Say no five times (sure to irritate everyone)

Two weekends ago, Hubby and I went to IKEA, going most of the way by subway. On the ride, we made a list of habits and practices that we would not accept in the new church. In a low moment, we thought the church just might as well have no people — that’s one way to fix the problem! — but we regained our composure over lingenberries.

But on reflection, there are some things that I will insist on. And I’m sure I don’t have a single reader who will agree with all five. Here goes.

  • No flaming chalice. Apart from being a Unitarian (that is, not Universalist) emblem, the rituals associated with what could be a simple lamp-lighting have gotten too often sectarian and even a bit creepy.
  • No Sunday School. This is a mode of faith formation who’s time has passed. There have to be better options, especially considering the space and liability demands it brings. One of many reason I read Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Dan Harper.
  • No liturgically-collected financial offering. We’ll take money, and perhaps even on Sunday if there’s no fuss, but if it really is “the sacrament of the free church” then we need to revisit our ecclesiology and class assumptions. And I don’t know a single young person who carries checks; some don’t even have any, and I’m not betting on bills with zeroes on them. Hint: they do use PayPal, Google Checkout and the like. Plus it probably causes more anxiety among guests than the good it creates. Heck, the last time Hubby and I were in church together, the usher passed us by. There’s no winning with this.
  • No membership book. That is, a literal book. Again, this isn’t 1830.
  • No children’s story in worship, also known as “a quaint tale for the sake of the adults using minors as set pieces.” And, on a personal note, at 6-foot-4, I’d have to be folded into thirds to be anywhere near the wee ones.

Whew! that’s a load off. And to think there are still some people who think I’m a traditionalist crank. (I’d add “no fattening snacks with coffee” but that might cause a riot.) Now, surely you can see how reasonable that all is, no?

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

71 thoughts on “Say no five times (sure to irritate everyone)

  1. Obviously, we’ll have to agree to disagree. You say creepy and sectarian, I say symbolic and identifying. In any case, I enjoy your blog very much, and I am hopeful you can get some of the data about our ministers you mentioned in a recent post — I, too, have wondered about that.

  2. @Amy. After nearly eight years of blogging, I believe this is the most commented blog post, even if you factor out my additions. And that doesn’t count the fact that minister and blogger Victoria Weinstein (PeaceBang) started a thread about it on Facebook.

    It also took little effort to write. By contrast, my hard-wrought odes scarcely get a nod. A bad lesson there.

  3. Going along with a congregation that is UU but doesn’t call itself that–I’ve thought my home congregation, in Westchester County, NY, could serve its diversity goals if it joined with the four other UU congregations in the county and started congregations in Mt. Vernon (a majority African-American city in the SE corner of the county) and in a Latino neighborhood in Peekskill (in the NE corner of the county).

    My impression is that none of the five are diverse, at least not in the way the denomination currently considers “diverse”–but that if our goal is to bring our kind of religion to minorities in the county, planting congregations but not nailing our UU colors to the mast might bring us to success.

    Of course, it raises the question about whether these congregations would ultimately wind up UU, but if it brought liberal religion (or whatever we want to think we are) to populations that don’t currently have it, isn’t that part of the point?

  4. @ Diggitt – Lee Barker certainly sees post-denominationalism as the opening flower of religion in America – whether we like it or not. I can see how it plays out in congregations. But it what that will mean for associations like ours, I can only guess.

    At age 50, when I’m looking at the website or signage of a church, first thing I look for, when the name of the congregation doesn’t make it clear, is the denominational affiliation or historical branch of the larger religion it belongs with. I’m frustrated when I can’t find it. But that is more and more the case. Often one has to read the long and often poorly worded statements of “What We Believe” to learn anything about the theological stream they are swimming in.

    Tell me Free Methodist and I know what you’re talking about. But sent me to you beliefs list and more and more of them look amazingly the same despite all the historical crap that separates them.

    So maybe de-emphasizing the name Unitarian Universalist and, instead, focusing on our corporate elevator speech(es) may mean that the historical crap that divides us from other liberal or “liberal” religionists may get swept away and the circle gets widened in the process. And if the presence of the Association gets in the way of that process in the minds of the people who are potentially one with us? Hmmm.

  5. Paul,

    Oh, the irony… if it turns out that returning to the ways of the Standing Order, and affiliating laterally, *without* any sort of denominational labels, is what it takes to succeed and thrive as a larger religious movement in this era.

    Plus ca change, and all that, eh?

    Did I mention that at Thanksgiving, I had a Reform rabbi bring up the topic of the explorations that went on int he late 19th C between the Unitarians and Reform Judaism looking at a merger-consolidation?

    Maybe if we become liberal, interfaith non-denominational…

    I’m personally an open seat at the tablist; there’s always room for more. Wash your hands and behave yourself, and dig in. Share. Play nice.

  6. My tiny, Emerging, lay-led home congregation has had guest preachers who are Reform rabbis as many times as we have had UU ministers. Their preaching has been perfectly in tune with who we are. And they are slightly more likely to be available on Sunday.

  7. Scott wrote:
    -snip-
    “Investing deep, sectarian meaning — and meaning that indicates participation in a group — in a lamp-lighting is creepy. Let me underscore how deliberately sectarian this is. There’s nothing there I’m interested in salvaging.”

    Scott,

    A ritual that is shared by a large number of Unitarian Universalist congregations would be “sectarian” if Unitarian Universalism were totally Christian.

    Even if being a totally Christian denomination were an ideal for some Unitarian Universalists and that may have been the reality in our past, it’s not the reality that we live in today.

    Some individual UUs are Christian and some are not. Some congregations place greater emphasis on this aspect of our heritage and some do not.

    Ecumenical groups like the National Council of Churches don’t consider us to be Christian either:

    http://www.ncccusa.org/members/

    The partial overlap between Unitarian Universalism and Christianity would be better illustrated as a Venn diagram (which is pretty hard to do with ASCII text).

    Christianity started as an off-shoot of Judaism. At some point in the history of Christianity, the unique practices it had (communion, baptism, etc) could have been viewed as “creepy sectarianism” by the Jewish groups that didn’t embrace this upstart religion.

    The question here is how long does it take for a unique ritual in a newly emerging religious community to be OK and not be “sectarian”? Do we have to wait 1900 years for a chalice lighting to not be “creepy”?

    That being said … I’ll be interested to see how this new congregational start goes. Given the radical congregational polity where the only restriction on local congregations is “no creedal tests,” let’s see how this experiment goes and what the rest of us can learn from it.

  8. I can understand why some people like the Flaming Chalice- it provides the parishioners a sense of liturgical unity, they love when it lights up along with the wisdom that is imparted when its lit. However, I hate it with a passion. In the form the UUA uses the chalice it strikes me more as a logo for office stationary than as a religious symbol, and it also has hints of idolatry because some people worship it. I think it can be redeemed for worship and religious purposes especially for UU Christians like us. The Cross representing our Christian faith and memorializing Jesus’ death and resurrection, the flame can represent the holy spirit and the light of God within all God’s children, and the chalice itself representing the wine that Jesus shared with his disciples. As for Sunday school I think it has its purposes and it needs to be inter generational not just the children or youth. The children need to be included in the liturgy because the youth are the future leaders of the church. We should not be of the opinion to separate the children from the rest of the worshiping community. I’m personally torn about the membership book- in many respects it can be a powerful symbol of marking your solidarity with a church community and having your name added to those who have gone before you (those in the communion of saints) but the membership book is also a relic of an earlier time. The children’s story is a mixed feeling too. I understand that the children’s moment is important for those of younger children in the parish and too often children’s moment turns into entertainment. I recognize the importance of financing the work of the church but giving needs to be done optionally and as much or little as they are so moved to give. I want to do away with the collection plate and have people contribute privately and in the back of the sanctuary or through online methods. By having the plate it makes those who cannot afford as much money feel guilty or ashamed. Jesus said himself that one should not serve both God and mammon.

  9. Just one question, Shawn. I am comfortable with most of what you wrote, but could you direct me to someone who worships the chalice? I’ve never knowingly met anyone who worships the chalice. I know a lot of people who are emotionally connected to the ritual of kindling and extinguishing the chalice. I know plenty of people who would not feel that they had been to a UU worship service without the kindling of the chalice. But you are suggesting more than I knew was vested in this symbol by anyone. If you can point me in their direction, I would like to pick the brains of such persons.

  10. Way behind, but just wanted to say Yes to all five heresies. Here the only one of those we follow is usually lighting a chalice as part of the invocation and covenant but is left as a liturgical element with very little explanation of a sectarian fashion; I suppose it is a lightly held tradition; of those elements that sometimes get jettisoned in our settings or when the spirit moves us in other ways as a small group during worship, lighting of the chalice candle is the first to go; we try not to jettison singing either but occasionally it happens; we keep a pastoral prayer time ending with the Lords Prayer and we keep communion even of a spontaneous extemporaneous nature. And thanks too Diggitt for the mention of the link above.

  11. @ Paul — I’m intrigued by your recent and regular interaction with Reform rabbis. When I was growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, the city’s Reform temple ws our next door neighbor. We cooperated on many things and (at least when I was youth group president) the youth groups met together.

    In Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, where my current congregation is located, the Reform rabbi in the village has told his congregants (who have told me) that they “might as well be Unitarians.” However, the two congregations have no interaction at all.

    It may be because the NYC suburbs are so heavily Jewish that liberal Jews have plenty of company without us. It may be because we are no longer strictly old-style Unitarians ourselves, but in becoming UU have altered out of recognition of the 1980s ancestors. Who knows? Hut I applaud your congregation’s openness. And the rabbis’s too, of course.

  12. @ Diggitt – I have long found much of value to me as a non-Jew in Judaism – especially Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements of Judaism. Truth be told, if, when I was 26, I had lived in a town with a Reform synagogue, I would have converted to Judaism. But I didn’t, so I didn’t. And things happened as they did rather than how they didn’t. But my interest continues today. And I continue to gain a lot through that interest.

    One of the rabbis who has preached at my home congregation is Rabbi Randy Fleisher, associate rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, St. Louis, whose building is across the street from First Unitarian Church, which hosted them for more than a decade until they could build their building. This link is to a piece he wrote for Jewish in St. Louis.

    He certainly is a kindred spirit. Here is a link to my own blog entry re going to his synagogue for their Simchat Torah celebration last fall.

    I suspect that my home congregation was as open as it was at the beginning because they trusted me, and I invited the rabbis. But from the first rabbinical visit, the congregation was convinced that it was a good, profitable relationship to develop.

    The very first rabbi to come to my congregation actually brought a lot of first time visitors. Some were curiosity seekers, but some became members. And I remember that there were friends of our high school exchange student from Germany present with him that day, who, the next Sunday, felt a great need to open up at the fellowship concerning how the rabbi’s sermon provided something very important to them, one being someone raised Missouri Synod Lutheran but frustrated with their closed communion that excluded his mother who, though not a member had attended for decades with his father and was a baptized Christian. The rabbi’s sermon had been on the sacrifice of Isaac. And this young Lutheran was extremely moved. As were the humanists among us as well.

    There is no question in my mind that, when I am called to a congregation, one of the first relationships I will seek and nurture outside the congregation will be with the local liberal rabbis. They are both compatible and a source of wonderful insights. And they are pretty much always involved in social justice actions that would be open to interfaith participation.

  13. OK, so I’m way in the minority on this one, but I LOVE the Story for all Ages, which I figure acts as the accessible and fun way of delivering the message of the day, before we have to go all intellectual on it. Of course, this requires that the story be chosen and delivered carefully, expertly and enthusiastically. Which rarely happens. Doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to do it. Frankly, a lot of sermons aren’t that great, either. Of course, you could do away with the story if children were in worship. But if children are going to be in worship, then great care needs to be taken that the service is designed with people of all ages in mind, which isn’t that easy, and often isn’t to the taste of adults who are used to a more traditional format. To expect children to sit quietly through an hour of talking they don’t much understand and music they don’t relate to sung from hymnbooks which they may or may not be able to read serves no one, and causes undue suffering for parents, children and older folks who can’t hear over the child noise. Frankly, anything done exceptionally well is likely to be successful — preaching, Sunday school, story for all ages, etc. But children have far less tolerance than adults for sitting through things they don’t find meaningful or fun, and don’t hesitate to let you know about it.

  14. I think any of the five things you mentioned, Scott, can be used/done wonderfully or terribly. I’ve experienced horrific children’s stories and very moving ones. I can’t even begin to remark on how utterly inappropriate and offensive chalica is, yet I grew up in a UU congregation and find some chalice lightings to be quite powerful.

    I think the challenge is learning to take our cues from the cultural and social needs of our congregations and the greater needs present in their contexts. Symbols, religious instruction, inclusion of generosity in the liturgy, story-telling, a physical book in which the names of members are inscribed for posterity, these are all tools with which churches in particular contexts sought to grow with God. Undoubtedly, it is time for some churches to retire them.

    It is one thing to have preferences and standards, and another to stifle spirit in the service of upholding them. It sounds like you are hoping to plant a church whose structure, scope, and programming resonates with and feeds a a particular demographic/community, and I think that is the only way church plants can work. I hope, however, that you will be willing to be flexible on your list should your future congregation come to grow in unexpected ways and develop needs and a mission different from its infant vision.

    Blessings.

  15. You know I have to agree Scott and I wouldn’t have 10 months ago. I would have said “well everybody can give something even if it’s only a mite” and it would have come from my own desire to participate in said sacrament even with a small amount of money. Reflecting on the story of the Widow’s mite and the surrounding passages about the scribes and Pharisees devouring the houses of widows has changed my opinion. The fact that Jesus doesn’t actually praise the women’s action so much as level a charge against the others in the temple. He doesn’t say what she gave to the temple was laudable he simply said that she gave more. He didn’t say next “Go and do likewise. Give what you have to the temple”

    If I benefit from my congregation, if I ask for money from the surrounding community to meet more than my bare physical needs while others suffer it seems pretty clear from the gospels that I have sinned. I have become more like a scribe or Pharisee than a disciple of Jesus.

    This taking on of the language and ways of the scribes and Pharisees seems to be the natural conclusion of making the offering a sacrament. I think this is especially in the UU community since we’ve lost the other sacraments except maybe the “sacrament of reason” and don’t even get me started on that load of theological dung. I don’t think our reason or our money should be defined as outward signs of inward grace. I think doing so teaches a theology that will inevitably frame God in a way that people might believe that they can be cut off from God for lack of resources either mental or physical. The exact thing I think Jesus was campaigning against.

    What I’ve begun to hear when I hear “it’s the sacrament of the Free Church” is “we believe that the Good news is that you can give the church money/help support my middle class lifestyle and that will help you connect with God.” I think it’s the implied curriculum whether we want it to be or not. I believe it’s an abomination to preach that understanding to someone who might just scraping by. It reminds me all too much of this

    http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2013/11/is_walmarts_request_of_associa.html

    Ministers will say “of course that’s not what we mean” and I think they truly believe that but then I hear them give so much praise to the big donors the next moment. It is also big donors we parade around at association levels and I am not always convinced they earned their money in honest ways or that they are more awesome than anyone else.

    Preaching that way doesn’t seem like good news to me, it doesn’t read like gospel, and honestly not sure what to do about it or how to respond since it’s about more than just than just a liturgical formula. It’s about a deeply held religious belief at the core of our movement that expresses itself in a liturgical piece.

    Anyway. Thanks for posting this article its made me think over the past few months.

  16. Thanks for the extra information Scott. it will give me more to think about. I did appreciate the context surrounding the move from pew rent to volunteer basis

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