Why UUA General Assembly can’t be reformed

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the U.S. denomination of U.S. Unitarian Universalists, holds its business meetings every year. There’s no need to hold business meetings this frequently. And in fact, holding business meetings this frequently wastes resources. I’m going to go over the reasons why we don’t need to have General Assembly every year, and then I’ll tell you why we’re stuck with an annual meeting that we don’t need.

First, we don’t need an annual meeting because other religious groups get along just fine without meeting every year. The Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) meets every other year — they have about 850 congregations, compared to the UUA’s 1,000 congregations, though their congregations are on average larger than ours. The United Church of Christ (UCC), our closest religious relatives, meet every other year — they have about 4,800 congregations. Of course there are religious denominations that meet annually — the Swedenborgian Church of North America is one such group — but the experiences of the URJ and the UCC demonstrate that annual meetings aren’t essential.

Second, meeting every year contributes to global climate change. Most of the attendees travel to General Assembly on airplanes. It’s pretty hypocritical for a denomination that claims to be environmentalist to host annual meetings that contribute to global climate change. True, the organizers of General Assembly attempt to make the meeting as environmentally friendly as possible. That’s great, but if we’re really going to avoid hypocrisy we shouldn’t meet every single year. (And others do perceive us as hypocritical — I recently had a conversation with a non-UU who knows us well and who was gently scathing on the topic of our insistence on annual in-person meetings.)

Third, meeting every year ties up denominational staff hours. Rather than using their time to support local congregations, denominational staff have to devote too many hours to preparing for General Assembly. This means that the small minority of Unitarian Universalists who can afford the time and travel expenses to attend General Assembly receive an inordinate amount of time and attention from denominational staff. This diverts staff time away from local congregations, and away from the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists who can’t (or won’t, or don’t) attend General Assembly. (The same non-UU who knows us well was scathing on the topic of the way General Assembly misuses denominational staff time.)

None of these is a new argument. All of these are, to me, convincing arguments. Why, then, does General Assembly continue to meet every year?

First of all, because the delegates who decide how often to meet have a vested interest in meeting every year. General Assembly is designed to be a democratic institution. Delegates to General Assembly are the ones who vote on how often to meet. But from what I’ve seen, many or even most delegates to General Assembly are self-selected. Most local congregations can’t pay travel and lodging expenses for their delegates. That means most delegates attend General Assembly because they’re the ones who can afford it, and they’re the ones who enjoy it. The delegates are high-minded people — they wouldn’t be delegates if they weren’t high-minded people — but they like General Assembly the way it is. So without being aware of it, they have structured General Assembly to meet their needs, not the needs of most Unitarian Universalists.

Second of all, General Assembly meets annually because of what used to be called the Old Boys Network. Up until a half century ago, the Old Boys Network was an informal network of well-to-do, college-educated, upper middle class white men who all knew each other, and who informally looked out for the interests of one another. Again, many of the Unitarian Universalist Old Boys were high-minded, and most of them were perennial delegates to General Assembly. They honestly believed that their interests coincided with the interests of every other Unitarian Universalist. Over the last half century, the Old Boys Network has changed to include both people of other genders and non-white people — which is all to the good, and now they need a new name so I’ll call them the “Old Network.” Yet, inclusive though they now are, the Old Network retains one or two unfortunate features of the Old Boys Network: a certain lack of perspective, a certain defensiveness when their hegemony is challenged. The Old Network depends on an annual face-to-face General Assembly to maintain their social ties, so without being aware of it they’re going to resist attempts to change the frequency of General Assembly. And they have a lot of informal power within the Unitarian Universalist Association, so their resistance is a powerful force.

In short, we’re stuck with an annual General Assembly.

Even though we don’t need it.

Even though it makes us look hypocritical.

Even though it diverts resources away from local congregations.

I can only see one solution to this problem. It’s up to the perennial delegates and the Old Network to end this. I’m not a member of either group, so I’m not going to try to tell them what to do. (If it were up to me, we’d permanently end face-to-face General Assembly, and conduct all our business online, but I recognize this is a minority opinion.) But please, people, could you do something? I’m tired of being embarrassed at the way General Assembly misdirects staff resources and contributes to global climate change.

Charles Knowlton, sexuality education pioneer

Back in 1832, a Massachusetts physician named Charles Knowlton published a pamphlet on sexuality education, including instructions for contraception. Titled The Fruits of Philosophy: The Private Companion of Young Married People, Knowlton wrote his pamphlet for young married couples. He printed it privately (and anonymously), and distributed it to his patients.

Knowlton, a freethinker who didn’t attend church services, apparently got to know the famous freethinker Abner Kneeland. Kneeland published Knowlton’s pamphlet for wider distribution, this time placing Knowlton’s name on the title page. However, the laws of the time classified information about contraception as obscene, and Knowlton was tried and convicted. He had to spend three months in jail. But he never repudiated his pamphlet.

You can read more about Knowlton here. You can read a later edition of Fruits of Philosophy here.

[Researching Knowlton led me to an interesting website, The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Produced by Arizona State University, this website contains peer-reviewed articles on “the science of embryos, development, and reproduction.” Included are basic science articles, but also articles on bioethics, people (such as Charles Knowlton), and more.]

Alternative democracies

Unitarian Universalists claim that one of our central principles is democratic process. As our United States democracy seems on the verge of failing, maybe it’s time to look for new ideas in alternative forms of democracy. A recent paper by Stephen C. Angle titled “Confucian Leadership Meets Confucian Democracy” explores one such alternative democracy (Journal of Social and Political Philosophy [1.2 (2022): 121–135 DOI: 10.3366/jspp.2022.0021], available free online through October: https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/epdf/10.3366/jspp.2022.0021).

Wait a minute — Confucian democracy? I always thought Confucianism was hierarchical, not democratic. Apparently Confucian democracy is now A Thing. And I found some interesting ideas in this article that might help us rethink our hyper-individualistic democracy. For example, this passage explores how individuals must balance their moral intuition (which can get self-centered) against what’s going on in the world around them:

“[T]he right way to think about Confucian leaders is as a kind of external model or authority, vis-à-vis each individual citizen, and in this way they serve as a kind of institution: one among a number of necessary external checks on the individual judgment of any given citizen. Confucians, for all their stress … on the need for people to freely ‘get it themselves’, also emphasize the need for such external checks, other instances of which are teachers, parents, ritual instructions, and classic texts. The relationship between internal, personal attainment and matching with an external model is much debated within the tradition. Often, it seems as if a pendulum is swinging back and forth, from extremes of inner-reliance, through various more balanced positions, to extremes of outer-reliance, and back again. I feel that Confucians today can learn the most from the balanced positions that recognize the importance of both sides.

“One excellent example is the Ming dynasty Confucian Luo Qinshun (1465–1547). He was concerned about thinkers of his day who advocated sole reliance on one’s own moral intuition. He calls this ‘onesidedess’, and adds: ‘If one’s learning is not extensive and one’s discussion is not detailed, one’s vision will be limited by the confines of one’s own heartmind, and however one may wish to be free from error, it will be impossible’…. What, then, is one to do? [Luo] says: ‘Thus to “seek within oneself” one must begin with one’s own nature and emotions. One then goes on to extend to other things what one has perceived in oneself, and if it is found to be inconsistent, then it is not ultimate Pattern’…. Like most of his fellow Neo-Confucians, Luo holds that the coherent Pattern of the universe is one-and-the-same, no matter whether examined within oneself or in external things. Therefore, by looking for ways in which one’s own emotional reactions tally with external models (such as the reactions of role models to similar situations), one can locate Pattern within oneself and avoid being led astray by superficial or self-centered reactions. Similarly, if external models cannot be made to tally with one’s own emotions, then this is reason to question those models. The goal is to ‘achieve corresponding illumination of things and the self’….”

I like that Luo Qinshun wants to ensure that we aren’t led astray by self-centeredness. One implication: democratic leadership should maintain social structures that will help us avoid self-centeredness. That’s going to be a tough sell in the United States today. But it could be a bracing corrective to the hyper-individualistic self-centeredness that currently rules us.

I find Angle’s academic prose to be tough going. Still, lots of thought-provoking material in this paper.

Westport, Mass., to Cumberland Center, Me.

We drive up to the Cumberland County Fairgrounds in Maine to sing shape note music. We tried to check into the campground on the fairgrounds, but there was no one to check in with. We called the number of the man who supposedly oversees the campground. He sort of grunted at us over the phone, and we assumed that meant we should just take whatever campsite we wanted. No picnic tables in the campsites. The restroom and shower are pretty foul. We thought about finding another campground, but this one is right next to where we’ll be singing. So we stayed, and set up our tent.

One bonus of this campground: We got to watch horse racing while we waited for the evening singing to begin. I’m not very interested in horse racing, but it was fun to see and hear the sulkies rumble past.

Sulky racing, Cumberland County Fairgrounds

The evening singing was preceded by a chili dinner, with food shared by Maine shape note singers. Then we went into the Pulling Arena. A bunch of folding chairs were set up in the usual “hollow square.” We settled down to sing. The sound went up into the dim reaches of the pole barn far above us.

Cooper Book singing, Cumberland County Fairgrounds, Maine

We sang out in the middle of the dirt floor. At the end of the evening’s singing, I noticed a man, a woman, and a girl were watching us from the stands. I went over and told them they should come sing with us tomorrow. Then a couple of Maine singers came over, and told them about Maine shape notes singings. The Maine singers handed the man and the woman a Cooper book each.

I could see that the girl was also interested, so I handed her one of the Cooper books so she could look at it, and follow along. The Maine singers directed their comments to the adults. I made sure to tell the girl that lots of kids sing this music, too. She looked to be about nine or ten, a perfect age to learn how to sing four-part shape note music. I told her that kids always sing the tenor part, because it’s the melody, and the most interesting part. But this is the Maine singers’ territory, and I was overstepping the bounds by butting in and talking to the girl. So I quietly stepped away. And children in our society are so often ignored, I’m sure the girl wasn’t bothered in the least. It’s just something I happened to notice.


When I got up at about six this morning, there was fairly heavy fog. I went for a walk, but my glasses soon fogged up and I couldn’t see very well. So I listened for birds. A Lesser Yellowlegs remained unseen, but I could hear it calling tu — tu — tu as if flew overhead. A Seaside Sparrow in the bush next to the road, sounding a bit like a Red-winged Blackbird with a head cold, finally showed itself quite close by. Then I was on the beach where the sound of the waves drowned out the other sounds. The fog was even thicker on the beach, and I could barely see at all, my glasses were so fogged up. I looked down at my feet to keep from stumbling on the round stones of the beach, and saw this:

Sea Sandwort (Honckenya peploides)

Allens Pond at sundown

Allens Pond, Westport, Mass.

I took a walk after dinner, past the crowd waiting at Bayside Restaurant, across the street to Allens Pond. In the field within sight of the road, a man was talking to a twelve year old boy who had earbuds dangling around his neck. “There are probably foxes in here,” he said, gesturing to a field. The boy didn’t seem impressed. I said hello, and the man returned my greeting. “Perfect day,” I said. “Yeah, it is!” he said with a big smile on his face.

A few people were walking the Beach Loop, but as soon as I turned onto the Quansett Trail, there were no more human beings — just a rabbit. I walked down to where I could see Allens Pond. An Osprey sat on a nesting platform in the distance. The sun slowly sank behind the trees, leaving a few patches of salt marsh grass looking golden. A Willow Flycatcher gave its “Fitzbew!” call. I took a photo, and then just stood there watching the light slowly change. It wasn’t mindfulness so much as mindlessness — there was nothing in my mind, including my mind.

This was the most engaging thing I’ve done all day. I think I’m badly in need of this vacation.

Saco, Me., to Westport, Mass.

We stayed up late last night singing around the camp fire. Glenn mostly led the singing, with help from Amy, and drumming by Richard. Jon and I helped out where we could with uke and guitar. At Jean-Pierre’s urging, Milene sang us a traditional French Canadian song. Chantelle and some others went to bed at ten, but we kept going until quiet hour. It was after eleven when we got to sleep.

We had a leisurely morning. We packed up our campsite and loaded up the car. I enjoy packing up campsites and loading cars, so this proved to be a pleasurable morning for me. Then we ate an early lunch at a picnic table. Richard happened to be there, and we had a long talk, covering everything from Gilles Deleuze and the relationship between colonialism and religion on the one hand, to updating each other on the details of our personal lives on the other hand.

After lunch, I went out into the woods behind Ferry Beach Park Association, while Carol-the-extrovert went off to talk with people. I took a number of photographs of plants and other organisms which I uploaded to iNaturalist. I was sad to see that nearly all the Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) were infested with Hemlock Woolly Aldegids (Adelges tsugae), an invasive insect from Asia. Many hemlocks were badly infested, and I also saw several dead hemlocks. I have also noticed that there were almost no Black-throated Green Warblers nesting in the woods this year, in contrast to past years when they were numerous. I wonder if the Black-throated Green Warbler prefers hemlocks for nesting, so that the loss of the hemlocks may mean the loss of the warblers.

On a more pleasant note, I came across a Glossy Ibis in the pond just to the north of Ferry Beach Park Association. I’ve never seen a Glossy Ibis there.

We began driving south at a quarter to four. I asked Carol if she’d mind driving because I didn’t think I was alert enough to drive. It was a good thing she drove, because I slept for most of the three hour drive.

We arrived at our summer rental at a quarter to seven. We got dinner at Lee’s Market in Westport. We met one of our neighbors, a skunk who appears to be living under the house. We feel quite settled in, and now we’re ready for bed.