Denominational presidents mark bicentennial of 'Unitarian controversy' with dialogue on shared past and future collaboration.
The presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) spoke at a forum October 25 sponsored by the Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) in Newton, Mass. The Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the UUA, and the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the UCC, discussed ways to bridge theological and historical differences in order to work together on issues of common concern.
Their differences go back to a tumultuous period in American religious history. Andover Seminary, which later became ANTS, was founded in 1807 by Congregationalists who disapproved of liberal trends at Harvard College, where most ministers in Massachusetts were educated. The seminary's founding was one of the events that historians refer to as “the Unitarian controversy.” By 1825, when the American Unitarian Association was founded, more than 100 of the old Congregational churches in Massachusetts had embraced the liberal theology that came to be called Unitarianism. Many of the more conservative Congregational churches later joined the United Church of Christ.
“Our challenge is to understand that religious pluralism is a blessing rather than a curse,” said Sinkford. “Border crossings [among traditions] are the skill we need to develop most.”
Both the UUA and the UCC are “increasingly drawn to self understanding as progressive American religions,” said Thomas. “It could be a calling for Andover Newton, as it embarks on its bicentennial year, to help us with that dialogue.”
The forum was conceived of by the Rev. Nick Carter, president of ANTS, as a prelude to its anniversary celebrations, which will also include a revamping of the school’s curriculum to include a bigger focus on religious pluralism. “Just as our predecessors were pioneers, so do we need to be pioneers on the eve of our bicentennial, asking radical questions about what we need to be teaching,” said Carter. “It’s imperative to teach emerging leaders a new kind of border crossing skills and not to advocate denying our differences.”
Although ANTS was founded to train orthodox Congregationalists, it has become increasingly popular among students seeking Unitarian Universalist ordination in recent years. Its student body today includes a large number of Unitarian Universalist seminarians. “The explosion of UUs on campus has provoked a lot of discussion,” said Carter.
In the weeks leading up to the historic meeting between the presidents of the UUA and the UCC, members of both denominations expressed suspicion and anxiety. But the meeting was not a prelude to reuniting the groups, which angrily parted ways 200 years ago. It was a thoughtful discussion of how they might collaborate on common issues to create a stronger liberal religious voice. “Could we be seeing the first steps toward a UUA-UCC merger?” one blogger had asked, igniting a flurry of comments.
Merger talks were not on the table in Newton. Instead, the two presidents mulled over what was to be gained by acknowledging the groups’ similarities as well as their differences. Thomas wondered aloud whether the encounter could help the UCC develop a “progressive Christian orthodoxy within progressive American religion.” Sinkford emphasized the importance of UUs taking note at this “family reunion” that even though the two groups have doctrinal differences that go back 200 years, they share a common ancestry and that it’s important for UUs to reclaim it.
The split between Unitarians and Congregationalists didn’t just focus on ministerial education. Another rift occurred in 1818, when conservatives abandoned a Dedham, Mass., church because of its liberal leanings, taking the church’s valuable communion silver with them. The remaining liberal minority sued for the return of the valuables, and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (dominated by Unitarians) ordered the return of the silver.
Dr. Elizabeth Nordbeck, Moses Brown Professor of Ecclesiastical History at ANTS, spoke of the denominations’ common ancestry. “Our first two centuries [roughly 1630 to 1825] bound us together inextricably,” she said. “The next two centuries in equally compelling ways brought us apart.” She invoked a metaphor to explain the movements’ bitter split, comparing them to a married couple who had lived together harmoniously for years then separated in a bitter divorce, with just one of them getting the family’s silver. “It was too late for counseling,” she said, to a chorus of chuckles in the standing-room-only crowd of 250. “They no longer believed the same things about God or Christ or humans.”
As time passed, however, the couple began to discover common, passionate interests. After many years, they were seen walking together, Nordbeck continued, sometimes even touching. Someone finally asked them, “Have you two ever considered remarrying?”
“‘God, no!’ they both shouted. ‘We like each other so much more after the divorce.’”
Similarly, after the rift that separated the two traditions, a remarriage is not foreseeable. But the common interests remain. Both the UUA and the UCC advocate for marriage equality, and they work together on issues of sexuality education. (They developed the “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality curriculum together in the 1990s.) Sinkford noted that aside from Reform Judaism, the UCC is the UUA’s most frequent collaborator.
In a lighthearted exchange, the Rev. Dr. John A. Buehrens, former president of the UUA and minister of First Parish in Needham, Mass., presented Thomas with an antique wooden salad bowl and explained the many meanings of the gift. On one level, it symbolized a famous correspondence between Henry Ware and Leonard Woods, the first professor of theology at ANTS. Their years of letters about the differences between Unitarianism and Calvinism have become known as the “Wood ‘n’ Ware” Controversy.
Buehrens also acknowledged the last meeting of Thomas, Sinkford, and himself. The three marched in the rain together in Cleveland in 2001 during the UUA’s General Assembly, which was meeting in the UCC’s headquarters city. The march protested the Cleveland Indians’ baseball mascot, which critics see as racist. “The bowl can serve as a rain helmet,” said Buehrens. “Or as a shield when someone throws a Bible at you for hanging out with those Unitarians.” In addition, Buehrens joked, it’s a symbol of the “salad bowl” religion, with its mix of Christians, Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, Atheists, and more.
Thomas accepted the bowl with good humor. “We want the silver back,” he joked. Holding up the salad bowl, he added: “It took us 200 years to get this.”
In closing, Carter said there is no greater challenge we all face than “to find the resources within our faith to cross borders. Whether it is this school or a local congregation, each of us has an obligation to be figuring out how we can cross borders of religious differences,” he said. “There is no greater skill the world needs than a new generation that knows how to do that.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).