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.


The secret lesson of the vegetarians

I’m a vegetarian, and have been for (what?) a year or two. Not for health reasons, or ecological ones, but for ethical and religious reasons. More about that later, maybe.

And when you read personal  narratives of vegetarianism, there comes that assumption that there must be a reason, other than simply not liking to eat meat. There has to be some higher purpose, as if the cuisine isn’t enough. It’s not just a diet, but a diet that calls for an apologia and even a meta-narrative. Others do this — oh, ye paleo or raw food people — but most people don’t, and probably wonder why. And as someone who used to make wicked jokes about vegetarianism, I know that “eating on purpose” can be annoying.

But here’s the thing. All else being true,  it’s cheaper (overall) to be a vegetarian, and especially about a century or more ago when vegetarians were organizing into groups. Meat was expensive — heck! food was expensive. So for some diners — this is where proper history helps — simple vegetarian fare was (first and foremost) affordable, served with a side of moral uplift and resolve.

So what?

Think about churches. There are true believers and people who are in vested in the institutions. The “churchiness” of it. The theology. But  many will care about the stained glass or the organ. A kind word over coffee. Or learning in a class with other oddballs. “Unchurchy” reasons. One reason that you can find non-Christians in all kinds of Christian churches; a liberal approach to participation.

The secret lesson of the vegetarians is that the high — no, not high, but particular, formal and sacrificial — commitment approach to church life, which works for “churchy” people like me, is a turn-off for people who want to make their own experience in our shared setting. There’s room for all kinds of people, including those who are “churched” for their own needs and own convenience.

In our worship, a week becomes a month becomes a year

When we look at the norms of Christian worship, there is a standard of time, however frequently it’s broken. (Non-Christian Unitarian Universalists note this, too, considering where we get our worship habits.)

To put it so briefly as to risk being misleading, daily prayer should go up morning and night each day, and we should attend to the Table each Sunday, and that’s excluding duplicated services on Sunday morning. Two times seven is fourteen, plus one equals fifteen. So ideally a congregation should have at least fifteen worship services a week, if not more. But who does that? Some Episcopal cathedrals, if you’re lucky. And the occasional parish in Advent or Lent. But a leaner schedule is more customary, considering staffing costs or parishioner demand. Even a few decades ago, mainline Protestants would commonly have two services outside Sunday morning (Sunday evening and a midweek evening service, often on Wednesday) and communion once a month. This create a roughly the same ideal-weekly proportion of worship services over the course of a month. In short, a more appropriate rhythm developed, and one that seemed appropriately scaled. Some small town churches — we certainly see this among Universalists — take that to an even smaller scale. A service a month or so and communion once a year (if ever) based on the ability to secure a minister’s services. (How many of us have preached on a circuit?) Indeed, include too-cold or too-hot weather, and I suspect you find the UUA’s ten-services-a-year minimum. And now the ideal-weekly schedule gets pulled out over a year. But perhaps that’s appropriate, given the size and resources of the congregation, and the size of the community. The rhythms adjust to fit the capacity of the congregation, which might have a much (or more) to do with leadership as money.

And so, if this is true of worship, it is surely also true of mission and education, to name two other key functions of a church. And sometimes, particularly in small churches, one function will exist to the practical exclusion of the others. We all know of churches that struggle to stage a Sunday service. And how some Fellowship-era congregations existed primarily at first as Sunday schools. Some can even exist only as mission, or at least at their mission arm. Here I’m thinking of little Universalist churches that closed, leaving a women’s  organization — sometimes for decades — is a group dedicated to fellowship and possibly for service not a valid expression of the church?

And so to my point. A church may not have the expected size or scope of activity and yet may be a genuine expression of church. It may start small, grow in size and complexity, and then later contract and simplify. The right goal needn’t be continued and progressive development, but graceful adaptation to new conditions and the good sense to make the most of it.







One new congregation at General Assembly? Is it a problem?

One feature of the opening ceremony at General Assembly is the welcoming new congregations. Normally — and perhaps I’m dating myself — there are several welcomed into membership. Except this year there was only one congregation, the lowest I’ve ever seen. Congratulations to Original Blessing, Brooklyn. But when I asked the question does it matter? The answer is undoubtedly yes.

Not all young congregations survive. Not all young congregations encourage the ministerial college by providing employment. Not all young congregations contribute talent for common work, or funds. Not all young congregations reflect well on the common fellowship, or add to mutual encouragement.

But all congregations do depend on the strength that new growth provides. Some congregations have gotten larger over the last few years, and some have gotten smaller. But nothing lives forever. To keep from shrinking, we need new congregations, and one isn’t enough. We need leaders with experience to foster new congregations, and one isn’t enough to found them.

So, again, I’m happy for Original Blessing. I only wish it had some cradle mates.