Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C.

If you are looking for a Christmas Day service in Washington, D.C., I’ll be preaching and leading worship at Universalist National Memorial Church,  at the corner of 16th and S Streets, N. W. at 11am.  (Map)

We will probably meet in the parlor — easier to heat and cheerier for a small congregation — with refreshment to follow.  (There will, of course, also be a Christmas Eve service.)  Hope to see you there.

Peeking in on the United Universalist Convention, 1939

Eighty years ago today, the United Universalist Convention began at the Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, D.C. It’s my home church, so a moment of pride.

The convention was not for the national denominational body (Universalist General Convention) alone, but included the meetings of the ministers association, the women’s association and the Sunday school association. For four days, they worshiped, heard reports, passed resolutions, broke into small groups and saw demonstrations. Given the size of the church, and the polity that sent 214 delegates from state conventions rather than every church, it was a smaller affair than today’s General Assembly. The banquet was, however, held at the Mayflower Hotel, which became famous later for other reasons.

Of the ministers welcomed into fellowship after the communion service, I recognize the names of Brainard Gibbons, later a General Superintendent, and Albert C. Niles, who wrote a biography of George De Benneville. A proposed pension plan never came to fruition. A rule change allowing dual fellowship (with the Unitarians and Congregationalists) passed, but I’ll have to research to see if this was an expansion of an earlier change; the Universalists entered comity talks with both the Unitarians and Congregationalists in the 1920s. Resolutions for co-ops and against gambling reflect their morals.

I don’t have access to the denominational magazines, so it’s hard to gauge the tone. Recall that the Germany had invaded Poland the month before, and Britain had declared war on September 3; a “phony war” to this point. The countries of the Americas had decided on neutrality. Yet the Universalists passed a resolution on conscientious objectors “which provoked considerable discussion but was finally adopted with a few dissenting votes.” I’m guessing the memories of the Great War were too fresh, and the writing (“times of war hysteria”) was on the wall. I can only imagine what Owen D. Young must have felt: he was the toastmaster for the banquet! The church’s tower was named for him and dedicated to international peace, recognizing the plan he proposed to restructure German war reparations a decade prior. But war was here.

You can read the official record of the proceedings here.

Two new Universalist books

We are in a silver age of Universalist Christian writing: new works and reprints, for popular and academic readers and from across the confessional spectrum. I’ll be posting book notices, partly to spread the word and partly to keep a record for myself. (I sometimes forget where I see books.)

Here are two that came on the radar:

With this article, I open the category Universalist literature.

Decline of Universalism: posted works about polity and administration

To continue the preparation towards considering the pre-war decline of Universalism and how Universalists responded to it. Last time, I looked at documents I’d already published about ecumenical overtures; this time, works related to polity and administration.

I need more from the Thirties, and the documents I found a few months ago will help fill the gap.

While slightly post-war:

I think I need to look at the scope of programs and budgets soon.

To read and review: Allin’s Christ Triumphant

The moment I saw Thomas Allin’s Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture, I knew I needed to read it.

I got my copy — a reviewer’s copy, free of charge from the publisher, to be clear; thank you — last night and will update you as soon as I have reached a convenient stopping point. My keenness and my glacial reading pace will be at war with one another.

Continue reading “To read and review: Allin’s Christ Triumphant”

How did the Universalists manage the twentieth-century decline?

I take reader requests, and reader asked what the Universalists did to address the decline prior to World War Two. This squib of an article is what I plan to do.

  • I’ll consider denomination theological and social adaptation, institutional plans and budgets. I’ll use reports, directories and where available newspapers and books.
  • I’ll work from a hypothesis that the decline in denominational Universalism began in the 1920s and lead to a choice to either merge with another denomination or collapse. There were two contenders: the Unitarians and the Congregationalists. As we know, the Unitarians “won” overall, and some individual parishes joined the Congregationalists.
  • I’ll look at the initiatives to encourage loyalty, minimize the parish losses and raise funds. I’ll try to identify what fell off the table.
  • As I review period documents, I’ll point out and transcribe documents that illuminate the truth, and I’ll modify my hypothesis as needed.

This is a long-term project, and to be clear I don’t think there are parallels to the UUA today. (The money and ministerial supply couldn’t be more different.)

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.

Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

Responding to Tuesday’s post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I’ll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I’ll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I’m not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord’s Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that’s probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I’ve read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I’d think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King’s Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn’t. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn’t let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn’t agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don’t get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn’t agree, he (women weren’t ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can “appoint or Ordain” a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not “administer Christian ordinances.” Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted “to administer Christian ordinances” “with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship,” a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it’s worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there’s not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.

About the Bisbee trial

Because of the controversy around the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s public censure of Todd Eklof, there’s been talk of heresy trials. Of course, there’s no trial yet, just the censure and waves of accusation, though some formal action could happen. (I wonder what the euphemism will be?)

There was a trial of a Universalist minister, Herman Bisbee, that’s widely regarded as a heresy trial — and a mistake. Naturally, it’s come up in the Facebook conversations (with Michael Servetus, whom I’ll leave for someone else to write about) so good to give some context to those unfamiliar with the situation. I’m going to pull together what I’ve written about it plus any original documents I can scare up.

But Charles Howe’s article at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography is detailed, and rather than re-write one, I’ll point to his.