The Church That Says Come In

The Church That Says Come In
by Rev. Betty Jo Middleton

I began with a story for all ages about the celebration of DMUUC’s 25th anniversary when the children discussed who the church belongs to and agreed with the youngest one present who said “I think it should belong to everyone who wants to be here.” One of the children created a collage representation of the church building with a door that opened to reveal the words “Come In.”

My reading from a modern text is excerpted from Fredric J. Muir’s Berry Street Essay at the 2012 Justice General Assembly. You may know that Fred is the senior minister of our church in Annapolis. His essay was the 192nd delivered at the Ministerial Conference in Berry Street (now for many years actually delivered at the General Assembly!) It is titled “From iChurch to Beloved Community: Ecclesiology and Justice.” It is used here by permission:

As the Patriarch of American Transcendentalism, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson contributed to shaping 20th Century ideology and the story Americans tell about ourselves. This story is about American uniqueness and individualism and has been expressed in a myriad of ways; one of those has relevance to the title of this presentation. When I began my preparation, I thought something on the role of technology would be of values. My interest took me to wondering what the “i” means that’s placed in front of Apple products. I found [this] explanation…that “i” stood for “individual,” as in your own personal, individual piece of technology to be used for whatever purpose you want, to help you “Think Different” (which was Apple’s tag line). The theme of individualism was creatively and appealingly exploited in Apple’s commercial based on an adaptation of the poem “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” which read like Jack Kerouac’s celebratory homage to Emersonian individualism: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. They push the human race forward.”

Individualism not only shaped American culture writ large, but shaped Unitarian Universalism: We comprise the church of Emersonian individualism’ we are the iChurch. I’m not sure Emerson’s goal was for us to be ‘The Crazy Ones,” but [historian of Unitarian Universalism] Conrad Wright argues that the result was “the disintegration of institutional religion [because] one cannot build a church on Emerson’s dicta: ‘men are less together than alone,’ or ‘men descend to meet.’” Wright concludes “For both Emerson and {Theodore] Parker, a true community is not painfully constructed by people who have struggled to learn how to live together, but is made up of atomic and unrelated individuals.” [Wright. Walking Together.]

To read Muir’s paper in its entirety, you may Google it on your iMac, iPad, or iPhone.

I am delighted to be here with you this morning. When I came here as religious educator and ministerial student in August of 1978, I received a warm and supportive welcome. I preached my first sermon, “The Ministry of Teaching,” here in this room. I have learned a bit about both ministry and teaching since then, and I remain deeply grateful to this congregation for its role in my ministerial formation. My second sermon was also delivered here, shortly before I left to respond to the call of the Unitarian Church of Rockville. I talked about change and loss.

In the intervening years I have learned a bit about both of those subjects, too! But I remain convinced of some of the things I recall believing back then: change is inevitable, in our personal lives and in the lives of the religious community. We can’t keep change from occurring, but we may help to shape it. And all change brings loss, even the best of changes—such as a new job, a new spouse, a new baby, or, in congregational life, a new building, a new style of worship, a new minister! You have gone through a long period of transitions and next week you begin a new chapter in your history as you welcome your new minister, my friend and colleague Natalie Fenimore. I am delighted for her, and for you, as you begin this journey, walking together. I truly hope for all the best for her, and for you!

But I want to talk today about a broader topic than any one congregation, a topic that I believe concerns us all—the future of Unitarian Universalism, as a movement, and as an institution.

As church memberships continue to decline—not only for UUs, it should be noted!—planned change seems to many to be essential. Essential that is, not only for growth, or remaining stable in numbers, but for revitalization and renewal. But what kind of change? Almost since the forming of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 1961 we have tried to become more diverse and more welcoming. For some, we have gone far enough, and for others, too far. A letter in the most recent UU World reflects these feelings: “…I read our national magazine with increasing alienation, despite my deep identification as a UU and my vital connection with my own congregation….[W]e get inspiring stories …about people and congregations that are moving in the ‘right’ direction toward the failed utopian vision of multicultural, multilingual Unitarian Universalism, a vision that no longer moves or inspires me, or that I even consider achievable. As a college-educated, 30-­ year-­old, English-­as-­a-­irst-­language UU of mostly European background, I feel not only neglected but looked down upon as not the demographic the UUA craves in our congregations.”

And of course for many, we have barely begun. Former UUA president Bill Sinkford, who started a big commotion about “language of reverence” in 2002, says today “As a faith community Unitarian Universalists are committed to remaining intellectually and spiritually open to change.” (Introduction to Jeanne Harrison
Nieuwejaar’s Fluent in Faith, Skinner House 2012.)

Who does the church belong to? Who does Unitarian Universalism belong to? One point of view is that it belongs to those who are members of our congregations; others invite us take a broader view. Perhaps it belongs to all who wish to claim it. So, do we change to welcome others? Do we stay the same to make ourselves feel welcome? Oh, wait, didn’t I just say that change occurs all the time, whether we want it or not?

Whenever surveys and polls indicate that far more people claim to be Unitarian Universalist (or at least Unitarian) than ever darken our doors, there is a round of weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth…or at least of asking the question: Who are these people? About four times as many as we have congregants! Where are they? Why aren’t they sitting in our pews, or folding chairs? I have sometimes responded cynically “Well, some are those we’ve removed from our rolls because they didn’t contribute financially.” I honestly believe this is true for some small number, although I know it is not for most. (And I do understand that we have to pay for subscriptions to the UU World somehow. There I go being cynical again.) According to current UUA President Peter Morales, many who have no connection with UU congregations make large financial contributions to the UUA. He also notes that the second largest gathering of UUs—SUUSI, the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute—includes many who do not relate to any congregation. (The largest gathering is, of course, the annual General Assembly.)

Morales has proposed and many are considering, that “We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement” (something that used to be more common) and not just “define ourselves as an association of congregations.” (I think widespread use of the word “denomination” has contributed to our thinking of ourselves only as an institution.) The two-­part strategy he proposes has, well, two parts. The first he says, is “Congregations remain the base. Creating ways of engaging people who are not members of our congregations is not a threat to congregations. Quite the opposite is true.” And his second proposal is that we “Focus energy on creating a movement beyond the congregation. I envision,” he says, “a UU movement that is composed of a mix of congregations and a variety of other structures.” He points to the great success of the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s outreach, which now includes online worship services among opportunities for connection.

Unitarians and Universalists both came out of the Puritan churches, and we have retained the congregational form of government they pioneered, although dropping other components along the way. I’m not talking about that inherent depravity of human beings thing—although most of us have dropped that one—but some core organizing principles. One was that new members had to be tried, tested, and approved by those already present. Wow! I wonder how many new members we would get if we did that! And we had to drop their plan to tax everyone in the parish to pay the preacher. They were British colonists and followed the British custom on funding. Thanks to antidisestablishmentarianism, we support ourselves. As the old saying goes, the free church is not free…of charge! For a time Unitarian churches were “churches of the standing order” and were financed by taxation, while the Universalists were among the groups petitioning to end that practice.

The Puritans’ organizing principles for congregations, most based on their understanding of Biblical texts, are to be found in the Cambridge Platform, adopted in 1648. Peter Hughes recently published a “Contemporary Reader’s Edition” of this document, with an introduction by Alice Blair Wesley. Wesley says that “Both the Pilgrims in 1620 and the 20,000 or so Puritans who came to New England in the Great Migration of the 1630s were primarily concerned with a theology of organization: how churches ought to be organized in the spirit of mutual love and who in these churches should have authority and why.” She says “We have faithfully preserved the most significant part of our Puritan heritage!

Wesley notes that the “earliest covenants on the books [were] beautiful, simple promises to walk together in love.” She bemoans the fact that “covenants were largely ignored and not spoken of, a pattern that continued for many decades….But,” she asks, “if one does not speak of the covenant that constitutes the community as a church, the promise that all are cordially invited to enter, then what does one say is the basis of a liberal church?” Another organizing principle was that congregations should “walk together,” in mutual trust and love. Many see this as a neglected aspect of our historical charge. That’s congregations, not just members.

Wesley closes her introduction on the somewhat wistful, yet hopeful, note: “Like our congregational forebears, we need to reflect on what new patterns, based in the spirit of neighborly love, may be appropriate for our time and society.”

Meanwhile, back at the Ministerial Conference in Berry Street, Fred Muir is outlining what he calls “a trinity of errors” that keeps us from growing in vitality, relevance, and numbers. He says “we are being held captive by a persistent, pervasive, disturbing and disruptive commitment to individualism that misguides our ability to engage the changing times…We cling to a Unitarian Universalist exceptionalism that is often insulting to others and undermines our good news,” and “Third, we refuse to acknowledge and treat our allergy to authority and power, though all the symptoms compromise a healthy future.”

He challenges those present, and all of us, saying “In the congregations we serve and attend, in the ministries to which we are called, we must ensure that there are ample opportunities to be religious and spiritual; to support and design opportunities that nurture prophetic spirituality and encourage people to not only have minds on fire, but to keep their souls filled their spirits afire as well.”

He alludes to “our common wisdom: that there is a fundamental connection, between growth, justice, and a healthy future.” He points to what he calls “four pillars of our justice-seeking and justice-­making ecclesiology,” that is: “multiculturalism, environmental justice, sexual and family values, and right relationships” and says that they are the “foundation on which every Unitarian Universalist Beloved Community is built.” But he challenges us to pay more attention to things of the spirit, as well, to seek a sense of being connected to something greater than ourselves. Parenthetically, I want to say that while “multiculturalism” is the term of choice these days, I think the “pillar” is actually better named “inclusivity.”

Peter Morales envisions a “movement that is composed of a mix of congregations and a variety of other structures. People should be able to connect to our religious movement in a variety of ways and at different levels of commitment…The reality of today’s world is that not everyone who shares our core values will want to become part of a traditional congregation…[This] is an enormous opportunity, not a problem…I am confident that together we can seize this historic opportunity for our faith.”

The order of worship for the church I attend regularly includes these words: “If you are new to our church, or just visiting today, please know that you are welcome here.
Whatever faiths you have known, if any, you are welcome here. Whomever you love, you are welcome here. Whatever brought you through these doors today to worship with us in community, we are so glad you are here.”

For too long we tried to define our faith by saying what we did not believe in. That appears to be changing. More and more of our congregations use some variation of the covenant that begins “Love is the teaching of this church.” Your ritual chalice lighting speaks of “gifts of love and service.” Some who see our yellow banners with the words “Standing on the side of Love” may think that is just a slogan intended for our support of marriage equality, or immigration justice, or some other cause, but it is more like an article of faith (not a creed! an article of faith.) Jason Shelton’s beautiful hymn includes these words: “hands joined together, hearts beat as one.” Love is the teaching of this church, but we can’t be glib about it. We are not talking about sentimental, romantic, sunny day love. We are talking about radical, gut-­wrenching, all-­out “love that will not let us go.” If we truly love, then we will welcome and embrace all. We must be the church that says “come in.” And means it.

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