Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lecture #9: "From Merger to Present: UU History from 1961 to 2009"

[This lecture is number 9 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

All throughout this week, as I have delivered lectures here at the Midwest Leadership School, I have benefitted immensely from two on-line sources. First, the miracle of “Googlebooks” has allowed me access to primary sources, everything from the poetry of Anne Bradstreet to On the Formation of Christian Character by Henry Ware, Jr. to James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions. As long as I have internet it feels like I have special access to the Andover-Harvard Theological Library or the Massachusetts Historical Society. The second wonderful resource I have turned to has been the Dictionary of UU Biography which has allowed me to keep my dates straight and to tell my Cabots from my Lowells.

For this penultimate lecture I am deeply indebted to the work of one man, Warren Ross. His history of the first 45 years of the Unitarian Universalist Association, The Premise & The Promise, is the best book for gaining an understanding of modern Unitarian Universalism. Additionally, his wonderful articles for the UU World magazine have helped us to remember our relatively recent past.

Though we know the Unitarians and the Universalists officially merged in 1961 we also know that merger was preceded by a long period of increasing cooperation. Dating back to the 1800s, Unitarian and Universalist ministers “traded teams” without having to alter their theology significantly. The most famous example may have been Thomas Starr King, who started out as a Universalist before taking a Unitarian pulpit in San Francisco in the mid-1800s where he successfully organized to keep California a part of the Union. Examples of Unitarians becoming Universalists were rarer, but I do call your attention to Ken Patton from the lecture on Universalism.

In the 1900s the two movements increasingly worked collaboratively. Religious Education curricula were designed for both Unitarian and Universalist congregations. The youth movements of each combined to form LRY, or “Liberal Religious Youth.” The merger combined two faith groups who were already working shoulder to shoulder, if not walking hand in hand.

For this lecture I do not want to give a decade by decade account of our recent history. Instead, I will approach our recent history more thematically.

Justice Work
The number of justice issues that Unitarian Universalist congregations and groups have undertaken over the last half century is immense. Unitarian Universalists have worked locally and nationally for civil rights. We have stood up for women’s equality and for full access to reproductive health care. We have worked for civil rights for GLBT persons.

Some Unitarian Universalist congregations have protested for peace during the Vietnam War and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. During Vietnam some congregations participated in demonstrations that included the burning of draft cards and offered sanctuary to those who avoided the draft. Other UU congregations were split on the question of Vietnam and split on the role of the church in speaking out against it. This led to hard feelings and open conflict in many congregations.

Other Unitarian Universalists have worked passionately on issues like a halting the production of nuclear weapons, closing the School of the Americas in Georgia, the death with dignity movement, various environmental issues, advocating for the separation of church and state, advocating for honest sexual health education in schools, and even more. A thorough list of the issues that we have undertaken would tower over the social causes our movements supported in the early-to-mid 1800s.

Beginning in the 1980s, as the United States government funded El Salvador’s brutal military regime, dozens of Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in civil disobedience by taking in El Salvadoran refugees, common folk who had been terrorized and brutalized by forces trained and funded by our government. (Among the atrocities committed by the El Salvadoran government was the gang-rape and murder of four nuns who came to El Salvador to participate in relief efforts.) UU churches housed, sheltered, and fed these refugees, found them work, and helped them to re-establish a life here as the life that they had known had been taken away. The writings of Jennifer Harbury focus on the US sponsored torture and violence in Guatemala.

Most recently, our movement has been on the front lines in the battle for marriage equality for gays and lesbians. Thanks to the efforts of Unitarian Universalists I believe the battle for marriage equality is a decade ahead where it would be had UUs not taken the lead. We have sped up the bending of the moral arc of the universe towards justice. This week I saw one of our MWLS students proudly wearing a tee-shirt with the slogan, “Iowa: Cooler than California since 2009.” There is no longer any question in my mind that this battle will be won. The only question is when. Because of the work of our congregations, ministers, lay leaders, and legislative ministries, the answer is, “sooner than it would be otherwise.”

Social Changes within the Church
Perhaps even more interesting than the justice issues for which Unitarian Universalist have worked in our communities are the social changes that our movement has seen within our own walls.

If you look back over the past half-century, probably the greatest change our movement has seen is the rise of the number of women in our ministry. Although the Universalists first ordained a woman, Olympia Brown in 1860, our ministry was still at least 90% male in the 1970s. Two UUA resolutions, the first in 1970 and the second in 1977 (the year I was born), sought to promote greater numbers of women in the ministry. Most liberal and mainline denominations have seen a dramatic rise in the number of women clergy over the past thirty years however the percentage of women joining the UU ministry has dwarfed that of other denominations. On April 25, 1999 Rebecca Cohen was ordained into the UU ministry. With her ordination the UU clergy reached a point of equilibrium; half of our ministers were women and the other half were men. Over the past decade women have made up an increasing majority of the ministers in our movement. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the students now preparing for the UU ministry are women.

While this data points to equality, let us not be lulled into a sense of complacency. Writing from his position as an evangelical Christian, albeit one who does not wear that label comfortably, Brian McClaren has pointed out that while liberal denominations have welcomed women into the clergy, women's job prospects have been limited. McClaren points out that women clergy often receive the less desirable calls and often are asked to serve as “hospice pastors” whose job entails caring for dying churches and attending to those churches while they are in the throes of death.

Unitarian Universalists have succeeded in putting some cracks in the “stained glass ceiling.” Until the recent retirements of Marilyn Sewell and Laurel Hallman, two of our five largest congregations were served by women senior ministers. Currently, women serve as the senior ministers of large congregations such as Ann Arbor, West Hartford, Albuquerque, Mahtomedi (Minnesota), Fairfax (Virginia), and the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Additionally, women serve as the senior co-ministers (as one half of a clergy couple) in our congregations in St. Paul, Rochester (NY), and Berkeley (CA). Despite these advances, the fact that women senior ministers are still in the minority shows that we still have work to do as a movement.

If the rise of women in the ministry has been one of the major changes over the past several decades, our work to welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons has been a second major change. I know of one minister in our tradition who conducted same-sex union services as early as 1957! However, surveys found that UUs held generally negative views of homosexuals into the 1970s. To counteract these prejudicial views, the UUA passed a resolution in 1970 calling for equality for gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons as well as affirming ministers regardless of their sexual orientation. In 1973 the UUA established an Office of Gay Concerns at the UUA. In 1989 the UUA launched the Welcoming Congregation program, an educational program through which any UU congregation could learn to be more inclusive of LGBT individuals and families. Since ’89 more than half of all UU congregations have been recognized as Welcoming Congregations. The fact that only slightly more than half have been recognized should not be perceived as evidence of division or controversy. For one thing, hundreds and hundreds of our congregations are tiny and often feel that programs of the UUA are not suited to their needs. Additionally, many of our congregations see it as a sign of their own individuality not to participate in initiatives of our larger movement. Any program supported by over half of our congregations has to be considered a tremendous success.

Today openly gay and lesbian ministers serve many of our large and historic congregations and our churches actively work in support of equal marriage and against hate crimes and against attempts to pass legislation that fail to respect justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

If I had to name a third major social change that our congregations have witnessed in recent history, it would have to be the rise of various neo-pagan theologies in our congregations. Neo-paganism has grown in our congregations from both the inside and the outside. In 1986 the UUA published an adult religious education curriculum on feminist theology called Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Written by Rev. Shirley Ranck, this curriculum introduced thousands of Unitarian Universalists to the works of Margot Adler, Starhawk, and Mary Daly.

Many UU congregations formed CUUPS groups, short for Covenant of UU Pagans. The membership of these groups did not entirely derive from those who discovered the Goddess through Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. In 1998 sociologist Helen Berger published an academic study entitled A Community of Witches. This book asks the questions: Why do contemporary practitioners of Neo-paganism have such a poor record of founding communities that endure? Why are Neo-pagan congregations all but non-existent?

The last chapter of A Community of Witches is fascinating. It seems that the one place Neo-pagans have been most effective at becoming “institutional” is by joining UU congregations. Berger explains that this relationship has been mutually beneficial in many cases. Neo-pagans find acceptance of their theology, quality childcare and religious education, and buildings that offer convenient ritual space. In return other members of the congregation are exposed to greater theological diversity. Many UU congregations celebrate the equinoxes and the solstices, as well as other holy days like Samhain at a special evening service or as the theme of a Sunday morning service.

Interlude: UUs and Racial Justice
In discussing the recent history of Unitarian Universalism, I cannot fail to mention two events from the 1960s that show our denomination at its best and at its most contentious. In 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death in Selma, Alabama. Following Jackson’s death, Martin Luther King issued his “call to Selma” for clergy from across the nation to join him in Alabama. Unitarian Universalists answered the call. Two UUs would die in Selma: Viola Liuzzo, a layperson from Detroit and Rev. James Reeb. Reeb’s death would lead LBJ to sign civil rights legislation. Martin Luther King would speak at the 1965 UUA General Assembly, delivering the Ware Lecture.

While the martyrdom of Liuzzo and Reeb would prove to be a proud moment for our movement, racial tensions would arise in the late 1960s and leave a scar that is still felt by our movement today. The Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 60s and early 70s was a time of great pain for our movement. Frankly, I cannot hope to do justice to the history of the conflict in my short lecture this morning. Frankly, the history is a bit confusing and you need to be very good with acronyms for the history to make sense. The history involves a group asking for significant funding, a walkout from General Assembly, a breakdown of trust, and the UUA not following through on its funding promises (while, it must be admitted, the UUA was on financially shaky footing.) Click here for a timeline of the controversy. Click here for Warren Ross’ reflections on it.

Quick Hits
To conclude this lecture, allow me to quickly touch upon a few other important points of the last half decade.

The Partner Church Movement
The fall of the Iron Curtain began with the Romanian revolution of 1989. The government was overthrown and head of state Nicolae Ceausescu was assassinated. With the fall of Communism in Romania the country opened to the West and Unitarian Universalists in North America were able to connect with the Transylvanian Unitarians. Through a “Partner Church” program UU congregations in North America were able to partner with congregations in Transylvania. These partnerships regularly meant trips of North Americans to Transylvania and collections taken to financially support those congregations. UU seminaries invited ministers from Transylvania to serve as visiting scholars. Other international work included partnering with Unitarians in the Khasi Hills and with the Holdeen Indian program in India, partnering with Unitarian congregations in the Philippines, and, most recently, working with emerging UU congregations in Uganda, Kenya, and other African countries.

Burning Issues
One way to gauge what is going on in the institutional life of Unitarian Universalism is to take a look at the work of the Commission on Appraisal. This Commission is elected by the General Assembly of the UUA and is charged with bringing to the movement greater insights about ourselves. Over the past decade and a half the Commission on Appraisal has looked at ways to deepen our own sense of Congregational Polity, has asked us to rethink the meaning of membership, and has asked us to contemplate the “core of our faith” which led to the publication of a report entitled Engaging Our Theological Diversity. Most recently the Commission on Appraisal took up the provision in the UUA by-laws that requires Article II of the UUA by-laws (the Principles & Purposes) to be revisited and reexamined every twenty years. Their proposed revisions of the Principles & Purposes were narrowly rejected at the 2009 General Assembly by a mere 13 votes.

Sex Education
In 1970 the UUA published a comprehensive sexual education program known as About Your Sexuality (AYS). AYS proved to be controversial for its slides which showed heterosexual and homosexual couples making love and male and female masturbation. In the mid-1990s AYS was replaced by Our Whole Lives (OWL), a collaborative project of both the UUA and United Church of Christ. OWL is both faith and fact based and is touted as one of the best sexual education programs available. It even received a recent write-up in Oprah magazine.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this lecture to five UU martyrs who have been killed since merger in 1961. (I apologize to anyone I may have unintentionally omitted from this list.)
Rev. James Reeb (3/11/65) Beaten to death in Selma, Alabama
Viola Liuzzo (3/25/65) Shot in Alabama while assisting civil rights marchers
James Barrett (7/29/94) At age 74 the retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel was shot while serving as an escort at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida
Linda Kreager (7/27/08) Died in Knoxville church shooting
Greg McKendry (7/27/08) Died in Knoxville church shooting