This is an off-the-top-of-my-head sketch of this history. I invite elaboration, clarification, argumentation about it. It is part of my critical curiosity about recent UU history. My general thesis is that contemporary UUism has been shaped in a 40 year period of a political culture that was antagonistic to all forms of liberalism (1968-2008). I think that "old school UUism" is one of the many currents of defiance and accommodation that marked UU history during that period, and still do now that it has passed.
Old School UUism had its modern roots in the theist and Christian minority who were the losers in the great Humanist ascendency within Unitarianism and Universalism. As such, it was centered in some of the larger churches which had more established theist liturgies, and, of course, in New England and the East.
When merger/consolidation (the language matters to Old Schoolers) came about, the Old School tended to be more skeptical. The experience seemed to be embittering. There was a lot of wordsmithing of documents to find that language that would allow Christians and Theists some threadbare acknowledgement of their religious beliefs in the overall humanist vision of a new world religion.
What has come down to me is that Wallace Robbins opposed merger, saying that since Humanism was dominant at the time, the new denomination would be necessarily humanist and that Christianity and theism would not re-emerge in liberal religion until the 21st century.
The Old School, of course, continued in the UUA, but settled into a role of being the internal opposition. I think that a general attitude existed among many that since the UUA was not right with God, nothing it would ever do would be right. I never heard that said out loud, but it seemed to me to be the undercurrent of much I heard.
If one looks back through the records of the UU Christian Fellowship, which I have done, one would be surprised as the names of the ministers who were involved, many who did not continue to claim that public role later on. I got the impression that the UUCF was the organizational center of the Old School during the early days of the UUA.
But Christianity became a defeated theological tendency in the UUA, confined to a small handful of churches. It was definitely not a useful identification for most ministers to have on the ministerial record.
The Old School evolved. Instead of seeing themselves a the carriers of theism and liberal Christianity in the UUA, they moved to seeing themselves as preserving the traditions of congregational polity. Congregational polity became the authoritative tradition that we were backsliding on. Instead of humanists being seen as the problem; 25 Beacon Street was. The independence of each congregation was imperiled by tendencies toward centralization and 'denominationalism'.
John Buehrens was the last UUA President elected with the support of the Old School. He turned out to be a disappointment to them, which is no surprise. After all, he had been elected to be a denominational leader.
The Old School settled into a cluster of inter-related attitudes. This is a paper I wrote in 1998/99 which summarized the Old School attitudes, as I thought they stood at that time.
At that time, the Old School was attempting to organize itself as the Free Church conference. Three conferences were held. That effort failed; the organizational basis of the Free Church conference was, in theory, congregations, but in fact, was ministers. So when key ministers in the conference left their congregations, the conference fell apart.
Old School UUism continues on, as a perspective rather than an organized tendency. It lives on in as distrust of headquarters on behalf of congregations. (There is a mirror distrust on the "left" side of UUism which sees the headquarters as excessively conservative, elitist and New England.) It lives on in the complaint that "we don't know our history." It lives on in a suspicion of UUA generated social justice projects. Probably everyone who thought that going to Phoenix last summer was going to be "a hot mess in the desert" was reflecting Old School UU thinking. Old Schoolers wonder who community ministers are going to accountable to, and can't understand what's really "beyond congregations" and why an association of congregations would want to find out. Old Schoolers think being ordained by your intern congregation is a mistake.
Lots of important traditions to maintain; lots of new ideas and ways of doing things to embrace. Nobody is right all the time.
I want to suggest, however, that Old School UUism was an accommodation to the conservative culture in which we have lived for most of our UUA history. Many of larger churches needed to protect themselves, and they did so by minimizing the difference between themselves and the culture. Respectability was important, and maintaining their 'churchiness' was a part of that. Old School UUism avoided social and political controversy, by moving political concerns down to the individual member. The UUA itself, with its GA resolutions and Washington Office, shouldn't speak for congregations. Inside congregations, political diversity would be honored above all. What was left was congregationally-based charity and individual action. A small and isolated social justice committee was left to be a pain in the coffee hour.
The Old School UU's and the larger churches were more on the accommodation pole; the UUA itself and the smaller congregations were often on the other pole -- the defiance pole. Planting a flag in opposition to the conservative culture was seen as a path to growth and vitality. Being on the cutting edge of the ideological opposition to the status quo was seen as crucial. Not only political activity, but feminism, anti-racism and GLBT equality, were what made us us.
Accommodation and Defiance: two ways of responding to an aggressively conservative culture. A lot of theorizing and theologizing and thinking went into understanding what we were doing, what we felt we could and what we thought was impossible for us to do in that culture. In 1968, we were a young denomination, and the ground was shifting under our feet. We were engaged in the process of self-definition and gradually we perceived that the leading elements of the culture were hostile to us.
We are just barely now beginning to understand what happened. We are just barely now learning to live in culture where we might not only survive, but lead.
I know that this posting is ramshackle -- written in a heat over six hours, careless with the details and sweeping in its rhetoric. I hope that it is a start of a larger discussion.