Notes on the 1925 Congregationalist-Universalist unity statement

I just published the 1925 “A Joint Statement on Interchurch Relations from the Commissions of the Congregational and Universalist Churches” but didn’t want to clutter that document with thoughts. Indeed, I’ll want to review some of the standard denomination histories to see why the Universalists aren’t a part of the United Church of Christ today. Partnering with the Unitarians wasn’t the foregone conclusion so described today.

Union was in the air, then. Indeed, contemporaneously, the Congregationalists were making overtures to the Christian Church, leading to a merger. Most of the Congregational Christians then merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church (itself merged) to create the United Church of Christ. The Universalists were also talking to the Unitarians; years ago I published a Universalist report from the same commission in 1927. And now I want to see what else they reported out.

Some loose thoughts:

  1. I’ve heard it suggested that the relative size of the Congregationalists would have made organic union an absorption, rather than a merger.
  2. It makes the later, if minor, Universalist participation with the “continuing” Congregationalists make more sense.
  3. There are words the joint statement that echo in the 1935 Universalist Washington Declaration, namely in the second paragraph. “The kingdom for which he lived and died” for instance.

I hope this sparks interest in the history of Universalist polity…

If you don't have millions to buy a Bay Psalm Book

This week one of the eleven surviving copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English North America, sold at auction.

The owner was Old South Church, Boston, and the sale reminded me of all the old Unitarian communion plate that was sold to keep the staff paid, the furnace stoked or the roof on.

Though I respect our history, I respect the institutions more. And there’s something sad when a communion cup or psalter becomes so valuable as an artifact that it loses its intended use; it’s like the Velveteen Rabbit in reverse. As treasure, the silver and the printed pages become less real. They were real because they were instruments of praise and thanksgiving. Better then, I think that they can be sold, conserved and placed on display, as indeed the new Psalm Book’s owner, David Rubenstein, intends to do. (He owns two of the eleven.)

Better still to keep the Great Thanksgiving at table, and our praises in song. And if you want to pray from the Bay Psalm Book… well, then thank God: you can read it online, in this 1903 facsimile reprint.

Watch this space

I know it’s been slow blogging of late. I’ve been working on a special project in the background, and that’s been taking up a good piece of my brain. More about that later. (No fair guessing.)

In not altogether unrelated news, today I sent a letter to the local UCC church that I nominally hold my membership in . . . and resigned.

Recommended Reformation Day reading

Greetings, readers — My husband, Jonathan Padget and I are back from a deeply restful and energizing vacation in southern New England. Expect much of the blogging in the days to come to reflect this.

But today, among other observances, is Reformation Day. Ours is a reformation faith; indeed when examined perhaps Protestant if not always Christian. In particular, our roots — both Unitarian and Universalist — run heavily through the English Reformed tradition, which is to say we’re of Puritan stock.

It’s not very popular to claim affinity for Puritans these days, nor indeed for several decades. And we’re apt to say we’ve gotten past that, if it weren’t so evident in how we continue to organize and imagine ourselves. But misunderstanding (or even deliberately maligning) the Puritans won’t help us understand how we got here or what shapes our particular gifts to the religious landscape.

On the road, Jonathan quizzed me on the difference between the Puritans and Pilgrims, the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies and the like. Having earned a religious history degree before going to seminary, I set out the distinctions in the usual way, but I couldn’t get some of the dates in the right order and began to second guess myself. God, in his Providence, made available a little book in a little shop conveniently next door to the Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which I bough and devoured. I commend this to all Unitarian Universalist ministerial students and forgetful ministers, particularly if you can also get it used for half price.

This book is Francis J. Bremer’s Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (2009, $11.95) from Oxford University Press. True to the name, it is a quick read, and quite authoritative. Compact, too, and sure to keep people from bothering you on the subway.

The biggest takeaways are its readable historical review; a good explanation of a spectrum of Puritan worldviews, with respect to social change when having different levels of political power; and background for congregational polity. In particular, Bremer reviews the precedent of Continental refugee churches for the local selection of ministers. Also, I hadn’t known of lay and ministerial conferences that carry over today in the UUA, the various ministerial study groups and independent theological organizations.

A worthy read, also valuable I think for group study.

UCC to run ad in NY Times tomorrow

I can only imagine how uncomfortable and challenging the recent examination of Jeremiah Wright, retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Sen. Barack Obama is a member, has been for the members of the United Church of Christ. The UCC has raised funds to put out an ad in the New York Times tomorrow. The ad (PDF) isn’t what I would have wanted — it dwells too much on its history, subtly implying its best days are behind them; the UUA is prone to do the same thing — but it was wide to do so.

There’s also a video on the UCC site responding to unnamed interest in the denomination. Nice enough, a bit stiff and stereotypically churchy: kinda like a tuna casserole in media form. And it’s hosted by Hans. But I get the strong feeling that I’m not the audience, but anxious and edgy United Church members, because the tone is very cheering.

UCC president pushes back at Obama church accusation

Don’t you love election season? Especially the maddening whisper campaigns which on one hand denounce Sen. Obama as a Islamicist Manchurian candidate — if you’ve gotten one of those emails, do let me know — and on the other denounce his church (Trinity UCC, Chicago) as some kind of black racist stronghold. It’s enough to lead a soul to distraction.

The Rev. John Thomas, United Church of Christ General Minister and President, has pushed back in a press statement at defending Trinity. A bit slow in coming I think — dates yesterday — and a bit defensive and a tad off-tone, as one might expect. See for yourself.

Is development an answer for city churches?

Today’s Washington Post has a front-page article by Paul Schwartzman about how development has helped save or fortify unstable congregations is worth a look by anyone in a historic city-center church.

As it happens, I know of most of the churches in the article. Yes, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist — until recently an architectural island at the edge of downtown — has survived the infill of office buildings and has profited from it. Yes, some congregations — like Metropolitan Baptist — are finally following their members to the ‘burbs. (These all are black churches, a fact not known in the article, which also doesn’t rehearse the continuing tensions with newer, mostly non-black neighbors, mostly related to parking and coded anti-gay, anti-white preachments. I think the moves are long overdue.) Yes, First Congregational is replacing its building with one that takes a part of a larger condo development. (But I’d hardly call the old building — of 1966 vintage — “antiquated.” Obsolete and dysfunctional, perhaps. I had members in my last pastorate who were married in the First Congo that stood there before that one. Does that make them older than antiquated?)

But I’m not happy with the depiction of developer-as-savior. You heard of enough stories and inferences that developers act like — well — business-owners and church leaders don’t. And you know who ends up in hot water.

Plus, the understory is that new urban congregations share the crisis of unaffordable housing with their would-be members.

Development Has Become New Savior for City Churches” (Washington Post, 31 October 2007)

Mercersburg Society re-emerges

Thanks to Jonathan Bonomo at Reformed Catholicism for noting the Mercersburg Society’s Web site, which has a new harbor — appropriately enough — with the Philip Schaff Library of the Lancaster Theological Seminary. (The library also hosts the Evangelical and Reformed Church — half of the present United Church of Christ — archives.)

In case you’re wondering, yes, there is a place for a Unitarian Universalist in the Mercersburg Society. I was a member and only let my membership lapse because they seemed to vanish. (I think the officer who had done their Web site moved churches and the Society’s site was a subset of his former parish’s site. Not a good idea.) Indeed, I note two ministers with fellowship with the UUA in the leadership roster.  [Psst. Throat clearing.]

I really need to read that Nevin biography Hubby got me for Christmas.