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Archive for February, 2010

Are We Boarding A Sinking Ship?

Is Unitarian Universalism dying? It’s a small religion, to be sure. But is it getting even smaller?

I thought about that some while in the Sunday morning service yesterday. Davies is a relatively small church anyway, and many of the members are older folks. There are a small number of children, and few young families, but the demographic is definitely on the older side.

Then tonight I read an essay by Paul Rasor, in UU World, called Can Unitarian Universalism Change? It’s already touched off a discussion, and one meaty, thoughtful response appears at Daniel Harper’s blog, Yet Another Unitarian Universalist. 

Rasor’s key argument is that UU remains a predominantly white, upper middle class movement, despite some efforts over the years to cultivate more ethnic diversity. He sums up our challenge this way:

Becoming a multiracial-multicultural Unitarian Universalism fulfills the vision we have long held. As the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed has put it, we are moved to do this because we “see the richness in human diversity and [are] excited by its possibility.” Given the cultural context in which we now find ourselves, this is where we are drawn by our deepest theological principles and religious values. Religious liberalism has always been marked by its ability to engage and respond to the circumstances of its own time and place. This is what has kept our theology intellectually credible and socially relevant.

If we fail to respond to this new multicultural reality—if we choose to stand rather than to move—we will not only fail to honor this core principle of liberal theology, we will simply become irrelevant. We could devolve into a quaint relic of a once-vital tradition, holding fast to our good liberal ideas (while continuing to bicker about them), protecting an increasingly insular identity, ironically slipping into the kind of safe and unchallenging provincialism we have always resisted.

Harper has a dimmer view. According to him, the battle may already be lost.

If I were to predict the future based on current trends, here’s what I think will happen in Unitarian Universalism: A few larger upper middle class white Unitarian congregations (and I mean Unitarian, not UU), the ones located in upper middle class white enclaves, will continue to thrive. Most Unitarian Universalist congregations will try to retain their upper middle class white trappings, and will continue to shrink relative to total surrounding population; and because the costs of maintaining churches continue to outpace inflation, because these congregations won’t adapt and grow, they will gradually drift into financial insolvency. Obviously, that financial insolvency will be closely linked to the inability to move beyond white upper middle class values and theology; theological rigidity will drive financial obsolescence. A few — a very few — Unitarian Universalist congregations will do the theological and cultural work to become radically inclusive and egalitarian, i.e., they will live out the Universalist side of our theological heritage, and these congregations will thrive and grow.

I visited a few congregations before joining Davies Memorial, and I don’t think I saw a non-white face anywhere else. But the unnerving thing is, Davies is located in a county that is more than two-thirds African-American, and its previous minister, John Crestwell, undertook a deliberate effort to build a diverse congregation — but even so, the number of black faces on any given Sunday morning is not more than 10 percent of us.

I am new to this, new to thinking about these questions, so I have no strong opinions. Is it our culture appearing elitist and intellectual and unappealing to many, as Rasor and others such as Rosemary Bray McNatt suggest? Is it our liberal theology, our non-creedal faith, our acceptance of varying theological views?

I don’t know. I do know the movement has been struggling with these questions for a long time. I hope there’s an answer.

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Sorry for the delay

OK, I know I promised some entries that I haven’t delivered on. I am in the Washington D.C. area, and between heavy snow and its aftermath, travel out of town and other obligations, it’s taking longer to give the topic I want to address the attention it needs to do it right.

Soon, I promise.

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