Rethinking the Exodus

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.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Exodus

  1. I am ready for a covenanted conversation to debate whether James Luther Adams’ vision of “the prophethood of all believers” is ultimately a false and deceptive soteriology.

    • Wow, you ARE brave!

      The original formulation, I believe, in the Reformation era, was “the priesthood of all believers.” Technically, a “priest” is someone in direct conversation with God and authorized by the religious authorities to provide ritual incarnation of what God has told them. That is what many of us have taken to, in both the fellowship movement and, among us church-y folk, through our Worship Committee presentations.

      As to “the prophethood of all believers,” JLA lived in an era of poliarize megaliths with substantially more governmental and military power than is held by either our right or left wings, and for the most part, by our international enemies. Today, the main power of folks like the Tea Party seems to reside in Fox news, with The Washington Post mistakenly echoing them in an attempt to be “even-handed.” Thus, the Paul Ryan budget, which was so widely praised in DC, went down in flames during its first presentations in the districts of its supporters.

      I know a lot of UUs see the Arizona/Utah, etc. immigration laws as the next incarnation of the Third Reich, and I know they mean well, but today’s racisms are not quite so unambiguously aligned as they were in JLA’s era. Our era, however, is dealing with deaths — particularly of dreams — which have been disguised through slow and scattered policies. So rather than remove “the prophethood of all believers,” I believe we need to decentralize more of our social justice, so that we can be more effective according to the needs of our locales.

      Nor do I think JLA would disagree. He was a fierce critic of over-concentrated power at Beacon Street (or Newton, if that’s where they relocate), and used his editorship of the Christian Register to communicate with and eventually help organize the decentralizing movement which was known as “Unitarian Advance.” He spent a great deal of time helping me refine and strategize my objections to the growing power of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in the last years of his life(and sent a word on behalf to that august body), which helped lead to the now-defunct Regional Subcommittees. They were not what I wanted (being just another layer of bureaucracy, fear and money against seminarians), but I welcomed their commitment to local authorization.

      Sadly, in my old age, after so many years of objecting to him, I’ve come to admire Henry Whitney Bellows, and would therefore add his vision to JLA’s prophetic mission.

      • If we conceived of ourselves primarily as missionaries rather than as prophets, we might find ourselves losing fewer members and attracting more. Prophets are strident scolds; missionaries are humble nurturers. Prophets tell other people that what they are doing is wrong; missionaries serve them and share their burdens. Prophets are more prone than missionaries to forget that they themselves are “simul iustus et peccator”, and also more prone to finding themselves “without honor in their own country.”

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