Build a Profession, part one

In his Universalist’s Book of Reference (1901 ed., “revised and enlarged”) E. E. Guild was able to identify twelve distinct theological propositions in the Winchester Profession, though I’m not quite as hopeful as he was, neither would I call all twelve essential to Universalism. Indeed, I believe the first edition of Guild’s work come out in 1853, and I’ve seen versions of his twelve principles that reflect other stages in his thinking. For your reflection, one of these stages — the ten point “Bible Creed” — is found at
the True Grace Ministries website.

Without a doubt, the sine qua non of Universalism is the
belief that all persons (variant: all sentient beings, if one believes in angels or, nowadays, alien intelligences) will be, in time, saved; that is, we will be “holy and happy” in this life and hereafter. There was a great reluctance to say how this happens, or when, or exactly how: indeed, pick that too hard and you would have found how many ways Universalists diverged on these matters.

This essential principle was, by 1901, described by E. E. Guild in part by the twelth proposition on his list:

That the DESTINY OF MAN, IN THE PURPOSE OF GOD, IS HIS ATTAINMENT AND ENJOYMENT OF HOLINESS:

God’s plan with regard to man was formed before creation was begun. It was shadowed forth in the promise and prediction given after the first transgression, and was often announced with more or less
distinctness in the Old Testament; but its most complete revelation is made in the Gospel. (Titus 1:2; Genesis 3:15; Isaiah 2:2; 45:22-25; John 3:35; 6:37-40; Acts 3:19-21; Galatians 3:8; Ephesians 1:9,10;
Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:19, 20; 1 Timothy 2:1-6.)

In announcing God’s purpose the inspired writers do not ignore the presence and power of sin, ignorance, or perversity, but declare that none of these can be insuperable barriers. Nor is there any hint that the operations of divine grace are confined to this life; but on the contrary, that whatever Jesus has to do by the appointment and purpose of God for men living upon the earth, that he has also to do for those whom we call the dead, and that in his name all shall be subdued and won. (Jeremiah 32:17; Romans 8:18-25; 11:25-36; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Philippians 2:9-11; Hebrews 8:10-12; 1 Peter 3:18, 19; 4:6; Revelation 4:9-13; 5:9-13.)

(A word about the appearance of supercessionism in the above: I don’t think it is there, but rather that God’s promise begins with one nation (Israel) and is unfolded through the Gospel to all nations. Israel is not negated. Indeed, concern about the salvation of Israel seems to lead some people, first to Paul, then to universalism. See Jan Bonda’s The One Purpose of God for an elaboration.)

Whew! How we can sensibly put these beliefs into words is part of my long-term work. Until then — look! — after about a week and a half we have a glimmer of sun.

What to profess?

I never thought so many people would take an interest in this humble blog. Thank you.

Some of the well-wishing inquiries came with the question, “how do I get one of my own?” I’m not using any web-logging software; just this CSS (thanks, free-of-charge, to Firda Beka at bookofstyles.org [site defunct], modified a bit).

In time, I hope to “power it” with MovableType, but that’s a learning curve I’ve no time to climb.

Much after Sunday worship.

I read a section from Leo Tolstoy’s My Confession in worship, and led it with
a review of Adin Ballou’s influence on him. I should have gone to Friends of Adin Ballou first! This site keeps growing, and is clearly one to watch.

What to Profess? My friend Derek Parker, an Earlham seminarian and the lay pastor of the Universalist Church of Eldorado, Ohio asked me (and I post here with his permission)

If you were building a new Universalist church from the ground-up, what are 3 or 4 essential theological convictions you would like to see in a contemporary Universalist profession? Or would you just repeat the Winchester Profession with updated language?

What a tantalizing question, and one that I hope to spill into this blog and the pulpit in months to come. But first things first. I wouldn’t reject, update, or adopt wholesale the Winchester
Profession in a new church, no matter how much I love it. (And I do.)

Instead, the Winchester Profession deserves its role as the foundational theological standard for Universalism, and one can build on it.

I have sometimes been criticized for not “correcting” the gender language of the Winchester Profession. For the record, I’m trying to uphold the letter and the spirit of what the 1803 Convention asked of future generations in its adopted Plan of the General Assocation:

Section 10th. The Association reserves to itself, under the direction of that divine wisdom which was to accompany the followers of Christ to the end of the world, the right of making hereafter such alterations of this General Plan of the Association, as circumstances may require. But there is no alteration of any part of the three Articles that contain the Profession of our Belief ever to be made at any future period.

(You can see the whole document and much more at www.winchesterprofession.org/eddy1876.html.) [22 April 2005: I let that site lapse in 2003.]

The 1899 and 1935 documents (a “declaration” and a “avowal” respectively) recall “encapsulated” that which came before it.

Thus the Winchester Profession had official standing, not just pious sentiment, until the Universalists consolidated with the Unitarians.

But there are examples — I’ll have to see if I can dig them up — of local churches and state conventions before 1899
(and perhaps after) adopting theological symbols for the fellowship of ministers and churches (locally, I assume the members, too) which stated more but never less than the Winchester Profession. (Of course, there is also the 1903 composite creed, which though it had no official standing, did make it into a denominationally published
prayerbook for more than a generation.)

This might be the theologically appropriate approach to composing a new theological symbol for Universalists. But this also begs a reading of the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws:

Section C-2.3. Non-discrimination. The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief. Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

So, what constitutes a creedal test? And who decides?

Henry Noble Couden

Well, it seems I’ve been quoted in the Washington Post, too. Nice.

Before Sunday worship.

Part of the reason (and in addition to what I wrote yesterday) I’ll be using military allusions in the sermon, naturally enough, is because Monday is Memorial Day. If this never-ending rain and glum lifts — even if for a couple of hours — I’ll go visit the grave of Henry Noble Couden. He was a Universalist minister and for a quarter-century the chaplain for the
House of Representatives
. A Union soldier, Couden was blinded at Vickburg.

He, his wife, and one of his two sons are buried at Arlington National Cemetery . (His other son, the Rev. Will Couden was the interim minister here in Washington during the First World War.)

After Sunday worship. A few church members asked about the Commission on Appraisal report mentioned in the press article. Here’s that commission’s website, too.

Victory?

A colleague — he doesn’t use his name on the blog that I saw; perhaps that’s an emerging blog convention — linked to me, and I’ll point you to his, too: Across, Beyond, Thought.
I wonder if there are more of us sharing online.

Of course, I’m thinking about the Sunday sermon; it is entitled, “The Victory that Conquers the World.” Or, as I promoted it in the church newsletter:

Memorial Day reminds us of the sacrifices others have made in the field of battle. But what do we make of the “conquest of faith,” where the battlefield is our own soul?

The principle reading
— I follow the Revised Common Lectionary — is 1 John 5:1-6, focusing, of course, on verse four:
“for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (NRSV)

There is an understandable aversion to conquest language. Need I mention the Crusades? the Latin American conquest?
I think a sharp line needs to be made between conquests of human beings against one another, and our victory in God in Christ against that threat against every person: personal death, and by extension, the end of existence, even the love we have. Victory (to use one military concept) comes through participating in God’s army (another military concept.) Except here the fight is participation in God’s living, loving, and responsive Spirit. This creates for the person
a second life which is not destroyed with the body. But what about “those who don’t choose”? It would overstate the power
of the atomistic view of freedom for one to opt out of creation as an act of will. At a foundational level, to be alive is to participate with God. Faith, as John Murray understood, is the confirmation of this second life, and with it, comfort and confidence in the face of personal death. In life, too, this is the sense that “I’m not alone,” all indications of malice, oppression, or hatred notwithstanding.

Victory?

A colleague — he doesn’t use his name on the blog that I saw; perhaps that’s an emerging blog convention — linked to me, and I’ll point you to his, too: Across, Beyond, Thought.
I wonder if there are more of us sharing online.

Of course, I’m thinking about the Sunday sermon; it is entitled, “The Victory that Conquers the World.” Or, as I promoted it in the church newsletter:

Memorial Day reminds us of the sacrifices others have made in the field of battle. But what do we make of the “conquest of faith,” where the battlefield is our own soul?

The principle reading
— I follow the Revised Common Lectionary — is 1 John 5:1-6, focusing, of course, on verse four:
“for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.” (NRSV)

There is an understandable aversion to conquest language. Need I mention the Crusades? the Latin American conquest?
I think a sharp line needs to be made between conquests of human beings against one another, and our victory in God in Christ against that threat against every person: personal death, and by extension, the end of existence, even the love we have. Victory (to use one military concept) comes through participating in God’s army (another military concept.) Except here the fight is participation in God’s living, loving, and responsive Spirit. This creates for the person
a second life which is not destroyed with the body. But what about “those who don’t choose”? It would overstate the power
of the atomistic view of freedom for one to opt out of creation as an act of will. At a foundational level, to be alive is to participate with God. Faith, as John Murray understood, is the confirmation of this second life, and with it, comfort and confidence in the face of personal death. In life, too, this is the sense that “I’m not alone,” all indications of malice, oppression, or hatred notwithstanding.

Why this blog?

Let me be clear why I’m starting this blog: it is in part a positive response to the call by Bill Sinkford, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association to reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence.” First he preached a sermon he gave a while back in Fort Worth, and a few days article in the New York Times appeared highlighting his feelings and alluding to some hard feelings on the humanist and atheist edge of Unitarian Universalism. Again, to the positive, it is amazing, after more than a decade within institutional Unitarian Universalism to see the shift from latent hostility towards Christianity and theism to, well, qualified curiosity.

The Religion News Service contacted me — they wanted a story of their own — and I gave them a quote:

“For us to be more effective in that realm, we have to be comfortable with people for whom religious language is where they live,” he said. The Rev. Scott Wells, pastor of Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, agreed. Without religious language, he said, it is impossible to be a religious voice. “If we’re not willing to step up to the ecumenical and interfaith table, then we will find ourselves increasingly marginalized and could go the way of the Shakers,” he said.

Day One

God forbid I should think myself one of those theologians who never has an unpublished thought. There are days that I have a hard enough time to come up with a cogent thought. So for now, let it be enough to try and record my best idea to share.

Almighty God, uphold in my ministry every good thing, and guide those who labor and struggle in your name. Upbuild us, so we may grow in your likeness. This I pray in Jesus’ name.