Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Universalized Universalism (October 19, 2008)

When this church was founded 200 years ago, the people who gathered together as Universalists knew that they were Christian. They aligned themselves with the Universalist statement of faith put forth by the first Universalist convention in 1790:
They said they believed that the Old and New Testaments contained a revelation of God’s Will
They believed in one God who at his essence was love
They believed that there was one mediator between God and Man,
They believed in Christ Jesus, in whom God lived, and who would restore “the whole human race to happiness”
They believed in the Holy Ghost,
and they believed in good works, in “a holy, active and useful life.”

I’m guessing that if I took an informal poll of the folks in this room who identify themselves as Universalists, the only one of those 5 principles that they all would agree with is the last one, the active and useful life. And if I asked the Universalists in the room whether or not they also identify as Christian, I think we would have a varied response.

So for our Universalist Heritage Sunday I want to look beyond the stories of our founders, of Murray and Ballou and DeBenneville, to the pioneers who preached of a Religion for One World. It is a story only half a century old, from the 1940s. It is from a time when there were 4 Valley Universalist Churches, who practiced the ritual of communion 4 times a year, and who repeated each Sunday morning that avowal of Faith, passed by the Universalist convention in 1935, still found in the front of the old blue hymnals we still have over in the Sheshequin building. At this time the Sheshequin church was mourning The Rev. James D. Herrick, who died in 1944 had served the congregation longer than any other minister -- 30 years. At this time The Church of the Universal Brotherhood of Athens, then almost 100 years old, was struggling, as was the Universalist movement as a whole. The members of the Athens church found it so difficult to attract a minister and maintain the building that in 1947, this very church building was sold to the Christian Scientists for $2000.

Their story was not unusual in the Universalist movement. The great depression had left the Universalist church depleted, and the 1930s were a time of decline for both the Universalists and the Unitarians. Then when the nation headed into war, resources and attention were focused away from church life. But Universalism was struggling with something else as well. It had lost its fire of the early days. With a general religious paradigm shift away from predestination and hellfire preaching, the Universalists were not sure what made them special. This point was eloquently expressed by the minister who dedicated me at the church in which I grew up, Rev. Mason McGinness when he addressed the Massachusetts Convention in 1947:
“The truth is that, in many instances, the only thing that distinguishes the Universalist church from the neighboring Congregational, Baptist or Methodist church in some communities is the name, not the gospel that is preached, nor the program of education… If the Universalist Church has no message, no program that is different from other churches in the community, nothing that is distinctive, then let’s unite with some other church quickly… We have been drifting and disintegrating.” [Howe p. 111]

But leaders of the new generation of Universalists, like the Rev. Robert Cummins the General Superintendent, of the “Universalist Church of America” started to point in a radical new direction. When Cummins addressed the General Assembly in 1943 he said
“Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is Universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must succeed in making it unmistakably clear that all are welcome; theist and humanist, unitarian and Trinitarian, colored and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable. “ [Howe p. 107-108]
And though some of the conservative delegates grumbled, the younger generation warmly embraced this vision of Universalism.

It was around this time that the Universalists were invited to apply for membership in Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, later to become the National Council of Churches. There was internal debate about this, but in 1942 they decided to go for it. Imagine their shock when in 1944 the executive committee of the Council voted against the Universalist Application 12 to 6. Despite this rejection, we applied again 2 years later, and were again rejected. Said Angus MacLean of the St. Lawrence Theological School, “after being turned down twice as not being good Christians, we decided we should look somewhere else.” [Howe p. 109]

Some Universalists responded to this rejection, and to our flagging membership, by dedicating themselves to strengthening our “Christian Witness” [Howe p. 111] while Universalists took a more liberal track, One of these liberal ministers, Rev. Tracy Pullman preached in 1946 a call for a new religion that is “greater than Christianity because it is an evolutionary religion, because it is universal rather than partial, because it is one with the spirit of science and is primarily interested in bringing out that which is God-like in man.”

This growing idea of “One World Religion” became the subject of an issue of the Universalist Magazine. This idea came not only from our theological struggles, but also from the “impulse toward global commonality” that 2 world wars had brought. The authors who contributed to the magazine all seemed to agree that while we should honor our Christian origins, it was time to “welcome the truths of other religions on an equal basis.” But editor Emerson Hugh Lalone, foreseeing the shadow side that echoes down into today’s Unitarian Universalism, warned that “he who believes everything ends up believing nothing…there is no easy route to world religions fellowship.” [Howe p. 112] I will come back to that warning in a moment.

A group of young clergy who called themselves the “Humiliati” took as their symbol an off-center cross signifying that within the all-embracing circle of Universalism, the cross which acknowledges our Christian Roots is off center showing that it is no longer central to our faith. I find in our own church archives an order of service from 1946 for an “All Souls Sunday which was to be a “day of rededication” to Universalism for all of the valley Universalist Churches. And on that order of service I find that new Universalist symbol, the circle and the off-center cross. So our Valley congregations were right there in this denomination tension and transition.

This growing “emergent Universalism” was very controversial, and angered the more conservative within our movement, but began to open a new way for our faith. Just a few years after the rejection by the Council of Churches, Skinner Clarence Skinner who had been a force for social Action in the Universalist Church, and Clinton Lee Scott, the only Universalist to sign the Humanist Manifesto encouraged the Massachusetts Universalist Convention to start a Universalist church in Boston. Surprisingly, though Boston was the national headquarters of Universalism, there was no Universalist church there. The Boston Unitarian Churches were quite conservative, and this new church would be created as an intentional alternative. The historic Charles Street Meeting House was purchased, and the Rev. Kenneth L Patton, who was known for his creativity in worship, was hired to be the minister of this brand new church. He was installed February 2, 1949 in a service attended by Universalists form all over Massachusetts. Writes Patton “We do not know of another instance where a religious society was set up on a distinctly experimental basis, in order to produce inventions in religious form and practice.”

The congregation took on the task of creating a church that embodied deeply this notion of a “Religion for One World.” Symbolic objects and art of all kinds were gathered and displayed with the idea that “If these objects from all the world religions can be seen together, significantly arranged, the basic unity that underlies their diversity will make itself clear.” Performing arts were integrated into worship, often with a use of film and recording to incorporate religious arts from around the world, and a dance program evolved late in the tenure of Rev. Patton.

Instead of the denomination’s hymnal, the congregation created what they called an “open hymnal” a 3-ring binder imprinted with the church’s seal, with mimeographed hymns “assembled in order for each occasion… In effect, the result was a new hymnbook for each service”

Instead of one holy book, which had for been for the first 150 years of Universalism the Bible, they had a book case, which was made by a master cabinet maker and contained the major books of the world religions. It was placed centrally on the platform at the front of the hall. It became their ritual that when a reader would have a reading from one of these sacred texts during the worship service, they would walk to the book case and take the book to the “reading desk” to read aloud, and at the end of the reading would return the book to their book case of sacred texts.

The Charles Street Meeting House wanted to find a central image to to fill the empty arch in the meeting house 25 feet tall and fifteen feet wide. A committee met on the subject for some time, and finally settled on an astronomical photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda. Patton writes
“We have called the arch that encloses the mural “a window into the universe,” through which we look through a screen of stars in our own galactic system out across the heavens to our nearest neighboring star system. We have called it a “symbol of the fact,” since it is simply the enlargement of a photograph, with no attempt whatever to interpret it for the viewer. We have said that the onlooker might say, “The heavens declare the glory of God, “or “the heavens declare the glory,” or simply “My heavens!” the choice is up to him. “ [Patton p. 316]

On the opposite side of the auditorium they commissioned a sculpture of the atom, to balance the image of the whole universe, with the congregation between the two ends of existence.

Finally was a quest for symbols. The Universalists had chosen the circle as the symbol of Universalism a circle including the off-center cross. But the Charles Street Meeting House chose to empty the circle. The pews were taken out and seating was arranged in a circle, which was seen to be the central symbol of the meeting house, as it is a symbol of unity. A large brass circle was installed over the reading desk. A polar projection map of the earth laid into the floor the center of the sanctuary, the one world at the center of their worship, and this image of the earth surrounded by a gold circle.

Proceeding from that central symbol, Patton reports that they “sought to find the most effective symbols of one world that were available in the world religions and to arrange them so that they would echo and re-echo one another much as several related motifs are developed in a symphony” The project of research, selection, design and fabrication lasted 5 years. The final collection was of 65 symbols and were used in varying ways during the worship services, perhaps placed in the center of the larger circle if they were to represent the topic of the service, or arranged together to show some relationship among them. With the exception of the one large circle, the symbols are “all of approximately the same size, indicating that all the religions of man are to be held in equal esteem” [Patton p. 336] All the symbols, once chosen were made by artists in the congregation of sheet brass, copper and silver.

Patton served the meeting house for 15 years. He was a naturalistic humanist, which alienated some of the more conservative Universalists, to the extent at that Massachusetts Universalist Convention (that’s right, the same one that founded the church) would not admit the Meeting House into membership, saying that the preaching was not truly Universalist. But the convention did by a narrow margin agree to continue their financial support. Clinton Lee Scott reminded the convention of the freedom of the pulpit, the congregational authority, and the lack of a central creed and eventually the Meeting House was accepted into membership.

Near the end of his time there, Patton published a book called “ A Religion for One World” in which he writes “The major argument within the Association centers on whether Unitarian Universalism shall be a world religion or the liberal wing of Protestant Christianity. The “universalists” …would declare themselves to be members of a universal and world religion which included the religious ideals and traditions of all peoples” [p. 3]

After Patton left the congregation, it slowly dwindled, and closed its doors in 1979. What remains are a wealth of worship materials, including several selections in our hymnal. Those Brass and copper symbols were donated to the Starr King School for the ministry, and on my very first day of seminary, as we sat in worship we were introduced to them, and told their history.

But the most important thing that persists from the work of Patton and his congregation is their contribution to the practice of a universal religion, “A Religion for One World” and to the idea that the Universalist faith could draw on all of the world’s traditions. 12 years after the Charles Street Meeting House was founded, the Unitarians and Universalists merged, and adopted together their statement of 7 principles and 6 sources of our tradition. The Universalists at the start of the 20th century knew that theirs was a Christian faith, but by 1961, we knew that there were many sources for our tradition, including the “Wisdom of the World’s Religions”

Today we are often at the center of interfaith work, and often the first to reach out to neighboring mosque, temple, synagogue. By widening our arms to embrace the wisdom of the world, I think we are once again on the leading edge. Where else can those who identify Jewish, Pagan, Christian and Humanist all worship together? And yet here we are together this morning. But that shadow side predicted by Lalone, that “he who believes everything ends up believing nothing” is one that requires our constant vigilance. And our defense against the threat of a religion so wide that it looses itself, is to remember our roots. In remembering our roots we will find our core. Love. Love is at the core of Universalism. A love so big that no one is left out in the cold. And Universalists have known from the beginning that our love, a universal love that knows each person has worth, calls us to work in the world until it is a perfect reflection of that love. You find these core ideas in the very first convention of Universalists in the 1790s, you find this calling in the aspirations and ideals of the “universalized Universalists” of the Charles Street Meeting House, and you find this love in our congregation today. May it always be so.

Primary Sources:
Charles A. Howe. The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism. Skinner House Books, 1993.

Kenneth L. Patton. A Religion for One World. Meeting House Press, 1964.

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