It was the late C. Conrad Wright, in whose memory we will gather this Sunday afternoon at First Church and Parish in Cambridge, MA, who first told me that the social justice as a top mission had decimated the ranks of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This did not sit well with me — since I agreed with most of the Association’s positions — but I’m a sucker for membership statistics. Over time, he convinced me it must be true.
Last week, as I wrapped up writing on the third quarter of the twentieth century at First Burlington (VT) UU Society, the data forced me to consider the possibility that the explanation is more complex. And the ah ha! moment didn’t come simply from the data. It happened when All Things Considered one evening announced, with great pride, that they had a cake in the studio to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their first broadcast.
Who knows what opens our minds and souls in such a way that pieces of old information suddenly fall into a pattern that might make sense? Here’s what happened in my history-stuffed mind that evening.
I’d been charting the demise of Forum, a wonderful denominational program that used to meet on Sunday mornings at 9:30 with weekly presentations by public leaders, followed by Q & A. Back in Cincinnati, my father never missed it; it was his church. He checked out the rest of the offerings (and brought me to them, which is what got me here), but Forum was it for him. And up here in Burlington, it was the same story. Thirty to fifty devotees assembled weekly for almost two decades, listening and discussing.
Forum was no spaghetti-on-the-wall attempt at growing membership. During the Standing Order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, every minister was responsible not only for two sermons on Sunday –whose job was explication of the Scripture — but he also crafted a weekly lecture on public topics. He was, after all, an employee of the town, responsible for its public morals and education. Different ministers lectured on different nights, in order for a group of lecture fans to hear their favorites. If you remember the story of Theodore Parker walking from West Roxbury, three parishes south of Cambridge, to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson address the seniors graduating from the Theological School in 1838 (and walking back the same night, reflecting under the stars on what he had heard), you have been introduced to a remnant of this institution.
In the early twentieth century, this institution made a sort of comeback through the Laymen’s League, which gathered for dinner-discussions once a month. Here in Burlington, what impressed me is how many of those presentations featured two group members taking opposite sides of the same issue to offer something that probably stood somewhere between a classical debate and a general conversation.
I will say right now that in my late middle age, I wish we had Forum again. Those Laymen’s League conversations would be good, too. Those presentations have migrated to public radio and television, but they lack a covenanted community for mutual religious edification. The attempt to restore balance in our General Assembly Resolutions is all well and good, but you can’t really grow good food without strong grassroots, which Forum and Laymen’s League used to provide. After all, there are folks of many different faiths listening to public radio and watching public television, and inspecting the information through different religious lenses.
Nothing has been so likely to drive me out of the UUA as the recent pronouncement from headquarters that our ministry has been a long tradition of ruckus-raising. It is factually wrong. Our ministry has been a tradition of information-sharing and covenanted discussion, with no obligation on the participants to arrive at a single sharp conclusion with which to slash its way through public discourse.
I know for a fact that Unitarians were among the founders of public radio and television, dedicated to raising the level of public discourse to what they experienced in their congregational gatherings. Instead, they seem to have taken that civility with them, and departed for parts unknown. Some of them will return for memorial services, but many have made their peace with some other religious or social group which doesn’t impose the onerous burden of achieving a crusaders’ consensus. They pledge where they listen, even as public radio and television do more and more to build connection and community for their donors.
Conrad always said there was much to learn by deeply examining the histories of our congregations. The narrative up here in Burlington doesn’t contradict his statement that the social justice mission did us in. It does show how we managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Even as the larger society has come around to so many of our prophetic positions, we threw off the civil and pastoral discourse such change requires, and thereby lost the chance to bring them in.