Peeking in on the United Universalist Convention, 1939

Eighty years ago today, the United Universalist Convention began at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. It’s my home church, so a moment of pride.

The convention was not for the national denominational body (Universalist General Convention) alone, but included the meetings of the ministers association, the women’s association and the Sunday school association. For four days, they worshiped, heard reports, passed resolutions, broke into small groups and saw demonstrations. Given the size of the church, and the polity that sent 214 delegates from state conventions rather than every church, it was a smaller affair than today’s General Assembly. The banquet was, however, held at the Mayflower Hotel, which became famous later for other reasons.

Of the ministers welcomed into fellowship after the communion service, I recognize the names of Brainard Gibbons, later a General Superintendent, and Albert C. Niles, who wrote a biography of George De Benneville. A proposed pension plan never came to fruition. A rule change allowing dual fellowship (with the Unitarians and Congregationalists) passed, but I’ll have to research to see if this was an expansion of an earlier change; the Universalists entered comity talks with both the Unitarians and Congregationalists in the 1920s. Resolutions for co-ops and against gambling reflect their morals.

I don’t have access to the denominational magazines, so it’s hard to gauge the tone. Recall that the Germany had invaded Poland the month before, and Britain had declared war on September 3; a “phony war” to this point. The countries of the Americas had decided on neutrality. Yet the Universalists passed a resolution on conscientious objectors “which provoked considerable discussion but was finally adopted with a few dissenting votes.” I’m guessing the memories of the Great War were too fresh, and the writing (“times of war hysteria”) was on the wall. I can only imagine what Owen D. Young must have felt: he was the toastmaster for the banquet! The church’s tower was named for him and dedicated to international peace, recognizing the plan he proposed to restructure German war reparations a decade prior. But war was here.

You can read the official record of the proceedings here.

The most important part in “Am I Still…”

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” Comments pro and con (so far as I’m algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won’t be rehashing that.

What’s new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup’s prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained “by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!” That’s allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I’m satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I’d rather have what we had then, but we don’t and so I’ll say yes to her based on (what’s left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it’s a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is “I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it’s without the blessing or strictures of the UUA.” An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I’ve heard those for decades, and don’t take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn’t for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it’s clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that’s completely unworkable and frantic. (It’ll be interesting if there’s another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there’s anything left.)

The most important part in “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn’t make it illegitimate. And further I’ll add: a guild without benefits isn’t worth the time or loyalty.

Sermon: “Memory”

I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on October 6, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the First Letter to Timothy and the Gospel of Luke.


Memory

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for having me back.

Now that the weather has finally turned cooler(-ish), it’s beginning to feel like October. The Halloween advertisements and displays begin to make some sense: the gently spooky ones that combine pumpkins, the changing color of leaves, ancient headstones, bed-sheet ghosts and big bags of chocolate candy.

But truth be told, the candy seems like an inadequate bribe for the ever-present truth that life ends. The pretty red and orange leaves will soon dry out and fall. We see the pumpkins in their patch because the green leaves that fed them have withered away. For new life to thrive, it means that old life has to give way.

And yet the dead are present with us.

Washington, more than most places, is stuffed with constructed memorials: Greek temples, pavilions, engraved stones, benches, ceremonial walls and pathways, grottoes, pillars and obelisks, statues and fountains. Not to mention lecture series, endowed faculty chairs, scholarship funds, arts centers, even commemorative walls and plaques. We are surrounded by remembrances of the dead.

There are also the burial places, both those as famous as Arlington National Cemetery, but also the private and religious cemeteries that ring this and most cities. Places where even the rock-ribbed cry.

And then, as in every town or city, there are the informal, spontaneous memorials — made up of candles and flowers, pictures and signs, made up of teddy bears and crosses and too many tears — those memorials that that pop up on street corners and plazas or on lonely stretches of highways when something terrible happens, like when someone dies violently or senselessly. The dead may be gone, but we put up a fight to keep them.

Some of the memorials were created after a life of service or a moment of heroism, and are the people’s thanksgiving. Others were secured by substantial philanthropic giving. Some are homemade, the loved-one known by relatively few in this life. And each is evidence of dedication and love, that the dead may have their “part and lot with all thy saints.” We even pray in this memorial church, one of many in D.C. in dedicated that way.

So, who really, is the Universalist National Memorial Church a memorial to? John Murray? The people mentioned on the fading “scrolls” in the lobby? Someone else? That answer is now out of the hands of its builders. Because before the stone constructions, before those flowers laid, before a child’s toy left with sobbing, before any visible reminder were words. Perhaps thought and not spoken, because voices crack under grief. But words that say I loved her, and she’s gone. I miss her. I will remember her.

So in this church and all temples, at heroic monuments and roadsides, the memorial begins with our words, and our words become our prayers.

Memorials aren’t necessarily religious, but the answer to the questions they raise are. And in a Christian setting, the answers to those questions relate to God’s relationship and promises to us. Why do we make memorials of word and stone? Will they touch the heart of God?

I didn’t pull this theme out of the air. The first Sunday in October is, or was, Universalist Memorial Sunday, “for commemorating those friends who, during the year, have been taken away by death.” Although I don’t know of any churches that still celebrate it. It was one of a number of observances commended by the Universalist denomination that became a part of today’s Unitarian Universalist Association.

It was originally combined with All Souls Day, on November 2 or the nearest Sunday. All Souls, however, is an ancient observance, and served a different purpose. Ecumenically, it is for those Christians not included the day before, on All Saints Day. In the Episcopal Church is is officially called the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed”. But it could also be to remember all who lived. That second one is the Universalist take.

It’s hard not to see the bigness of All Souls Day if it includes everyone who has ever lived and arguably everyone who will yet live. Possibly angels, too, possibly pre-human ancestors, maybe beings on other worlds if they exist, perhaps all that lives. There’s a vastness and inclusion in this vision of God’s reconciliation of all souls. So great perhaps that our own personal need to remember those we love gets lost in its vastness. What about Grandma and Cousin Joe? So in the 1870s Universalist Memorial Sunday became a thing. The memories of the Civil War must have been fresh and raw; in any case, it must have been perfectly clear that life was fragile. Our religious ancestors needed to say so in their own words.

Speaking of the Civil War, of the monuments on the National Mall, I think the greatest among them is the one dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. Having been brought up mostly in the South, where Lincoln is not as revered as he is in other parts of the country, I nonetheless choke up a little when I see the words above the seated statue of Lincoln there:

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

And his memory is a blessing.

When I think of Lincoln, Washington, D.C. and the Civil War, I also think of Walt Whitman. In part, because May 31 was the two hundredth anniversary of his birth. In part because I see his poetry every time I take the subway (more about that later). In part because a new commemorative stamp came out last month: a portrait of Whitman with a lilac bush and a hermit thrush, a reference to one of his more famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” That’s the one many of us read in school, about his grief and the nation’s grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d womenstanding,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

and ending

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Whitman gave us a new, free way to feel and so to speak. He gave people words to grieve by. He came to Washington during the Civil War to look for his not-very-hurt brother: a soldier listed as a casualty at Fredricksburg. He stayed (ten years in all) to care for the broken and dying in the hospitals as something of a one-man volunteer morale officer.

Washington was swollen during the war. Universalist ministers started holding services here, perhaps in response to members relocated from the north, and Whitman attended services in that period. (A note. Ford’s Theater; the Lincoln death house; Whitman’s hospital, now the National Portrait Gallery; the Masonic Temple, the site of the Universalist services in D.C.; and Clara Barton’s missing soldiers bureau are within a short walk of each other, and all are still standing, if you wish to see for yourself.)

If you came today by subway, that inscription around the north entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro station is from the end of his poem, “The Wound-Dresser” and shows us what he saw and felt, but earlier he writes:

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

Let us thank and remember Walt Whitman, a poet for the living and the dying.

I’d like to talk about the two lessons today.

As those of you who’ve heard me preach before know, I use the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical reading list for worship. It’s one of the few places Unitarian Universalist Christians have had an impact in the ecumenical church for decades. It keeps me from cherry-picking lessons, and in return there are a lot of resources out there, as so many churches use in world wide. Today’s lessons are from the Revised Common Lectionary, and I didn’t want to avoid the passage from the Gospel of Luke just because it was hard. The fact there’s no obvious tie to Universalist Memorial Sunday doesn’t help.

The thing that sticks out is the reference to slavery; that you wouldn’t thank a slave for doing their job. Formal legal slavery was the norm in the Roman Empire and would remain a formal part of human relations for centuries. There were slaves in these lands four hundred years ago, with first-hand survivors of American slavery surviving into the middle of the twentieth century. The echoes of the African slave trade continue to this day: people who too often have to be remembered en masse, for there was nobody to write their names, save the Almighty, who inscribes them in the book of life. The recognition and memorials to slaves owned and sold by Georgetown and George Washington Universities, though relatively few in number, multiply in the mind to how many millions of lives were disrupted and destroyed by the slave trade. Of the many losses, sufferings and indignities the enslaved faced, I’m thinking today (in connection with memorials) of the broken connection with home. To never know what happened to the kidnapped, and to those left behind. To have families broken as a commercial transaction: the grief without recourse and without resolution.

And that makes me think of migrant children separated from their parents today. Or of those kept in human trafficking: modern slavery. Will they ever be reunited with their families? Will that break be healed? It’s not history, it’s not even the past. Something could be done about it. It’s not really the point of the passage from Luke, but if it sensitizes us to what must be and what must not be, then it has given us a blessing.

The passage from the second letter to Timothy is closer to the theme. While internally attributed to St. Paul, the consensus is that it (with the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus) weren’t written by St. Paul but together make up a set of letters offering advice to the very early church. So, we heard:

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

The rest of the passage is about remaining firm and strong in faith. This is the only place in the Bible we hear about Eunice and Lois, and given the context we might think that they were both dead, but remembered and respected. What’s true of Timothy is true of us; he could hold on their memory as encouragement. We also carry traces of the characters of those who influence and molded us. When we act out of those influences to do the good, we honor the memory of those who went before us. Which doesn’t mean necessarily mean those influences started good. Take pigheadedness, for instance. You can transform pigheadedness into perseverance to defend the what’s right. Or remembering someone who struggled and faltered with addictions. That might make us more compassionate toward someone who struggle, knowing that some challenges can’t be wished away, but are are extraordinarily difficult to overcome. My point is this: someone doesn’t have to be perfect to deserve our memory, and those who are the most imperfect need it the most. That includes ourselves. We can and should pray for one another. For in prayer we witness to one another before the living God.

What then, will touch the heart of God when we remember those who have lived before us, and especially those whom we love? Nothing we can add. We trust that God already leans towards us. Our memorials of stone and candle and prayer reach to the mystery of God call out, and say “hear us.” “Hear us, and make us whole again.” God waits to hear. We are bound together across life and death, by love, and by God “whose nature is Love” for whom time is no thing.

Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

May God bless you all, this day and forever more.

Cooling off from September

It been quite a month. A new article posted every day, and going back into August. But it’s not sustainable: making sure there’s something here every day keeps me from researching and writing deeper pieces, like that long promised connection between the Independent Sacramental Movement and Unitarianism. I’ve been reading less, too. There are more readers, but I’m not convinced that most of “them” aren’t bots indexing the new articles.

So, starting tomorrow I’ll post when I have something to say, perhaps in a longer format. Indeed, I have a sermon to write (and later post) for October 6. And for the human readers, thanks for coming by.

Reviewing Unitarian College

I’m trying to understand the new Unitarian College, formerly a residential ministerial training college in Manchester and now (2019) a non-residential and broader training college for the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain,  and perhaps others. My interest is in the ministerial training role, and in the institutional and economic sustainability of the venture.

This is not an analysis of it, but only my “open notebook” of details I’ve found: mainly their new website and notes taken from a video of an introductory lecture, given at the Unitarian and Free Christian annual meeting, back in April.

First, the website, but also the ministry training student handbook (PDF) and the list of thirty-two required competencies from the General Assembly website (PDF). Their application is also helpful (PDF).

I’m also referring to the video “Unitarian Ministry Training” presented by the National Unitarian Fellowship; I have not watched it in full; rather, I read the auto-generated transcript and made notes of what I think are the interesting parts.

  • 8:45. Is non-geographical
  • 9:09. There are residential lessons
  • 11:42. Program will take two years full-time or up to five years part-time
  • 11:55. There is a required academic theological qualification
  • 12:02. Two required placements in Unitarian congregations
  • 18:48. “Ministry Strategy Group” for the GA: how lay leaders are trained, which can build on the one before it
  • 26:26. Dr. Rob Whiteman is helping with two modules: Unitarian history, and the other legal and government
  • 28:15. “Placement assessor” to observe ministry students in their placements, perhaps a retired minister
  • 33:32. £150,000 a year to run the college; more if it grows
  • 33:54. Generous giving, “pump priming” from General Assembly; possible NSPCI students
  • 34:34. Online history module based on Len Smith’s book
  • 37:50. Training related to the National Youth Program
  • 41:22. One-third of the churches in the GAUFCC have fewer than ten members and two-thirds have fewer than twenty
  • 42:18. GA selects ministry trainees; growth is possible.

Up next

Looking back at the last two “what I’ll be writing about next” shows I’ve let some ideas slide. This is as much for me as you, the reader.

I’ll be focusing on

  • Wrapping up (for now) the series on the Independent Sacramental Movement by looking at its historic intersections (plural) with Unitarianism
  • Uncovering themes for those using the Revised Common Lectionary
  • Looking back on Universalist non-geographic churches
  • Revisiting by text workflow
  • Reviewing Allin’s Christ Triumphant, which I have started reading

And, of course, preaching. I have a sermon to preach next week and in one in November. I’ll put those texts here, too.

What you say when you say “all are welcome”

It’s become an article of faith in mainline churches to declare that “all are welcome.” Sometimes there will be a rainbow flag to seal the deal, implying that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are welcome to attend services, become members and possibly engage in leadership. Maybe. Since it all depends on attitudes and policy, and if and where these differs from actual practice. Sometimes a vague welcome to skirt a denominational policy, or to manage internal conflict. But nothing objectively welcoming LGBT people, and for a long time that’s as good as it got. But it’s not the 90s and that’s not good enough any more.

I’ve disliked the formula “all are welcome” for years. The logic reads to me this way: that LGBT people are so outre, so exceptional, so horrible that everybody else has to be included before their needs are recognized. Um, thanks. In practice, some people are not welcome at any particular church, say, at the very least persons who are an immediate harm to other people should not be welcomed.  (If they’re welcome, their victims aren’t.) Other churches can pick up the slack for that abusive husband, thank you. “All are welcome” gently merges LGBT people and the truly despicable or dangerous.

Also, welcoming assumes an attitude from one group to another, as if LGBT people haven’t been in the churches all along to welcome newcomers.

The initiative Church Clarity provides defined standards for LGBT inclusion and women’s leadership. Churches can self-report, but anyone can ask out loud how clear a church’s policies are.

So, to the churches, liberal or not:  be true to yourself, but be honest with those who are coming to you. (This is especially the case with churches with a progressive aesthetic but conservative morality, particularly among the non-denominational Evangelicals.)

Don’t wink and nod and think that makes progress. State your policies clearly, and stand by them.

Making this site lighter

Three days ago, this site weighed in at about 1.1 megabytes. Not the end of the world, but not keeping with a lighter internet and a shared responsibility for reduced server energy demand. It’s now just under 600 kilobytes, so quicker loading and better for your data plan.

Here’s what I did:

  • I think I have removed all my trackers.
  • Downgraded the “hero image” of the Jersey Universalist Church — though it now has a lot of artifacts (visual static) and it is still 100 kilobytes by itself. I should see if I can find an attractive theme without the hero image feature.
  • Removed the large version of my photo from the bottom of the page.
  • Hid large images below a “more” fold.
  • Disabled the Jetpack plugin. Now I don’t see where people come from or what article drew them in. (Though the answer is almost always, “the United States” and “anything controversial about the UUA.”)
  • Turned off Gravatars in the comments. I’m the only one who uses them, and my picture is already at the top of the page.

So now my site is more private, for you, too. Not sure if I’ll keep to all these reductions, and I might add more because those changes were those I could do quickly.  Though if you really want to see a page fly, visit my Universalist Christian Initiative site, built in Jekyll with no images and a whisper-thin 16 kilobyte download.

 

Favorite gluten-free communion bread?

A request to the readers.

You now have a choice for gluten-free breads for communion, but which are the best to use? The best tasting? Those available from church supply houses are usually wafers. I want to know if there are any communicants or pastors who have experience with these, and can make recommendations by brand.

I’m a bit cautious about commercial gluten-free table bread; many of these contain egg, and that’s another common food allergen. I’m also interested in a homemade option, especially for a soft or sliceable bread without any of the major allergens.