Covenant, Not Creed for Association Sunday
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton, Illinois, October 14, 2007
By the first decade of the 1800’s, the churches of the Northeastern United States were coming apart at the seams. The covenants that had held people together were strained by radically differing beliefs. Congregations all over were dividing on issues having to do, mostly, with the nature of humanity: Were people, as conservatives said, doomed by their brokenness to eternal darkness and damnation? Or were humans, as the liberals asserted, imbued with the possibility of goodness and light?
This theological argument mattered because churches on town squares everywhere, known as churches of the Standing Order, were well and nicely supported by state-imposed and state-collected taxes.
In your little church in Anytown, Massachusetts, did the conservative, orthodox Calvinists own the building and silver communion sets and receive the blessing of tax monies from the state? Or did the liberals own the building and the silver and receive the taxes? Seems like it always boils down to money, doesn’t it?
In 1805, the Board of Harvard College elected a liberal, Henry Ware, to the Hollis Chair of Divinity, effectively handing the leadership of Harvard College to a group of people known disparagingly as Unitarians.
Thus began the Unitarian Controversy.
Before this time, the churches established by the Puritans were comprised of those who had covenanted to be together religiously. Congregations had also been linked by covenant with one another; ministers across New England exchanged pulpits with each other as a sign of their deep connection and collegiality. Churches in trouble even asked leaders of nearby churches to sit in judgment to help decide divisive questions or to help solve intractable problems. But the theological divide became too much, the tension increased to the breaking point, and the tight-knit ecclesial community began to fracture.
First one and then many pastors refused to exchange pulpits with pastors from the opposite camp. Members of congregations began to take sides in the argument and churches split down the middle, orthodox on the one side and liberals on the other, vying for possession of the buildings and their contents. Soon the question had to be decided by the courts as to who owned what, and in 1820, the Dedham decision found in favor of the liberal Unitarians. In many locales, the orthodox Congregationalists slunk off to found their own churches somewhere other than the town square. [This was one year after William Ellery Channing preached his sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” thus claiming for us the name Unitarian which had previously been used only as an epithet.]
In the newly independent Unitarian churches, members remained linked to one another by covenant rather than by common belief or creed: they wrote their own covenantal statements, of course, but generally they pledged to walk together in the ways, to use language common at the time, that God saw fit to lay before them. The seat of power was in the congregation itself; no bishop or other hierarchy impeded any individual’s direct connection with the divine. Ministers kept the connections between the churches active, continuing to exchange pulpits with other Unitarian pastors. Many began to sense some need to connect in more formal ways; the loose covenants that had existed for nearly two centuries moved inexorably toward institutionalization, and the American Unitarian Association was formed in Boston in 1825. The membership of the AUA was made up of individuals rather than churches (unlike the Unitarian Universalist Association today, which is an association of congregations rather than of individuals). The AUA was extremely weak, which is just the way many liked it, and resulted in the loosest confederation possible.
The new movement was not without its tensions: after the tumult of the Unitarian Controversy (about 1805 to 1820) came the Transcendentalist Controversy, (after 1838) when Ralph Waldo Emerson and his colleagues began to inject a natural theology, a religion of nature, into the Unitarian - and wider American - mix of theologies.
We are never without our tensions.
As the Transcendentalist Controversy was easing, a group of churches in the East in 1865 founded the National Conference of the AUA, an attempt to strengthen the bonds between Unitarian congregations across the country. Many ministers here in the Midwest blanched at such a hierarchy and bonded together in what they christened the Western Conference in eternal opposition to those dreaded institutionalists in Boston.
Through the latter half of the nineteenth century, more and more Unitarians, especially in the Western Conference, pulled further and further away from their Christian roots. By 1900, it was hard to argue that Unitarianism was still a predominantly Christian sect.
The Humanist Controversy in the period following World War I caused tensions to build once again. Many began to look not to God but to humanity as a whole to pull itself up by the bootstraps and follow an onward and upward path forever into a bright future (the world wars and genocides of the twentieth century notwithstanding). One of the guiding lights of Humanism was the Rev. Curtis Reese, minister in this church from 1913 to 1915. The Rev. Reese, called here from a Southern Baptist pulpit, had a strong sense of social justice and fought to clean up the organized crime and vice in the streets that was prevalent in Alton at the time. Rev. Reese went on to spread Humanism across the national stage, and was a prominent signer of the Humanist Manifesto of 1933.
The struggles of maintaining a small denomination caused Unitarians to cast about for partners in their journey forward, and in 1961 the Unitarians merged with the Universalists, another American Christian denomination that had seen its heyday a full century before. Merger into the Unitarian Universalist Association was not a panacea - by 1969, African American UUs split over questions of inclusion and exclusion, causing a group of 300 to walk out of the General Assembly in Boston, and membership in the UUA took a hit as well.
More recently, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered people have worked for equal rights, and that road has not been completely smooth - some UUs have left their churches over our public stand in support of equal rights for LBGT folks - which is not enough to stop us from supporting the cause of human rights.
With this complex history of covenant rather than creed in our way of religion, you can see that the tensions never completely subside, the rules are never written in stone, the questions are never completely answered. On the contrary: Living covenantally is a prescription for conflict and anxiety. Oh, to be one of those creed-based religious communities where everyone is expected, as a requirement of membership, to believe the same way and act the same way and dress the same way and live the same way. No conflict or anxiety allowed! Just peace and quiet and certainty and similarity and sameness. No thought about change or growth or new ways.
You know what? No, thank you. You can keep your creed. I’ll take our conflict and anxiety over that kind of existence any day.
I’d rather hear about your difference of opinion than simply be told I must be right because you think the same thing I do. I’d rather find out about the odd path you took to get to this place than to be told we all got here by the same road ‘cause I know it’s no true. I’d rather you tell me about your feelings than for me to project my own onto you, smoothing out the differences between us but at the same time obliterating our chance to learn from one another.
Now. There is one sort of conflict I see little reason for, and that is when one of us demeans the belief of another, or tells one of us that we don’t believe the right thing for us to be here. This kind of intellectual or religious imperialism, this kind of belief test is creedal-ism at its worst. We didn’t leave creed-based communities behind so we could develop new creeds - we left creed-based communities behind because they most often act autocratically whereas we value freedom of conscience; we left creed-based communities behind because they seek to chisel belief in stone whereas we know belief always changes and evolves; we left creed-based communities behind because they are a spiritual dead-end whereas we wish to celebrate the living. The tensions inherent in our way of doing religion extend to the relationship we have between the congregations across the country and the offices of the UUA in Boston. Like our Western Conference counterparts more than a century ago, we still bristle when we perceive a move toward the consolidation of power at the national level. Why should we do what they tell us? We take our independence seriously; we are the seat of power in this organization, and we will not take orders from some Brahman in Boston who doesn’t have the foggiest notion of what we face out here on the frontier.
I hear this kind of thing from my UU colleagues and friends all the time. Heck, I’m not immune to it myself when some program or other seems heavy-handed or some national official speaks condescendingly about the work being done at the congregational level. But such is not the rule. Many if not most of the people doing the work of our national organization have spent long years in parishes and congregations and know what life is like in the hinterlands, and they want nothing more than to build our churches into viable organizations for the future. This first Association Sunday is being celebrated in more than half the UU congregations across the country. It is a fund-raising effort, as you have heard, to be sure. But it is also an attempt to share an excitement about our way of religion with people who’ve never heard of us before and may need us desperately. It is an attempt to get us to share our faith in ways we haven’t thought of before or in ways we thought beneath us or as somehow an imposition. It is an attempt to show us that the covenant we have with the larger movement can work for us where we are and can help us to reach places we’ve never been.
Half the money collected will go toward public relations campaigns in selected areas as well as in national markets. There has been some controversy and tension around this suggestion concerning the effectiveness of advertising. Whatever the ads do to raise awareness in the general population may be overshadowed by the excitement generated among ourselves; surely we’ve increased the number of UU evangelists among us and made it easier for the rest of us to talk to others about our faith, which can do nothing but increase the amount of personal, word of mouth advertising that gets out there. As if advertising can build a church - we’d better be able to articulate who we are when people come to us, and we’d better have a message that speaks to the deepest questions, and we’d better be ready to listen, really listen when they tell us their stories.
A quarter of the funds will support our ministers-of-color and seminarians-of-color and the congregations who call them. This is finally putting our money where our mouths are in terms of attracting people of color who would walk with us if they knew about us. Our movement has regrettably been predominantly white and Euro. Some congregations, especially those who call ministers-of-color, have shown a remarkable ability to speak effectively to people besides white Euros. It’s time we supported people with the ability and resourcefulness to get our message out to people who need it.
The final quarter of the money raised will be sent back to the districts for the support of growth and outreach initiatives in local congregations. We’ve tried to find ways to support congregations like ourselves who have success in these areas - Chalice Lighters is a notable example in this district - but this money may take that effort to a whole new level.
All these funds will go toward growing our movement in general, toward putting our money where our hearts are, toward lifting up the outreach and growth projects that will work and are already working at the local level.
We will not move ahead without generating controversy among a few, we will not accomplish these goals or any others without increasing tension among the many. But controversy is in the DNA of our movement and the tension inherent in our covenantal community is the way we get things done. Our forebears used these motivations to change the world in their time - let us go and do likewise.
So may it be.
If you wish to add to the offering you gave earlier, we’ll leave a basket here by the door. It may increase the tension in the room, but you’re probably used to that by now.