however distinctive, are so out of fashion that their current adoption is unlikely. So this list should be read both from a practical and historical point of view. Not Alone for Mighty Empire — on the ecumenical list — comes to mind.

So here’s the distinctive list: many items that seem just right, others that needs bear scrutiny.
Continue reading “What hymns are distinctive for Unitarian and Universalist Christians? Lists proffered.”

The missing State Convention

While proposing this new church, I think it’s important to support it with as many of the charisms, or distinctive gifts, that Universalist Christianity has developed, whether or not they are actively appreciated.

Not that every distinctive was a charism, or deserves this attention. The Universalist habit of debating theological opponents — our alternative to tent revivalism — died (after decades of decline) in the 1920s and I intend to leave it buried. But Universalists approached theological freedom and congregational polity in a different way than did the Unitarians, and these need to be considered deeply.

If there was a Universalist golden age, it was probably in the years after the Civil War until the 1920s. The institutions were at their strongest and Universalists were at their most confident. (If not most distinctive: I take Ann Lee Bressler‘s read of postbellum Universalism’s betrayal of its early radical global communitarianism seriously.)  As far as I can tell, they grew numerically, and had a keen sense of mission in the United States and abroad.

One feature of Universalism in those days was the system of churches, state conventions and the general convention. A church member would have the fellowship of the church, the churches and ministers would have the fellowship of the state convention (or be directly fellowshipped in the places that didn’t have a convention, like the District of Columbia) and the state conventions would have the fellowship of the general convention. The appropriate level of governance would make recommendations or coordinate action for its setting.

Interestingly, with the 1961 consolidation, some actions — ministerial fellowship in particular — became more centralized. Other prerogatives like as the licensing of lay ministers and the recognition of mission-focused organizations — the independent affiliates — have been given up.

A new Universalist-minded church would have to identify what parts of the state-level system survive in the UUA districts and as a whole, and which have to be reconstituted — in trust, in a sense — at the congregational level. I suspect recognition of non-local lay ministries fall into this category. And perhaps in time, should there be a plural number of Universalist Christian churches in fellowship, some of these powers — meant to support and calm the sometimes turbulent free-spiritedness Universalists know — might be shared in common.

So what's a creedal test?

Unitarian Universalists have an outsided fear of creeds. Outsized because the expressed fear, for example, doesn’t match the reality of how throughly the “Principles and Purposes” of the Association have become the theological touchstone of the movement, and how theological eclectism, reinforced by middle-class tastes, has become the defacto majority theological view.

I know I’m a theological minority in Unitarian Universalist circles. I’m a Christian, a Universalist and a trinitarian to boot. But this is my home. I am as much an heir to this tradition as those who find themselves more comfortably placed in its mainline. And I think, plainly, that my end of the tradition — far from being dead or antiquarian — has more to offer the next generation than the last, and that its constellation of ethos, charisma (spiritual gifts), customs and theology can be healing, appealing and faithful to Christ and his gospel. (I have similar thoughts about Unitarian ‘biblical humanism’ or ‘lyrical theism’ but am not in a position to work on it. Perhaps someone else can.)

I’ll keep this short because I’ve written about this here, here, here and here; indeed, this concern goes back to the dawn of this blog.

My concern, in plain words, is that Second Universalist would not be allowed to join the UUA. The traditional Universalist way would be to have a member assent to the Winchester Profession, pledge to the financial welfare of the congregation and be bound by a compact or covenant (synonymous here). Member assent is to the Winchester Profession in general, and a congregation could come up with an alternative that, in a sense, embeds the meaning of the Winchester Profession. Some did, say the Rhode Island Catechism and the 1903 Creed, perhaps to make them more liturgically useful. (Indeed, the later “Five Principles” and Washington Avowal should be read this way.)

When I read church bylaws that require “sympathy” to the UUA Principles and Purposes, I see a parallel development which justifies rather than supersedes my reading of Universalist polity. And if a new church cannot do this (that is, gather in the traditional Universalist way) then what does it say about current Unitarian Universalist claims to continuity with its Universalist past? What does it say to the remaining Universalist Christian churches? That you’re good enough to stay, but not good enough to have heirs?

And, perhaps more importantly, would the powers-that-be agree with this read, or use it to keep Second Universalist out?

A new church

I’ve started planning a new church for Washington, D.C. To be specific, a Universalist Christian church. As I put it in a letter to denominational and local stakeholders:

My vision (much less the plans) for this new church is still developing, but I see it as a traditional-postmodern church start, as found in other denominations; including, in time, hundreds of new members; having a cooperative and inspiring spirit, while being undefensively Christian; and engaging in an optimistic, adventuresome and savvy outreach model. I do not want to let this project carry on so long that it dies on the vine. My goal is to have a functioning, gathered church fit for an application to the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2012.

Universalist National Memorial Church, my former pastorate, is a Universalist Christian church in Washington, D.C. but Washington could certainly use two (or more). The research I’ve seen suggest one would help the other, and besides, it’s not too much of a stretch to think a new church within a tradition can be planted in city every 150 years.

My goal, for the rest of 2010 is to come up with both that vision and that plan. Some conditions — for lack of a better word — are already in place.

  • First, as the organizing minister, I feel a responsibility to take a theological and structural lead. The conventional wisdom, where the people gather and then a vision takes place, seems both to get the order reversed and has had a poor record of recent success. (In this way particularly, I think Doug Muder is on to something. See his article in the current UU World.)
  • Second, the church will be necessarily more modest materially than others. Staffing, housing and mission will have to be accomplished in unconventional ways, and this new church should share what works with the larger fellowship.
  • Third, it should be born with a concept of life-long discipleship and preparation for ministry, express the best of Universalist catholicity (now in deep eclipse in an age of Unitarian Universalist particularism), and plan for new churches.

What I need from you is your spiritual support. In time, I shall surely ask you to ask your Washington-based friends and family to consider participating. Others I’ll ask for advice and some for material support. But for now, please spare a prayer for the success of this project.

I’ll be blogging as this vision and plan develop.

My Universalism in June post

UU Salon‘s appeal to discuss Universalism as “the other U” and review of a graduate-level Universalist class curriculum at Transient and Permanent — to be put plainly — pushes my buttons.

For the last two decades or so, I’ve seen Universalism viewed normatively through a Unitarian lens, though this process is actually more than a hundred years old. Can’t we ever overcome:

  • the folklore that Universalism is a second-rate, under-class and rural form of Unitarianism, with no distinct qualities (or none that need to be respected.)
  • that we are free to make it whatever “we” want, without a careful and balanced examination of what’s come before.
  • that the polity of the Unitarian Universalist Association needn’t have both Unitarian and Universalist elements, and have only those that fit conveniently into Unitarian congregationalism. (That means the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and ministerial voting at General Assembly are not aberrations.)
  • the tendency to only respect the edgiest and most marginal forms of Universalism — Abner Kneeland’s atheism and Ken Patton’s one-world-faith among them — while rejecting what the rank and file valued for so long, warts included. (Say, a propensity to debate ad nauseum.)

So to keep this brief — when my rants run long, I never publish — I’d alter the syllabus of the Universalist course this way:

  • start with 17th and 18th century European antecedents, like the “Philadelphian” Jane Lead, the German Boehemists and Anabaptists. Examine George de Benneville and Elhanan Winchester. (Going back to biblical times or the church fathers for historical justification is Universalist polemic. Proving the “heretical origins” of Universalism is a late intrusion.)
  • have a unit on the development of Universalist polity and structure, say in an arch from 1790 to 1900, at least. Rehabilitate Elbridge Gerry Brooks. Review the role of publishing, especially newspapers, in organizing Universalists.
  • recast the sections on foreign mission and pre-WWII-war non-Christian approaches as a missological study. Or to ask 19th century Universalist minister S. J. McMorris’s question, that if Universalism is true, “what is the use of preaching it?” Include anti-Universalist literature and discuss the role of morality in Universalist mission. Don’t fall into a trap of making Quillen Shinn the sine qua non of mission; consider women’s and youth movements here fully. Review the Universalist educational mission.
  • Use pacifism and spiritualism as test cases of diversity within Universalism.
  • don’t get too caught up on recent developments like Carlton Pearson’s experience and Phil Gulley and Jim Mullholland’s If Grace Is True. These tend to recapitulate the history and sound like young people extolling the joy of sex. As if they had discovered something new. There’s plenty of other territory to cover.
  • use Ann Lee Bressler’s now-expensive Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880. Or the first half, at least. It’s an indispensable review of what made Universalism different and a tonic to later Unitarian irenism, that cloaked a very different origin in convincing theological terms. Helps break the fever of self-referential and internal folklore masquerading as history. And no quotations, like the Murray-attributed “not hell, but hope” unless you can cite them.

Covenant, overplayed

Minister and blogger Dan Harper thinks we should “get rid of covenant as an organizing principle.”

I think he’s right and lays out a good case, particularly about how covenantalism — as now extolled — was not what Universalists had. Consider the Gloucester, Massachusetts 1786 Charter of Compact — this was John Murray’s pastorate — and in a day when the church-parish split was well understood, and public worship was state supported. They could have had a classically covenantal church should they have chosen. (Read Dan’s blog post if you’re more convinced by Unitarian models.)

But I think the appeal of neo-covenantalism is that it dignifies and gives form to Unitarian Universalist theological libertarianism (and decorates its decent into bald sectarianism.) I’ve long been bothered by what institutional Unitarian Universalism has been unwilling and unable to celebrate with me an affirmation of universal salvation in Christ — even as one option among many — as a present reality. What’s the likelyhood such a church organized as Murray’s would be admitted to the UUA today? The Universalists turned to their professions — principally the Winchester Profession — for order and unity, for strength in this life and a guide to the next.

Spread them.

An academic's look at Universalism's reputation as second-rate Unitarianism

Ann Lee Bressler’s Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 is one of the finest works on the subjects I know. This thought, from page 42, is vital to our understanding of the movement — as a social movement — in conjunction with Unitarianism.

The rise of restorationism during the second quarter of the [nineteenth] century helped ensure the common characterization of Universalism would be Unitariarianism’s poor relation, a form of liberalism that shared Unitarianism’s view of benevolent divinity and perfectible humanity but lacked its intellectual base and social standing.

What would have been the alternative? Ultra-Universalists (infers Bressler) which disavowed a temporary period of punishment after death and thus avoided the moralism that gives most religions in America their particular flavor and ferver. Ultra-Universalism was more concerned with a common humanity, the consciousness of which — among other things — overcame fear and self-centeredness.

But  ultra-Universalism was too easily painted with the brush of lax morals and the early impulse that way was quenched, leading to the quotation above.