Baptism II: the Letter

Today is an in-the-office day, and I’m trying to use this blog to make church administration easier by networking with others, thus proving that blogs are more than exercises in self-indulgence.

I’m thinking about the letter I’ll be sending out to church members and constituents who are parents of small children about dedications and baptism. Since this is hardly a private matter, I thought I’d rough-out a letter here, and open it for comments its substance.

A minor baby boom leads me to write the parents of small children about what ceremonial services are open to them, and at the same time introduce greater clarity and understanding in what we do.

This and other Universalist churches have a history of using ambiguous terms in its religious services with children, especially the term “christening.” Is this baptism, or something else? Inquiries in the last two years from a bride and Lutheran convert needing proof of baptism intensify this need for clarity. Hereafter, I will speak of baptism and dedication respectively, the later being roughly equal to a service of presentation, thanksgiving after birth or adoption, or blessing.

John Murray, the pioneering Universalist minister, is credited (justly or not) for developing the service of child dedication. He did not believe in baptism of any kind but was responding to sincere parents who felt a need to “do something” with their infant children. Some churches that practice adult baptism have a similar service for infants, and defer baptism to adolesence or later. The theological meaning of dedication is not clear, but it has been an emotionally-fulfilling gateway service for many. I will give parents interested in this service sample copies of the rite.

But as for baptism, I come from a different direction than John Murray. While there has been no unanimity among Universalists about baptism, some did have strong opinions that it should be given to infants, while others argued equally strong that it should be reserved for adults. As early as 1790, Universalist recognized that options should be provided that compromized neither the conscience of parents and baptisands nor the minister. This focus in personal belief should not be overlooked, but invites deeper exploration. Talking to church members and visitors, it is clear that the following inherited logic is present in most discussions about baptism: “Because baptism is a washing-away of original sin, and because I don’t believe in original sin, I don’t believe in baptism.” Without going into detail here, let it suffice that there are a number of ways that baptism is understood, both within and outside Universalism, that does not include the original sin dilemma. I welcome conversations with parents of infants and older persons interested in baptism about the details, theories, and practices.

Lastly, I would like to update the church on my pastoral views. When I arrived at UNMC, I was in favor of baptism but for adults only. Since then, my mind has changed and I am willing to baptize a person at any age, and also respect the wishes of parents who want a dedication ceremony only.

Do you wish to proceed? Has this sparked questions? Please contact me, and I would be happy to meet and speak with you.

A goodie for poor churches and broke seminarians

I rarely talk up commercial products, but a piece of open source software doesn’t count, does it?

I’m talking about the new release of — both the address of the webpage and the name of the software — which I use at home and which we use at the church to produce the newsletter and order of worship. There are five things I like about it:

(1) It is free; (2) it is easy to use; (3) in its 1.1 release, you can export to PDF, thus saving you a minimum of $65 in other software costs; (4) it makes folded-leaf booklets (including an order of worship) with all the pages in order; and (5) did I mention it was free.

I first learned about it — back when it was StarOffice, which is going commercial — from Labarum, a British military chaplaincy site that has ready-to-print service booklets.

But going from the 1.0 release to 1.1, it has ballooned in size, so unless you have a very fast connection, do as I do and find a DC-ROM distributor, and get the software mailed to you for a nominal fee. (I paid $5.95 from a vendor on Ebay, and was quite pleased. And you can share the CD-ROM.)

Universalist Quotations

At the church website, there’s a bit of javascript that gives “a meditation from the Universalist tradition”. In fact, these are twenty-six quotations, and I would like to get fifty in all.

So, an appeal: if you have a quotation from a bona fide Universalist Christian source, please add it to the comments. (You can look at the javascript, and thus the current quotations, by saving the church index page to your desktop, and looking in the files that accompany the download.)

I’ll also post quotations as I find them.

Back from the breather

Had to take a few days away from the blog to get two other Movable Type projects underway. The first is which will host several blogs by UU Christians, and when I point over there, this blog, too. Fish Bowl is the first of the blogs, and something of a training ground.

[2009-08-13. and Fish Bowl are long defunct.]

The other action is the church website, which now uses MT as its management tool. See Universalist National Memorial Church at

This later action was inspired by one of my favorite blog, which anyone with a hand in church or charity related web-building should read: Heal Your Church Website.

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.

Unitarian Christian Association (UK) online

Good word today: the Unitarian Christian Association, the British counterpart to the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, has gone online, and in quite an attractive way.

See [2009. New site.]

I particularly like the entry about the Annual Meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches [GAUFCC link], and my one regret it that I now have no compelling reason to take the Unitarian Christian Herald in its surface-delivered paper edition.

Sad news from the other side of the world

Sad news about the six members of a religious order, the Melanesian Brotherhood, taken hostage in the Solomon Islands: a warlord confirms that all are dead. Please pray for the deceased.

A news story from Australia and this official obituary fill-in the story.

I first learned of the Melanesian Brotherhood when I found their liturgy, and discovered the news story when I wnet back to get more files.

But a word about their worship: formal, traditional, but remarkably less stuffy than Anglican liturgies elsewhere in the world. I’m sure it is because theirs is a missionary church, and I have found the material useful here.

Link: A Melanesian English Prayer Book

Big Sermon I: What is Christian?

I really didn’t get online to make the previous much-too-long statement, but to try and throw out a few ideas as I think about my next sermon, on August 24, the big annual “What is Universalism?” event for newcomers to church.

The Christian cohort within the UUA, while producing some good minds, devoted laypersons, and godly pastors, hasn’t exactly been the hot-place-to-be these forty-plus years since 1961. We’re certainly guilty of our own kind of sectarianism, and always worried when one of our beloved got ecumenically active: if a minister, this person often transferred to a Christian denomination with its greener pastures.

But the one question we should have asked, needed to ask, but rarely if ever did was “What is a Christian?” What charisms within Unitarian and Universalist life inform the life of Christian? What then, do we mean by “Christian”?

For far too long, we played the “what is Unitarian Universalism?” game inside the family to make sure we weren’t written out of it. The journals of the UUCF before the 1985 General Assembly, when the Principles and Purposes were adopted, make for a harrowing read.

In generations before, at least on the Universalist side, the operating question was “What is a Universalist?” since this was the point of controversy and departure, and since Christianity was pretty much a given.

Now it isn’t, and with a low level of religious literacy, increasing secularism, and the church being at such a low level of reputation, I think those-that-are need to examine “What is a Christian?” before going to more particular subjects.

Would being many be harder than being one?

David Soliday asks in a comment at this entry to expound on my thoughts.


I really believe that Unitarianism and Universalism were re-tooled in the years after the Second World War, and leading towards consolidation in 1961, to be a joint theological “other” from what had existed before. Some examples. In those early years, the Unitarian fellowship movement, heavily tinctured by materialistic humanism, got started; the Universalist General Convention was denied membership in the National Council of Churches for being insuffiently Christian (and thus leaving only one natural source for fellowship, the Unitarians); the Massachusetts Universalist Convention spawned the hell-beast known as the Charles Street Meeting House, as a field lab for a rather heady, if lyric, form of syncritism; and ministerial exchanges between the Unitarians and Universalists sealed the deal.

Its a shame nobody told the Christians, who have been acting as a rump parliament in both traditions ever since. (The organization which became the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship also dates to that period. I’ve noticed it is among the Christians that you are more than usually likely to find a “Unitarian” or a “Universalist” and not the double moniker.)

Donald Harrington’s 1960 General Assembly sermon, Unitarian Universalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrowwe had a new theology, but didn’t really tell us how we got there, except perhaps by de-emphasizing Christianity as past and passe. We did get a new identity, that is, Unitarian Universalism qua sect, and a rather triumphal (“America’s fourth religion”) and gnostic (“Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?”) at that. It would be inconceivable to think that one of our own would be invited as an ecumenical delegate to a hypothetical Vatican III, but James Luther Adams was there for Vatican II. (Of course, Rome has moved too.) We’re not in the American consciousness, and it isn’t exactly because we were pushed off the map. We jumped.

I might believe that syncritism, as Unitarian Universalism has made it, and as I dub it “world-religionism,” might work if the self-congratulating, distant, and (at times, the worst ones to be sure) xenophobic sectarianism we’ve inherited didn’t really say that we’re not serious about a theological interface from many sides.

First, it is because we have nothing like peace about God, and without God, any serious engagement with monotheism or polytheism is moot. (How many times have you heard Buddhism lauded and defended because it isn’t theist?)

Second, I believe that to understand other languages you need a deep understanding of one with which to have a point of reference, and “garden variety Unitarian Universalism” (my term) doesn’t allow that depth to take place.

Third, we are wed to the priviledge of class (that is, middle posing as upper) embolded by education, and overfed self-praise, and that makes it almost impossible to exhort anyone to do anything. Have you noticed that Unitarian Universalistm, for a group that’s putatively interfaith, is indifferent to theological developments outside its own borders, and has no institutional will to cultivate spiritual disciplines among the rank-and-file?

I’m not sure what the best option for a future for Unitarian Universalism is, but I don’t think our present trajectory is viable. I am in this dialogue to develop a set of solutions when the ears are ready to hear.

There are many reasons I became a Christian — I wasn’t one when I entered Unitarian Universalism — but high on the list was spiritual self-preservation. Without an “other” to reach for, and lean on — that is, God, Jesus Christ, and the Church Universal — I would have been adrift, and out the door.

Strange hymn fact

I was in church today, but not preaching. That duty fell upon one of the deacons, Richard Hurst, who delivered a well-crafted sermon on anger, divine anger in particular.

But what will stick with me for the next seven days — a question asked Mystery Worshippers at Ship of Fools — is learning that the first verse of the morning’s first hymn, “O God of Earth and Altar” (sung to King’s Lynn) was incorporated into an Iron Maiden song, “Revelations” from the album Piece of Mind to be exact: [full lyrics]

Who knew?