Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Liberalizing = Weakening?

In studying the 17th century church, it's a little upsetting to realize that it was after the liberalizing trends of the second generation of Puritan Congregationalists (like the Halfway Covenant) that the New England church kind of had the ginger taken out of it and was never as powerful again.

Of course some of that diminishing was due to the increasing religious pluralism of the later 17th and early 18th century (now you had your Catholics, you had your Baptists, you had your Anglicans, you had your Scottish Presbyterians, etc.), but it's quite clear that once the church stopped requiring a true conversion experience as a condition of full membership in the church, things got notably whimpier in the Standing Order.

This is a gross simplification and I'm sure that the Boy In the Bands and Fausto and Adam and Chris and LT and others will correct me -- and they should -- but it all makes me think that the liberal church makes a huge mistake in requiring pretty much nothing of its new members. Sign your name, get a nametag, come to a newcomer's dinner, attend an orientation or two... get applauded in church.

What if the minister or some church elders asked, "Why do you want to be a member of this church? Why do you want to join with this faith tradition? What promises will you make to us, and are you ready to hear our promises to you? Are you ready to enter into this covenant with full commitment, joy and preparedness to be changed by the religious life we share here?"

You know how we always scream, "You can't have creedal requirements for membership! Ayiiiiiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeeee!"?? Well, that's not a creed. It's not even signing onto the Seven Principles. It's a series of questions designed to weed out the folks who aren't ready and need to be further nurtured or mentored in some way, who don't know what they're doing and need to take a ride on the clue bus, or have no intention of really sticking around.

Someone I really like and respect said to me today (and I'm paraphrasing from memory), "I don't think Unitarian Universalism will disappear entirely. There is always going to be the type of person with an interest in generic spirituality who wants to have the intensity of their ethical commitments validated in community."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Living Tradition of our future, but an honest one.

8 Comments:

Blogger boyinthebands said...

Well, there's the role of republican passions among the non-elite in post-Revolutionary America -- which weakened institutional churches across the board.

Consider the Universalists as an example of religious republicanism, for instance.

22:34  
Blogger tinythinker said...

Hmm. Then there is the problem (?) of people such as myself. I heard about UU a few years ago, and several months later I did the online course using the book A Chosen Faith. I keep up with the UU issues on the UUA homepage and like to read UU-themed blogs. I think that UUism is not only a postive force in social issues but a critical voice in the country for appreciating religious pluralism, religious tolerance (both against the radical fundamentalists and hardcore irreligionists), and helping people find a living tradition of faith not bound by creeds and dogmas. And there are half a dozen UU congegations within 30-35 minutes of my home.

23:19  
Blogger Philocrites said...

I've wondered if we shouldn't consider reclaiming and updating the church/parish distinction. The parish -- the part of the Standing Order that Unitarianism largely inherited -- was the less covenantal part. It's also the more political part, the universal-access, pastor-as-ethical-teacher part, the part that owned the building and ran the stewardship campaign and hosted the community celebrations. The church, however, was always the smaller group, oriented around the covenant and the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

I know of only a handful of UU congregations that preserved distinct church memberships and parish/society memberships into the present (Brookline and Concord did in some technical way, for example), but I don't think these distinctions were maintained as a way of offering a path to deeper and more committed religious life. They could be.

We'd undoubtedly have to abandon the labels "parish" and "church" and come up with something that resonated more generally, but it's conceivable that we could offer a lay vocational path, a kind of dedicated ministry of members to each other and to the world that congregational members could choose to join. A kind of small-group ministry ramped up several notches. But I can't imagine how we could transform our public worshiping communities into covenantal bodies in this way; our public face is simply too welcoming and accommodating to require that kind of commitment.

08:25  
Blogger fausto said...

Hm, the liberalizing influence in our tradition began with the Half-Way Covenant, and so did the dissipation of commitment and fervor? Intriguing. I'll have to chew on that.

Of course, if we hadn't gone that route, today we'd be a collection of what are now called "non-denominational" churches, preaching fervent and exclusive "born again"-ism, and we all know what those kinds of churches look like.

If that was the alternative, I'm happy for the Half-Way Covenant.

10:08  
Blogger SC Universalist said...

Hey, arent most UUs these days products of conversion?? So does that make UUs less liberal than Methodists or Congregationalists? :-)

And of course, its no secret that modern UUs do have creedial tests, you yourself complain about them! (well, we dont call them creedial tests... but...)

More seriously, I suspect that my going to a high school where the mascot was cavaliers and in history class we booed (literaly) the roundheads, does color my views.
But - I dont see why someone would want to live in a world where the Church holds that much power and ginger - even if everybody else shares my religious views (although I admit - that would make it easier! but it's always the question of who's religion will prevail over others). Of course, I live in a state where buisness arent allowed to open to 1:30 on Sunday... and I dont mow the grass on that day, so it's still pretty powerful here.

21:52  
Blogger Philocrites said...

Fausto, some historians have interpreted the Half-Way Covenant (and the opening of the Lord's Supper to non-members) as a response to waning fervor more than as its cause. The Half-Way Covenant was a way of responding to adults who had been baptized as children but never joined the covenant themselves, who then brought their children to be baptized.

14:45  
Blogger fausto said...

If I understand her correctly, though, that's PB's point. The churches accommodated members whose dedication was waning, in the interest of appealing to a wider constituency, and perhaps they shouldn't have.

On the church/parish distinction: In many of our old parishes, when the "Unitarian Controversy" broke out, the smaller body of orthodox "church" members withdrew, leaving the remaining larger, broader "parish" with the building and the silver. The withdrawing churches thereafter typically called themselves something like "First Congregational Church" and the remaining parishes typically called themselves something like "First Parish, Unitarian". So if we as UUs were to revive the idea of having a "church" within a "parish", for us it would really be creating something new, rather than reviving a successful older model that once served us well. I wonder, however, if the new model might not eventually succumb to the same sorts of polar tensions that the older one did, since just as in old times the "church" and "parish" bodies might not necessarily share the same motivations and purposes.

As an alternative, perhaps reviving a model of leadership by a body of deacons or elders (which are two other neglected but authentic practices from many of our older congregations) might be more appropriate than trying to divide congregations into distinct bodies of "church" and "parish". Depending on how it is practiced, that sort of leadership model also might be useful in helping reconcile our currently unresolved disparity between the competing principles of personal spiritual authority and collective submission to a common covenant. (And if there's one thing that's sure to improve almost any UU congregation, it's another committee.)

16:23  
Blogger Philocrites said...

To clarify something: My understanding (which could be wrong) is that the parish and the church weren't so much different organizations; they just had different circumferences.

The parish (or the "society," as many Unitarian congregations' legal bodies were known until fairly recently) was the social, legal entity. It elected ministers, set the budget, paid for the church, etc. The church was a subset within the parish, gathered around the covenant.

Obviously any group of "true believers" can become ideologically frustrated by the more lax commitments of the seekers, milquetoasts, and hangers-on who support the church but don't sign up for the full agenda. But we have that problem anyway, so I guess I'd be willing to entertain the emergence of smaller covenantal and sacramental communities within the congregation.

I second the idea of reviving deacons -- although, again, in most parts of the country they'd probably need a new name.

18:55  

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