Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

Responding to Tuesday’s post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I’ll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I’ll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I’m not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord’s Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that’s probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I’ve read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I’d think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King’s Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn’t. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn’t let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn’t agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don’t get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn’t agree, he (women weren’t ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can “appoint or Ordain” a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not “administer Christian ordinances.” Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted “to administer Christian ordinances” “with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship,” a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it’s worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there’s not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.

Possible source for non-Biblical responsive readings

Yesterday’s century-old Unitarian resource reminded me of another.

The “non-biblical” reading has been a staple of Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist worship for ages; in some societies, it’s the default. Of course, even in late antique Christian worship, hymns were adopted in worship as extra-biblical texts but I’m describing something that functions in one hand as a hymn or psalm, but may also be used as a preaching text.

Some time back, while looking for another book online, I found one that looks like an early source of these, edited from the work of “great authors”, led by Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes.

The 1919 edition is in the public domain, and that’s the one I’ll be referring to. (While the the 1929 edition may be checked out by persons with an archive.org account, only one person may use it at a time.)

It’s a bit like the Golden Book of Liberal Religious Wisdom, with arranged readings from Tennyson, Whitman, Jesus, the Buddha and Marcus Aurelius. Some Whitman in his birth bicentennial. And Channing in the bicentennial year of his Baltimore Sermon. It even has Parker’s “arc of the [moral] universe.”

selection from Parker reading

The red 1937 Hymns of the Spirit has a few non-Biblical responsive readings, and so I’ve wondered if some of those readings were built from these. That Channing one above has the text for the responsive reading “I Call that Mind Free,” a staple of the blue hymnal and the gray (#592).

Sure, some are stuffy, but there’s a grandeur to them that deserves respect and perhaps emulation, even if only for private meditation.

Revisiting the Lay Centres book

More than five years ago, I first wrote about a Unitarian effort about 110 years past for the creation of “lay centres” that in many ways anticipated the post-WWII Fellowship Movement.

There’s little I can find about this initiative apart from a few articles and a small worship guide. I intended to say more about the book — famous last words — but it is fragile and rare enough that I did not want to subject it to a flatbed scanner.

2014-04-02 21.13.36

So I’ll pick up where I left off.  A couple of years used my phone camera to first “scan” it, and then produced a version to share. This is part of my ongoing meditation what churches can do with less-than-optimal resources. So far as I know there’s a single survivor from that experiment: First Unitarian, Memphis, a.k.a The Church of the River.

Here are those articles listed in one place, to finally launch my review. Hope it’s helpful; comments welcome, below.

About the Bisbee trial

Because of the controversy around the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s public censure of Todd Eklof, there’s been talk of heresy trials. Of course, there’s no trial yet, just the censure and waves of accusation, though some formal action could happen. (I wonder what the euphemism will be?)

There was a trial of a Universalist minister, Herman Bisbee, that’s widely regarded as a heresy trial — and a mistake. Naturally, it’s come up in the Facebook conversations (with Michael Servetus, whom I’ll leave for someone else to write about) so good to give some context to those unfamiliar with the situation. I’m going to pull together what I’ve written about it plus any original documents I can scare up.

But Charles Howe’s article at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography is detailed, and rather than re-write one, I’ll point to his.

UUMA on Facebook: reporting out

So, the news of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s censure of Todd Eklof went out on the UUMA’s Facebook page. Soon, there were several comments opposing the censure. Later, all vanished.

I commented, “I see the negative comments posted here yesterday have been deleted. Pathetic.” Within a couple of minutes, the UUMA’s Facebook manager replied to me, “they actually haven’t. They have been temporarily removed while we work on a response to them. Please be patient.” Me: “I hope you restore those comments promptly. Either way, I’ll be reporting out on my site, RevScottWells.com.”  So here we are.

The comments were restored this morning, with this response:

We want to acknowledge that over the weekend several responses to this post were hidden until such a time as they could be reviewed. This was not done to stifle discourse but to ensure that potentially divisive comments would not be left without response. All posts have been restored.

This page is not moderated for debate and we don’t have the means to create moderation at this time. All your responses will be collected and shared with the UUMA Board of Trustees. If you have additional comments to include, we encourage you to send via email to execteam (at) uuma (dot) org.

So instead of “we’re preparing a response; please stand by” we got another unforced error. Because the optics of taking down critical comments is awful. Their reply was not equal to the take-down action, but the UUMA’s a dead letter to me, so whatevs. (And no, I don’t think the study year will be allowed to seriously challenge the UUMA’s proposal presented in June, so why wait? I suppose you can make the case for seeing the process to the end, but I don’t have time for futility. More power to those who persist.)

If you feel you have something to say to the UUMA — whether you are lay or ordained — there’s that avenue they invited: emailing execteam@uuma.org. [Corrected]

And if you do write a comment and want a place to park it in public, you’re free to leave them in the comments here.

Independent Sacramental Movement: an open discussion

I’ll be a while before I prepare my long piece connecting the Unitarians to what we would now call the Independent Sacramental Movement. I don’t want to lose momentum, though.

This is one of the few places I’ve seen where ISM members and other Christians (and non-Christian Unitarian Universalists, of course) might run across one another, so this might be a good opportunity for interested readers to introduce themselves, talk about their ministry interests (if any) and ask questions or make requests. Also, to suggest other entries in this series.

This is post #4,100.

Not interested in apologetics

Now that I found the world of Universalist Christians outside the Unitarian Universalist Association, I’m having to come to terms with the other theologies and ecclesiologies they have. Some are squarely catholic, a few mainliners or mystics, though most are evangelical or possibly charismatic. Some things that are valuable to me are not valuable to them, and vice versa. Among the things that many of these other Universalists appreciate that I don’t is apologetics.

Apologetics is an approach to theology that defends Christian theological propositions through reasoning and argument, with the goal of refuting opponents or convincing potential converts. If you went back a hundred and fifty or more years, mainline, denominational Universalists relied on apologetics, and particularly the public theological debate, to defend their positions and attract new members, so it could be a part of my inherited tradition. But it died by the 1920s and I’m not looking for it to return.

The problem with apologetics is that once people make up their minds it’s hard to convince them to change. Universalism is counter-cultural, and therefore suspect. If people suspect you, they’ll also suspect you’re trying to deceive them. Perversely, the more clever you are, the less effective you become. As for those Universalists of old, I think too many of them liked the fight more than being right, or being right more than being joyful in God. That’s no way to live.

An apologetic tact is also difficult for Universalists (then and now) because of our numbers. We’ve never been numerous, and so it’s been important to overcome differences, including serious differences, in order to have a critical mass to form congregations to share in common work. The question of whether or not there would be future punishment (the so-called Restorationist Controversy) led to a split, but I think it healed from organizations being too small as much from changing opinions among Universalists. And life’s too short to get caught up in the mechanics of God’s activity when it’s impossible to prove any of it.

I take the tack that Universalism is the kind of Christianity that most people would imagine God would want for us. It’s implausibility is really a reflection on the world we live in, not a reflection of the God who made us. Perhaps that’s what gives it a perverse moral strength, even while those who get sniffy claim that would allow its believers get away with anything. Do you think I ignore the goodness shown me? I didn’t earn that. Universalism isn’t for the haughty.

I’ve been a Universalist long enough to let its truth guide my decisions. I think it’s made me less fearful and perhaps kinder. I’m less impressed by political appeals that lift up the United States over other countries, for instance. That — with the clear profession of faith, not seeking contention — is  how I hope to promote the faith. Let your behavior and mode of living be your argument.

[Typos cleaned up from the original.]

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.