Today, the idea of covenant is current and constant among Unitarian Universalists leaders, but they’re always codes of conduct, lacking the divine referent Puritan covenants had — and so not really a part of the tradition that’s being appealed to. They’re also lacking in grace. Covenants, perhaps, but in the sense of making sure Jews don’t move into your postwar housing development. (Update. A reader emailed me and thought others may not be familiar with the secular use of the term, in this case a restrictive covenant.) Their appeal surely lies in providing substance after the old Unitarian and Universalist categories were burned to the ground, and for ending argument and reinforcing its appeal to the like-minded. The second I see one of these later-day covenants, I look for the door. (I know there are good people trying to return to a rich theology of the covenant and I wish them well.)
The solemn covenant binds the gathered church apart from the world, though within it. Its role is mainly spiritual, and in our tradition the church in this sense is conventionally tied to the parish or society. (We use the term congregation too, if somewhat improperly, as an alternative to the word church, which itself has at least three meanings: the institution, the spiritual bond and the building. Anyone who claims to be a member of a meeting house had better be a piece of clapboard.) In fact, the parish or society is dominant in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions and has been for generations. (Do will still teach about the Dedham Decision?) It’s that public service — both in the sense of Sunday worship and the social manifestation of morality — that distinguishes us. The parish or society is practical and social, too. It won’t survey the inner workings of your soul — which we interpret as freedom — but it does care the bills are paid. Which is why we have quaint customs like trying to make the collection sacred. And why we invest so much in changing things, especially in society. And why it’s hard to look at our history and find a rich traditon of common spiritual practices. Those would belong to the gathered church, which even a century ago may or may not have existed in a particular locale. (This vexed Universalist leaders at the turn of the last century.) Indeed, those member congregations (to use a neutral term) of the UUA that are or were until recently Christian had the marks of that inner church: an annual or oftener communion service, and that most typical of church officers, deacons.
It’s been my experience that it’s OK for a Unitarian Universalist to have a deep spiritual practice, so long as you were cool about it and didn’t come off as a big weirdo. That’s parish thinking, and that’s fine by me, as long as I can find a place to “go deep” and be that big weirdo. That’s the church, in the more narrow sense.
With rentable space and social service nonprofits taking up much of what the parish had to pick up generations ago, I’m prone to go in the other direction: have the church without the parish. Which, in parallel form and different language, is what I suspect a number of neo-Pagan groups are doing. (Let me put a pin in that for reflection, and I’d welcome feedback from members of such groups.)
The underlying problem with the UUA was probably found in its cradle. It is certainly present in its mature middle-age. Who are we, at last? What makes us distinct, so as to identify boundaries, however generous? That’s never been clear. While that should be a hallmark of tolerance and acceptance, it’s been my experience that it breeds suspicion and resentment. Why are those Christians still here? It also creates confusion as to our mission. That’s a description, not a judgment.
It doesn’t matter if the Unitarian Univeralism is (or tried to be) “America’s third religion” or “America’s real religion” or “the religion of the future” (early slogans) or “the religion that puts it’s faith in you” (more recent) or any number of identifiers used by leading preachers or a Boston publicity office in the last six decades. Each of these ways of identifying our religious fellowship have been majority identifiers, without mandate or power to rule out those who happen to be in the minority at the moment. Which has helped me; I’ve never been in the Unitarian Universalist theological majority. Even now, Ken Patton’s multireligious experiments just make me roll my eyes. But that doesn’t mean I’m less a part of the community, at least not formally.
By definition, most of my readers will be satisfied with how Unitarian Universalism is today. Or if you don’t like who’s ascendant, just wait a while: you may live long enough to see the majority opinion wither away. The Christians gave up hope for a majority decades, and the once-jubilant Humanists are feeling the pinch now.
So in practice, it means that we have maintained a breadth of expression that is hard to distinguish from society at large, or in recent years the Left side of it? And that means being doomed to follow culture rather than leading it. Perversely, were there two, three or four smaller related liberal denominations, each could be a bit more distinct and have its own genius or charism. At least it could have its own voice.
But that’s not what we have, and that’s the problem we have to manage.
I’ve had a hymn stuck in my head for days: “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” It’s got a catchy tune (if sung to Solid Rock, which I do) and refrain, which is handy since I’m recalling it from memory.
Sometimes a good hymn helps.
The text is a reference to the parable of the man who built his house on a rock, in Matthew 7. Hosea Ballou commented on verses 24 and 25 in his Notes on the Parables: “By house I understand the hope or confidence in which the mind rests. By rock, I understand Christ; which application is too evident to need proof. And what can compare with that wisdom which teaches us to put our trust in Christ, and build all our hopes of salvation on that rock of ages, that chief corner stone which foolish builders refuse?”
A foundation of rock sounds pretty good to me, and hardly too much to ask for.
This has been a hell of a year. I keep up with some ministers; the tension is strong. Will the UUA last, and will it matter if it doesn’t? Will we give up on our claims of liberal religion? Is our only appetite for political reaction? There’s a lot of fear, too. A fear of being ganged-up-on and denounced by amateur revolutionaries if your politics aren’t right.
Rather than making one big post, I’ll get my thoughts out in managable pieces. I ask your indulgence if the flow is a bit uneven.
One line stands out, following a rehearsal of the anti-oppression language we all have heard so much of for years. “The MFC shall ask relevant constituencies for recommendations and direction on how the MFC should be restructured, rebuilt, or disbanded.”
Disbanded? When did that become an option?
Looking at that, in the context of all the other worrying signs, another minister asked me “do you have plans to leave?”
A couple of blog posts ago I described communion cups used centuries ago and British Unitarian churches. Some were decidedly not of a typical chalice shape. I think the tumbler (beaker) shape deserves consideration.
Flexibility has benefits. A Christian minister might have to bring his or her own communion wear. But the affordable pieces are often shabby and a good stuff is extraordinary really expensive. The unreasonable choices a minister might make have led me to an unexpected suggestion.
Communion ware should be affordable (though not necessarily cheap) and easy to maintain.
Congruent in form with established practice.
I think I have something: a Japanese titanium tumbler. This one is from Horie.
You’ll excuse that it’s marketed for beer. It’s attractive, easy to keep clean, doesn’t have a metallic smell and is not commonly seen in the United States, so easy to distinguish for sacred service. It weighs next to nothing and is terribly strong; you don’t get both (or sometimes either) with pewter, which was formerly my favorite material for communion ware. It’s not tiny — a problem with “chapel sized” communion chalices — and you could even go a size down.
Downsides: they’re hard to get, and there’s no plate or basin to go with it. A rectangular wooden tray, perhaps of laminated wood, might do the trick.
It had, and at least the description has. I’m still not thrilled by the title — based on the presenter’s book’s title — but if I’d seen this description before I wouldn’t have complained.
I’m glad that the powers-that-be responded to the complaints by Christians like myself and took affirmative and constructive action. In the process, the deccription has become less divisive — and less prone to be an anti-Christian dogwhistle — and I hope more representative of the workshop itself.
And I’m proud that the Christians stepped up. It’s important to remind those who resent or reject our presence (whomever that may be, and they certainly do exist) that we have a wide set of opinions of our own; are constant, creative and productive members; and that we don’t exist to fill in someone else’s idea of how Unitarian Universalism should be.
Talk of the Annual Meeting of the (British) Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, and noticing the communion service there this morning, put me in mind of an quaint old book.
The 1897 Vestiges of Protestant Dissent is something of register of British and Irish Unitarian, Free Christian, Non-Subscribing and kindred churches, with — and this is the part that amazes me — a listing of their communion plate. Much was then-new electroplate, but other pieces were quite old and noteworthy, so much so that several engravings were executed.
What fascinates me is the use of porringers, posset-cups, “loving cups”, mugs and tumblers (beakers), and not just the accustomed chalice: that inverted bell on a stem, sometimes a knop, and foot we all know and associate with the Eucharist.
Many long-time readers know I have an interest in found communion ware, and lament the division of the communion ware market into the unaffordable and the tawdry. Which will bring me to what I think is an ideal communion cup for our days, and particularly for Unitarian and Universalist ministers — and indeed at least one in Vestiges — who have to bring their own. For next time.
The annual meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian churches isn’t over yet, but they did pass (or seem to pass, if I read tweets correctly) two measures I think are noteworthy.
The first gives the vote to the class of small congregations, (see measure 4) of which there are exactly two. Until now, a church with at least 8 but fewer than 12 members could could be recognized, with voice but no vote. What might have been called a mission church in another setting. Because there are full members of the denomination that have fallen below 12 members, members of the Bangor church — one of the two “small congregations” — sensed unfairness and petitioned the executive committee for a bylaws change. Eight and twelve members may not seem so different, but in a denomination with so many very small churches, it may mean the difference of encouraging more groups to organize, or not.
The other measure shortens the annual meeting from 72 hours over four days to 48 hours over three days. Cost is the main stated reason, but I imagine time away from home or work is also a practical concern. The sample schedule is tightly packed, but seems feasible when it’s hosted at an all-inclusive conference center, as it is this year. It also means tightening up the legislative process, which we’ve also seen (to the good) on this side of the Atlantic. If I read correctly, the plan will be reviewed in three years.
I was thinking the schedule of General Assembly was very late this year — who’s giving the Ware Lecture? — but then at lunch saw that a partial and preliminary schedule was posted at UUA.org/GA. It didn’t take long before I saw the Allies for Racial Equity offering from this eye-watering title:
Because there’s nothing like celebrating Holy Week then discovering other people in your denomination denounce Christianity with such a broad brush. What a punch to the gut. Shame on you.
And before someone pipes up by saying “Oh, surely that’s those bad Christians and not you good Christians”, I’m not buying such an easy distinction. Because in this of all years, and after 30 years of minimizing, sidelining comments by other Unitarian Universalists, a plausable denial of Christian bating — or any coded insult to any group — won’t fly.
Christians are the only religious group that Unitarian Universalists regularly and freely denounce. Christians are the only religious group who have their acceptance based on the condition of being similar to other Unitarian Universalists. The option to be a bland and domesticated version of Christianity in no option, but a double standard, and sickening besides.
And if forced to choose, I will always choose the body of Christ, which understands sin, repentance, forgiveness and grace. And, unlike the Unitarian Universalist Association, isn’t likely to worry and convulse itself to death.