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Friday, May 22, 2020

Saint Gregory's Got Me Thinking

Several years ago I heard about St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, and I was reminded of it recently by Rev Emily M.D. Scott's mention of it in her recently-published book, 'For All Who Hunger.' This church, which meets in San Francisco, California, is at once both liturgically traditional and theologically progressive, and it was like this before such was 'cool.' From the church site: "Membership at St Gregory’s is open to everyone: you don’t have to pass any litmus test of beliefs to join. Learn how you can become a part of the community." They really mean it. Whatever your gender, sexual orientation, race, creed or lack thereof, you're welcome at this church. At the same time, they practice a 'high church' liturgy, one that is very clearly Christian in nature. In the way this church welcomes and worships, it manages to remain Christian while welcoming into participation and full membership people from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds. It's safe to assume, I believe, that hell and damnation don't play a huge role here. Still, I wonder about what the future holds for churches like this one.

In 1870 there was a great centennial celebration of Universalism in North America, held in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Reading through sermons and talks given there at that time, I see that there was already a diversity of viewpoints among Universalists. Many were traditional Christians, not much different from Baptists or Methodists, except that they didn't believe that hell is eternal. Within that group, some believed that there was no experience of hell whatsoever after death, and others held that deceased 'sinners' would be punished for a period of time to purify them before entering into glory. There were those as well who were more inclined to be welcoming of other beliefs, in terms of other world religions, and who were little concerned with either upholding specific Christian doctrines or with the question of hell. Following this event, the more traditionally-minded managed to arrange a mission to Japan, one that led them to face the reality of other belief systems, and the fundamental weakness in their evangelistic approach. 

In Japan the Universalist missionaries found that few had any concept of 'heaven' or 'hell,' and had never heard any version of the gospel, including the most common interpretation that promises heaven for faith, and hell for unbelief. They and their supporters wondered if potential converts had to be brought to understand the gospel preached by Roman Catholicism and Protestantism before being able to appreciate the Universalists gospel. Further, the Christian emphasis of the Universalism of that era suggested that being a disciple would change a person's heart and life, empowering them to do good and live well in relation to the world. Encountering very good people of other religions, well outside of Christianity, challenged that idea. 

This matters to me when thinking about churches such as St Gregory's, as I think there are parallels. With no hell, and an openness to other belief systems, there starts to be a question of 'why'? People raised in Roman Catholic or conservative evangelical homes, a theologically liberal church offers the comfort of familiarity without the unhealthy attitudes towards human nature, and in particular with regard to sexuality. At the same time, there are more and more people in the United States and elsewhere who grew up with no church affiliation, and often neither did their parents, and sometimes grandparents. Although church comes up when someone wants to get married, celebrants unaffiliated with brick-and-mortar churches get them around that, as do online ordination providers who enable a couple's friend to do the honors. When someone dies the funeral home can find someone to officiate. The civic and ceremonial functions of churches are easily circumvented.

What usually pulls a non-religious person into a church's orbit is either their own personal spiritual search, or a relationship with someone who has expectations of raising children with some religious background. That being the case, as I see it, liberal Christian churches can only coast along so far with refugees from fundamentalist backgrounds and couples with children. It may work well for even a generation or two, but sooner or later there will only be fumes left in the tank. 

Universalists also found that as the decades passed in the 20th century, the distance between them and their 'particularlist' neighbors shrunk dramatically. Mainline Protestantism minimized discussion of hell, and virtually dropped the topic altogether. This got people who cared about such things in those churches fired up and walking out, joining evangelical denominations and artificially giving them years of 'growth' that seemed to vindicate the conservative message. That is, until nearly no one who was bothered by liberal theology was left in the mainline churches to leave for hardline denominations, and children of the evangelicals began finding their way to the door of their parents' churches. With the matter of hell set aside in mainline denominations, and little else distinctive about Universalist churches, their numbers dropped. 

St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, and others like it, are doing what Kings Chapel has been doing for 100s of years. The latter was founded as a a parish of the church of England, and remained so for 100 years or so, before becoming theologically Unitarian. The parish separated from the Church of England, revised their Book of Common Prayer to remove references to the trinity (aside from the baptismal formula), and carried on. Eventually they affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and to this day have services drawn from their prayer book (most recent update was made in the 1980s). What they already were as an increasingly progressive, inclusive parish many years ago, the Episcopal Church has been discovering in recent decades. That said, although Kings Chapel carries on and does its thing, it hasn't exactly been boom times for them in terms of active membership. The mix of traditional practice and progressive theology is not a guaranteed 'win' if numbers are what you count. Then again, people in pews isn't necessarily the best metric for a congregation's success at any point in time. 

Unitarian Universalism in our time has a range of expressions, from the high church Christianity of Kings Chapel, to the committed humanism of First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. Between those two points are many congregations with very similar customs and outlooks, though with often minor distinctions that result from custom as well as adaptation to where they gather. Most UU congregations most definitely have a different 'feel' from even mainline Protestants, but it's becoming so that the liberal Christians are not much different in theological flexibility and acceptance of science from UUs. For UUism to be distinctly meaningful, I think we would do well to maintain our unique traditions, like chalice lighting, water communion, and so forth, while exploring new ways of building life-affirming communities that might not so strongly resemble Protestant churches. While I favor the Protestant style, some of our more creative folks should feel encouraged and supported in exploring other ways of being in relation as a community of Unitarian Universalists.
"Did not the Lord share the table with publicans and harlots? So then—do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve."Isaac of Nineveh
That quote is engraved on St. Gregory's altar, and brings me to my final thought. It's not enough for Unitarian Universalists to experiment with different types of community. It is part of our calling to be truly inclusive, and to me this means welcoming, affirming, and including in the life of the congregation and the association an array of people beyond progressive, upper class white folks. We've made a little headway in this regard in recent years, but we have so far to go, and so many hard-headed folks who get defensive when they feel they might lose control. We can do better. And that's what St Gregory's got me thinking.