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.

 

UUA membership updates

The April UUA Board meeting packet was published today and the changes in congregational status report was longer than usual. Apart from name changes and two congregations becoming “covenanted communities” (it’s never been clear what that means) there’s this news:

NEW CONGREGATION:

Tapestry UU (Cong ID #7817), Houston, TX, … Separated from 1stUU Church of Houston multisite and became an independent congregation.

DISSOLVED CONGREGATIONS:

Original Blessings, Brooklyn, NY dissolved 3/17/2019.
All Souls UU Community, WA dissolved 9/10/2018.

It’s more accurate to say that the Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has re-asserted its independence by recently  coming out of a federation, even if we usually think of federations as being across denominations; after all, according to its own site, it was

originally founded in 1995 as Northwest Community Unitarian Universalist Church (NWCUUC). In December 2011, the Church merged with First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston (First UU), and its name was changed to the Copperfield Campus, and later the Tapestry Campus, of First UU.

As for those congregations that disbanded — I don’t have the heart to say dissolved, as if they were dropped in a vat of acid — let’s pause to note what’s gone.

I wrote about Original Blessing (not Blessings) just before it joined the UUA five years ago, and without belaboring the point, it’s disturbing to see one of the very few new congregations to organize in recent years disband. Their charming website is gone but — if you go to Archive.org — is not forgotten.

Founded in 1999, the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Community was until recently one of two Unitarian Universalist churches in Olympia, Washington (or in the nearby suburb of Lacey), and by far the smaller of the two. In 2009, for instance, it reported 24 members. Here’s an archive of their site from 2013; by 2014, the site’s domain had become a site for unrelated advertising.

Best wishes to all involved in what the future holds.

New congregations to join the UUA?

I had been waiting for the UUA Board agenda and packet for their meetings that surround General Assembly; they published them last night.

Why? To see what great things the UUA is planning? No. Something simpler. Will there be a new member congregation celebrated at General Assembly? Not that many years ago, welcoming new congregations was quite the event. Pictures of smiling faces, maps pointing out the new starts and delegations on stage. Then fewer. Then one. Last year, none.

The last congregation to join the UUA was two years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas. Meanwhile a few others, all very small, have since disbanded or disaffiliated. I have my opinions why this is the case, and no, the covenanted communities aren’t a replacement, but I’m not keen on shouting into the wind.

Instead, I’ll say thank you to the people of the recently-disbanded Peter Cooper Fellowship, Memphis, Tennessee (as noted in the packet) and wish them well for whatever the future brings.

The Saturday mission

To get a better idea of how Unitarian Universalists might organize new churches, I look at what others do. I found similar behavior between two Christian churches that are about as far apart on the ecclesiological spectrum as could be. Clearly there was something to learn.

  • Worship on Saturday morning. (These are not sabbatarian churches.) Check.
  • And not every Saturday. Perhaps once a month. Check.
  • The mission church is distant from the next nearest church at the same communion. Check.
  • The mission church rents “secular” space. Check.

The groups are Copts and Primitive Baptists respectively. The churches are in the Southern states and Manhattan respectively. I don’t think it’s too far to say that each is culturally out of the mainstream in their own settings. And that both are short of clergy. (The Primitive Baptists in Manhattan are a branch of a church in Maryland, three hours’ drive away, and that’s probably the closest one.)

I won’t labor this. What they have have in common is the economical use of resources. Don’t build too fast, if at all. Monthly Saturday services are a service and a sacrifice for the sponsoring church, but I’d bet it’s manageable. And not so “heavy” that if it need to change or be suspended that it imperils another mission opportunity.

Here are some links.

Worth remembering.

 

Thoughts about the UUA, #4: The lost church and its covenant

Today, the idea of covenant is current and constant among Unitarian Universalists leaders, but they’re always codes of conduct, lacking the divine referent Puritan covenants had — and so not really a part of the tradition that’s being appealed to.  They’re also lacking in grace. Covenants, perhaps, but in the sense of making sure Jews don’t move into your postwar housing development.  (Update. A reader emailed me and thought others may not be familiar with the secular use of the term, in this case a restrictive covenant.) Their appeal surely lies in providing substance after the old Unitarian and Universalist categories were burned to the ground, and for ending argument and reinforcing its appeal to the like-minded. The second I see one of these later-day covenants, I look for the door. (I know there are good people trying to return to a rich theology of the covenant and I wish them well.)

The solemn covenant binds the gathered church apart from the world, though within it. Its role is mainly spiritual, and in our tradition the church in this sense is conventionally tied to the parish or society. (We use the term congregation too, if somewhat improperly, as an alternative to the word church, which itself has at least three meanings: the institution, the spiritual bond and the building. Anyone who claims to be a member of a meeting house had better be a piece of clapboard.) In fact, the parish or society is dominant in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions and has been for generations.  (Do will still teach about the Dedham Decision?) It’s that public service — both in the sense of Sunday worship and the social manifestation of morality — that distinguishes us. The parish or society is practical and social, too. It won’t survey the inner workings of your soul — which we interpret as freedom — but it does care the bills are paid. Which is why we have quaint customs like trying to make the collection sacred. And why we invest so much in changing things, especially in society. And why it’s hard to look at our history and find a rich traditon of common spiritual practices. Those would belong to the gathered church, which even a century ago may or may not have existed in a particular locale. (This vexed Universalist leaders at the turn of the last century.)  Indeed, those member congregations (to use a neutral term) of the UUA that are or were until recently Christian had the marks of that inner church: an annual or oftener communion service, and that most typical of church officers, deacons.

It’s been my experience that it’s OK for a Unitarian Universalist to have a deep spiritual practice, so long as you were cool about it and didn’t come off as a big weirdo. That’s parish thinking, and that’s fine by me, as long as I can find a place to “go deep” and be that big weirdo.  That’s the church, in the more narrow sense.

With rentable space and social service nonprofits taking up much of what the parish had to pick up generations ago, I’m prone to go in the other direction: have the church without the parish. Which, in parallel form and different language, is what I suspect a number of neo-Pagan groups are doing. (Let me put a pin in that for reflection, and I’d welcome feedback from members of such groups.)

My very old, long gone Cambridge Platform page, again

I was chatting with some friends about the Cambridge Platform, what it means to us and how we promote it (as one does) and remembered that one of my early web sites was dedicated to it. I have the old files — there’s something alarming about seeing files “last updated 20 years ago” — and may clean them up for a new life on this domain.

Until then, you can see the site as it earlier existed (and not even the earliest!) thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

The New England Way