My eyes are troubling me and there is a lot of work to do on my environment, so I’m going to post excerpts from a conversation I’ve been having with an entirely honorable and lovable UU minister who used to be a colleague. Without any warning or immediate cause, he was sacked. I don’t think you’ll recognize him but I’ll change any details that might be identifiers. Of course, if he wants to uncloak, that’s fine with me, but the impact on the next congregation (which is already lined up) has to be considered.
I’ve been thinking and writing about these kinds of events for years but have found no minister who would talk to me about it. You’ll remember that I simply walked out on Saskatoon — not without notice and following procedure, but taking my remaining pledge with me, which enraged them.
I see two or three pivot points WORLD WIDE, but played out through the UU world.
1. Everyone is terrified. Bad things (overpopulation, drought, natural disasters, minority riots, etc.) have been predicted to begin about now and they are. Actually, it’s not that different, but our feeling is that the world is ending.
2. There is no “theological” message that really takes hold. The Principles are old and over-familiar. (Go to UUA.org to find them. You won’t be dazzled.) The UU world is not participating in the fabulous inspiring re-framing or paradigm shift that is developing: the Long Now, Deep History, Big History, the Evolution of the Brain, the two hundred kinds of hominins, and a few other ways of organizing the overwhelming new ideas out there.
I call it Mystical Science because it so clearly tells us we are participants in something vast and unknowable, but felt. FELT. Here and there people are organizing groups that are essentially congregations, but they are NOT UUA. Not even identified as religious. Some say humanism, but it’s not about humans. It’s not about salvation, not even saving the planet. It’s about PARTICIPATION. You’re a speck, but a connected speck. This is butterfly-winging: teeny changes can transform everything.
The people who are running the UUA are after self-preservation, compensation for being put down as black or female, and Trumpism, imagining they are CEO’s with a strange notion of that as an entitlement. They have conflated religion with politics. To be UU in the USA is to be a Democrat.
This colleague I’m speaking to is very much in the traditional, nearly genealogical, past of the UUA when it was in the neighborhood of Boston and Emerson was a renegade. That was before the California UU’s cooked up the Aquarian revolution while steaming in a hot tub.
Let’s look at it this way. You are the Al Gore of the UUMA spectrum. Your whole stance is history, honor, heritage, and continuity. It fits with your temperament, your education, and even your portrait. But the present congregations of the UUA in many ways are turning away from the UUA that I knew and joined in 1975. I assume you remember those times, too.
25 Beacon Street, Boston
No one ever imagined that the UU’s would leave 25 Beacon Street. No one ever imagined that the BACA-BAWA scuffle in the Eighties would finally come back almost subversively and capture the big churches and the presidency of the UUA without ever being congregational ministers. No one imagined that the UUA would become synonymous with the Democratic party. How can they turn away from the New England Emerson and Channing mode?
But they did. Now they look to the South and I have no idea who their heroes are or even if there ARE any. They want to win, they want to be rich and secure, and if that means rigging the US Supreme Court, let us not have qualms. But their enthusiasm for levelling and anarchism gets smashed by advertising that pitches everything “better” that will prove status. As someone remarked, “We’re fine with minorities so long as they dress well and have good manners.” You know, “nice” gays who love fine music.
Here’s another interpretation: in the last few decades many people are working more and longer hours than ever before. The women and retired people who used to shoulder almost all the volunteer services are now in jobs or are in demand in a host of NGO’s responding to the greatly increased need in our times because governments are pulling back. So we hire people and call them “professional.” In a peculiar reversal, the minister is considered a “servant.”
Here in Valier, which is highly traditional, many (I think I could say most) women are in comparatively low-pay jobs but make enough to hire someone to clean their houses, which those cleaner women do for even lower-pay. A few years ago a radio station wanting to promote how wonderful they were, said they wanted to organize Thanksgiving and would provide the turkeys, if the women would cook the meal and provide the salad, veggies, etc. side dishes. There was uproar. “Just when,” said the women, “Did you think we had time or inclination to cook the way our mothers did?” The radio people looked for grannies, but they were taking on the kid care or were dead of diabetes.
I'm saying that when society changes, particularly the economics, the churches must also change but are often unaware of the larger culture because they are a self-selected group.
In Valier we have no immigrant class willing to work for pennies out of desperation. The Indians have gotten uppity and earned college degrees. The children are so indulged and praised that every mosquito bite throws them into rebellion. Work? Who, us?
Another element I feel keenly because of my Diabetes 2 is the huge role that communal “feeds” still play in church life. I’m solitary by choice but would be anyhow out of necessity because so many community events are pie sales, cake walks, barbecues, pancake breakfasts and so on. My non-attendance can be interpreted as snobbery. Nowadays, between allergies and food risks, these events still barely work in small rural towns but are close to impossible in cities. BUT the other urban food dynamic is towards eating out or cooking gourmet with good friends. Expensive, exclusive, requiring skill. Not church building activities.
Economic forces are bringing to the front such big questions about money. Maybe churches ought to have economic study groups instead of theological study groups. Both are highly politicized and feel dangerous.
I left, but I’m not you and I’m from a different part of the UU spectrum: prairie humanism. Co-ops, grain elevators as cathedrals and red Indians. Life on a mystical horizon that requires constant vigilance. And Carhartts. (Tough work clothes.) We are already at ground level. Some lean Right.
If the UUA is going to continue to claim to be pluralistic (I’m not sure they are or want to be right now) the denomination may just shrivel, due to hypocrisy, and die. Like Meadville, they are already a bit of a low-attendance/residence operation, in a world that operates through a web of tight relationships. If they go on, they will need an umbrella concept. Tillich’s genius was always looking for the umbrella: being vs nonbeing are united by the Ground of Being.
So how can an historian find an umbrella or through-line that will include these minister-hating savages, these wanna-be CEO’s, and extend history out into the future when the terms of existence will surely change again? I couldn’t do it if I wanted to, but you probably could.
That’s the extent of my advice so far. Except that even congregations evolve, which means change but also getting a better fit with the larger world.