Speaking anonymously for public engagement

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Ken Collier blogs about civil disobedience and anonymity. A recent two-part series (first, second) by an anonymous seminarian, posted by Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Tom Schade, overlaps this and he’s just posted a defence of his publishing anonymous posts as I’m putting this post together (Sunday night). I’ll respond to these because those blog posts and comments are public, but I’m also responding to comments on Facebook and elsewhere, and these are almost impossible to reply-to here.

There’s a lot of interest — again Facebook hides much — and some denunciation, both on the content of what has been written, and by the fact that some has been published anonymously or pseudonymously. I care about the second issue, and in particular whether it’s improper to be anonymous. The logic goes thus: if you have a complaint, be bold and up front with it; this is the path of those who use in as civil disobedience. And without knowing who you are, how can we reach the goal: a discussion.

As if there was an etiquette for this sort of thing. I’ve found an article I read before called “Is Snowden Obliged to Accept Punishment?“, by Michael J. Glennon, persuasive. In particular, accepting punishment has been, for most of the people who conducted it, non-optional. To be present to resist is to be present to be prosecuted, or at least known. Given the sacramental esteem a protest arrest has among some Unitarian Universalists — one that never gets the white privilege treatment, by the way — little wonder that rules might be assumed.

And we are talking about more than integrity, but about punishment, real or suspected. The kind of thing you can’t get bailed out for and be praised as a hero. Standing up by name sounds noble, but only if you think a world without whistleblowers is worth having.

Part of the problem comes from our own self-conception: as family of faith with close bonds, rather than a network of persons and institutions that have competing priorities and values. Like all people, those with authority (including well-established ministers who may not think of themselves so) think their actions are fair, and don’t appreciate being challenged, or sometimes even having their authority pointed out. Money and settlements are insufficient, so it pays to not be identified as a problem in a structure built on relationships and policed by covenant, a concept that gets expanded and abused as convenient. (I’ll be coming back to this some other time.)

I mentioned whistle-blowing before, and inasmuch as the testimony of an anonymous complainant is a disclosure, this is also a kind of whistle-blowing. It’s certainly a call of alarm. The value of an anonymous disclosure and complaint is to get the item in public discourse, something that’s easier in the Internet era than ever before. It tests the general merit of the complain, pulls out disputants who don’t wish to be anonymous and flushes out devil’s advocates. And this testing and discourse shows if it’s safe to be more public and candid. People who have less to lose go on the record about something they would have never otherwise chosen. (And accordingly my opinions of some people are much lower now; others, much higher.)

For the record, I require signed comments unless there’s a good reason to keep an identity hid from others. But I demand a working email address and some evidence that the person is who she or he claims to be, and I did (and) allow anonymous commentary about Starr King School for the Ministry and the credentialing process.

Thanksgiving Dinner 2014

A memento of yesterday’s dinner. Also some evidence that a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner is possible and (I hope you’ll agree) attractive.

cauliflower, sweet potato and wedges of kabocha squash, oiled and ready for the oven.

cauliflower, sweet potato and wedges of kabocha squash, oiled and ready for the oven.

cornbread cubes

cornbread cubed and ready to be made into pan dressing.

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dinner set out

(clockwise from upper left) roasted photograph, Brussels sprouts, yeast gravy, pan dressing, cranberry sauce, apple and sage vegetarian sausages

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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.

The little three-hole punch

While I’m mulling on whether or not to blog on the recent reportage about the Starr King School for the Ministry — it won’t be nice-nice-sweet-sweet if I do — I thought I would review a helpful bit of office equipment of particular use for ministers: the small three-hole punch, meant for 8.5 x 5.5 inch paper.

Over the years, I’ve written how-tos related to 8.5 x 5.5 sized print jobs. This is the size often used for orders of service, and is a good size for a DIY minister’s special services book. These days, I even put sermon notes and manuscripts in a 8.5 x 5.5 format, and into an appropriate binder. Why? It carries better, looks better and (for travel) packs better than a full-sized binder. It reads “book” more than “binder”.

You can print two 8.5 x 5.5 pages on one piece of 8.5 x 11 paper, and fold it into a small page protector, but they’re not always available, but once you have the hole punch…

This is what I bought, and despite what that page says, I got it in-store and there was a small variety of colors.

Mini hole punch

Serving the online church

I’ve signed up for so many accounts to manage my business relations with companies lately that I wonder what services a church — say, program-sized or larger — might offer online. I’m not suggesting that this suite of services already exists, or that everyone would find it desirable, but the such online services might expand utility to members (perhaps) with little or no added cost in staffing or facilities.

This list is far from exhaustive; just a few possibilities that occur to me over the course of about a half hour, in no particular order.

  • make financial pledges and special gifts
  • set up auto pay from credit card or checking account
  • download charitable donation letter
  • call for donations for affiliated charities
  • change address
  • take online trainings
  • register for space-limited events
  • download coloring pages for children
  • manage prayer circles
  • sign up (and get reminders) for church volunteer roles
  • get emergency alerts from authorities
  • offer feedback for quality improvement
  • apply for (and resign) membership
  • share alerts for road closures or public transportation re-routings
  • provide workflows to access public services
  • prepare and record special ceremonies (weddings, funerals)

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.

The architecture of Universalist National Memorial Church, in detail

I was Googling for a set of 1939 orders of service from the Universalist National Memorial Church — where I was once minister and now, after a long break, am now a member — and found Sixteenth Street Architecture,  a fine architectural survey of Washington, D.C. “avenue of churches” from just north of the White House to just south of Columbia Road, thus missing All Souls Unitarian, but capturing the recently-demolished brutalist Third Church of Christ, Scientist. (I blogged about it a few years ago.)

 The section on UNMC is detailed and valuable, and includes photos of the construction.

The unintended subtext of “All are welcome”

There’s a much passed-around recent article about the lazy and misleading habit of churches that advertise themselves under the banner “All Are Welcome.” It’s worth a read. (“3 Ways ‘All Are Welcome’ Is Hurting the Church” by Lutheran pastor Angela Denker. Sojo.net.)

In my neighborhood, there’s a church that has an actual banner; the slogan is an added stripe to a rainbow flag: a now-passé way to wordlessly telegraph that gay-etc. people are the “all” who are welcome. And it’s this phenomenon is what I wanted to write about.

There was a time when deliberately allowing a lesbian-etc. to sit with you in church was daring. It may be so daring in some parts of the country, but I’m bold to say that even in those far-flung outposts, a rainbow flag isn’t going to pass muster.

For one thing, there’s the incongruity of saying “all are welcome” and intimating that bisexuals-etc. are the “all” through the inclusion of a rainbow-striped emblem. I’ve long wondered — my being gay and all — is it necessary to have to include everyone just to include me?  It’s as if everyone else would have been welcome first, and that’s not much of an invitation. Plus, I resent the coded language. It’s the language of the closet. It invites with a wink and a nod. But the code’s been broken, and it won’t fool anyone who has a hump about gays.

Second, it invites without making a commitment. Gay-etc. people are welcome to sit in the pews and give money, presumably. But what about getting married? Speaking of one’s friends and relationships plainly? Serving in positions of leadership, if otherwise qualified, including ordained leadership?

Some welcoming churches cannot, because of their rules, be as accommodating as they like. Which is a halfway promise. Telling strangers that we would be better hosts if only the national jurisdiction were only more accommodating forces one or both parties to think they’re fools.

So, a word to the Unitarian Universalists. These impediments shouldn’t apply to us. We are governed locally, have a track record of considered inclusion of gay-etc. people, and have a non-token number of transexual-etc. ministers. But we seem to undervalue this mature cultural development. (The focus on marriage parity, but little on our internal accomplishments, and the diminished state of Interweave come to mind.) Perhaps because we have a cultural value of the radical (or so we think) and the new (like everyone else) the accomplishments pale.

We, that is particular churches, should use more than three words — an easy lift for UUs — and state plainly that have made a deliberate decision and have an established history and support structure to include lesbian-etc. persons in all roles and in all ways — and to number the big ones — while pledging support to continue and improve this witness, even if it is or becomes unpopular.

Might be wordy and less snappy than “all are welcome” but that’s better than a feel-good slogan that says so little that it hides what should be a point of pride.




Please join us after the service for …what?

I’m used to controversy, but I’m really wading into deep water now. What is the appropriate food to serve with coffee after church? I ask out loud to combat snack inflation and to make the task — if it needs to be a task at all — easier to overtaxed church volunteers.

Let me paint a picture.

Two church services. Two different places. Two different approaches to food. Let’s review.

The first is New Harmony Universalist Church, Loganville, Georgia. Don’t look it up at UUA.org; it left the association in the 1980s, and had “gone dormant” before that, when that part of Georgia was open country and not in the exurbs of Atlanta. Today, it meets once a year in September for a homecoming service and de facto family reunion. And the food comes out. Homemade food: salads, various preparations of chicken, cornbread, congealed salads plus barbecue and a vat of Brunswick stew deep enough to baptize an adult, if so inclined. Homemade food to celebrate the church and the family. Dinner on the church grounds under a large shelter build for that purpose. (There is no church hall; there is, however, an outhouse.)

The second is St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland, in Rome. My husband Jonathan and I visited St. Andrew’s for the Christmas Eve service a couple of years ago. We had just flown in that morning; so did the family we shared the pew with! This is a lively in-town parish, with a multinational congregation, and no doubt a large number of tourists. Christmas Eve in such a setting is no more typical than the reunion at New Harmony, but the refreshment options have be handled differently. The parish hall is in another part of the church complex. There we found simple but well-chosen refreshments. A choice of drinks — tea or mulled wine — served by members from trays rather than at a station, if I recall correctly. (When I visited in 2003 for an ordinary Sunday, it was tea or juice at a table.) At a long table, the church set out generous slices of brioche-like pandoro and fresh mandarins, some with their leaves attached. I think the children got small gifts of candy, and possibly a different drink option. This wasn’t a family reunion, and many of us were strangers, but the Christmas cheer (and jetlag) inclined us to sociability, and the well-considered and straightforward offerings left a lasting positive impression.

Resuming blogging etc.

It has been an eventful month or so, with many challenges and opportunities. None, other than Daisy’s injury, is worth mentioning in public, but together they’ve left me exhausted and occasionally discouraged. None all that exceptional, but as a group… whew.

Daisy, I’m glad to say, is almost healed. Vitamin E on the scar tissue, for instance. The end of this episode is in sight, and I’m also ready to resume my public work. Ready, meaning desiring, if not prepared.

For one thing, I’m not convinced that this is either the best level of ministry activity for me, or the right (that is to say, exclusive) vehicle. And I will be considering my options — and how I may need your help and advice — for future work.