Why deacons and baptism?

My interest in deacons and baptism in Universalist churches isn’t arbitrary, and it’s not about the past. It’s about the future.

I figure the remaining Universalist Christians within the UUA are going to have to rely on each other and the ecumenical church more in the future, or perish. Those “new Universalists” who gather into distinct churches might want to know what makes “denominational Universalism” cohesive and distinct. So, where do we stand? Where have we stood? Do you have a good answer to that? I don’t.

What I think Universalists had was a churchly culture to rely on when there were gaps, and a culture of tolerance (or indifference) where there were conflicts. We no longer have the one, and the other leaves you gasping when you ask, “what do you believe in?” (I don’t think Unitarian Universalists of any stripe deal with this in a convincing way, and this might contribute to its self-isolation and sectarianism.) I’m finding bits and pieces that glint in a fast moving, occasionally murky, stream.

I felt a sense of historical and theological isolation keenly when I was in seminary, in a class which studied the landmark 1982 document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. We students were expected to bring our denominational response to it to class and reflect on it. The Baptist students and I commiserated — and scrambled for a make-do. I ended up using the response (Archive.org) of the Remonstrant Brotherhood (site in Dutch), which was the closest “relative” that made one.

I’m not suggesting future Universalists are bound to decisions past Universalists made on these matters, especially if they were made poorly, grudgingly or in couched terms. Perspectives on one ordinance (the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) and one of two orders of ministry (pastor) are better understood. Focusing on the other ordinance and other order of ministry might inform me and my readers about how past Universalists saw themselves. And from that method, we might be able to reconstruct an authentic Universalist voice, and then assess it has what we need in the future.

Eddy: Contrasting the two early Universalist “denominations”

A passage in Richard Eddy’s Universalism in America says something to me about the period around 1803, deacons and baptism, three things I’m studying now.

First, it’s worth knowing a recalling there were two associations or conventions that might make a claim to being “the Universalist denomination” and they ran side by side with some overlap for years: one met in Philadelphia, and the other met in various places in New England. By 1803, both had statements of faith (the Philadelphia Articles, since I so rarely reference them) and plans of church government. But the Philadelphia Convention was dying, buoyed no doubt by the presence of John Murray. Indeed, Eddy’s not sure there even was a Philadelphia meeting in 1804. He points out the different approaches to church governance. The Philadelphia plan concerned itself with the inner workings of churches, while the New England plan really only concerned itself with itself, and thus the power to fellowship ministers, and thus mobilize them.

In the new [New England Convention] plan of organization one noticeable thing, distinguishing it from the [Philadelphia] Plan of Church Government adopted in 1794, was that it was a plan for the government of the Association, while the latter was for the government of individual churches only. It provided, indeed, for what it called “The Communion of Churches” in annual convention, but it made no provision for the officers or organization of the Convention, nor for the voice or vote of any church represented in the Convention (see vol. i., pp. 300-302). And its Plan for the Churches was, in the language of the Circular Letter which accompanied its publication, “nearly that of the Congregational Church.” The “Plan of the General Association” adopted at Winchester, repealed no portion of the previously-adopted “Plan of Church Government,” but expressly recognized the fact that “every Church possesses within itself all the powers of self- government.” In so far, then, it reaffirmed the Congregational character of the Universalist churches or societies, and did not seek, even by recommendation, to make them religious organizations which the courts could recognize as different and distinct from any other Congregational societies.

Eddy, Richard. 1891. Universalism in America. vol. 2, 63.

(How do you cite within a blog, anyway?)

So, perhaps a culture arose where deacons and baptism were considered internal matters, in addition to whatever theological issues Universalists might have had. It’s not like both vanished. This Sunday, I will be in church and from my pew I will see a deacon or two, and the occasionally-used baptismal font. I’ll nose around, but I won’t expect to find anything definitive. Universalist interest in the Lord’s Supper throws that for a loop, but perhaps because it was practiced by the conventions in meeting (see below) it would come up on the radar.

One more suspicion: Universalists kept fellowship on a parish or society basis, and these parishes and societies sometimes had associated with them churches of believers. (Their absence was a point of frustration, perhaps embarrassment among Universalist leaders, and spoke to a controversial rather than spiritual faith.) In this dynamic, the officers of the church are the pastor(s) and deacons, and indeed, they show up in a model church (as opposed to parish) constitution from 1891. With whom did the churches have fellowship? I’d be prone to say Jesus Christ, and that spiritual connection is not the jurisdiction of Universalist conventions.

Ministry and money: my new read

So, I saw a reference tos James Hudnut-Beumler’s In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (2007, University of North Carolina Press)  and was interested, so ordered a copy. It arrived yesterday, and began reading. The reasons that interested me might apply to you, too.

  1. The money we raise and spend on churches is really important, but we don’t give it due consideration. (But it’s much better than it was a generation ago.)
  2. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century transition to the voluntary support of the church affected Unitarians and Universalists, but in very different ways.
  3. Traces of what we expect from a church persist from those days.
  4. And because our funding models do change, it’s a reminder not to apply sacred weight to something like the offering.

I look forward to the read.

Capacity and the Unitarian Universalist Christians

For most of my quarter-century sojourn with the Unitarian Universalists, I’ve been a Christian and have held some leadership positions. I think I’m in a good position to say that in those years we’ve had better and worse times. We don’t see the full-bore Christian-baiting as once was common, but neither do I hear much from the mellow yet constant “near Christians.” Perhaps both generations have moved on. And there seems to be much less institutional activity even though the Unitarian Universalist Christians are more geographically dispersed, if fewern I sense, than ever.

Thus a chicken-or-egg question. Is the institutional change the cause of the smaller numbers, or a symptom? There are roughly the same number of Christian churches in the UUA as before, with roughly the same number of members. Perhaps the Internet Age, with its focus on self-organization and self-publication, have a role; indeed, I suspect it does. Also, I’ve known more people than I care to count that have drifted to other denominations, or have detached their affiliations. (Far fewer become non-Christian Unitarian Universalists.)

Which makes me think: Unitarian Universalist Christian institutions, other than congregations (and perhaps even them, to a point) have depended on a ministry of identification. That is, the simple fact of their existance shows that Unitarian Universalist Christians exist, and that’s an important point if the majority opinion is that you shouldn’t exist. Other programs come and go, but this persists. Luther said “Here I stand; I can do no other.” I’m inclinded to think, “Here we stand, and it’s time to get to work.”

I took a piece of paper and jotted down what the Unitarian Universalist stakeholders do.

Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

  • Point of identification (“they exist”)
  • Point of contact, especially for isolated Christians
  • Mailing lists for community and resource-sharing
  • Newsletter for inspiration, resources and information
  • Website, ditto, with extra resources
  • “Revival” series of conferences
  • Participation in the ecumenical Consulation on Common Texts, the source of the Revised Common Lectionary
  • Public worship at General Assembly
  • Publication sales and sharing
  • A scholarship journal, though inactive in recent years

Council of Christian Churches in the Unitarian Universalist Association

  • Point of identification
  • Annual meeting for (limited) business, networking and support
  • A (limited) opportunity for study


  • Source of opinion, and sometimes theology or other resources
  • Sharing news

But these are some programs or functions that would be very helpful in a growing Christian movement among Unitarian Universalists:

  • Advocacy among non-Christian Unitarian Universalist decision-makers and opinion-shapers
  • Presence among non-Unitarian Universalist Christians, apart from the Consultation on Common Texts and in federated congregations
  • Support for Unitarian Universalist Christian ministers seeking placements, including secular work
  • Coordination of field trials and feedback for liturgical material
  • Publication of religious education resources
  • Developing a theological rationale (or rationales) for Christian presence among Unitarian Universalists
  • Discerning the distinct, non-fungible Unitarian and Universalist strains of Christianity
  • Coordination of ministerial internships
  • Creation and idenification of hymn resources
  • Recommendation of best licenses and distribution models of intellectual property
  • An opt-in service — such a directory — for in-person organizing
  • Recasting and publishing classic texts in a contemporary, digestible way
  • Assistance in administrating small groups
  • Importation, translation and republication of foreign Unitarian and Universalist Christian literature
  • Developing ministry models among young adults

My take on “the cost of ministerial formation”

I’m glad minister and blogger Christine Robinson (iMinister) has stirred the financing-ministerial-education pot here and here and here.

Her thoughts include a reform of the Unitarian Universalist ministerial internship system, in which it is not uncommon for a family to be divided for a year. I’d add the bottleneck — there’s more demand than supply, and there’s little incentive for congregations to add internships — which keeps promising candidates for ministry outside of fellowship. She proposed an extended, alternative internship.

But let me take this one step further. Is a seminary education an essential qualification for ordained ministry? Or rather, is it a one formation opportunity among others?

I have met — perhaps you have, too — skilled professionals, epecially in the literary, design and technology world who are either self-trained or who developed their skills while working. And I’ve known persons of spiritual depth and skill but lacking a seminary education (or ordination, or both) who I would gladly have as a pastor.

I’ve seen people of differing ages hobbled by the debt they took to afford a seminary education, and have met others who came to the end of their M. Div. to discover they had no continuing calling for the ministry. But do have the bills.

And — this is the rub — there are gaps in the seminary experience you could drive a semi through.

But back to the Unitarian Universalist experience for a moment. Apart from small district-led programs and local custom, there’s little opportunity to develop as a something-other-than-an-ordained-and-fellowshiped-minister, like, say the Universalist lay preachers or Congregational commissioned ministers. So let me start there. I would welcome as a minister someone who learned the ropes of ministry on-the-job for three or four years part-time, in a medium-sized or large church, under a minister’s supervision, with evening and weekend training to round out. Call this person a “parish assistant” or what have you. This experience might even run concurrently with a college education, should that opportunity present itself.

Throughout, and certainly at the end, let a committee of local ministers interview the parish assistant, and if he or she is found qualified, let them issue a letter of license for a year.  Perhaps now’s the time to take on a sole pastorate. Review and renew, if worthy, the next year. And then a then again. And if at the end of three years — seven in all — the licensed minister has grown into a peer, let her or him be ordained.  (It’s not hard to imagine a parallel process for institutional ministries.)

There are a couple of problems of course. I’ve known a training college in Another Denomination that prepared and supported ministers like this. It was well-loved by lay persons, too. But people with seminary ties saw it as a rival and it has been bled into a shadow of its former self. Such a plan, too, would attract enemies. It also assumes a geographic density that Unitarian Universalists have in only a few areas, but in which I suspect most of the membership lives.

And then there’s inertia. It’s plain there are enough people who are willing to suffer the current system. Suffer, perhaps, but can they thrive within it. And perhaps less than thrive — can we survive with a generation or two of endebted ministers, buffetted by a largely opaque and unaccountable system?