This week’s UU trivia question has drawn more traffic than usual. Perhaps the idea that the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations would actually ban the use of a term, and even go so far as to exact fines from trustees who continued to use the term at meetings, seems so outrageous or incredible that elicited much curiosity. Or, perhaps people were so shocked or offended, they wanted to know the answer. At any rate, there were many good guesses, and also many interesting suggestions as to what the UUA might or should ban. None, however, were on the mark.
What term did the UUA Board actually ban?
The answer is: Unitarian.
What?!, you cry out in puzzlement. How could they ban the term Unitarian?
It’s simply, actually, once you know the back story. After the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961, and it was only a matter of years before many people began to shift from using the long, unwieldy term “Unitarian-Universalist,” opting instead to use “Unitarian” as shorthand for “Unitarian-Universalist.” This was an especially easy slope to slip down because formerly-Unitarians outnumbered formerly-Universalists two to one in the new denomination.
As the practice increased over the years, people from historically-Universalist backgrounds became ever more disgruntled, and even some historically-Unitarian folks disapproved of the trend. Eventually, the practice became so entrenched at the Board level that action was called for. The Boardmembers agreed to ban from their meetings the use of the term “Unitarian” as a moniker for “Unitarian-Universalist,” insisting instead that the full name be used. Trustees who slipped up and said “Unitarian” when they meant “Unitarian-Universalist” were fined a pittance by the Board–the larger fine being the humiliation of having to note one’s own lack of discipline in this regard.
Now, we should note that the term “Unitarian” was not banned in any context other than use by Trustees at Board meetings–it was not imposed on any congregations, publications, or staff at UUA headquarters. And it was enacted and enforced entirely by common voluntary consent, with no actual power to back it up. The main idea was for the top representatives of the denomination to break themselves of the practice, and thereby to set the right example for the rest of Unitarian-Universalism to follow their example. In fact, while “Unitarian” is still sometimes used in this way at Board meetings, the practice did decrease, and fines aren’t collected anymore. And there seems to be a partial resurgence of denominational interest in Universalism, making the need for such measures less drastic.
Still, there is an undeniable irony to a major body of Unitarian-Universalists having to ban the use of the word “Unitarian” when used in a presentist sense. Perhaps only in Unitarian-Universalism might political correctness reach the level where “Unitarian” itself becomes off-limits!
Thank you to everyone who contributed guesses and suggestions.