In comments at the UU minister’s blog Peacebang, Patrick Murfin described a threat he sees to Unitarian-Universalism. Patrick has been a longtime observer of and participant in denominational events, and his views deserve to be given serious consideration. And since the issues clearly reflect the types of UU history concerns that this blog was founded to deal with, it seems relevant to tackle them. The conversation is likely to continue at Peacebang as well were the original comments were left, so you may want to follow the link to see how it is developing.
Here are some of Patrick’s comments, excerpted with permission. They are not necessarily reflective of this blog’s opinions, but are offered as part of a significant conversation about UUA history and direction that more UUs should probably be aware of.
“The intellectual mother of the Congregational Polity fundamentalism movement is a respected and beloved—as well as tireless—minister and scholar, Alice Blair Wesley. The manifesto of the movement was her 2000-2001 Mimms Lectures, which summarized decades of thinking, writing, and genteel agitating. That is available in book form as OUR COVENANT—THE LAY AND LIBERAL DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH: THE SPIRIT AND PROMICE OF THE COVENANT, published by Meadville/Lombard.
Many of Alice’s criticisms, rooted in a deep theological and historical understanding of covenantal relationships among the Puritans and their Unitarian descendents resonated with long time critics of UUA governance and—surprisingly—to some insiders within that governance structure. She drew almost exclusively on the polity arising from the New England Standing Order and chose to ignore the separate—and quite different polity and governance traditions—of the Universalists.”
Alice Blair Wesley is indeed a venerable figure in UU circles, both as a minister and with her various contributions to the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. She remains a regular contributor to the UUHS listserve.
“The problem is that in order to succeed in their governance goals, these folks felt the need to sweep away all non-congregational organs which might function in opposition to their plans. They can argue that the disaffiliated groups are still free to associate and pursue their goals, but by cutting off access to the General Assembly, discounted advertising in UUWORLD, and even simple linkage through the web site they know that many of these groups will whither and die.”
The previous post here at Transient and Permanent detailed how advertising discounts have been restored, but the larger issues here still remain. Even the seemingly most innocuous one–lack of listing on the UUA website–could be a serious problem for ingathering more members for some of these groups. While a Google search might turn them up, you have to know to search for such a group in the first place. Whereas surfing around the UUA previously would’ve introduced you, say, to the fact that there is a group of UU Buddhists, and you could follow the links to learn more.
“The excesses of this movement have now driven me to become the dirtiest word in the Congregational Polity fundamentalist lexicon—a “denominationalist.” Because what they are creating is an absurd world where there are no Unitarian Universalists, only book signed members autonomous congregations. When ever any one ceases for any reason, even temporarily, to be a member of a congregation they are to have no access to the UUA and its services and the UUA is to have no interest in them.”
Lest readers think Patrick is exaggerating here, there are indeed people who consider authentic UUs to be only those people on the membership rolls at UUA-affiliated churches. Commentators here and on other blogs have affirmed this position, and one encounters it in churches and meetings as well. Under the new shift in UUA culture, this could indeed mean that UUs between congregations are not considered appropriate objects of attention by the UUA. However, there is no other similar large-scale UU organization to advocate for or minister to such persons.
So, what do you think? Is Congregational Fundamentalism a real movement? Does it indeed pose the level of threat that Patrick sees? If so, what might/must be done to meet this challenge? Or do you see things differently? If so, what is your take on this issue?