Simple, low-cost tips for video services

While some people go bird watching, I go denomination watching, especially during the annual meeting season. When I learned about the Primitive Methodist Church, I knew I had to browse their websites.

They are a small denomination with congregational polity (unlike most Methodists) and a focus on practical mission initiatives like a school for ministry, a campground and a investment/loan fund. Little wonder then that their National Mission Board suggestions for video production — posted at the start of the pandemic — are low-cost, high-impact, briefly stated and practical. An admirable list, and the suggestion “DON’T record with the camera pointing UP at you. No one wants to see up your nose” made me laugh out loud.

What a joy it would be if every denomination had such useful information. Worth emulating.

The Affirmation of Social Principles (1943)

There was only one Universalist national meeting during the Second War War. They were biennial, and the 1941 and 1945 meetings just book-ended the United States participation in the war. I’ve not been able to read the Christian Leader, the denominational newspaper from that period and so much of what I have been able to discern has been from the record of that one meeting, in New York, held at the Church of the Divine Paternity, now known as Fourth Universalist. It was thinly attended — 117 delegates; there was a war on, after all — but plenty occurred. The denomination formally adopted new bylaws as the Universalist Church of America for one. The delegates approved the following Affirmation of Social Principles for another, which I’ve attached below. It’s worth noting how they were already looking past the war years to a new age, and a spirit which surely persisted into consolidation with the Unitarians.

At some point I’ll get this on one of my documents sites, but since those could use a cleanup, I’ll post it here first.

Read more: The Affirmation of Social Principles (1943)

THE AFFIRMATION OF SOCIAL PRINCIPLES

of

THE UNIVERSALIST CHURCH OF AMERICA

Adopted at New York City October, 1943

We Universalists avow our faith in the supreme worth of every human personality, and in the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God. This faith is being challenged on every side. We therefore re-affirm our historic stand and call upon our people to think through and act upon that faith.

Now is the time for greatness. There have been few if any periods in the entire history of the human race when men have had such an opportunity to mold the future. We stand at the great divide. On one side lies a land of promise, an unprecedented opportunity to build a better world than has ever been known. On the other side lies a return to the old order with its greed, poverty and war.

The hour for decision is at hand. We must move backward toward the old or forward toward the new. It is a fateful decision to make, for destiny will be determined by it; but we cannot and would not escape the responsibility.

Partialism cannot solve the problems of today and tomorrow. Partialism limits, divides and excludes. It emphasizes nationalism, racism, classism, sectarianism, caste and privilege, and it inevitably issues in conflict. Partialism is the underlying philosophy of an old order which was founded on a technological and sociological isolationism which no longer exists. It is discredited and impotent, It cannot construct, a unified and universalized civilization, but will lead us backward to the past. That way lies disaster.

The peoples of the world have built an interdependent and integrated culture. Nations, races, classes share a common heritage of science. Airplanes have abolished boundaries. Radios have brought the voice of every people into our homes. Industry has distributed far and wide the commodities of inventive genius. Music, art and education speak a common language.

The only possible philosophy for a better world is universalism. It alone is realistic and creative. In it lies the hope of mankind; without it we are doomed.

This faith means that, the whole is greater than the parts. It is the philosophy and the religion of the all-inclusive. It interprets life in terms of the universals and the unities. It levels barriers, abjures prejudice, and renounces all that sets man against his fellow man. It endeavors to integrate humanity into one harmonious co-operating unity.

This faith demands that the common humanity of all races be recognized.

This faith demands that all men of all classes, races, creeds, shall abjure war as a method of solving international disputes and shall affirm their faith in the possibility of progressively building a lasting peace.

This faith demands that we must build an international order in which the sovereign power to settle international disputes resides in a league or assembly of all peoples.

This faith demands that the physical resources of the earth be so used that all men everywhere shall have the essentials of a good life.

This faith demands that we must build an economic order based on the abundant life for all rather than upon the acquisitive power of the few.

This faith demands that the human resources of society, such as education, culture, the arts, be made progressively available to all.

We here and now call upon all fellow Universalists to unite in a great and consecrated movement to make these things come to pass.

In the field of social welfare:

  1. We must acquaint ourselves with the faith and practice of other religionists that we may help to overcome the destructive force of religious prejudice.
  2. We must recognize that today Americans of Negro, Indian and Oriental descent, and many not yet citizens, are suffering from unjust forms of discrimination. We must combat every such form of race prejudice by practical steps which shall achieve a just status for these, our brethren.
  3. We must work for such forms of social betterment and security as will enable the American family to provide conditions of housing, food, education and recreation consistent with constructive religious living.
  4. We must work for the strengthening of the spiritual foundations of the American home that all members of the family may be growing Christian persons.
  5. We must engage in sacrificial and informed community activity which will produce wholesome and progressive results in the areas of planning, relief, reconstruction and recreation.
  6. We must study the complex problems of labor, management and capital so that we can intelligently bring the insights of Christian ethics to bear on the problems of economic justice for all members of society.
  7. We must recognize the importance of a strong, independent, land-owning farm folk to the future health and well-being of a growing democracy. To this end we recommend support of such legislation and other organized activities as help to increase the number of family-sized and family-owned farms.
  8. We must welcome and encourage the growth of the co-operative movement as a check on unwholesome economic practices vice to producers and consumers alike.
  9. We must work for improved educational opportunities for young and old, and for a freedom in teaching which puts no restriction upon the authority of truth known or to be known.
  10. We must condemn as destructive to the best interests of society all forms of gambling and small games of chance which are an attempt to get something for nothing, and we must work for more stringent laws governing such practices.
  11. We must advance the cause of temperance through wise legislation pertaining to the manufacture, distribution, advertising and sale of alcoholic beverages and we must promote a sustained and scientific educational program dealing with the personal and social effects of intemperance.
  12. We must avoid both sentimentality and vindictiveness in our attitudes toward criminals. To this end we must give enlightened support to penologists, jurists and trained social workers who seek to develop scientific, humane and ethical treatment of actual and potential criminals and so promote the cause of corrective penology.
  13. We must commit ourselves and encourage others to consistent obedience to law lest we and our society suffer the consequences of disorder and unrestraint.
  14. We must recognize the fact that there is no common judgment among Christians as to one’s personal duty when called for military service and we call our people to be true in policy and action to a basic law of our church, Article XII of the Laws of Fellowship, which grants full fellowship to conscientious objectors in time of war.
  15. We must increase our participation in government as individuals and as representatives of groups of citizens, and must as a denomination and as local churches know and speak our mind on significant public questions.

In the field of international relations:

  1. We must inform ourselves concerning the problems of today’s world.
  2. We must co-operate in establishing an international organization which shall be truly democratic and all-inclusive. In this world organization there must be some internationally organized power to restrain those who threaten the peace of mankind; there must be provision for peaceful change, for the regulation of currencies, tariffs and other economic concerns by international agreement, and for equal opportunity for all to share the natural resources of the earth.
  3. We must be prepared to continue in a spirit of self-sacrifice after the fighting ends to provide food, medical care, and the materials and leadership for reconstruction in all devastated lands.

In the field of international church extension:

  1. We must evaluate the work which we have done in Japan and Korea and decide whether or not to re-establish any or all of it, and we must study opportunities offered in the post-war period for new approaches to the Japanese through educational and social work.
  2. We must consider new opportunities in world mission, and take our share in the responsibility of Christians for relief, reconstruction and education.

We, therefore consecrate ourselves to the task of building, under God, a universal brotherhood.

What I’m reading

I’m currently reading

Talbott, Thomas. Understanding the Free-Will Controversy: Thinking through a Philosophical Quagmire. Cascade Books, 2022.

Why? Because while the charge that Universalism violates human will has never impressed me much, neither did “classic” Universalists give it the consideration it deserves. Talbott presents a small but dense work, and as a well-known figure among neo-Universalists deserves a careful read. Or two.

Lynskey, Dorian. The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. Doubleday, 2019.

I’ve stumbled back on Orwell’s masterwork and I want to appreciate it as an adult. As a reflection on the current infatuation with authoritarianism but also, in light of World War Two anniversaries, of Orwell’s postwar Britain.

Parks, Tim. Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo. W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Trains and Italy? What more do you want?

It’s worth noting I got the Talbott work on sale from Wipf and Stock, of which Cascade in an imprint. They are the de-facto Neo-Universalist Publishing House among other niches, so if you’re reading this, you should get on their mailing list now.

Thanks to UUpdater

As I’m getting back on the (writing) horse, I want to thank the UUpdater, who ran UUpdates.net for many years, but who laid down the work late last year.

It’s possible it may come back if someone picks it up — all the tools are there — but it may be better to let it go, even with regrets. It was valuable for lubricating the once vibrant UU blogosphere, but that is only a thin shadow of what was. Even its successor, Facebook groups, seem to have declined without a clear replacement, official, formal or otherwise. Denominational communications were once its lifeblood — to which I add the twice-yearly publication of the UUWorld and a tendency to make General Assembly virtual — and the relative silence should worry anyone concerned about the health of the UUA. I’ll leave that for others to consider.

For now, thanks to the UUpdater for all you accomplished. You deserve thanks and praise.

Easter sermon with the UCA

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the online Easter service for the Unitarian Christian Association on March 31, 2024 using a lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 16:-8) and a meditation from the works of George Lander Perrin.


I would like to thank the Rev. Sheena Gabriel and the Unitarian Christian Association for having me speak today, and as a board member of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, I hope the UCA and UUCF can continue to build trans-Atlantic ties of faith, fellowship and cooperation.

It is a particular honor to speak on Easter Sunday, the high point each year for Christians, when we celebrate Jesus Christ’s victory over evil, death and the grave.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom preached his famous Paschal Sermon, which will be heard in Orthodox churches when they celebrate Easter in May, and which included:

If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!

If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.
Amen.

Yes, Easter is the great festival, the high point — theoretically and theologically at least. But for generations — more than living memory, at least in the English-speaking world — Christmas has taken the first spot. Christmas has the warm family feelings, the feasting, the stimulating consumerism, and promises of peace and joy that overflows a particular religious interest. In fact, I’ve known several Jews over the years who absolutely love Christmas as a warm, generous and family-centered celebration without conflict over Christmas as a religious celebration. That’s perfectly reasonable, and perhaps the majority position. However, you can’t do that with Easter, the chocolate eggs notwithstanding. Easter comes with theological demands that can be addressed, modified or dismissed, but will surely come back each and every year.

For religious liberals and Unitarians in particular, Easter comes (let’s say) with concerns with those familiar theological maxims: Christ died for you; Christ died and rose again on the third day; Christ rose from the dead, and has gone before us to make a place for us; Christ will come again, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. Christ’s kingdom will never end.

Honestly, how many of us think too hard about these acclamations? Perhaps spending a moment to translate the thought into something more approachable, mentally editing them or even flinching when hearing them. And if you have negative former religious associations, these acclamations can take on a disturbing note.

Never mind that these rather conventional statements of Christian faith are now counter-cultural, and we liberals stand in a middle ground of discussing and appreciating the Easter mysteries, without conceding much, and without mental reservations or the caveats that Unitarians past once made. Or perhaps I was wrong before: Easter might drift away into chocolates and bunnies and a ham dinner. But as long as we’re Christians, we will always have to think of it in theological terms.

Now, I’m a bit out of my element. Unitarianism in Great Britain and North America have much in common, including some shared points of history and certain figures like Joseph Priestley. But our cultural, religious and legal histories are distinct. We had another liberal movement, Universalism, my primary tradition, which has been long extinct in Britain, and we never had something institutionalized like Martineau’s Free Christianity. I assume we have much in common, I don’t want to assume similarities that don’t exist.

My point is that I may say something that falls flat, and perhaps even causes offense and if that happens please accept my apology. But I have been in the Unitarian Universalist orbit for nearly forty years, and a minister for twenty-five, and like many of you have a lot of experience in the faith which both invigorates and infuriates me.

So let me dive in.

I think Unitarianism’s great strength is also its weakness. Its impulse is to be honest in matters of conscience, truthful in facts and clear in action. If something seems wrong, misguided or superstitious, it will be called out as such, with varying degrees of front parlor manners and tact. It is both proud of its intellectual honesty, but is sometimes undone by its application. Having put so much into being right, not far behind is a fear that we might be wrong. Wrong in ethics or abstract concepts or (God forbid) wrong in ordinary fact. And even more, not be seen as a fool.

That makes Easter a hazard. So much of it seems unbelievable or naive or mythical. Thus it has to be carefully managed, over-managed, I think. True: we understand so much that the ancients could not, but I also suspect they could appreciate wisdom we cannot. They seem very far removed. Little wonder it’s a short step from pushing back against outmoded theology to rejecting the essentials whole cloth. How many Unitarian and Universalist Christians have you known who either end up practicing no religion, or holding a naturalistic philosophy, or returning to a more orthodox church? It’s a difficult balancing act, but one worth maintaining. We are called back to this current yet ancient faith and texts because they have something to say to us. Let’s let it speak. Like scripture itself, a lot of thought about God, humanity, the created order in the relationship between these was a solution sought to better understand what exists. Theology, in this sense, functions as a theory and is subject to revision. When it gets hardened into dogma, we have a different problem but that’s outside the scope of the sermon.

So Easter has become a commemoration of the original event and centuries of interpretation of it. Some of that is understandable. Each generation builds on what came before. If we had to start from scratch in all of our human pursuits we would have nothing… except frustration. But if we go astray we have to correct our course.

Let’s look back at the text from Mark, surely the earliest of the hero-tales we call gospels. There’s no concern about atonement, vicarious or otherwise, Christ’s place in the economy of the godhead, the fate of particular individuals, or the end of creation. And to celebrate Easter today, we don’t need to introduce them. The women — at the cusp of becoming the first witnesses — asked “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

But the stone had already been moved. It was not a problem for them. Likewise, let’s not invite unnecessary problems. Easter is to be enjoyed, to be delighted in.

Easter celebrates life over death and the connection of heaven and earth without explanation. The answer was there all along. God sought us out before we were, or anything was. The bond between beings — human and divine — is to seek understanding, and (in the old Universalist profession of faith) is a result of God’s nature being love. To be the creator means to be the savior. It is not in God’s nature to abandon us, which we have seen unfolded through the prophets, through Christ and to the present day. But there I am building up theology again, and a particularly Universalist one. That’s not the only way.

Another approach, keeping with our tradition, is to stay optimistic, highlight the poetic and engage with our religion in a spirit of everyday practicality.

Take George Landor Perin (1854-1921), the Universalist minister who wrote today’s meditation. Shockingly little has been written about this nineteenth and twentieth century figure or his wife Florence. They were missionaries to Japan (a story for another time), and later he was a popular preacher in Boston, while she prepared anthologies and calendars of uplifting religious literature. Together, they can be seen as the forerunners of influencers and self-help gurus, while also having an active role in Boston’s relief work. What sets them apart — and this is conjecture — is that they spent little time rehashing the Universalist theological distinctives. Distinctives that made less and less sense, as the paralyzing fear of hell was losing its absolute grip. The Perrins’ work was unabashedly optimistic, both in practical and spiritual terms. Whom did he address? Those of a sensitive nature. How did he couch the “deeper meanings” of Easter. Not with straight-forward teaching, but ideas that point to what Easter evoked: “Victory from the ashes of defeat;” “Hope born from the soil of despair;” “Immortality crowning the grave.”

For us, this may mean we can worry less about Easter, and enjoy it more, for the rejoicing, opportunity and relief it brings. Easter is difficult if we wish to make it difficult.

And may I suggest one more thing? This attitude comes with a little dose of selfishness, but that’s not wrong. If Christianity, and Easter particularly, is not good for you, why should you care? A rich Christian faith should uncover the joy in life and lift you up in times of trouble. It should be better to have it than not have it, or at the very least give you the resources to survive and thrive in order to help others.

My point is that Easter is not something you have to be right about. It’s deep and glorious, reflecting the love from God and dignity to the whole human family. We can worry about the details later. On Easter Sunday, there is room enough for all. Like the father of the prodigal son telling his older brother: “we had to celebrate, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.”

Or as St. John Chrysostom preached: Christ is risen, and life reigns!

May God bless us this glorious Easter Day.

Dual affiliation

Last year, the Universalist Christian Association recognized my ordination and I have full standing within it, meaning I have dual affiliation with it and ministerial fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Here is the news piece.

If you a minister who holds to universal salvation and and looking for standing — or training and ordination — I can recommend the process as being well-organized and thoughtful. You can also ask me, and especially if you have UUA fellowship, either in the comments or by my contact form.

Happy New Year!

“Missing” Georgia churches found

As many of you know, I am from Georgia and started my career there. I even worked to an ill-fated and later abandoned master’s degree in church history; my thesis would have been about Universalist churches in the antebellum South. But resources were harder to get thirty years ago, and so left that behind, went to seminary instead.

Between those researches and recent (say, 1980s) UUA directories, I knew there were churches that had been in Georgia for which there was little evidence. Two that kept coming back up was the one in Allatoona, in the northern part of the state, and the one in Senoia, south of Atlanta.

I always wondered what happened to them. The last I heard of the Senoia church was that it was rented to a Pentecostal church, so I assumed it was still in those hands or demolished. In other parts of the South, I’ve seen a gap in a cemetery where a church should be; been shown by an elder where an extinct church turned into a house (and the graveyard into a vegetable garden); and once unwisely drove up a logging road to find the grafitti-ed ruins of an abandoned meeting house. Times takes our little works away.

In a moment of free-form web browsing last week, I visited the Georgia Digital Library and looked up the Universalists and got my answer.

The Allatoona church is in rough shape, but evidently is or was on the radar of historic preservationists. There’s even a picture.

No picture but a happier outcome for the Senoia church. According to the September 27—October 1, 2004 issue of the “Preservation Georgia online” newsletter, the church was given in trust by the last members and has been converted to a private home.

“Harmony Church, a former Revolving Fund property of The Georgia Trust, will be featured this October on an episode of HGTV’s Building Character. The show highlights properties that have been transformed into one-of-a-kind private homes and the owners who rehabilitated them.

Located in Senoia, the 1896 Harmony Church was built by a Universalist congregation that came to Coweta County from South Carolina. Last used regularly in the 1980s, the surviving members of the congregation donated the church to The Georgia Trust’s Revolving Fund in 2002. The vernacular religious architecture of the 1,450-sq.-ft. church has been retained, as have its original windows, doors and hardwood floors. While the pews and pulpit were removed, the interior is still paneled entirely in wood.”

I’ve not found that clip online, but Harmony is a typically Universalist church name. In any case, it’s good to know what happened to them.