Monday, May 16, 2011

Our Golden Anniversary or “Transient and permanent in Untarian Universalism” (May 15, 2011)

In 1841 Unitarian Minister Rev. Theodore Parker gave a famous sermon called “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity” that made him very popular with the young upstarts, and reviled by the old establishment. But it is such an important sermon that UU seminary students are still required to read it today. Parker believed that there were some parts of Christianity, like “forms and doctrines” that were transient, that would change over the life of the church. But there were other parts of Christianity like “the divine life of the soul, love to God, and love to man” that would persist through the changes of time and culture.
“Already men of the same sect eye one another with suspicion, and lowering brows that indicate a storm, and, like children who have fallen out in their play, call hard names. Now, as always, there is a collision between these two elements. The question puts itself to each man, “Will you cling to what is perishing, or embrace what is eternal? This question each must answer for himself. (pp. 146-147)”

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Unitarian Universalism, of the merger of 2 historic traditions. And as we do so I invite us to consider where we have been and where we are going; What is transient and what is permanent in our faith, now called Unitarian Universalism?

When the Unitarian association and the Universalist Associate merged in 1961, no one knew for sure what would happen. It’s true that if you made a theological continuum of all the protestant churches U and U often found themselves standing next to one another. But the two churches were different in important ways. There had been talk of union since 1865 but these differences had always held us apart in the past.

One of the most acute differences over the years is our relationship to Christianity. The founders of both movements understood themselves to be Christians, though many in the more mainstream traditions found there ideas so heretical that they were often accused of not being true Christians. Remember the Universalists were, at the time of their emergence, Trinitarians. They had no problem with the orthodox understandings of God, only an irreconcilable difficulty with the belief that an loving, all-powerful God would predestine eternal punishment for most of humanity. It was a different orthodoxy that distinguished the Unitarians. You may remember form earlier this year we talked about Joseph priestly who, way back in the 1700s, argued for the idea that Jesus was fully human, and that Jesus’ divinity had only been thought up in the 3rd century- long after Jesus lived and taught. The Unitarians had long believed that the humanity of Jesus was important, and that his divinity was less important than his teachings. Unitarians like Parker were already suggesting over 100 years ago that you could be a Christian without believing in miracles.

By the 1930s, humanism was an important part of both traditions, but was much more widespread among the Unitarians. (When the Humanist manifesto was signed in 15 of 34 signers were Unitarian). We oversimplify history when we portray Universalist Christians in conflict with Unitarian Humanists, because there were Christians and Humanists in both movements. The tension between more orthodox Christians and the swelling ranks of humanists begged the question -could the new merged association make room for both? Moreover, some folks felt that to be truly “Universalist” we needed to go beyond just the wisdom of the Christian tradition, to “the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition” -- to a truly universal religion.

In 1959, the General Assembly of the two associations met in Syracuse New York. 1000 delegates were there. The Joint Merger Commission had spent 5 years seeking out the perspectives of UU congregations around the country. The Secretary of the Merger Commission said “it is safe to say that our societies have never responded in such numbers and with such seriousness as they did to the subject of merger.” In fact the merger was ultimately approved by a plebiscite representing 94 percent of Unitarian societies and 95 percent of Universalist societies. The Merger Commission worked for 5 years to prepare hundreds of pages of reports and study guides, and a 44 page "The Plan to Consolidate the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America" also called “the blue book” by the delegates who carried it throughout the Assembly.

One part of the plan proved to be most contentions. The new organization would need a statement of the “purposes and objectives” that could guide their new consolidated association. The commission had proposed this statement: “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man.” The Universalists passed it in their first vote, but the Unitarian assembly had intense debate. Some folks thought it was too creed-like, but others wondered why it didn’t mention Jesus or our Judeo-Christian Heritage. The Unitarians countered with this: “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by Jesus and the other great teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, and prophetically expressed in the Judeo-Christian tradition as love to God and love to man.” But this also couldn’t pass a vote on the Unitarian side, who felt like it stated too strongly our relationship to Christianity. Debate over wording of this statement created so much tension among the ranks, that it almost derailed the whole merger. Delegates debated late into the night, not wanting to give up, but not able to find something they could agree on, until finally they changed one word; our Judeo-Christian heritage” was changed to “the Judeo-Christian heritage.” Finally this statement could be approved by a majority of delegates.

A second area of concern was whether the smaller Universalist Church of America would loose itself in the larger American Unitarian Association. Would folks get lazy and say “Unitarian” instead of “Unitarian Universalist”? Would the Universalists lose their own unique history and identity? As a Unitarian Universalist congregation that was a Universalist congregation for its first 150 years, this is an important question for us. As we move into the future it is important that we, as a historic Universalist congregation, take a leadership role in preserving and uplifting our history. One way the Universalists hung onto their identity was by preserving our state conventions. If I understand correctly, before merger the Universalists also had one general association, but most of the decisions and power were in their state conventions, while the Unitarians had a more congregational polity. My favorite illustration of this is one Ginna gave me. In 1891 Rev. R. Neale was contracted by PUC to preach at Athens Church for 3 months, but the rule was that you must be in fellowship in Universalist tradition to serve a Universalist church. The PUC gave Rev. Neale 3 months to get into fellowship. So Rev. Neale applies for fellowship, but when the PUC convenes in Athens, perhaps in this very building, he does not attend but sends his lawyer to the hearing. As you might expect, his application for fellowship is rejected, and because there is NOT congregational polity-- that is the right of congregations to chose their own ministers-- the PUC closes the church, doors barricaded. A new board of the Athens church is elected, reengaging Mr. Neale who broke in through window, and started conducting services again. It is because he was “Enjoined in court of law” that we know this story at all- since it was reported in the news in the “Term of Court” blotter, wherein it quips that no word was give on the “spiritual fitness” of the lawyer. Now, post merger, the PUC does not have the power to give fellowship to ministers, but it does us stay connected to our Universalist roots, and the endowment of the PUC helps keep some of these historic Universalist churches alive.

Both denominations were active in social justice, and believed this to be an important part of their faith. Perhaps you remember that the first Universalist Minister, Olympia Brown, was also a tireless voice of women’s suffrage. Or Unitarian Dorothea Dix whose reporting on our treatment of the mentally ill lead to important reforms in the mid 1800s. Each denomination had their own service committee formed in the 1930s to witness against the Nazi invasions in Europe and to help refugees. And in fact the two worked closely together throughout their history and seemed to easily merge in 1963.. IN fact, it was in part their history of working together and being of similar mind about Social Justice work that was one of the cornerstones that made consolidation seem possible. But while Unitarians and Universalists were marching in Selma and Washington in the 1950s and 19602, the 1963 GA in Chicago failed to pass a non-discrimination clause. In 1969, just 8 years after merger, the Black Empowerment controversy erupted, marked at one dramatic moment by a walkout of our General Assembly. We came to realize that we had not even begun to address systemic racism and oppression in our own institutions. And so over the past few decades we have begun to take a hard look at our own institutions and to do the work of countering oppressions, but if this is work we really hope to do in a serious way, it is work that we must commit to into the future.

As in the larger culture, the black power movement empowered not only people of color but also women and GLBT persons to claim their power in this democratic country and within our movement. Senior ministers can still recall a time when there was not a single woman in our St. Lawrence District chapter of the Minister’s association, but now more than half of all ministers in our denomination today are women. Before merger all our GLBT clergy were closeted, and now our queer clergy and layfolks are at the heart of our movement- and at the heart of our “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. We are chagrined to hear about the difficulty ministers from traditionally marginalized groups faced when looking for a congregation (and we have to assume that lay folks looking for welcoming congregations experienced the same barriers). But we have tried to look honestly at the structures of power and oppression, and we have committed ourselves to a path of change. We now require, for example, all congregations to participate in “Beyond Categorical Thinking” when they are in search. Starr King School for the Ministry, one of our 2 UU seminaries, includes as part of its core curriculum “Educating to Counter Oppressions.” As a movement we have begun to wake up to the realities of racism and overlapping oppressions, and have faith that we can change- that these institutional oppressions will be part of the “transient” in our movement.

IN the Commission on Appraisals report I mentioned before, they noticed a trend that folks want more heart than head from their churches in the last half of the 20th centuries. The Culture of the 1960s and 1970s changed our movement deeply. A new generation put aside study groups for encounter groups, and something stuck. On some fundamental way, what we wanted from our congregations changed from what our grandparents wanted. We want to feel connected to one another, we want chances to relate deeply in a way that, according to that report, is a change for who we are as a movement. That old old idea of an all-loving god may be better expressed in this time not as an important idea that can be argued by quick tongues and minds, but as a way for us to be in the world.

Universalists were at one time the 6th largest denomination in the country. We can see that here in the valley where there were at one time 7 Universalist congregations in the North Branch. Both the Unitarian and Universalist movements had shrunk over the years, as had many main line denominations. In the Commission on Appraisals report: “The Unitarian Universalist Merger 1961-1975” in 1975, there was already a perception that the great hopes of growth after merger were slowed by outside forces including this decentralization of church in our culture, and also that our cutting edge liberal ideas were no longer so cutting edge –that is to say that when our ideas became mainstream, one no longer had to take sanctuary in our congregations to hear our good news. Whereas at many points in our history we have had great clarity about who we were as a faith tradition, the changes to our movement and to the world over this past century have forced us to ask ourselves “What is transient and what is permanent in Unitarian Universalism.” The question we have been asking ourselves for over 50 years is “who are we?” and “what next?” what is the special calling of this faith tradition.

This fall you all sent me to the CENTER for Excellence in Ministry, and one of our presenters, Beth Zemsky, said during a panel discussion, that what she saw next not only for our movement, but for our culture as a whole, emerging in response to the rhetoric of individualism and security which has dominated our public discourse for the past decades, is a focus on interconnection and interdependence. As she spoke those words, I realized that actually, we’ve been talking around this for a while, about our interconnection and interdependence. I’ve heard us described over the past few decades as a “queer theology” that is to say not a theology for folks who are queer, but a theology which “goes both ways” as it were. I’ve heard us described as a cross-roads religion. And we covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web, added to our principles only 25 years ago. We have known for a long time that our culture is out of balance in its pursuit of individual liberty. And I think of that night 50-some years ago when in the middle of what was probably unprecedented theological diversity, those 1000 delegates staid up deep into the night because they had faith that there was a way to stay connected while being authentic to individual difference and to our multiplicity. Think about the hateful horrible things we hear folks say in the media about other folks, folks who are different from them. This world needs us, Unitarian Universalists, to hang fast to our interdependence web, and to help others see it too. We must share the good news of our interconnection with those who don’t recognize how inextricably wound up in it we all are.

So when I ask myself what will remain at the core of Unitarian Universalism, what is transient and what is permanent, I think of our radical respect for our interdependence. I also think about our roots --hose roots going back hundreds of years, and our heroes who held for their contemporaries and for the future the light of reason, who were not afraid to speak their truth even when it meant personal sacrifice. And I think of our love of justice, and our deep roots in working for justice for more than a century. And now we bind our love of justice into that web- a web of intersecting identities, or staggering diversity -- knowing that this will not be a truly just world until there is justice for everyone in that web. We start with ourselves, our own association, our own congregation, our own hearts. And we express that web each Sunday when we gather in community. It is no longer enough for us to speak the truth to one another, we crave that interconnection. We practice love here in this place, not only because we have an innate longing for connection, but also because we believe that by practicing love, we help to create the world we dream of. When forms and doctrines fade away, I have faith that the good news we have to share about the love to the transcendent, love to one another, and love to this great web of life of which we are a part, these will never fade.

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