Sunday, October 14, 2007


When I was working on the biography of Bob Scriver, I acquired a copy of “Hunting and the American Imagination” by Daniel Justin Herman that has turned out to be enormously useful, but not just in regard to hunting. He suggests that when the English came to this continent, there were two big reasons or hopes that they brought with them. One was that this would be a land of free people without hierarchy, a democracy with one man [sic], one vote, a place to determine one’s own destiny without class or prejudice. The other was that since the landed gentry were entrenched in England, backed by the King and the Church of England, a common person could never be so important there, but in this new country with a new order yet unformed, they could hope to become dukes and princes as soon as things got organized. These two forces have been grappling ever since. (The relevance to hunting is that in England all wild game belonged to gentry and was on private property.)

What’s even more important is that they grapple within individuals and within institutions. Certainly the two are in me. (When my mother was angry at me, she called me “The Duchess.”) And they are within Unitarianism, even more so in the hyphenated version of the denomination since merger in 1961, even though the Universalists have to fight to hold their rural, equality-based sense of compassion in the face of the Unitarian cold reason Boston Mandarins. They’re winning, in a way, by pulling in blacks. And the split shows up again between the high churches (King’s Chapel, for instance, which really once WAS the King’s Chapel!) and the fellowships who have no clergy to lord it over them. (AGD used to call them the “Christ-hating savages,” but in fact he had the same split within himself. On one hand he praised a plain stone church -- on the other he wanted “good furniture.”)

I suppose the original split goes back to the very beginning of Christianity when the small house congregations of the primitive church were caught up by the Holy Roman Empire. Maybe the monastic movements were in part an attempt to get back to that early notion of equal beloved family members and yet monasteries are notorious for developing hierarchies. Still, I vividly recall visiting the Benedictine monastery in Saskatchewan for a retreat. We stopped by an old man in a ragged straw hat who was mowing the law to ask where we could find the abbot. He WAS the abbot. But the Canadian Unitarians withdrew from the Unitarian Universalist Association because they said the Yanks bossed them around and dominated everything. (“Who died and made YOU King???!!!”)

Blackfeet society never developed that split until they were crammed onto reservations. Status had to do with bravery, generosity and sometimes plain old longevity. People were not organized into hierarchies but clustered in families and extended families that came together and rent apart according to the forces of the place and time -- a need to band together to hunt, a personality clash that drove people apart. Human-scaled prestige didn’t have to claim God crowned them (or at least the Pope).

But they soon learned. Around here the main lesson is rubbed into you in high school: who has money, who has pull, who has brains, who it’s safe to pick on, who’d better be left alone. A band of boys I taught in Cut Bank ran amok with impunity because they were athletes. (I’m writing a novel: “Prairie Gladiators.” They ended up concussed, knees and shoulders blown, too poorly educated to succeed in college.) Rarely did they ever respect any boundaries, but they surely were careful of one boy: he came from a family rumored to be a motorcycle gang, really tough. When I was with Bob, when he was still the city magistrate and justice of the peace, still under fifty and capable of knocking someone flat, I got a very false idea of danger in Browning because I could walk anywhere anytime and people just backed off. Not so much because he would protect me as because they figured I was his possession and he would be jealous. (A famous plains Indian warrior was named, “The Man Who Is so Formidable That People Are Afraid of his Horse.”)

Ministers are usually better suited for either a “high” or “low” church, rarely fitting both. One generally interns in a “high” or big church that can afford to subsidize a learner, though one’s first church is generally small and struggling. Aged female ministers don’t start at the top. The system is meant to accommodate young men with a lifetime to climb the pyramid, accumulating wisdom, mentors, obligations, and good contacts along the way. A non-hierarchical system depends to some extent on a kind of nomadism, circulating through a web. (Circuit-riding.) I’m a “high” church preacher, or was. Or could have been. On the other hand, I’ve always been drawn to the Quaker movement, which often doesn’t even have ministers.

Another of those splits -- maybe the same one -- is between the two kinds of ministry, “enthusiastic” or “learned,” (accent on the second syllable). In the inspired style, one picks up the Bible, reads it, and preaches from the heart. Oddly, the church of this type of denomination is often hierarchical with one charismatic leader who controls the group. In the “learned” ministry, the leader is more like a doctor or lawyer and restrained by protocols of democracy and lay leadership like boards. The Catholic priest, of course, is a hybrid, meant to be an authority figure full of humility, which is hard for humans to manage.

For a long time, until Elizabeth I actually, England teetered back and forth between the florid extravagance of new-found wealth and the Puritanical insistence on clean, well-lighted spaces in which people wore plain clothing and often fasted. Again -- still with us. Movie stars live impossibly luxurious and unfettered home lives -- then go off to meditate at a Buddhist ashram. Maybe shave their heads.

My internship was in Hartford, Connecticut, where I confronted an array of church buildings. One of my favorite juxtapositions was a little wedding cake of white spired church downtown, right next to one of those mirror-box sky-scrapers that replicated it full of wavers and blips. The Universalist church was a study in 19th century luxury: fine furniture, a stained glass wall, creamy wainscoting and deep carpet. The Unitarian church was a set of concrete fins arranged in a circle with the roof suspended on cables between them: it moved when the wind blew, creaking like a ship, and leaked. Not far away was a Russian orthodox church with onion-topped spires.

While I was there the new Richard Meier Hartford Seminary was dedicated: all white with pipe railings. (They call them “vines.”) Maybe this is the ultimate melding of the simple and the rarified. From their website: "If any religious symbol can be said to dominate Richard Meier's design for Hartford Seminary, it is the primordial emblem of creation: light. Whether silhouetted against a cloudless summer sky or wrapped in the haze of a New England winter, this low white building is an arrestingly luminous presence... Transposed to full scale, Hartford Seminary displays a harmonious ordering of calm, simple volumes, and a modulation of radiant spaces unprecedented in Meier's work."

Sounds like the east slope of the Rockies to me. A good place to be as we evidently head into another Thirty Years War based on religion and feudalism again. But the people buying their fiefdoms all around here have neither Pope nor God.

1 comment:

Robin Edgar said...

:But the Canadian Unitarians withdrew from the Unitarian Universalist Association because they said the Yanks bossed them around and dominated everything. (“Who died and made YOU King???!!!”)

That is one version of the "official" claims made by the Canadian Unitarian Council to explain the split but the real reason is that, after breaking certain charitable trusts via court action, the UUA no longer needed the CUC to launder money from these funds that were from charitable trusts that specified that they must be spent outside of the USA and thus decided to ditch the CUC which was considered to be an annoyance by top level CUC officials. If you doubt what I just said I would suggest entering into a free and responsible search for the truth and meaning of why the CUC and UUA split. The following address by Rev. Charles Eddis, one of the founders of the CUC, is a good starting point.

Here are the key paragraphs -

Then in 1983 another fund appeared, the Liberal Religious Charitable Society. Because of restrictions in the bequest, the UUA could only spend this money outside of the United States. Accord number four was then worked out. The CUC agreed to pay all the money it raised, less $4,000, to the UUA. The UUA, in return, would give the CUC the same amount out of the restricted funds of the Liberal Religious Charitable Society.

The net result, give or take $4,000, was that for every dollar the CUC raised in Canada, the UUA got two,- and the CUC kept for its own use all the money it raised. This was sufficient for the CUC to hire its first executive director, a full-time position, to add to its administrator, then Thelma Peters.

This double dipping, as Bert Christensen, one-time CUC President and later UUA Board member called it, was, as Bob Hope’s theme song went, “swell while it lasted.” In 1987 the party ended. The Veatch Fund stopped giving annual matching grants. Instead, it gave the UUA U.S. $20 million outright to complement its annual fund raising. In addition, the UUA broke the trust of the Liberal Religious Charitable Society, so that it could spend its income in the United States if it wanted to. The UUA income outside its own fund raising remained as before. The free ride in the UUA for the Canadian congregations, however, was over. The UUA wanted CUC payment for services rendered to Canadian congregations.

Nuff' said?