In the Beginning: The Puritan Origins of Today’s Unitarian Universalist Process of rCredentialing and Ordaining of Ministers

Judging from three different Facebook threads, as well as some changes proposed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws (on which I have absolutely no opinion), some folks would like a short, snappy, easily-shared timeline of where our polity came from.

When the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay received a royal charter to found a constellation of parishes throughout the wilderness of New England in the 1630s, they defined their vision with ample reference to the Hebrew Bible. Like Moses, they were taking God’s covenant into a wilderness (which, as in the Hebrew Bible, already belonged to somebody else, but that’s another issue; still, attention must be paid) and setting up an interlaced network of communities which would nourish, educate, and, occasionally, correct each other. The secular affairs of these communities would be run through democratic self-government by the men of the village, meeting weekly in Town Meeting. The religious affairs would fall under the purview of theologically educated, publicly supported ministers.

The mutual nurture, education, and correction would take place through free travel among marketplaces and social institutions in the best road system of the original thirteen colonies. The mutual nurture, education, and, occasionally, correction of these same towns assembled for religious purposes would be accomplished by having the ministers preach weekly not only to their own congregations but weekly to one other town as well. This system was so different from what we today call “pulpit visits” that I strive to rename the system as “pulpit rotation.” For a minister would indeed come around again — over two to four decades of service, he would come to know the neighboring towns as thoroughly as he knew his own. There were no hotels, so he would sleep, eat, bathe, and sometimes be sick in the homes of parishioners all over the colony. And there were no secrets, because someone in his own congregation would welcome a diverse but not distant collection of his ministerial colleagues, week after week.  Seminarians and new graduates took part in the rotation, so that by the time a congregation wanted to elect one to a vacant pulpit, or add him as relief for an aging pastor, the entire Standing Order had an opinion. To exercise their vested interest, delegates of neighboring congregations were called to vote on the ordination immediately before it would take place.

There were no Sundays off.

When ministers visited each others’ parishes, (King’s Chapel apparently joined the rotation sometime after its Loyalist majority absconded during the War for Independence) they kept their eyes open for “promising youths” who might fill pulpits in later years. Both Theodore Parker and Henry Ware, Sr were poor young men of good lineage who received encouragement for the ministry from their own and other ministers. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, a PK many times over, Parker and Ware, Sr. simply had a chance to show their interest, and, like Emerson, receive opportunities that let them work towards and through Harvard.

They also kept their eyes open for women who would make good ministers’ wives. In the 1830s, when Henry Ware, Jr lost his first wife and was distraught that he had to house his young children with his sister until he could find another wife, his colleagues arranged that his pulpit rotation hospitality included suitable potential partners. And one of them, impoverished but able, did indeed become the wife who maintained his ministry during both his illnesses and his denominational absences.

By this social process — codified but not identified in The Cambridge Platform of 1648 — the Standing Order could both encourage the freedom of individual consciences and yet center the town’s identity in its First Parish. It is therefore a mistake to attempt to transplant the dictates of the Cambridge Platform without reference to the changes in social environment. The system lasted until October 1830.

So whence came The Boston Ministers’ Association, that forerunner of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee? It early arose, as sort of a town meeting for ministers, and met faithfully. Still does. And you can find its records in the Massachusetts Historical Society, so don’t take my word for it.

In the Massachusetts Historical Society you can find the incessant journaling of Rev. Dr. John Pierce of Brookline’s First Parish. He never missed an ordination, dedicated many a meetinghouse (including the one where I currently worship, which required a week of hard travel in a New England January) and kept notes on practically every meeting that was held among the congregational ministers who found themselves transitioning from quiet village preachers into the leaders, thinkers, and victims of the Unitarian Controversies.  Dr. Pierce’s journals are a one-man NSA of that era.

“Mode of Introduction to the Pulpit Among the Congregational Clergy of Boston and Vicinity” Memoirs of John Pierce, Vol III pp. 483 – 493

“Till within a few years it was the practice of students of Divinity to commence preaching without any form of examination or license.  When a young man wished to become candidate for the ministry, he was invited into the pulpit of some friend; and in this way, he became known as a candidate for settlement, and was accordingly invited to preach on probation.

                “At length by the exertion of Dr. Morse and others, who wished to introduce not only the system of examining candidate, but also the Church government subsisting in Connecticut, into this state, it became a vote of the Convention of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts, that no young man should be encourage to preach, but such, as obtained the approbation of some Association.”

The Reverend Dr. Jedediah Morse of First Parish, Charlestown, MA, was the Newt Gingrich of the Unitarian Controversies: not for him the mystic chords of unity; he tolerated only — and engineered finally — the polarity of theological clarity. He combated the Unitarians’ most prominent independent scholar, Miss Hannah Adams of Medfield, who published the first dictionary of all religions, past and present, as they described themselves in their own words.

As the Great Awakening of the 1730s suffused into the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, councils before ordinations became very tense; congregations began inviting only clergy and congregations they knew shared their sympathies.  Salvation-minded parties  withdrew from formerly town-wide congregations. 

On the 15th and 23rd of October, 1830, Henry Ware, Jr, took a theological hatchet to the pulpit rotation system in his Introductory Address to the Cambridge Theological School as its first Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care. In “The Connections Between the Duties of the Pulpit and The Pastoral Office,” he called for a preaching integrity not of theological argument but settled pastoral relationships.  It was not that he disliked the pulpit rotation system — indeed, he so generous with his ministerial presence that his health suffered and he died young –but the Industrial Revolution had caused congregations to crave stable ministers, messages, and worship rituals to anchor their rapidly-disintegrating social realm.

Cut off from their neighbors by theology, now looking inward to their pulpit, modern parishes had no friendly confidants to take them aside with cautionary or tutelary information about potential ministers. If a candidate misjudged his suitability for ministry, the comforts of that stable parish could buoy him for quite some time, to the parish’s eventual detriment. Ware and his colleagues began by sending forth their own students, properly credentialed through Boston’s Ministerial Association, because there was no other guarantor for transplanted New Englanders in search of religious continuity.

I tell this story with sympathy for the impulse to protect these parishes from the dangers that arose with their isolation from each other. But that sympathy was misplaced. The denomination’s single, centralized Ministerial Fellowship Committee, symbolized by the late, lamented headquarters at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, followed Jedediah Morse’s secretive, judgmental model (which, ironically, has been democratized by the denomination which carries on his theological views). What Morse advocated, as Pierce explained, was not the Cambridge Platform of Massachusetts, but the Saybrook Platform of Connecticut. To remain true to Massachusetts Bay, our denomination would have done better to replicate the collegiality not only among ministers but also among congregations, on regional and local bases. It is no accident that voices clamor most strongly against the MFC and the clerisy it credentials in the wake of strong UUA efforts to enhance and empower regional organizations.

After (Another) Fall

Our routine of meds, meals, recreation, respite care — it’s all been on a roll for the past few weeks — and Saturday night had us all set to return to worship after the cold spells and schedule adjustments. (The Weather Channel still points us out as a cold spot, but after the part of the Polar Vortex that we got in December, it’s all good now!)

Anyway, I settled in at the computer with my tea, waiting for her to wake up.

Then came the THUNK from the bedroom: she had fallen.

I found her on the floor. Prone. Face down, fully elongated, breathing deeply. She did not respond to her name or to touch, but she was breathing. She’s usually a responsive sleeper, so this puzzled me.

So what did I do? I figured her REM sleep was unusually deep, that her Huntington’s Disease sleep chorea had propelled her over the side of the bed, and she would wake up when her dream finished.

Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, she wandered into the living room (yay! walking normally!) asking, “What happened?”

And I STILL didn’t get it!

When she was more wobbly, nauseous and confused after two more hours, I called the Replenishment Relative, who said I should take my beloved up to the hospital to be evaluated for concussion.

How did I not think of that?

It took another hour to obtain permission from my beloved to call an ambulance (note to social activists: mental health issues impair decision-making capacities), but when she stood up again and toppled like a cut tree, the fight was done.

And here’s the amazing party: After the EMT’s strapped her into the ambulance, they did a routine Carbon Monoxide test, and her levels were extraordinarily elevated! They came back in and checked the house (which was fine) and the alarms (which were serviced three weeks ago and worked perfectly).

The CT scan of her brain was negative for internal bleeding or concussion symptoms. A long day at the hospital brought down her Carbon Monoxide levels, and we slept in the living room, where she has a safe accommodation, until her niece and nephew can obtain and install the half-guardrail on our beloved heirloom family bed.

I write this 24 hours later. She’s got a few bruises, including one on her head, but she’s basically fine. Clear head, eating, resting as she does during each day. PBS Nature is focusing on wolves, and when I turned on one we saw earlier this week, she immediately complained that “we saw this one before.”

So now, the issue is me. The doctor said to watch her closely for two full days, and that’s not something I can delegate. But after missing Christmas, New Year’s, everything since Thanksgiving, what I’d really love is to believe that when those 48 hours are over, I am meeting someone special at a spa up in Stowe, to relax, to chat, to haunt the fitness center, the pools, and the massage tables.

But it’s more likely that I’ll be lucky if I can let myself take an hour or two around Burlington. However, I DO plan to spend those hours joining and using a gym.

Trees, Squash, Goldfish, and The Talented Tenth

Tom Schade has directed us to a marvelous sermon by Cynthia Landrum, which declares that the vertical “tree-planting” model of denominational growth does not fit with the “spreading squash” social patterns of today’s young adults. The new Millennial lifestyle challenges more than liberal protestant institutions: it gives us a framework for asking how middle class culture will recover from the social, financial, and ecological violence it has suffered since 1980.

When a gardener wants to plant a tree or welcome spreading squash, the first step is not to find and clear an “under-developed location,” but to gather seeds and uproot seedings with which to populate the new gardens. Our national mythology applauds this self-appointing first step, and truly, it is neither good nor evil of itself. And it isn’t voluntary as often as The American Dream asserts: too many folks wound up here due to violence, injustice, bad fortune.

This morning on Turner Classic Movies, Frank Capra unfolded the tensions that affect a family when “a rising businessman tries to make his immigrant parents assimilate.”  His protagonists are Eastern European Jews with solid social ties and skills from the shtetl (the father’s jokes, the mother’s pushcart business), and son Morris has new world ambitions. He sells papers. When his tenement burns, he organizes a fire sale. Eventually he is able to move his parents and sister to Fifth Avenue.  Mother loves it, but Father pines for the old friends with whom he joked and worshiped; Morris’s sister marries her childhood sweetheart and has a baby.

Here is the fundamental question: Will Morris treat that baby as an offshoot or as a weed?

That question, rather than race, religion, ethnicity, even gender, defines the class war that splits today’s global population.  So far, Morris has been imitating the Northern European American Dream, casting off old social and cultural ties to establish himself in a culture-free community of success stories. Capra announces the English vision when Morris swaps his family’s Ellis Island name, Goldfish, for the English-sounding, “Finch.”

In Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson describes a transnational 21st century elite which does not battle, but rather appropriates, the most successful achievers in all demographic groups. Together they build a network of social bubbles wherein to encounter only each other while jaunting through every landscape and culture on the blue marble. This is the real class war: not between particular cultures, but pitting various Beta cultures — the followers, the familial, the local, the traditional — against universalizing Alphas.

Could he really mean, the Goldfish vs the Finches? To prove that Alpha culture isn’t the same as English culture, I offer a series on Masterpiece Classic,  “Lark Rise to Candleford.” Here we see plenty of very English Beta folk, hoping for any progress that increases security, convenience, amusement. At the same time, they examine with suspicion any novelty that eradicates (uproots) their social fundamentals. The premise of “Lark Rise to Candleford” is that these are people for whom life’s markers and measures are physically smaller but much more intensely felt. And why are those little Beta events felt so strongly? It’s not that Betas feel so much, but that Alphas feel so little. (As Exhibit A, I offer Lady Mary Crawley, who demonstrates every Sunday that some women can eat their own flesh and blood for breakfast more quickly than most males can swallow a Happy Meal.)

Finches appear on both sides of the class war divide; that happy discovery seduced New England settlers into an honest belief that they could engineer a nation which would prosper the offspring of Alphas and Betas. Our parent denominations, in their heydays, valued those now-despised “Big Donors” because everyone worshiped together, shopped locally, traded regionally at most, by which means many an industrialist rescued many a floundering parish. Unitarianism and Universalism flourished before the true Age of Alphas, by fostering what W.E.B. DuBois called The Talented Tenth: “the preachers, teachers, physicians” and local artisans who strengthen themselves in order to support weaker tendrils, nourish aspiring volunteers shade fragile seedlings from hot sun. But when plunder capital gutted local economies landscapes began to wear out, our English-based culture reverted to its ancestral model of self-preservation. “Strike out toward more fertile fields,” we told our young people, tempting them to uproot themselves by paying for enjoyable four-year colleges. (I won’t bore you with the details of how this pattern arose because of the particular way feudalism broke down in England, as compared to its death patterns in Germany and, most famously, France. But it’s an interesting story for another time.)

So contrast this English-based American Dreams with the versions lived and love by African Americans, Asian Americans, Roman Catholic and Jewish families. These cultures may alter their theologies and marital boundaries, but they still see reaching up and spreading out as mutually supportive. Cast upon these shores by Old World violence, and therefore not imprinted with voluntary self-amputation, these cultures relish family reunions, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, wakes and funerals, Quinceañeras, Eid-al-Fitr, and Lunar New Year.  How different are their sprawling feasts from those tiny nuclear families dotting college graduations.

WASP culture defines success as having the resources “to send our children away,” while everyone else is saving their money “to show our children where they came from,” and, if possible, “spend more time with the rest of the family.” My own belief is that Unitarian Universalism will reach its stratosphere by aggressively multiplying and strongly supporting a regular calendar for each age group to return, to remember, to commemorate, to rededicate. “Prophetic vision” means nothing to me; I see it as a fancy disguise for that ancestral call to either uproot oneself, or if that’s not possible, torch the landscape one cannot escape.

Perhaps this religion has reached its apex of population penetration in Vermont because, although  our children usually have to make their money somewhere else,  we’re too small to forget them, and so fond of them that they strive to “make enough money to settle back home in Vermont.” Vermont has maple trees, Vermont has squashes, and it’s probably no coincidence that we also have the only legislature in the nation that has mandated universal compost collection by 2016. This is a state without weeds (Emerson’s name for a plant you don’t want where it is). What we try to uproot is the Alpha mutation, that anomaly in every species that gorges itself without ceasing on other people’s products, and decapitates every social network that threatens to limit Alpha self-perpetuation.

And yes, we were originally mostly English.

Valley Fever

Valley Fever

Not quite 48 hours ago, I considered the possibility that wetland insects were God’s way of protecting us from destroying natural floodwalls. And then comes this week’s New Yorker, with an article hinting that God has provided the same kind of cautionary warning for desert-dwellers. You can’t see an aquifer disappearing, but perhaps rising sickness among your family and friends would cause you to move on.

Or maybe not.

Proving once again that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the American intellect.”

Which raises this question:

How much of our dreadfully high national health bill comes from our insistence on building and living in ecological niches for which we were not intended?

Recreating Wetlands Is No Quick Fix

Recreating Wetlands Is No Quick Fix

Any place in the northern part of the country, wherever people like to go fishing, boating, camping, you will see the following slogan: 

“Black Flies: Defenders of the Wilderness.”

What if it’s true?

I do not know what the hell possesses me to worry about the biting insects of summer when an unusual onslaught of ice has kept me in the house for most of the last month, avoiding the broken wrists and ankles that have plagued my more adventurous winters. Or maybe being trapped at home by ice has brought up those bemused recollections of hurrying out to the lake, the ocean, the shoreline — and spending the whole time complaining about the mosquitoes and flies. 

And as a historian, I’ve come across several things lately about the eradication of old bug-borne diseases by eradicating the environments in which they live and breed — in order to live and breed in those redesigned environments ourselves.

And then, the hurricanes hit. The rivers have risen, the ice jams are breaking, and while the southern and western US is saying good-bye to its aquifers, over on Hispanola, they’d love to sell us the spare. 

I am a religious writer, a minister, and so I will not shirk this term: maybe when God set up various niches with interrelated living components, perhaps She was more intelligent, more far-sighted, more scientifically grounded than we humans have been, with our short-term, de-regulated attempts to redo what God gave us. I am starting to see this in the fact that we are running out of drugs to protect our bodies from the diseases of environments into which we’ve inserted ourselves. We are running out of food to feed ourselves while living on ecosystems not meant to sustain our heavy-use patterns. And we certainly are running out of water in a lot of these same locations, even as we’ve lost the ability to hold back salty water we can’t use, in places we now claim it has — literally — no business being. 

Maybe it’s not the water that has no business being there. Maybe, if we adjust our insurance and tax rates to more accurately reflect the costs of some of these structures, the market — the real one, the one that rests on science — will direct us to simply turn the wilderness back over to the black flies. Instead of going broke trying to remove them and fight their diseases, we’ll honor mosquitoes as God’s way of reminding us that swamps are not for people and our accessories.

Looking Under the Radar at GOP 2016

Perhaps you aren’t paying attention to Senator Rob Portman. The usual excuses. Your pipes are frozen. Your kids are still out of school and you’re about to lose your mind because your boss thinks you’re working at home and the kids think they’re getting extra family time. Or you’re out in the Southwest laughing at the rest of us.

Or maybe you’re watching the major leftwing media sources — MSNBC, Democracy Now~, The New York Times — and thinking that the problems for Chris Christy open the door for some Tea Party-type presidential candidate for the GOP, they’ll lose in the general election, and all would be well.

That would be because you’re not paying attention to Senator Rob Portman from Ohio. He almost became Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and what remains of the GOP establishment probably now wishes he had. That’s because Portman has shown a willingness to negotiate with Democrats to get things done in the Senate while using his committee position (Budget and Fiscal Responsibility, Ranking Minority Member) to introduce GOP measures with no hope of going anywhere — for now. Yet a quick glance at a few of those bills shows a generous admixture of measures that make sense to me, a Progressive Democrat.

Two other characteristics make Portman a formidable challenger. Two years ago, one of his sons came out as gay. Senator Portman promptly issued a statement of support not only for his child, but for this son’s equal right to marry and enjoy the family that would make him most happy. Although no one in the GOP has joined him in this, Senator Portman also has not backed down. (His home state does not recognize equal marriage, but a judge there has ruled that marriages formed in other states must be acknowledged on death certificates. You remember that tragic story.)

The third thing that makes Portman a potent threat is that home state itself: he’s from Ohio. He’s from Cincinnati (I’ve known his work since his City Council days, now long ago for both of us), the conservative base in the state, but has managed to win statewide repeatedly. Even if Ohio loses a few electoral votes, it will probably remain a powerhouse for quite some time, because its population has major pockets of so many demographic communities that predominate in other parts of the country. You can spend time in Cincinnati and meet transplanted southerners, northerners, old union folks, corporate white collar types, and then head up the road to talk with farmers (both large-scale commercial and organic small-holders), truckers, and Rust Belt retirees. There are small private colleges and a large state university system. There are public schools and parochial schools, evangelicals and religious liberals. Even the strong Roman Catholic population combines both German and Irish characteristics, and honors the memory of Cincinnati’s beloved pastoral Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Bernardine.

So by now you can tell I grew up mostly in Cincinnati, and am writing from memory. But what I remember most — and what hasn’t changed — is that a Republican can’t win the White House without winning Ohio. And that puts Senator Rob Portman in a sweet position. Forget Scott Walker and Rick Perry: if the GOP can bring itself to nominate Rob Portman, the Dems will have their work cut out for them.

The Right Wing Vision: Eugenics Disguised as Demographic Collapse

Please excuse that my posts are shorter and less developed than they used to be. But if you’re as busy and as jumpy as I am, perhaps you like this better.

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of The War on Poverty, and commentators are commenting. When I listen to the Radical Right policy programs — opposition to health insurance, opposition to unemployment insurance, opposition to infrastructure spending (including things like roads and bridges), opposition to public health regulatory frameworks, the only thing I can figure is that they are hoping for a demographic collapse. That’s right, they — by which I mean the professional politicians, not their confused, frightened, outraged victims in The Tea Party — seem intent on driving most of the voters out of their districts and states. It’s no longer fashionable — or legal — to condemn the reproductive enthusiasms of the poor, so the next best thing is to wear out the parents and starve out the children. Perhaps the poor will be so committed to demographic collapse that they’ll move out of the Red State or district to one which offers them medical options for limiting the number of their offspring.

But when I googled “demographic collapse,” what I discovered is that The Tea Party believe that the demographic collapse strategy has already been launched, and it has them in its crosshairs. And why? Because depopulation has so far been most effective in rural areas, whence jobs, hospitals, schools, corner stores, have been disappearing. So yes, there is a demographic collapse strategy underway, sweeping against poor folks of every race, political persuasion, language, ethnic heritage. 

And by “poor”, please note that I assert that the relevant level of wealth is not how much you have now, but how much you had as a child, how much you have now, and what you believe you will be able to make available to your offspring. Wealth is not a single number, it’s a generational process involving social, political, and economic capital. And if your parents had more than you have, and your kids have no hope of inheriting any from you, you consider yourself “the new poor.” If you’re in this new poor, you have good company. The natives of most Western European countries are also busy limiting the number of their offspring. The countries once made socially rich by the Enlightenment definition of humanity no longer give humanity a reason to reproduce. (And yes, I realize — and would be the first to point out — that much of this was achieved through hereditary unpaid hostage labor and decimation of original landholders; it was a definition that needed a lot of improvement.)

The very rich who have bought the services of these politicians seem to believe they have created a world in which most of their neighbors, employees, servants, and neighbors are superfluous to both their happiness and their assets. Counterproductive, even. Yet there have been demographic collapses before — most notably after either pandemics or natural disasters — and eventually the very rich, too, become its victims. “Supply-side economics” — the discredited assertion that wealth comes from having abundant resources and the inclination to transform them into something useful for someone else — has solid roots in Jewish scripture — and probably any other. When Moses took the Israelites on their unguided tour of the wilderness, God sustained their natural lifespans with unsolicited, uncultivated, untended gifts of manna, honey, and water. Jesus and Buddha both enjoyed similar unbidden generosities, which they turned into gifts for humanity. So I do not dismiss “supply-side economics” as clear idiocy: it’s something we all want to believe, not just of what God can do for us, but of what we could do, if God would only give us a little more.

And that’s where the calculation flips. Because when God gives us a little more, it only expands the economy when we share it with others, shop with it, invest it in someone else’s paycheck. If we build a factory out of robots — the current fantasy of the very rich — it’s just a toy, because whatever that factory produces has no market. Demand is what makes things happen, not supply. There is no better proof than in studying the ministry of Jesus. You may or may not believe he performed any miracles, but he sure as heck did it in response to requests, rather than as a circus act or political message. Buddha made demands on himself, but most thoroughly energized his productive capacity to answer the suffering of others.

There is a debate going on tonight about unemployment insurance, health insurance, infrastructure repair, all kinds of jobs and assets that the rich no longer wish to provide to the poor. It’s been tried before, and for the rich, it didn’t go that well. The Black Death deprived Europe’s nobility of armies to keep their serfs on the land, which allowed the serfs to develop new skills and form new cities, and by networking among themselves, build up assets in social, economic, and political currencies. And when this happened, the old aristocracy were not the beneficiaries of new riches.

But neither were the families lost in the demographic collapse.