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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

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Scott Wells:

October 18, 2004 11:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bravo, Chris.

By the way, I have heard the terms "creeping Episcopalianism" and "creeping Presbyterianism" among Unitarian Universalists: the former from those in a "radical" midsts who don't like Christian worship, and the latter who don't like Universalist (read: mutually-responsible) polity.

I roll my eyes to both. I'm amazed I've not ruptured my optic nerve. Damn if we're not the most bourgeois radicals alive.


October 19, 2004 03:05 AM | Permalink for this comment

Some helpful thoughts that I'll have to work over. I agree that UUism is not "pioneers" in terms of deteriming the future of liberal protestantism. But I don't think I'd separate UUism from the other currents in liberal protestant thoughts as strongly as you do.

First because over 2/3 of UU clergy have their theological training in mainline protestant seminaries. And the UU schools appear to have the same general curriculm, folks to read, course offering as their mainline counterparts.

So that the education, influences, ideas that UU clergy work are going to be similar to what other mainline clergy work with. If one was to visit the library of a UU or a UCC or a Disciples minister it wouldn't surprise me if half the books were shared by all three folks.

As a side note, I can think of a few Unitarian authors in Dorrien's work of theologians in the 1900-1950 period. Charles Hartshorne comes to mind. Henry Nelson Wieman is another. One of the advantages of going to school at Southern Illinois U has been the archives where one can read sermons, church programs and church retreats that Wieman would do for Unitarian congregations.

But I think your point about radical orthodoxy, post liberalism, and other schools of thought within the mainline which do not find much of a home in UU circles is well made. I'm not UU so I'm not sure what it would look like for UUs to engage such thought. But a confidence, rather then an over confidence, in UU's contribution to the ongoing religious conversation is warranted and ought to be able to connect up with the going ons in the mainline.


October 19, 2004 08:30 AM | Permalink for this comment

Scott, I am consciously alluding to UUs who do complain of "creeping Episcopalianism." Such a charge could easily have been leveled (and probably was leveled) against Unitarians as early as the 1850s.

Dwight, I think you actually reinforced one of my main points: Unitarian Universalism is largely informed today by various forms of Protestant liberalism, especially through the seminaries, but very little of that formation is distinctly Unitarian Universalist. One could almost say that contemporary Unitarian Universalist thought is derivative from a handful of contemporary theological-political streams of thought.

As for Wieman and Hartshorne: Hartshorne never influenced Unitarian Universalism in its main stream, even though he was affiliated with the UUs throughout his professional career (and he explicitly hesitated to identify his religious position with Unitarianism); his theism certainly ran counter to the prevailing naturalistic Humanism, which he wrote an early book to refute, and while process theology has its adherents and admirers among the UUs (including me), this is a tradition Unitarians borrowed, not one we led. Wieman, who affiliated with Unitarianism later in his career, could almost be a special case if contemporary religious humanism invoked his religious naturalism explicitly; more often, the Humanists still seem stuck on Corliss Lamont! As it is, I have more mainline friends than UU friends interested in Wieman.


October 20, 2004 04:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ach! I read your comments about creeping Episcopalianism backwards.


October 21, 2004 12:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris: I just had to expalin to a Lutheran profressor in my Tillich seminar why I had referred to James Luther Adams as the most influential Unitarian theologian even though she did not really know his work while she knew Hartshorne, Wieman and Whitehead.

To what extent do you think we are the Amish of liberalism? We attempt to continue a humanist progress narrative that most people lost faith in after Auschwitz and the bomb.

Steve Caldwell:

October 24, 2004 10:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'll disagree that Unitarian Universalism isn't in the vanguard of liberal religious thought today when it comes to one of the most important religious education topics we cover in our congregations. There's one area where we have led the way and blazed the trail for Protestant denominations.

Back in 1967, deryk calderwood was the LREDA (Liberal Religious Educators Association) Fall Conference theme speaker.

In 1968, deryk and a team of curriculum developers were later asked by the UUA to create a sexuality education curriculum for use in UU congregations in response to requests from parents in our congregations. They wanted resources to educate our youth on a potentially emotionally charged and delicate subject. They also wanted a curriculum that reflected UU values. In 1971, the UUA had a curriculum for early adolescents called About Your Sexuality or AYS. AYS was used for many years and revised three times before going out of print in 1997.

Some background history on UU involvement in sexuality education can be found here:

"Sex Education and Religious Liberty" by Rev. Dave Weissbard

and here:

Our Whole Lives Interfaith Roots

You're probably asking yourself .... "Steve, what does this have to do with liberal Protestant thought?"

Here's my answer:

In 1992, Gene Navias (UUA Religious Education Department) and Faith Johnson (United Church of Christ's United Church Board for Homeland Ministries) started discussions that led to the creation of Our Whole Lives and Sexuality and Our Faith. OWL and Sexuality and Our Faith are a lifespan curriculum series for grades K-1, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12, and adults that can be taught in UU, UCC, and secular community settings.

Since most UU adults were not raised as UU (and didn't have the opportunity to take AYS or OWL as adolescents), they now have an opportunity to participate in Adult OWL and discover how UU sexuality education engages the mind, body, and soul. It also respects us as complete persons with

From our initial ground-breaking work in late 60's and early 70's, we moved to partnership with the UCC in the early 90's. And in Summer 2004, this partnership has expanded to include the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Rev. Kaye Edwards (Disciples of Christ Director Of Family and Children's Ministries) was recently trained to be an Our Whole Lives K-1/4-6 trainer. I'm looking forward to seeing more interfaith cooperation in religious sexuality education in the future.

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