Association Sunday: Celebrating 50 years

Association Sunday: Celebrating 50 Years

Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray
October 3, 2010

Our opening words are by Unitarian Universalist Minister David Pohl.

“We come to this time and this place:
To rediscover the wondrous gift of free religious community;
To renew our faith in the holiness, goodness and beauty of life;
To reaffirm the way of the open mind and the full heart;
To rekindle the flame of memory and hope; and
To reclaim the vision of an earth made fair, with all her people one.”

Sermon   Association Sunday: Celebrating 50 Years 

Today, with congregations all over the country we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of Unitarian Universalism. If you look back through history, you can draw the roots of Unitarianism and the roots of Universalism to the late 1700’s in the United States, or to the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the 1500’s or all the way back to Jesus and to the early church fathers, many of who professed Unitarian and Universalist views.

But wherever you start that line, it was 50 years ago that Unitarian Universalism, and the Unitarian Universalist Association were born. In his book, The Premise and the Promise: The story of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Warren Ross writes, “I came away with the conclusion that those who launched the Unitarian Universalist Association...did so on the premise that our was to be a faith for the future. I also became convinced that if we live up to our potential, this promise holds true to this day.” (from the Introduction, c. 2001).

Many people say that merger was one hundred years in the making. Indeed Unitarianism and Universalism were never very theologically far apart. As Warren Ross says in his book, “once one basic element of Christian dogma is called into question, it becomes almost inevitable that doubts are also raised about others” (p. 7).

For instance, William Ellery Channing, whose Baltimore Sermon Unitarian Christianity in 1819, still remains a defining essay on the fundamental principles of Unitarianism, coined the phrase “I belong to the great family of all souls” echoing the equal human dignity and unity that is a bedrock of Universalism. And Hosea Ballou, who lived and preached not far from Channing, and who wrote the great theological treaty on Universalism, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, a fundamental principle of Unitarianism.

Even as early as 1856, there were ministers and lay people advocating for merger of the two associations and in 1878, the first local merger of two congregations happened in Wisconsin. So what kept the denominations apart for another 80 years? The answer is largely a social and cultural one. Unitarians were centered in Boston, and especially around Harvard University. Unitarians were of the highest social classes. They were Governors of Massachusetts, U.S. Senators, they were on the board at Harvard, they were U.S. Presidents. Universalists were rural and working class, less educated and didn’t run in the same circles. When the topic of merger finally came to the top of the agenda in the late 1930s, some Unitarians worried that Universalists were too theologically conservative, too emotional and “not like us” (Ross, p. 11). Perhaps Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of the “icehouse of Unitarianism” had not changed all that much.

At the same time Universalists worried about the elitism of Unitarianism. The structural bureaucracy and organization of Unitarianism was far stronger than the more decentralized Universalism, where power was organized mostly on the state level. The social and cultural differences as well as the organizational strength of the Unitarian denomination made Universalists wary that Unitarianism would submerge and subsume Universalism rather than there being an equal merger.

Despite these fears slowly the two denominations began to deepen their partnership. The 1930’s, the years of the Great Depression in the U.S. were trying on the whole nation. Religious organizations suffered and the Unitarians and Universalists were no different.

In 1937, the two denominations cooperated in the publication of a new hymnal. This marked the first time they took common action. In 1947, the governing boards of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of American appointed a joint committee to explore union. But it was the youth who led the way. In 1954, the two youth groups, which held their first joint conference in 1951, consolidated, disbanding the American Unitarian Youth and the Universalist Youth Fellowship to form Liberal Religious Youth (LRY). At the same time the college-aged programs also combined.

Following the example of the youth, in 1956 the two denominations formed the Joint Merger Commission. The two people who perhaps had the most to do with really bringing about the merger of the two traditions was Dana McLean Greeley, President of the AUA and Philip Giles, General Superintendent of the UCA. They shared a vision for merger and worked hard to make it a reality.

Of course there were those who were opposed to the consolidation, but the process involved so much democratic participation and thoroughness that when the decision was finally complete, there could be no doubt that it represented the will of the vast majority of Universalists and Unitarians.

The Joint Merger Commission created the plan to move toward merger. The plan called for all congregations to participate in the decision by voting at two plebiscites. “The first would be purely advisory: Should the Commission proceed? The second was to be decisive” to vote on whether or not to approve merger."

The Commission hired outside consultants funded by both denominations and produced a wealth of material to go to each congregation reporting on operations, finances, interviews with proponents and opponents, summaries of advantages and disadvantages. At the first plebiscite, over 74% of both Unitarian and Universalist congregations participated, with 75% of those participating voting yes, the process should proceed.

Next the Commission produced the written “Plan to Consolidate” to be voted on by both denominations at separate meetings which were held at the same time in Syracuse New York. The language adopted by each denomination had to be exactly the same, so when amendments were proposed and considered, any that were accepted by one body had to be walked over to the other body for their vote and approval.

There were a few hotly debated decisions, but the only one that was so conflicted it nearly ended the process was disagreement over theological language. Not unlike today, our traditions, particularly the Unitarian tradition welcomed diverse religious views. Difference seemed to break down between three groups: the Unitarian Christians, the “universalist” theists and the Unitarian humanists. The language that was debated read:

Some wanted to add more direct reference to Christianity, others wanted to remove reference to God. In the end after a process that carried across 2 days, the language that was finally agreed to was: “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.”

Once the “Plan to Consolidate” was passed by both denominations it went back to the congregations. To pass not only did the plan have to receive 75% approval, but 75% of congregations had to vote. Those who were against the merger left Syracuse thinking they had won because they thought this level of participation by congregations would never happen. They were wrong. Through incredible organizing by Raymond Hopkins who called hundreds of ministers and asked each of them to be responsible for getting 5 congregations to vote (not necessarily in favor, but to participate and to vote), 90% of churches and congregations of both denominations participated in the second plebiscite (average participation in denominational activities was at the time 20%). And in those plebiscites, Unitarians voted 9 to 1 in favor and Universalists 8 to 1 in favor of merger. It was overwhelming. The open process that engaged so many made the decision once it happened decisive.

The emotional celebration came in 1960 in Boston when both denominations met to ratify the vote of the plebiscite. The minister who preached the sermon at that worship service, Donald Harrington, stressed that this was a milestone event, “’partly a new birth, partly a commencement, partly a kind of marriage.” He went on to speak of the new denomination’s “tremendous potential…caused in turn by this new world’s need for a religion which is dynamic instead of static, unitive instead of divisive, universalistic instead of particularistic, history-making rather than history bound.”

50 years later, these words still ring true. There is still a need in the world for a dynamic, unifying, diverse and universal religion. Universal not in that it will be a religion for every person, but universal in that is will welcome all people and that it will not preach division or hierarchy or exclusion--but universal love, the unity of humanity and creation.

May 15,1961 is the day we name as the beginning of Unitarian Universalist Association. It was the first joint General Assembly, and at it Dana McLean Greeley was elected the first President of the UUA, with Philip Giles appointed as his Executive Vice-President. And so began the religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

Since that historic day, the 50 years of Unitarian Universalism has modeled acts of tremendous courage and inspiration. We have on the whole been more history making than history bound. Yet, we have also fallen short of our great tradition and faced terrible conflict and controversy.

We celebrate the courage of the hundreds of ministers and lay people who supported the civil rights movement and march in Selma. We honor the memory of Rev. James Reeb and Viola Gregg Luizzo who were killed by segregationists in Selma for their participation in that movement. We remember the ways we fell short during the black power movement, falling into mistrust along racial lines over money and authority. The way we withdrew commitments to the Black Affairs Council, the way that we mistreated one another, broke our covenants.

We honor the courage it took for our publishing company, Beacon Press to publish the Pentagon Papers detailing the Pentagon’s use and misuse of information to create and continue support for the Vietnam War. No major publishing house would publish the papers--they were too afraid. And in response the FBI began an investigation in the UUA which we fought all the way to the Supreme Court--although the legal expenses of that battle hurt us tremendously. We celebrate the creation of the first sex ed curriculum developed by a religious organization that sought to educate youth for their own benefit and good, not just to reinstate rules of conduct. We celebrate the creation in the early 1970’s of the Office of Gay Concerns, and the increasingly public and open stand we have taken for equal rights for GLBTQ people. We celebrate the cities and states where Unitarian Universalists have been a strong part of getting marriage equality and non-discrimination laws passed. And we celebrate and recommit ourselves to the renewed work we have taken through Journey to Wholeness and Building the World We Dream About to become anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural in all the work we do. Are we there yet? No, but we are honest about the need for the work and our commitment to it.

As we look ahead to the future, the world is still in need of a religion that finds unity amid diversity, that celebrates equal human dignity, that advocates for freedom and justice for all people, and which struggles, imperfectly yes, but struggles none the less to break down barriers that divide us, to free our hearts to love more fully, to learn to touch the world with reverence, to speak to the better angels of our human nature and to practice a faith that welcomes us as we are, teaches us to welcome and respect and seek understanding of our neighbor and to work together to build the world we dream about--the world that some imagine as a reward beyond this life--but one who we seek to build in this life.

As David Pohl words said it so well for our opening, “To reclaim the vision of an earth made fair, with all her people one.”