Year in review, pt. 2

In part 1, I reviewed the year in U.S. religion. In this second part, I’ll review they year in Unitarian Universalism.

How non-UUs viewed us

Let’s start with how others perceived us this past year. Unitarian Universalists are a tiny, tiny group, but we made the news with four stories this year. I’ll start with the lesser stories, and save the big one for the end.

1. Religion News Service (RNS) covered the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) back in June, and wrote about two main stories. One story, with the headline “Unitarian Universalism revisits identity, values at 2023 gathering,” talked about the proposed revision to ARticle II of the UUA bylaws. It was the kind of article where you felt the reporter was working pretty hard to make it sound newsworthy. Revising bylaws isn’t going to be of much interest to non-Unitarian Universalists.

2. RNS was much more interested in the fact that the “Unitarian Universalists elect first woman of color, openly queer president,” especially considering the fact that this new president was taking over from the first woman who served as president. They wrote (by my count) four separate articles on this basic story.

3. In December, the Financial Times reported on conflict within Unitarian Universalism. The Financial Times is a major international newspaper, and it was surprising that they bothered with us at all. But reporter Jemima Kelly found an interesting angle, as revealed in the headline the editors gave her story: “The culture wars dividing America’s most liberal church: Long a beacon of progressive values, Unitarian Universalism has been convulsed by pulpit politics.” Kelly tied together the Gadfly controversy, the resignation of Peter Morales, anti-racism efforts, and more. I wrote about this story right after it came out.

4. The really big story was the death of Carleton Pearson, a Pentecostal minister who came to embrace the theology of universal salvation, and found an institutional home as affiliate minister at All Souls UU church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m not sure you can call Pearson a “Unitarian Universalist,” because he has other religious affiliations as well. In fact, there were a few different memorial services for Pearson, reflecting those different religious communities of which he was a part. But there is no doubt that Pearson was a Universalist, in the broad sense of the word; and he did retain his Unitarian Universalist affiliation up to his death. And there is no doubt that Pearson was the best-known religious thinker affiliated with Unitarian Universalism at the time of his death.

How we viewed ourselves

Reporting as an outsider, Jemima Kelly’s article focused on how the culture wars are dividing Unitarian Universalism. Many Unitarian Universalist insiders have also felt that the culture wars dividing us are the big story.

Our version of the culture wars include several strands.

Some Unitarian Universalists remain upset that Todd Eklof was removed from ministerial fellowship after the conflict over his book “The Gadfly Papers.” Eklof himself is now part of an effort to build a new denomination, the North American Unitarian Association. It’s still too early to tell if this new denomination will get traction or not. (And I guess the Universalists who are unhappy with the UUA will just have to go and start their own denomination.)

The Gadfly controversy has its roots in disagreements over strategies for promoting antiracism within Unitarian Universalism. All Unitarian Universalists are going to agree that racism needs to be rooted out of our religious community. I suspect nearly all Unitarian Universalists agree that we haven’t eradicated racism in our religious community; given that well over ninety percent of Unitarian Universalists are White, it would be hard to argue otherwise. The disagreements arise when it comes to specifics on how to implement antiracism.

Another strand of the culture wars within Unitarian Universalism lies in how we make decisions. Some critics claim that the Unitarian Universalist Association remains a very top-down organization. These critics point to things like the way the Article II revision has been handled, e.g., the UUA Board skewing the process from the start be instructing the revision committee to focus on love. On the other side, supporters of the UUA point out that it is a democratic institution; it’s flawed like all democratic institutions, but every congregation has a vote, and can participate in all decision-making processes. There is no doubt in my mind that we’re in the middle of a fairly major conflict about our decision-making processes.

Our internal culture wars spill out into the Article II revision process.

It actually surprises me that some Unitarian Universalists are getting so worked up about changing the old Seven Principles for something new. But that’s because I view the Article II revision as merely a matter of bylaws revision, while for many (maybe even most) Unitarian Universalists, the Seven Principles function as a profession of faith.

Once I realized that what was really going on was a battle over a profession of faith, the controversies over Article II suddenly made sense. We’re using a process designed to change bylaws — but we’re actually changing many people’s profession of faith. Changing a profession of faith is a much bigger deal than changing bylaws. This places the Article II revision smack dab in the middle of our internal progressive culture wars.

What got ignored in 2023

There are two huge issues that Unitarian Universalism as a whole mostly ignored in 2023.

First, sexual misconduct by religious leaders (both ministers and lay leaders) stayed on the back burner for most Unitarian Universalists. To prove my point, go read the UUA’s “Misconduct Complaint Process.” Imagine you have been sexually abused by a Unitarian Universalist clergyperson. You search for “how to report UU clery sexual abuse” and this is the webpage you land on. The webpage starts out: “Professional Misconduct contains a top level information on the Office of Ethics and Safety. This is a more detailed narrative of how a complaint works through the UUA.” There is nothing here that says you will be respected, valued, or believed. There is no link to a survivor’s support group, or a third party who will help you through the process.

We do better dealing with racism than dealing with sexual abuse by religious leaders. And that’s a really low bar.

Second, Unitarian Universalism is way behind the curve on the seismic changes happening in child and youth safety right now. Just in the past five years, we’ve seen U.S. society developing much higher expectations for the standard of care for legal minors. Legislation like California AB506, requiring fingerprinting and training for all volunteers working with legal minors, seems likely to be enacted in the near future in every state. In another legisltaive development, Vermont, Maryland, and Maine now have no statute of limitations for child sexual abuse — other states are likely to follow their lead — which will also raise the standard of care. Outside of the legislative arena, I heard from one social worker who reports that some parents are no longer comfortable with their children going on sleepovers; the feelings behind this cultural shift are now spilling over into all children and youth programming.

On top of safety from sexual predators, there has also been a slow but noticeable increase in expectations around other kinds of safety. Annual fire drills, having religious education volunteers trained in infant and child CPR, having fire extinguishers and fire blankets wherever open flame is used — I now consider these the norm, whereas even ten years ago I thought of these as good to have but not essential.

Yet perceptions of standards of care for kids hasn’t changed much within Unitarian Universalism. Many Directors and Ministers of Religious Education face an uphill battle when trying to convince their congregation to raise the standard of care. (I will add that I’m lucky to be in a congregation that is totally supportive of raising the standard of care for kids.) And I know of at least two Unitarian Universalist summer camps/conferences that encourage nudity in programs that include teenagers — this may bring up some nostalgia for the 1970s among older Unitarian Universalists, but it doesn’t meet current standards of care for kids.

So there you have it

So that was 2023 for Unitarian Universalists….

A prominent Unitarian Universalist died, about whom most Unitarian Universalists knew nothing. An international news outlet saw fit to report on how the culture wars have invaded our tiny little progressive denomination. We’re not handling racism, sexual abuse by religious leaders, or safety for legal minors very well.

And yet most of the work of our congregations remains focused on our local communities. That’s where we’re actually doing our best work. Maybe things at the denominational level are a bit of a mess. But in our local communities, we’re feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for each other, flying rainbow flags, and promoting truth and goodness as best we can.

In the face of all that we actually do in our communities, our flaws don’t seem quite as important.

4 thoughts on “Year in review, pt. 2”

  1. Thank you for the summary. 2023 was a year where I was not very involved in Unitarian Universalist conversations- I was not in seminary for any part of the year, which I was for 2020-2021 (Boston U) and 2022 (Pacific School of Religion), I seldom attended in-person services, and while still an admin of the largest UU Discord Server, I was not very active and somewhat correlated, neither was the server.

    I will say that because the Discord is not congregation-specific and skews much younger than active congregants as a whole, a lot of people are not very aware of things happening within the UUA or events that involve UUs in some way. Most are in a discernment process and learning about the basics of UU history and theolog(ies). That being said, we did have a very active conversation channel going when the Article II Commission was asking for input prior to releasing any draft ideas in 2021 (I had to look up the timeline, covid has made years blur together) and that was a mix of people who are very active in congregational life and larger discussions about the living tradition, and people who were relatively new and just knew that there were Seven Principles that were decided somewhere, at some time.

    That being said, I do think the continuum (maybe a dialectic if you think about it a certain way) between Article II being administrative/bureaucratic and it being a profession of faith, aspect of ritual, and perhaps stuff that ends up on t-shirts not sold by the official bookstore is very important. Having been very active in immediate aftermath of the publication of the Gadfly pamphlet and then following subsequent conversations that were sometimes polemical arguments, Article II became very much one of many proxies for “the soul of Unitarian Universalism.” I was at the 2022 GA in-person and many tensions including a continuing generation gap were present which continues to carry over.

    As my five (seven?) part series on a rightward drift that has latently existed but was given more focus in 2019 (, it is also the case that related to our polity, UU space is extremely fragmented. With Facebook having an aggressive wall for non-users and much discussion happening in strictly private groups, it’s hard to get an overall temperature. I will also finish this long comment by saying that the place of General Assembly on the calendar inhibits a larger conversation of UUism as a whole from happening in congregations. Ministers are burnt out from the year, many congregations don’t hold regular services in summer and if they do they’re not very well-attended, and there needs to be someone (a minister, lay leader, delegate who made a bunch of notes) to do a report-back. Some congregations do, and if I miss GA I search YouTube for sermons that talk about the content of GA. But in my most recent active congregation, the only people who really know what is distilled from the wider conversation at GA were the 2-4 people out of 240 enrolled members who went.

    So I would say the local focus is partially where people do things that are most relevant to their sense of purpose, partially just congregational polity, and partially how many congregations do not have an actual plan to provide clear information on the wider conversations about UU values and changes over time. I will say your sermon years ago going through the timeline of the Seven Principles formation in the 1980s is an example of bringing a denomination-wide process to a congregation and also to people like me who are too young to have played any part in its creation and critique.

  2. So interesting. I did notice that Rev. Sofia got attention on RNS.

    Our congregation has struggled with the children’s RE oversight issue but it sounds like we are ahead of the curve; we unfortunately had an incident many years ago and so our policy is regularly reviewed and was recently updated.

    I had been wondering about the sexual abuse scenarios, given the challenges that presented for the Southern Baptists. Not sure how something like that could play out with the UUA although unlike the Catholic Church there wouldn’t be a hierarchy that could move a minister around at will. Seems to me that it would play out locally via the regular secular process.

  3. Sandra, the Southern Baptists have a very similar organizational structure to the UUA. So it’s very interesting to watch what happens with them — and think about what we can do to avoid their mistakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *