A CALL FOR DENOMINATION-WIDE DIALOG & CONSENSUS BUILDING
To: President & Trustees of the UUA, and Trustees of the UUMA
From: Concerned Lay Unitarian Universalists
Subject: Theological & Associational Schism
A CALL FOR DENOMINATION-WIDE DIALOG & CONSENSUS BUILDING ON WHAT IS OUR FAITH, AND WHAT DO WE WANT OUR FAITH TO BE?
We, the undersigned – long-standing Unitarian Universalists – write with anger and deep concern about trends in UU theological and associational affairs. We are concerned that current trends are leading to schism among our congregations, our ministry, and our associations. We see a clear and present danger to the future of our liberal religion, and call for the UUA and the UUMA to effect repair and reconciliation within our beloved community.
Unitarian-Universalism is a creedless faith, resulting from the merger of two Christian heresies, and rooted in the notion of a “free church” as codified in the Cambridge Platform. Our body of free congregations, with congregational polity, has so far maintained ourselves as a big tent – welcoming, even encouraging a wide range of theological beliefs. Our congregations are rooted in covenants that emphasize love, service, peace, and freedom. Our larger association is bound together by core principles that emphasize acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and, the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. We value “living in the question,” free inquiry, and extended discussion and debate. Many of us became UUs precisely because of these core values – often seeking refuge from traditional faiths that emphasize submission to orthodoxy, enforced by shame & guilt. We have attended many sermons & workshops preaching UU principles. We have raised our children in RE programs that emphasize our values & teach them to question authority; we encourage them to form their personal theologies as part of coming of age.
Throughout our short history, as a distinct denomination, theological tensions have tested and tried us. Yet so far, our core values, as embodied in our seven principles – which were created through a broad-based, inclusive process of collective discernment – have kept us in covenant.
We now find ourselves increasingly concerned that, in recent years, our associational and ministerial leadership have shifted focus, from promoting unity, to one which creates discord. We are concerned that one particular approach, to social justice issues, excludes those who turn to our faith for spiritual reasons, or have other approaches to social justice. We are concerned that an approach to anti-oppression work, which apparently focuses on shaming those with different ideas, conflicts with our core principles, such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and covenants that call us to dwell together in peace, and, seek knowledge in freedom. We see this approach driving long-standing members out of our faith, and potentially repelling new members, while failing to achieve stated goals of welcoming, inclusion, and greater diversity.
The UUA is a free association of congregations – chartered to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles. Today, however, its focus seems more on imposing a culture shift on member congregations and the body of lay UUs. We are concerned that our associational leaders and staff increasingly present themselves as sources of truths, to be imposed on congregations and laity, rather than servants of our congregations – directly opposite to a faith community rooted in congregational polity and dedicated to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. We witnessed that our most recent General Assembly – billed as an exploration of What do we want our faith to be, with the theme The Power of We, instead focused on promoting a specific anti-racism agenda, as codified by the Board-appointed Commission on Institutional Change. We further disagree that it was “disruptive” and “hurtful” that one of our ministers distributed his views on the very question at hand. We endorse his right to express his beliefs, independent of whether we agree with them or not.
When hundreds of our ministers condemn one of their own, for speaking his truth, and where our ministers’ professional association censures that same minister for violating ill-defined ethical rules – with a seeming lack of any notion of due process – we find ourselves concerned about our ministry as a whole. How can we believe that our ministers, and their association, value freedom of the pulpit when dissent is so quickly condemned and censured, and when we hear reports that many of our ministers are acting under duress to “toe the party line?”
We find ourselves increasingly faced with the potential for schism among our association, our ministry, and ultimately within our congregations. To date, we have weathered an uneasy tension between the more and less religious among us. While several denominations have undergone bitter splits over issues of ordaining LGBTQ ministers, and performing same-sex weddings, we have become stronger, more welcoming, and more inclusive. But regarding social justice and anti-oppression work, we are dividing over the best methods to achieve common goals. Some long-standing members and ministers are leaving, some feeling driven out. Congregations are voting with their wallets – many not paying their fair share associational dues. The number of UU congregations has been dropping, and while our membership has been relatively steady, RE enrollment has dropped almost 40% over the past 20 years.
Finally, we are disturbed by the lack of lay input to the culture shift being promoted by our association, and being strongly encouraged for our ministers by their professional association – and at the lack of broad based venues for such discussion & input. Many did not perceive this year’s GA as a venue for free inquiry. Our one denomination-wide publication – UU World – seems to exclude substantive discussion of issues from a wide variety of perspectives. We have no denomination wide forums – UU World lacks even a letters column, much less discussion forums of the sort that newspapers attach to each online article & opinion column. We no longer have any broad-based online forums – those online forums we do have, have limited participation, with most actively censored for “hurtful” language, tone, and ideas. Congregational Study/Action Issues rarely find significant participation. It has been twenty-two years since the UUA distributed the 1997 Unitarian Universalism Needs and Aspirations Survey.
Accordingly, in a spirit of repair and reconciliation, we call on the UUA to live up to the original promise of this year’s GA – by taking two actions with all deliberate haste:
1. Retain a neutral agency – we suggest the Pew Foundation’s Research Center on Religion & Public Life – to conduct a series of polls and focus groups on what is our faith, and what do we want it to be (and, perhaps, what do we expect from our ministers)?
2. Create and facilitate ongoing, community-wide media coverage and forums – again, focused on future directions of our faith community, its theology, its ministry, and the associations that serve us. We call for the addition of true discussion forums to UU World – at least akin to the online discussion forums that the New York Times attaches to each article and opinion column it publishes. We call for a series of articles, panel discussions, online posts, videocast panel discussions, and online “town halls” – again on the topic of what is our faith, and what do we want it to be? These should encourage both lay and ministerialparticipation, from across our denomination, facilitated by neutral outside professionals (we recommend consulting with the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation).
We call for a particular focus on building bridges, identifying points of broad agreement, and on building consensus rather than manufacturing it according to a pre-defined agenda. We ask for an additional focus on what we expect from our ministers. We ask that the UUA and UUMA act accordingly, with all deliberate speed. We are at a crossroads in the future of the UUA, and some of these issues require timely attention.
Yours in Fellowship,