What UU’s learned through the process of the Welcoming Congregation, not only about our LGBTQIA co-religionists, but also about the process of change.
AND THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED SOME MORE
Adrienne Rich tried to point out that there was a moment “when the name of compassion was changed to the name of guilt, when the to feel with a human stranger was declared obsolete.” When did those who wanted to lift up the poor and the dispossessed be dismissed as just acting out of middle-class white guilt? When did this nation decide the rich needed more money and that the poor had too much? When did the desire for social reform of the 1960’s finally die?
She wrote those lines in 1994, but I think that she was looking back to the 1980’s.
Let’s talk about the 1980’s. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President, marking the triumph of conservatism of all types over liberalism of all types. Conservative politics over liberal politics; conservative culture over liberal culture; conservative religion, in the form of evangelical Protestantism over liberal religion.Megachurches started popping up everywhere, showing remarkable growth and vitality vs. the mainline Protestants who were shrinking. Liberalism was ruthlessly caricatured in popular culture: Liberals were wine and cheese loving, upper middle-class, Volvo-driving, politically correct, super-tolerant, permissive, Birkenstock wearing, aging hippies, lost in the smoky mists of memories of the 1960’s. Liberals were laughable. And Unitarian Universalists were exactly the type of liberals that were going out of style and would soon be extinct.
In the first 20 years of the Unitarian Universalists experience since merger, UU’s had gone from being in step with a culture and society that was moving toward reform to being at odds with the dominant values of the surrounding culture.
UU churches and congregation dug in, responding to the unfriendly environment by turning inward. They turned away from public ministry and focused more on building up their communities. To get a picture of how UU congregations perceived themselves, look at this reading in our hymnal: Number 568 by the poet Marge Pierce. Connections are Made Slowly.
Keep tangling and interweaving and take more in, a thicket and a bramble wilderness to the outside, but to us interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs. ..
this is how we are going to live for a long time: not always.
To be fair, most UU congregations did not think of themselves as impenetrable brambles and thickets, but the language of the congregation as a “haven for like-minded people” became more common, especially outside of New England.
Nonetheless, within Unitarian Universalism, there was much creative ferment.
The steady rise of women’s power and influence in UUism was the driving force during this period of time. They were remaking UUism in profound ways, creating the Unitarian Universalism that we know today.
The Women and Religion resolution had started an effort to rid our religious language of patriarchy from our religious language. That effort led to the eventual creation of the Seven Principles and Five (later SIx) Sources Statement. Now, I think that the Seven Principles mark a significant change in Unitarian Universalism. For the first time, we put what we were for front and center. Unitarianism, especially had also been much more clear about what it was against than what it was for. We were against bishops and hierarchies, we were against creeds, we were against state sponsored religion, we were against segregation and against the patriarchy, but what were we for. I remember my junior high youth group asking that question of our advisors. The Seven Principles are an unrelentingly positive statement about the kind of world we want to live in and how that plays out in our congregational and personal lives. Nary a negative word in it.
Now, some criticized the Principles from the beginning as being too bland — it was often said that a Rotary club could adopt them without any difficulty — and that they lacked a certain poetry — after all, they were written by a committee.
The 1985 Principles are summaries of our ethical hopes; they are about how we hope to live, how we hope our congregations would be. They are our hopes for the world we want to live in. But, they were not just our hopes, but also the hopes of many, many people. We didn’t invent them, we only named them.
You can take any one of those supposedly bland and uncontroversial principles in one hand, and the newspaper, or your twitter feed in the other, and see that these principles are being fought over everyday.
Just go down the list of the seven principles:
- Is not the affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity” pressed upon us by the reminder that “black lives matter.”
- Where is “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” being violated today? At our border?
- Isn’t the “acceptance of each other and the encouragement of spiritual growth” an the answer to Islamophobia?
- Aren’t climate change denial and creationism attempts to derail of “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning”?
- Voter suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college: aren’t voter rights still a live question in “upholding the democratic process in society at large”?
- How can we square America’s policies of constant war with our commitment to “a world community of peace, liberty and justice?”
- We call for “Respect for the interdependent web”, and look what’s happening; the Earth is being roasted alive.
You could put any one of these Principles on a picket sign and stand in front of a government building any Saturday, and people would think you a prophet and a radical.
Another way that the rise of women’s voices in Unitarian Universalism affected us was that the voice of the Religious Educators became more prominent. They reported that UU kids were coming home and telling stories of being harassed on the playground by other kids telling them that they were going to hell. The Educators discerned that the children and youth needed to have a stronger identity as Unitarian Universalists. In fact, even the adult UU’s needed a stronger identity as Unitarian Universalists considering what many felt was a hostile cultural environment.
Religious Education curriculums increased their coverage of Unitarian Universalism in general, especially focusing on the Seven Principles as an ethical framework. Hundreds of thousands of young people have been taught the Seven Principles as an ethical framework, and for many it may be the only formalized set of principles they have been taught.
The increased focus on UU identity, UU Pride, if you will, has resulted in more UU paraphernalia — chalices, tee-shirts, pins, necklaces etc. The chalice has become “the symbol of our faith” and a feature of every sanctuary and service. All of this has come about since the 1980’s.
But another change was on its way during the 1980’s.
The first resolution having to do with LGBTQ issues was a General Assembly Resolution on Discrimination against Homosexuals and Bisexuals was passed in 1970. Again, it was mostly directed at society at large, a political statement, although it did urge UU congregations to immediately end discrimination against homosexuals in employment. It also urged “the churches and fellowships to initiate meaningful programs of sex education with a particular aim to end all discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals.”
The next year, the UUA published About Your Sexuality, a sexuality education program for middle schoolers that included frank and candid sympathetic explanations of LGBTQ issues, bringing into many congregations their first organized encounter with those issues.
In 1984, the UUA General Assembly passed a Business Resolution of Gay and Lesbian Services of Union which affirmed the growing practice of UU ministers conducting service of union and urging churches and congregations to support this ministry.
In 1986, GA passed a resolution opposing AIDS discrimination.
The AIDS crisis was a moment for Unitarian Universalism. The Reagan administration refused to recognize its reality; I don’t know if Reagan every verbally acknowledged it. The prevailing culture of cruelty and indifference toward all those outside the mainstream ignored communities which were being decimated by the epidemic. AIDS hit some of our congregations hard. For ministers like Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, who we read earlier, it was a life-changing experience to minister in a place like Provincetown, Massachusetts. Most of our urban churches had direct contact with people living with AIDS and participated in support ministries for them. The close encounter with death and mortality affected many in the gay community and deepened people’s spiritual hungering. Given that Unitarian Universalist had taken a stance in favor of gay rights, more LGBTQIA people started coming to our congregations.
Again, we see the pattern that I discussed last week, the pattern about how change happens in the UU world. Our focus is first out there, a political stand on an issue in the general society. We are against discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals. And the action is at the top — small groups of activists, lay people, ministers are getting resolutions passed at General Assembly.
In the case of lGBTQ issues, the external AIDS crisis starts to push the issue inward and downward into local congregations.
In 1989, a body called the Common Visions Planning Committee called for the creation of a Welcoming Congregation Program through which congregations could educate themselves and take concrete steps toward becoming welcoming to LGBTQ people. You see, we were learning that the problem of anti-gay prejudice was not only out there, but also in here, and in here.
Many congregations became welcoming congregations; most that did lost a couple of members because of it, which was a learning experience for those congregations. You can’t please everybody, of course, and in the interest of accommodating all points of view, a congregation cannot give a few intolerant people a veto power. It only takes one or two vocally intolerant people to make a church unwelcoming.
The work churches and congregations did in the welcoming congregation program prepared them to exercise bold leadership in the campaigns for marriage equality that were to follow. We should never underestimate then power of a symbolic gesture like flying the rainbow flag has on the communities around our churches and fellowships.
Obviously, we did not create the LGBTQ movement; we encountered it as a movement outside of ourselves. We also learned to listen to the voices of LGBTQ people already among us, but who were not given a seat at the table. Unitarian Universalism was shaped by this experience.
So let me go back for a minute, and review the journey (our month’s theme) that Unitarian Universalism has been on. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, UU’s found themselves marching to the beat of a different drum — beginning to see themselves as outside the mainstream of the midcentury American culture. The code word then was “truth”, as in “is this religious statement true.” In the 1960’s, the Unitarians and the Universalists merged, and committed themselves to the great reform movement summed up in the phrase “racial liberalism.” “The code word then was “relevance,” as in “are we relevant to what’s going on in the world?” And in the 1970’s Unitarian Universalism was remade, reformed, revolutionized, by the rise of women into leadership. “The code word was “anti-hierarchy,” as in “Does this create or encourage hierarchical thinking?”
And then, in the Reagan era, Unitarian Universalism was remade and reformed by our encounter with the LGBTQ community both outside and within Unitarian Universalism. The code words of the age were “inclusion and hospitality.” Those code words continue to have great meaning for us to this day, as we ask ourselves “are we welcoming of all?” (A friend of mine rephrases that as ‘we welcome all who welcome all.’) That question becomes in this day, as welcoming for those who need different was accessing our community, do we welcome those with mental illness, and those who are neuro-diverse.
That transforming power, that current that flows toward justice, continues to remake us, reform us, radicalize us, and revolutionize us in unexpected ways. So where are we today, how is history shaping us today? Will go with the flow now?
Stay tuned. We will bring the story up to date on April 28th.