It’s been ages since I thought there was any point in writing about polity among the Unitarian Universalists. Nor does my return to the topic, at this cataclysmic moment, indicate either a sense of hope, or much interest. These days most of my emotional energy resided in the purely personal. Still, people who have meant so much to me would like a small bit of perspective, so here’s what I can offer.

For those who don’t know, we have had, on the same day — March 30, 2017 — not one but two earthshaking ministerial downfalls. What can’t be overlooked is that they come from the two opposite poles of polity. It’s as if God wanted to wake us up to both dangers, and to do so with enough clarity that none of us can miss it. So without commenting on the content of either event, here are my evaluations.

First, on the resignation of our denominational president over concerns about staff appointments. The problem itself is as old as we are. When we were only New Englanders, a call went out for more leaders from and in the west (a changing place over the centuries, but never a different issue). When we were only led by men, women agitated for a place at the decision-making tables. In each case, the protesters wanted their superficial differentness to harbor a deeper difference in how our congregational approach religion. The UUA, following the lead of its Unitarian forerunners, the Boston Clergy Association and the National Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Churches, instituted closed selection processes for approving clergy, always claiming their only aim was protecting the innocent and/or sacred. Yet in each case, the victors in writing the bylaws turned out to be elitists convinced that salvation for others lay in control only by folks carefully selected to resemble themselves or at least, show deference to their co-called wisdom and devotion.

In 1899, when Samuel Atkins Eliot I and his co-conspirators on the board of the tiny American Unitarian Association instituted an anti-congregational coup over the decentralized and congregationally-based National and Western Conferences, they thought they had good reasons. In particular, the rise of both evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholic political influence led these folks to believe that educated, rationalist, humanist-driven Protestantism needed to strengthen its ability to speak up in the public realm. This is the tendency which has led us to tighter and tighter staff leadership and more and more strident political advocacy. It was probably inevitable that eventually, heads would roll as that advocacy has finally begun — as once did geographic outreach — to bring in some long-desired but little known new members.

So now, if our ministers and parishioners of color want more staff members that not only look like them, but understand the spiritual ups and downs of their personal lives, I say they only continue an honorable and completely worthy line of disrupters who have always, eventually, made our denomination more rewarding for all of us. It is worth noting that part of their concern is the way racism plays out differently in different parts of the country, meaning regionally-driven leadership is the only legitimate way to truly minister to people where they live. The question raging now is whether the necessary change can be accomplished by appointing better people to the same offices — what denominationalists always have insisted — or whether there will be more folks like me, who believe the only effective answer can be systematic.

Meanwhile, from the opposite end of the polity spectrum, we have a lone wolf who wound up devouring innocent lambs. Really. This minister and community activist, now accepting charges of receiving pornography featuring violence against children, always raised the most fiery and least reasoned supports of my complaints about over-centralized denominational personnel management. It is worth pointing out that when Henry Whitney Bellows laid out the framework for the National Conference, he explicitly enumerated the duty to monitor clergy, which, to his mind, could only done by those in the same locales. Likewise, I have not mentioned our Universalist forebears, because their decentralized polity, for most of their existence, had no relevance to the new structures. Yet their state and regional conventions also included and exercised fellowshipping and disfellowshipping of clergy. The centralist shibbolith that localism means immorality has no place in either of our histories; that was a tool for the coup-plotters of 1899.

 

Of all the time I have spent in organized Unitarian Universalist activities, there are two gatherings, superficially different, geographically and racially unlike, which proved nevertheless to mirror and echo each other. They come back to me at this time, because on both ends of the polity spectrum we are going need a way to heal among ourselves. Each of these events was a gathering of sincerely-committed congregation members, usually assembled to click through meetings to manage something important to parishioners. Yet in each case, we committed to listen to each other’s voices as equals and as seekers. We were not seeking to elucidate on some topic, as small group ministries do, but to share some part of our vulnerable soul by telling our personal stories. The first occurred at All Souls in Washington, DC, when one option in our then-annual retreat was to share the spiritual journeys that brought us into that congregation. I closed my eyes to listen, and marveled at how little difference there really was around distinctions of race. Decades later, at First Church Unitarian in Jamaica Plain, MA, we met to implement the Welcoming Congregation curriculum, whose first step is to simply hear the story of parishioners’ journeys as LGBTQ individuals.

Recently one of my Facebook friends asked which was better, to be transformative or to be effective. In my experience, transformation is the only long-term effectiveness. I failed in my efforts to transform this association’s polity, although I do take credit for raising its prominence as a worthwhile general focus. As I prepare to turn 63, to help my wife (yes, after a lifetime of bisexual wanderings, I finally landed on this side of the fence) confront her revolutionary self-management of advanced Huntington’s Disease, those of you who come after are my comfort. If I made less and less effort to write, and became more and more of a lurker, in large part it is because your voices began to open parts of my mind and soul in ways too new and exciting to limit by language. Still, I do live in covenant, so if it helps, here’s my little offering.

With prayers for us all, especially the victims in both of our disastrous ministerial implosions.

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How to Get Out of the Woods

I came into this association in 1969 full of social justice passion. Opposition to the war in Vietnam, admiration for the established commitment to racial justice through leadership participation in the Civil Rights movement. Instantly I had a community of like-minded individuals. If those who disagreed with us departed, well, so much the better for our effectiveness. Either they’d see the light and come back, or they’d wallow in some wilderness of their own making.

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In those first years everything we seemed to do was about social justice. Hunger feasts for La Raza, pastoral and liturgical support for the first feminists and gay rights activists. And always, opposition to violence. My LRY met in a room displaying the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and we were quick to respond to accusations of excessive force by the police, let alone the military. Don’t even mention ROTC chapters: these we considered little better than indoctrinators of evil.

That’s what happens when you enter a passionate relationship: you can’t wait to get into the weeds. Upstream you plunge, hacking at low-hanging branches, wallowing in sudden clearings, wiggling your toes in clear water when mud starts to ooze into your shoes. New plants and animals fascinate you. Your hiking buddies support you. As teamwork builds, you sense a collective power to lay a path.

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But weeds have a price. You get too far away from other folks finding the same joy on other paths. Your jubilant blossoms are weeds to them. The branches you hack away were brush from which they build enduring structures. If by chance your paths cross, these discrepancies make it impossible to converse, to rejoice together. Far from settling in on common ground, you turn away, back to the path whose flora and fauna, practices and pitfalls you know best.

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But if you stay on this hike long enough, and your paths cross with different journeyers often enough, the team which once felt so strong will start to weaken. One by one—or even in small groups – folks will find other descriptions of this environment intriguing. Maybe even more persuasive.

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You worry for them, but instinct means you’ll fight even harder for yourself. This is the path you have followed, these are the details you know. Here in the thickest woods, you cling to what you know, treasure the details by which you hope to free yourself. Louder and more stridently other hikers strive to shake your confidence. They call for a general redefinition. They hold out the hopefulness of recreating, reframing.

If dialogue fails, they feel no other choice but to remove. If they can’t remove you and your details, they’ll remove themselves from you.

The first great removal of UUs came as early as 1970, removing UUs who supported the war in Vietnam, or at least the government’s right to make such decisions. Many, I’m sure, left because that era refused to affirm the rights and dignity of those who wound up fighting, either through the draft or – shudder—voluntarily.

Other social forces thinned our ranks as well, in particular the lessening of social pressures to espouse formal religious membership as part of the corporate career path. Theological issues complicated life among those who chose to stay. Which plants were the good ones to eat? God or not God? Weekly worship or outside spiritual self-expression? But these are old questions, and they didn’t hurt us more than they hurt other religions.

In the deepest woods, we started to listen to those who wanted to redefine. We lightened up on theological language issues, even agreed on a symbol for our faith community. Our best thinkers and listeners, ordained or non-ordained, helped us set up processes for clarifying what we truly believed, hacking off the weed-making process of distilled collective liturgy. For if ethics can be summarized simply, God, or whatever you experience as the ultimate, can never be nailed down. (Yes, that’s a deliberate pun: I’m a Christian UU preparing for Holy Week.)

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