The Kansas Convention Church, 1900

I came across this photograph a few days ago, and wanted to share it with some background information, but the more I looked into it, the deeper the story got, so think of this as the first part of an open ended series.

This photograph was taken on October 4, 1900 at the Universalist church in Junction City, Kansas but (if I’m reading it right) this is neither that church’s membership nor all the participants of the Kansas Universalist Convention that met there.

“Group of Universalist Convention Church Members” KU Libraries Digital Collections. Joseph Judd Pennell Photographs Collection (1888-1923).

This was the Convention Church: a once-a-year congregation made up of those Universalists without their own local parish, and perhaps a few besides. (More on that later.) Even more interesting, at 200 members, it was the largest parish in the state convention. How did that come to be? What was the function of the Convention Church? And what happened to the Kansas Universalists?

What you say when you say “all are welcome”

It’s become an article of faith in mainline churches to declare that “all are welcome.” Sometimes there will be a rainbow flag to seal the deal, implying that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are welcome to attend services, become members and possibly engage in leadership. Maybe. Since it all depends on attitudes and policy, and if and where these differs from actual practice. Sometimes a vague welcome to skirt a denominational policy, or to manage internal conflict. But nothing objectively welcoming LGBT people, and for a long time that’s as good as it got. But it’s not the 90s and that’s not good enough any more.

I’ve disliked the formula “all are welcome” for years. The logic reads to me this way: that LGBT people are so outre, so exceptional, so horrible that everybody else has to be included before their needs are recognized. Um, thanks. In practice, some people are not welcome at any particular church, say, at the very least persons who are an immediate harm to other people should not be welcomed.  (If they’re welcome, their victims aren’t.) Other churches can pick up the slack for that abusive husband, thank you. “All are welcome” gently merges LGBT people and the truly despicable or dangerous.

Also, welcoming assumes an attitude from one group to another, as if LGBT people haven’t been in the churches all along to welcome newcomers.

The initiative Church Clarity provides defined standards for LGBT inclusion and women’s leadership. Churches can self-report, but anyone can ask out loud how clear a church’s policies are.

So, to the churches, liberal or not:  be true to yourself, but be honest with those who are coming to you. (This is especially the case with churches with a progressive aesthetic but conservative morality, particularly among the non-denominational Evangelicals.)

Don’t wink and nod and think that makes progress. State your policies clearly, and stand by them.

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches?

I’m watching the development of the Universalist Orthodox Church with a lot of admiration and a little bit of envy. In about a year it has grown to four parishes and two emerging missions. (Their site has a new page that better explains their approach and what they mean by Universalism.)

Are any of these parishes large? No. Do any have a building that they own for worship? No. Are their clergy compensated for their labor? Doubtful. But do they exist and grow? Yes. Do they ordain or receive new clergy? Yes. Do they have regular, public services of worship (liturgies)? Yes. I’ll take what they have over the unrealized plans for a large institutional church any day.

What what would it take for us on liberal Reformed end of Universalism to have four parishes and two emerging missions? That’s behind so many of the articles I write here. I’m fortunate to live in a city with a Universalist Christian church, where I am a member and preach occasionally. There’s one in Providence, and Tokyo. You might find others, historically related to the Universalist denomination or not. If I were in a city with a Universalist Orthodox church, I’d probably attend liturgies, at least occasionally. But people in most places don’t have the option.

I’m not going to build a church where one’s not needed but you may need to do so. A monthly service of morning and evening prayer led by a lay person for a congregation of three is a hundred times better than wishing that there was a church.

What would it take for the Universalists to have four new churches? A hundred? Even one? Most of all: desire to have one, even if there’s no institution “out there” to help. (That said, I’d gladly do what I could to help a new church. I bet others would as well.)

The church and parish, contrasted (1855 edition)

I’ve twice lately tried to not to make too much of the way Universalists distinguished between the parish (or society) and church, but it’s an important distinction to understand the polity and institutional processes. So dang if I didn’t run into this again as the reason a 1850 committee of seventeen ministers north of Boston presented in 1855 an alternative and resource to what they saw, namely:

1. As a general rule, our societies are organized merely so far as to give them a legal existence, and enable them to hold property, and perform, according to law, the business necessary for the maintenance of public worship.

2. Connected with most of our societies, there are churches, having an organization about as meagre as can well be imagined, in any body claiming to have a corporate existence. These churches meet, at stated periods, at the communion table, and for the reception of members, or the election of officers ; and beyond this, there is little that they attempt to do.

3. While our societies are, for the most part, in a flourishing condition, so far as pecuniary support and attendance upon public worship are concerned, a general apathy prevails in regard to our churches; many of our most active and zealous, as well as worthy and respectable men, not being, even nominally, members thereof.

4. Beyond the mere support of public worship, there is little that either our societies or churches have attempted to perform; that object being attained by the former, the latter have few claims to present, for countenance or support. For this cause, it is apprehended, our churches languish, and are asleep — simply because they have nothing to do, or rather because they have never set themselves, unitedly and systematically, about the great work that they ought to do. The fault is not so much in the men, as in the system of their organization. Our churches are not thus languishing, inactive and neglected, because of a general lack of zeal, or Christian benevolence and charity, among our people. But they do next to nothing, for the simple reason that their organization does not propose to do anything of importance, beyond what could be done by any society having a legal existence. The result is, that the church is looked upon as an extra affair altogether; a thing to bind men’s consciences, rather than engage their hearts and hands in works of charity and love.

The rest of the introduction from which this comes defends the propriety of using modern technology and culture to advance the church, and that the church’s mission needs adequate structures. This anticipated (or prepared) the post-Civil War institutionalization of Universalism, but perhaps conditions did not change so much even then.

Merrimack River Ministerial Circle, The Universalist Church Companion, 10-12.

Updating the joined-since-2003 UUA membership list

In my article about the Western Unitarians, I mentioned my doubts about the UUA effectively starting new churches. And yes, you can correctly read into any number of my articles the suggestion that new churches will be independent, small and boot-strapped. But what has been created? (And surely, this isn’t to suggest they were air-dropped from Boston.)

In 2010, I made up a chart of the 33 congregations that joined the UUA in the seven years since 2003; joined, not formed. (At least three have long histories.) I’ll bring that up to date.

So all those churches since 2003

As before, these are congregations that have been admitted to the UUA, whether or not they had a prior existence. The ones from before 2010 are in the first group. The membership then and now are in parentheses, separated by a slash.

The congregations admitted since are in the second group, with the current membership at the end. The “cite” is a link back to my article about their admission.

  1. Adirondack Unitarian Universalist Community: Saranac Lake, NY (40/38)
  2. Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church: Aiken, SC (68/80)
  3. All Souls Free Religious Fellowship (All Souls UU Society): Chicago: IL, (14/14)
  4. Florence UU Fellowship: Florence, OR (23/43)
  5. Foothills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Maryville, TN (72/80)
  6. Ginger Hill Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Slippery Rock, PA (32/15)
  7. Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church: Indianapolis, IN (25/55)
  8. Mosaic Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Orange City, FL (34/22)
  9. New Hope Congregation: New Hudson, MI (30/29)
  10. Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Decorah, IA (57/47)
  11. Northwoods/Chequamegon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Ashland, WI (31/84)
  12. Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Fond du Lac, WI (52/70)
  13. Open Circle UU: Boulder, CO (15/disbanded)
  14. Pathways Church: Southlake, TX (90/80)
  15. Prairie Circle Unitarian Universalist Congregation: Grayslake, IL (72/93)
  16. Seward Unitarian Universalist of Seward: Seward, AK (9/disbanded)
  17. The Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware: Dover, DE (51/53)
  18. Unitarian Church of Hubbardstown: Hubbardstown, MA (13/13)
  19. Unitarian Universalist Church of Blanchard Valley: Findlay, OH (26/20)
  20. Unitarian Universalist Church of Hot Springs: Hot Springs, AR (43/102)
  21. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Chesapeake: California/Barstow, MD (43/30)
  22. Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo: Tupelo, MS (36/34)
  23. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Rocky Mount: Rocky Mount, NC (40/28)
  24. Unitarian Universalist of Petaluma: Petaluma, CA (71/89)
  25. Unitarian Universalist of Santa Clarita: Santa Clarita, CA (59/57)
  26. Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship: Raleigh, NC (44/57)
  27. Unitarian Universalists of Fallston, MD: Bel Air, MD (41/25)
  28. Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg: Gettysburg, PA (53/55)
  29. Unitarian Universalists of the Big Bend, TX: Big Bend, TX (31/39)
  30. Washington Ethical Society: Washington, DC (150/166)
  31. WellSprings Congregation: Chester Springs, PA (143/271)
  32. Wildflower Church: Austin, TX (181/123)

And joining in the nine years since. I think you can see the difference.

  1. All Faiths Unitarian Congregation: Fort Myers, FL cite (139)
  2. All Souls: Miami, FL cite (84)
  3. Iowa Lakes Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Okoboji, IA cite (39)
  4. Original Blessing: Brooklyn, NY cite (since disbanded)
  5. Tapestry UU: Houston, TX (withdrew from multi-site congregation) cite (32)
  6. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship: Lake Norman/Davidson, NC cite (45)
  7. Unitarian Universalists of Blue Ridge: Rappahannock/Washington, VA cite (55)
  8. UU Congregation: Petoskey, Michigan cite (26)

As for the matching list of congregations that disbanded or merged: well, only if there’s time. Not nearly so pleasant.

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.

“‘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.

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?)

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.