Theistic worship: notes from “the Unity Men”

I’ve been writing at this site (and earlier, at since 2003, and it amazes me that I’ve written so little about “Western Unitarianism” or “the Unity Men”: those Unitarians of the Western Unitarian Conference who promoted a theistic moral religion, in contrast to the Unitarian Christianity of New England.

This is all I found of mine in 16 years of writing:

A fiddle-and-lecture order of service

To be honest, it’s not my thing. But it is an honest expression of religious faith, has a genuine appeal and is a honorable part of the Unitarian tradition.

And more: I worry that they’re not going to be any new Unitarian or Universalist congregations. The UUA seems to have gone out of the church planting business. Perhaps this is just as well since there’s been noted tendency, even among the Christians, to encourage congregations to have an all-inclusive Unitarian Universalist identity, rather than being true to a particular vision. It never made sense to me, either on theological or polity grounds. This kind of society (and it probably would be called a society) might be very desirable today.

Without banging my “parish and church” drum too hard, the Theist church looks to me to be the perfect modernist parish without a church. By which I mean it’s a public service body, dedicated to education and morals though worship and service. Its “sacrament” is the pulpit. The (missing) church is that body of believers who seek (to keep it brief) closeness to God through profession of faith, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is specific in much the same way the parish is general. Can you guess which side the Unitarians have defaulted to? (And most, but far from all, of the Universalists.)

Of course, the Western Unitarians had a particular focus and context: public morals, personal development and a calm sense of awe and devotion. I’ll defer to those who know it better to describe it in depth. It was progressive in a way that might make us roll our eyes, but what doesn’t these days? Revivals, if anyone wants one, require interpretation.

Looking back to when they Western Unitarians were at their strength, you can also see a parallel movement in Reform Judaism. With its emphasis on the prophetic and universal, and a strong reduction in the use of Hebrew, Classic Reform offer something of a similar liturgical experience to the Western Unitarians. At least you could be excused if you stumbled into either service and confuse it for the other. Classic Reform at its most Classic Reformist had organs in worship, some used hymnals, might refer their pulpit-gowned rabbis as “The Rev.” and some even met on Sundays. I would love to visit one of the remaining Classic Reform congregations, though watching the livestream of services from Temple Emanu-el (New York) or reading the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition, Revised puts me close to the tone if not the text of the Western Unitarians.  I think the clearest “bridge” is the hymn “Praise to the Living God,” a traditional Jewish synagogue song, translated into English by a Unitarian minister. It was found both in the Union Hymnal (Reform Jewish, 1897) and Unity Hymns and Chorales (Western Unitarian, 1911). This is the same hymn that would open Hymns of the Spirit, and a version is found in Singing the Living Tradition.

Of course,  Unity Hymns and Chorales is where you go for a words, if you wanted it as a period piece. (Or perhaps from the Hymns of the Spirit, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eleventh services.) It’s lovely, but a new Theist society, eastern or western, will need to find its own voice and its own take on that vital if emotionally constrained approach to speak in this anxious age, beset by demons.

Examples of a dependent-mission church structure

It didn’t take a lot to start a Universalist society in the early days; that is, even as late as 1866, and perhaps a bit later. There aren’t many accounts of how they got started, but reading between the lines, you can tell they organized around a core, perhaps an individual, who discovered the faint by reading, and organized to “have preaching” from a minister, often on a large circuit.

They rose up, and many failed. In time, those that survived built buildings and established ministries, but the ministerial shortage was chronic and — given that so many of those volunteer churches organized in remote rural areas — unsolvable. Financially vulnerable, most of them perished by the end of the Great Depression, though rural depopulation would have surely accomplished much the same.

But it’s easy to be romantic about this easy-going start-up culture. At least they organized churches — the papers had constant announcements — and that’s not what we have today.

It’s possible to do better — since we’re essentially starting missions from scratch — with an estabished model; that is, dependent missions, that I think get lumped in with the current rave, multi-site ministry. The model is old (think: minster) but I keep running into it, particularly among traditions that are only a generation or two old in the United States.

In each case, the dependent community receives services — paricularly worship and ceremonial leadership from clergy — from an established parish, rather than from a more central body. They are geographically clustered. I’ve runinto two lately.

  1. Most of the Christian Communities (the North American branch of the Christengemeinschaft) have “affiliate communities”

    Affiliate Communities do not have a priest working full time, however the sacraments are celebrated at a somewhat regular interval by a priest visiting from one of the established communites. The link is to the community from whence the priest visits.

  2. The Coptic Orthodox Church has had a church presence in the United States only about fifty years, but Diocese (one of three) of the Southern States has thirty-eight churches and twenty-eight communities.

What I kinda want for church. Sometimes.

So, I was talking with some friends about what I to see in a Christian church conference, and opined, I’d like to see it

  • coffee
  • morning prayer and communion with sermon
  • a good lecture [with a home-grown lecturer]
  • a (re-)introduction to unconference meetings (people will need to be prep-ed ahead of time)
  • one workshop session
  • lunch
  • two more sessions
  • evening prayer
  • dinner out

And after a moment’s thought added.

If I got that kind of day twice a year, with a cheery Christmas and Easter service, I’d be set.

OK, perhaps add a the odd social event and a good, encouraging and informational monthly or biweekly email and I’d be set. Most of the time. It may not be church as we’ve known it, and indeed it might not even be governed as a church as we’ve had it — but I bet a religious option like this would appeal to people not currently served, and with fewer resources thanit takes to run a church.

Bad church member, or expectations considered

So, it’s the eleven o’clock hour, and I’m at home. Late rising, some work around the house and — dang! after ten o’clock and unshowered, so I decided to stay home from church. And I wanted to go and intended to go. I feel bad because, for a number of reasons including travel, I’ve not been able to attend worship for the last few weeks. But I also don’t want to rush, and I have more work around the house I’d have to put off until two o’clock or so.

Not Attending Worship is high on the classic Bad Church Member list, so perhaps that’s what I’m feeling. But rather than ignoring the feeling, I’d rather own up to the feeling as a (probably) misplaced expectation.

Church life requires a measure of discipine, but using old rules and expectations will stifle those who haven’t committed to the discipline of “just knowing how to behave” in church, including attending, volunteering, giving and all the rest.

I’m thinking through “what is” and “what must be.” And how I’ll make it to church next Sunday.

Asking Micah Bales's question: Are we capable of planting churches?

A cautionary tale. I’ve worshipped with Micah here in D.C. so I sawa little of what he described but I’m certainly no Quaker, and (happily) have since gone back to my old church. But the critical mass issue is one that Unitarian and Universalist Christians are going to have to grapple with, in part because we’re probably too radioactive to attract ecumenical partners. Which is its own shame.

If Quakers don’t have the strength or inclination to seed new congregations, perhaps it’s time to partner with those who do.

Source: Are Quakers Capable of Planting Churches?

Four directions in the downsizing of the church

PeaceBang, the nom de blog of friend and minister Victoria Weinstein, opines at length about the foundational changes shaking our United States church experience.

Because everything is changing so fast, even those of us in the profession can’t keep up with the framework, the lingo or the expectations.  The fancy name for all of this is adaptive leadership, which is a nice way of saying that we’re all running like Indiana Jones a few yards ahead of the boulder of cultural change that threatens to flatten us at any moment.

She was speaking from her own observation, but a report that came out this week from Pew Research Center — quantifying the numerical shrinkage of American Christians and a comparably increase of the unaffiliated — alerted people that might otherwise not care so much.

She suggests that I might know how the remaining worshippers of the future will act, and so I’m adjusting some of my previously planned writing to address the question that’s the title of her blog post: “What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors”?

The adjustment will come in phases, so let me address what won’t work; that is, doing church more cheaply. This won’t save us. So keep the champagne flowing? No. A cheaper, simpler approach won’t save us, but neither will we have an option. In time, even a deep endowment can dry up.

So the four directions in downsizing the church are taking creative alternatives to

  • staffing the church work with trained and ordained ministers, in new configurations
  • staffing the church work with new groupings of people with differing professional interests and accomplishments
  • making use of space other than conventional church buildings
  • making different use of the church buildings that exist

So what’s the solution? It’s making the experience of the church more desirable than the cost. The financial cost, true, but also of time, patience, labor, expertise and reputation. This last may be the hardest. Like climate change that melts the permafrost, releasing methane accelerating the warming — mull on that simile for a moment — if someone feels like a sucker for participating in a church, no cost savings, no special programming, no reasoned (or emotional) appeal will make it seem like a good idea.

And overcoming that dilemma is more than the subject of a blog post.

The charisma of the Universalists

Over the last few days, I’ve chatted with some minister friends about the appeal of the Coptic church, particularly with respect to its antiquity, perseverance under genuine persecution (particularly lately) and the beauty of its liturgy.

And I almost decided not to mention these attributes in blog post, and I wondered why I felt that way. Which means that I should write about my hesitance.

I’ve been around Unitarian Universalists long enough to know that we add practices and make decisions without appealing to reasons or traditions. We devalue our internal logic and traditions, and then wonder why we agree on so few things and tend to follow each passing fad. Tired of hearing that Black Lives Matter or about Nepalese relief or even about regionalism of seminarian in-care programs? Wait a while. Is that right? No. Is there a better way we can reply? Perhaps.

Over all, our tendency is to look wide and abroad for answers, resources and solutions. The Copts could easily — well, perhaps not so easily, but you get the paint — join a river of borrowed influences. What we could learn from them is that a church’s history, theology and customs create systems of thought, preferred methods and particular choices. This is what we do, and how we do it. At its best, it provides a matrix to know what’s essential, and what’s not. A recently announced Coptic initiative to plant churches relies on this ability to make choices. It’s anticipating the transition from immigrant Copts to their American-born children, and possible converts. The faith, liturgy and music would stay the same, but the name (Coptic means Egyptian) and language of worship (to English) will change. The essential gifts of their church will remain the same, or at least that’s the concept.

As Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, we need a better grasp of the gifts God gives us a church, so that we can apply these to our decision-making and contribute them to others who may benefit from our experience.

I can think of a few.

  1. While most Unitarian Universalist churches are non-Christian, they do somehow create and nurture a small (but not negligible) number of Christians.
  2. We have long histories of women’s ordination, and LGBT* ordination. We have worked out some (not all) of the cultural and professional details that churches that have made this decision more recently have not.
  3. We take cues from nature, time and seasons more seriously in our worship than many. This is not my original opinion, but that of an Episcopalian musician I met who had strong opinions on the subject.
  4. Yes, well, congregational polity, which is not the sell it once was. But it’s easy to underestimate it when there’s no bishop trying to shutter your church. And with it come some skills and resources for self-reliance.

And there are surely other gifts we should own up to.

Preserving Unitarian Universalism

So, I’m waiting for Lucky Dog to come on this morning, with CBS This Morning (which comes on just before) on in the background so I don’t miss it. There was a segment about digitizing The Spirit of St. Louis and other Smithsonian-held artifacts through 3-D scanning. Even President Obama got the treatment, like President Lincoln (who had to suffer plaster) before him.

I thought it might be bitterly funny to put Unitarian Universalism under the lights and cameras to preserve it digitally against loss, so that, one day the files might be pumped into a 3-D printer and the whole thing could be recreated. Well, perhaps only as a plastic model. A scan will preserve the shape and appearance, but not its workings and certainly not its life.

We attempt to preserve though recording that which is valuable and may or shall be lost. A shadow is better than nothing. I started putting Universalist Christian documents online, now almost two decades ago, because I feared the tradition would be lost before even the basics could be laid down. The documents are easier to get now, but the traditions still seems highly endangered and unvalued.

And in my almost thirty year association with Unitarian Universalism, I’ve noticed that what happens to one subset will apply to others in turn. Ask any classic Humanist if that tradition is well-respected and thriving. Throwing up your hands and saying “change happens” only says to me that you’ve not felt the bite yet. And there’s no guarantee that the whole fellowship of Unitarian Universalists worth wither away in a generation or two. We can take pictures, or find another way to preserve Unitarian Universalism.

Is Unitarian Universalism too large?

I’ve been thinking about the general fellowship of Unitarian Universalists — I often do, and I mean more than the membership of churches though the UUA — both because of the current crises at Starr King School for the Ministry, and the pan-mainline concern about ministerial salaries, maintaining buildings and (generally) the survival of theological seminaries.

But another, familiar question came up over coffee at church yesterday.  That, in essence, it is very hard to describe what a Unitarian Universalist is, what keeps us together, or even what brought us to this place. That is, without rolling the bus over someone.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that we’re too small, but too large.

I’m half-joking, half-serious. We are institutionally too complex, with structures that are just large enough that they have to invest a high level of resources to keep going, but without the benefit of an economy of scale. I bet that’s true of a number of congregations, too. And yet we have systems that try to span the variety of religiosities we’ve inherited. Can’t speak for others, but these systems do not serve Christians well. What would we do if each of the new regions had to go it alone? Or if the theistic and Christian churches stood off? We would certainly have change and a lot of work, but sometimes a good divorce is better than a bad marriage.

Of course, “staying large” (if what we have is largeness) is not in our hands. Social, economic and demographic challenges will probably cause us to shrink, refactor and contract. Indeed, we’ve been going through this for several years already, and when we get further along we’ll know when the decline started. But shrinking what we have won’t be enough of a solution. We’ll need solutions (possibly institutions) that address needs quickly — not “at the speed of church” — and creatively, with few resources.

If not, we’ll end up very small, still muddled and surely embittered.


The unintended subtext of "All are welcome"

There’s a much passed-around recent article about the lazy and misleading habit of churches that advertise themselves under the banner “All Are Welcome.” It’s worth a read. (“3 Ways ‘All Are Welcome’ Is Hurting the Church” by Lutheran pastor Angela Denker.

In my neighborhood, there’s a church that has an actual banner; the slogan is an added stripe to a rainbow flag: a now-passé way to wordlessly telegraph that gay-etc. people are the “all” who are welcome. And it’s this phenomenon is what I wanted to write about.

There was a time when deliberately allowing a lesbian-etc. to sit with you in church was daring. It may be so daring in some parts of the country, but I’m bold to say that even in those far-flung outposts, a rainbow flag isn’t going to pass muster.

For one thing, there’s the incongruity of saying “all are welcome” and intimating that bisexuals-etc. are the “all” through the inclusion of a rainbow-striped emblem. I’ve long wondered — my being gay and all — is it necessary to have to include everyone just to include me?  It’s as if everyone else would have been welcome first, and that’s not much of an invitation. Plus, I resent the coded language. It’s the language of the closet. It invites with a wink and a nod. But the code’s been broken, and it won’t fool anyone who has a hump about gays.

Second, it invites without making a commitment. Gay-etc. people are welcome to sit in the pews and give money, presumably. But what about getting married? Speaking of one’s friends and relationships plainly? Serving in positions of leadership, if otherwise qualified, including ordained leadership?

Some welcoming churches cannot, because of their rules, be as accommodating as they like. Which is a halfway promise. Telling strangers that we would be better hosts if only the national jurisdiction were only more accommodating forces one or both parties to think they’re fools.

So, a word to the Unitarian Universalists. These impediments shouldn’t apply to us. We are governed locally, have a track record of considered inclusion of gay-etc. people, and have a non-token number of transexual-etc. ministers. But we seem to undervalue this mature cultural development. (The focus on marriage parity, but little on our internal accomplishments, and the diminished state of Interweave come to mind.) Perhaps because we have a cultural value of the radical (or so we think) and the new (like everyone else) the accomplishments pale.

We, that is particular churches, should use more than three words — an easy lift for UUs — and state plainly that have made a deliberate decision and have an established history and support structure to include lesbian-etc. persons in all roles and in all ways — and to number the big ones — while pledging support to continue and improve this witness, even if it is or becomes unpopular.

Might be wordy and less snappy than “all are welcome” but that’s better than a feel-good slogan that says so little that it hides what should be a point of pride.