Degrading gracefully

A few years ago, graceful degradation was the goal for web design. Web browsers weren’t created equal (and aren’t, though it’s better now), and what might look beautiful in one browser may fail to load properly in another. And since there’s not enough time to make a site work equally well for all browsers, it had to be sufficient for the site to load “well enough” if the browser was old or eccentric. You may not get special features, but you would get the essentials, like the text.

It may seem an odd jump from Internet Explorer 6 to your church, but the idea isn’t too strange. If it fails to everything desirable — for want of money, leadership, members, options or a supportive community — then it can, at least, do the basics. What that is is, of course, debatable. But I’ve certainly visited churches that tried too much and failed to do what they wanted, perhaps out of pride and a misplaced sense of historic capacity. They could have done less, and done it well, but could not degrade gracefully. There’s something to be said for one good sermon a month instead of four indifferent presentations. A clean tablecloth instead of dusty silk flowers. Good singing instead of a wheezing organ.

It may not be what we had, or even what we would prefer. And it’s not to say that even this reduced activity would be easy, but a chance to succeed is better than failing ungracefully.

Is there a place for poor Unitarian Universalists?

And when I ask “Is there a place for poor Unitarian Universalists?” I don’t mean one, or two, or a small handful of poor people within a congregation of prosperous people, but a vital presence of Unitarian Universalists in a particularly poor community, or coming out of the experience and responding to the poor people in a mixed community.

I’m not too hopeful; we’re pretty homogeneous. It’s hard to find a Unitarian Universalists congregation that’s not high-majority white, though I can think of a couple that may count or at least come close. And I remember my experience as a native Southerner in Unitarian Universalist: far from affirming, and tinged with the feeling that Southern Unitarian Universalists, save those who grew up in the old Universalist churches, were transplants and that the congregations served a kind of outpost. Economic poverty seems like another excluding category.

And its solution is more remote, too. Without new models of ministry. How would such a church be organized? How could it be supported? How would it be accepted, without pity or distancing? It’s hard to be different, either as a person or congregation.

And harder to expose how much poverty — or near-poverty — is likely unrecognised.

Is Unitarian Universalism too large?

I’ve been thinking about the general fellowship of Unitarian Universalists — I often do, and I mean more than the membership of churches though the UUA — both because of the current crises at Starr King School for the Ministry, and the pan-mainline concern about ministerial salaries, maintaining buildings and (generally) the survival of theological seminaries.

But another, familiar question came up over coffee at church yesterday.  That, in essence, it is very hard to describe what a Unitarian Universalist is, what keeps us together, or even what brought us to this place. That is, without rolling the bus over someone.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that we’re too small, but too large.

I’m half-joking, half-serious. We are institutionally too complex, with structures that are just large enough that they have to invest a high level of resources to keep going, but without the benefit of an economy of scale. I bet that’s true of a number of congregations, too. And yet we have systems that try to span the variety of religiosities we’ve inherited. Can’t speak for others, but these systems do not serve Christians well. What would we do if each of the new regions had to go it alone? Or if the theistic and Christian churches stood off? We would certainly have change and a lot of work, but sometimes a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.

Of course, “staying large” (if what we have is largeness) is not in our hands. Social, economic and demographic challenges will probably cause us to shrink, refactor and contract. Indeed, we’ve been going through this for several years already, and when we get further along we’ll know when the decline started. But shrinking what we have won’t be enough of a solution. We’ll need solutions (possibly institutions) that address needs quickly — not “at the speed of church” — and creatively, with few resources.

If not, we’ll end up very small, still muddled and surely embittered.

 

Interested in Universalist scholarship?

So, I may pivot towards longer form, evergreen writing; at this phase, everyday short blogging is too much work and not terribly rewarding. I particular, I want to write Universalist theology and other works demonstrating scholarship.

So, a request. Who out there would be willing to review ideas? And what would you like to see addressed? I’m still working through this.

 

Preaching next on February 15

So, I’ve got about a month to prepare for my next sermon, and I’d love you to to hear it– and visit Universalist National Memorial Church — on February 15, 2015, at 11 a.m. (Directions.)

That’s the Feast of the Transfiguration, and I’ll be preaching from the appointed Revised Common Lectionary texts.

(Talk about) the Fellowship movement never dies

So, there was a discussion on Facebook about — in so many words — the Fellowship movement, midcentury Humanism and church development. But with all things Facebook, it’s as hard as Hades to find it once the thread grows cold. And since my long comment was essentially a blog post, I thought I share it here, and am sorry if there are jarring omissions now that it’s out of its original context.

So…

I think the “trouble with authority” and “crusty Humanist” tropes are canards, and follow rather are the source of the mixed blessing and hard feelings about the Fellowship Movement. When in doubt, follow the money.

Even at the height of the Fellowship Movement, and for decades before, some Unitarian churches were developed in a conventional, cost-intensive “airdrop” model. About three at a time, and the success rate was far from 100%. Some of the middle America Progressive-era churches come from this. But these were very expensive, and ministers were few. (The Unitarians transferred Universalist ministers in, an untold history.)

The “lay center” concept goes back a hundred years. In the post-war era, they were ideal: lay-led and cheap. Many had religious education of the Baby Boom at their core. And one demographic reason it just can’t be restarted.

But remember the old UUA subtitle? “Of churches and fellowships”? Because they were long regarded as different things. A fellowship could become a church, and there were (in the 1950s, anyway) fixed standards for church status: a settled minister and at least 65 families, for instance. I believe the “fellowships not real” feelings come from the genesis of the distinction, and (I suspect) are fueled by ministers short of work, and lay-leaders tired of the long-established dynamic.

As for a para-professional class, well, the Universalists had one — fellowshipped lay ministers, a twentieth-century development to cope with the minister shortage. But the door was closed on this option at the formation of the UUA. In time, they all died out and — what? ten years ago? — the fellowship category was at last eliminated.

New congregation, but net loss of two

So, I look forward to the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustee meetings packets. They get posted online, and there’s a January meeting. That one got posted yesterday.

The good news in that the Unitarian Universalist Bay de Noc Fellowship, Escanaba, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, is being proposed for membership, and I have no reason to think that won’t happen.

Also announced? Well, that’s the bad news. The congregations in Florence, South Carolina (emerging) and Kodiak, Alaska are no more. And two other Michigan congregations — Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist, Rochester and Emerson Unitarian Universalist, Tray — have merged to become Beacon Unitarian Universalist, Troy. The last part is not bad per-se, but it does mean a net decline of two congregations.

Or, you can read the memo here. (PDF)

The metrics dashboard (PDF) — read, participation and membership numbers — also gives pause.

Your church options in the Antarctic

We had a bit of unexpected warm weather yesterday afternoon in Washington, D.C. but fear not for the cold weather is returning! Which made me think of very cold weather. As in polar.

More than a decade ago, I wrote about the churches of remote northern Greenland, so it’s only fair to go south. Fortunately, others have had the same idea. There are several churches and chapels in the Antarctic. Most are Catholic, two are Orthodox and one (American, in case you wondered, at McMurdo) is multi-faith.

This page reviews the chapels, in English, to plead for a chapel at the Italian base Terra Nova.

This page, in Spanish, has better photos. (“Las iglesias de la Antártida, las más meridionales del mundo.“)

All are fascinating in their own way, but the chapel at Belgrano II — well depicted at the second link — is made of ice and has a special beauty.