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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Oops! Sinkford not first black president of white church.

Lately I've been covering the UU blogosphere for — visit "The Interdependent Web" or subscribe to its feed to keep up with me there — and this past week I stumbled onto something I'm surprised and embarrassed I had not heard before. In a post examining the absence of any discussion of sexism in the UUA presidential race, Suzie at Echidne of the Snakes wrote:

Many UUs were proud to elect their first African-American president. The United Church of Christ was the first major, predominatly white denomination to elect a black president in 1976. But some media, including this interview with Sinkford by Bill Maxwell, a well-known columnist who also is a UU, attributed that first to the UUA.

It's true: In 1976 Joseph H. Evans, the UCC's national secretary and an African American, was elected president of the United Church of Christ upon the death of President Robert Moss and served in that role for one year. (Here's more about Evans.)

Many media outlets appear to have overstated the significance of Sinkford's election, however. A June 2001 Associated Press article about Sinkford's election, for example, said: "Sinkford is not only the first black UUA president, but he also is the first African-American to head any predominately white religious denomination." More to the point, and more embarrassing, I wrote in my UU World coverage of Sinkford's election that he was "the first African American elected to lead a historically white denomination in the United States." Oops!

I wonder why no one pointed Evans out to us Unitarian Universalists before. Certainly UUA news junkies complained when news coverage of the UCC's decision to endorse same-sex marriage in 2005 treated the denomination's decision as a "first," since the UUA had claimed that distinction in 1996. (Of course, most of the news coverage accurately explained that the UCC was the first "mainline Christian denomination" to support gay marriage; the UUA no longer describes itself as a "Christian" denomination.) But with all the UCC-UUA interaction, I'm surprised it didn't come up. Perhaps it did, and I missed it.

At any rate, almost eight years later, I'm setting the record straight. Thanks, Suzie!

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 25 November 2008 at 10:41 PM

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November 26, 2008 12:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Generally speaking, I don't think it's smart for denominations to crow about these "firsts". The UCC gives as well as it gets here, though. They claim to be the first Christian denomination to ordain a non-celibate homosexual to the ministry, which is absolutely not true. (Independent Catholics had gay clergy back in the 40s, and gay bishops since at least the 50s.) And of course many Episcopalians continue to claim Gene Robinson is the first gay bishop in Christendom. (Not true even within the context of the Anglican Communion.)

The real accomplishments of helping people live into God's love and accept the grace God gives them seem more important than what milestones a given denomination has hit in racial, sexual, or gender terms. Why bother?


November 26, 2008 12:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hi, Phil, thanks for posting this!

Chris, I agree that denominations shouldn't "crow" (or boast) about firsts. But I do think they matter for different reasons. For historical purposes, we should note them. People who want changes in society want to know that some changes have occurred. But I do agree with the Rev. Sinkford that his election, for example, didn't mean that all work around race in UU churches was finished.

In talking about gay clergy, you probably mean the first "openly gay" X or Y. Obviously, there have been gay clergy since there have been clergy.


November 27, 2008 09:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Suzie --

While I'm aware of that dynamic, I did in fact just mean "gay clergy". I don't think the term Independent Catholic was used much prior to the 40s (it may in fact be an anachronism to use it for that period), so by necessity there couldn't have been any kind of IC clergy previous to that period. And there are, in fact, people who without any awareness at all claim Gene Robinson as the first gay bishop, full stop, in Christendom. That's precisely what I'm on about (and irked by).

The difficulty of being sure a first is a first is precisely why, even if it's useful in some way for historical purposes, denominations should be careful both to research the issue and to be circumspect about the claims they make. I would never claim that my movement and its predecessor churches ordained the first woman priest or the first openly gay priest or bishop. I can say that we were very early in the modern era, as far as I know, but again, I just don't see the point in talking about it. It quickly becomes a back-patting session that's counter-productive.


November 28, 2008 02:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Actually, being "the first African American to head a historically white denomination" is not a matter for praise, but rather the correction of a historical anomaly. Other religious bodies do not need to claim a "first non-white" President because race was never a problem for them (and race should never have been a problem if we are serious about religion).


December 10, 2008 03:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Busted for unwarranted Terminal Uniqueness again!! The obsession with being "the first" at this or that is just as irrelevant and avoidant of real issues of depth and relevance to me as digging up dead men and women of note and claiming them as Unitarians or Universalists. Thanks for the retraction!

Jeff Wilson:

December 15, 2008 11:49 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hope Philocritot and family are doing well. I'm just posting this to see if I can stir up a blog entry on the recent creation of a second Anglican body here in North America. I rather thought you might have something to say on the matter, though I know you don't have time for blogging like you used to.

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