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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Baptism is more than signing a membership book.

The conversation about the limits of Unitarian Universalist congregationalism is one of the richest I've ever hosted in five years on this site. Thanks to every one of you who has contributed so far, including illuminating responses over on Celestial Lands and Making Chutney.

In my original post, I alluded to something I want to follow up on. I said that our narrowly congregational definition of "membership" is to "due to the peculiarities of our understanding of congregational polity and our non-ecclesiological understanding of membership." For me, the basic issue is not whether "congregations come first" or whether "conference spirituality" (or "circle worship") is more religiously satisfying than congregational worship (especially since it never has been for me) or whether extracongregational organizations deserve formal recognition from the UUA. The basic issue is what we mean by belonging.

Unitarian Universalists tend to view membership along the lines of active, legal membership in a voluntary society ("pledging members," for example), even though our congregations also include and depend on the active participation of non-member friends, the children of members, and many other people for whom the congregation is a vital part of their life. These folks may very well identify strongly with the congregation and with the religion it practices, but they aren't regarded as members.

Membership has its privileges — but for us these are 501c3 privileges, not ecclesiastical privileges: Members can vote in congregational meetings and can serve on governing boards; non-members cannot. But non-members can participate completely in our worship life, volunteer in the Sunday school, and engage fully in all other parts of our congregational life. We don't have a way to expand "membership" to encompass them. Are they Unitarian Universalists? They identify with, participate in, contribute to, and affiliate with UU communities. They are unmistakably part of our religious communities, but they are not legally members of our religious societies. And this is a place where our thinned-out doctrine of the church fails us.

As I've been thinking more about this subject, I keep coming back to one of the ways we Unitarian Universalists have departed from Christian ecclesiology. When a person is baptized, they're initiated into "the church" — not into Presbyterianism or Roman Catholicism or any other particular branch of the church, but into the church universal. There are particular membership requirements for individual denominations and congregations, to be sure, but the act of initiation into the Christian community comes first. Christians aren't merely Christians through an act of legal membership in a voluntary society; they're also Christians through their symbolic passage in baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

(I'm aware that some denominations refuse to acknowledge baptisms performed by the others, of course, but theologically, even narrowly sectarian Christian churches recognize a distinction between baptism into the church and membership in our church. Because I'm trying to make a theological observation more than a historical one, I'm going to step over the practice of Christian divisiveness and point to Christian concepts of universality.)

Christians recognize that the church is manifest in a variety of ways: at the congregational level and at the institutional/denominational level, to be sure, both of which are political and associational levels, but also at a more cosmic level as "the body of Christ," as "the kingdom of God," as the "church invisible." Ecumenism is premised on the idea that Christians are part of something shared, even though they are individually members of highly distinctive and even contending church bodies. The church is both a social phenomenon and, more importantly, a symbol of God's community.

By baptism, I'm part of the church universal — and therefore welcome to communion at my wife's Episcopal church, for example, as well as at King's Chapel, the Unitarian Universalist Christian church in Boston where I renewed my baptismal covenant at the Easter vigil ten years ago. That broader fellowship means a great deal to me. Then again, I've long said that my religion is Christianity, my theology is liberal, and my denominational affiliation is Unitarian Universalist.

If your religion is "Unitarian Universalism," however, you're faced with the question of what marks the point of entry, the threshold of membership, the portal through which a person becomes part of our broader fellowship. And that's where Unitarian Universalism has a problem. We don't really initiate people into a larger community, something that transcends the congregation.

Some of our congregations still practice baptism, of course, but that's because they continue to see themselves as part of the Christian church. For non-Christian or post-Christian churches, that option is closed. And while baptism has once again become a live symbol to me, it is probably a dead symbol for many UUs who were baptized in other churches. I'm wondering what practice symbolizes the broader fellowship for UUs who see Unitarian Universalism as their religion.

Unitarian Universalism's membership ritual is essentially signing a membership book, an act that is always local, parochial, and temporary — but that is in no way required for a person to feel religiously engaged with Unitarian Universalism. (It's temporary because a congregation can remove you from membership for any number of reasons, usually involving lack of activity or failure to make an annual financial contribution.) Although dedicated advocates of our voluntary-association approach to membership might think of the membership book as the gateway to "real" Unitarian Universalism, it strikes me as theologically thin. It's important but bureaucratic, and doesn't seem to have the capacity to symbolize a sense of more transcendent or universal fellowship.

Covenant theorists have done excellent work in trying to draw attention to the religious dimensions of congregational membership. But it seems that the covenant, not membership in the voluntary association, that has the real religious power. Many congregations operate with a kind of implicit covenant; some venerate "community." Some congregations still practice (or have more recently begun to practice) a spoken covenant or "bond of fellowship" in their worship services. A handful of ancient congregations in New England still use the covenant of their Puritan ancestors. The church in Jamaica Plain where I preached a few weeks ago uses this classic Unitarian covenant: "In the love of truth and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of humanity."

I think these covenants are better to point to than legal membership in a congregation when we're looking for thresholds or gateways to belonging. But these covenants are still much more local and parochial than baptism. You're a member of a particular worshiping community (by joining in the ritual of affirming the covenant) or a member of your local church (by signing the membership book and making a pledge), you're not a member of something larger. Your congregation is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but, technically, you are not. We could perhaps reimagine and redefine the Association to be a network of individuals rather than a network of congregations, but that wouldn't solve the basic problem that our sense of religious belonging is tied up with a legalistic, bureaucratic notion of membership in a voluntary association.

What does our belonging symbolize? Some forms of modern Universalism would propose a universal or pan-religious kingdom of God. Radical Unitarians in the late-19th century looked forward to a "republic of the world," a progressive incarnation of the "kingdom of God." The impulse to identify the cosmic fellowship that the local church symbolizes is exactly right. But it seems to me that we have failed to develop an adequate theology of this broader fellowship — and, perhaps more importantly, we have not yet developed a way to enact it or symbolize it so that it can serve as a meaningful threshold to our religion. We have yet to imagine what a baptism into Unitarian Universalism would be.

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 23 February 2008 at 2:32 PM

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February 23, 2008 03:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris, what a great discussion. I just found it so I'm catching up. Wish I had more time to contribute, but just wanted to thank you for raising these excellent and very important questions.


February 24, 2008 01:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Great post.

You are asking what is the UU ritual comparable to Baptism. For me, the answer is birth. By being born I entered into a community of humans towards which I have definite obligations. This is more important than belonging to a specific congregation.

The practical problem for institutional UUism is finding a mechanism to connect with people between the ages of 20 and 40. For me, as for so many others, this is a time when congregational polity makes no sense. How can one commit to a congregation when one's tenure in town is limited by grad school or a post-doc? Personally, I was a part of UU churches as a child and reconnected about the time I got a job I liked that I was sure I could keep until retirement. During the interval in between I didn't go to church much. I suppose I identified as a UU, but not in any meaningful way. But I always thought of myself as a humanist who supported UU values.

There is a practical issue here. But I don't know the answer.

Steve Caldwell:

February 24, 2008 02:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chris wrote:
"Unitarian Universalism's membership ritual is essentially signing a membership book"

For infants and small children, wouldn't the membership ritual be a child dedication ceremony (or a Christening ceremony in UU Christian congregations or in UU families who want this ceremony). The liturgies that I've seen for these ceremonies mention the congregation's responsibility for nuturing the child and providing a religious community to support the child.

In my congregation, "signing the book" is a requirement for adult (aka "voting") membership. But we also have a liturgical element -- an "ingathering" ceremony for our new adult members too.

One church in my district has a new member recognition ritual for their YRUU group as well.

Rev Elz:

February 24, 2008 06:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Part of the issue is our skimpy, arrogant attitude toward providing top rank need-specific, life-specific pastoral care. And the reason is simple -- that would mean shifting our ministers' colllegial community, with its attendant gripes and hints, from clergy of other religions to the religious education professionals of our own faith. The RE philosophy of lifespan -- that first graders are fundamentally different from sixth graders, etc -- carries on into adulthood for religious educators, but we've had no luck getting this adult span acknowledged anyplace in our culture. No, once you pass "Our Whole Lives" -- which is, of course, usually only offered at puberty, not in the lifespan way it was written -- you get into the same "One for all" model that baptism or bar/bat mitzvah models in other faiths.

The Puritans had a compromise ritual in the way they did conversion. It had five steps, as I recall: the person admits their human frailty as complete need of Jesus -- but am I worthy? The person accepts Jesus's unconditional gift of love through the cruxifixion and resurrection. Then, being saved fills the person with a sense of confidence which quickly boils over into self-righteousness. (Jesus preached against this quite strongly, I want you to remember.) Finally, either appalled or warned, the person finally admits that she or he will never be adequate, even with the gift of salvation. The person accepts Jesus again with a lasting humility that it is his gift, not our own worthiness, that gets us into heaven.

Disgusted yet? Most liberals were. They preferred the Pelagian heresy, in which salvation is something we negotiate with God. He gives us the gift of opportunity: that we do not make for ourselves. Then it is up to us to "improve our opportunity" through our own works and character.

This distinction, by the way, is what led to the famous "Unitarian controviersies" of New England's first 1800s: only a small minority would experience conversion and win the right to be called "the church." Everyone else had to watch as "the church" took communion every month from finest silver. Everyone else would watch as "the church" elected deacons to care for the souls of the faithful. In the end, it was not the liberals who got tired of watching, but the orthodox -- the church -- who grew tired of Pelagian preaching and longed for their own congregations, where salvation was preached, supported and rewarded.

But in neither case did the old New England congregation see much going on. In conversion, all the congregation would see is that the person would stand up in church and testify to their salvation (or, if a woman was too modest, have her statement read by the minister). Then, of course, they would take communion -- without any fancy discussion. The congretation would NOT see the many visits the minister paid to discuss these fears and backslidings, check-ins with self. The minister would also have been hinting gently at the sin of pride when the person was in stage three -- not in an embarrassing way, but in a one-shoe-could-fit-anyone kind of way.

In Pelagianism, one would see the works a person did for the world -- because obviously, works for oneself would not be holy so much as selfish. Here came our commitment to social justice, with which we can from time to time get totally carried away. Yet when it began and what interrupted it, no one was qualified to ask. Might it be that God had shifted the parishioner's opportunities?

In neither case was any of this done in relation to scripturally defined or prescribed lifestyle moments. They were done in response to the discrete life events a cleric would know so well, when settled for life in a community where folks lived their entire lives, family and all, for the full span. Someone would dispair in the presence of death, someone else in a long, sour marriage. Children would feel bad about school failings, spouses about adultery. These conversions began not in public events, but private, pastoral moments, expertly managed (hopefully) by clergy trained in shifting concerns from the pragmatic to the spiritual.

Hence, I refer to this ritual as a compromise -- it was not formally prescribed, like the eighth grade confirmation -- but neither was it informal, as we too often let it become.

I would be the last to support recovering the language of personal inadequacy among us. "God does not make junk," as Jesse Jackson once said, and most of us would never be inspired if all we had was the single story of a single historical event. What I would want, though, is a more saturating pastoral availability, trained to seize these moments to enlarge the life of the individual soul toward its next opportunity from God.

William James made a great step in iuniversalizing this, when he wrote "The Varieties of the Religious Experience." And so many other writers have followed suit, in petry, prose and science. If our clergy were set up to respond to "dispair" -- rather than asking, "have you seen your physician? Is this clinical depression? Or perhaps you should be in therapy..." how much more flexible, bonded -- and busy -- we would be.

The big loser, of course, would be our busy-body streak of constant social justice. I am all in favor of working for a better world -- and have a major unpaid social justice role in Vermont -- but SAVING the world would simply pass out of our capabilities, if we were charged with putting more time into saving -- and supporting -- ALL the souls who call and elect us into care over them. And I often wonder how fast our historical sin of arrogance would evaporate, if more of us had ministers asking not, "are you doing enough?" but "why are you doing so much?"


February 24, 2008 06:40 PM | Permalink for this comment

You write: "When a person is baptized, they're initiated into 'the church' " -- except that many Quakers aren't baptised, since they don't believe in outward forms of religion. As someone who has been heavily influenced by Quaker theology (gotta love Rufus Jones...), I don't particularly agree with your theology of baptism. Transcendentalist that I am, I suppose I'd feel that what is important is not the outward form, but rather being touched by the spirit (or Spirit, I'm fine with capital letters) -- the outward form of baptism that lacks the touch of the spirit would be, for me, utterly empty and meaningless.

Therefore, I'm pretty comfortable with covenants in a way that you're not. (That is, if a covenant is taken seriously as it is in some of our churches.) Theologically speaking, to sign a church covenant is to ask a religious community to confirm that one has been touched by the spirit, to confirm that the inward change has taken place.

Having said all that, I believe that many Unitarian Universalists do have access to a religious ritual that does call one into the church universal -- and that is our coming of age programs. Like the Anabaptists, I wouldn't allow infants or children to be admitted to membership in any church, including into some variety of the church universal (perhaps a "post-Christian" "church" "universal" -- ironic quotation marks intended).

As I have done such a program, when kids get to the age of reason, they are encouraged to enter a coming of age class (no, not a confirmation class, which is supposed to confirm infant baptism; coming of age doesn't confirm any such thing!). There, they are guided in serious reflection about what it means to be a religious person, and they are asked to make the decision for themselves: Are they Unitarian Universalists or not? In the coming of age classes I have run, the young people decide whether to sign the membership book of the local congregation, but theologically I have explained it to them as deciding whether they are Unitarian Universalists or not. (For the record, about 50% of the young people I have known decide that they are UUs.) And yes, I have run similar classes for adults -- though not as successfully, simply because I never quite had the time to do it.

Is mine a universal understanding of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist? No, of course not -- but coming of age programs are surprisingly widespread among us, and fairly consistent. I think the real problem is in the way the UUA treats the meaning of membership -- but from what I know, we're not dissimilar to the UCC in this regard, so while I agree that there's a problem, I'm really not convinced that baptism or coming of age is going to solve the problem -- we need a by-laws change, is what we need.


February 25, 2008 08:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

Child dedications and coming-of-age programs can't serve the symbolic function that baptism serves for one simple reason: We UUs don't see these as central symbols for becoming Unitarian Universalists; they're life-stage ceremonies for our children.

Those of us who embraced Unitarian Universalism by choice do not "come of age" into Unitarian Universalism. We aren't "dedicated" into it, either. We don't have a central symbol for the larger community that our congregations are trying to represent.

Dan, as for the Quakers: There are always exceptions to any generalization. But Quakers, who don't believe in outward forms, still have a tradition of spiritual interpretation of the biblical texts that anchor other Christians' practices. And, as sectarians, they have a high bar for membership and see their societies as attempting to live under divine rather than human rules. They are still trying to witness to the kingdom of God.


February 25, 2008 11:15 AM | Permalink for this comment

In our small U+U fellowship in Barcelona, we do celebrate the entry of new members with a ritual, in which a candle is passed from older members of the congregation to the new ones. You make a good point in whether you are welcome in a particular congregation or in the faith. I would answer "both". Just as a minister does not need to be ordained again when she moves to another congregation, the welcoming ritual in a congregation for an individual should be considered valid if that person changes affiliation to another congregation or simply remains uncongregated. Thus congregational membership would be a necessary step to enter into the worldwide faith community but not to remain in it. It would only be superseded by a similar ritual to enter a different religious movement.

Hank Peirce:

February 25, 2008 11:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

I preached on membership just yesterday, I guess great minds to think a like, to some extent. What I focused on was first what our cultural understanding of membership was, where membership means belonging to a gym or a buying club like Costco. When membership in church is more about becoming a member of a body (thank you St. Paul) or as Rev. Mom pointed out in one of her pieces "Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Emmanuel can mean not only “God with us” but also “God in us” " It's a different way of understanding what membership is and what it is we are joining.

Now about the rituals of joining and what matter they make. First let me say that John Buehrens has spoken about the idea that we as UUs gave up a lot when we stopped baptizing members as an outward and inward sin of admittance into our church family. Yesterday at church we members of my Masonic Lodge joining us for worship, now to say that there are big differences in membership rituals is putting it mildly. As an aside Universalists and Unitarians have historically always been over represented in Masonic Lodges one reason is because the lodge provides rituals that our low liturgy does not.

OK back to what I was saying Of curse the lodges are having a difficult time keeping new members active after they have joined. which says to me is not the importance of the joining ritual, but how vital a life the organization has that people are joining.


February 25, 2008 08:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

David Pyle (my new favorite UU blogger) thinks that open communion — welcoming everyone to the communion table, without exception — is the symbolic ritual embodiment of Unitarian Universalism. An intriguing idea!

Jeff W.:

February 25, 2008 09:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Aw man, you beat me, I was going to post a pointer to David's essay. Good stuff.

I think the new post on UU numbers in America at Transient and Permanent may be relevant to this discussion.

Jeff W.:

February 25, 2008 09:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Oops, I need to pay better attention, I meant to put that last comment in the congregationalism thread. Sorry.


February 28, 2008 09:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chutney follows up on David's open communion suggestion by recommending the love feast, a practice common especially among Mennonites and other anabaptists.


March 5, 2008 10:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

Following on David's plug for open Communion, Jeff asks how Communion is celebrated in other Unitarian Universalist congregations and describes how the Universalist Church in West Hartford, Conn., celebrates Communion on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter).

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