Tuesday, May 16, 2017


25 Beacon Street, Boston
As seen from the Boston Commons

The Unitarian Universalist Association is a loosely organized “denomination” (denominate means “named”) of “congregational-polity” congregations (meaning self-determining, though they may affiliate).  It is hardly a hierarchical tightly-governed organization like the Roman Catholics.  Denominations and their affiliating congregations gather on the basis of their commonalities, which are more inclined to show what they respect in society than any belief system reasoned out by theology.  Most salient are income and education.  The UUA is rooted in the belief that prosperous and educated people can agree on certain 19th century principles while maintaining open minds.

When in 1975 I found my first UU congregation in Portland, Oregon, the UUA was just recovering from the national resistance to the Vietnam War, an attempted UUA take-over by a group of black members (BACA-BAWA), and an international youth culture celebrating sexual freedom.  The previous Portland minister had been much beloved but when things got out of control to the extreme of an unstable homeless youth nearly burning the church down, he cracked up.  So the handsome man now in the pulpit wearing his bright red Harvard gown, was a stable well-connected church builder (both his parents were clergy) and the Portland congregation still benefits from his remembered guidance.  

Since he retired, the UUA has been swept by two quasi-theological waves from the national forces to which they are open.  One was therapeutic, often led by women who had survived bad marriages or unjust employment; the other was revolutionary, driven by minorities who wanted to see themselves as being equally educated and prosperous as the previous hegemony.  

They shared the prevailing hatred of domination and control.  UUA can be another version of ODD. (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), a destination for atheists and anti-Christians, often sent there by exasperated pastors in more obedience-oriented churches.

The UUA is a small denomination in which circles of friendship, not separating lay folks from clergy, can guide what happens.  This is a common pattern among people everywhere.  Sometimes they are covert, making deals backstage, just like ordinary party politics.  In seminary I was elected by the three dozen students to be the rep on the Board because I was forty years old, a presumed “mom”.  I was flip and disrespectful in my formal report, which led me (firmly gripped by the back of the neck) to the realization that most of the people on the board were there because they were rich and were supposed to feel obligated to donate big time because of the honor of being on the board.  Out of the board members, maybe three or four powerful people (all white men with major churches) met quietly elsewhere to set policy. 

This is what minorities can feel in the whole denomination.  I didn’t see it until my own circle of influence in the denomination had been moved out of power.  I was never really firmly connected anyway.  Over-age, a little too worldly, and far too attached to the prairie where there are few UU powerful churches, I was not worth wasting time on.  Serving fellowships, I was seen as a “nun” more than a “priest.”  That is, the dimension of holiness or even learnedness was overwhelmed by the need to organize and take up slack.  In short, do whatever no one else wanted to do.  No one wanted growth because it meant change, and no one felt obligation towards minorities nor any need for therapy.  Nor was there a fine compensatory salary.

I left.  I went back to my favorite minority:  reservation “Indians.”  I also became connected, via the internet, to another minority, boys who are at risk of death because of being marginalized, which means drugs and HIV.  These two groups, plus the prairie itself, led me back to something I had once hungered for:  a felt meaning in the world.  One might describe it as “theology” except that no theos has anything to do with it and it is not captured by the math-worshiping dominant white male culture.

The UUA has not added nor rephrased its principles since they were first framed.  It is a shrinking movement.  My seminary, which once justified its claim to train a “learned ministry” with its connection to the University of Chicago Divinity School, has now moved to a skyscraper in the loop and is basically a mail-order school.  It was not ejected by the U of C, but rather repelled itself out by objecting to high scholarship standards.  By now the minority forces of resentment have beheaded both Harvard, which some consider a UU university; the UUA; and even attempted the same with Starr King, the third “UU” school, which is too elusive to be dominated.

At the same time, the larger society is inspired by National Geographic, TED, quantum theory, the physical endangerment of life on the planet, and maybe Star Trek reruns, to spontaneously combust a near-mystical understanding of the cosmos that can include rez people, prairie dwellers, and defiant boys.  I hear there are even formal congregations forming around this felt Force, though I guess they have not affiliated into an association.  When there is so much rich source material on the Internet, there’s no need for a headquarters cranking out print.

So what might Kenner Swain, my seminary classmate, think it means?  I dunno.  He’s selling wine in Boston or maybe it was San Fran; or maybe editing dense theology since he understands Paul Ricoeur. You could Google but he’s a bit slippery and things on Google are meant to be establishment-friendly.  They don’t list the really interesting stuff, the stuff that hasn’t been given a name or a handle.

Martin Marty, Chicago Div School emeritus prof, published on “Sightings” this week his gentle “take” on the UUA problems, and accepts demographics as the problem.  That is, the notion that grouping people sociologically somehow dilutes Christian values, so minorities ought to be drawn in.  Even as I write, there are people trying to redefine USA voters according to white Christian ideas so as to suppress anyone “not like us.”  Since the UUA is always so open to the larger society, that has leaked into denominational life with destructive results.

But maybe it time for the old denomination to go.  They’ve sold their headquarters at 25 Beacon Street and moved into a warehouse district that scientists say will probably be flooded by global warming.  When people begin to detach from their buildings, it may be on account of their ideas evolving, a different kind of climate-shift.

The previous denominational headquarters is now prestige condos.  http://www.25beacon.com/residences/   I wonder whether they will sell to blacks and Arabs.  Atheists are no doubt fine, so long as they're rich.  This sales brochure website is fabulously luxurious.


anne harris said...

Thank you for this. Sterling HolyWhiteMountain or Adrian Jawaet mentioned your name at a symposium I was at on Saturday (Native American Race Relations and Healing on facebook) . They just said your name and I forget the context and forgot later to talk to them.I remember you from when you gave talks or were the minister ar my parents' fellowship in Great Falls( Warren and Eleanor Sawyer).

My brother Ken Sawyer is a semi retired UU minister. I found your essay really interesting. I grew up Unitarian ( I am 70) and 25 Beacon Street was like the Vatican to me. I also found it interesting in reading about the religion that, in 19 th century Boston, a "Universalist would not be allowed into the parlor of a Boston Unitarian." The Univeralists, who tended to be small farmers or blue collar folk, were a lot more involved in the abolitionist movement than the Unitarians.
Anyway, I just wanted to say that I found your piece to be very interesting. My brother, for 40 years, was minister of a very wealthy Boston suburb . So I sort of recognized stuff in this essay. I live in Billings and worked as a social worker and then therapist and do not think anyone would describe me as fancy. I like the people in the local congregation but have to admit that I am a fallen away Unitarian!! Thank you for the essay!!

anne harris said...

Adrian Jawart-I see you wrote about his anthology! I am enjoying his new novel Moonrise Falling. Adrian is the co organizer of Native AmericanRace Relations and Healing talks. And now I remember that it was Adrian that mentioned your name in connection withthe nice blog you wrote about his anthology!

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Hi Anne, I remember you and your family very well. I used to exchange email with Ken now and then. Your parents were such stalwart people -- among my favorites.

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain's parents were both students of mine back in the dark ages on the rez. I have Adrian's first anthology and am so gratified that he finally saw that the thing to do is work together and "do it yourself." The problem for Native Americans is not white writers -- it's the lack of NA publishers and readers, esp. the latter since anyone can put good material online now.

Great Falls winked out after I left. Bozeman was the one that grew and thrived. I don't know what's going on in Billings. The Missoula fellowship website requires a password !!!

My email: prairiem@3rivers.net I'm 78, retired except for writing daily, as hard as I can.

Prairie Mary

Nancy said...

I have just discovered your site and intend to read back through your posts on the UUs, and perhaps you mention other churches as well. I've lived in Boston since 1979 and used to attend another denomination, a more traditionally Christian church. I found your comments about the changes in the UUs very similar to things that happened in my own church. I'm kind of heartbroken about church and don't understand it any more.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

There is a "search strip" on prairiemary.blogspot.com. If you enter variations on "UU", it might be easier to find specifics. But "Google" will also serve.

The changes in the UU are certainly part of the larger culture scene.

Prairie Mary