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Thursday, April 29, 2004

We have no position. Yet.

Almost a week ago, the public information office of the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a clarification about the independent group "Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness." Somehow I managed to miss it:

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle on polyamory conveyed several mistaken impressions about Unitarian Universalism. The following is to clarify the Unitarian Universalist Association's stance.

First, the UUA has never supported the legal recognition of polyamorous relationships, nor has this issue ever been considered by any official decision-making body of the Association.

Second, Unitarian Universalists are free to organize around any issue they consider significant. Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) is a “related organization”; unlike associate member organizations and independent affiliate organizations, related organizations are not endorsed by the UUA board of trustees.

Third, the Association has no official position on this issue because official positions are established by passage of resolutions at our General Assembly, and there is no resolution on this issue.

The Association's social justice work is focused on women's equality and reproductive choice, protection of civil liberties, marriage equality, and voter registration.

Meanwhile, according to a post on the Unitarian Universalists' LiveJournal site — a group blog that tilts rather more to the neopagan and anarcholibertarian end of liberal religion than I'm used to — the president of UUPA has also issued a clarification:

The work of Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness relates to promoting dialog among Unitarian Universalists about how UU congregations can minister to polyamorous families already in their midst, and how UUs with vastly varying opinions on polyamory can discuss this extremely controversial issue with candor, integrity, and respect.

UUPA is an independent organization. UUPA's relationship to the Unitarian Universalist Association is that of "related organization," which means that the UUA has no position on UUPA's work, while recognizing that fellow UUs make up the membership of UUPA.

But the more interesting clarification comes from Rebecca Parker, president of the Berkeley, Calif., Starr King School for the Ministry (one of two officially UUA-related seminaries), who takes a rather Berkeleyed position:

For the record: I support Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness and completely disagree with those who use their belief that monogamous heterosexual marriage is ordained by God as a basis for rejecting same sex couples and polyamorous relationships. I was sorry to see the Chronicle article give the inaccurate impression that I hold to the theological view that God ordained heterosexuality as the norm. My sense when I spoke to Don Lattin, the Chronicle's religion writer, was that he understood my theological affirmation that there are diverse ethical expressions of human sexuality. I'm guessing this was a copy-editing error.

I'm not sure what sort of support Parker means to extend to UUPA. (I suspect it has to do with making some of her students and faculty feel "affirmed.") As a religious and political liberal who has largely been convinced by the conservative case for same-sex marriage, it's quite a stretch for me to see any connection between the gay-marriage movement and polyamory. But if you treat gay marriage as just another option on the erotic salad bar — you know, some people get their kicks from monogamy — and if you see the church or state's role in giving marriage a protected status as morally illegitimate, then, sure, poly is the obvious next step.

But it's almost impossible to figure out what Parker's theological stance might be, since she mentions really conservative biblicist arguments that she doesn't accept but only alludes to a theological affirmation of "diverse ethical expressions of human sexuality." I'd like to know more, since I'd agree that there are diverse ethical expressions of human sexuality — but I wouldn't agree that the church or society or the state needs to treat them all the same. What is the theological basis for such a claim?

Here's a question that might cut to the heart of Unitarian Universalist identity: The UUPA's Web site says they want "Unitarian Universalism to become the first poly-welcoming mainstream religious denomination." How exactly would we be "poly-welcoming" and "mainstream" at the same time?

Our congregations do a marvelous job of embracing individuals who hold all manner of sublime and ridiculous views, and whose lives I sometimes admire but sometimes find deeply disturbing. But I'm even more fascinated by the eagerness of so many of the non-mainstream folks for the endorsement of a "mainstream" institution. The polyamorists seem to think they can find mainstream credibility by convincing soft-hearted, perenially nonjudgmental UUs to encourage their "self-discovery." My prediction: The vast majority of UUs won't buy it.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 29 April 2004 at 7:34 PM

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Richard Hurst:

April 29, 2004 07:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, sure. The 19th Century Mormons were just misunderstood, the victims of Eastern cultural oppression.


April 29, 2004 10:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

But it's almost impossible to figure out what Parker's theological stance might be...

As you pointed out, Parker doesn't disagree with everyone who opposes polyamory--only those who oppose it because they think God ordained heterosexual marriage. Is this the theological equivalent of a nondenial denial? Or perhaps a nonaffirmative affirmation?

What if I oppose polyamory because I think it's cracky? Is that okay?

As one polyamorist said in the article, "Polyamory isn't an alternative to monogomy, it's an alternative to cheating." That certainly clears things up, doesn't it? But what's the alternative to polyamory?

Tom Schade:

April 29, 2004 11:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

The crucial question for the UUA is not whether the UUA Board has endorsed the UUPA, but whether polyamory supportive materials are being prepared, collected and distributed by those staff offices which advise and train congregations about being "welcoming and affirming."

I recall that in 1995, Countryside Church conducted an adult education retreat about Gays in the church. Where the speakers came from I am not sure, but they came with the Central Midwest District current UUA Board member. Included in that presentation was the testimony of a multi-partnered relationship group, who asserted that one could not be welcoming to gays and lesbians unless a congregation would also include multi-partnered relationshiops on the same basis as monogamous couples.
What is the state of the dialogue between the Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered concerns and the UUPA?

Scott Wells:

April 30, 2004 10:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Am I the only one that's expecting Starr King to open a campus on Mars, with students commuting by astral projection?

Steve Caldwell:

April 30, 2004 04:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

I don't know if Rebecca Parker has looked at polyamory as a sexual ethics issue or a social justice issue, but one professor at a UCC seminary has looked at polyamory.

Rev. Marvis Ellison is a Christian Ethics Professor at Bangor Theological Seminary's Portland campus. In two of his books (Erotic Justice and Same Sex Marriage: A Christian Ethical Analysis) he briefly mentions the idea that relationships with more than two participants may be OK ethically.

Comparing a UU polyamory relationship to the highly patriarchial one man/many women marriages found in Utah may be an unfair comparison.

Some poly relationships are OK ethically and some more-traditional couple relationships are not OK ethically.

Rather than concerning ourselves with the numbers of participants in a relationship, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Does the relationship enhance the lives and self-worth of the participants?

2. Is the relationship healthy physically and mentally?

3. Are the participants responsible to each other in the relationship?

4. Do the participants treat each other with justice and responsibility?

None of these questions require two person couple relationships to answer them "yes" and some two person couple relationships would not satisfy the sexual ethics test listed above.


April 30, 2004 04:10 PM | Permalink for this comment


That was a seltzer water out the nose moment. But not Mars. Someplace further out.

Richard Hurst:

April 30, 2004 05:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think the questions Caldwell poses could be answered in the affirmative for, say, a Boy Scout troop, but I'm not convinced that means "polyarmory" as such is on an ethical par with diadic relationships.


April 30, 2004 05:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Steve's comments make me want to point out that at least three overlapping issues are coming into play:

1) Not all sexual ethics involve social, legal, and religious institutions like marriage does. Discussing relationship ethics is not the same as discussing marriage ethics.

2) The ethics of social institutions (like marriage) surely must be assessed in terms of their justness and equitability to the participants, but at the same time that assessment can't be the end of the discussion. I don't support gay marriage just because it would be good for the same-sex couples who want to be married; I also support it — in fact, I especially support it — because I think it will be good for society. My bias (and I admit that it is a bias) is that polyamory may be great for the handful of people involved, but that it doesn't contribute a social good. In some ways, it's too incapable of being socially constrained and defined. That doesn't make it evil; it just makes it not particularly relevant to my vision for social justice.

3) A good piece of this conversation has to do with how Unitarian Universalists identify sources of authority as they individually, congregationally, and collectively figure out what to do as religious people. Some of the debate has very little to do simply with polyamory, and instead has a lot more to do with the way the UUA has embraced or magnified special-interest causes (I'm thinking of drug reform and economic globalization most recently) not because the denomination as a whole has come to some consensus or moral clarity, but because the groups themselves have figured out how to work the system.

In short, only one piece of this debate can be resolved by saying that poly groups are nice, ethical, virtuous people. Knowing how morally complex most couples' relationships are, I don't believe it, for one thing. And the social and theological concerns aren't resolved by saying that, in principle, a poly relationship is a wonder of communicative and ethical clarity.

I think churches need a much more compelling reason to publically celebrate a relationship than the fact that the people involved are happy together.

Richard Hurst:

April 30, 2004 05:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have a very special relationship with my teddy bear. No, really I do. Ask Scott Wells. We have long conversations. He keeps me safe on dangerous work trips. Sometimes I'm late for work because he asks me to stay in bed for a little while longer for extra snuggling and kisses. Other times he hits me with his paws and says "Richard, it's time to get up and do the people stuff." We're very, very happy together. I've actually had break-ups over my relationship with Wilson Bear (jealousy issues ... and I'm not kidding). Wilson and I are more happy together than anyone else I've ever been with.

Which Canadian province or Scandinavian country or New England state would we have the best chance of tying the knot in? I'm sure Dean Parker would be ever so affirming. I'm thinking "All Creatures of the Earth and Sky" as our Wedding March.

Christine Robinson:

April 30, 2004 10:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

Another question for those of us who care about the effectiveness of the UUA in supporting churches and furthering causes that we have publically decided we care about (Gay rights and equal marriage rights, in particular) has to do with the fact that whether we like it or not and intend it our not, "the world" sees the fact that we sport a polyamory awareness group as an endorsement. They also will assume, as they find out, that, since we have UUA trustees and fellowshipped ministers engaging in this lifestyle, we have no problems with it. Is this a hill we want to die on? I don't. And why can't we avoid this inevitable accusation that we've gotten so open minded that our brains have fallen out? We seem to be saying that we make no distinction between serving all who come to us and endorsing any person who is "qualified", no matter what socially outrageous and institutionally destructive behavior they engage in. But I guess that I think that someone who has chosen a poly lifestyle and loves their local church and the UUA might also choose the institutionally responsible path of staying out of the leadership positions which will undermine our public face. But quite the contrary, Poly folks are appearing in our ministry and leadership way out of proprotion to their presence in our churches and in society (outside of Utah) Interesting and sad.

Christine Robinson


May 1, 2004 02:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

At a time when the UUA is attempting to spread the word about Unitarian Universalism and bolster church attendance, I question if allowing Unitarian Universalism to exist along side the words polyamory in the title of an organization is contrary to the health of the association. The beauty of the 7 Principles is it's inclusivity but that is also inherently the peril of it. I was initially attracted to Unitarianism because of their social justice work, especially for the Gay and Transgendered communities. But is the UUA an organization that is respected for it's social justice work and inclusivity or it's embrace of counter culture? So if I want to charter an organization called Unitarian Universalists for Bestiality Awareness can this be considered a "related" organization as well and be permitted to market ourselves as such? If any cause is allowed to attach Unitarian Universalism to it as it's moniker, does it threaten the legitimacy of the organization?

Jeff Wilson:

May 1, 2004 04:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

If the UUA opened a seminary on Mars, I would so be there. Now we just have to sell GWB on the idea. Shouldn't be that hard: don't you think he'd love to have all of us living on a planet other than his own?

I think the handwringing about polyamory may be a bit paranoid. The number of people involved in this subculture is tiny, including within the open-minded circles of UUism. It doesn't even begin to approach the number of homosexuals (for instance) in the general population, and I don't think many people will ever opt for it even if given a chance. For goodness sake, I have enough on my hands with one marriage already.

I see a number of issues being conflated here that ought to be disentangled. 1) people involved in multiple relationships have a right to spiritual sustenance and to attend our churches, and that isn't grounds for kicking them out. 2) as a UU I have the ability to think the issue through, and decide for myself that polyamory seems like something I'm not interested in supporting generally. Making choices for ourselves is a core part of UUism. Making a clear decision that someone else dislikes doesn't make you less of UU. 3) because our congregations choose their ministers idependently, each congregation can decide for itself if it wants a polyamorous minister. I don't, and would vote against calling one. But if the other church in town calls one, that's their business. There's no need for the UUA to make a stand on either side of the issue. 4) polyamory seems 1000 times more complicated legally than gay marriage, so I don't think the two are comparable. I'm not interested in fighting for legal recognition of bigamy because I think it's basically untenable (especially when kids enter the picture). I don't see why the UUA, already fighting on so many fronts, should have to champion the cause of an extremely tiny minority, one that it seems clear the large majority of UUs are not interested in supporting. I'm also not in favor of running polyamorists out of town, what someone does on their own time is their own business.

Richard Hurst:

May 1, 2004 04:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm back on polyamory as an alternative to cheating, suddenly. Why isn't the "alternative to cheating" the plain-old two-person relationship with an mutual, time-limited escape clause? That is, why isn't the veritable "open relationship" the alternative to cheating? I mean, really, I have to introduce everyone I've had casual sex with to the Board of Trustees during the last six months as my "partner"? Or do I somehow or another think we're all entitled to some mass come-to-Richard love-fest in the church sanctuary? (I mean, I know I'm entitled to that ... I just wondering about the rest of you.)


May 1, 2004 05:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff Wilson makes one really helpful observation, which I'd agree with. I wouldn't dream of endorsing some sort of ban or excommunication clause on people whose lifestyle I find mystifying or undesirable. But I do reserve the right — and I think we collectively can reserve the right — to criticize behaviors that pop up among us. Just because members of our church happen to find personal value in their polyamory doesn't mean that the rest of us are morally obligated to agree.

Jeff Wilson:

May 1, 2004 06:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was a bit flip in my post, but Philocrites has pulled out what was really the primary point I wanted to express. There is a tendency sometimes for people to think that being a UU means never stating an opinion (or even having one!), because that might mean you are not open-minded. There is a back-up belief sometimes encountered that assumes that if someone has come to a conclusion different than your own, or criticizes (hopefully in a civil way) your opinions, that the person in question is a bad UU. Often, this battle is fought as an attempt to gain some sort of moral high ground, from which to (ironically) proclaim that the other person's opinion is absolutely invalid on the grounds of being intolerant.

As I understand it, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning implies that:

1) we must be free to make our own decisions, and not be counted guilty for exercising the faculty of choice.
2) if we are responsible--that is, if we investigate multiple sides of each issue, consider other views, and reflect on what influences us in the choices we make--then we are empowered to stand by our decisions as consistent with the venerable Unitarian tradition of reason and accountability.
3) we may seek the truth, and assert things as true, to the best of our knowledge: if we decide something is true, this is not in conflict with our principles.
4) we may assign meaning and value to things in this life, including (for example) judging some forms of human relationship to be more consistent with our principles and beliefs than others.

Nothing in this process necessarily takes away from our affirmation of the basic worth and dignity of all people, our acceptance of diversity, or our desire for justice and equality. The right of conscience means that we are enabled to make our own decisions. And UUism provides good guidelines as to how to go about making our decisions.

I am pro-choice, but I know UUs who are pro-life. I am anti-death penalty, but I know UUs who are pro-capital punishment. I am an agnostic, but I know UUs who are theists. UUism does not call us to hold specific beliefs on most issues (including polyamory), but that doesn't mean that holding and stating beliefs and opinions are taboo in UUism. Rather, UUism calls us to go about determining our beliefs and opinions in a principled, tolerant, intelligent way. Criticizing other UUs or disagreeing with them is not some sort of sin--assuming it is done respectfully, then it is a crucial part of the process of searching for truth and meaning within a community of fellow seekers.

Peg Duthie:

May 3, 2004 09:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

As someone who has witnessed several long-term poly relationships, I feel compelled to offer a couple of dissenting perspectives:

Christine writes: ". . . I think that someone who has chosen a poly lifestyle and loves their local church and the UUA might also choose the institutionally responsible path of staying out of the leadership positions which will undermine our public face."

To me, this is uncomfortably close to what a number of Episcopalians were insisting with regards to Gene Robinson's consecration -- that if he truly loved the Anglican church, he would have removed himself from consideration and spared the church the subsequent threat of schism until some time in the future when the church *will* be ready for an openly gay bishop. Which, of course, ranges from "now" to "never" depending on which faction one consults. So, I find myself disliking the concept that someone shouldn't be a minister/DRE/congregation president solely out of fear of public misperception.

This isn't to say that the person's relationships shouldn't be taken into account when considering their qualifications - but I believe that applies no matter whether the candidate is gay, straight, engaged, widowed, etc. To me, the real question is, does the person manage their personal relationship(s) well and can they keep said relationship(s) (or lack thereof) sufficiently separate from the work they are expected to perform for the church? I'm looking for stability when I hire a pastor - is someone single and dating by definition more predictable than someone who's maintained a multi-partner household for over a decade?

Chris wrote: " . . .only one piece of this debate can be resolved by saying that poly groups are nice, ethical, virtuous people. Knowing how morally complex most couples' relationships are, I don't believe it, for one thing. And the social and theological concerns aren't resolved by saying that, in principle, a poly relationship is a wonder of communicative and ethical clarity.

I think churches need a much more compelling reason to publically celebrate a relationship than the fact that the people involved are happy together. "

I think part of one's stance depends on one's answer to "what is the church's function in celebrating relationships to begin with?" Is it to define and endorse a collective concept of "family" to society at large? Is it to proclaim the existence of a specific commitment - or set of commitments - to the community and to invite its support? Note that this is not an either/or pairing!

I can understand being opposed to polyamory on theological and sociological grounds - just as certain friends of mine remain irrevocably opposed to homosexual relationships, any form of "living together" outside of marriage, etc. What troubles me is when it's postulated that all polyamorous individuals are by definition thoughtless, frivolous, unethical and/or lack commitment. "Polyamorous" isn't synonymous with "open" or "casual," from what I've seen -- it truly depends on the household in question and how the individuals in question have agreed to meet the others' needs (and by that I mean "needs" in general - not just sexual).

All of that said, I get just as frustrated with poly individuals who argue that their choices are superior to those of us who opt for monogamy. And I do in fact share some of the concerns re how the UUPA might be perceived by non-UUs - but I tend to feel that way about CUUPs, DRUUMM, etc. and sometimes the UUA itself.

Anyhow, given how frequently I find myself explaining what Unitarian Universalism is, I just don't see the UUPA becoming sufficiently prominent to be a true liability. My perception may be skewed, however, in that the conversations are often with Christians who are tired of being automatically lumped in with fundamentalists and creationists and homophobes - point being, if we've become large enough to be considered mainstream, having to point out we aren't all _____ (pro-choice, anti-war, pro-polyamory, take your pick) comes with the territory.

Christine Robinson:

May 4, 2004 12:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Peg can understand being opposed to polyamory on theological or sociological grounds but is uncomfortable with any suggestion that those engaged in this lifestyle should be held to any standard except their own happiness and well-being.

Some combination of theological and sociological grounds compels me to say that we are social beings and can and should ask ourselves whether our behavior helps or hurts the social whole as well as our individual selves. This is something, in my opinion, that we should especially ask of those who lead us and ESPECIALLY of those who are our ministers. That's why I don't think that poly folks should be in those positions. The icky PR position they put us in is directly related to the choices they have made to flaunt deeply held social structure and the law.

The difference between Bishop Gene Robinson and someone engaged in polyamory is that Robinson is Gay by birth and biology, not by a choice to throw the social wisdom of the western world to the winds. And he lives in a society which has increasingly come to see that if it loves justice, it must give equal rights to persons who are the way they are because that's the way (to put it simply) God made them. And justice demands that this quest be persued in spite of the fact that the majority may be against it at the moment.

Interestingly enough "God made" virtually all of us polyamorists, with the ability to love many people at once. And we live in a society which has mostly said that we and society are better off if we form ourselves to an ideal of long-term monogamy. Theology, sociology, and common sense have asserted this, and every deviation, from Mormon polygamy to the last generations's fling with "Open Marriage" have been judged, in the end, to be disasters to most individuals involved and to the social fabric. At any rate, the acceptance of polyamory is a question, not of justice, for they choose this experiment freely when they have the same option to marry with integrity that hetrosexuals and hopefully soon, all will have. It is instead a question of values, and on matters of value, the majority opinion prevails. As for me, I value long-term monogamy and a theology and sociology that helps me to live my whole life; which is as a citizen of society as well as an individual or family member.

Steve Caldwell:

May 5, 2004 01:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

On an earlier post, Philocrites writes:
"A good piece of this conversation has to do with how Unitarian Universalists identify sources of authority as they individually, congregationally, and collectively figure out what to do as religious people."

Much of this discussion does revolve around our Congregationalist roots, but we may want to look at why our New England spiritual ancestors were Congregationalists.

Congregationalism arose in response to concentration of eccelsiastical power in other faith traditions. This doesn't mean that congregational decisions are always right ... just that they were made with a more open and less authoritarian process through democratic process. In other words, we are not congregational because it's the best way to run a church. We are congregational because this form of decision-making limits the tendency of human concentration of power and its subsequent abuse of said power.

I wonder if our religious movement tends towards "congregational idolatry" where we are reluctant to examine where our polity might be oppressive.

James Field:

May 5, 2004 03:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

What is the source of the seeming hatred of Rebecca Parker and/or Starr King School for the Ministry on this blog? Is it a "Harvard Snobbery" kind of thing or a "it's Berkeley so poke fun at the hippies" thing?

I don't have to agree or disagree with Rebecca Parker on anything to notice a palpable dislike on this blog. What gives?

I have as big a problem with the anything goes version of Unitarian Universalism as everyone else here. I think peoples public angst and rending of garments over polyamory may be a bit overdone.

While they tend to be a little vague and touchy feely sometimes, I find in general that I agree with what Parker and Sinkford are trying to do.

Just for the record, I am a student at Starr King. And as a student in Berkeley who lives in the vast hippie lands to the north, I know wingnuts better than most. Rebecca Parker is far from the airy, newagey Northern California caricature she gets portrayed as here.


May 5, 2004 05:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

James, I think you're overreaching to find "hatred" of Rebecca Parker or Starr King on my site. But I hope you'll add your voice to the dialogue, correct misimpressions, and promote your own views.

James Field:

May 5, 2004 06:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think the whole situation with the UUPA artcle in the Chronicle was unfortunate. But from this issue, the "reverence" dialogue with Sinkford, and comments between you, Chutney and Scott Wells, it seems like al the UU's with blogs have issues with Parker. I misstate and overstate my case somewhat but as an outsider/newcomer it feels like there is some history that I've missed. Thats what I am really getting at.


May 6, 2004 11:20 AM | Permalink for this comment

James, I think you're identifying two related issues: One is that there may be some characteristics of the UU bloggers that differentiate us from, say, the average seminarian at Starr King, Meadville Lombard, or anyplace else where the UUs make up a strongly-defined community. (Do we tend to be more critically-inclined because we blog? Are we blogging because we tend to be critically-inclined? Hmm.)

But the other issue is less dramatic but more significant. A sample group of three or four — Chutney, Scott, Tom Schade, and me — doesn't reveal much beyond the simple fact that we have been blogging for a while. We probably hold a rather diverse set of opinions that just happened to coincide (or that appear to coincide) on the theology of reverence. (Scott, Tom, and I are members of the UU Christian Fellowship, for example.) As for me, I'm mystified by Parker's statement about polyamory, but otherwise I don't think I've offered any critical judgments of her or the school.

But the really crucial point is that there are very few UU bloggers. The handful of us would make a very poor sample group for identifying Unitarian Universalist attitudes and opinions overall. I would love to see the "Interdependent Web" expand to include a broader and more representative range of views.

James Field:

May 6, 2004 12:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wish Rebecca had just talked about Parker or Channing, and said eveeryone has unique gifts to express and a call to be their truest selves.

I don't think anyone should make claims against polyamory on strategic grounds. I think it would be best if we don't rehash the same arguments used against integration, against accepting pagans, against accepting gays et cetera.

I think there is some overlap between the argumentativeness of online culture and UU culture. I am weary of the centerless bickering that passes for Unitarian Universalism in some places.
I really enjoy that small UU blogger community you have assembled. There is a healthy balance of civility and contestation. Having had both the Parker/Sinkford exchange and the UUPA issue come within a month and the reactions (mostly not here or at Scott's blog) seemed to indicate a little less civility towards Parker than I had come to expect.


May 6, 2004 03:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Although I'm a huge fan of strategic thinking, and believe UUs should engage in it much more often, I think it would be cowardly to argue against UU acceptance of polyamory strictly on strategic grounds. In fact I'd want to argue against a UU church performing poly wedding ceremonies and against the UUA endorsing legal recognition of poly marriages on principled grounds instead — but here's the thing: The "slippery slope" argument against gay marriage was that polygamy, pedophilia, incest, and bestiality are next. Are they?

I don't think invoking the slippery slope is ever a rational way to argue, but if you base your support for one sort of recognized relationship using arguments that quite easily justify the others — you know, some people claim to be "naturally" drawn to young children, or animals — you put yourself in a fascinating predicament. When anti-gay marriage conservatives argue that liberals really do want to legalize and give tax credits to every imaginable sexual and household arrangement, it's strategically and ideologically pathetic to reply, "Yup. That's what we really want."

For consistency sake, it would make more sense for UUs who support polyamory to oppose civil marriage outright, or for UU ministers who support polyamory to stop performing wedding ceremonies or at the very least to stop signing wedding licenses. If people really want to head in the direction of contractual relationships defined strictly by the people involved, get society and the state out of the marriage business altogether.

James Field:

May 6, 2004 03:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

I would put myself in the "against civil marriage" camp. Somewhere between unnecessary government intrusion and unfair distribution of privileges.

In general I support what people fear about polyamory just for the sake of supporting a culture with more positive attitudes towards bodies and sexuality.

My main theoretical interest in polyamory is its role in strengthening kinship independent of consanguinity. I encourage people to get away from their fears about what "polyamorists" do with eachother sexually and to look instead at extended support systems that supplement or supplant the isolated nuclear family. What if two men in a relationship and two women in a relationship coparent children that might be the biological children of one of the men and one of the women. Maybe two of them are bisexual or maybe not. Or maybe one of the people in a heterosexual relationship is bisexual and has another parter of the same sex. Is it so fearful that they might be able to live together or have some sort of stable relationship?

Peg Duthie:

May 7, 2004 01:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

Intriguing points, Philocrites. I'll have to mull over them some more, but my off-the-cuff response is that support of polyamorous relationships need not translate into across-the-board support of legislative or religious recognition of polyamory. It certainly doesn't mandate throwing out the existing structure (recognition of civil unions, domestic partnerships, formal and/or common-law marriages depending on where one lives and/or signs papers and/or one's employers) just because it's not wholly inclusive. (Not a fan of protest for protest's sake, I admit.)

I do like the idea of the government moving away from classifying people as different economic units based on whether they're single or married (never mind multi-partnered), which IIRC contributes to peculiar situations such as elderly couples getting married religiously but not legally in order to avoid financial hardship, or young couples getting married sooner than they ought to be in order to take advantage of "the marriage bonus."

On the other hand, I'm not inclined to insist that the government ought to accommodate every >2 arrangement out there - be it polysexual or platonic (such as children caring for a parent, or non-romantic partners sharing living quarters) - in its definition of inheritance rights and other marriage benefits. If people want a beneficiary and/or executor other than a primary partner the government selects by a formula, be it a lover or a cousin or a close friend, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask them to take the trouble to define their wishes re property and access. (Perhaps the question is whether it still makes sense for the default definition of primary beneficiary/executor to be a spouse or a parent.)

To be honest, I'm not so much interested in lobbying for polyamorous rights/privileges as I am in simply challenging generalizations about polyamory. I have several friends who've invested a great deal of thought, care and soul-searching in their decision to commit to more than one partner, and in doing so have created what seem to me families as stable and contributing-to-society as any traditional pairing I've observed, so it raises my hackles when such folks are automatically lumped in with the train wrecks and the ethically indifferent/illiterate.

It's not that polyamory is the right option for many or even most people, but I'm not willing to condemn it across the board any more than I'm prepared to denounce premarital sex without knowing more about the individuals in question.
That does make me a socio-theological heretic with regard to sexual ethics, I suppose. Anyway, what it boils down to is that I don't consider polyamory a deal-breaker when it comes to choosing leaders because (1) I don't believe it in itself is an adequate signifier of personality, and (2) there are other values that tend to carry more weight with me in such contexts, such as ability to manage factions, keep me awake during services, refrain from copyright piracy, etc. That said, I don't see it as a congregation (much less a denomination)'s job to answer _all_ of the expectations or needs of any one person, whether it's acknowledging their sexual philosophy or preaching to their particular spiritual path, so I don't see it as inconsistent for one to support a particular movement or set of values and yet refrain from insisting that all of Unitarian Universalism do the same (albeit hoping to connect with others of like mind or experience).

(Hope you don't mind me thinking aloud at such length - I'll take it to my own space if you'd rather.)

Richard Hurst:

May 7, 2004 11:42 AM | Permalink for this comment

Peg Duthie writes ... "It's not that polyamory is the right option for many or even most people, but I'm not willing to condemn it across the board any more than I'm prepared to denounce premarital sex without knowing more about the individuals in question."

Peg's right of course. I take no exception to the folks involved in poly relationships. I'm just not ready to extended any of the "ready-made" familial arranagements of two-somes to poly arranagements. What folks set up for there own sakes, in their own lives, and using private legal contracts or even less formal means, is all to the good. Or at least none of my business.

I remain unconvinced, however, by the particular argument that poly relationships are the "honest" alternative to "cheating." That's just ... not the case. And obviously "cheating" in a poly relationship remains more than possible.

Steve Caldwell:

May 8, 2004 12:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites wrote:

"Although I'm a huge fan of strategic thinking, and believe UUs should engage in it much more often, I think it would be cowardly to argue against UU acceptance of polyamory strictly on strategic grounds."

Judging from the reaction in my southern Bible-belt region UU congregation to Welcoming Congregation, there are UUs who would argue against Welcoming Congregation in our community on strategic grounds ... which still surprises me because BGLT acceptance has been mainstream UU for so many years. And if the UUA as a whole had been "strategic" in the 1970s and 1980s, how much BGLT justice progress would have happened?

Philocrites wrote:

"In fact I'd want to argue against a UU church performing poly wedding ceremonies and against the UUA endorsing legal recognition of poly marriages on principled grounds instead — but here's the thing: The 'slippery slope' argument against gay marriage was that polygamy, pedophilia, incest, and bestiality are next. Are they?'"

The UUA Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group and the United Church of Christ have developed a lifespan sexuality education program with a defined set of values called "Our Whole Lives" or "OWL." These values can be found online here.

When one looks at the values promoted in OWL (self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity), it may be possible to separate those things that are personally "icky" for me but OK for others from those things that violate the values in OWL (and indirectly our shared UU principles). To be specific here, it's possible to be ethically consistent for a UU to accept polyamorous relationships while simultaneously rejecting abusive relationships such as incest and pedophilia.

Additionally, there the complicating factor of "personal ick" for some sexual topics for some persons. For example, a lesbian may consider sex with a man unappealing and a monogamous person may consider polyamorous relationships unappealing. But it doesn't logically follow that all male-female sex and all polyamorous relationships are ethically wrong for all persons. The "personal ick" consideration comes up when one discusses sexual ethics of both polyamory and BDSM.

If we are to have a discussion that promotes justice, we need to separate the personal "ick" factor that some express towards polyamory from the broader question of values. And we need to keep in mind that it's OK for some to find polyamory "icky" and some to find it appealing at this stage of the discussion.

Everyone is entitled to his or her personal values and attitudes in sexual ethics decisions within a framework that promotes health, justice, and responsibility.

Matthew Gatheringwater:

May 15, 2004 10:38 AM | Permalink for this comment

This has been a fascinating conversation! My two cents: I am willing to recognize relationships that are ethical and loving and I think it is possible for a polyamorous relationship to be both. My problem starts when people make an uncritical assertion that support for polyamory is somehow derived from Unitarian Universalism, that people should support polyamory *because* they are Unitarian Universalists. For example, the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness quote the UUA Principles chapter and verse on their Website in an attempt legitimize their position but the connection isn't clear to me and, even if they see it, I'm not sure what obligation other UUs have to see it the way they do. Some folks go one step further, uncritically promoting polyamory in connection with Unitarian Universalism. I think the class on "Polyamory for Beginners" at this year's SUUSI is an example of this.


May 15, 2004 01:34 PM | Permalink for this comment

My lengthy response to Steve Caldwell is here.


July 14, 2004 12:01 AM | Permalink for this comment

Re Polyamory by PaganPoly of the NZPolys family

I've been alerted/directed to this discussion by posts on the UUPoly list. If you'd like, you're welcome to read my post at the "In praise of strategic thinking" thread on page for an introduction to myself and our polyamorous family and friends in New Zealand.

I just wanted so point out that to an outsider (non-UU-member) and newcomer such as myself, some of the points made by some of the people here have an undertone - if not in fact a direct rather loud sound - of plain prejudice and bigotry. Often surrounded by or couched in references to "ethics", "theology", "values of the majority", and the like.

Others' posts are refreshingly civil, clear and respectful, even - or, more importantly, when - they hold a different view or perspective on the positions they challenge.

What occurred to me is to suggest to some of the 'critical' people here that they put themselves in the position of, say, a Gallileo, or a Giordano Bruno, in the context of the "responses" and treatment that those 'radicals' had in their time from the "clergy", the "popes", the "majority" and the guardians of the "values of the mainstream" of their society - never mind the Holy[!!] Inquisition.

I have all sorts of warning flags come up when adjectives such as "theological" and "ethical", for instance, are used - in defending or critiquing any position. Are these just gratuitous adjectives used to give an impression of weight and authority - because that's what they seem like to an ordinary undoctrinaire and unindoctrinated 'wo/man on the street'.

Just who among us is so clear about just who this "God" is and so certain of her/his "Word", and what is "ethical" or, in contrast, "unethical" on any given issue ?? ( I personally tend to enjoy and appreciate the 'unconventional' way 'God' speaks and the comments he makes in the 'Conversations with God' books. )

From "theological" and "ethical" there is a 'slippery slope' - I'd suggest - to adjectives like "proper", "decent", and "reasonable" - and, by implication, their opposites - until one gets to "the only intelligent" course of action, the "right and proper" way to do things, and the "American Way" as contrasted with the "un-American" way and the committees to uphold, enforce and police It.

I hope I'm exaggerating with a bit of humour thrown in - to make a rather serious point.

I personally greatly appreciate Steve Caldwell's suggestion:

"Rather than concerning ourselves with the numbers of participants in a relationship, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

1. Does the relationship enhance the lives and self-worth of the participants?

2. Is the relationship healthy physically and mentally? [and, I'd add, "spiritually"]

3. Are the participants responsible to each other in the relationship?

4. Do the participants treat each other with justice and responsibility? [I'd add "repect"]

These are, in answer to Philocrites point, the "more compelling reason[s] to publically celebrate [any] relationship than the [single] fact that the people involved are happy together" - although the last one is, in my view, a very basic one indeed !

As Steven writes: "None of these questions require two person couple relationships to answer them 'yes' and some two person couple relationships would not satisfy the sexual ethics test listed above."

They are certainly most helpful as clear and useful guidelines for our own poly family. Thank you, Steven.

Love and respects to you all.



July 14, 2004 10:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

Another conversation about polyamory in the UUA is active over at LiveJournal — with a cautionary tale about one congregation's experience, and a bit on the CUUPS (pagan)/polyamory connection.


January 7, 2006 11:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

Polyamory-watchers in the UUA -- and, in fact, any UUs involved in promoting civil marriage for same-sex couples -- will want to note the cover story in the 12.26.05 issue of the prominent neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard. Large sections of Stanley Kurtz's latest anti-gay marriage article are devoted to the independent advocacy group Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness, the UUA's same-sex marriage advocacy, and the AP and San Francisco Chronicle stories about the UUPA. The whole thing is so predictable.

Here's what I said back in April 2004 about how UUs should respond to polyamory advocacy:

I have argued that suggesting that polyamory represents any sort of "next step" in Unitarian Universalist marriage ethics plays directly into one of the more viscerally compelling (if logically implausible) arguments against same-sex marriage. When conservatives charge that polyamory is next on the slippery slope, how is it helpful to have liberals urging us to start slipping? Steve, that really is my question to you. Is there a slippery slope or isn't there? Look: a strictly "strategic" argument against polyamory essentially concedes that the conservatives are right -- polygamy is next on our agenda -- but hopes nobody will notice if we don't bring it up just yet. I'm saying that this would be a foolish way to go.

Which leaves three options. The first option is to ignore polyamory. (But it won't go away. It has an advocacy group that wants press coverage and congregational and denominational recognition.)

The second is to acknowledge that Unitarian Universalists have no principled reason to participate in civil marriage at all. By this logic, we're only really committed to individual sexual freedom and object to any legal, religious, or societal constraints on it that aren't established by the participants themselves. This would mean that our churches should stop celebrating marriage ceremonies and our ministers should stop signing marriage licenses -- permanently. If marriage is oppressive, wrong, and disciminatory by its very nature, then let's get off that bandwagon altogether. (The chances that our society will buy this line of thinking are nil. The chances that UUs will buy this line of thinking are perhaps somewhat higher.)

The third option is to recognize that the liberal church does have a stake in some social institutions, including marriage. We may not have done much thinking about it lately, but in practice Unitarian Universalists recognize that marriage is a good thing not just for the couple but for the community, that improving and strengthening marriage is a liberal goal, and that our advocacy of gay marriage is rooted not in sexual libertarianism but in a deeper recognition of the value of marriage itself. That's why Unitarian Universalist leaders should oppose calls for the legal or religious recognition of polygamy on principled grounds, and not merely strategic grounds. It is inconsistent with our goals for marriage.

So, folks, does the Weekly Standard adequately represent your Unitarian Universalism? It doesn't represent mine.

("Here come the brides: Plural marriage is waiting in the wings," Stanley Kurtz, Weekly Standard 12.26.05; "The Weekly Standard's absurd case against gay marriage," Rob Anderson, New Republic 12.23.05, sub req'd)


January 9, 2006 05:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Scott and Melanie: Haven't you heard of the planned Starr King Center for Pluto Worship? He's the farthest out of the gods!

On poly advocacy generally, just because it's something that we ought not to condemn on religious grounds doesn't make it anything that we ought to promote on religious grounds, or even allow a small subset of us to promote using our name. Declining to condemn it is very different from needing to endorse it.

I think the UUA should stay assiduously silent on the issue, including by insisting that the "UUPA" folks stop using the UU name or suggesting in any other way that the UUA generally supports their group or advocates their lifestyle.

I can think of no valid reason why polyamory advocates would need to publicly identify themselves as UUs. They don't represent the great majority of UUs who are not polyamorous when they publicly advocate polyamory, and neither do they practice polyamory out of any dedication to any uniquely UU principle (in pointed contrast, for example, to 19th-century Mormons).

Indeed, the only principled public position that I think the UUA can possibly take is that for us the pros and cons of polyamory are not a religious issue, except to the extent that people who choose such a lifestyle should behave ethically and unselfishly toward one another, as should anyone in any other human relationship.


January 9, 2006 06:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ah, but UUPA is an advocacy group attempting to change Unitarian Universalism into a band of supporters for their lifestyle. Their goal is to make the UUA a vehicle for their cause. And until some prominent UUs step forward to say that they oppose UUPA, institutional silence will continue to look like indulgence or quiet acceptance.

After all, for example, the president of one of our theological schools has said she supports UUPA; the Ministerial Fellowship Committee modified its rules to accommodate polyamorous ministerial candidates (see policy 30); and the UUA Youth Office published a pro-UUPA article in the "sexuality" issue of the YRUU magazine last year.

Even though I suspect most UUs do not and would not approve of official support for polyamory by their UU churches or denominational institutions -- and in fact have no idea that anyone is talking about "polyamory" at all -- the denominational drift is not that hard to see. But moderates, who tend to avoid denominational politics, are not doing themselves a favor by keeping quiet; instead, as they do repeatedly, they're forfeiting the game to activists because they refuse to mobilize themselves or speak up.


January 9, 2006 09:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

I agree with you, Philo. I'm not saying we should stand by silently while "UUPA" does its thing. I'm saying we should also call "UUPA" to account and prohibit the PA folks from identifying themselves as UU. There is no reasonable link between UU and PA, so don't link them.

For a neutral analogy, I'm sure there is some small minority of UUs somewhere who are tire tread designers, but it adds nothing to either UU or tire tread design to have a UU Covenant for Tire Tread Design Awareness. Like UU and Polyamory, UU and Tire Treads are completely unrelated, so we don't need to havae a UU position on it, and they don't need to drag UU into it when they talk about it.

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