The Universalist church the mortgage killed

For my last post, I was going to link to some research I assumed I had made into a blog post: a substantial Universalist church that was killed by bad planning, bad luck and a big mortgage. But I guess I didn’t write it.

I’ll see to that as soon as I find my notes.

Independent Sacramental Movement: small and poor churches?

One thing that I’ve noticed about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), as a practical matter, is how small the particular ministries — for want of a better term; the parishes, communities, missions, mass houses, monasteries and the organizing jurisdictions, and not to mention solitary clergy — often are. And how often they describe themselves as poor, in the sense of the ministry having little wealth or few material resources, and little focus on gathering more. (I suspect the members come from across the economic spectrum.)

Whether this is intentional, or a recognition of circumstance, can be debated though I suspect it’s more of the later and having the wisdom to make the best of it. In the ISM, your priest probably has a day job, and your bishop probably does too. You might be recruited to set up the altar or move chairs because you’re in rented space. There’s a good bit of make-do.

I do not consider these bad, or failures — nor even exceptional. (I have a day job now and supply preach in my home church, and have moved a few folding chairs in my day.) In fact, they might be key to the ISM’s long-term success, and essential for anyone who wishes to learn from them.

First, I concede that the terms small and poor are relative. I once guest-preached to two worshippers in a building so large that I could not make out their faces from the pulpit. This church had wealth and had immense capacity, but I later suspected the worshippers lived on what we genteelly call “a fixed income.” (They would have been joined by a couple of dozen of their peers had it not been a holiday weekend with an unknown minister.) Was this church large or small; was it wealthy or poor?

This example is an outlier, but Protestant churches run small, and that’s my background. I’ve often heard Protestant churches average 75 members, though it has been decades since I was in a church that large. So small, that were they Roman Catholic parishes, most would be closed by their bishops for being a poor allocation of their meager supply of priests. Protestants have a good supply of ministers, if not always in the right places! The ISM has a high proportion of its members in holy orders. So, I’ll ask: what then do poor and small really mean?

The question I’d rather ask is are they (or we) sustainable? ISM churches rarely have clergy who are paid for their labor, and so far the only ISM clergy that I’ve heard of drawing a salary for their ministry are in chaplaincy. If they are “poor” in not having their own buildings, as is often but not universally the case, then they are rich when the termites move in. I am reminded of churches that fail under mortgages; contrary to the saying, if you build it they still might not come. I am also reminded of churches who identify ministry with having a full-time pastor. Or failing that a part-time pastor. But if the money runs out (or are unable to attract a minister; seminary debt is no small thing) then under this model, the ministry itself fails. A church that can make-do has the skills to survive.

At least, I think the ISM resets usual church expectations, by addressing sideways the perennial suspicion that all churches really care about is the members’ money. Take that away and you can focus on the people and the church’s mission.

They are like the small mammal that will crawl out of the ashes when we mainline dinosaurs get vaporized by the meteor. Not that it’s easy, but there are worse things than being small or poor.

Independent Sacramental Movement: what is it?

Last time, I wrote a bit about the congregational idea of the church, in part because that is the background of most of the people who come to this site. But what if your idea of the church depends on the presence of Christ’s empowered grant of grace to his apostles, handed down the generations? And it is from this lineage that grace is given effectively through the sacraments? Well, you would be in the Christian majority. If this is your story, you might be able to speak of what “lineage” you’re related to, even if that’s not how you ordinarily think of yourself, your church or your priest. If you’re Catholic, that is, “Roman Catholic” in the usual parlance, then your lineage is through the patriarch of Rome — who isn’t called that, but called the Pope — and who traces his authority to St. Peter, and then to Jesus Christ. There are other patriarchates founded by apostles, say, Alexandria and Antioch, and these have ancient stories though less told in the United States. There are also patriarchates that grew up later, like Moscow, that are heavy and weighty branches that fork off the main branches. What’s important is that the trunk is Christ, and generations of bishops carry the lineage to this day, and that they and the priests they ordain maintain that bridge between heaven and earth through the seven (or more or less) sacraments, of which ordination is one.

When members of the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) define themselves, they don’t start there. Maybe it’s too close or too obvious. It’s a valid view of the church, though it isn’t mine (or indeed others in the Reformed side of things) but without stating that nothing else that follows will make much sense.

What if one or more bishops stepped off to one side, consecrating other bishops, putting themselves at a certain distance from the mainstream of their lineages for some compelling reason? Say, the Pope was demanding too much power, or was himself at variance with the tradition of the church? Or that there was special revelation or understanding that promised new spiritual insights to a needy world? Or that the church had betrayed the needs of lesbian and gay people, transgender people or both? You would end up with a self-sustaining parallel to the mainstream of the lineage that nevertheless has the same source of empowered authority, if not the numbers, money, political power or prestige. You would, I think, have found the Independent Sacramental Movement. Some would be very right wing, or perhaps having a mix of attributes that outsiders might think both conservative and radical. Others are progressive by most measures. Some are frankly Theosophists; others appeal to Gnostic beliefs and scriptures. Some make you tilt your head in confusion. The various divisions aren’t always so tidy and distinct. Maybe that’s why self-understanding is important in the ISM, or so it seems, because of the breadth and ambiguity.

In fact, this act of definition is baked into the format of the leading ISM podcast, Sacramental Whine, produced by Bishop David Oliver Kling under the auspices of his jurisdiction, the Community of St. George, which affliated with the Young Rite. He asks his guests their elevator speech; that is, a quick description, of the ISM that they use. (I subscribe to the podcast and enjoy it.) I’ll take notes from that podcast in this series. I’ll also refer to a book by Bishop John Plummer, The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, which I think is the best introduction to the movement and widely cited. Indeed, if all of this is new to you, start with John Plummer’s interview with the podcast. There he makes the point that some of the more traditionalist churches — say the Orthodox who maintain the old calendar and stand off, or those Catholics who think the papacy is vacant — wouldn’t think of themselves as ISM, but just the true church, despite how they look. I’ll take this tack, and not include them in my examination going forward, if for no other reason than they do stand off. I’ll also adopt his term “big box” to describe the larger churches (or call them “larger churches”) as a playful way of not identifying them as “real” and the ISM as something other than real, thus undercutting the premise of this series and my examination.

Again, this is a general review but I welcome non-trolling corrections and amplifications, especially from those in the ISM.

I ♥ the Laity

A couple of weeks ago, when I was writing about Todd Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers I would see commenters here and on Facebook preface their comments: “I’m not a minister” or “I just a UU member” or the like, as if their opinions about the general condition of the Unitarian Universalist Association would be less valued because they’re not ministers.

So this is a little love note to the laity.

In our polity, a church is a group called out of the world, bound by covenant. It is this covenant-bound reality that identifies and makes its spiritual officers: the ministers and (where they continue) the deacons. Indeed, these officers are raised out of the congregation, though that’s more of a legal fiction than not today. Still, at every ordination and installation, the heart truth of this relationship is announced. The election of ministers, new or newly-welcomed, is far from pro forma.

The thought continues: you can have a church without a minister — many do, whether they like it or not — but you can’t have a church without the laity. (I suppose you could have a church with nothing but ministers, but I’d rather not, and in any case most would have to act like laypersons.)

And in practical terms, the laity staff the committees, raise the funds, offer counsel, and very often put out the chairs or make the coffee when needed. That great ministry of feeding a household in mourning is the province of the laity. There are hundreds of other works great and small, and hundreds of other joys and consolations, too. Without that, too, there would be no church. The work of the church is in the hands of the laity, often literally.

And heaven help the minister who tries to go it alone, or fails to take seriously the spoken or unspoken needs and aspirations of the (lay) members. So, naturally, some lay persons will have opinions (often strong ones) about what goes on in UUA and region business, and it has always been thus.

So if tempted, don’t ever apologize for being a member of the laity.

I speak with a certain perspective as a minister but never forget I was once a layman myself.

Independent Sacramental Movement: what is a church?

Because this site is mainly directed to Protestants in congregational polity churches, I should talk about the church itself a bit before talking about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), to identify differences of focus that might otherwise turn into a confusing blur. I’m also working out of my comfort zone here and in future, so there’s probably going to be mistakes, or at least phrasings that those in the ISM wouldn’t use. If so, please comment.

(Since the ISM attracts a certain kind of viscous internet troll, I will be applying a heavier than usual editorial hand in approving comments. If you’re here to stir up trouble about the ISM, don’t bother. This series is not for you.)

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 was a New England response to the Westminster Confession; the main differences were with polity, or the system of church governance, and persists (often in wildly modified forms) in the inheriting churches of New England Congregationalism, which includes the Unitarians and Universalists. So even in these late days, we respect it and go back to its understanding. Chapter two of the platform starts “[t]he catholic church is the whole company of those elected, redeemed, and in time effectively called from the state of sin and death, unto a state of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ.” But that’s a spiritual state: it doesn’t distinguish between the living and the dead; or the past, present or future. A series of no, not that clauses follow leading to the proposition that there is no Church — that is, a single visible organization of living Christians around the world — but churches, particular instances that keep communion (both access to the Lord’s table and the disciplines of church cooperation) with one another.  Explicitly, “we deny a universal visible church.” (chapter 2.4)

Section 6 lays out what a church is: “A Congregational church is by the institution of Christ a part of the militant visible church, consisting of a company of saints by calling, united into one body by a holy covenant, for the public worship of God, and the mutual edification of one another, in the fellowship of the Lord Jesus.”

In short, Christ’s promise of the life-giving promise of the Holy Spirit leaps the generations and is present in the gathered church. To follow the thought, a group of wholly isolated persons could individually have experience of salvation (I’ll leave what that means for now), baptize one another, establish a covenant, elect and ordain “officers” (the elders or ministers, and deacons) and be a fully-formed church. Sounds good to me, as unlikely as that might be.

Among the diversity of the ISM, this certainly stands out: there are three orders of ministry (deacon, priest and bishop) and that these orders are transmitted as a sacrament from generation to generation in a succession of bishops in a line of consecration back to Christ’s apostles. Without bishops, there is no access to the other six (maybe more) sacraments, which mediate grace. No doubt the Holy Spirit empowers the consecrations, but even without wading into the ISM views of the constitution of the church, there’s a basic difference in concept. In the congregational view, the “faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3) is held by the faithful, while in the ISM (as with other churches with apostolic succession) there is a personal continuity. (Which is not to suggest that the laity are optional in the ISM, but that’s an issue of the constitution of the church that I’m not qualified to speak about. I would be interested how the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium has been received.) In congregationalism, at least in its “purest ” form, the deacons and ministers fill a role more than experiencing the basic, ontological change of nature as expressed in the ordinations of the ISM. Of course, what’s so pure any more? Ideas about the ministry have developed over time, including what might be called (but never is in this way) its mystical constitution. Perhaps I should ask how Lumen Gentium has influenced the Unitarian Universalists, if perhaps through the side door. After all, James Luther Adams was an observer at Vatican II.

Next time, a bit about who the ISM are in the context of the churches in apostolic succession.


Introducing the Independent Sacramental Movement

This is the first of an open-ended series about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM); in it, I plan on exploring what it is, how it distinguishes itself in the ecumenical landscape, what diversity it contains, how it functions as a community and how it challenges and adapts concepts of “the right way” to do church. I’ll also explore the unexpected ways it crosses paths with Unitarian Universalism, and Universalism specifically. I think we in the mainline have plenty to learn and appreciate in the ISM.

Unless you are in it, know someone who is, or study British or American religious history, you likely have never heard of the ISM. I first learned of it in the late 1980s or very early 1990s when I was a student in the religion department at the University of Georgia. A classmate friend and I would scan Melton’s Guide to American Religion, which lists and describes religious institutions, for the unusual and exotic including what I’m sure was then more commonly called “Independent Catholicism.” His quest would lead him into the more interesting and esoteric back roads; mine, by comparison, is institutional and conventional. But my respect for this constellation of believers continues to this day, and I’ve been happy to be a friend and neighbor of the movement — which also includes forms of Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, depending on whom you ask — rather than a member or priest.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: a special welcome to those associated with the ISM. Feel free to comment if I get something wrong or right, or send a message through this form. I’d also love to hear your stories, and take requests for themes to develop.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 2

I don’t want to make this controversy my full-time job, so this post and done (if I can help it.) Here are my earlier articles the subject: introduction and part one.

My first instinct was correct; this is a work of controversy and while there are parts I do agree with, its style and form wouldn’t have convinced me.  That and it’s so blisteringly Unitarian, which is a pet complaint. The biggest plus is directing me to the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom I’ll add to my reading list.

I’m imagining where the harm claims are coming from. I see forms of argument that could remind people of other arguments that were abusive. Some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics, and the fact they show up in the title of the first essay (“The Coddling of the Unitarian Universalist Mind: How the Emerging Culture of Safetyism, Identitarianism, and Political Correctness is Reshaping America’s Most Liberal Religion”) surely put examiners into high alert. I also see discussions of controversy — in particular, the district executive hiring crisis of 2017 ― that could be embarrassing to those who had thought the narrative was conclusively set. The tension around the publication itself (General Assembly is a strange time) could inflame old trauma. I still don’t see the viciousness (“vitriolic rhetoric” introduction to reposted white ministers letter;”aligned with alt-right ideology” Allies for Racial Equity letter; “dissemination of racism, ableism, and the affirmation of other forms of oppression, including classism and homo- and transphobia” UUMA POCI chapter letter; “toxic history and theologies” DRUUMM letter) its denouncers claim.  And fiat isn’t good enough; you have to show your work, if not to me, then to the laity commenting online, who seem to be at a different place.

Some writers, mainly on Facebook, speak of portions floating around, or selections that confirm their decision to condemn. I think this is a mistake, not only because that’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, but because Eklof has a theme that’s woven through his book that gets lost with excerpting: an ecclesiology of the free church based on universal human experience. That’s important because he doesn’t condemn those who would condemn him, but tries to re-direct the discussion to what we might have together.  It’s a basis for unity because we need one, and this necessity is what the rest of the book relies on. (His ecclesiology leave me cold, but that’s besides the point.)

The less said about the second essay the better. The “divorce” in the title is a call to redivide the Unitarians and Universalists so they could be their true selves. I’m not sure if that’s Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading. But his examples ignored the economic reasons, not to mention the social realities, that lead to consolidation.  I think you can make a good case for breaking up or restructuring the UUA. For one, it’s too small to be efficient but too big to be nimble. Also, without another similar peer organization, when people leave, they’re gone. UUA1 and UUA2 could specialize, develop their own styles and volley ministers and churches back and forth, and I bet it would be bigger in aggregate than the UUA today. A little competition is good, too. But that’s not what Eklof suggests.

Yet I think both Eklof and his accusers suffer that common affliction of wanting to be right more than being successful. It might surprise non-readers that he has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist, and talks about his bona-fides at in the epilogue.  You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. That is, if you can make it through his argumentation, especially the extended section on logic. God help me, but he might have been a graduate of the Vulcan School for Exquisite Logic and that still would have been the wrong approach. An appeal to rhetoric (a personal favorite) wouldn’t have been any better. Where he’s sermonic, he’s stronger. So third and largest essay was a convoluted slog, and if I had been anxious or angry or good ol’ loaded-for-bear going into the book, it would have amplified my feelings greatly.

I finally finished the book, but half-way through started taking notes in earnest, and so details from the front third aren’t as fresh in mind. Plus my blasted Kindle copy resists cutting-and-pasting. But I have to put this down. I’ll keep the comments open for a while; so far everyone has been civil, which makes me happy.

If you are interested in reading the book to understand Eklof’s points, read the epilogue first, the beginning and end of the third essay and then the first. You can skim the second essay for the ecclesiological themes.

Next on the blog

After I wrap up this series on “The Gadfly Papers” I’ll turn to writing what I had intended this week: an exploration of the Independent Sacramental Movement.

What it is; what distinguishes its approach(es) to Christianity; the unexpected ways it overlaps with Unitarian Universalism; and what we have to learn and appreciate from them.

Reviewing “The Gadfly Papers”: part 1

I am a slow reader with a day job. So I am less than a third of the way done reading The Gadfly Papers, but do have some general observations both of the book and the three letters denouncing it.

First, I never intended to read it. My very first instinct was “not again.” Itchy political analysis of the UUA was common fifteen to twenty years ago, created “more heat than light” and inspired me to be more strategic and analytic whenever I met something in the UUA that seemed like a bad idea. I spiked a lot of my own stories. The table of contents reminded me of the old days. It was the denouncing letters that prompted me to buy and read the book.

Why? The letters were sure of their reasons, were very confident but gave no examples. (The UUMA POCI letter cited an Christina Rivera as an injured party, but not what in the book caused the injury.)  And the lists grew so fast, that I thought “surely they didn’t read it yet,” which raised a red flag. So whatever the motives of the signatories — which I trust as a matter of principle was based on conscience, duty or both — the letters read to me as a pile-on. For example, does being “intentionally provocative” (white ministers letter) merit hundreds of signatures against a single colleague?

I took it both as a matter of conscience and duty to not be swayed by numbers and see for myself. And for this I was criticized and chided for buying the book. By ministers. It is currently the #1 and #2 books (Kindle and paperback respectively) about Unitarian Universalism on Amazon, despite an attempt to displace it by strategic purchasing of another book. Clearly, others want to read it, too.

You can quietly ask someone to stop writing. You can make a reasoned, convincing argument why someone is wrong. You cannot make forceful, public demands, and then expect people to not start Google-ing.

As for the book, so far it’s not great literature. It could use a copy editor and is a bit self-conscious of its place in history and the weight of criticism that did, in fact, come. Even the “white ministers letter” calls it a treatise, and I think that’s the right genre. The interpretation of Unitarian history, in my opinion, is not good. But it is exactly the kind of folk-history, transmitted through sermons and pamphlets, that built the long dominant idea that Unitarianism is the “faith of the free.”

I will provide examples of some recent embarrassing Unitarian Universalist episodes  later, but again I’m a slow reader trying to read for comprehension and the meaning of the controversy. So far, I do not see in Eklof’s book a narrative equal to the outrage.