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A meditation by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 2, 2011

A Meditation on the Nature of the Unitarian Universalist Association

On the 23rd of April, 2010, our congregation voted its third covenant since first gathering in 1720. It reads

We the members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, with respect for the worth and dignity of each person, with wonder at the light we know by many names, and with gratitude for our deep connection to each other and the larger web of existence, covenant to walk together in our search for truth, seeking the paths of wisdom, compassion and justice.

This is a day when our Association, how we like to call our denomination, has requested congregations focus our reflections and dedicate our offerings to aspects of our shared work. What is raised this year will support scholarships, continuing education and a comprehensive assessment of our various ministries. Important stuff, this. Personally, I’m grateful the governing board of our congregation, in the delightful phrasing of our eighteenth century origins, our Prudential Committee decided to go forward with this request.

And, it all sets me to thinking, mulling our Association, my personal relationship with it, and our congregational relationship with it. Truthfully, these days when I think of the Association, I often think of something a few years ago when Jan and I first arrived in New England. The first couple of summers we explored widely. And at some point we found ourselves in Bennington, Vermont.

After visiting the battle monument, which was impressive, we, well, Jan, decided we had to go and pay our respects to Robert Frost who, if you didn’t know is buried in Bennington. It wasn’t hard to find the Old First Church and the cemetery where Frost’s grave was quite well marked. It turned out we were hardly the first to think of this small pilgrimage. Now, I’m always moved walking through New England graveyards. And this certainly was no exception. When we found the grave, there on his family granite gravestone, which was shared with a number of members of the family, under his name Frost had a line from one of his poems carved into the stone.

It reads, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” A lover’s quarrel. After more than thirty years as a Unitarian Universalist, and twenty as a UU minister, I find it hard to think of our Association, our denomination, and not think of Frost’s line.

Unitarian Universalists have a number of responses to our larger connections, mostly ranging from indifference to active hostility. I know over the years I’ve felt many of these emotions, myself. Pretty much you can’t raise a single thing presented by the good folk at 25 (shorthand for 25 Beacon Street, being the historic headquarters offices for the Association), without someone, often a minister, sometimes me, declaring this, whatever it is, to be the thin edge of popery, the beginning of our certain slide into authoritarian rule under the large fat thumb of those bureaucrats in Boston.

Partially this antipathy to authority is just who we are. For many of us the motto is “I don’t belong to an organized religion, I’m a UU.” I’ve also heard the slogan: “Unitarian Universalism, the Barely Organized Religion.” Which is probably the more accurate description. The truth of it is that we aren’t the best at organizing at the denominational level. They come up with good and worthy projects, no doubt. This fundraising appeal is one. And, in my twenty years working within the Association I’ve watched a parade of ideas and projects come our way from Boston, ranging from those pretty good to at best half-baked to flat out bizarre. One never knows, kind of like that famous box of chocolates.

But we decide here in our congregations, what to support. As free agents, as people who raise our own moneys, own our own property and hire and fire our own ministers and staff, when something comes from the denomination, we decide whether or not, and if yes, how much we’re going to be involved.

Actually, as regards this congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, after being quite active in the forming of the American Unitarian Association early in the nineteenth century, in the last decades of the twentieth we were pretty marginal in the affairs of the consolidated Unitarian Universalist Association. I’m glad we’ve shifted back toward a more connectional emphasis in this last decade, taking at the beginning of the twenty-first century what I consider our rightful place among the leading liberal congregations of New England.

Personally, I’ve always been wary of the committees and projects and boards at the UUA and have pled pressing responsibilities elsewhere when approached to join one or another. I recall when I first accepted a call to serve a church in New England, and some of the members of the church I’d been with saying they were “transferring me, to groom me for the presidency.” It was sweet, and I felt it meant as an honor. But it had nothing to do with how the Association is actually run, and nothing to do with anything I’d desire.

Over the years I’ve come to feel myself marginally connected to the institution. But, as I’ve thought about that, I’ve come to realize this marginality, this obliqueness to authority, is in fact part of our institutional genius. The juice of what we’re about comes not, or rarely, from the center. Rather it happens out here, in the congregations, at the edges of authority. I find myself thinking a lot about that tension between center and edge.

Take Theodore Parker as an example. You’re familiar with him, even if you think you’re not. For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s compelling call in his Gettysburg Address, of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” was the president’s paraphrase of Reverend Parker’s “government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”

For most of us in this Meeting House, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s resounding “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice, “ was another paraphrase of Parker’s words, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; (but) I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” Those two great orators of the American spirit always freely acknowledged their debt in tightening and presenting the sentiments of a man they both spoke of in admiring terms as a spiritual mentor.

For that matter the title for the first book to have my name on the cover, as the third co-editor, in most bibliographies, I’m “et al,” was itself a homage to Parker, taking his famous sermon “On the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” and adapting it to our purposes as “The Transient and Permanent in Liberal Religion.”

Parker was a spiritual original. Brilliant. Committed. Not always easy to live with. And pretty much anyone who is active within Unitarian Universalism today owes him much, probably much more than is known much less acknowledged. However in his day, this way he has become foundational, would not have been so obvious. He was important and influential, but also, well, controversial is just too mild a term.

Born a farmer and self educated he became a schoolteacher at sixteen. He was admitted to Harvard but couldn’t afford the tuition, so he simply read all the books on the syllabus. Later admitted directly into the divinity school, it appears he taught himself at least the rudiments of twenty languages, along with mastering his more conventional studies. He was then ordained to serve a tiny Unitarian church in Roxbury. He threw his lot in with the emergent Transcendentalists. Noting the Bible was riddled with contradictions and errors of fact, he ended up rejecting miracles as an affront to reason and declared that the message of Jesus was what was important, not whether he was divine.

Parker was also outspoken on the political issues of the day. He bitterly opposed the Fugitive Slave Law, calling for open resistance. For this he was indicted, but never convicted. It was Boston, after all. He raised money to buy weapons during the conflict in Kansas, a terrible pre-cursor to the Civil War, and was a member of the Secret Six, supporting John Brown, and after Brown’s arrest and execution calling insurrection in the face of slavery a moral necessity.

There were so many threats against his life that he began to keep a loaded pistol on his writing desk, and there was a persistent rumor he kept another in his pulpit. A story ministers like to repeat. I’m sure I don’t know why.

Anyway, Parker grew increasingly popular as a preacher and eventually a new congregation was created for him, the 28th Congregational Society of Boston. It included as members or frequent participants, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Julia Ward Howe, her husband Samuel Gridley Howe, and Louisa May Alcott, among many others. The congregation grew to count more than five thousand members.

His connections to the Unitarian association, however, were much rockier. Many Unitarians in that time considered biblical miracles the stone foundation of the Christian religion, which they consider they represented in its purest form. Even though they rejected trinity, after all it isn’t scriptural, they believed the Bible divinely inspired and all those miracles reported in it as proof of Jesus’ divine ministry. Also, truthfully, many found his politics too far a field even for abolitionist Boston.

Parker was pressured to resign his ministerial fellowship, which he refused. Then there was a move to expel him from fellowship as no longer being a Christian. It failed. I want to focus on this specifically. I believe people miss a central point to who we are, how we operate, and what it means, or can.

Observers sometimes like to point to how there was a move to expel him as proof of the shortcomings of Unitarianism and by extension of its successor organization, Unitarian Universalism. Well, while many, maybe most of his colleagues wished him gone, shove came to push, and those who tried to expel him failed. He died a Unitarian, and a Unitarian minister.

Lover’s quarrel. Barely organized. And even when we push our theology and our politics to the edge, still, still, we’re part of this family.

Let there be no doubt, I come to this conversation as something deeply personal. In my years within the UUA, there have always been a few people who have asked, usually more in sadness than anger, whether I wouldn’t be happier as priest of some Zen Buddhist temple than as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister? And while it probably is just something a friend reported to make me feel better about myself, when I was fretting no one actually reads what I write, my theology of nonduality and spiritual engagement, I have to admit it warmed my heart to hear I’d been denounced by a colleague as about the worst thing that has happened to Unitarian Universalism at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Okay, I admit I actually think of myself more in the vein of William Ellery Channing, one biography called him a reluctant radical than the fire and brimstone gun in the pulpit radical like Theodore Parker. But, here’s a truth: because of Parker I’m here. He opened the doors that would allow humanists and pagans and Buddhists to be part of the mainstream of our spiritual current, modern liberal religion expressed within the institution of Unitarian Universalism.

And this can happen because we have a community based upon totally free individual congregations. The tensions of being autonomous while using a center to form our ministers giving us a common identity, perhaps more than anything else, but also those various activities coming from the UUA, is very important. But the congregations decide. The web of this Association is wide, and the center is each and every congregation.

So, all of us who think for ourselves, who follow a different drummer spiritually than the majority, even our majority; we all owe as much to the people who refused to throw Theodore Parker out of the ministry as we do to him. They’re all our ancestors, those who swam against the stream and those who allowed them to do so.

And, so, as I cast my gaze out at you all, I notice any number of folk who are here because of Theodore Parker, whether you know it or not, and those who would not deny him, whether you know it or not. And here we are: the barely organized church for religious seekers and radicals and believers that this quest must have concrete expression, actual living consequences.

I suggest our faith is a lover’s quarrel. This is our way. We come as we are, and as we are we bring ourselves to each other. This is our way.

Our covenant is to not turn away. Our covenant is to open our hearts wide. Our covenant is to be open to the many varieties of inspiration. This is our way.

And thus deepened to live fully in this world.

This is our way.