A history of UU clergy sexual misconduct

Loré Stevens won the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society’s History Research Prize for Future Leaders this year. The title of her paper was “‘Strong at the Broken Places’: A History of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, 1992-2019.” Some of my readers will remember that during the time from 1992 to 2019, instances of clergy misconduct were uncovered at the Nashville UU congregation.

Now Deborah Pope-Lance has gotten permission to host this paper on her Web site, here — you’ll have to scroll down past some other papers and essays on clergy sexual misconduct to find the link.

Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to know more about the history of U.S. Unitarian Universalism in the past 25 years, or for anyone interested in the recent history of feminism in religion. If you think Unitarian Universalism has made lots of progress in becoming a feminist movement, you’ll be depressed by this paper. On the other hand, if you’re one of those who (like me) has been incredibly frustrated at how little attention has been paid to the intertwined issues of sexism, patriarchy, and clergy misconduct with Unitarian Universalism, you’ll be relieved to read this exposé of the abuse of power by male clergy and how influential and powerful people within Unitarian Universalism have covered it up.

I’d even say I was delighted to read this paper, not because I’m delighted by clergy misconduct, but because I’m delighted that this subject is finally getting the attention it deserves from historians and others. Thank you, Loré Stevens. Thank you, UUHHS. Thank you, Deborah Pope-Lance for hosting this paper online.

Feminist theology overview

Below is the text of an online talk I gave on feminist theology this evening. The best part of the talk was the discussion afterwards; unfortunately I can’t reproduce that here.

I’d like to begin with the predictive power of feminist theory. Back in the year 2000, feminist theorist and public intellectual bell hooks wrote a slim volume titled Feminism Is for Everybody. In one of the essays in that book, hooks describes what men can become in the absence of feminism:

“Patriarchal masculinity encourages encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges (however relative) that they receive simply for having been born male. Many men feel that their lives are being threatened if these privileges are taken away, as they have structured no meaningful core identity.”

These two sentences, written twenty years ago, accurately describe several contemporary politicians, including Donald Trump, our current president of the United States. Trump is an extreme example of what happens to a man who is firmly rooted in patriarchal masculinity. Unfortunately, he’s not the only American male this description fits. I’ll go further and say that, due to a decades-long decline in feminism, most white American men — including myself — fit this description to a greater or lesser degree. We white men in America all tend to think we are the most important people in the room, even when we claim to to be enlightened feminists; this means we are all narcissistic to some degree, and infantile insofar as we are psychologically dependent on our male privilege. (Parenthetical note about the reality of male privilege: one of the most interesting things that I have learned from the greater willingness of transgendered persons to be open about their gender identity is hearing what it’s like for people who transition from female to male in their college years: they report that suddenly they have male privilege; suddenly women and other men defer to them; suddenly their opinion becomes more important just be virtue of being male.)

Seeing all these narcissistic, infantile, dependent men should be a wake-up call to all of us, and especially to us as Unitarian Universalists. We already knew that patriarchal masculinity damages girls and women girls through sexual violence and sexual harassment, through repressing their natural abilities. But patriarchal masculinity is also warping boys and men, and it’s creating increasing numbers of toxic monsters like Donald Trump.

We need feminism more than ever before. In particular, we Unitarian Universalists need to develop a feminist theology that offers a positive vision of hope for our future. For this is one of the things that Unitarian Universalism can do best in our society: offer a positive vision.

At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (UUCPA), we say that our mission is to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. A positive feminist vision can help all genders, including men, transform themselves into whole and psychologically healthy human beings. A positive feminist vision can help us keep men and boys from being warped by patriarchal masculinity, and help all other genders from suffering damage at the hands of patriarchal masculinity. A positive feminist vision can help us envision a world where humans do not try to dominate other humans, and where humanity does not try to dominate the non-human world.

With this in mind, this adult religious education class is going to be a whirl-wind tour of feminist theology. I’m going to touch on four feminist theorists that have influenced the way Unitarian Universalists have thought about women and about feminism. And in the end, I hope I will have outlined something of a feminist vision of hope.

I’ll start with Mary Daly, because her 1973 book Beyond God the Father had a huge impact on U.S. feminists, including Unitarian Universalists. Beyond God the Father pointed out how religion did not need to be founded on a vision of a male god; we did not need to reinforce patriarchal masculinity through the belief structures and institutions of organized religion. In this book Daly wrote: “Exclusively masculine symbolism for God, for the notion of divine ‘incarnation’ in human nature, and for the human relationship to God reinforce sexual hierarchy. Tremendous damage is done….” [p. 4] Unitarian Universalist paid attention, and within ten years we, like many of the more liberal religious groups in the U.S., began including women’s voices and images in religion by, for example, issuing collections of hymns that replaced the old masculine religious imagery with gender-neutral imagery. By 1985, the Unitarian Universalist Association had revised its statement of principles and purposes with the express intent of removing sexist references.

However, Unitarian Unviersalists did not, for the most part, follow Daly as she became increasingly radical in her feminism. Unitarian Universalists aimed for equality between men and women. But in 1978, in her book Gyn/Ecology, Daly criticized equality under what she calls “tokenism.” According to Daly, tokenism “is commonly guised as Equal Rights, and [it] yields token victories….” Daly went on to assert that tokenism, or equal rights, whatever you want to call it, serves to deflect what she calls “gynergy,” which might be loosely defined as female power unbounded by patriarchy.

The effect of tokenism and equal rights, said Daly, is that:

“…female power, galvanized under deceptive slogans of sisterhood, is swallowed by The Fraternity. This method of vampirizing the Female Self saps women by giving illusions of partial success while at the same time making Success appear to be a far-distant, extremely difficult to obtain ‘elusive objective.’ When the oppressed are worn out in the game of chasing the elusive shadow of Success, some ‘successes’ are permitted to occur — ‘victories’ which can easily be withdrawn when the victim’s energies have been restored. Subsequently, women are lured into repeating efforts to regain the hard-won apparent gains.”

While this statement still may appear radical to us Unitarian Universalists today, I believe Daly gave an accurate prophesy of what actually happened in Unitarian Universalism. We Unitarian Universalists went down the path of equal rights: we worked hard to make sure of women’s equality in ministry; we worked hard to provide non-gendered references in our hymnal and other worship resources, in the name of equality; we worked hard to provide equality in lay leaders, both at the level of local congregations, and at the denominational level. And what was the result?

Today, a bit more than half our Unitarian Universalist ministers are women; yet male ministers are still more likely to have the high-paying positions at high-profile congregations. Furthermore, religious educators — who do what is traditionally considered “women’s work” and nine-tenths of whom are women — are mostly part-time and poorly paid employees whose jobs are the first to be cut in economic hard times. (Parenthetical note: two northern California congregations have cut their religious educator position entirely in the past twelve months rather than reduce the hours or salary of the minister position, thus revealing that “men’s work” is more valuable to us than “women’s work.”) So even though women serve equally as unitarian Universalist ministers, “women’s work,” taking care of children, is still devalued. Overall, success for women as religious professionals remains exactly what Daly said it would be: a “far-distant, extremely difficult to obtain ‘elusive objective’,” in spite of some hard-fought successes.

It is depressing to see this play out in Unitarian Universalism. In 1985, Daly wrote: “Despite the many and solid gains of recent years, the battering of women’s psyches in this period of backlash has dis-couraged many from the process of understanding phallocracy and imagining ways of breaking out. Indeed women are terrorized into amnesia and made afraid to know the full implications of patriarchal power.” Too bad Unitarian Universalism didn’t follow Mary Daly’s lead; as it is, we still don’t have an adequate feminist vision of hope for the future.

Unfortunately, I even see this dynamic at play in our own congregation. While girls at UUCPA have a great role model in Amy Morgenstern as the religious head of the congregation; while they can see me, a man, getting great satisfaction from doing women’s work; — nevertheless the congregation is still run on the “Great Man” model of leadership, with a powerful Board president (who happens to be a woman), and a powerful senior minister (who does however make every effort to distribute power widely). This is to say: we still rely on a patriarchal model of leadership and management at UUCPA; perhaps it could not be otherwise, for here we are in Silicon Valley, surrounded by the virulent sexism of the tech industry; and like it or not, we are affected by our surrounding culture. At UUCPA, we are perhaps less patriarchal than the surrounding culture, but we are very far from the positive vision outlined by Daly, of women freed to be themselves, freed of male domination.

Domination becomes an important concept in feminist, and to explore it a little further I’ll turn now to Rosemary Radford Reuther. Reuther is a feminist theologian who is connected to eco-feminism, which I addressed in the last class. So I won’t spend as much time on her as I did on Daly. But I would like to read you this passage from Reuther’s book “Sexism and God-talk,” where she talks about the roots of domination:

“In her well-known article ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’ Sherry Ortner postulates a universal devaluation of the hierarchy of culture (the sphere of human control) over nature (spontaneous processes that humans don’t originate or control but are dependent on). Women are symbolized as ‘closer to nature’ than men and thus fall in an intermediate position between culture as the male sphere and uncontrolled nature. This is due both to woman’s physiological role in the biological processes that reproduce the species rather than in processes that enhance her as an individual and to the ability of male collective power to extend women’s physiological role into social roles confined to child nurture and domestic labor. Female physiological processes are viewed as dangerous and polluting to higher (male) culture. Her social roles are regarded as inferior to those of males, falling lower on the nature-culture hierarchy.” [p. 62]

Reuther wrote this in 1983, and we might argue with her based on today’s more careful distinction between gender identity, biological sex, and gender roles. Nevertheless, it’s clear that patriarchy exists; and Reuther is making a larger point here:

“Ultimately we have to ask why nature itself comes to be seen as devalued and inferior to the human. We cannot criticize the hierarchy of male over female without ultimately criticizing and overcoming the hierarchy of humans over nature.” [p. 62]

In this passage, Reuther is leading us to the conclusion that environmental destruction is caused by patriarchy. It’s a hierarchy, where humans are more highly valued than the non-human realm, and then in the human realm men are more highly valued than women. We can, by the way, extend this argument further: non-white humans have been symbolized as somehow closer to nature than white humans — black people are supposed to be better dancers and athletes, indigenous peoples of the Americas are seen to be more attuned to nature, and so on — and thus non-white people are seen as falling lower on the culture hierarchy than white men.

Since we explored ecofeminism in the last class, I’m not going to go any further into this topic, except to say that I continue to believe that ecofeminism, with its critique of domination, offers a powerful vision of hope for the future.

Domination is related to another topic in feminist thinking, understanding violence against women. And this brings us to Rebecca Parker, a liberal Christian who was for many years the president of Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist theological school. In a book she wrote with Rita Nakashima Brock titled “Proverbs of Ashes,” Rebecca Parker wrote:

“A woman’s religious home can be a place where she is endangered rather than nurtured, put at risk rather than initiated into freedom and life…. women need to construct alternative religious ideas that allow for women’s lives to be resurrected from the scourges of violence and abuse.” [p. 19]

Parker writes from a liberal Christian perspective, and she specifically targets Christian ideals of sacrifice. Many Christian women find justification for tolerating abuse in the Christian story: that Jesus died for our sins, that the Christian God was sacrificed on the cross to redeem all humanity. If Jesus could make the ultimate sacrifice, then surely a human woman could follow Jesus’s example, and put her life at risk by enduring abuse from her husband, a clergyman, a man in her church.

Now then, non-Christian Unitarian Universalists, you shouldn’t feel smug when you hear this. True, Unitarian Universalists — both those of us who are Christian and those of us who are not — have for the most part rejected the idea that Jesus gave his life to redeem all humanity. However, all too often I have seen Unitarian Universalism women abused by men, and not finding the resources to resist such abuse in Unitarian Universalism.

I am particularly bothered by the male Unitarian Universalist ministers who prey on women. In my home church, the man who was minister when I was a child had sexual intercourse with quite a few women in the congregation. I don’t want to demonize him, for he did many things right: he spoke out against the Vietnam War when it wasn’t popular to do so; he advocated tirelessly for better programs and ministries for children. But at the same time he was a sexual predator, and the congregation tolerated his behavior for too many years before finally ousting him.

And UUCPA is a congregation where many women were not able to feel safe from the mid-1970s through 1999. Bill Jacobson was the minister of UUCPA during this time, and it’s pretty clear that he was a sexual predator who had sexual intercourse with women in the congregation, possibly including teenagers. Now some might want to excuse Jacobson, arguing that in those years we didn’t know as much as we do now about the negative effects that happen when a minister, someone with institutional power, has sex with someone in the congregation. I’m willing to excuse single male ministers who married a woman in their congregation — behavior we now know to be unacceptable, but which was considered acceptable for many years — but I am not willing to excuse a male minister who had sexual contact with multiple women in his congregation; there never was any acceptable justification for such behavior; those male ministers were sexual predators because they could get away with it, not because it was considered right or proper behavior.

Indeed, it was only a few years ago that the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association changed its code of ethics to specifically prohibit having sex with congregants. And the code of ethics went further than that: if one minister believed another minister was engaging in behavior against the code of ethics, the first minister was supposed to confront the misbehaving minister before doing anything else. I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association in those days, and I ignored that last requirement. There were male ministers who were known to us to prey on female religious educators, and I was one of several ministers who told women who were new religious educators to stay away from those male ministers; confronting those men would have been an exercise in futility, since they were part of the Old Boys Network, and we religious educators were relatively powerless; confronting them might cost us our jobs; yet we wanted to be sure vulnerable women were warned.

(As an aside, one of those sexual predators is still an active Unitarian Universalist minister and is revered in the denomination; everyone once in a while, someone will tell me how wonderful he is, and I still stay silent. He has more power and money than I do, and I don’t want to be sued by him for slander nor bad-mouthed by him to important denominational officials. I tell you this as an example of the extent to which patriarchy still rules in Unitarian Universalism.)

I will say that UUCPA is doing better than the denomination as a whole in protecting women in our congregation from sexual harassment, including sexual predation, unwanted touch, unwanted contact, and so on. At UUCPA, we have a pretty good behavioral covenant. Men at UUCPA mostly behave pretty well — or at least, we behave better than the wider culture — and for the most part, when UUCPA men are told to back off, we back off. For the most part.

But let’s face it, in a society governed by patriarchal masculinity, I may well be unaware of instances of misbehavior by men in the congregation (and if you’re a woman who has experienced sexual harassment at UUCPA, I hope you will feel able to tell Amy, me, or a member of the Committee on Ministry about it). And I readily admit we UUCPA men are still pretty bad about dominating conversations, talking over women, not hearing women’s concerns or women’s voices. We still have work to do.

Nevertheless, Rebecca Parker offers us a vision of hope for the future, and I recommend the book Proverbs of Ashes to you. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock offer powerful stories of how women have faced up to sexual violence. They also offer an important message for those of us who haven’t experienced sexual violence, but who are trying to help and understand those who have. Brock and Parker say: Be quiet and listen. I think this is especially powerful, because under patriarchy we’re either supposed to fix problems, or defend ourselves and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Of course, if a woman tells me that she is currently experiencing sexual harassment or sexual violence or domestic violence, I’m going to ask her if I can help extricate her from that situation. But more important is to listen without turning away; to listen in order to try to understand.

This is an important part of a feminist vision for the future: listen to those who have experienced violence. And in this moment when the wider culture is suddenly aware of the daily violence experienced by people of color, this is an important thing to remember. Yes, we all need to work together to change policing policies so we prevent further violence. But those of us who have not experienced this kind of violence also have to listen to people of color who have experienced; to listen without turning away from the anger and rage. I would go further and say this is ultimately a religious task: to still our own needs, and listen to those who have been harmed by violence. And this is an essential step towards ending, or at least greatly reducing violence.

I have time for a brief look at one more feminist theologian, the neo-Pagan writer Starhawk. Here is Starhawk’s vision for her feminist neo-Pagan theology, taken from her 1987 book Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery:

“We are never apart from the power of the mysteries. Every breath we take encompasses the circle of birth, death, and rebirth. The forces that push the blood cells through our veins are the same forces that spun the universe out of the primal ball of fire. We do not know what those forces are. We can invoke them, but we cannot control them…. Yet somehow we human beings … have managed to create a culture in which the power of the mysteries has been denied and power itself has been redefined as power-over, as domination and control… We are not particularly happy in this condition. We do not enjoy being the targets of nuclear warheads or developing cancer from our polluted environment. We do not enjoy starving, or wasting our lives in meaningless work, nor are we eager to be raped, abused, tortured, or bossed around. Whether the bosses enjoy their role is not the issue. The question is, how are the rest of us controlled? Or, even more to the point, How do we break control and set ourselves free?” [p. 6]

Starhawk has been a big influence within Unitarian Universalism partly because she offers a powerful vision of a feminine divinity, but perhaps more importantly because of her insistence that religious ritual is essential for social justice work, and also because she offers practices and exercises to reveal the working of power and authority in groups. Indeed, her book Truth or Dare is almost a recipe book for how to do groups based on feminist power analysis. I use her tools and exercises all the time in small groups that I’m a part of.

In particular, she takes the distinction between power-over and power-with — a distinction that, to the best of my knowledge, was first articulated by theologina Bernard Loomer, who was affiliated with both the Presbyterians and the Unitarian Universalists — Starhawk takes the somewhat lofty concepts of power-over and power-with and translates them into practical things you can implement in your small group. Here’s how she defines these two types of power in Truth or Dare:

“Power-over is decision-making power, control. In a hierarchy, it flows from the top down. In an egalitarian group, it remains broadly based. Decisions are made by the people most affected by them, and/or those who will carry them out. Power-with is influence. Whose voice is listened to? Whose ideas are most likely to be adopted?” [p. 268]

Starhawk also considers a third type of power, power-from-within, and explores how that type of power can be used to resist domination and control. And although Truth or Dare is a little dated now, it’s still an excellent resource for building non-patriarchal leadership in small religious groups.

So I’ve almost concluded my whirlwind tour of feminist theology. I’ve left a lot out of this whirlwind tour. I wish I had had time to talk about Sharon Welch, a theologian and ethicist who is both a humanist and a feminist. I wish I had had more time to talk about the feminist thinking of black women theologians, and Latina women theologians, and so on. I wish I had had time to dive into Queer theology, and talk about non-binary gender definitions in theological thinking. I wish I knew enough myself to talk about some of these things!

But I don’t have time. So I’ll end with a final vision of hope from the feminist bell hooks, again from her book “Feminism Is for Everybody,” published back in 2000:

“We are told again and again by patriarchal mass media, by sexist leaders, that feminism is dead, that it no longer has meaning. In actuality, females and males [editorial addition: and all other genders] of all ages, everywhere, continue to grapple with the issue of gender equality, continue to seek roles for themselves that will liberate rather than restrict and confine; and they continue to turn to feminism for answers. Visionary feminism offers us hope for the future….” [p. 117]

What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading “What’s killing Sunday school”

The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism

What a wild ride we Unitarian Universalists had in 2017.

The wildest part of the year happened last spring, when Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), resigned from office, with only a few months left in his term. The events that led up to his resignation were somewhat bizarre. Two of the finalists for a senior staff position at the UUA were both members of the UUA Board, which should make us wonder just how incestuous UUA hiring is (I mean, seriously, can’t you find viable candidates outside your volunteer board? — don’t you know how bad that looks?). Then when the white male gets hired in preference to the Latina woman, social media erupts in accusations of “Racism!”

Shouting “Racism!” was not a bad response, but hardly anyone mentioned the sexism involved. Now it’s not sexism every time the man gets hired over the woman. Nor is it always sexism when the man who gets hired is an ordained minister and the woman is a layperson (for while anyone who has done feminist power analysis knows that sexism often hides behind choosing the person with the most professional credentials, on the other hand sometimes the person with more professional credentials is in fact more qualified). And it’s not always sexism when the woman has a background in “women’s work” (which was true in this case; the woman in this case is a religious educator, and works with children, in a profession that is underpaid compared to parish ministry). But it most definitely was sexism when Peter Morales said in an interview that he could not hire religious educators for senior staff positions because they were not capable of that kind of high level work.

I was astonished at the rage I felt after reading that Peter Morales thought I was incapable of working for him in a high level staff position, simply because I am a religious educator, someone who does “women’s work,” in a profession where more than 90% of my colleagues are women, many of whom are poorly-paid part-time workers. Had I been British, I would have given Peter Morales the two-finger salute; but since I’m a New Englander, that would be cultural misappropriation, so instead I looked in his general direction with withering scorn. Continue reading “The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism”

My rant for the day: Patriarchy dies hard

Let me climb onto my soap box….

All these troubles in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA): yet another senior denominational positions is filled by a white man; the first Latino president of the UUA gets defensive about this fact and then resigns; people of color in the denomination call for a national teach-in about white supremacy; the president of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA), who is a white man, holds forth online at great length, and somewhat incoherently, on hiring practices in the UUA; 130 members of the UUMA sign a petition calling on ministers to refrain from bringing lawsuits against other ministers in the middle of UUMA grievance procedures (a petition that was responding to a legal action by a UUMA member against other UUMA members to prevent ministers from talking about a colleague who allegedly committed sexual misconduct); a Unitarian Universalist minister pleads guilty to child pornography charges.

In the course of all these troubles, many Unitarian Universalists are openly addressing the problem of racism and white supremacy. This is a good thing.

And in the course of all these troubles, far fewer Unitarian Universalists seem to be talking about sexism and patriarchy. Maybe because all the candidates for UUA president are women. In a couple of weeks, we are sure to elect a woman as the next UUA president and therefore we have conquered patriarchy. Right?

Patriarchy within the UUA has not died. Nor is it in its death throes, nor is it even in the process of dying. All these years I’ve been going to political rallies and hearing people assert that all oppressions are linked. So guess what: patriarchy and white supremacy are linked. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other.

As a minister of religious education — that is to say, as someone who is doing “women’s work,” because taking care of children is not “real ministry,” it’s just “women’s ministry” — I can tell you that patriarchy is alive and well in the UUA. Sunday school enrollment has been dropping since 2005, even though demographically there are more and more children out there. Why? Sunday school enrollment has been dropping because in the UUA as a whole, and in most individual congregations, when money gets tight we pull resources away from children and youth ministry so that we adequately pay the patriarchal positions — the president of the UUA, the senior denominational positions, the parish minister.

We do this both because of patriarchy, and also because of white supremacy. In much of the U.S., non-white children are now the majority. If we adequately fund children’s ministries, we might bring more kids into our congregations. If we do that, not only are we saying that “women’s work” is important, we are also opening the doors to a lot of non-white people. Both these things are equally threatening. Patriarchy and white supremacy die hard.

I know, you’re sick of hearing me rant. OK, I’m off my soap box now. And I promise to reduce my ranting in the future, because the last thing we need is another rant from yet another white man.

Irrelevant

I admit it, I’m feeling irrelevant.

As I watch a social media debate about accusations of “white supremacy” engulf my denomination, I’m all too aware that I’m on the far periphery of that debate.

Part of my problem, as I learned in a May 27 article on the UU World Web site, is that I’m a religious educator. According Peter Morales, who just resigned as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this means I am not competent for leadership:

“Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. ‘So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?’ he asked, adding, ‘you don’t want to set people up for failure’ by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.”

Because I’m on the far periphery of my denomination, because I’m not privy to all the inside information that people on Facebook seem to have, I’m trying hard not to judge anyone who is centrally involved in this debate. But I’ve finally decided that I’m really angry about this comment by Peter Morales. In my first position as a part time Director of Religious Education, I had to hire, supervise, and in one case fire an employee; supervise a couple dozen volunteer staff; coordinate with committees and other staff; and manage events and projects. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things, but I gained a hell of a lot of management skills, and I was mentored by more experienced DREs who were very adept managers. I got more on-the-job leadership and management training in three years of part-time work than many parish ministers get in five years of full-time work.

But Peter Morales’ attitude is what I’ve come to expect from the cosy little in-group at the head of the UUA: — Religious educators must make poor leaders because, you know, it’s women’s work, and we all know that women don’t make good leaders. As for the male religious educators, if they had real skills they’d have become real ministers (I’m looking at you, Dan Harper).

Yes, I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of people at the UUA who value religious educators. But I have felt dismissed by UUA leaders; the only word for it is “patronized.” And it’s not just the UUA that is pervaded by that patronizing attitude of dismissal towards religious educators; many members and leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) do a marvelous job of being politely condescending towards religious education and religious educators; and the UUMA never seems to offer continuing education to its members about religious education, I guess because real ministers shouldn’t lower themselves to that level. I may be generalizing here, what I’m saying may not be true of specific individuals, but what I’m saying is generally true.

Not surprisingly, this kind of thing makes me angry. And I’m a middle-aged white guy. Imagine how I’d feel if I were not white, or if I were a woman.

Maybe part of the UUA’s problem is that we have too many ministers in senior leadership positions. More precisely, we have too many of a certain kind of UU minister with an inflated sense of self-importance, with blind spots about their own prejudices, and with strong connections to a loose network of powerful people within the denomination. Many of these are good people. But this loose network of powerful people in the upper echelons of the UUA (and of the UUMA) takes care of its members in ways that are not good. I have watched this network close ranks around their friends who committed sexual misconduct (I still remember the time I wound up yelling at a senior UUA staffer over the phone regarding a minister who had committed egregious sexual misconductor). I have watched this network provide soft landings for its members when they needed a new job. I also believe this network shunts competent women and competent people of color into the less prestigious jobs at the UUA (“she’ll be a good fit for the Religious Education Department”; “he’ll fit right in to the Diversity Office”; etc.).

At this point, I can see that I’ve let my anger get the better of me, and I’ve gone on too long. “Bring it home, preacher” is what they’d say in some congregations. So I’ll ask: How do we get out of this?

Well, I hold out little hope that any of the three candidates running for UUA president will show increased respect for religious educators (and no, being condescending and not listening are not signs of respect). If you can’t show respect for the people who are training up the next generation of Unitarian Universalists, that’s not a hopeful sign. And if you can’t show respect for religious educators, why would I believe that you could show respect for people of color?

Nor do I see any imminent signs of culture change at the UUA. I know there are good people on the UUA Board of Trustees, and good people working at the UUA in Boston, and as field staff. But UUA policy is set by General Assembly, and General Assembly is dominated by well-to-do white people who can afford a vacation in late June, and well-to-do ministers who have a big enough professional expenses budget to attend. In other words, it’s the same old people who can afford to meet face-to-face who are going to continue to set policy.

Maybe something will come out of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism movement. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.

If we’re going to make real change happen, I strongly believe it has to start from the grassroots: from our local congregations. That’s where I believe we can do the real work: face-to-face in local congregations, where we can respond creatively and specifically to immediate problems. Don’t wait for the UUA to lead the change: make your congregation lead the UUA. Make religious education central to your congregation. Make racial justice central to your congregation. Make your congregation fight against the resurgence of sexism.

As I write this, I realize that it might not be me who is irrelevant. Nor are we religious educators irrelevant, despite Peter Morales’ dismissal of us as incompetent. It might be that the UUA, the senior leaders at the UUA, their cronies in the UUMA and elsewhere: all of that is increasingly irrelevant.

Denominational politics

I haven’t had time to pay much attention to denominational politics for the past year, between my boss going on sabbatical and the death of my father. But the recent uproar at denominational headquarters has been so big, I’ve had to pay attention.

Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and the second person of color to hold that office, resigned yesterday amid charges from critics that he is perpetuating a “white supremacist” culture at the UUA. He had three months left in his second and final term as UUA president.

Some of the charges leveled at Morales say that he did not do enough to hire non-white people into senior leadership positions at the UUA. I was actually surprised to learn that the number of non-white employees (excluding service workers) was up to 11% — a pitifully low percentage, worse even than notoriously racist Silicon Valley tech firms, but much higher than I expected given how lily-white Unitarian Universalism is (I’d bet most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are maybe 97% white).

Obviously, the first thing the UUA needs to do is hire those qualified non-white applicants who do apply for UUA jobs, and Morales resigned amid accusations that didn’t always happen. Mind you, I don’t want to second-guess UUA hiring decisions, but the UUA gives the impression of a cosy little in-group — not unlike Silicon Valley tech firms — and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn qualified non-white candidates are passed over in favor of white people who would “fit in.”

But even if the UUA starting hiring every qualified non-white candidate, there’s a bigger problem: there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists to begin with, and the overwhelming majority of them are white. When I served on a search committee for a district staffer a few years ago, I felt the pool of candidates was frighteningly small; there just aren’t a lot of Unitarian Universalists who want to work for an organization that demands long hours and offers modest compensation. In an interview on Monday, Morales said something that I agree with: the UUA could expand the pool of qualified applicants by considering persons of color who are not Unitarian Universalists, just as All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., did when they hired an associate minister a couple of years ago. Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, hiring non-Unitarian Universalists might be the only way the UUA will be able to increase the number of non-white staffers from 11% up to 36% (the percentage of non-white people in the general U.S. population).

[Update 4/1: In online discussions, people have pointed out that when the UUA does hire people of color, it often treats them badly enough that they leave the UUA (or even the denomination). Obviously, expanding the pool of candidates will be a waste of time if the UUA chases away its non-white staffers. So much for the one idea I had to address this problem.]

Above all, I don’t think we should give up on racial diversity. I have very little to do with the UUA any more (the last thing the UUA needs is another middle-aged white guy hanging around), but I’m still committed to moving my own congregation towards more racial diversity. On the other hand, I admit I’ve pretty much given up on trying to increase class diversity, and I hold out little hope for a non-Anglophone Unitarian Universalist congregation in the U.S. Sometimes I even feel as though we’re back-sliding on the meager progress we had made towards fighting sexism in religion.

Thank God I’m a Universalist, so I have this irrational hope that love will triumph in the end. Because at this moment in history, it does not feel as though love is triumphing, not within the UUA — nor in the wider U.S. society.

[4/1: several typos corrected]

Feminist musical spirituality

Anonymous 4 has announced that the 2015-2016 season will be their last. This may not mean anything to you, so I had better explain who the Anonymous 4 are.

Back in the late 1980s, I was living near Boston and listening to a lot of early music. The Boston area at that time was one of the centers of the early music revival in the United States. There was lots of live music, including a renowned early music festival, record stores with entire sections for early music, and a dedicated fan base.

I shared this passion for early music with Joel, one of my housemates at that time. Joel was an amateur musician, a member of the American Recorder Society who got into a master class with internationally-famous recorder virtuoso Marian Verbruggen, and a singer who eventually wound up in a choir that specialized in 13th century Flemish choral music. I was merely a fan, and Carol and I became groupies of that 13th century Flemish music choir (not as risque as it might sound; we just sold tickets at their performances). I tell you this to give you an idea of the early music scene at that time: Marion Verbruggen gave master classes! There was an entire choir devoted to 13th century Flemish music! Early music choirs had groupies!

During the late 1980s, I began to hear about this innovative quartet of women singers called Anonymous 4, who were making recordings of medieval music. Everyone I knew talked about it as kind of feminist endeavor. They explored feminine aspects of medieval sacred music: music by women composers, positive images of women in medieval music. And as progressive as the early music scene tended to be, it was considered mildly radical for women to sing medieval sacred music; there was a common misconception that only medieval men really sang sacred music, but Anonymous 4 helped make it widely known that medieval women also sang sophisticated and beautiful sacred music.

I have to admit I never went to an Anonymous 4 concert until a few years ago. In the late 1980s, when they were singing medieval music, I was more interested in 16th century polyphony and Baroque music. In the 1990s, I drifted away from early music and began listening to new music, and folk and trad music. Yet had I been paying attention, I would have found that Anonymous 4 had already explored these musics: among other projects, they premiered new work by composer Richard Einhorn, and performed with bluegrass fiddler Daryl Anger.

But though I missed their live music, I kept listening to their recordings, as did so many other music aficionados. Their sound is immediately recognizable: the lack of vibrato, the precise intonation, the fluid but disciplined sense of rhythm, the unity of musical purpose; and above all the transcendent beauty of their interpretations of sacred music. In our deeply secular age, not many musicians, not even many church choirs, make you feel that sacred music can be transcendent and holy. For me, Anonymous 4 represent the very best of the revolution in feminist spirituality: they may be a secular ensemble, but they sing sacred music as if it’s sacred; and that is a rare and wonderful thing.

They’re not done yet; they’re working on one more recording, and they’ll be performing for two more seasons. Nevertheless, it feels like the end of an era in feminist spirituality.

Marriage as a religious act

I received an interesting and thoughtful comment via email on a sermon titled “Marriage as a Religious Act” which I recently posted on my main Web site. I realized that this sermon relates to some issues you, dear readers, and I have addressed on this blog — most importantly, the sexual revolution within Unitarian Universalism, and the theological basis (if any) for marriage in our tradition. Since this is something we have talked about here, and since I greatly value the comments I get from you, I decided to post this sermon and see what you might have to say about it. The sermon beging below the fold.

Continue reading “Marriage as a religious act”