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Saturday, August 6, 2022

Denominational Churches in Non-Denominational Clothing

There is a very obvious trend among evangelical churches to deemphasize their denominational affiliation, if they have one. They take names that omit the name of their denomination, and in many cases you can scour their website without finding their denomination mentioned at all. Here are a few examples, at least two of which do have a non-prominent references to their denomination. I wonder how many of the sites will provide you enough information to determine their affiliation.
A cursory inspection of those sites might lead you to assume that they are non-denominational evangelical churches. They are all evangelical, to be sure, and they are each affiliated with a different denomination. Why does it matter?

According to research published on the Christianity Today website the non-denominational churches in the United States are no longer drawing quite so many members in from mainline Protestant churches as they used to. In fact, the majority of their growth is now organic, through reproduction, with a significant 'pipeline' of new members coming in from Roman Catholic backgrounds. This is significant in a number of ways, but here are two.

First, while mainline Protestant denominations continue to decline, the people they tend to lose now are young people who leave once they become adults and never come back or go anywhere else. They become what many refer to now as the 'nones.' Typically they either describe themselves as 'spiritual but not religious,' agnostics, or atheists. 

Second, the reported 17% of former Roman Catholics who are now members of non-denominational churches are a testament to the fact that not all former Catholics are giving up on the Christian faith. Perhaps, like me in my youth, they read the Bible and became persuaded that the church found their is unlike the Roman Catholic Church of today. Or, maybe they left in disgust over the sexual abuse of children by priests, and the complicity of bishops in covering it up. Maybe it's both and then some. 

Third, most people tend to continue identifying with the religion in which they were raised, at the very least because that's where they have family and other connections. Many might disappear from church for a time, but if they turn up anywhere again later, it will likely be the same as what they grew up with. Non-denominational churches are increasing in comparison to others not solely through conversions but also through reproduction and some measure of retention.

What is it that attracts people to non-denominational churches, and why do denominational churches now mask their affiliation even when their denomination doesn't have a bad public image (as in the case of the Southern Baptist Convention)?

Channeling my former evangelical self I can speculate somewhat safely. There is a culture of anti-institutionalism along with a desire for a church that is 'Bible believing' and not perceived as beholden to denominational 'traditions of men.' I have no idea how many times back in my youthful days as an evangelical missionary and minister I was told by someone with a wrinkled nose that they had no use for denominations. It was pretty frequent.

On a more positive note, I do also recall a desire for non-denominationalism because it appeared to be a move in the direction of Christian unity.  By rejecting denominational labels and gathering only around the Bible in the name of Christ they were affirming the unity of all Christians. At least, among evangelicals who were to be considered the only 'real' Christians. Catholics and others might also be saved, some would say, though to hear them tell it, it would be only by the skin of their teeth.

Meanwhile, the mainline Protestant churches often emphasize their denominational affiliation and traditions. Look through the websites of the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, or United Church of Christ and you will often see the denominational name in the parish's name and even the denominational logo up front on the main page. Often under 'About Us' you'll see something of the history not just of the local parish, but also about the larger denomination. This is going in the opposite direction of where evangelical churches appear to be headed, but then the mainline Protestant churches are also trying to play to a different crowd. For one thing, if they used denomination-free names and had websites that downplayed the connection they might end up with evangelical church shoppers showing up on Sundays and leaving quite annoyed. 

At the same time, who really is the target audience of the mainline Protestant denominations? I don't think they know for sure, although perhaps they would point to the supposedly more progressive 'nones.' The 'nones' tend not to trust 'organized religion,' or else having been raised without formal religion are completely indifferent to church. 

This trend toward hiding denominational affiliation among evangelical churches is easy to understand. There's the innate American distrust of institutions that drives people toward congregational polity along with a commitment to the Bible only, as though it could ever be interpreted cleanly without any reference at all to a religious tradition. The emphasis on individual personal faith as well certainly must contribute to the wider embrace of believer's baptism, something that just a couple of centuries ago would have seemed quite odd to most Christians other than Baptists. 

Returning to the local churches listed above, here they are with their denominational affiliation:
As I noted above, most of these denominations don't have a great deal of notoriety outside of their immediate circles, so hiding the name likely isn't about a problem with the denomination. It's representative of adaptation to a climate that rejections denominationalism and favors local ownership and autonomy. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Humanist Ministry for New Jersey

Being raised Roman Catholic meant that when, in my early teens, I started to think ministry would be in my future, the specter of celibate priesthood loomed large. As time passed and I explored religion further I became unconvinced of Catholic teachings and moved on to Protestantism. Along the way I studied for the ministry and was ordained by an independent Christian Church, serving churches and in Brazil church planting along the way. Now, as a Humanist, that draw into ministry remains even as I work in streaming technology program management as my 'day job.' Fortunately, avenues of service remain for me, including as a Humanist celebrant. 

An odd thing about a lot of ministry education is that the practical element is often left to the side. At no point in studying for my Bachelor of Ministry degree was there a class on officiating weddings and funerals. It must have come up as a topic somewhere, but there was certainly no instruction provided on how to go about it. We were more focused on marriage and family counseling than on the mechanics of a ceremony. That's probably fairly typical of evangelical ministry training. So, what I know I learned through experience.

The first time I was approached for a wedding ceremony was in New Mexico in 2004. A young couple came to church one Sunday expressly to talk to me about officiating for them. I don't know what drew them to that church in particular, but I was happy to help. It turned out to be a great experience, and I officiated two more weddings in the following months, before relocating my family to New Jersey and ultimately beginning a new career in technology. Even in the process of career change I offered my services to officiate, and handled a few more weddings in New Jersey.

Last year I had the honor and joy of officiating my daughter's wedding, and it got me thinking again about how much I enjoy offering this type of service. For me it's less a business, though I'm in the process of organizing an LLC for legal and practical reasons, and more about giving back to the community. It's for that reason my rates are lower than what might be expected from any other officiant in the area. 

As a Humanist celebrant I am "authorized to attend to the pastoral and ceremonial needs of Humanists and all others seeking these services," as it says on my endorsement document from The Humanist Society, and this is exactly what I am to do. People in our times are more disconnected from organized religion than previous generations, which means that when special occasions arise they won't necessarily have a clergyperson they know to officiate for them. I am glad to be able to fill this role for them.

Further, while I am certainly happy to be a one-off celebrant for a wedding or other milestone event in the lives of families, I am also available for pastoral care. While I am not a therapist and wouldn't think to take the role of a mental health professional, I can be there for people in times of crisis. For that there is absolutely no fee. As a Humanist minister it is my privilege to be the ear that listens and the presence that consoles. 

While I am registered to officiate weddings in New York City, and can certainly do so, I am especially committed to provide my services in New Jersey, where I make my home. Simple ceremonies in Carteret, where I live, can be made available for free. Anything a bit more involved or taking place elsewhere in the state will have a fee, but as I said above, it won't be on the level of some of what I've seen out there in terms of cost. Weddings are expensive, and I have no need to make it more difficult for anyone.

For weddings, vow renewals, infant dedications, and more, contact me. I look forward being of assistance.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Dan White Jr., and the Great Pastor Resignation (Podcast)

I felt every word that Dan White, a former church minister, said in the podcast below. People don't know how difficult ministry can be. What got me out of full-time ministry were the attacks on my character. There were many.

There is very little in this world as disappointing as giving your all for others only to have them criticize absolutely everything and then say you're lazy or ambitious or bad or too authoritarian or too lax or whatever.

More disappointing still is no one coming to your defense.
 
And that, kids, is one of several reasons congregational ministry is off the table for me. The dynamics can be toxic in ways a workplace can never be.

Episode Description:

America is burned out. Between the stress of the pandemic, growing polarization and declining trust in institutions, many people are near their breaking point. The feeling is particularly acute for those who have traditionally been society’s bridge builders — teachers, health care workers, faith leaders — as they increasingly find themselves in the cross hairs of our divisions.

Dan White Jr. was a pastor in New York for nearly 20 years until the stress of trying to mend the chasms within his church led to his physical collapse. When he went searching for a place to heal and find support, he found few options. So he decided to create his own.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

A Master of Divinity in Humanist Studies Program is Now Available!

At long last, there is finally an accredited Master of Divinity program with a Humanist track! United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and the American Humanist Association Center for Education have partnered to make this possible.

The Humanist Studies Program is one of the key offerings of the AHA Center for Education, and it is composed of the following courses:

  • Humanist Worldviews: Then & Now (Pre-requisite)
  • Humanist Philosophies and Understandings
  • Humanist Aesthetics & Practices
  • Humanist Leadership: How to Run Organizations
  • Capstone
At a rate of $665 per credit hour, the cost of each of those courses and the Capstone is $1,995. The objective of this program has always been to prepare people to be better, more effective Humanist professionals, and they are offered at the graduate level. Now, through this relationship with United Theological Seminary, these courses can be taken for credit. 

The two Master's degrees available through UTS that include these courses are the Master of Divinity (MDiv) and the Master of Arts in Leadership (MAL). The difference between the two is that the MDiv is the standard degree required for ordained ministry in many religious denominations, and as such it might not be for everyone. Coursework is included in ministry, while the MAL does not have this emphasis. 

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, which is a very progressive Christian denomination. The seminary does not, however, identify solely with that tradition in its coursework. Here is the full range of MDiv tracks currently offered:

Clearly this is an ecumenical and interfaith seminary that is focused on preparing people for ministry in a wide range of contexts. 

Courses are offered online, through either synchronous or asynchronous programming. The Humanist Studies coursework will be signed up for via the seminary but taken directly from the AHA Center for Education in a synchronous format. Synchronous classes take place for three hours once a week, and at present the Humanist Studies courses are provided on weekday afternoons, which could be something of a barrier for some people. 

Hopefully word of these Humanist Studies degrees will get out and people will take advantage of the opportunity to deepen their Humanism and develop as professionals within the Humanist community. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

Sunflowers Are Great!

I love sunflowers. Every time I have a place where I can grow a garden I plant sunflowers and
maize...usually side-by-side. My late father, a 4th generation farmer in Missouri, wouldn't allow me to grow them when I was a kid because he said they would 'escape' and grow wild on the farm. I still can't figure out the problem there. The plants are edible for livestock, and squirrels tend to eat most if not all of the seeds produced if the plants are unattended. Aside from use as decoration and for food (and oil!), sunflowers are amazing at pulling up heavy metals out of contaminated soil, and are used to some extent now as cover crops as part of regenerative farming. 

Sunflowers have an interesting history that starts in North America that you can learn more about in the video below. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Carl Sagan Testifying Before Congress in 1985 on Climate Change (Video)

In 1985 Carl Sagan testified before the US Congress about climate change. He laid out the foundations for understanding its reality, outlined the consequences that it would have, and enumerated some next steps for the United States to respond to the challenge. He was reasonable, acknowledging that drastic measures like banning fossil fuels outright would break the economy, and provided well-reason actions that could be taken instead. Virtually nothing came of it, and now we're seeing everything he said would happen taking place in our world. He was no prophet. He was a man of science who looked at evidence, tested hypotheses, and drew tentative conclusions that were open to further evidence and testing. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Cobwebs, Walkers and Lace: AMC Networks Has Franchise Fever with Anne Rice and ‘The Walking Dead’ (Podcast)


Dan McDermott, president of entertainment for AMC Networks and AMC Studios, details the world-building process that began after the company struck a wide-ranging deal with the estate of famed novelist Anne Rice. McDermott, a veteran executive and producer, explains the new TV math of developing programs and characters designed to support interlocking characters across multiple platforms that to play out over a decade or more. McDermott discusses the pros and cons of aiming so high and why it’s such a departure from pilot season of old.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A Chat with Rev Brandan Robertson (Podcast)

This interview with Rev Brandan Robertson is top notch. He talks about his youthful conversion to evangelicalism and his troubling experience of being forced out of the closet. The shadiness of Moody Bible Institute in how it treated him was particularly appalling to me. In my late teens, when I became evangelical, I thought of Moody Bible Institute as a bastion of sweet Christian holiness. Now I understand it more as a bitter fundamentalist hellhole.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Wild, Woolly Weirdness of the Independent Sacramental Movement

For some years the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) has been on the periphery of my awareness. Since I was a teenager I've had a fascination with the many varieties of Christianity out there, and yet I've only known of the ISM as 'independent Catholic' until recently. "Independent Sacramental" is certainly an accurate denominator, though in terms of movement I'm pretty sure there isn't a particular direction. 

The two books that have been the most help in bringing me up to speed on the ISM have been The Many Paths of the Independent Sacramental Movement, and The Other Catholics: Remaking America's Largest Religion. What I found in these and with some other reading and poking around online has revealed a world I didn't know existed. This is a hodge-podge of bishops and priests who claim (for the most part) apostolic succession without any binding ties to a larger communion. They mostly trace their lineages back either to bishops who parted with Roman Catholicism, or to some form of Orthodoxy. Various liturgies are used, from Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, or elsewhere, and often these are homebrewed to some extent to fit the perspective of the priest or bishop running the show. Theologically they ranges from New Age/occult all the way over to extreme traditionalist, although what counts as 'traditional' depends on the tradition. That is to say, some on this end of the spectrum devoutly hold to the old Latin Tridentine Mass, others to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer forms, and so on. As for the New Age/occult side, that can get pretty weird, with Theosophy as a primary although not sole historic stream of influence. 

What Protestants would identify as denominations the people of the ISM tend to think of more as 'jurisdictions.' Usually a bishop will provide holy orders (ordination) to priests with the intention that the bishop is at least symbolically 'in charge.' The system of bishops, priests/presbyters, and deacons that they employ dates back at least to the 2nd century CE, when many early Christian churches were using this model. It caught on and became the standard for orthodox Christianity until the Protestant Reformation. In western Catholic thought, influenced by Augustine of Hippo, the sacraments leave a mark on the soul, and this includes holy orders. Just as I will technically always be a Catholic in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, even through I left when I was 17 and am now a Unitarian Universalist, so every deacon, priest, and bishop will forever have their holy orders. In Roman Catholicism it's understood that clergy who are 'defrocked' or excommunicated are to cease using their priestly powers except in certain extreme circumstances. The ISM disagrees with that assessment. 

If we're looking for commonality among the jurisdictions of the ISM, one could say that what ties them together is saints, sacraments, and succession. All seem to agree to some extent on the relevance of saints, often naming their parishes (when they have them) after one or the other of the saints. The sacraments are absolutely central to the life of the ISM. The eucharist in particular is emphasized, with some bishops and priests even holding private, solo mass in their homes as a form of private devotion. This is controversial even in the ISM. The reality is that ISM clergy often don't have a parish at all, and instead serve the general public as officiants for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Divorced Catholics in particular can often find an independent Catholic clergy person to officiate for their new marriage, even providing a nuptial mass, and without it having to be held in a church building. Roman Catholic priests won't officiate elsewhere, such as beach weddings.  

It's apostolic succession where ISM clergy focus their greatest attention. In order to bolster their legitimacy, bishops of the ISM have long 'collected' lineages, such that the various lines have permeated pretty much the entire movement. Since the legitimacy of holy orders is understood to be the correct intent and form, it happens that more conservative people have received their ordination/consecration from more liberal bishops. 

The two primary issues I see with their understanding of apostolic succession are that it defeats the apparent original purpose of the practice, and it depends on an interpretation unique to western Christianity. 

First, there was not one church from the very beginning. In the first centuries of the Common Era there were multiple Christianities. For a long time there was a misconception that it was 'the church' and 'the gnostics,' but in recent decades we've come to understand that much of what's been grouped in with gnosticism was, in fact, other varieties of ancient Christianity. In the thick of that multiplicity, emphasis was placed by some Christians on following leaders who had known the apostles personally, with the idea being that they were more likely to be 'right.' Then it became about who was associated with people who knew the apostles. And so it went in the 2nd century that bishops began claiming apostolic authority by association. 

Second, the idea that apostolic succession can exist apart right doctrine and right worship (orthodoxy) relies on a very narrow interpretation of a western Christian idea that is not generally shared by the Orthodox, Copts, and others of ancient communions.

The most fundamental problem I have with the ISM isn't doctrinal, since I don't believe any of it anyway. What I don't like is the lack of actual focus on real ministry to people. Bishops and priests of the ISM are not uniform, by any means, but there's an overwhelming tendency to focus on the provision of sacraments over caring for people. Now, there are bishops and priests engaged in important non-profit work and practical ministry. That just isn't the overall trend of the 'movement.' 

Most ISM clergy are unpaid volunteers, except when hired as officiants, and don't have as much availability as full-time clergy to extend pastoral care. They also usually lack the formal training required of mainstream clergy. On the point of education, it has to be acknowledged that many evangelical preachers also don't have that much formal preparation, but even in evangelicalism it's common for ministers to at least try to get an undergraduate degree in Bible. One of the defenses offered in my reading for independent clergy not obtaining earned, accredited degrees is that they don't have the resources to up and move to go to seminary. That objection is a bit dated, as now the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for graduate theological education in the United States, allows for full-online MDiv studies. In fact, I'm currently studying for my MDiv in this model. Sure, there isn't a guaranteed paycheck in the end for ISM clergy, as there would be for priests in some churches, but if this is truly their 'calling' then why can't they make it work?

Going into my reading about the Independent Sacramental Movement I was open-minded. While I wasn't going to change my mind and run to join them, I figured that they had something to offer. I still think that they do, particularly in terms of extending ceremonial services to people excluded by the mainstream Catholic and Orthodox bodies. There are certainly some bishops out there doing good, as I've said, and some jurisdictions seem to be striving to do better. One that I've taken an interest in especially is the American National Catholic Church, based out of New Jersey. With several parishes in the United States, they seem like a very Vatican II type of body, with the same liturgy I grew up with (born in the 70s), and inclusive of women and ltbtq+ folks. Still, I haven't seen evidence of a strong family ministry, or really a lot other than their mass schedule. In the video at the bottom of this post is a recent news report about one ANCC parish providing gas cards to people for free, so that's nice. 

By and large the impression I get of the ISM is that most of those involved are LARPing as Catholic or Orthodox clergy. Certainly that's not the case in every instance, but when a religious movement has more clergy than adherents, what else am I supposed to think?

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Point Humanist Hour at All Souls Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma

All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma offers a Humanist service that they call The Point Humanist Hour. This isn't a new offering, by any means, which signifies that there is sustained interest in this type of gathering. You don't have to be a Humanist to attend, of course. It's just that the focus will be shifted away from the supernatural and towards the real world we share. Check it out below. 

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The (Relative) Ease of Becoming a Priest

In a couple of recent posts (here and here) I have shared about the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM), and the American National Catholic Church in particular. The ISM is composed of countless jurisdictions of Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches and bishops, ranging theologically from liberal to traditionalist, New Age/occult to Nicene, and all points in between. What they have in common is succession, sacraments, and saints. That is to say, they all hold to the importance of apostolic succession for valid holy orders in a system of deacons, priests, and bishops, they all affirm the seven sacraments we know of from Roman Catholicism, and they all revere saints in one way or another. As a Humanist and Unitarian Universalist, this is all fascinating to me but not directly relevant to my life. However, I have observed that it would not be too difficult for someone with an affinity to this sort of thing to obtain holy orders, at least for the priesthood. 

In my reading (I highly recommend the book The Other Catholics) and online perusing I've gathered that the boundaries between jurisdictions are often quite soft, with priests and even bishops moving around within the ISM, between formal bodies. I can't imagine this apparent instability is healthy for any of the individual micro-denominations, though perhaps the ones who move around most don't have regular parishes they serve. I simply don't know. There are, apparently, a number of on ramps into this group. One of which is through the Liberal Catholic Church - Young Rite

The Young Rite organization, which confusingly also utilizes the name Community of Saint George, holds to an 'esoteric' form of Christianity that is less concerned about the historicity or literal reading of the Bible, and more interested in drawing out meaning and applications for the here-and-now. This group is especially eager to confer holy orders for the priesthood, saying "Priesthood is for all, therefore all may become priests." This isn't the same as online ordination as offered by the Universal Life Church, by any means. There is a formation process that seems to take about three years and involves readings, writing summaries of the readings, regular meetings with a mentor (can be via Zoom), and practical training in serving at the altar. Priests in this body are also required to attend an annual Fall synod that involves traveling. 

So far as I can tell the expenses for the candidate for ministry are primarily books, vestments and altar materials, and cost of travel for altar training and the annual synod. Considering that ordained ministry in a denomination like the Episcopal Church requires 4 years of undergraduate work and another 3 or so years for a Master of Divinity, along with CPE and internship, the cost is much lower to go this route. Then again, there's no guarantee of a pastoral assignment with the Young Rite or even most of the independent jurisdictions. It appears that the thought is that a priest with either form their own community or serve in some other capacity, such as officiant or chaplain. The doctrinal commitment required seems to be exceptionally light as well. 

By the way, the application to start this formation process can be found here

Another path to priesthood could be found through the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch. This jurisdiction maintains Sophia Divinity School (unaccredited) as a primarily distance learning program of formation. Successful completion of all program requirements usually leads to holy orders. 

Visit the website of virtually any ISM jurisdiction and you'll likely find pages related to vocations and incardination. The former has to do with becoming a deacon or priest, and the latter is for people who already have holy orders and want to change jurisdictions. 

As I've said, none of this is really for me, but if this sounds like your sort of thing, and a way you could express your faith through service to others, then by all means go for it. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

Declaration of Modern Humanism

This year (2022) the General Assembly of Humanists International, gathered in Glasgow, UK, produced a new statement to replace The Amsterdam Declaration of 2002. In the interest of getting the word out, I'm sharing it here. 

Humanist beliefs and values are as old as civilization and have a history in most societies around the world. Modern humanism is the culmination of these long traditions of reasoning about meaning and ethics, the source of inspiration for many of the world’s great thinkers, artists, and humanitarians, and is interwoven with the rise of modern science.

As a global humanist movement, we seek to make all people aware of these essentials of the humanist worldview:

1. Humanists strive to be ethical

We accept that morality is inherent to the human condition, grounded in the ability of living things to suffer and flourish, motivated by the benefits of helping and not harming, enabled by reason and compassion, and needing no source outside of humanity.

We affirm the worth and dignity of the individual and the right of every human to the greatest possible freedom and fullest possible development compatible with the rights of others. To these ends we support peace, democracy, the rule of law, and universal legal human rights.

We reject all forms of racism and prejudice and the injustices that arise from them. We seek instead to promote the flourishing and fellowship of humanity in all its diversity and individuality.

We hold that personal liberty must be combined with a responsibility to society. A free person has duties to others, and we feel a duty of care to all of humanity, including future generations, and beyond this to all sentient beings.

We recognise that we are part of nature and accept our responsibility for the impact we have on the rest of the natural world.

2. Humanists strive to be rational

We are convinced that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human reason, and action. We advocate the application of science and free inquiry to these problems, remembering that while science provides the means, human values must define the ends. We seek to use science and technology to enhance human well-being, and never callously or destructively.

3. Humanists strive for fulfillment in their lives

We value all sources of individual joy and fulfillment that harm no other, and we believe that personal development through the cultivation of creative and ethical living is a lifelong undertaking.

We therefore treasure artistic creativity and imagination and recognise the transforming power of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. We cherish the beauty of the natural world and its potential to bring wonder, awe, and tranquility. We appreciate individual and communal exertion in physical activity, and the scope it offers for comradeship and achievement. We esteem the quest for knowledge, and the humility, wisdom, and insight it bestows.

4. Humanism meets the widespread demand for a source of meaning and purpose to stand as an alternative to dogmatic religion, authoritarian nationalism, tribal sectarianism, and selfish nihilism

Though we believe that a commitment to human well-being is ageless, our particular opinions are not based on revelations fixed for all time. Humanists recognise that no one is infallible or omniscient, and that knowledge of the world and of humankind can be won only through a continuing process of observation, learning, and rethinking.

For these reasons, we seek neither to avoid scrutiny nor to impose our view on all humanity. On the contrary, we are committed to the unfettered expression and exchange of ideas, and seek to cooperate with people of different beliefs who share our values, all in the cause of building a better world.

We are confident that humanity has the potential to solve the problems that confront us, through free inquiry, science, sympathy, and imagination in the furtherance of peace and human flourishing.

We call upon all who share these convictions to join us in this inspiring endeavor.

Sunday, July 3, 2022

The Platinum Rule


 You have no doubt heard of the Golden Rule. Found in religions around the world, and in Christianity attributed to Jesus, it is stated either negatively, "Do not do unto others what you would not have done to you, or else positively, "Do unto others as you would have done unto you." While both express a core sentiment of empathy that is valuable, neither is really fully adequate. What we need instead is the Platinum Rule:

"Do unto others as they would have you do unto them."


The difference here should be clear. The Golden Rule calls on us to think about what we would want for ourselves, and treat others accordingly. The Platinum Rule instead acknowledges that people are different, and requires us to pay attention to what others truly want, instead of what we think they should want. Here are a couple of examples:

First, someone realizes that a teammate at work is motivated by praise. Even though the observer wouldn't want that sort of attention, they understand that the co-worker is not like them and appreciates a word of thanks or congratulations. And so, as appropriate, such recognition is given. 

Second, a high school student discovers that a classmate they've considered a friend since kindergarten is gay. Since the student is a devout Christian and believes homosexuality to be sinful, they begin making a focused effort on converting that classmate and 'saving them' from being gay. Feelings are hurt, possibly the school has to intervene to stop the attack, and a friendship has ended. The Christian student was only acting on the Golden Rule, assuming that if they were gay and didn't understand it to be a sin, and that they were on the road to hell 'without Jesus,' they would want someone to try to save them.

We must not center our own egos and identities in relation to other people. What we want and what someone else would have done to them could be very different things. No one needs to violate their conscience, but also no one should be imposing their personality traits and preferences on other people.

On a final note, a positive about the Platinum Rule that might be difficult for some is that sometimes a conversation is required to understand what someone truly wants for themselves. It is so much easier to silently imagine what someone else might want, and yet that easy path can lead to a great deal of trouble, particularly in a diverse, multicultural society. Living by the Platinum Rule demands more and better of us, and that is for the best.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Humanist Ministry Designations

Religious groups have their polity. These are systems of government and ways of organizing ministry, and they can vary widely. Even The Humanist Society has different designations, though they are more functional than a matter of 'status.' 

Since the 2nd century CE the form of Christianity that has come to be considered orthodox has had a very well-defined organization. There are three levels, which from bottom up are deacons, priests/presbyters, and bishops. Deacons work in parishes under the guidance of priests, while priests are accountable to their bishops. It has become more complex over time, with the addition of sub-deacons, archbishops, and so forth, but the foundation is laid with those three primary categories. This will be found in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican bodies.

Baptists, on the other hand, hold to congregational government with each church freely associating with others in a denominational structure if they so choose. Church officers tend to be the board of deacons and the pastor, who may be considered an elder. In some the board is composed of elders and perhaps deacons, and the minister is simply the pastor or preacher. 

The perspective I held to for most of the time I was of evangelical faith held that churches should ideally be governed by elected elders, served by deacons, and led by an evangelist/preacher.

In the Universal Life Church, popular for offering free ordination online to anyone, every ordained minister is considered a member, and there is no hierarchy. The headquarters for whichever ULC body is involved (there are a few, in reality) is responsible for record-keeping and fulfilling orders for documents and supplies, but that's pretty much it. If someone were to organize a ULC congregation, whether chartered by headquarters or not, the internal polity would depend on what those starting the church want, not any other external consideration.

The model currently in use by The Humanist Society bears some resemblance to that of the ULC, in that there isn't a hierarchy of authority as such. The board of the Society is responsible for the continuation of the organization, and they review the qualifications of candidates for endorsement before deciding whether to proceed with them. The types of endorsement available are not exactly 'levels,' and more like 'designations.' Each role has a part to play, as defined by the Society. The current designations are as follows, and also note that membership in the American Humanist Association is a prerequisite for them all. 

First, there is the Associate Celebrant. Valid for only 90 days, this is good for someone who has been asked to officiate for friends, but has no plans to continue officiating long-term. The fee for this one is lower than that of Celebrant, and is perhaps a bit easier to obtain.

Second, the Celebrant is someone who is initially endorsed for two years, and can renew thereafter for five years at a time if they qualify. The key qualification is having officiated at least one ceremony of any kind for each year of their endorsement. If someone stops officiating ceremonies, then their endorsement will lapse. Legally, Celebrants are the same as ministers/priests of the various religions, and as such "are expected and required to abide by all applicable laws and regulations regarding confidentiality, reporting, marriage officiating, and other issues" (The Humanist Society) . 

Third, the Humanist Lay Leader is a designation intended for people in military chaplaincy programs. To be clear, these are not chaplains, but are auxiliaries who must hold this designation in order to perform their roles.

Fourth, the Chaplain is a person who has prepared for service to both Humanists and non-Humanists, usually in an interfaith, institutional setting. This could include military (although at present there are no Humanist military chaplains), hospitals, rehab centers, and other facilities or programs. The Chaplain is an advocate not for Humanism itself, but rather for those they work with, whatever their faith background. A Chaplain in The Humanist Society is not considered clergy, although of course any Chaplain can also apply for and receive endorsement as Celebrant at the same time. 

Fifth and finally, we arrive at the Invocator. It is customary in many, if not most, public meetings in the United States to have a guest minister from the community say a prayer before getting started on the agenda. When I served a church in New Mexico many years ago I did this once or twice for the town council where I lived. This invocation, calling on a deity to bless the proceedings, is reserved of course for those who believe in such things. Automatically, non-theists are left out. That does not have to be the case. Humanist Invocators are people who say a few words in the place of a prayer that reminds those gathered of their responsibility and their collective ability to solve problems and lead. While not a prayer, it is intended to be inspirational and aspirational. People endorsed as Invocators are to be deemed of equal standing with anyone who would be called on to lead public prayer. Invocators do not have other ministerial capacities.

As I've already indicated, these are not levels, and there is no hierarchy. One is not 'better' than the others. It's a matter of the purpose intended for the designation. None are permanent endorsements, and all have basic requirements that must be met to receive and maintain the credential. Unlike hidebound systems found in churches, these designations can be updated and new ones created if the board of The Humanist Society sees an unmet need that should be filled.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone. If you plan to get married in New Jersey and would like to have a Humanist Celebrant officiate, I would be glad to oblige. I have the training, experience, and endorsement needed for weddings and other types of ceremonies. Simply contact me to get the ball rolling.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Specialized Replacements for Traditional Clergy

via Flickr

Introduction

It is well-known that with the expansion and development of a civilization, along with the growth of that civilization's human population, work becomes more and more specialized. Consider the role of medical doctor, which has gone from being one career to a multitude of specializations. Click here for a list of 20 specialized areas of medicine. When you click into each you will find a further list of subspecialties. All are needed, and all have value. The same goes for a range of other fields, and here I would like to share how one role, that of clergy, is actually being broken out not just into subspecialties, but also into entirely different fields. These are in no particular order, and this list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. 

Officiants

"[S]omeone (such as a priest) who officiates at a religious rite." (Merriam-Webster)

Also called 'celebrants,' these are people who focus on helping people craft meaningful ceremonies to mark milestone events in life. These can range from baptisms to weddings to funerals, and all points in between. It used to be that if someone wanted to get married they would need to hit up the local priest or other minister. Where I grew up, in rural Missouri, it was certainly that way. When I served a small congregation in New Mexico I had a couple attend a service one day for the first (and perhaps only) time just so they could ask me if I could officiate their wedding. I gladly agreed, since no one owed me the satisfaction of being members of my church just so they could get married. 

Over the decades in the United States the situation has changed dramatically. Several years ago I heard an Ethical Culture clergy leader comment that there was a time when he could make a decent extra income from officiating weddings, but that this was no longer the case. With the internet, access to legal ordination has become freely available to everyone. The Universal Life Church, in its various manifestations, has led the charge in democratizing ministry. Further, other organizations exist that insist on professional qualifications but do not require a theological degree to become a credentialed officiant. I am a Celebrant with one of these, The Humanist Society.

People can opt to either have a friend get ordained online and officiate, or else hire a professional celebrant like myself. In either case they have more control over the ceremony than they would with a traditional minister. For example, a Roman Catholic priest won't do a beach wedding, because for them a marriage must take place on consecrated ground. While some resorts have caught onto this and arranged to have their own chapels built and consecrated, otherwise someone wanting a Catholic wedding in a non-church location is out of luck. Unless, of course, they hire an independent Catholic priest who will perform it for them. While the priest may not be Roman Catholic, they will still be able to offer a Catholic wedding on unconsecrated ground. 

Other ceremonies can be crafted as well to suit the needs of a couple or family. Instead of a christening, a baby naming or child welcoming can be arranged. Or, perhaps the family wants a christening but has no formal church connection. There's no need to fake it for a priest when they can simply hire a celebrant. New ceremonies can be invented for special occasions, and existing rituals can be modified to suit unique circumstances. Officiants make life a little easier for folks who want a nice ceremony without having to fake it for a clergy person, or else accept whatever script the denomination in question approves. 

Chaplains

Chaplains lead nondenominational religious services and provide spiritual support to those who are unable to attend organized religious services. A chaplain may work in a hospital, prison, or university, or serve as part of the military. Although prison, military, school, and hospital chaplains work in very different environments, they all provide spiritual guidance to individuals who don't have access to formal religious services offered by their faith of choice. (Learn.org)

Every American Gen Xer like myself, or Boomer, will remember Father John Mulcahy from the TV series M*A*S*H (he was a bit different in the novel and its film adaptation). He was a kindly priest serving at a military medical camp, and as a chaplain he wasn't there just for the Catholics. This is, ideally, how the role is expected to be carried out. In hospitals, rehab centers, prisons, the military, and other settings, chaplains are intended to provide spiritual support to everyone. Whether a chaplain is Lutheran or Muslim, when they are with someone in their care the focus is on that person's spirituality and not their own. Proselytizing goes completely against the code of ethics of professional chaplains, as this is not their purpose. It is now not uncommon for people to be endorsed by non-denominational or interfaith organizations, rather than ordained by an ecclesiastical body, to serve as chaplains. Again, this is something The Humanist Society can provide, and which I may pursue in the future. 

When I was in the hospital several years ago, for emergency surgery to remove my gall bladder, one of the ministers of my Unitarian Universalist congregation offered to visit me, but I declined because my stay was to be only a few days. If I didn't have any religious affiliation, a chaplain could have filled that role for me, if requested. 

Life Coaches

A life coach is a type of wellness professional who helps people make progress in their lives in order to attain greater fulfillment. Life coaches aid their clients in improving their relationships, careers, and day-to-day lives. (Verywell Mind)

So far I have known two people who are life coaches. There is training and preparation involved, as well as a code of conduct and well-defined boundaries. Personally, I have no experience working with a life coach, and so can't say much more about them than that. They do, in my opinion, take and expand one of the roles that historically could have fallen more to the clergy. 

Activists

An activist is a person who works to bring about political or social changes by campaigning in public or working for an organization. (Collins English Dictionary)

This one might come as a surprise to you, but I assure you I am serious. In the 1960s and before in history, clergy have taken some of the leading roles in activism for a better world. Or at least, what they thought would make for a better world. Over the years the role of 'activist' as both a volunteer and a professional area of work has developed. People commit to certain causes and either use spare time outside of their regular work to push for social change, or else make a cause the focus on their career. Now, there have long been non-clergy people who were activists, but I think that as a distinct role it has become much better defined separate from ministry. 

Psychologist

A psychologist is a professional who practices psychology and studies mental states, perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior. Their work often involves the experimentation, observation, and interpretation of how individuals relate to each other and to their environments. (Wikipedia)

Having been raised Roman Catholic I know what it's like going to confession. I wait in a line, go into a small room with a priest (it's rarely a box with a divided and a little screened window, like in the movies), and list off the offenses I've committed against God. This is pretty much how it went for me the first few times, and then in my teens I read in a Catholic book that I was to consider the priest in the confessional a friend and spiritual counselor who could give me godly advice. So that year, when I was 13 or so, I gave it a try. I kneeled behind a divider in a confessional and told a priest what was on my heart. I was part way through when I heard him snicker. I rushed through the rest, he told me how many times to say the Hail Mary and Our Father, and I got out of there. It was humiliating.

That's not how it's supposed to go.

If you really want someone to listen, and as a professional help you find your way through trauma, heartache, or simply the enigma that is your personality, a psychologist can help. There are different schools of thought in psychology, and at the same time all are committed to helping people be healthier, more optimal versions of themselves.  

Psychiatrist

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. (American Psychiatric Association)

Up until about a decade ago I thought of psychiatrists as necessary only for 'crazy' people with severe disorders, and I was suspicious of the medical treatment of psychiatric problems. For example, I falsely believed that anti-depressants would dull the personality and give a false sense of well-being. How I wish I had known better sooner, because then I wouldn't have lived so long without proper treatment for depression. A few months into treatment it was like the lights came on in my head. I wasn't made happy by the pills. What they gave me was the ability to feel normal and thus be able to create my own happiness. We are willing to treat other biological conditions, but when it comes to the brain people too often draw a line. That needs to stop. Psychiatry offers something that religion has not and cannot. This is science-based, medical treatment of real conditions. 

Social Worker

"A social worker is responsible for improving their patients' lives by helping them cope and manage stress they may be facing. Social workers will meet with patients, listen to their concerns and create a plan to better help their patients manage the problems in their lives." (Gwynedd Mercy University)

"A social worker will get a master’s degree in social work, and their training revolves around how societal factors will affect a person’s behavior. They also learn about the different social services and social resources that are available in the community. Many professionals get their master’s degree in social work while they are working in a different field." (HealthyPlace)

This one gets two quotes, because I know so very little about it. The key difference between social work and psychology seems to be the focus on societal factors along with the ability to connect people to appropriate resources available from private and public sources. In the past it was clergy who often had the most access to family and personal life, and now social workers have taken in farther.

Conclusion

The real takeaway I want to leave here is that each of these roles, and any others you might think of, aren't simply fractions of what clergy people have done or still do. Rather, in each specialty the work is expanded and deepened. There is formal training of various levels and varieties for each as well as competing schools of thought and domain-specific terminology. Each one does something that might have been part of a clergy role, but makes it more than it was. 

This doesn't mean that clergy are obsolete. Religious communities will continue to hire individuals to lead services, conduct ceremonies, deliver homilies, visit the sick, and more. Clergy are, in this context, generalists, and there's nothing wrong with that. I simply think we won't need as many of them, nor should anyone feel they have to become clergy unless they want the generalist role. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

With No Guide We Have Come This Far

The image and quote above are from the 2014 Cosmos series, narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The first anatomically modern humans evolved about 300,000 years ago, long before our species developed writing or any of the other accoutrements of civilization. For 18,000+ generations, human beings faced plagues and famines without any guidance regarding basic hygiene, effective resource management, or really anything else. It was a slow slog of figuring things out, interspersed with setbacks from natural and human-made disasters. Advancement was so slow that over the course of hundreds of years people tended to live much as their ancestors did. All that began to change over the past 200 years.

When I was a child my great aunts talked about seeing the first automobiles when they were girls. Over the course of their lives, TVs and air travel would become commonplace. Then computers. And medical science advanced to the point where maladies that would have killed their grandparents were easily resolved with proper treatment. Hearing them talk about all the change they had seen in their lives, I felt as though every big thing had already happened. Seeing myself in the 'modern' era, I only imagined that the existing technologies would get better, not that they would be transformed.

One afternoon, my first semester of college in 1994, a classmate came to my dorm room and told me that the library computers 'have the internet now.' I replied, 'the internet...I've heard of that.' How life changed after that! Over the course of my life I've seen Walkman, camera, video camera, TV, and more merged together into the smartphones that most of us carry now. The internet has removed the need to ever wonder about most any piece of trivia, and I imagine that many a barroom debate has been put down rapidly with a quick internet search. 

When a child is born we immediately set about socializing it. We establish day/night cycles for the child and interact with it, helping its development along as a distinct person. By age 1 it's probably cooing out its first words, and within just a few years, the child is running around, asking a million questions, and ready to head to school. We pass along to our children what we know, or at least what we think we know. 

Whenever it was that our distant ancestors first looked to the stars and wondered, or contemplated that death will eventually come for each one of us, cognition was sparked to life in us. Unlike a child born to us now, there was no one there to greet the first of our kind, when they were distinct enough to be identifiable as such. Over the course of millennia, humans have struggled to survive but also to learn and gain mastery over ourselves and the world around us. This has led to wars and environmental disaster, to be sure, but also to soaring heights of art, philosophy, mathematics, and scientific discovery. 

Certainly, it would have been easier had someone been around to help us. The truth is, though, that all we have is each other. Thus we need to do our best to cooperate for the betterment of us all. That is what Humanism is about. It's setting aside unproven myths and instead seeking that which can be demonstrated as correct to any reasoning person. The well-being and flourishing of our species, practiced in a sustainable fashion, is our aim. We seek the good of the individual, and of the whole of of humanity. While there was no one there to greet our kind in the beginning, we can be there for new generations, giving them the best of what we have learned, offering them the chance of doing even better. 

Monday, June 13, 2022

Ceremonies as a Service

via Facebook
In preparation to offer my services to the public as a Humanist celebrant I have been looking into ways to get the word out, and this has given me the opportunity to see what other officiants are doing out there. While Universal Life Church ministers are fairly common, I have also noticed listings for 'Contemporary Catholic' priests. Digging into it further, I have started to become familiar with a religious world I knew little about before. Not long ago I blogged about an independent Catholic parish in Kearny, New Jersey. Since then I've been reading The Other Catholics by Julie Byrne, and learning about the 'Independent Sacramental Movement' has got me thinking. 

The movement's name is an expansion of an earlier term: the Independent Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican Movement. This earlier term was used extensively during many years when many of these groups cooperated, although they were not in formal communion with one another. The majority of these groups' holy orders and sequences of apostolic succession are derived through mutually-common sources, especially Arnold Harris Mathew, Aftimios Ofiesh, Carlos Duarte Costa, and Joseph René Vilatte. It remains difficult to define the ISM as an entity and to distinguish it from the closely-related Independent Catholic movement; the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, seemingly to refer to the same reality. (Wikipedia)

Independent Catholicism is an independent sacramental movement of clergy and laity who self-identify as Catholic (most often as Old Catholic or as Independent Catholic) and form "micro-churches claiming apostolic succession and valid sacraments", in spite of not being affiliated to the historic Catholic churches such as the Roman Catholic and Utrechter Old Catholic churches. The term "Independent Catholic" derives from the fact that "these denominations affirm both their belonging to the Catholic tradition as well as their independence from Rome." (Wikipedia)

The underlying theory that supports independent Catholic groups, such that are not in communion with the pope, is that they have valid apostolic succession. In historic orthodox catholic Christianity it has been believed that bishops stand in a line of succession that goes back to the original apostles and Jesus himself. In the early church it was evidently meant as a sort of guarantee that the bishop was orthodox, holding to the true faith of the apostles. In Roman Catholic interpretation, which is adopted by independent Catholics, the sacraments leave an indelible mark on the soul, meaning that once someone has received holy orders they are forever a priest, even if they 'leave' the priesthood, and the same is true of bishops. For the Roman Catholic Church this means that bishops who have left can still ordain priests and consecrate bishops, but such deeds are 'illicit.' Independent Catholic Churches depend on this interpretation.

If you start looking into the Independent Sacramental Movement (ISM) you'll quickly find what seems to be an obsession with apostolic succession. I was raised Roman Catholic and no one ever really discussed what lineage the parish priest or diocesan bishop was in. It was sufficient for lay people to know that they were validly set apart for ministry by the church. For independent Catholics and others of the ISM this luxury does not exist. They have to be able to defend their right to practice ministry in ways that can be considered 'Catholic.' I imagine there has to be quite a bit of fanboy/girl geekery about apostolic succession among them as well, given just how much they discuss it. 

Exponents of the ISM range from conservative to liberal, orthodox to New Age. It's evidently not uncommon for more conservative individuals obtaining holy orders and consecration to the bishopric from people they would not usually associate with on the more liberal end. Someone attending a parish led by an independent Catholic priest might find a mass identical to that of the Roman Catholic Church down the road, a bit different, or heavily modified. The liturgies vary as do the theologies.

Endemic to this movement is a great instability and frequent lack of accountability. 'Jurisdictions,' as what anyone else might identify as a 'denomination,' come and go regularly. Countless dead websites for disbanded independent groups exist across the internet, even as new sites heralding a freshly-organized jurisdiction springs to life. While it has been said that the Universal Life Church abolished the laity with its free-for-everyone ordination, that isn't too far off for the ISM as well. Functioning parishes are less common than active priests and bishops, but that doesn't mean that the parish-less clergy are unoccupied. They serve as institutional chaplains, say Mass for people in prison or drug rehab, and officiate baptisms and weddings for Roman Catholics and others.

That last item is important. Roman Catholics who are divorced, for example, are generally not seen as divorced by the church, regardless of civil status. For a divorce to be considered valid it would need to be investigated and some grave fault would have to be found in how it started, which is very difficult to accomplish. That being the case, divorced Catholics cannot remarry and have it recognized by the church, and they are not to take communion thereafter as they are considered to be adulterers. Generally speaking, none of this is a problem for an independent Catholic priest. Additionally, there are a lot of rules laid down by the Roman Catholic Church on how and where weddings are to be officiated, so if someone wants a Catholic beach wedding this will only be possible with an independent priest.Then, of course, there are lgbtq+ folks who would like to get married or have their children christened, and for them an independent Catholic priest is a good option. 

Aside from instability there is a lack of accountability. With virtually anyone with apostolic succession able to hang out their shingle and start a ministry, there isn't a lot of oversight. That's ironic, considering that bishops were meant to be overseers. Then again, the Roman Catholic Church has a vast hierarchy that protected pedophile priests for centuries, so the age and size of an organization is no guarantee of security. 

What I do see in the ISM, and through my review of the world of officiants and ceremonies, is what I think will be the future of religious ceremonial practice. We can call it 'Ceremonies as a Service.' In times past people would be members of a local church, or at least know one in the neighborhood to hit up for weddings and funerals. Even with fewer and fewer people maintaining membership in an organized religion that doesn't mean that they prefer civil ceremonies. People dream of their wedding day, and what they picture doesn't usually peak with a trip to the courthouse. They want a ceremony that celebrates their love and reflects their identities. And so, they find an officiant who can help them have that dream ceremony, even if outside the boundaries of formal religious organizations. 

Churches will continue to decline, but I don't see clergy as ceremonialists and providers of spiritual care going away. This goes for independent Catholics as much as anyone.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Tennessee's Unconstitutional Meddling in Religious Practices

In 2019 the state of Tennessee enacted a law outlawing weddings officiated by anyone ordained via the internet. This is, thus far, the clearest restriction against marriages by ministers ordained in this fashion in any state. Other states have some challenging requirements, and there are municipalities like New York City that require extra documentation, including a letter of good standing from the ordaining body, but these are navigable. An outright ban is something else, and to me it is obviously in violation of the 1st Amendment to the United States constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It is not the place of the government to determine what constitutes a 'valid' religion. While the state certainly has a valid interest in maintaining accurate vital records, the role of the officiant is minimal. Generally it's a matter of the officiant having the couple declare their commitment before at least two witnesses who in turn sign the license. The license itself was issued by the county clerk, and aside from officiating the minister is then usually responsible for filing the document with the county clerk. That's it. There's no specialized training required to make a marriage valid outside of meeting the basic requirements. 

Thus, it makes no sense that a state government would intervene in the matter of how a minister was ordained, unless the intention is to intervene in defining what types of religious practice are 'acceptable,' and setting standards for religious societies as to who should be endorsed and by what means. 


The published decision in Universal Life Church Monastery v. Nabors (originating case No. 2:19-cv-00049) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a series of arguments made by various Tennessee state and county officials who had hoped to remove themselves as defendants in the ongoing litigation.

What this means is that the case will continue to work its way through the court system. It's been three years since the unconstitutional law was passed, and it could be some time until resolution is found, but at least there is some progress. 

As I am endorsed by the Humanist Society, through a deliberative process that required meeting certain qualifications, this Tennessee law really wouldn't affect me. Then again, since I don't foresee officiating a wedding in Tennessee any time soon, it doesn't matter anyway. At the same time, I am deeply concerned about this law and hope to see it overturned, as it really is, in my opinion, a violation of freedom of religion. This had to have been passed solely to please conventionally religious people (aka evangelicals) in the state.

For more on the Universal Life Church, I recommend the following video.

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Reductio ad Baptistum

via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
It came as quite a surprise recently to see that nearly five years ago Philip Jenkins referenced me in a blog post. Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, has written extensively about Christianity worldwide. In an article for The Christian Century in May 2017 he explained that while most major denominations are seeing phenomenal growth in the Global South, such isn't true of the Baptist faith. In response to his article I commented: “it’s possible that Baptist missions have resulted in many ‘non-denominational’ evangelical churches that are doctrinally Baptist but don’t have the name.” Evidently he saw some value in that observation, as in his post that quotes me he went on to consider that perhaps when research is done, not so much weight should be put on denominational names.

What I see going on, in the United States and worldwide, is a tendency towards congregationalism and adult conversion, which are both hallmarks of Baptist practice. It's unheard of for someone in the US or Brazil (two places where I have sufficient experience to speak) to start a nondenominational, evangelical church where infants are christened and/or the congregation is not essentially autonomous. Obviously, to be 'nondenominational' suggests rather strongly that there will be congregational independence. What's interesting to me, however, is how other Christian traditions that were historically governed differently or had other baptismal practices are tending toward a Baptist style.

On the congregationalism front the examples are abundant. Member churches of the new Global Methodist Church will be independent, owning their own property and having the ability to disaffiliate from the denomination if they so choose. Such is not the case with the United Methodist Church, from which this new denomination is emerging, where 'connectionalism' as expressed practically through parish property being held in trust for the denomination is an essential trait of church polity. So far as I know, all of the other expressions of Methodism in the United States have also preserved congregational autonomy.

Another intriguing example is that of the American National Catholic Church. While the organization is very much in style and practice like what could have come from Vatican II, with an accessible liturgy and wide welcome to all, including divorced and lgbtq people, it has a mixed form of government. Each parish governs itself and has the authority to disaffiliate, but at the same time there is an episcopacy. The bishops provide spiritual guidance and are able to ordain deacons, priests and, collectively, other bishops. 

As for baptism, I've found it difficult to supplement my anecdotal experiences with concrete examples. I've already pointed out how rare it is for new groups to practice infant baptism, which is easily observable. I can simply say that I've heard from breakaway Methodist and other groups that while infant baptism is still available, it's very common for people to opt for an infant dedication instead, saving baptism for later.  

Will all the churches eventually become Baptist, even if not in name? I doubt it. Other practices and polities are too strong to be fully replaced. However, I don't expect many new churches to be founded that aren't congregationalist, or that practice infant baptism. The believer's church model fits very well with our life and times in a free society focused on individual choice.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

A ULC Minister Christens a Child

As I mentioned in another post, I've been investigating the officiant market in New Jersey, as I'm looking to start offering my services as a Humanist Celebrant. This isn't about making money, but rather having an outlet for my inclination to ministry. Among the many officiants available in New Jersey are quite a few who were ordained by the Universal Life Church. That's not surprising, since the various churches operating under that brand (the original, the ULC Seminary, the ULC Monastery, and others) provide ordination for free online. If you want or need paperwork, there's a fee involved but it isn't outrageous. With a very low bar to entry it only makes sense that so many officiants would be depending on them for endorsement. What surprised me, though, was a ULC minister offering baptism.
There must be a whole back story there, but I've decided not to go poking around for it. Most celebrants focus on weddings, although funerals are in the mix as well. I've heard of baby naming or child welcoming ceremonies as well. While in theory a baptism is entirely possible, I've just never actually heard of a ULC minister performing one. My guess here is that a family wanted to have a christening for their child (or children?) without involving a church. Someone who isn't affiliated with a parish might find it difficult to obtain such a sacrament without either having to feign participation for a while beforehand, going through some preparation with a clergy person, or both. 

As a Humanist celebrant I certainly won't be doing any christening or baptizing, but the aforementioned baby naming or child welcoming options exist. If you're interested in that or need someone to officiate your wedding in New Jersey, contact me