The Unitarian Universalist
Association at 40
by W A R R E N R. R O S S
Forty years ago, euphoria broke out in Boston. The new Unitarian Universalist Association met for three days in May at Boston's Symphony Hall to hold its first General Assembly. One year earlier, delegates from the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America had met in Boston to vote to unite the two denominations. This time, delegates had convened to elect their first president the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley and determine the Association's structure. With the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America now united, a great vision was unleashed for a new Unitarian Universalism with great potential for growth and cultural influence.
But today, adult membership is barely more than it was then, and the voice of UU values is tiny compared with that of the religious right. What happened? The answer makes for quite a narrative, beginning with a series of unexpected and destructive blows.
|12 Moments that Shaped Today's UUA
1. Greeley Forges a Strong Presidency|
In 1961 the first General Assembly elects the Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, last president of the American Unitarian Association, to be the first president of the new UUA. Charismatic and deeply engaged in public issues, Greeley raised visibility, membership, and morale, essentially defining the office. He also ran out of funds, leading to a financial crisis at the end of his second term.
2. Reeb's Death Galvanizes a Movement
Greeley leads the UUA in joining the civil rights movement, a natural fit for a movement affirming the "supreme worth of every human personality." The Rev. James Reeb, killed while participating in the Selma voting rights campaign in 1965, galvanizes UU participation. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers the UUA's Ware Lecture in 1966.
3. Black Empowerment Bitterly Divides
"Black power" radicalizes the civil rights movement after Stokely Carmichael (who coined the phrase) challenges Martin Luther King's goal of racial integration in 1966. The debate about the future of the civil rights movement divides the UUA when the Black UU Caucus presents "non-negotiable demands" to the 1968 General Assembly. The Assembly commits $1 million over four years to black empowerment programs, but backs off in 1969 when the board realizes that the UUA is broke. After cutting all funding in 1970, the UUA loses approximately 1,000 African-American members and retreats from active involvement with the civil rights movement.
4. Beacon Press Infuriates Nixon
Beacon Press, the UUA's independent book publisher, found a spot on Richard Nixon's enemies list for publishing the complete text of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The FBI tried to obtain the UUA's bank records, but a legal battle—and Nixon's resignation finally took the UUA off the hook.
5. Natural Gas to the Rescue
Thank one congregation and one generous member for most of the money used to spread Unitarian Universalism in the last 40 years. Caroline Veatch bequeaths the royalties to her late husband's pre–World War II oil discoveries to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, in 1953. The congregation and its Veatch Fund provide millions over the years, funding the UUA's extension programs, establishing the UUA's endowment (with $20 million in 1985), providing grants to UU and social justice-related programs, and twice in the early '70s saving the UUA from bankruptcy. Veatch's legacy inspires thousands of others to invest in the UUA's future.
6. Religious Education Is Revitalized
The UUA publishes its groundbreaking "About Your Sexuality" curriculum for teenagers in 1971, but religious education enrollment drops throughout the '70s. The baby boom, new curricula, and professional development programs for religious educators revive "RE": enrollment is now 57.6 percent higher than in 1985. (The UUA begins offering credentials to religious educators in 1967, and in 1979 accepts ministers of religious education into ministerial fellowship.) Liberal Religious Youth is replaced by the more denominationally-minded Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) in 1982, and youth and young adult involvement surges in the late '90s.
7. New Symbols Define a Movement
The flaming chalice, first used as a denominational logo in the 1976–77 UUA Directory, becomes a ritual part of many UU services in the '80s. A revised statement of UUA principles, adopted by the General Assembly in 1985, proves especially popular in defining what Unitarian Universalism is.
8. Women Transform the Ministry
Only four women are ordained to the UU ministry in the UUA's first decade. The first gathering of women clergy at Grailville, Ohio, in 1978 brought 29 ministers together. How times have changed! Since then, the number of women in parish ministry has jumped to 44.8 percent. Counting community ministers (62 percent of whom are women) and ministers of religious education (85 percent), our ordained leadership is now half female.
9. Humanism Meets the New Spirituality
In the '60s, UUs overwhelmingly identified as religious humanists; almost 30 percent believed the concept of God was either irrelevant or harmful in 1967. Fifteen years later, that number had dropped to 20 percent. Today, newcomers are often trying to fill a religious void in their lives. Many UUs are rediscovering spirituality and ritual; Buddhist and pagan UU groups are common. The General Assembly in 1995 added a "sixth source" to the UUA's statement of principles, affirming "spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions." Humanism hasn't gone away, though. Nine out of ten UU congregations still identify humanism as a primary perspective and human reason (37 percent), UU principles (33 percent), and personal experience (24 percent) are considered the foundational source of authority in UU congregations, according to a 1999 study of more than 500 UU congregations.
10. The Welcoming Denomination
The General Assembly begins calling the UUA to fight discrimination against homosexuals in 1970, establishing a UUA Office of Gay Concerns in 1974 (now the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns). The General Assembly affirms services of union for gay and lesbian couples in 1984, and establishes the Welcoming Congregation program in 1989 to help congregations extend a genuine welcome to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. More than 300 congregations have now completed the program.
11. On a Journey Toward Wholeness
The UUA begins tackling racism again in 1981 with a board resolution to become a "racially equitable institution." Momentum builds slowly until the General Assembly calls for racial and cultural diversity within the UUA in 1992, and in 1997 adopts "The Journey Toward Wholeness" committing the UUA to becoming an "anti-racist, multicultural association." In 1999, the U.S. Presidential Commission on Race identifies the UUA's program as one of the nation's 100 best racial justice efforts.
12. First Black President of a White Denomination
The Rev. William G. Sinkford is elected president of the UUA in 2001, becoming the first African American elected to lead a historically white denomination in the United States.
The culmination of a century of intermittent courtship, the marriage of two venerable liberal religious traditions reflected high hopes and a mutual need to solve serious problems. The Rev. Donald Harrington celebrated these hopes for the new religious association in the worship service that followed the vote, pointing to the new denomination's "tremendous potential, born of the world's response to our new relevance."
The material motives were just as real. The American Unitarian Association, while growing in membership, had budget problems. Cynics said that its leaders wanted the Universalists' money. The Universalist Church of America, meanwhile, was losing congregations at a rate that threatened its survival. But even many of those who recognized these realities hoped that consolidation would make liberal religion a stronger presence in North America.
That boost in relevance and influence did not happen, despite the best efforts of Greeley. Controversy within the UUA and seismic changes in American society took the wind out of the new denomination's sails for a decade or more, but recent years have seen new growth and the emergence of a distinctive Unitarian Universalist identity. The UUA may have remained a small and perhaps marginal religious movement in the American public square, but the union of Unitarians and Universalists proved to be a better match than many had expected in 1961.
HIGH HOPES, DEEP HOLE
No one better represented the euphoric view of consolidation than Greeley, who had championed union as president of the AUA. Greeley was a charismatic figure who promised to lead the new denomination into a golden age, taking its place alongside America's mainstream denominations in influence and prestige. By dint primarily of his larger-than-life personality he did, in fact, play a major role on both the domestic and world stages, marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for black voting rights, founding international peace organizations while also strengthening the International Association for Religious Freedom even sitting near the Pope at the Second Vatican Council. He also worked furiously to raise funds to underwrite his expansive vision.
Greeley could not raise money fast enough to pay for his ambitions, however, and by the end of his two four-year terms most of the UUA's unrestricted funds were gone. Financially weakened and programmatically overextended, the UUA was ill-prepared for two crises in the late 1960s that nearly tore the new denomination apart.
The first crisis erupted in the struggle for black empowerment, which reflected national tensions. Whereas the struggle for racial justice and equal rights in the South had united the UU denomination, the black power movement's demands for black empowerment split Unitarian Universalists, both black and white, who almost overnight were fighting among themselves. The Black Affairs Council (BAC) and Black and White Action (BAWA) were the acronyms of a decade-long conflict that included a walkout at the 1969 General Assembly.
The second split was similarly triggered by a conflict in the larger world: the Vietnam War. Boston's historic Arlington Street Church became a national symbol of resistance as TV news programs broadcast footage of draft card burning at the church and near-riots in the streets. Not surprisingly, some of those turned off by radical protests withdrew their membership or financial support from UU congregations.
THE SLOW CLIMB BACK
It was left to Greeley's successor, the Rev. Robert West, to pick up the pieces. Drastic budget cuts averted actual bankruptcy, but shutting district offices, consolidating departments, and radically cutting staff compounded the trauma of the black empowerment debates and the Vietnam War. Membership and morale dropped alarmingly.
A significant event was West's decision to back the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the UUA's Beacon Press in 1971. These papers represented the Defense Department's own review of how the US government had used lies, repression, and manipulation to fend off opposition to the Vietnam War. President Nixon was determined to suppress the report, and FBI agents attempted to go through the UUA's bank records in preparation for grand jury indictments. One UUA lawyer said his job had become keeping West and Beacon Press director Gobin Stair out of jail. While universally applauded by UUs, the high cost of publication and legal resistance led to another financial crisis. West's intensive fundraising and the generous help of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, with its fortuitously oil- and gas-rich Veatch Program saved the UUA from financial disaster.
After one additional blow the death in 1979 of Paul Carnes, the third president, after only 20 months in office a new and less crisis-ridden chapter began. Both membership and financial support had finally begun to turn upwards by the end of West's two terms, and under presidents Eugene Pickett, William F. Schulz, and John Buehrens the UUA was able at last to concentrate on its founding mission to serve member congregations and cultivate religious ideals. And in these intra-family arenas, consolidation has proved a notable success.
A RICHER FAITH
What worked especially well was the blending of two liberal traditions that, for all their theological overlap, had also demonstrated a good bit of mutual suspicion and rivalry. The Unitarians took justified pride in their learned ministry, historic tradition of congregational self-government, contributions to social reform, and, perhaps less justifiably, their self-image of intellectual and social superiority. The Universalists, for their part, had recently started emphasizing the broader values reflected by their name: universal salvation, universal love, and universal acceptance of all humanity. Organizationally, however, the Universalists were diffuse and relatively ineffective. Some opponents of consolidation feared a marriage of strength to weakness. As it turned out, the UUA managed to preserve the strength of both traditions melding the Universalist religious impetus with Unitarian institutional loyalty, historic fame, and commitment to social action.
"The real benefit of merger was theological and spiritual enrichment," says the Rev. Gordon McKeeman, a Universalist who served as a UUA trustee and as president of both the UU Service Committee and the Starr King School for the Ministry, and who ran twice for the UUA presidency. Another close observer of our evolution, UUA executive vice president Kay Montgomery, says "It's been very healthy to have the Universalist tradition to refer to as people try to figure out how to live in this complex and secular age." The Rev. David Pohl, former head of the Department of Ministry, welcomes the "conscious effort to recover the Universalist emphasis on a more egalitarian faith, one that emphasizes feeling as well as reason, one that attempts to be less 'classist,' less elitist."
This does not mean that the Universalists "won," as some have said. The general expectation of the Unitarian proponents of consolidation and fear of many Universalists that the new denomination would simply be the AUA renamed was not fulfilled, however much it looked like it at the beginning.
Of the four affiliated theological schools in 1961, for instance, only the two Unitarian schools survived; the Universalists' Crane Theological School at Tufts University and St. Lawrence Theological School closed shortly after the consolidation. Today, however, only vestigial separate Unitarian or Universalist sentiments persist, replaced by a predominant sense of a single Unitarian Universalist identity. And that has changed who we are and what kind of new members we attract.
Outside of some New England congregations, where "birthright" Unitarians may still predominate, most UUs some estimates run as high as 85 to 90 percent are newcomers. For several decades after World War II, Unitarianism and Universalism attracted newcomers because many people unable to accept the orthodoxies of their childhood traditions often veered to the other end of the theological spectrum, adopting a rigorously positivist type of humanism. They were likely to be allergic to "God talk." They often called the new congregations they founded "fellowships" rather than "churches," where they listened to "addresses" rather than "sermons." "Meditation" was suspect; "prayer" was taboo. Many harbored a strong strain of anti-clericalism.
Today, most new members are not fleeing repressive religious backgrounds. Often they have no or only nominal religious affiliations, but sense a void in their lives that cannot be filled by beliefs they cannot honestly accept. Others are parents who are stumped when their kids ask, "What is God?" These newcomers may be described as non-orthodox humanists. Without denying the primacy of reason, they attach great importance to spiritual values, accepting the role of ritual and emotion in worship. What they look for in sermons are not book reviews or political discourse, but what the Rev. Suzanne P. Meyer refers to as "celebration and spiritual renewal." She says, "They prefer sermons that deal with feelings, personal dilemmas, life passages, and spiritual growth," and often they look for help in personal crises.
Not everyone is happy with the term 'spirituality.' Some suspect it of being just a buzzword or a vague and amorphous idea that is never defined.
If the motives of newcomers have changed, however, their demographic markers have stayed remarkably the same. Most UUs are still well-educated and relatively well-off people with professional or managerial jobs, according to surveys over several decades.
The shift in religious emphasis came gradually and unobtrusively. But if a single date can be assigned as a watershed, it might be President William Schulz's sermon at the 1986 General Assembly. Using language that none of his predecessors would have chosen, he declared, "Reason is still a cherished standard in our religious repertoire, but reason is coming to be supplemented by our immediate apprehension of the holy and by our conviction that the holy is embodied in the abundance of a scarred creation."
Not that everyone is happy with this turn toward "spirituality." Some, like former president Eugene Pickett, suspect it of being just a buzzword, while Universalist historian Ernest Cassara considers it a "vague and amorphous idea" that is never defined. The Rev. Jack Mendelsohn is concerned that "young ministers today are not on fire to influence public policy, to shape a better society. Instead, their business is spirituality, prayer, healing, meditation, community." Those are all useful, he concedes, "but only if used instrumentally for some higher, more challenging objective, such as a better society." The majority of UUs, however, probably agree with the Rev. Paul Johnson that the emphasis on spirituality is "an acknowledgement of the mystery of existence." Nor should we forget that there are also Christian, Buddhist, and goddess-worshiping Unitarian Universalists and that diversity, in both membership and theology, has become another widely acknowledged UU aspiration.
In the face of such diversity the next obvious question is: What holds us together?
THE BONDS THAT UNITE US
A 1988 survey found that a majority of UUs identify "shared values and principles" as the glue that holds our denomination together. But what are those values? The UUA's Principles and Purposes, adopted 16 years ago and amended only once since, presumably provide the answer. They preface our hymnbook and appear in countless congregational bulletins. They are posted on walls, recited in unison, and featured in the front of UU World. But the Rev. Walter Royal Jones, who headed the group that hammered out the text, asks a searching question: Faced with a heart operation, with great grief or great stress, what do we have to fall back on? On our death beds, is it likely that many of us would ask to have the Principles and Purposes read to us for solace and support?
Yet the healing balm provided by our memorial services demonstrates that we do derive comfort from our faith in the face of loss and grief. In fact, such services may be the religious exercise we do best. The Rev. Jane Rzepka, minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, said recently about a service for her father, "I was relieved and pleased that
mainstream Unitarian Universalism felt so utterly satisfying to us in the face of death." Even more telling, many of us have had the experience of non-UU guests turning to us at the end of such a service to say that it was one of the most moving observances of any kind they had ever attended.
Why? Perhaps it is their unflinching honesty not what we do but what we don't do. We don't offer false comfort with promises of reunion in a hereafter. We don't recite rote prayers or perform perfunctory rituals. What we do, instead, is to strive, above all, to be honest: honest about the person we are commemorating, honest about our grief and our sense of loss, honest about our confusion in the face of death. Therein may lie the irreducible core that remains after all the temporal fashions in terminology and practice are stripped away: our adamant refusal to believe or pretend to believe anything our reason, our experience, or our communal search for truth tells us is not acceptable.
As so often, Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: "All that is clear to-day is not to lie." That determination holds true whether we call ourselves humanists or theists, agnostics or atheists, pagans or mystics; it holds true for the certain and the uncertain, for those who emphasize intuition or the intellect or give equal attention to both. From time to time we may even change our minds, but one thing is forever clear to us if we take religion seriously: We must not lie. From that fierce commitment flow the values to which we cling, and from which, in turn, comes our continuing commitment to Unitarian Universalism. Nowhere else are we as well supported in that underlying faith.
A SENSE OF COMMON IDENTITY
Shared symbols cannot make up for a lack of common values. But if we have such values, symbols and ceremonies can help us celebrate them.
Our most widely accepted symbol is the flaming chalice. Originally designed by a refugee working for the Unitarian Service Committee in Portugal during World War II, it now adorns pulpits, letterheads, ministerial gowns, and jewelry. The lighting of the chalice is widely observed at the opening of UU worship services. Another European import is the flower communion that serves many congregations as a way of affirming a sense of community. And, of course, we tend because of the widespread adoption from Singing the Living Tradition in 1993 to join in the same hymns when we gather on Sunday mornings.
There are also organizational developments that have given us a sense of identity as a single denomination. One of the major turning points was the launching by President West of UU World in 1970. Previous publications of both the UUA and its predecessor denominations had been distributed by subscription only to a fraction of the membership. What West envisioned was a newspaper (later this magazine) sent to all member families, making them aware of actions by the General Assembly and the Board of Trustees, sharing news from other congregations and districts, and expanding their horizons beyond the local parish.
Broadening the horizons even farther are the many congregations that have formed partnerships with overseas sister bodies, especially Hungarian-language Unitarian churches in Transylvania that date back to the 16th century. Retired minister Max Gaebler says the Partner Church Council is "the strongest grass-roots movement among UUs since civil rights."
A PERSISTENT AMBIVALENCE
One of the many tensions that has persisted since 1961 has to do with the meaning of being a denomination. We need to articulate our beliefs, but do the Principles and Purposes smack too much of a creed? Do we look too much to UUA headquarters at the expense of our cherished local autonomy? Ministers may no longer urge, as some did in the contentious 60's and 70's, that 25 Beacon Street be dumped into Boston Harbor, but many in the clergy and the laity still distrust what they see as the centralizing tendencies of the "bureaucracy." Many feel torn between furthering organizational strength so that we can be more influential in shaping a world that reflects our ideals and concentrating on the search for religious depth to find meaning in our lives.
Does collective action require unanimity? Does our commitment to individualism impair our organizational effectiveness and our ability to help heal the ills of the world? And, in light of the General Assembly's and Board of Trustees' commitments to the Journey Toward Wholeness anti-racism initiative, does individualism stand in the way of efforts to create an anti-racist culture and denomination? We are often torn, in other words, trying to strike a balance between the pursuit of our first principle (the inherent worth and dignity of every person) and the attainment of the second (justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.)
Other issues that keep cropping up pertain to governance (is district election of UUA trustees really such a good idea?) or to General Assembly (are these assemblies truly representative?), but for the moment at least these issues are being debated with far less acrimony than in the past. Who knows, we may now be willing to extend to each other the tolerance we're willing to grant to those who hold other beliefs, just as we may be willing to honor our own traditions as much as we claim to honor those of other cultures. The days when children in our Sunday schools learned all about "the church across the street," but little or nothing about their own, may finally be over.
THE ROAD FROM HERE
As the UUA enters its fifth decade, let's consider what might lie ahead.
Denise Davidoff, who just completed her second term as UUA moderator, says, "Our congregations are vibrant and full of energy, filled with people in their 20s and 30s. Our RE classes are bursting. There is a 65 percent increase in local fundraising. There's a surge of good feeling." Outgoing president John Buehrens has participated in the dedication of 106 new church buildings but he sees something more than a flurry of construction: "I truly believe that we are slowly coming to spiritual maturity."
To make sure that we're not self-deluded, here is what a leading evangelical scholar says about us. Alan Gomes writes in Trinity Journal that his fellow evangelicals "can no longer ignore the Unitarian Universalist Association," because, he says, "Unitarian Universalists are often the movers and shakers in society," and because "the UUA is surprisingly influential, far beyond what its official membership figures suggest." What makes us so dangerous is that we proclaim as a saving message "a theology centered on tolerance, interdependence, and compassion." To document just how dangerous we are, he might have added that we were the first denomination to achieve a 50-50 gender balance in our ordained ministry, and among the first to welcome openly gay, lesbian, and transgender persons not only to our pews but to our pulpits.
As we face the future, two historic features of our faith may hold the promise to our continuing vitality: congregational polity (autonomy and self-government) and the covenantal relationships that bind the members of our congregations to each other and the congregations, in turn, into one Association. Together they form the basis of our commitment to the democratic process and to mutual respect in human relations.
The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, asks: "Can we find a way in which we both embrace and celebrate diversity and also cultivate community something greater than the sum of the parts?" She answers that "covenant-making may be the key to opening the door to another way of understanding ourselves. The commitments we make to one another, the promises we make to one another as a congregation, as an association, are what create church community. Covenant requires a human presence, an active presence to one another, and gets us beyond Who am I ? to Who are you? and What can we do together?"
What can we do together? To discover answers to this question is to discover the promise inherent in our history, but we can answer only by action, not by words. Of one thing we can be sure: that a faith that asks such a question without offering ready-made answers will never become obsolete for, as Carl Jung observed, "The serious problems in life are never really solved." But together we can find the help we need for living with unsolved and probably unsolvable problems, and for determining right conduct in the face of uncertainty. That is the premise that led to the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961 and will continue to inspire us for decades yet to come.
Warren R. Ross is a contributing editor of UU World and the author of The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which was published by Skinner House in June. This essay is based upon his book.
UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 26-31.