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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Uh oh, here come the Unitarians and Universalists!

The email list for the UUA General Assembly, which is usually buzzing with roommate requests and worries about the expense of attending, has taken an interesting turn towards basic questions of polity and religious identity. But not in a good way.

Last weekend, someone posted the transcript of the Anderson Cooper CNN segment on All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington. Surprisingly, the conversation on the list turned immediately not to criticism of the show's odd portrayal of the church as liberal Christian but to its portrayal of the church as Unitarian. Oh, yes: and also to the fact that it's a Unitarian church. Both words, you see, are not up to date. The UUA should make them (and the media) stop using these anachronistic terms.

We are not Unitarians, insisted most of the list participants; we are Unitarian Universalists. And it's insensitive beyond words for congregations to call themselves churches, because that's a Christian word.

Sigh. Here's what I wrote in response:

The consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America in 1961 did not force historically Unitarian or Universalist-identified congregations to adopt a new identity or shed their old one, nor did it rule out the possibility of people identifying with one branch rather than both. (Indeed, many members of our churches don't identify with either!) The merger did create a new, third option, however: "UU" — which many congregations and many individuals have embraced. Meanwhile, some member congregations have never had a "denominational" name at all, like the Society of King's Chapel or The Community Church of Boston.

Although some people see the UUA as "one faith," another equally valid interpretation is that the UUA is a community of autonomous congregations that have covenanted to work together. The first vision is denominational and unified; the second vision is congregational and diversified. Each is a legitimate view.

One can certainly try to persuade people that all Unitarians should be Unitarian Universalists, or that all Universalists really are UUs, or that no UU congregation can legitimately claim to be a "church," but our history and polity make it just as legitimate to argue that we are and should remain a theologically diverse movement.

None of this is to defend media errors when referring to the Unitarian-Universalist movement as a whole. But if a news story is about a local congregation where people tend overwhelmingly to talk about themselves and their congregation's tradition as "Unitarian" or (less often) "Universalist," the reporter should go with the facts they've got.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 17 May 2007 at 8:21 AM

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May 17, 2007 08:54 AM | Permalink for this comment


I identify myself in religious terms first as Unitarian, second as a member of my own local church, third as Universalist, and last if at all as a UU.

Given the evident herd mentality, maybe the e-mail group ought to take up the question of changing the spelling to "ewe ewe". Baa!


May 17, 2007 11:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

I find these issues hard to talk about coherently because I can see all the sides, and agree with parts of all of them.

Yes, it would be nice to have some kind of a unifying definition of what congregations in the UUA have in common, if only so that it could be easier to talk to those outside of our churches about how this faith movement is transforming lives.

But, any attempt to unify the language we use tends to leave someone out, and isn't the point that we try to welcome all who will come inside our doors?

But, we can't welcome absolutely everyone, because then we're just saying, "anything goes in our communities!" And that's where the importance of covenant comes in, and we're back to bickering about language.

And on the whole "Church" thing - my gut reaction when a congregation moves away from the word Church is that they are dancing around a word, while taking full advantage of what the word means. But I can see how much bigger of a step it is for someone of Jewish or Muslim heritage to enter a "church" versus a "congregation."

And this discussion is a bit of a microcosm for some of the issues that the Unitarian Universalist movement faces - because we pride ourselves on seeing so many shades of gray, it becomes impossible to speak concretely about any of it.

Jeff W.:

May 17, 2007 12:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wonder if a Religious Studies perspective might be helpful here. In many contexts, I refer to people who attend churches associated with the UUA as Unitarian-Universalists, and refer to their institutions as Unitarian-Universalist churches. This is an affiliational model: these individuals choose to affiliate with a church that chooses to affiliate with the Unitarian-Universalist denomination, and therefore journalists and scholars are well within their rights to call these people Unitarian-Universalists. Likewise, the local church, as a corporate body, has chosen to affiliate with the UUA, and therefore it is properly called a Unitarian-Universalist church, even if its name is Community Church of Boston or King's Chapel, etc. All Unitarians and Universalists who attend UUA-affiliated churches are therefore Unitarian-Universalists when the speaker is using an affiliational mode of analysis, which is a perfectly common and accepted way of approaching the subject.

A second way of referring to people is by using a theological model. Theologically (a term which applies to far more than theories of God, and conversely need not include beliefs about God) someone may hold views which can be identified as Unitarian, Universalist, and/or Unitarian-Universalist. It is thus appropriate to refer to someone as a Unitarian or Universalist when describing their personal religious beliefs, even if we would refer to them as Unitarian-Universalist when describing their institutional affiliation. Theology may be claimed by groups as well as individuals, and thus a church too might be accurately described as Unitarian if that is the majority self-understanding, even if it could also be accurately described as Unitarian-Universalist when referencing its connection to the UUA. For example, I grew up in the Universalist Church of West Hartford, about 20 years after the merger. I could thus be accurately described as a Unitarian-Universalist or a Universalist, as both apply.

Despite the misconceptions of some, church is not a specifically Christian label. For example, the oldest and largest Buddhist organization in the USA is the Buddhist Churches of America--these Buddhists were calling themselves "churches" in the 19th century before any of us were born, and I think at this point we need to cede them that right. Likewise, America has hosted groups with the label "church" in the Jewish, Taoist, Hindu, Neo-pagan, and other traditions. It is perfectly appropriate for a commentator to refer to a Unitarian-Universalist congregation (group of people) or building (physical structure) as a church, and historically most Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian-Universalist groups have claimed that label. However, there are some groups that dislike the label and prefer terms such as fellowship. While calling a UU fellowship a church is accurate within the Religious Studies definition of the word, as an ethnographer I tend to prefer labels the consultant population would recognize and so I would be more likely to refer to fellowships as fellowships rather than churches, at least in certain contexts. For example, in some contexts I talk about Mormon churches. However, Latter-day Saints use the term "ward" for a local congregation (other LDS organizational models include the stake center and the temple), and so when in conversation with Mormons ward is the term I most often choose. This caveat of course does not apply to All Souls in DC, which is a clearly self-identified church.

Church is also a label used for larger, relatively stable religious denominations. This derives from the discipline of the sociology of religion, but has drifted a bit from the original (and no longer fully useful) designation of churches, denominations, and sects. Unitarian-Universalism is a church, and this is not necessarily a Christian designation: we also speak freely of the Jewish church, for instance.

This is a rather long comment. But I hope it offers some light on the ways in which these terms are used by various people. To call people Unitarians or Unitarian-Universalists is not necessarily wrong in context, nor to call a UU institution a church. Just because we have one way of using or thinking about a word does not mean that another person might have another perfectly appropriate, or even more accurate in context, usage.


May 17, 2007 02:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I would recommend to have a look at what Dana Greeley wrote about the name issue during the merger and his expectations for the future, in his book "25 Beacon Street and Other Recollections". The use of the "UU" label, besides a few local situations, was mostly a later intentional move to generate denominational identity and branding.

Phil on the Prairie:

May 17, 2007 10:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

I tend to think of myself as both a Unitarian Transcendentalist and (if I'm in the mood) a Universalist Christian. It's helpful to have a religious identity that has enough room for both natures. I wonder if it's possible for anyone to be fully Unitarian and fully Universalist. I dunno. Maybe Jesus, I guess.


May 18, 2007 07:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

Nancy finds an interesting insight about why local congregations often seem to be playing from a different book than headquarters (and headquarters-oriented individuals).

Patrick McLaughlin:

May 18, 2007 12:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

Right on Chris! A reporter has to go to press with the facts he's got, not the facts he might want.

.... .... ....

Yes, you can feed that to Chutney, if Chutney's still suffering a shortage of vitamin S.

.... .... ....

I see the various points people have made. Good ones. Let me add some shades of grey (I'm avoiding doing the bills that I have sitting right here by the computer).

I understand that the terms Unitarian and Universalist have particular and important meanings to some of us. There are members of my congregation who understand themselves as either Unitarians or Universalists AND UUs. But those two terms have specific, widely accepted theological meaning that only applies to a minority of us who belong to UU congregations (be they churches, fellowships, congregations, societies, associations, cabals...).

So I think that it's important for at least one of several things to happen. One is for us to give purists a fit, and develop/adopt new meanings for those two terms, terms that apply to at least more, if not all, UUs. My own sense is that while many of us shorthand ourselves (at least in conversation) as Unitarians, and accept it from others, that term has the least clear meaning and application for most of us. I'd propose that with the seventh principle and the discussion I see going on about beefing it up, that a new meaning is arising there for us. Most of us have no dog in the Trinitarian-Antitrinitarian fight. But in the affirmation that we-and-all are part of a single web of existence... there's a fundamental view and value that is clearly and arguably "unitarian." New wine in old vessel or old wine in new vessel, I'm not sure.

I think that most of us are actually far more comfortable with universalism. The universalism of the Universalist Church was already past any sort of purely Christian universalism, and hardly had to evolve in UU universalism--which I'd boil down to an affirmation that in all things, whatever befalls us, befalls us all. I grant that isn't quite as gloriously upbeat and anti-Calvinist as our forebears preached it, but in an age that faces some dark possibilities for what could befall us all--from nuclear winter to global environmental collapse, that may not be too surprising. I still hear it spoken of with an explicit message of hope, a belief that somehow, in the grand scheme, it's all good. Perhaps that's just tempered now with a bit of old-line Unitarian dourness. And it still is open to interpretation individually; a Universalist Christian can still find the traditional interpretation within that larger offering.

In the end, I'll argue that the proposition that UUism is a distinct faith is true--but just beginning to become so, and that at least one meaning of the term "distinct" isn't yet applicable. I say that as one of the first cadre of UUs raised within the newly merged movement. I didn't grow up in a family that understood itself as any form of Christian... so neither Unitarian nor Universalist in their traditional meanings applied. Yet being UU has been significant and meaningful to me, even in the decades when I wasn't involved in any congregation in any manner.

There's a there there which even if we're as yet unable to really define it sharply and clearly, is real and important. It doesn't matter that UUism was understood by some or all involved in the merger as branding. Things have a way of escaping from the bounds of human intention... and like kudzu...

That's not to suggest that there's not a validity to the proposition that UUism is affiliational. It's a (just not THE) definition. There are large numbers of us who aren't affiliated with any congregation or the denomination. Outsiders identify those of us who are UUs... and don't know it, and don't even know that there is such a thing. Two of our new members are such folks--they've attended just over a month, been members a couple weeks... and are driving from San Diego County to Portland to attend GA. There's more than mere affiliational choice there; something profound. People don't weep in joy as they affiliate with something that is just an organizational device--I saw that with two other new members this month; one who'd only found us for the first time late in life, and one who'd had on experience of UUism in the late 60s, and said that despite a long journey in which she'd rarely even remembered us, had the experience of "coming home" when she arrived for the first time.

If I can mangle one of the new hymns and survive, I'd just offer this:

We're becoming, heaven knows what we're becoming, but we know we are...


May 18, 2007 02:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

Channing had great insight into the relationship between congregations and headquarters. His essay "On Associations" predicts the current situation perfectly. His key distinction is between "natural" associations such as families and congregations, which are difficult to quit, and "artificial" associations, such as people who come together around a cause.

In his view cause-based organisations naturally tend to authoritarianism and conformity. He wrote that when a national organisation takes a position on a controversial issue, "let us feel that a dangerous engine is at work among us, and let us oppose to it our steady and firm disapprobation."

This doesn't mean that there is anything to change about the UUA. Its desire for conformity results from its basic nature. It cannot be reformed. Channing advises that while such groups have their uses, they should not be taken too seriously.

Channing was a team player compared to Emerson or Parker. It is hard to think of anything less Unitarian than a UUA that tries to tell people what to think.


May 19, 2007 10:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

This is one of the reasons why I, for the past several months, have been exploring the Episcopal church (but may not stay with it). The way I see it is this: words like "church" are actually neutral. They are no more Christian than they are anything else. This squabbling over semantics AND attempt at excluding anything that smacks of Christianity at all made me, as a person who finds tremendous grace in the twenty Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, feel very unwelcome within UU circles any more. I've noticed that UUs are absolutely terrified of anything to do with "God" or "religion" or "faith" (UUs say "faith" but faith in what??) or "Jesus" or anything of the kind, and the services feel so bland and empty and devoid of mystery at all as a result. It's a very Christian-hostile environment, to be sure, and there really isn't a call for that, seeing as how there are many progressive Christians out there who may need a church home that will welcome them. Most of us have had more than enough of the Falwell types, for sure.


Just wanted to get that off the ol' DDDs.


May 20, 2007 01:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

Tracie -- Though your experience is not unusual in UU groups, I want to assure you that it is not ALL UU congregations that are hostile to UU Christians and mention of Jesus or God. Some mention God and Jesus occasionally to often.
We really do vary a lot from congregation to congregation.
Yes, I see what you mean about oscillating between Unitarianism and Universalism! :-)


May 22, 2007 03:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'd like to reiterate Kim's point. In my home church, we use words like God and faith. Sometimes we talk about Jesus. Sometimes there's controversy over all that, but we do it anyway. We're in Chicago; look me up if you're ever in town.


May 25, 2007 05:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

A good news story — "good," as in well-reported and thorough — describes the decision to rename the Unitarian Church of Montclair, New Jersey, the "Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Montclair."

Perhaps ironically, the congregation has met at 67 Church Street for more than 100 years. Unexplored by the story, but worth pondering: There are only two "churches" on Church Street — the former Unitarians and these folks right across the street — a charismatic-evangelical megachurch that moved into a 1911 Romanesque church in 1994. Could the UUs have soured on the name in part because they're nervous about the neighbors? P.S. I checked the Unitarian church's centennial history [pdf] and confirmed that the street was already named Church Street before they built their stucco building in 1905.

("Unitarian Universalists drop 'church' from name," Tanya Drobness, Montclair Times 5.23.07)

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