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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Guardian's religion reporter says farewell, faith shaken.

Stephen Bates, who has covered religion for the British Guardian newspaper since 2000, files his last column — on the tense meeting in New Orleans between the bishops of the American Episcopal Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and announces that he's leaving religion reporting altogether. He has especially sharp words for ecclesiastical conservatives:

There is also no doubting, personally, that writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else.

I had no notion in 2000 that it would come to this: I had thought then that we were all pretty ecumenical these days. I was soon disabused of that. I had scarcely ever met a gay person, certainly not knowingly a gay Christian, and had not given homosexuality and the Church the most cursory thought, much less held an opinion on the matter. But watching and reporting the way gays were referred to, casually, smugly, hypocritically; the way men such as Jeffrey John (and indeed Rowan Williams when he was appointed archbishop) were treated and often lied about, offended my doubtless inadequate sense of justice and humanity. . . .

No, it's not evangelicalism, or evangelicals, I loathe, merely some of the practitioners who have made such a spectacle and scandal of the Church in recent years. They are by no means the majority, though they would like to pretend they are and presume to speak for all the rest.

They are the sort of people who claim themselves so superior to their bishops that they won't allow them to touch them for ordination, or who would not allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to preach from their pulpits (they should be so lucky) for fear that he might dangerously challenge the comfortable beliefs of their flocks, the sort of people who pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those — always committed by other, lesser people — that are not. Why is remarrying divorced people now OK — allowing them to continue fornicating — but not recognising the lifelong commitment of gay people to each other? Why does the Bishop of Carlisle happily bless nuclear submarines and, for all I know, dogs and cats, but not the unions of people who wish to demonstrate their devotion to each other for ever?

The trouble with these people, my wife always says, is that they don't read their Bibles, for they know nothing of charity. I think she's right and I am in mortal danger of losing mine. It's time to move on.

Bates will be replaced by Riazat Butt, the first Muslim to cover the religion beat for a British national newspaper.

Related: An American religion reporter left the beat in Orange County, California, earlier this year when he realized that covering the bad news of organized religion had undermined his born-again faith.

("Williams escapes bishops' poison to see church at work in New Orleans," Stephen Bates, The Guardian 9.22.07; "Sketch: preparing for the Anglican summit," Stephen Bates, Religious Intelligence 9.21.07; "Religion beat became a test of faith," William Lobdell, Los Angeles Times 7.21.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 22 September 2007 at 3:08 PM

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19 comments:

Rev. Jack Ditch:

September 23, 2007 05:09 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's interesting how much his feelings towards the Anglicans reflect my own feelings towards the UUA, as much of what I've seen in Unitarian Universalism over the past four years has undermined my belief in the essential benignity of too many UUs.

There are a lot of angry people in our religion, intent on punishing the people they veiw as offending justice instead of learning to love people despite their flaws. Mess with them, and they can be as hostile as any conservative is towards gays. And since we believe in democracy, all it takes for them to control the resources of the church is quantity.

Yet I'm trying to make this moment of disillusionment a moment of acceptance that no religious institution is essentially benign, rather than yet another flight from religion. What am I supposed to do, leave the UUA in the hands of the angry judges and abandon religion institutions altogether?

It's really made me look back at the Roman Catholic church I grew up in and realize that sure, they believed I was born inherently sinful, but at least they also believed I was forgiven for it! And while I still shudder at the idea of submitting to the authority of a bishop, I definitely understand why a bishop would not submit to the authority of democracy, given the frequently angry and judgmental views of the masses.

I'm also starting to understand how those awesome, loving and very liberal priests and nuns I knew growing up Roman Catholic stomached working for a hierarchy that was so obviously corrupted by politics and greed. I used to think it was because they didn't have the guts to stand up to their superiors; now I think it may have been because they had the guts to forgive their superiors!

Instead of running away from religions that embody all the petty, hypocritical judgment of humanity, maybe it's time we think about forgiving them and serving them. I say this about myself and my relationship to the Unitarian Universalist Association, but I also say this about the UUA's relationship to other religions, and to the world.

Maybe "Unitarian Universalism" should be less about building a church where everyone's accepted, and more about accepting every church?

Philocrites:

September 23, 2007 07:22 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jack, it seems that any mature faith has to come to terms at some point with the failures and inadequacies of one's own tradition. That's not the same as becoming resigned to those faults, but yes, there are significant downsides to each tradition. Finding a way to acknowledge the weaknesses — even the tragic weaknesses — of Unitarian Universalism while still affirming what is vital and life-giving in it is the first step, I think, toward a mature religious liberalism. The second step, I think, is to recognize one's own personal weaknesses and not to displace all fault onto others.

You point to congregational polity as Unitarian Universalism's weakness. You might be interested in reading Mark Oppenheimer's "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture"; its concluding chapter has some very interesting observations about how congregational polity has allowed both the Southern Baptists and the Unitarian Universalists to grow ideologically narrow. It is also true, however, that congregational polity has enabled the theological liberalization of Unitarian and UU churches. Some historians also see roots of American liberty and democracy in the congregational culture on New England -- the same culture that gave rise to Unitarianism and Universalism, and to Baptists as well, who fought hardest for religious liberty -- so there's an upside, too.

A final thought. You write: "Maybe 'Unitarian Universalism' should be less about building a church where everyone's accepted, and more about accepting every church?" I can't tell if you're really suggesting something beyond the idea that UUs try to affirm the wisdom within other traditions, something that David Rankin affirmed this way:

"We believe in tolerance of religious ideas. The religions of every age and culture have something to teach those who listen."

That isn't quite the same as "accepting every church." I'm not sure what that kind of acceptance would look like: We can't embody contradictory forms of church government; we can't be congregational and have a Catholic Magesterium at the same time, for example. And we'd be hard-pressed to know how to "accept" radically patriarchal churches. We can learn from while still being critical of others' ideas.

There already is, within our tradition, a history of interest in genuine interfaith dialogue. Many of us are committed to that as a key part of our religious liberalism. The trick is to try to help more UUs appreciate the value of listening to and learning from other traditions. I'd suggest that this is easier to do from a critically-loving perspective than from a critically-denunciatory perspective.

Tracie Holladay:

September 23, 2007 11:53 AM | Permalink for this comment

Poor guy. I found this to be a heartbreaking read - probably because I know the feeling all too well. I had tried TEC and the bickering about the gay issue was, as he put it, "corrosive" to the soul.

I hope he finds healing somewhere. Seriously.

Desmond Ravenstone:

September 23, 2007 01:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think in any community bound by a certain set of principles -- including our UU community -- we can often find those who seem to "talk the talk, but not walk the walk." And not just among conservatives, but also among radicals seeking change.

Too often, when presented with a difficult question such as inclusion of sexual minorities, extremists on either side will present the answer as a black-and-white "either-or" proposition: Either we hold fast to the traditions which define us, or we throw all of it away; either we live up to the spirit of love and justice right now, or we cling to the old ways. The middle path of dialogue and discernment, done in a spirit of respect and humility, is much harder and takes much longer -- but the rewards are much greater.

Currently I am at the beginning of such a process in my own congregation. I am grateful both for the guidance of my minister and friends there, and for the openness with which many are willing to listen and ask question (even tough ones) in a spirit of respect. And I would have it no other way. It is the way we grow as individuals, and truly live out our faith.

Rev. Jack Ditch:

September 23, 2007 06:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

"We can't embody contradictory forms of church government; we can't be congregational and have a Catholic Magesterium at the same time, for example."

Sure we can!

A brief bit of background: Most of my theological contemplation centers on what is to me the observational reality that we embody contradiction all the time. Check the article on this topic in the Summer 2007 UU World for a brief glimpse of what I'm talking about. The push-pull of contradiction embodied is just the way of life; what matters is how we respond to it, whether we accept it or try to kill it.

That given, the way I figure, every church is a Unitarian Universalist church; every church is a Catholic church. Some places in this One Great Church, I can go and find warm welcome just being myself; other places, if I were to stick around and persist in preaching my beliefs with all the urgency I believe they deserve, I'd be run out like Robin Edgar.

The great trouble with the UUA, as far as I see it, is that they've somehow come to believe that the churches they personally build and invest in are somehow different and special, separate and above, so that they might deign to listen to and learn from those churches outside and below, but they could never actually embrace those condemnable churches into their fold--at least, not until those churches repent of their condemnable ways. Sound familiar?

The only thing that should be stopping us is when a church won't let us through the door, such that even though we would gladly welcome them into our services, they would not welcome us into their services.

And even then, so what if the Pope thinks he's got the authority to condemn us? We know better. Instead of rejecting him just because he rejects us, I say we should consider him a Unitarian Universalist anyway, and thank him for the good work his organization does for the the church universal, which is abundant, despite his mistakes.

That's kinda what I expected to find when I joined four years ago, given that Universalist theology was apparently considered important enough to be a namesake of the institution.

Instead, I find us held back by our own refusal to commune with others; we may profess the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but then we proceed to vett our ministers and official statements so that only the very best are allowed the brand name of Unitarian Universalism.

We have confused the non-profit corporation into which we invest our church-building time and energy with the Unitarian Universalist Church, much like the Romans did long ago when they qualified their Catholicism, and in the process we seem to have lost our vision and understanding of that One Universal Church to which we all belong.

Philocrites:

September 24, 2007 08:04 AM | Permalink for this comment

Jack, I sympathize with one aspect of your wish, which is that UUs continue to develop a greater capacity for sympathetic imagination regarding the religious beliefs of others. (I think we've actually gotten better in recent years on this.)

Having said that, the universal religion (perennial philosophy?) you're proclaiming doesn't have universal appeal. It's not the commonalities among all religions that draw most people; it's the pecularities. "Language" may be universal, but people speak particular languages, not "language." It's the same with religion: People walk a particular path, not all paths or some universal path. And that's what poses the most interesting challenge for Unitarian Universalists: What is our language, and how can we engage sympathetically with others?

Rev. Jack Ditch:

September 24, 2007 11:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

People walk a particular path, not all paths or some universal path. And that's what poses the most interesting challenge for Unitarian Universalists: What is our language, and how can we engage sympathetically with others?

Goodness! I would think the analogy to language demonstrates my point without further explanation!

Yes, we could seek out one language and call it "our" language (and our Mass shall be said in Latin worldwide.) Or, we could do as both our name and our creed^^^^^principles imply we desire to do, and build churches in which all languages are embraced, and many paths are traveled. That's what I thought we were doing when I joined; instead I find people such as yourself concerned primarily with getting us all to speak the same language and walk the same path.

Yes, you speak your particular language. But if you intend your church to be thusly monolingual, isn't it a bit self-ignorantly haughty to go around calling that language Unitarian Universalism? At the very least, it seems to sap that name of real meaning. At worst, it makes it very easy for us to be smeared as hypocrites, as our quest for one peculiar UU language and path seems to leave us doing quite the opposite of a plain english interpretation of our name and principles.

Philocrites:

September 24, 2007 12:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jack, the place where all languages are spoken is called "the world."

Sure, one interpretation of "universalism" is that every possible path is equally valid and equally supported within one's local, 85-member UU congregation. That's not a well-supported interpretation of Universalist history, but it's a mushy word and you're entitled to your view of it.

The more basic problem is this: it's not conceptually possible for a congregation to be what you envision, simply because religions are social and require some degree of shared practice to cohere. All things to all people isn't a viable aspiration for a single congregation, or for an association of congregations. A congregation can be diverse; it can stretch; but it can't, practically, be everything. That's what the world is for.

Rev. Jack Ditch:

September 24, 2007 01:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jack, the place where all languages are spoken is called "the world."

Well, yes. Exactly. I'm suggest we embrace the world, and count it all as our own, Unitarian and Universalist.

Sure, one interpretation of "universalism" is that every possible path is equally valid and equally supported

That's not how I'm interpreting it. Rather, I'm saying we should embrace every possible path, not because it is as valid as any other, but rather because we support inherent worth and dignity of the person walking it.

That's not a well-supported interpretation of Universalist history, but it's a mushy word

I'm just trying to figure out what interpretation of "Universalist" you're using, if you think it means embracing and loving less than the whole universe.

The more basic problem is this: it's not conceptually possible for a congregation to be what you envision, simply because religions are social and require some degree of shared practice to cohere.

Since when is coherence our priority? I figure, we'll cohere when we have somewhat in common, and stick apart when we don't. Would we, who believe in freedom of religion, have it any other way?

There's no reason we need one standard that every individual and congregation need always stick to; I have faith in our ever-changing commonalities to get us through our ever-changing differences. Furthermore, I wonder how one could envision such a standard, and then claim it's not a creed.

Chalicechick:

September 24, 2007 01:48 PM | Permalink for this comment

It looks to me like y'all are talking past each other.

To me there's a difference between

"Hey, I just discovered a religion called Zoroastrianism. We should start celebrating its holidays and performing its rituals! I've only read this enclycopedia article on it, but it sounds groovy!"

and

"You know, Joe is a zoroastrian. He doesn't talk much about that path, but I bet they have some interesting insights. Somebody should see if he'd like to do an RE class on that or maybe just talk about it sometimes. I bet we could learn a lot from him about the insights Zoroastrianism has given him into his spirituality."

I think everybody in this conversation agrees that the attitude expressed in the first example is not what we want to be doing, while the second one would be fine.

For me, it's a matter of authenticity. I'm cool with darn near any religion someone puts effort into learning and gets meaning from. I'm less excited when people take a less thoughtful approach.

CC

Rev. Jack Ditch:

September 24, 2007 03:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Well, chalicechick, to the Goofus suggestion, I would say that we're already celebrating Zoroastrian holidays and performing Zoroastrian rituals, because the Zoroastrians are doing so, and I count them as members of our church. No need to rebuild the wheel.

But to your Gallant's suggestion, I'd say the religion which allows you to learn a lot about its insights merely from talking with a practitioner is probably not a very deep religion, and I'd tell Gallant that they should try celebrating Zoroastrian holidays and performing Zoroastrian rituals instead.

Philocrites:

September 25, 2007 08:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chalicechick, maybe we are talking past each other — but it seems Jack is actually suggesting that UUism be defined as a conglomeration of all other religions. Or that it be defined as the sum of everyone else's religious traditions. What I don't understand about Jack's view is why a UU congregation should exist at all.

After all, why show up at a your local church on Sunday to hear about Zoroastrianism or even in order to practice a Zoroastrian ritual when you could go practice the ritual with other Zoroastrians who know how it's really done? Why dabble when other communities are doing these rituals in earnest? Why have UU congregations? What would the world lack if they vanished? Without a UU congregation to bother with on Sundays, we'd all have more time to spend in other people's religious traditions.

That's what perplexes me. I'm all for pluralism and interfaith dialogue. I personally enjoy participating in the religious rituals of (some) other traditions. But Unitarian Universalism still needs definition — some accounting for what we do and why we do it in the ways that we do — or we have no point.

Chalicechick:

September 25, 2007 10:17 AM | Permalink for this comment

Well, Jack, not to state the obvious, but most religions of any quality have insights on a lot of levels.

I would say Judaism is a pretty deep religion, but this year as a couple of our friends celebrated the high holy days and I got a couple of emails saying "Hey, I don't think I've offended you this year, but in case I have, I wanted you to know that I'm really sorry and I'd like to atone for it."

I've been thinking a lot about atonement and forgiveness and what they mean to me as a result.
I don't interpret them exactly the same way as my Jewish friends, but it still has me thinking.

At the same time, I'm not going to pretend that performing a ritual will really mean I totally understand it without the cultural and theoretical context. Being a poseur who walks the walk, but doesn't even understand the talk that gives the walk meaning, doesn't interest me.

CC
thinking "Ok, you're right. Y'all do fundamentally disagree."

Prosopopeya:

September 25, 2007 10:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

The problem here might partly be that Philocrites seems to be talking about the Church as temporal institution, and Jack about the Church Universal, the invisible church, the spiritual church, which can and does embody a host of contradictions. In that case I think you're both right.

The Church, qua temporal institution, cannot embody contradictions. That's both impossible and in any case a recipe for chaos.

But as a spiritual creature, I think that _I_ can. (I think.) I've always drawn a distinction between being a unitarian universalist and a Unitarian Universalist. I am a unitarian universalist, using those words as descriptors of my belief in the Church Universal, in the world, in the hope and salvation of humankind. My institutional identity as a Unitarian Universalist is less solid, precisely because its particulars, like any particulars, have their tensions and their limits when it comes to the expression of the Universal.

I have much more to say on the subject, but right now I should probably do the job they pay me for.

NDM:

September 25, 2007 12:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

"But Unitarian Universalism still needs definition some accounting for what we do and why we do it in the ways that we do or we have no point."

Yep-you can't be all things to all people. My former employer is currently dieing an agonizing death, in part because it no longer knew what it did, why it did it or how to do it well. Every idea that someone else had, they tried to offer as well. But most of us would agree that going down to the GM plant to pick up a loaf of bread is probably not a great idea.

Rev. Jack Ditch:

September 25, 2007 02:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Philocrites writes:
I'm all for pluralism and interfaith dialogue. I personally enjoy participating in the religious rituals of (some) other traditions. But Unitarian Universalism still needs definition some accounting for what we do and why we do it in the ways that we do or we have no point.

Well, I rather thought the point of having a UU church was pluralism and interfaith dialogue, asking people what they believe instead of telling them what to believe. One of our local UU institutions is excellent for that; sure, most people who pass through our doors don't even realize it's a UU institution, and half the board explicitly does not identify as UU, but those who do identify as UU are playing down our name and playing up the interfaith safe space precisely because we're uu (with lowercase letters, as Prosopopeya describes.) Sadly, the other UU institution in town seems to go the opposite direction, bending over backwards to distinguish and distance themselves from the religions they reject. It's a relatively hostile place to try and cultivate uu-ism, making the uppercase acronymn kinda empty and hypocritical.

The Church, qua temporal institution, cannot embody contradictions. That's both impossible and in any case a recipe for chaos.

Impossible? No. Chaotic? Ah, yes--Hail Eris! The world is chaotic. This is a given. The question is, do we embrace the chaos and learn to create within it, or do we attempt to destroy the chaos until only the order that we desire remains? In my neck of the woods, we call those who choose the latter path Greyface.

As for the notion that I'm asking us to be all things to all people, that's not really what I'm going for. I'm thinking we should rather be the glue that brings all those things and people together.

Yvonne:

October 9, 2007 09:22 AM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting discussion.

The original (19th c) definition of Universalism was that everyone would be saved by Jesus' death on the cross.

The original definition of Unitarianism was a belief in one Deity, albeit one with many names.

Nowadays universalism seems to equate to the idea of the perennial philosophy.

I think if UUs were to start claiming that other religions are a branch of UUism, some of those religions would get upset. It would be difficult to fit hard polytheists into such a category; they do not believe we are all worshipping the same divine/numinous.

I like your inclusivist ecumenism, Jack, and wish that all religions had a reasonable explanation of why there are other faith traditions, and I hope that interfaith work will help to improve things.

Yvonne:

October 9, 2007 09:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Incidentally I have recently gone through a similar faith crisis caused by embarrassing co-religionists, in the form of being embarrassed by Pagans claiming that all British ancestral remains should be reburied. Not to mention the number of people who want to argue about really pointless stuff instead of worrying about the environment and world poverty and the persecution of tribal peoples.

So I'm in the process of joining the Unitarians (UK). I know no-one's perfect, but the ability to embrace change and plurality and express compassion seems like a good set of characteristics.

hafidha sofia:

October 9, 2007 01:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting to watch this discussion evolve; I learned some things.

I think I'm leaning slightly more towards Jack's vision - I prefer to think of UUism as a religious movement than a religious institution, although it is clearly an institution.



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