Monday, October 18, 2004
Cape Cod's scaaary Unitarian Universalists.
Near the end of Sunday morning's front-page Boston Globe article about disgruntled New England Episcopalians and their four new house churches come these intriguing paragraphs:
The four new congregations are in Orleans, Forestdale — a village of Sandwich — and in Durham and Rochester, N.H.
"Minneapolis [where Robinson's election was approved] was the straw the broke the camel's back, a manifestation of the low view of Scripture and the creeping Unitarian-Universalism in the Episcopal Church," said Gerry Dorman, who left his parish, Holy Spirit in Orleans, to become senior warden of the new Anglican Church of the Resurrection.
The new church had been holding Friday afternoon prayer services since [Gene] Robinson's election, and began holding Sunday worship in June. Dorman said the congregation, which meets in his house, has 15 or 16 members, and has had visiting Episcopal priests from Connecticut, Virginia and Pennsylvania, but also has had non-Episcopal clergy preside. "We tried to stay inside for a long time, but we were left with no hope."
Members of the Forestdale congregation, called the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, expressed similar sentiments. "We are the people that did not leave because of prayer book changes, did not leave because of the ordination of women, but the Episcopal Church is becoming more like Unitarians," said Edward Wirtanen of West Barnstable.
("Group Quits Episcopal Church Over Gay Bishop," Michael Paulson, Boston Globe 10.17.04)
These comments are interesting on many levels — including Unitarian Universalism's role as a bogeyman — but one thing that jumps out at me is that the new orthodox Anglican church in Orleans (where creeping Unitarian Universalism has been decisively turned back) is just up the road from the fastest-growing Unitarian Universalist congregation in the northeast: First Parish Brewster. Sandwich (the location of the other Anglican house church) is 20 miles closer to the mainland, and is nearer the mid-sized Unitarian Church in Barnstable. Has the public visibility of these UU churches (and their smaller fellow churches on the Cape) somehow influenced the reactions of conservative Episcopalians to their parishes and denomination? Sociologically, quite probably; theologically, I doubt it.
Don't blame us for your liberalism.
So here's a vain attempt to separate out a convenient stereotype from the intellectual genealogy of modern liberal Protestantism. Since we Unitarian Universalists are perceived as having fallen off the left-most edge of American Protestantantism — and because we have demonstrated a knack for indulging all sorts of peculiar and short-lived fads — we serve the conservative imagination as a convenient warning against the liberalization of theology and practice. We occupy the spot on the map that says, "Here be dragons!" Of course, you can find theological modernists, political liberals, and biblical non-literalists all over the Christian landscape in the U.S. — people who understand Christianity as a profound and rich religious tradition that can also evolve and grow in dynamic, forthright engagement with the democratic, scientific, pluralistic modern world — and you can even find "relativists" and "pluralists" lurking in orthodox churches across this fair land. But when you point to the Unitarian Universalists, those tendencies intensify and turn into The Beast.
It's a pity that we play this role, because it misrepresents the sources and motives of much Protestant liberalism and misrepresents Unitarian Universalism's relationship to contemporary Protestant liberalism. Until the mid- to late-nineteenth century, Unitarian liberalism did serve as a vanguard, but increasingly — since the time of Horace Bushnell, in fact, way back in the 1860s — more influential varieties of liberalism have shaped American Protestant thought without much direct help from the Unitarians. Social and intellectual trends that Unitarians drove in the early republic moved well beyond the Unitarian churches after the Civil War; by the end of the century, Unitarians themselves were responding to (and following) broader social and intellectual trends. They ceased to be the intellectual or even the theological vanguard — and I don't see the faintest glimmer of a chance that we'll ever reclaim the role. And yet the myth persists: It flatters UU vanity — and it gives enemies of liberalism a handy and often silly diversionary target.
Back in the 1820s, the great Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing thought he was reading the New Testament with greater fidelity to the morality and rationality of God than were the "Orthodox." A century later, theologian James Luther Adams noted that Unitarians had become so used to thinking of themselves as riding a wave of progress that they simply expected the rest of Protestantism to follow in their wake. And by the 1930s, Adams observed, his fellow Unitarians were almost completely unprepared for history's sharp turn away from them in the rise of movements as diverse as existentialism, fundamentalism, totalitarianism, fascism, anti-religious scientism, and theological neo-orthodoxy. These non-liberal or anti-liberal trends took the Unitarians by surprise, and I often think we haven't yet developed a way to acknowledge how tangential our particular stream has become. Our liberalism is not only different from the liberalism that soldiers on in other traditions but it may not even be the most helpful variety available. It certainly does not represent the only novel or progressive developments in Western religious thought. (Consider liberation theology, narrative theology, "radical Orthodoxy," post-liberal, and post-modern theological movements.) Confronted with powerful illiberal movements in politics and religion, UUs haven't lately shown much creativity in responding. ("Oh, no!" is not a creative response, honest as it may be.) Nonetheless, because we play the role of The Beast, others can point to us as the culmination of whatever theological trend they fear — even if we can take no credit for it — and we, stuck in our upward-and-onward doctrine of history, go right along thinking of ourselves as the "more liberal" tradition on every issue as history heads off in other directions.
For a very tangible sense of how marginal Unitarian and Universalist expressions of Protestant liberalism have become, pick up the first two volumes of Gary Dorrien's masterful history of American liberal religious thought, The Making of American Liberal Theology. The Unitarians dominate the first section of the volume about the nineteenth century but do not appear at all in the volume dedicated to the period from 1900 to 1950. (James Luther Adams is the only major theologian from the Unitarian tradition who will appear in the projected third volume.) I point to Dorrien's work because if you really want to understand the roots of Protestant liberal theology in America today, looking to the Unitarian Universalists is an intellectual cop-out.
"Creeping Unitarian Universalism" is not what threatens conservatives in other Christian churches. Unfortunately for you, my conservative friends, liberalism is much broader and much deeper than the phenomenon we celebrate over here in our tiny, marginal faith community of Unitarian Universalists. I'd like my fellow UUs to show more interest in the varieties of liberalism — especially those that aren't hostile to historical traditions — because it isn't really helping anybody for us to be proud of being a vanguard that few follow. More helpful, for us and for the broader Christian community, would be a Unitarian Universalism that saw its relationship to other forms of Protestant liberalism fraternally rather than paternally. Who knows? Maybe someday it won't be an insult when a Unitarian Universalist complains of "creeping Episcopalianism." We might come to assume that the Holy Spirit may be speaking to us through each other, if we could learn sufficient humility to listen.
Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 18 October 2004 at 11:10 PM