Friday, March 16, 2007

Why we need Americans, and why it won't work

We need American ministers: here's why it makes sense:

The UUA has 1658 ministers and 1039 congregations. Many more ministers than congregations.

The British Unitarian General Assembly has 65 active ministers and 180 congregations. Many more congregations than ministers.

(The Directory lists 145 ministers, but this includes retired ministers, ministers in the NSPCI and ministers that have now moved to other countries).

Looking at these figures it occurs to me: wouldn't it be good if 100 American ministers could come over here?

Let's put aside the question of pay for a moment, and let me give the other reason why this wouldn't work (or would create problems).

Why this wouldn't work:

"I believe... that we are inheritors of a deeply and profoundly spiritual tradition of our own. What is more this tradition is not only uniquely Unitarian Universalist, but also typically American." (Barry Andrews, Thoreau as Spiritual Guide, xiii)

How much is Unitarian Universalism typically American? How much is Unitarian Universalism tied to the US American culture? This is probably a question that gets Canadian Unitarians going more than anyone else.

So much of what UUs speak and preach about is very tied to American culture. I heard a sermon about Abraham Lincoln the other day. A lot of what gets talked about is internal American politics, and the social justice dimension is always more American than global.

Now in many ways there's nothing wrong with that. Churches in America should be speaking and worshipping in a way that makes sense for them, but what is left when that gets transferred to a different culture?

You see a lot of American ministers do come over here, but a lot of them struggle. I have an inclining that this is because they have not studied enough mission theory. Faith expressed in one culture is always different from the same faith expressed in a different culture. This is what it took missionaries a while to realise, but eventually they did realise it. You have to work hard to work out how a faith will be expressed differently in a different culture.

Remove Unitarian Universalism from America and what are you left with? Remove any talk of next November's election, remove the culture wars, remove all that, and what are you left with? You have to answer that kind of question before you can come to a different culture to speak about Unitarian Universalism. You need to find the spiritual heart of UUism apart from the current social justice battles in America, and be able to adapt that to a different culture.

So we need Americans, but they need to study mission theory and be able to separate Unitarian Universalism from leftofcenteramericanism.


Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

Very good food for thought!

7:06 am  
Blogger Matt said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:48 am  
Blogger Matt said...

There is a further question - how many congregations could actually support a full-time minister?

I'm thinking in terms of numbers / assistance with duties - as well as the financial side.

And that question eventually leads back to the issue of these grand, expensive Unitarian buildings which seem to anchor congregations down.

Rather than spending money on importing US ministers, I would be more in favour of Unitarians pioneering / sponsoring new courses for lay leaders.

8:49 am  
Blogger Bill Baar said...

I'm a UU because it's an American religion. It's almost American Civil Religion.

For all of George Bush's Evangelicalism, research his public comments on God and Faith while President and I think you'd be hard pressed to find words that wouldn't also pass muster in a U.S. UU Church.

Read Kathleen Parker from a few years ago,

Bush's invocations of God, meanwhile, are never gratuitous but are appropriate to context - a funeral, or prayer breakfast, or the finishing touch on a State of the Union address: "God bless America." Hardly the rantings of a theocrat.

One can find other references to God, most notably in Bush's articulation of what is surely the central narrative of his presidency: "Freedom is not America's gift to the world. Freedom is the almighty God's gift to every man and woman in the world." Again, this is not rain dancing. Such is the seed that grew the United States of America.

Matt asked, how many congregations could actually support a full-time minister?

Evangelicals would instead ask, how long would we need to support ministers to help you spread our faith before your congregations could support them?

Spreading faith comes with a price tag. Sometimes it's dear. I'm not sure UU's consider the costs worth it or if it's even right to spread our beliefs. They're content remaining a American faith rooted in a time and place. Odd for a Church with Universal in its name but isolationism deeply American too.

Problem is times change. New faiths challange. Figure out the new context from globalization or become so out of context we're no longer relevant or understood.

I think that's what's facing us today.

1:17 pm  
Blogger Jaume said...

Well, for that matter, Coca-Cola is also very American. And Disney. And McDonald's. And they are everywhere in Europe? Why would UUism be different?

What would America be without UUism? Exactly the same as with UUism. The religion of today's America is Evangelicalism, particularly the one broadcast on cable TV. And Mormonism. Traditional Protestant denominations still keep their strongholds in politics and middle-high class, but they are on the decline. And the Catholic Church among the Mexicans and the Irish.

History geeks would miss Unitarians. "Hey, that was the religion of a couple Presidents, right? Where are they now?" But political progressives and cultural creatives would be in the UCC, in New Age groups, or be simply non-denominational or non-religious as they usually are in Europe. Nobody would miss Unitarian Universalism.

11:09 pm  
Blogger Faith of the Free said...

Jaume and I have disagreed respectfully on a number of issues, and this one is no exception. UU is a good influence upon America, and the more of that influence the better. (Honestly, you wouldn't expect a "Powell Davies Unitarian" to feel any differently. Remember, though, that Davies was originally from Wales.)

And, UU is neither Coca Cola, Disney nor McDonalds, Jaume. Whether we are any good at it or not, our "business" is that of liberal religious community (...all three of those words being essential). Along with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others, I believe that ANY nation with designs upon being a "Land of the Free" needs an active and vibrant "Faith of the Free"-- a communion of the free spirit-- to urge it toward its higher, nobler possibilies, to "flesh out" what it ultimately means (and requires) to live with one another with utmost freedom in an ever-shrinking world. Only you folks in the UK can make the determination of whether that's what you're also looking for.


(My "Faith of the Free" Yahoo group is

7:44 pm  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Great post! Very interesting! What an interesting challenge it would be for a UU American minister to spend a year or so in England preaching an intentionally non-American-centric liberal gospel. I, for one, would love the opportunity to try.

Possible sabbatical plan?

2:38 am  

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