It’s my day off, the day I take as a sabbath. I head over to Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. OK, so I go over to bookstores in Berkeley and north Oakland maybe once or twice a month, and I never see anyone I know. But this time I recognize a guy standing there looking through the poetry books. Of course he’s another Unitarian Universalist minister. He’s looking for an obscure Ferlenghetti book, I’m looking for an interlinear translation of The Canterbury Tales. Unitarian Universalist ministers are such geeks, which is one of the reasons I love my line of work.
Before you ask: While many Berkeley bookstores have gone under, a fair number remain including Moe’s, Pegasus, Pendragon, Shakespeare & Co., Eastwind, Half Price Books, Dark Carnival, Diesel — it’s still worth a trip.
The old Palo Alto Unitarian Church was designed by Unitarian architect Bernard Maybeck in 1906;
he his firm also designed the old Unitarian church building in Berkeley (now owned, and treated somewhat disrespectfully, by the University of California), and he most famously designed the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley. The first set of drawings for the Palo Alto church building was destroyed in a fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Maybeck made another set of drawings, and the main church building was completed 1907; due to the rise in construction costs following the earthquake, the social hall was not completed until 1913.
“A prominent architect, Mr. B[ernard] R[alph] Maybeck… was hired. The new building was dedicated on March 24, 1907…. The design of the building was unusual. It used rough, less expensive forms of material, redwood board and battens, common redwood shakes, rough, heavy timbers which more than caqrried the weight of the roof and cement plaster like that use for outside work, forming a deep chancel arch as high as the roof. Continue reading
Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (affiliated with the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University) have released a new Research and Policy Brief, “The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Fourfold”. Shapiro et al. summarize their findings in the opening paragraph of the brief:
“New evidence reveals that the wealth gap between white and African American families has more than quadrupled over the course of a generation. Using economic data collected from the same set of families over 23 years (1984 2007), we find that the real wealth gains and losses of families over that time period demonstrate the stampede toward an escalating racial wealth gap.”
In their coverage of this, the BBC quote Shapiro as saying, “There continues to be a persistence of racial segregation.” Later, they quote him as saying, “I was shocked by how large the number was…. I’ve been in this research business, and looking at similar kinds of issues, for a long period of time, but even in my cynical and jaded moments I didn’t expect that outcome over one generation.”
I was going to offer some theological commentary, but I’m too pissed off by this news. This is about the only time I’ve wished I were a hellfire and brimstone preacher.
I wish I could attend the conference held by the Network of Spiritual Progressives June 11-14, “Strategies for Liberals and Progressives for the Obama Years.” It looks like it will be an educational opportunity, a time to worship with spiritual progressives from many faiths, and an opportunity to work on regional strategies (and yes even an chance to demonstrate in front of the White House for those who need it).
This conference has a truly ugly Web page, but I’m impressed by the list of people who will be speaking or leading workshops: Rev. Brian McLaren, Bill McKibben, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Sharon Welch, David Korten, Rev. James Forbes, Gary Dorrien, and other prominent spiritual progressives (Sharon Welch is the only Unitarian Unviersalist whom I recognized). Good grief, even Marianne Williamson will speak. Some of the workshops sound pretty good: “The Legacy of Racism and How It Continues in Obama’s America”; “The Growth of an Indigenous American Fascism”; “America’s Endless Wars: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Korea, and What’s Next?” (Pacifist that I am, I would love to attend that last workshop.)
I can’t attend — I’ll be on a service trip with our church’s youth group — but I’m wondering if there are any Unitarian Universalists besides Sharon Welch who will be there. Are you going to this conference?
Part One of this four-part series
To better set the associational rigidity of today’s Unitarian Universalism into relief, it is worth considering other forms of associationism currently in existence which do not match this ideal. By considering these alternative forms of associationism, we can better understand that associationism is not restricted to certain received forms or ideals. In recent years, we have seen existing congregations supporting new start-up congregations with administrative and financial support, without going through traditional district or denominational structures: that is, associationism allows direct contact between local organizations without being mediated by a regional or national associational structure. In recent years, we have seen a few ministers experimenting with more entrepreneurial approaches to starting up new congregations aimed at reaching young urbanites, including store-front churches and house churches: this harks back to the itinerant Universalist preachers who adapted their religion to regional differences and to rapid changes in society. We have seen individuals or congregations developing innovative new resources on their own and providing them directly to other congregations (e.g., small group ministry resources): this recalls the efforts of groups like the Unitarian Sunday school Society before its functions were effectively taken over by the AUA.
Associationism is (or should be) a flexible, highly participatory organizational structure that allows both local autonomy and effective cooperation between local organizations. Associationism is grounded in the principles of voluntary association that involves, among many characteristics: free association within and protected from societal and governmental structures; civic engagement (i.e., participants in a voluntary association run the association themselves, rather than the state or ecclesiastical authority); the creation of metaphorical spaces within society where individual voices can be heard; combining individual voices together to make a broader impact on mass democracy or other government. Associationism is structured by written documents (minutes of business meetings, bylaws, communications between local organizations, etc.). Associationism is also structured by behavioral norms that allow voluntary association. Associationism does not require theological rigidity, or another other kind of rigidity for that matter, including the current rigidities of Policy Governance (TM) and Wesley-style covenants; at the same time, associationism can easily accommodate Policy Governance and Wesley-style covenants, if those prove to be effective organizational structures for local organizations. Continue reading
If the title of this post caught your attention, you might want to read a recent article on Alban Institute’s Web site. Here are the opening paragraphs:
“On the cubicle where she works all day, Abby pinned a picture of a church. Where many would keep a photo of family members or beloved pets, Abby has an image of a brownstone building on the Cambridge Common, and she looks at it whenever she feels anxious or unmoored. At 25, Abby has seen more life than the average young adult. She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts from the West Coast when her high-school sweetheart husband had an opportunity to pursue a graduate degree there. Not long after they relocated, however, the marriage fell apart and left Abby in a city with no stable job, no friends, and no family. What she did have, though, was First Church in Cambridge (FCC), a church she had first found with her husband and that had later helped her through the transition to singlehood. She now views the church as her anchor, and as she considers options for graduate school herself she is seriously considering staying in Cambridge so she does not have to leave the church behind.
“FCC is, in many ways, a typical mainline congregation. The music is usually classical, the liturgy rooted in Christian history and decidedly traditional. Boards and committees make many of the church’s decisions through a conventional governance structure. The ministry staff includes a senior pastor, an interim associate pastor, and a lay minister of religious education. The community where the church is located is highly-educated and liberal, and the church’s stance on social issues reflects this environment. What makes the church truly different from many of its peers is not just that it is growing–many churches do that–but the demographic category that is growing most quickly: Post-collegiate adults in their 20s and 30s. At one New Member Sunday in early 2008, out of 30 new members, 27 were under the age of 35.
“What is their secret?”
To find out the secret, read the whole article. “Setting the Welcome Thermostat,” on Alban’s Web site. (And lest some smug Unitarian Universalists think we have the third tension perfectly balanced, remember that some younger people perceive a doctrinaire theological hegemony of humanism in some UU congregations.)
Part One of this four-part series
Merger and its aftermath
Upon the merger (the legal term was “consolidation”) of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, two different forms of associationism had to merge. I find it significant that some of the old Universalist state conventions determinedly maintained their separate corporate identity; such a thing was not practically possible in more centralized Unitarian form of associationism. This also reveals something of the associational rigidity that the Universalists had fallen into; they could not let go of old associational structures; and this does not compare well with the associational innovation of the Unitarians at that time.
The merger of the two forms of associationism proved awkward at best. The Universalists felt like they were being taken over, and from an asosciational point of view that was true. The Unitarians, for their part, forgot to keep on innovating. Dana Greeley, the Unitarian who took over the presidency of the new Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), acted as if the 1950s were never going to end: he ignored signs that economic growth in the United States was slowing, and he was unable to deal effectively with the changes in society that confronted him, most notably when the Black Power movement came to the UUA. The 1970s were a period of serious decline in the UUA, as the 1950s associational models proved incapable of handling the new society that was emerging: it was not longer enough to start more fellowships and centralize curriculum development; something else had to change.
The first great innovation in the newly-formed Unitarian Universalist Association was second-wave feminism. Continue reading
1 Doesn’t this an awful lot like what happened at MySpace a couple of years ago, when they suddenly claimed they had the rights to anything posted on MySpace? Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg seem to have about the same low level of morality.
Part One of this four-part series
A historical and descriptive definition: 19th century
The Universalist approach to associationism in the first half of the 19th century had strengths and weaknesses. The decentralization and methodological diversity allowed Universalism to adapt readily to local circumstances, and small Universalist congregations sprang up all over the United States and its territories, and to a lesser extent up into Canada. That same decentralization also meant that there often was no ongoing support and nurture for small new congregations, many of which died out two or three decades after they began.
Meanwhile, the Unitarians found themselves forced into associationism, kicking and screaming as it were. Disestablishment meant that the strongest and most powerful Unitarian congregations suddenly had to learn how to provide their own financial support; not only that, but they also found themselves competing for potential members with a wide range of other denominations (including, of course, the Universalists). The first feeble step towards real associationism came with the establishment of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), so at least there was some central body to distribute Unitarian propaganda; but the AUA was an association of individuals and a few congregations, so it cannot be considered true associationism, an association of congregations, using my definition. The Autumnal Conventions represents the first real emergence of associationism in the Unitarian camp: a few far-sighted individuals decided that delegates from Unitarian congregations needed to meet annually to organize themselves around topics of mutual interest. The Autumnal Conventions were weak associationism, however: many Unitarian congregations did not send delegates (or much care about the Autumnal Conventions), and the Conventions didn’t do all that much.
Associationism among the Unitarians really begins with Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Unitarian Conference in the 1860s; that well-documented story need not be reviewed here. Unitarian associationism is also represented in the old Western Unitarian Conference, which actively promoted connections between congregations, and actively worked to spread Unitarianism in new areas, using innovative methodologies such as encouraging women ministers (e.g., the women ministers known as the “Iowa Sisterhood”). What is important is that Unitarian associationism required neither covenant nor Puritan-style connections between congregations. Continue reading