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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Gadflyists Will Be Revolting

This year the Unitarian Universalist Association's annual General Assembly was entirely virtual, conducted via Zoom. It was a good experience, all things considered, but that's a topic for a different post. Today I'd like to talk about the unstated theme of GA 2020: anti-racism. It's particularly significant in light of what happened last year. 

While the official theme of GA 2020 was 'Rooted, Inspired, Ready!," what we spent most of our time discussing in workshops, worship, general sessions was the problem of white supremacy culture in the world at large and in our own midst. It was refreshing to hear after the Gadfly fiasco of last year. In a nutshell, the minister of the UU congregation in Spokane self-published and distributed a book entitled 'The Gadfly Papers.' In it, he essentially complained that anti-racism stifles freedom of speech, and argued that people of color and anti-racist folks should get thicker skins. It was sickening. I was disconcerted that such ignorance existed among us, and wondered at how we could proceed. This GA showed me that there is will to change, and that was what I needed to see.

It was made painfully obvious to us last year that there is an ugliness in our association, namely, the racism and fear of white progressives. It isn't that the Gadfly people want to expel all blacks and people of color, but rather they desire that they conform to the liberal white culture that has dominated much of the history of Unitarianism and Universalism in the Americas. For more of my rambling reflections on this situation, written in the wake of last year's GA, you can see blog I set up for a limited run: The Igneous Quill Essays

Over the course of the past year events have continued to unfold with the Spokane congregation and within the UUA.  The annual board report of the Spokane congregation tells quite a tale, for instance. Here are some points I found particularly telling:
18. Dealing with Ministerial Non-Cooperation – in direct conflict with our bylaws, which specify that he “work in close cooperation with the Board,” our minister announced in early March a “practice of non-cooperation” and refused to work with our Board and our president. This meant that for months we could not communicate about pressing church business, including a marked reduction in pledges, long-time members leaving the church, holding a virtual Annual Meeting, and much more.

19. Attempting to resolve differences – in early April the Board asked the minister to a mediated process to address differences, which he was unwilling to do at that time, and he pointed out that binding arbitration was the means specified in the Ministerial Agreement to resolve disputes. The Board then hired an attorney to better understand how to resolve the situation with the minister. Finally, the Board invoked the binding arbitration clause of the Ministerial Agreement, but the minister refused to engage at that time. Given no other tenable options, the Board did its best to work on church business alone.

20. Slanderous emails -– The Board received directly many slanderous emails and many others, related to the Board, were circulated as mass emails. Of those emails many were directed at our president. The hostility and lack of respectful communication was out of covenant, hurtful, and harmful to the Board and to the congregation.
It's my understanding that sometime after the publication of the annual report the congregation's board was essentially taken over by supporters of Todd Eklof. Further, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee removed him from fellowship last month (June 2020). Although I imagine he remains an ordained minister by virtue of the fact that UU congregations ordain, not the MFC, he is now no longer officially endorsed to serve UU congregations. That said, in our system of polity any congregation can hire him without being fellowshipped, so I suppose that if he ever leaves Spokane he'll have elsewhere to go. 

A few years ago I would have thought it absurd to imagine Unitarian Universalism dividing over anything. After all, we have neither canon nor creed. Now I'm wondering if it might be possible for some sort of formal division to take place. What I see in the short run is the likelihood that ministerial candidates will be sorted by congregations based on what they think of Gadlfyism. Those in favor of it will call ministers who are supportive of it, perpetuating their rejection of anti-racism. The anti-racist congregations most certainly won't want Gadlfyists. To some, this will look like a purity test either way. And it can be, if the congregations are only using simple shorthand to discuss more complex issues. 

While I'm optimistic for Unitiarian Universalisms anti-racist future, I'm not naive. There will be a backlash. Just as I'm convinced that Trump is the backlash to the progress of the Obama years, I'm certain that we'll see a continuation of people attempting to find an angle to grasp at power, attempting to hold us hostage to the way we were, rather than allow us to move forward in repentance and growth. Whether there is ultimately a formal separation or not, in the meantime we will continue to have people insist on debate rather than dialogue. Such is the way of fear and anger.