The UUMA is dead to me

Just when you think you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, the bottom falls out. A public censure of Todd Eklof just issued leaves me stunned. No hint that adults can disagree, or that people put themselves out on principle. Or that some people think he’s correct.

The ideological basis, the high-handed tone and the cringing prayer. This is calculated to hurt and embarrass Eklof, so no irony there. “Honest and diligence” indeed. Lord, spare us. This letter is a betrayal of our heritage.

I’ve not been a member for years, but the UUMA is now good and dead to me. The signatories can (to put it nicely) get lost. I’m embarrassed for them; they should be ashamed of themselves.

Read for yourself. The original is at https://www.uuma.org/news/466020/UUMA-Board-and-Executive-Team-Issues-Public-Letter-of-Censure.htm. I’m reposting it here as, though it’s a public letter, documents tend to vanish.


UUMA Elected Board of Trustees and Executive Team Issues Public Letter of Censure

16 August, 2019

Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane

Dear Todd,
As the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, we are writing this letter of censure regarding the content and the manner of distribution (at the 2019 General Assembly) of your book, The Gadfly Papers. We hope this action will be received as an invitation into awareness, acknowledgment of the hurt that has been caused, and an opportunity for restoration, reconciliation, and engagement in the ongoing work of the UUMA, not as an attempted resolution of an “issue.” The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith. Because of the widespread impact, we are making this censure public and distributing it to all members of the UUMA.

As the continental leadership of the UUMA, our responsibility is to uphold our values and our covenant. We believe you have broken covenant. We write this letter to ask you to seek understanding of the harm that has been done and to work toward restoration. We would welcome the opportunity to help guide and support a public process of restoration, which we expect would foster widespread learning about what it means to be a covenantal faith.

We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith. However, we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards. Further, we believe that dismissing testimonies of real people to the profound and pervasive pain of white supremacy culture and its many forms of oppression by simply categorizing them as safetyism or political correctness is both morally wrong and antithetical to our values as a faith tradition.

We believe that you have violated the spirit of the Ethical Standards in our Code of Conduct detailed in our Guidelines for the Conduct of Ministry, which call us to:

  • Honesty and diligence in our work
  • Respect and compassion for all people
  • The work of confronting attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination on the basis of race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, or ethnicity in ourselves and our ministry settings

As we call you to be accountable to your colleagues, we also call ourselves, as UUMA leadership, to be accountable to our members and to our covenant and values. We recognize that our current ethical standards leave room for ambiguity about what kinds of speech and behavior are racist and oppressive. Our commitment to the ongoing work to revise our Guidelines, clarifying expectations of anti-racist, anti-oppressive conduct in the practice of ministry, seems more crucial each day. We are also working to revise the accountability processes to ground them in values of justice, integrity, and healing rather than in their current legalistic frame.

It is our deepest desire, not to exclude people, but to welcome everyone into this work, recognizing that our members represent a wide spectrum of perspectives, experience, readiness, and willingness to engage. While we wish to be sensitive to that spectrum, we also must balance that against the stark and painful fact that people of color, indigenous, trans, disabled and other marginalized communities have testified over and over again to the spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical, and moral damage that racism and oppression have caused. Those impacts are not up for debate.

Grounded in our mission, with profound sadness for hurt that has been caused, and with deep longing for the promise of what can be, we close with this prayer of lament:

Spirit of Reason and Passion,
We hear again the cries of pain from those of marginalized identities
Pain inflicted all too often in the name of UU values and principles.
Their hope is dying, crushed once again by dismissal and devaluation
Is there room for all of us in this faith?
Yes, this is a faith for us all.
This is a faith where love is stronger than hate
Where justice is our mission and beloved community is our vision.
Where relationships are key to our individual growth and understanding.
We are a faith that balances mind and heart, and embraces both in spirit.
May we live into that balance.
Recognizing the power of our words to manipulate and harm.
May we remember the power of relationship,
And work toward restoration when covenant is broken.
Embraced by Love,
Striving towards Justice,
We pray.

Blessed Be

In faith,

The UUMA Board of Trustees and Executive Team
Wendy Williams, President
Rod Richards, Vice President
Richard Speck, Treasurer
Elizabeth Stevens, Member At-Large
Walter LeFlore, Member At-Large
Christana Wille McKnight, Member At-Large
Darrick Jackson, Director of Education
Janette Lallier, Director of Operations
Melissa Carvill Ziemer, Director of Collegial Practices

Up next

As my long-time readers have seen, I have written more here lately and hope to keep up the pace. Apart from historic connections between Unitarians and the Independent Sacramental movement I mentioned in my last update (that’ll be a longer piece), I’ll be writing next about:

  • Why Universalists gathered parishes and societies at all
  • Trying out short-format meditations tied to the Revised Common Lectionary
  • Why I don’t engage in apologetics
  • Notes about my eucharistic piety
  • What Universalist “convention churches” were
  • My tech-supported writing workflow
  • Clippings from the Universalist General Convention
  • Historic books I’ve started reading

Not worrying about the Unitarian Universalist Association

This is more of a process note than anything.

Ever since General Assembly this year, I’ve made it a point to reduce my interaction related to the Unitarian Universalist Association. I’ve gone off of mailing lists and have cut down (nearly to zero) my interactions on social media. I skim the magazine but discard the fundraising pieces. I will, for the time being, maintain my fellowship and any interest in things that have value to me, like my retirement plan. (So I’ll read the board minutes, say, to defend those interests if need be.)

But it’s clear that there’s not enough left in Unitarian Universalism on an institutional level to justify the downsides. OK, that’s not news. But the fact the messages have gone from “Scott, don’t leave” to “I understand” to “I’m getting out” is new. And those are people I trust and respect.

Since programmatic work has ground to nothing, there’s nothing to miss.  The work of the UUA has been replaced with taking care of its own sins, real or imagined. Why support that? Worse, some people who I would normally call colleagues are so embarrassing, caustic or bullying that I wouldn’t want to be seen in public with them much less the identify professionally with them.  And I’m a Universalist Christian, which should mean this is a natural home. But that’s not been regarded as a good thing in Unitarian Universalist circles in decades. Universalist Christianity is having a theological renaissance but Universalist Christians in the rest of the world make a point of distinguishing themselves from the kind of religion practiced in the UUA. So the UUA’s not only not helping, but it’s actually hurting my religious life.

And I know I’m not alone in believing this. Some of you have been kind enough to write and express your frustrations and reservations, and even ask my advice. The most I can suggest is double your effort in your own local church, if you can, and leave the national body to its own devices.

Once I decided that, my mood improved. I can figure out what’s coming next, and who I can work with instead. Save your money for something you love. Time to cut the ties that bind and chafe. Time to stop worrying.

Universalism in Indiana

Elmo Arnold Robinson, who wrote the newly-in-the-public-domain The Universalist Church in Ohio also wrote a two-part article (published in 1917) about the Universalists in Indiana.

Both the Indiana and Ohio works are interesting reads, and doesn’t hide the warts about what didn’t go well, including serious conflict between the ministers. Conflict, I should add, which didn’t kill them.

Issues of “The Universalist” online

I’ve fallen down an internet research hole and found 280 complete issues of Chicago-published The Universalist at the Illinois Digital Newspapers Collection, ranging from 1886 to 1887.

Three images of the church with captions

And yes! the preview issue for the 1897 Universalist General Convention, held at Chicago with pictures of St. Paul’s Church, where it was held, and a defense of “the creed,” meaning the Winchester Profession. It was at the 1897 convention that the “Five Points” were proposed, and adopted at the 1899 convention.

A former Universalist center in New York

While I was noodling through the 1939 records of the Universalist General Convention, I saw a description in the Directory (under New York) to the Prescott Neighborhood House, sponsored by the Church of the Divine Paternity, Manhattan, New York, now known by its parish name, Fourth Universalist.

I didn’t know there was Universalist settlement work that late — and indeed, it wouldn’t last much longer. But remarkably for Manhattan, the building is still there and this article gives the highlights of the mission, the building and the controversy over its closure.

 

 

“‘Canned’ sermons wrapped up in celophane”

Could well-mobilized lay preaching have helped the Universalists in their toughest days?

By 1939, deep into the Great Depression, Universalist institutions — conventions and parishes — were disintegrating. General Superintendent Robert Cummins prodded the Universalist General Convention and the affiliated units for women, Sunday School, publications, young adults and men (in about that order of vitality) towards more effective and coordinated work. And work that got past simply having preaching services in otherwise dormant parishes. Ministers were in short supply; money to pay them even shorter.  He reserved his pique for the support of churches that couldn’t ween themselves off mission support, to free up that money for new work. (I wonder if that experience poisoned later mission support of new churches.) How bad was the situation? (Link to the original)

Of our 544 churches, 71 are receiving the services of a resident minister, supporting themselves and contributing to denominational programs; 171 are supporting resident ministers and carrying on independently of outside help, but are lending no support to the Church’s program beyond that sector of it presided over by their own local parishes; 99 are not aided, yet are unable to support a resident minister or the larger work; 100 are receiving aid from some source or sources; and 97 are dormant, although 14 of these make some contribution to the program of the denomination. One of the most serious problems facing us is the large number of our small parishes. 99 are without ministers, 97 are dormant. Populations have shifted. Transportation has altered conditions. Either these parishes have to be put on “circuits” with ministers serving them only part-time (73 are already operating on this basis), or be satisfied with “occasional” preaching (there are 33 of these and 43 holding summer services only), or be persuaded to use a mail-order variety of service such as might go to them in the form of “canned” sermons wrapped in celophane and devised for use by the laity, or the properties should be sold for whatever they will bring and the money used to re-locate the movement….

I pull this out to say that the problems with the Universalist long predate their flirtation and later consolidation with the Unitarians.  (Allowance of dual ministerial fellowship with the better-paying Unitarians was surely devastating, but that was a Universalist problem.)  Population, economic and transportation changes never stopped, of course. As for transportation, I’m sure he means discontinued rail lines, which killed towns as well as churches. A foretaste of the Interstate Highway System. There will never be enough money or labor to do everything. And I have doubts about the seven-day church in a secular era when people have well packed-seven day lives.

The line that really popped for me was that bit about the celophane (Cummins’s spelling) and the role of the laity in worship. Universalists had, at best, an ambivalent view of lay preaching. If your church was on a circuit, it simply wouldn’t meet for worship when the preacher wasn’t in town. (That’s why the railroads were so important.) As early as the 1850s, Universalist leaders recognized that having laypersons leading morning or evening prayer from a published liturgy, plus perhaps one of those canned sermons, was better than doing without services ― but I don’t get a sense that it made much impact.

As a society, far broader than the Universalists who may stand as an object lesson, if we want religious services, we will either have to change how we treat ordination (a nod to my Independent Sacramental Movement series) or have more lay liturgical leadership. Some denominations do this very well. And there are lay preachers who are very good. Besides, I think there’s a lot to be said for a church with a college of clergy and lay preachers, as opposed to “our pastor.” I’d even be willing to hear something carefully pulled out of cellophane.

Every time I find this tension in Universalist sources, I’ll mark it with the tag lay-led-liturgy.

A communion service I’d use for a prayer breakfast

Many years ago a friend and colleague invited me to join him in an ecumenical prayer breakfast with communion. I alluded to it in a 2012 article when I described the communion ware they used.

The prayer breakfast looks like one of those observances that was once more centrist and mainline but has become identified with conservatives today. Or maybe it’s that I’m in too secular an urban center. Or that I don’t like waking up early enough to have a prayer breakfast before work. Or that I’m not in the military or the Chamber of Commerce. Take your pick.

But I enjoyed that one years ago: there was an earnest, retro quality to it and the piety was sincere. I got to visit with new people. It was more of a men’s space than you normally find in devotional life, and I doubt that was accidental. (Butching up devotion has a long and mixed history.) The format can be adapted to many constituencies though, and some I’ve found online are all-women. Let your imagination roam. Church picnics or camps? It might be good for mission church starts that first meet in restaurant party rooms, even.

Surveying the prayer breakfast landscape, I don’t see communion offered as much as I would have thought, but then again eucharistic fellowship is that bridge too far, when simple prayer and singing doesn’t aggravate ecclesiastic sensibilities. Catholics might have one following a mass.

But when I found this from W. E. Orchard’s 1921 The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship I knew I had a winner because it solved the “problem” of distributing the emblems (a commonly-used term among Universalists of yore for the  bread and wine; I love it and will keep it) though you might think it creates new problems for the consecration.

The service is interesting for its simplicity, not the least because Orchard later “crossed the Tiber” and became a Roman Catholic priest. But perhaps he meant, in his developing view of the sacraments, the simplest that was appropriate and effective. Certainly the bare recitation of the Institution from St. Paul would be simpler, and you see that in the “lower” Reformed Churches, ours included, but it’s also wanting in form and piety. I do.

I’d love some feedback and (even better) links to any prayer breakfasts you’ve attended or conducted.

A SIMPLE OBSERVANCE OF THE LORD’S SUPPER

This Order provides for the simplest possible Observance of the Lord’s Supper, giving the words of Scripture to be read by the President, indicating (in brackets) the appropriate actions, and suggesting (in italics) the subjects for silent prayer and private devotion.

The President shall commence by saying.
The disciples did as Jesus appointed them; and they made ready the Passover.

(Here the elements maybe distributed, and those who are to partake may prepare themselves by prayer.)
Now when even was come, he was sitting at meat with the twelve disciples ; and as they were eating, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began to say unto him every one, Is it I, Lord?

Self-examination and Confession.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread,

(Here the President may take the bread into his hands.)
and blessed.

Here the Holy Spirit should be silently invoked.
and brake it ;

(Here the President may break the bread.)
and he gave to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you.

Adoration.
This do in remembrance of me.
(Here all partake of the bread.)

After the same manner also, he took a cup,
(Here the President may take the cup into his hands.)
and gave thanks,

Thanksgiving.
and gave to them saying, Drink ye all of it ; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is shed for many unto remission of sins.

Adoration.
This do as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.
(Here all partake of the cup.)

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come.

Prayer pleading the sacrifice of Christ and making offering
of self to God.

(The offerings for the Poor may now be collected, the President
saying: Brethren, ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.)

THE HIGH PRIESTLY PRAYER

Jesus, lifting up his eyes unto heaven, said, Father, I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are thine and I am glorified in them.

Remembrance of the saints and the departed.
Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word;

Remembrance of the living.
That they may all be one ; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee:

Prayer for the unity of the Church.
That the world may believe that thou didst send me.

Prayer for the conversion of the world and the coming
of the Kingdom.

(Here the President may announce a Hymn, saying. And when they had sung a hymn they went out.)

[HYMN]

BENEDICTION

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

Universalist Society of Sutton, New Hampshire

I sometimes find nice Universalist bits in local histories, but in this history of Sutton, New Hampshire, you get an extended passage on the long-extinct Universalist society (think: parish) there, with organizing documents and a profession of faith.

The history of Sutton, New Hampshire: consisting of the historical collections of Erastus Wadleigh, Esq., and A. H. Worthen (1890)

And speaking of extinct, there is on page 175 this chilling note in the chapter “Casualties and Sudden Deaths”:

Rev. Thompson Barron, a Universalist minister of Newport, N.H., was found dead at the home of Jacob Nelson, about twenty years ago.

That’s all it says. What a mystery!
And that chapter. Gotta love local history.

(His 1871 obituary, reprinted at uudb.orc, is more detailed but still harrowing. Perhaps a heart attack or stroke?)