Thursday, August 31, 2006

Accountability for the crimes against Iraq and the Constitution

It becomes more clear daily that war crimes have been and are still being committed against the people of Iraq, and that the Administration is conducting a illegal war and by illegal means. In Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, especially in its treatment of captured people, members of the armed forces of the United States have been given orders that violate the Geneva Conventions and have been thus, placed by the chain of command at risk of potential war crimes charges.

The high officials of the Bush Administration bear the heaviest responsibility for these actions. They must be held accountable. The war in Iraq is the greatest military and political and strategic blunder made by the US in decades. It has has damaged our military, our international standing, and our overall safety. And it has brought Iraq, a nation that languished under a dictatorship before, out of its relative authoritarian calm, to the very gates of hell -- a society in chaos, disintegrating, where the lives of men, women and children are wasted daily.

It has been a political, military, diplomatic and most importantly, a moral disaster.

And as I have said, the high officials of the Bush Administration: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Rove, Libby, Addison, Hadley and others bear the major burden of responsibility.

But they did not act alone. Just as in the case of other criminal actions of the state, many people share responsibility:

  • Members of the armed forces, who had the information necessary to see what was legal and what was not.
  • Members of Congress, members of the Executive agencies, Judges who have the duty to investigate and oversee executive branch actions.
  • Operatives of the political machine that kept the war criminals in power when challenged in the electoral system.
  • The press and media which did not investigate, but turned away from this story.
  • Citizens who voted for the war criminals, and the advocates who agitated for the war.

It is frightening, and sobering, and sickening to consider how many people in the United States contributed to, or enabled,this war.

I believe that each citizen of the United States is morally obligated to make a self-assessment, to take a moral inventory, and come to understand precisely how they enabled these crimes to be committed.

It will not do to argue that it is all Bush's fault. Nor will it do to say that "we are all responsible" in some vague and undifferientated way.

For us who are citizens and amateur advocates, who do not have the power of government in our hands, or who do not speak to the masses, it is incumbent on us to analyze our thinking and our speaking during this war. What arguments were persuasive to us, and which were not? What arguments did we spread from our little node in the network of private communications that are how most people are informed and persuaded?

All of this matters greatly. Some people are arguing already that the threat of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is sufficient to require military force to prevent. We may end up in the debate against the next war without having summarized our roles in the last one.

As Jefferson said, "When I consider that God is just, I tremble for my country."

Monday, August 28, 2006

On Vacation

This is the final week of the summer, and I am on vacation at last. As one of the few UU ministers I know who works through the summer, this one week break between the summer and the Ingathering service is always especially welcome.
We head to Minnesota, to a house on a lake to spend time with family. It's relaxing and I need it.
I always bring the wrong books on vacation. Serious books that are going to be useful for later -- I even spent some time today with a big book that I need to read for a study group. Eyes glazed over and off to sleep I went. Fortunately I have a Carl Haissan in the backpack.
I am also aware that last year on this vacation, we sat transfixed before the TV and watched the horror show that was Katrina in New Orleans unfold on the screen. I will never forget the slow emotional progression of those days. What started out as just another hurricane story on the news, turning to a serious story that required some real attention, and then on to that kind of news event that takes over hours of every day, and hooks you into that TV crisis land and then moving even beyond that, into a realization that something truly horrific was happening that leapt from the screen into the totality of your life, and even into your dreams, and the world was changing forever, and that the anger we felt was not just a stage of grief, but legitimate and deserved.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

"Islamofacsism" -- why I don't use the word anymore

In the period between 9/11 and the Iraq war, the word "Islamofascism" seemed to be a useful word -- a single word that described the anti-liberal current in some of the visible Islamic movements around the world.

But then, the War in Iraq actually happened, and then Iraq actually and really began to disintegrate into a Civil War. Most of the forces fighting against each other in Iraq could have been, or are right now, designated as "Islamofascist," including the Sunni Insurgents, the Shiite militias, the "foreign fighters", the Baathist "dead-enders." The reality of the Iraqi Civil War demonstrated that the word "Islamofascism" does not describe anything that actually exists in the real world.

Of course, there are anti-liberal and anti-modern ideas in some currents of Islam, and yes, there are some Islamic political actors who have totalitarian agendas.

Would that those who argued that "9/11 changed everything" would also recognize the outcome of the US Invasion of Iraq changes everything as well. (In a world in change is constant, does any assertion that a single event changes everything make any sense at all?)

Reality shreds the language that we create to describe it, which is why that accurately describing what it really going on right now is the hardest work of all.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

It's the heroin snorting, porn-addled, leather-vested, fanny-packing grandfather of Olive, Little Miss Sunshine, that is the ogre of the movie. He's played by Alan Arkin as an erupting fountain of genial obscenity. Stanley Klawans, in his Nation review of the movie, says that the no one explains the yellow VW bus, but the VW bus explains everything else, and I am following up on that comment. The bus must have been the grandfather's; there is no way that anyone else would have acquired it. The grandfather is a cartoon of the baby boomers, and the movie is about the legacy that we, the baby booming generation, have left our children and grandchildren. The movie, which is sweet and winsome, has, at its heart, a devastating critique of the Boomers, as parents. Our legacy is a VW bus which they cannot easily drive, doesn't have a first gear, has to be push-started, blows its horn uncontrollably, and when the chips are really down, the doors have to be removed for them to get out of. Our children can hardly get where they want to go with the vehicle that we have left them.


The first thing that we know about Grandpa is that he snorts heroin. He doesn't think that his kids or grandkids should snort heroin, but it is OK that he does because "he is old." In a moral universe defined by 'situational ethics', old age creates a situation in which there are no consequences for what would be unwise behavior among younger people. Older people are going to die anyway, so nothing can have a worse effect, so, therefore, everything is allowed. When it comes to sexual behavior, it is the same. His advice to the young men in the family is to have as much sex as possible with as many women as possible. Approaching the end of life, Grandpa is a distillation of the "please yourself" ethic of the baby booming generation. The "triumph of the will."


Do I think that this is the way that my age cohort really is? Not really, but that is not the point. The point is that is what the generations that follow us have concluded to be our operative ethics.


Richard, the direct son of Grandpa, has understood how culturally appropriate this ethic is in this society. He has tried to commercialize the willfulness that he has inherited as a self-help program which tries to teach people to be "winners" and "the put the habits of losers behind them." One of the strands of the plot is that this effort fails, despite his heroic and repeated reinvestment in the idea that losing is only in the mind.


It soons become clear that Grandpa is really just so much dead weight and baggage that must be carried by the generation that follows.


The end of the movie is quite touching. In the end, this family unites and pulls together to protect Olive from complete humiliation which had been created by Grandpa. In the end, loyalty to family is the supreme value.


This is not just a sentimental, feel-good, life-affirming happy ending for a movie. It is a stone-cold, razor-sharp and completely unmerciful statement of generational antogonism. The children of the baby-boomers, the children who have grown up in the most broken homes as any generation in history, say that loyalty to family is the most important value. It is stunning declaration of what they feel that they have been denied, what they never received.


Not since "Four Weddings and A Funeral" has a light comedy carried such an insightful and angry punch to our collective solar plexus

Well, that was weird and unexpected

The guy selling movie tickets charged me the discounted senior citizen rate without my asking for it, nor even asking me how old I was. This particular theatre, in this particular neighborhood, classifies those over 55 as seniors, but the average age of those hanging around the theatre neighborhood seems to be about 22.

Anyway, I never got in anywhere before for the cheaper rate.

Expect many more movie reviews !

BTW, we saw "Little Miss Sunshine." A lot of familiar elements combined well.

More on that later. I gotta go to church !

Thursday, August 17, 2006

What I Fear

We have reached the point that the President of the United States and his administration no longer have any real credibility left. This has been true with the world at large for quite a while, and has also been true with the left side of the political spectrum in the United States. Now, it is true of the center, and even among some on the right side of the spectrum.

The nation has been poorly governed before, and has known that it was being poorly governed in the past, but this situation is particular and different. For it is in the matters of the utmost seriousness that this President is most untrustworthy: national security and commitment to the basic norms and covenants of democratic constitutionalism.

What I fear is that the United States will come under a terrorist attack. I believe that, at this point, so many people would doubt the official story of the event that it would trigger a political crisis.

What I fear is that the present administration would launch a preemptive attack against Iran and that most people would not believe their arguments for its necessity.

What I fear that is that a close outcome of the midterm elections -- one in which Republicans narrowly maintain control of one or both houses of Congresses -- would not be seen as legitimate or honest.

The top officials of the present administration are in genuine risk of being indicted for war crimes, under US law, and the Supreme Court has already declared all of their potential defenses to be without merit.

In short, any serious problem demanding governmental action in the next two years will place the nation into uncharted territory.

I do not have much hope that the Democratic Party, or even Congress under the control of the Democratic Party, will be reliable grown-ups in the next few years. My hope from them is that they will gain enough positions of power to demand the truth of what has happened since 2000. They will be instruments that will bring this administration to heel, but only because such action is being demanded of them by a civil society mobilized to defend democracy, civil liberties and the constitution.

Liberal Religion faces new tasks in the coming period of history. It is time for us to start preparing for what lies ahead.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Unitarian Universalism in Context

My "zeitgeist" windsock has been extended out in a new direction, which means that the weathervanes at the top of our old New England churches should start turning. I know that I tend to see the world turning more rapidly than it actually does, but it makes me alert to changes in the climate. I am the hypochrondriac canary in the coal mine -- "say guys, don't you think it smells a little funny right now?"

I want to consider the following possibility: that the long flow of the conservative reaction to the liberatory movements of the 60's has crested and is, now, ebbing. There is a lot of evidence for it, and, of course, the future has not happened yet, so I may be premature. But whether it is true now in 2006, it will be true someday, soon.

That rightward reaction, I think began in 1968, when Nixon was elected, co-opting the ideologically conservative, anti-New Deal movement of Goldwater as the ideologues of a much nastier mass movement against radicalism. GW Bush was politically formed in the heat of those late 60's struggles -- the privileged frat boy who detested the radicals of the day, and who has spent a lifetime trying to prove them wrong.

We can argue the historical analysis, but this is my question.

Unitarian Universalism was institutionally created in 1962. It's infancy was a period of great leftward movement culturally, politically and religiously. But most of our institutional history has been spent in a period of cultural, political and religious Reaction, a Thermidor, a period that my personal zeitgeist windsock says is coming to an end. What has been the dialectical relationship between Unitarian Universalism and this broader rightward flow?

I can see three modes that we have related to the broader conservative flow around us: retreat, accomodation and resistance. Much of our internal debates have been over the whens, the wheres and the hows of each of these modes of response.

For example, much of our theologizing has been in retreat from a resurgent conservative trend in evangelical protestantism. With the exception of some of the UU Christians, UU's no longer even wish to inhabit the same theological universe as other Protestants in the USA. We don't try to answer the same questions.

In terms of public ministry, you can see all three trends at work. Much of our internal talk has been in a retreat mode. For example, I think that our discussions of anti-racism have been primarily arguments between liberals and radicals, and everywhere I think that when the discussion is between those two poles, we are in a retreat mode, talking amongst ourselves and not engaging the outside environment.

One of the few places that we genuinely resist the rightward flow has been on GLBTQ issues.

But internally to many churches, I have seen case after case where the internal discussion of current events have accommodated the larger political trends. Political conservatives within Unitarian Universalism have claimed victim status against the liberal hegemony, and have been able to freeze the discussion.

Now, this puts me into an uncomfortable position. I have long been a "free churcher" in my approach to politics and the church. I don't like the resolutions that we pass at GA and it appalls me whenever I hear of a church adopting "a statement of conscience" for or against this or that. (Churches don't have consciences; individuals do. Organizations have platforms, statements of unity and creeds.) Like most neo-traditionalists in the UUA (you know who you are, so don't act shocked), I have worried that the UUA was turning into a secular political organization. I have written on this subject before there were email lists, back when you had to kill a few trees to make your point.

But these days, when the windsock is stretched out another way, I wonder whether was a cheap accommodation to bullying wrapped in a whine. Was it part of a larger pattern in which social gospel was silenced between 1968 and now? In 1968, the politically active church was present, and vocal, and people knew that it stood against racism, poverty, oppression and war. Now, the politically active church are conservative theocrats, the ground machine of the Republican party. Not every denomination was converted from left to right; Unitarian Universalism would never be, but was it neutralized?

So the picture might be this: one trend is a retreat into a progressively more radical issue stances at the national level, while in individual churches, a relative small number of conservatives complain about their marginalization, while the center steers the church into the safety of hands-on charity, and fundraising. Meanwhile, the prophetic role of the liberal church atrophied.

These are big issues, involving almost all of our history, and for many, much of our lives. But the times call for taking a long view and seeing the biggest picture possible.

No More Elevator Speeches !

The Lizard Eater over at the Journey contrasts the "elevator speech" (how would you explain Unitarian Universalism between the first and sixth floors?) and "testimony" (how would you explain how your faith has changed your life?). She calls for each of us to think through and write out our testimony, and provides a paragraph of instructions for thinking about one's testimony. Good stuff !

I think that she has taken an instruction for preparing Christian testimony and changed it to a Unitarian Universalist context. I guess that she did a "find and replace" of "Christian etc." with "Unitarian Universalist etc." And I guess that she did a "find and replace" of "Jesus Christ" with "my church." I don't know that for sure, but that is how it seems to me. Here is the quote.

Personal Testimony


One of the most helpful things Unitarian Universalists can do is write out their personal testimony. This exercise will help you think through in your own mind what your church has done in your life and will prepare you to share your story simply and clearly with others. Sharing how you found out about UUism is one of the best ways of witnessing. It is particularly helpful in presenting UUism to relatives and close friends, usually the most difficult people to whom to witness.


In sharing the story of your experience:


1. Make it personal—Don't preach. Tell what involvement in your church has done for you. Use the pronouns "I", "me", and "mine".


2. Make it short—Three or four minutes should be enough time to deal with the essential facts.


3. Keep your church central—Always highlight what belonging there has done for you.


Please note: If your testimony includes a previous negative church experience, do not mention the name of that church or denomination because it creates needless antagonism in those who are listening to your story.


Try writing down your personal testimony just the way you'd tell it to a non-UU. Make the story of your finding it so clear that another person hearing it would know how find out about Unitarian Universalism. Tell a little about your life before you found UUism; then tell about your finding it, how you came to trust it, and something of what it has meant to belong — the feeling of being around people who also want to explore “meaning,” assurance of their support of you on your journey, and other ways your life or outlook has changed. If you have been a UU for some time, be sure that your testimony includes some current information about the continuing effect of your religion and church in your life.


As you prepare your story, reflect on opportunities to share it. Think of two or three people whom you would particularly like to tell about your church in your neighborhood, at work, or at school. Then take the first opportunity to share your testimony with them.


In conclusion, remember that you do not have the power in yourself to convince anyone of spiritual truth. As you think of those with whom you desire to share your personal testimony, be sure to consider whether this is an appropriate topic to share with that person.


Witnessing is a style of living—you are a witness at all times. Loving others and showing your genuine concern for them are practical ways to communicate Unitarian Universalism. You also witness by your life. Actions are often more revealing than words. Your actions, however, are not sufficient to communicate to another the message of Unitarian Universalism. You need to witness by your words—to identify openly as a Unitarian Universalist and to tell others about the benefits of membership. One of the most effective means of communicating this to another person is the story of how the church has worked in your life—your personal testimony.



If so, there is an interesting presumption there: it is the church that saves. I don't want to repeat the argument that "religious community" is insufficient as a source of transcendence. Some agree and some disagree.

So, let's push the question back further into our own history. The testimony that I hear from UU's often is the story of "why I decided to join this church, and how well it has worked out for me." It is a testimony of affiliation, not a testimony of conversion. Why I thought what I was thinking at the time that I joined is unexplored.

So, what happened that you became a religious liberal, someone to whom a UU church could possibly appeal? From what were you converted?

A story for a minute, not my own. I had occasion to talk at length with a woman involved in one of the churches in my past. She was a very committed pagan, and sympathy for paganism is one of my slowest-growing edges. What became clear though in the talking was that the core of her conversion to religious liberalism was something else altogether. She was a white woman from Mississippi, of baby boomer vintage, and from a conservative Baptist background. She explicitly said that the thing that got her in motion was the desire to break away from the white racism of her extended family.

What is at the core of your religious liberalism and when and how did you agree to let it lead your life? Some suggestions:

  • an affirmation of the power of reason, of thinking, of science, as opposed to superstition
  • an affirmation of the goodness of your body and sexuality, as opposed to shame
  • an affirmation of "the other," as opposed to prejudice and dismissal.
  • an affirmation of adventure, as opposed to routine and tradition.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Three generations, at least

Over at A People So Bold, Clyde asks the question: is the form of worship that we continue in most Unitarian Universalist congregations a product of a different time and a different social set up?

You bet.

And probably always so.

I am aware that the worship of the church I serve is speaking, with great difficulty, to at least three generations of worshippers.

There are the seniors, the boomers and the youngers. To the seniors, the form and tone of the service is crucial: they want a dignity, a stateliness, an unhurried formality; they want excellence. They want the worship service to have a smooth surface.

For the youngers, what is most important and real in the service is the spontaneous that pokes out of the smooth surface of the service -- the ad lib or extemporaneous comment, the unexpected happening. It is as though they want to see what is living beneath the surface, what is barely contained by the service.

I don't think that I could even begin to fully catalog the how the different generations bring different expectations and standards of judgement to the worship experience.

It falls to us, as worship leaders, to try to hit the style and form that speaks across such a broad age range. At least, that is our task if we intend to lead worship in a broadly intergenerational setting. It is possible to go another way and create a worship experience that is age and subculturally specific -- the boomer church, the young adult church, the classic elder church, the youth culture church. I can understand the appeal of that, and if I was trying to plant a new church, it might make more sense to go that way. But that's not what I have been called to serve.

So, I, and other ministers in traditional church settings, have to try to do a slow and stately dance of constant innovation, keeping a form of worship going that is both comfortable and familiar to the 80 year olds and yet does not seem antiquated and paralyzing to 20 year olds.

We are in the midst of some great cultural upheavals, and it seems that the young really live in a different world than the old. Technology is creating different subcultures. I have people who are not served by the CD recordings we make of our services, because they don't have CD players and don't know how one works. When the youth group talks about communicating with each other through My Space and Facebook, I feel like Senator Stevens wrestling with the clogged internet tubes.

I don't suppose that a church like the one I serve is for everyone; it asks for a willingness to accept a certain strangeness in return for an opportunity to be in a multi-generational community.

I do think that the sermon form will endure the changes that are coming. One thing that is a cultural constant, between the elders and even the newest forms of communication, is that people want to hear the undiluted, unfiltered, direct and authentic communication of someone who is unbought and unbossed. That has been the appeal of all new media forms since the advent of talk radio in the 80's. It is the common appeal of everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O'Reilly, to Jon Stewart, to Andrew Sullivan, to Kos and Atrios.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Consumerism, Entertainment and Worship

Before I was ordained, and still in seminary, a minister I knew and respected confided to me that he was afraid, at times, that he was becoming an entertainer, putting on a good show. I am aware of that in myself, as well. Certainly, I am aware that leading worship is a performance, and that people in the pews can like it, or not like it, and that they will let you know.

I also remembering preaching a sermon in a class at seminary, in which I "made 'em squirm" by being provocative and confrontational. One of my fellow students remarked that his folks "liked it when I beat em up a little" before preaching the gospel. So, there is an entertainment value even in making the congregation uncomfortable.

These anecdotes from years ago are only meant to say that some ministers have been aware of the temptation of entertaining the congregation for a while.

Recently, I hear this critique of the temptation faced by the minister sliding into a critique of the shallowness of the congregation. They view worship as consumers. They "shop" for churches. They are looking to be entertained.

Tsk, Tsk and Tut, Tut!

O Lord, if Thou has called me to be a minister, then why hast Thou not supplied me with a congregation worthy of my ministering?

Isn't our task to meet people where they are?

There is also the obvious irony in the smallest and most highly educated religious movement in the country becoming concerned that it might be attracting the wrong sorts of people, who are coming for the wrong reasons.

I beleive that the cause of this confusion on our part is that we have our priorities backwards. Unitarian Universalism seems to believe that our principle task is to build religious communities, which we define as being the active members of our church/congregation. The worship service is the way that we explain and enact the religious community in the hopes that people will be attracted through the service into joining the religious community. The service is the show that we put on to get them to join. So, if people come and participate in the worship service, but don't become active in the religious community, then it means that there is either something wrong with the service, or something wrong with them. If they just want to partake of the worship service, then it must be that they are consumers.

In fact, the reason why we see them as consumers is because we have conceived of worship as a form of advertising.

To take worship seriously means that we have to be willing to see it as an end in itself. That what matters is that people come and worship with you and yours, and find it an occasion of reflection and redirection in their lives. Even if you don't know their names, and they never join the church, or make a pledge. It would be better to have a weekly attendence of 800 people, with 100 pledging members than to have 300 pledging members and only 200 there on Sunday morning. That scenario might be one part of the future.


Friday, August 04, 2006

No, It's not true

that I killed off my old blog, Prophet Motive, because I am trying to cover up the fact that the aforementioned Prophet was on the record as endorsing Joe Leiberman for President. Really, it was just technical problems and I had run out of things to say at a certain point. And, to be honest, after endorsing Joe Leiberman for President, is there anything left to say?

I refer you to my profile regarding my claims of Olympian Wisdom.

I do believe that all of us must make a moral accounting for where we were, what we did, and what we did not do, and how we evaluated the results of our words and actions when our country permitted its government to reach out and bring the people of Iraq to the gates of hell. It was a systemic failure of our entire political culture. My congregation has heard me address my own thinking about my own practice on this question, but not yet in a systematic way. My summarization is still in process, and it is not easy.

I also think that the anti-war movement has different, but related, work to do. Why was it so ineffective? Indeed, why did the great public shift against the war occur only after the antiwar movement had fallen silent? Why did it seem irrelevant and disengaged with the real questions of post 9-11 security?

Thursday, August 03, 2006

the Manifesto

If anyone doesn't get Peacebang's Beauty Tips for Ministers, here is the whole good news of it, summarized, enumerated, explicated, broken down for ya, encapsulated, made flesh so it might live among you, and preached without fear or favor.

Beauty Tips For Ministers: Love And Care For All Of You

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Troubles in Academia

In a terse statement, it was announced that the 18 month long discussion about merging Starr King and Meadeville-Lombard have come to naught.

Both of these schools are in financial trouble.

Over 60% of our new UU ministers are preparing at other theological schools.

I am not sure that I can tell what the essential task of Unitarian Universalist scholarship is now.

The UUA gives about a quarter million dollars each year to each of these two schools, making it, and consequently, all of us rank and file UU's, stakeholders in this situation.

Elementary principles of good management suggest that it is folly to keep investing in organizational structures that are not succeeding. It seems like this is a good time to take out the proverbial blank sheet of paper and start thinking afresh about how to best spend a half-million dollars a year for the purpose of educating our future religious leaders.

Lee Barker, President of Meadville-Lombard has since sent out the following message.

Meadville Lombard continues to believe in a vision for Unitarian Universalism in which a greater number of our ministerial students, active ministers and laypeople receive the benefit of a Unitarian Universalist theological education. To further this vision, the ML Board has begun to outline a plan that will allow our School to
provide our education to a greater, more diverse number of learners, both in Chicago and beyond.

Give him credit for seeing an opportunity when one presents its

Frank Schulman's Worship Manual

I should tell you first of all that Frank Schulman was my minister growing up. He followed my father into the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio, a pulpit which became suddenly vacant as my father lasted only a year there. After a few years of wandering in the wilderness in the general vicinity of the Warren Ohio fellowship, my family joined the church in Youngstown and stayed there for 20 plus years. In a further odd circumstance, one can say that I now occupy a ministerial position that Frank Schulman occupied before he went to Youngstown.

The UUA has posthumously published a worship manual by Frank, and it may be connected to the extremely generous bequest he made to our movement after his death. So, I turn to the manual and I am completely predisposed to like it. And there is a lot of good stuff there.

But mostly, it is a picture into the mindset of a whole group of ministers who took a sceptical position, and who served as a loyal traditionalist opposition to the emergence of Unitarian Universalism in the post-merger period. Their personal theologies ranged from the broadly theistic to overtly Christian; they were serious about worship and to the extent that Unitarian Universalism has a "high church" tradition, they kept it alive. They were serious about liturgy and they fought for the authority of the minister over the liturgy of the church. They were, and still are, willing to be seen as cantankerous, old curmudgeons clinging to dictatorial power, grouchily shooting down every new innovation in worship, from chalice lighting, to liturgical dance, to easily sung and remembered hymns. I once heard Frank Schulman scathingly deride hymns in which only one word was changed on each verse (usually love, peace, joy and then back to love). He said that they were really just "camp songs." His speech seemed well-rehearsed.

Almost every newer minister that I know who takes worship seriously has been influenced by one or more of these "old boys."

But as I read his book, which is filled with good insights and much practical wisdom, I realize that what I need right now is not there.

I find myself preaching to people that they need to come to church. They don't just need a religious community, but what they need is the regular experience of worship. They need to spend an honest hour in the presence of the ultimate questions and values in their lives. The ultimate question for me, right now, is how does our worship connect with the real spiritual struggle that is going on in the lives of the people who might come to church? How would you explain to an unchurched person why they need to take an hour out of their life to come to church? What are they going to get out of the experience? How will it change their lives, even a little? Not what are the advantages to joining our club? But, how could it help you if you were to come, even if only once, to the service at the First Parish of East Overshoe, this Sunday?

My off-the-cuff opinion is that while mainstream Unitarian Universalism has pursued a non-theological worship style that results in a Sunday morning Celebration of Community that is self-congratulatory and shallow, the traditionalist elements have retreated into a kind of liturgical formalism that aspires to be well-ordered mainline Protestantism out of 1955.

If you can help me figure out how that works, then I will have a basis to say whether it is a good idea to have 2 hymns or 3, or whether the choir should robe or not, or where to stand to make the benediction.

The Gifts and Graces of Ministry

Chutney has been writing on the question of what makes a minister a minister. In his summary post, he lists six points. The first four are general statements of the accepted opinion among free churchers and congregationalists everywhere. But in numbers 5 and 6, Chutney tosses a couple of wild pitches.

5. At times it seems we “believe” that seminary and denominational proceduralism makes someone clergy, that there is an ontological change that takes place upon the approval of academy and guild. This is not just a violation of congregationalism. Behind this notion is a hidden doctrine of “ministerial transubstantiation,” that is, the belief that the Words of Academic and Denominational Institution transform a person into the Body and Blood of Ordained Ministry.

6. Why would anyone hold this view? Because it makes them feel safe. Ministerial transubstantiation allows congregants to skip past the relationality that makes someone their minister to the quick fix of certified clerical authority. This act of spiritual cowardice lays the foundation for congregations to neglect their responsiblity to call and form ministers. Congregations grow frustrated with the unformed clergy they encounter and demand better quality control from their denominations. The denominations, in turn, demand more from the seminaries. The seminaries, in response to this slight, increase their academic requirements, a move further complicated by the academy’s own guild politics. Every move reinforces belief in ministerial transubstantiation. It is a vicious circle.


I know of no one, ministerial or lay, within the free church tradition, who holds that an MDiv and MFC approval creates an "ontological change" in the one called. I know of no one who believes that ordination creates an ontological change in the minister. Such is the stuff of Catholicism. The doctrine of "ministerial transubstantiation" is a strawman.

Ministerial authority in the church is always a controversial topic. The basis for the minister's authority in the congregation is in the office of the called minister in a free church. It is not in the person of the minister.

The role and duties of the office of the minister in a free church has been developed over time and is pragmatic for the most part. Those roles and duties have served the community well, and have changed over time as the needs of the religious community have changed. The renewed interests in lay ministry, shared ministry and community ministry are all part of the present reconsideration of the division of labor between the ordained and the laity.

Institutions in flux generate all sorts of conflicts and competing interests and perspectives. In times like these, there will be ministers who will feel compelled to assert what they perceive as the authority of their office, and there will be congregants who feel that they claim too much authority. They will have to work it out. It helps working it out if the issue is posed as the proper role and duties of the office of the minister. But it the issue is framed as a cheap effort by the minister to claim that he or she is somehow a superior form of being, how can that help?

In his sixth point, Chutney appears to argue that a reliance on "ministerial transsubstantiation" allows the congregation to neglect forming ministers, which is the real cause of the low quality of ministers. Is there an unstated assumption that the cause of ministerial/congregational conflict is the low quality of ministers that are out there? I would argue to the opposite, that the cause of ministerial/congregational conflict is frequently a mutual inability to define the roles, duties and authority of the minister in ways that serve our current needs and is true to the traditions of the free church.

I would even argue, to be more provocative, that the balance of power between minister and congregation is so far in favor of the congregation, so adverse to ministerial authority, that it makes brave, far-sighted, prophetic religious leadership rare, and has resulted in the stagnation of liberal religion, as a theological trend and a social force.