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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History

Mark W. Harris made for some illuminating and at times uncomfortable reading with "Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History." His presentation of the reality and sins of elitism in past and present Unitarianism and Universalism resonated with things I’d already thought, and made me think about things I’d rather not.

Where he wrote about having an educated clergy struck on something that bothered me for years about mainstream Protestantism. Though I was raised Catholic, I was essentially evangelical from the age of 18 to 38. As an evangelical I studied for the ministry, obtaining a Bachelor of Ministry (BMin) along the way, prior to doing mission work in Brazil, South America. Although I valued higher education, my denomination at the time (independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ) has no formal extra-congregational structure whatsoever, and no set requirements for ordination. It is left entirely to the local church to set standards, and most don’t require more than a ministry degree from a Christian university. This creates a scenario in which the expense of education can be reduced by doing the minimum preparation, ordained ministers are adequately but not as highly trained as in the mainline churches, but also it’s faster to prepare ministers for service.

Many other evangelical groups set no ministerial education standards, or keep them fairly low. It’s not unheard of in those circles for ministers to be accepted because they say they were called by God, and because they preach well. This doesn't make them wrong, per se. It’s simply an observation on my part. Based on what Harris and others have written about the Universalists, this was their standard practice as well through much of their history.

What bothers me about the approach of mainline churches and Unitarian Universalism is that it takes too long to prepare ministers, it’s prohibitively expensive, and it often seems as though such clergy have been pressed into a more academic-sounding pattern with less ‘fire.’ I suspect on this latter point that it isn’t fire that’s lacking, but instead conformity to a more formal style modeled in their studies that masks it. Also, affluent congregations tend to hold more animated preaching in disfavor.

As a cisgender white male in a phase of professional life where pay makes for a comfortable lifestyle, I have the means to pursue ordination in the UUA. I still have to depend on some financial aid, but the impact isn’t as drastic. What I dread, however, is the implicit vow of poverty I’ll have to embrace when I go to do an internship. Although the UUA has standards for how much interns should be paid, it is financially very tight. It will require years of planning and preparation for me to be able to afford it and still keep up with other obligations. The same goes for the required unit of CPE. Now, if it’s something that worries me, this path to ordained ministry and the costs involved, I can only try to imagine what someone in a less advantaged situation feels when they contemplate it. With all the expense, ministry itself isn’t well-remunerated, making paying off loans and catching up financially an uphill battle for newly-minted clergy.

Meanwhile, the evangelicals continue on churning out new ministers and planting new churches. They aren’t growing like gangbusters any more, but they do alright, compared to the liberal denominations that continue to hemorrhage members and close churches.

However, do we want clergy to be less-well-prepared? Can there be a middle ground, with some form of non-lay commissioned or licensed ministry that can function in a system that includes ordained clergy? Maybe such a licensed ministry could have limitations, making it a potential step to formal ordination and fellowship. I don’t know, but it seems to me that as a justice issue and for other practical reasons, something should be done. Then, of course, there’s the question of whether UU congregations would even accept someone as a minister without an MDiv, or with some other piece missing from the traditional path. That I don’t know.

Moving on in the book, the discussion of exclusion and the use of pew rentals as a revenue stream was worthwhile reading. This practice has always struck me as odd. We would never think in contemporary Christendom and UUism of charging for pew seating when it’s so hard to get people to attend as it is. When I was a minister previously I joked from time to time about setting up a velvet rope with a bouncer outside, in order to make people want to get into this exclusive location.

“In 1846 a letter was sent to the Christian Register about a person who tried to visit a church where a renowned minister held forth. The visitor stood out outside for a time and finally asked if there was any provision for strangers. The person he asked said, ‘We are rather exclusive here,’ and then went into church without offering assistance.” (p 48)

At that point in their history the Unitarians shouldn’t have been so far from their Christian roots not to be familiar with James 2:1-7 (NRSV) in the New Testament:

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?”

This just serves as a reminder to me that all interpretation and application of scripture is subjective and selective.

On page 59 Harris said something about ‘prophetic evangelical preaching’ bringing in extended family groups to Universalism. This is another hallmark of evangelicalism. As a missionary in Brazil I learned quickly that while individual converts might become active members, most eventually drifted away unless they were quickly integrated into family-like groups in the church. Better still was baptizing an entire household, which my brother-in-law managed to do a few times in the same Brazilian city, resulting in producing core groups of members that provided new congregations with stability, such that last to this day. It turns out that the blood of heredity is thicker than the waters of baptism. Universalists were onto something when they operated in this fashion. Although proselytizing isn’t something that would make sense in UUism today, perhaps this highlights the importance of family ministry for us (without leaving off care for individuals).

This following bit from page 60 made me chuckle, after I was done gritting my teeth. Speaking of Unitarians: “They were so polite, the issues were avoided.” This sounds so much like like the passive-aggressive Midwestern culture in which I was raised. 

Where Arminianism is concerned, it bothered me that Harris didn’t get it right. On page 75 he wrote: “The distinctiveness of Universalist theology was adopted by the culture at large as Calvinism gave way to a more generalized Arminian philosophy, which posited that anyone can earn his or her way into heaven.” No Arminian worth their salt would think of suggesting that anyone can ‘earn’ their way into heaven. As Christians of the Protestant variety, they see salvation as a free gift of God, given by grace. What set Arminians apart from Calvinists was that while the latter believed that only certain people were elect and would invariably be saved, Arminians believed that God enabled everyone to respond to the gospel and join the elect. While there are some variations among specific Arminian interpretations, none would countenance the possibility of ‘earned’ salvation. However, perhaps Harris was stating that Universalists believed this way, in which case I’d like to learn more about it.

The really, badly uncomfortable part of this book for me was where it covered eugenics. We have to face this part of our history, but it’s ugly. The enthusiasm that some Unitarians held for forced sterilizations and even the idea of terminating the lives of the disabled is horrific. This completely overshadows their other errors, including a false belief in overpopulation as a genuine risk (demographers now largely reject this), and mistakes about the effect of war on a gene pool and the rejection of increased genetic diversity. This period pre-dated our affirmation of the inherent value of human life as well as that of our search for meaning being ‘responsible,’ but it should have been obvious on the face of it that what they were proposing was deeply unethical. But, it wasn’t.

Clocking in at only 129 pages of text this could have been a short read, but it took me a few days as I went through it and processed. There’s a lot there to consider.