Three quotations from Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church

So, I’ve finally begun reading Universalism and Problems of the Universalist Church (1888) and I recognize some themes. The idea that their faith was so logical that it would prosper as an inevitability — a theme maintained among Unitarian Universalists through the 1960s at least, with echoes, if embittered, today.

The author wasn’t willing to accept the (falsely) inevitable, and notes the weaknesses of the lived faith, and these too have the ring of familiarity.

  • p. xii
  • Have we but to fold our arms and wait to see the salvation of the Lord? What of evolution?—Is it a cause or a method, only? Is evolution such an intelligent, vital force, as that, independent of the agency of man, right results may be predicated thereon? Is man of no value as a civilizing agent? Rather is not man the divinely appointed agent of the Most High in the furtherence of His plans? Can truth be propagated except as man becomes a co-worker with God? Do not many of the adherents of our church hold false views of Optimism, such that it leaves man as a moral agent out of the question and predicates all moral advancements upon God alone? Or, worse yet, do not some regard Evolution as the sole force in working out and shaping our destinies? Has man nothing to do in working out his own salvation? Do not the Bible, Reason and Nature all agree in holding man morally accountable?

  • p. xiv
  • While doubt has its value and proper sphere in the investigation of theological dogmas and the search for truth, yet should we not be wary how we deal with this subject? Does not the ventillating of their doubts become chronic with some ministers to the great detriment of our cause? And, when doubt becomes their “chief stock in trade”, ought not professional honor and honesty enable them to see that the door, by which they came into the ministry, has an outward swing, also?

  • p. xv-xvi
  • Our church bears the name of being progressive; and, in a large measure this is true; but in the use of the best methods it is not so in fact. We ought to be progressive in the truest sense. Our faith is such that it ought to enable us to be abreast of the times in all that is good and helpful in extending and making permanent the cause of the Master as we understand it. But for some reason we do not concentrate our forces nor wield them to effect the best results. In some directions our work drags where it ought to soar. We seem to undervalue our abilities and our opportunities. We talk of this enterprise and that, and are enthusiastic in adopting them; but when it comes to execution of our plans the wind is pretty much out of our sails.

More thoughts on the scalable service

A moment to think about the British Orthodox Church, a small culturally-British Coptic jurisdiction. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it is very small, but is able to create new church missions, and that should draw our positive attention.

Is it because it has a surplus of clergy? It doesn’t seem so. Or cash? Again, no evidence. Or because it’s tapping into a populist consciousness? You’ll forgive me if I suggest the appeal speaks more to a deep past and hopeful future than being of the moment. (That’s is surely an appeal to some, but let’s leave that for now.) And it’s not to say that all of the missions are super-healthy. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. First, they have a stated goal:

We are seeking to plant at least two new missions each year to fulfill our vision of a community in every county.

And what the British Orthodox Church — and other churches — have is a model that makes worship possible, approachable and above all scalable.

The key is the daily office, and particularly the services of matins (morning) and vespers (evening), also known as “raising of incense” or the Coptic name for the daily round of services, the Agpeya, And it’s a good choice, too. Don’t know about the British Orthodox in particular, as it applies to public worship, but the daily office also belongs to the laity, so perhaps a member of the lay faithful could lead it. Or perhaps someone in minor orders (a concept Protestants don’t have) or certainly a deacon, thus expanding the pool of who can lead worship in missions.

But more importantly, it’s a service with lower barriers than the Liturgy (Eucharist, Mass) and therefore more welcoming. To review, two takeaways:

  1. Broader pool who can lead the service.
  2. A service that’s more welcoming by its nature.

And it’s short and stable in content. Say, 20-30 minutes. I think spoken prayers, followed by some refreshment and a training or discussion — as indeed, is prepared monthly in some of these missions — is pretty darn achievable, particularly as they meet in Anglican churches at times (even Saturday mornings) that the host parish doesn’t meet. To review:

  1. A stable, predictable service. Not too long.
  2. Some kind of enrichment activity.
  3. Setting a time to be accessible, not conventional.

And know that elements can be added or removed as conditions demand.

  • Sermon or none
  • Instrumental music or none
  • Hymns sung or not
  • Candles lit or not, and so forth



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.

(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.


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.

Universalist mental exercise: tiny new convention!

OK, we’ve had our earnest mental exercise about what historic Universalist polity asks us to consider today. Now, a bit of fun.

What’s the fewest number of Universalists it would take to create a new, functioning (if impractical) Universalist denomination, under a reasonable reading of the old (say, pre-1950) polity documents? (After all, if independent sacramental churches can have tiny jurisdictions…)

Nine. Nine very tired people.

Let’s say you wanted to restore something like the Universalist Church of America, which was organized on a national basis, with subordinate state conventions, which were made up of parishes and ministers (both) in fellowship. A newly restarted denomination is unlikely to be divided into the two upper divisions. There is likely to be (at first) a common convention that would necessarily be organized as a state convention.

Under the old rules, a state convention needed to be made up of no fewer than four parishes, each “established for at least two years, and thus have given satisfactory evidence of their probable permanence” (1870 rules).  But there was no size requirement for parishes; but let’s assume two, which is the smallest possible human society. And let’s assume these tiny parishes persist and flourish, and thus qualify, even if they do not grow. And it makes coffee hour easy.

Four times two is eight. The ninth? A minister, not only to serve the parishes (once a month in rotation was not unknown) but also to serve on the fellowship committee (with lay members, presumably two) and thereby add new ministers and parishes. Depending what era of polity you’re considering, the lone minister would be General Superintendent, too. And no doubt Chief Bottle Washer.

The convention is also a legislative body made of its officers, lay delegates and serving, fellowshipped ministers — in case you wondered why settled ministers have a vote at General Assembly; no, it’s not a violation of our polity, rather an expression of it. Every one of the imagined nine Universalists would have to serve a voting role in the business of the convention. (One would hope it wouldn’t be contentious.)

The four parishes in Convention could be joined by a “Convention Church” — a shadowy beasty that occurred for a short time in some states to serve isolated Universalists, and which only met at Convention. Again, much like the General Assembly experience so many regular attendees have. But since the Convention Church seemed to be a creation of the convention, it could exist as a mission with adherents but without any actual members, at least for the purpose of this game.

But perhaps you think I’m violating the terms of my own thought experiment. If we’re thinking about a new national denomination, a lone state convention (you’d contend) won’t suffice. You’d need at least two: so a total of sixteen lay members and two ministers. (The new General Convention parallel could have member parishes and ministers in direct fellowship, but it needn’t. Let’s not get crazy with growth.) These would then elect officers and send delegates. So a state convention’s president and secretary, two lay delegates and a clerical delegate each makes a General Convention membership of ten, of the eighteen Universalists in total.

Ten very tired people.

Enough of this game; I need a nap.

Thinking about Universalist conventions and clear paths

I developed a better appreciation of Universalist conventions this year, largely following my research at the Universalist archives at Harvard-Andover library. On the one hand, it makes me appreciate — or at least understand — parts of our current polity that more stolid congregationalists denounce (correctly) as “not properly Unitarian.” These include a central ministerial fellowship process and ministers voting at convention, er, General Assembly.

But what stands out for me are the rules, forms and gracefully-degrading structures that allowed for differing practices of discipline and organization as appropriate for the Universalist population.  Gracefully degrading? If there was no state convention, the powers of the state convention would be held by the General Convention. Likewise, you sometimes saw a “Convention Church” that provided worship and fellowship opportunities for isolated Universalists in a particular state. (Shades of General Assembly today?)  And if the state is too big? There may be associations that meet to consult, but not legislate.

A shared, high-level concept of the local parish and state and General Convention, with common rules around ministerial and parish fellowship, with accountable delegated authority … well, if it worked in practice half as well as it appeared on paper, I imagine that Universalist fortunes might have been very different had there been more ministers, money or both.

It’s not that I like rules, per se, but that the structures for order allowed and prepared for self-initiative, whether that was a parish that organized by people inspired by printed tracts, or an aspirant for the ministry planning to develop a vocation. Rules and structures of authority, in this way, allow freedom in ways that endless choices (and others’ careful discretion) cannot.

Saw in Toronto: picture of the church inside on the outside

I saw something clever when Husband and I vacationed in Toronto this summer. We passed by a United Church of Canada parish church — a huge edifice, with what I guess is historically small congregation. But they did something smart to make it seem welcoming and lively.  Something other urban churches could do.

On the church sign, which many pedestrians would pass, you would see a panoramic photograph of the church interior, taken during a Sunday service. So while I dimly recall the grey stone — or was it dark brick? — of the church, I recall the warm interior view well enough to write about it now…

How do the Independent Catholics organize?

This is more a request than a blog post, and I’m reaching out to people in the Independent Catholic or Independent Sacramental movements, and particularly those in structured communities, like parishes or worship groups.

How do you organize your groups? How do you work between groups? In what way does your group function like “establishment” churches and which way does it not?

I would appreciate any feedback, and I think we generally have much to learn as religious institutions have their privileged place challenged.

So, why church at all?

As I’ve written before, we Unitarian Universalists need to organize new churches to replace those that shrink and die, and to reach those unserved by those that exist.

But to what end? To put it plainly, what is it that churches do that others couldn’t do better?

And it isn’t that the question is academic. The opportunity cost of organizing, staffing and maintaining churches is very high. Say, about a thousand dollars of giving per year per member, providing for some measure of paid minister and without a deep endowment, not to mention the costs of cultivating appropriate leadership. Are the existing churches themselves costly optional extras to, well … what’s at the core is the real issue.

Is it simply community, that fallback substitute not only for mission, but for deity itself? (To think about how often it is evoked as the source of inspiration.) If so, Unitarian Universalists become nothing more than a high-minded social club. Far from progressive, a bring-your-own theological model replaces mutual care and support for a sink-or-swim contest. Or as Jesus put it, “if your son asks you for bread, do you give him a stone?”

Moreover, I think that churches have meaningful reasons for being, and that many of them are deep and decent. But these are far from uniform, determined more by history, locality and grace than by the would-be guiding hand of a central organization.

That’s why I get so angry when congregational polity — the one constant referent in our history — is derided as counter-productive or obsolete. A successful appeal to centralize power has to prove that what it offers is more valuable than what’s lost. And since the common core is all but undefined, and the local, particular sources of mission are all but unrecognized, such a move is nothing but an avoidable disaster.