The Great Reformation

That sustaining, creating, and transforming current that carried Unitarian Universalism through the 60’s seems to have vanished in the early 1970’s. But it re-emerged from a new source: the Women’s Reformation of Unitarian Universalism. It changed almost everything.

The Women’s Reformation


In January 1970, right at the beginning of the decade of the 70’s, The Black Affairs Council voted to end its affiliation with the UUA Board of Directors. Their action marked the end of a period in which Black Unitarian Universalists tried to lead Unitarian Universalism into a relationship of relevance with Black America. The great hope of the Unitarian Universalists that they would be a great faith that was based in the public ministry of support for racial liberalism and democratic reform was not to be. What was to become of this religious movement now?


Here we were; the center of gravity of our denomination was shifting to the suburbs, whatever the overall climate on race, and whatever our missteps about race, Unitarian Universalism was to become whiter and whiter just as result of suburbanization, more focused on our own congregations, more inward looking


The early 70’s were also marked by the changes in the sexual mores of the country, in a pre-feminist way. I guess you could say that the Playboy Philosophy (remember that?) culture was spreading out throughout the culture. The core teaching of the Playboy Philosophy was that ‘sex between consenting adults’ was OK, but there was no real understanding of ‘consent’.  Some of our UU congregations, made up, as they were, of people who were not about to to be told, by some church or preacher, what they could, or could not do, became sexualized environments. People had their fun. However, more of our ministers than usual, who were still men mostly, entered into sexual relationships with members of their congregations. This was shown to be enormously destructive to a congregation, by bringing exploitation, secrecy, and suspicion into the central relationships at the heart of the congregation. History is still unsettled on this chapter of our history. The open question is not whether such sexual liaisons happened, but whether they were more common in the early 70’s, when it was considered justifiable sexual freedom, than in earlier eras, when it was just considered adultery, and more secret.


The early 1970’s were not a good time for Unitarian Universalism.


But something new and revolutionary was beginning to happen. Perhaps the first sign of the change to come was the passage in the 1970 GA, of a “General Resolution on Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women.” It was a general statement directed at society as a whole, urging governments to ensure equality in employment and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It called for the UUA to ensure equal opportunity for women in policy making positions and ministry and other forms of religious leadership. Change was beginning to happen. Unitarian Universalism was about to be remade by the Women’s Movement, just as it had been remade by the Civil Rights Movement the decades before.


Let me do a little sidebar at this point, about how change comes about in Unitarian Universalism. Change happens first at the top, and then filters down. It’s possible for a group of laypeople and ministers who are responding to movements in the general culture to exercise influence at the denominational level even if when they don’t have official positions of power. It’s possible to influence the Board, the UUA staff, and the General Assembly from locations other than congregations, which are the constituents of the Association. On the other hand, the denomination has very little power or influence over the congregations.


The beginning of the Women’s Rise to Power in the UUA started with women in the Women’s Federation at the denominational level. (The Women’s Federation was the name given to the merged Unitarian and Universalist Women’s Alliances.) They organized to change UU policy toward women by passing resolutions at the General Assembly.


These changes in national policy encouraged more women to go to seminary, and seek fellowship through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, even though their chances of being called to a pulpit were small. In 1972, there were 33 women ministers in fellowship with the UUA. And as the number of women in fellowship grew over the next decades, the UUA’s Department of Ministry did the downfield blocking to encourage local congregations to break with tradition and call them as ministers.  Change came from the top and was often resisted at the lower levels.


If you wanted to imagine women coming into the ministry in a bottom-up process, it would have started by local congregations settling women in their pulpits and then pressuring the denomination to give those women fellowshipped status. That, of course, was not the way it happened.


In the Unitarian Universalist world, change comes first at the national level and then filters down to the congregations; we will see the same pattern when it comes to full inclusion of LGBTQIA ministers later on. That feeling that they have gone crazy in Boston comes round again and again. Usually what seemed to be crazy in Boston two years ago makes a lot of sense in the local congregation a couple of years later.


Back to our story:


In 1977, the number of women religious professionals had doubled to 60. At the 1977 GA, a Business Resolution on Women and Religion passed. It called upon “all UU’s to examine carefully their own religious beliefs and the extent to which these beliefs influence sex role stereotypes in their own family.”


The call was clear; we were to root out patriarchy not only in our practices but in our beliefs about everything, the nature of God, of reality, of humanity.


In the 40’s and 50’s, the Unitarian Universalist question that was asked about any religious belief was “is it true?” And as UU’s entered into a period of “pluralistic agnosticism” (remember the blind people and the elephant?) the question asked was “is this your truth?”


But now the question became, “Is this belief derived from patriarchy; is it oppressive to women?”


“Is this belief or practice oppressive?” is a very powerful question, especially in a religious movement that doesn’t limit how far you can push a question. A related question: “Is this belief or practice expressed in a way that is oppressive?”  Powerful questions.


I will spare you all the steps and numbers but the main arc of the story is that throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s the number of women in our ministry skyrocketed. Women are now in the majority of our ministers and overwhelmingly in the majority of our active, pre-retired ministers. Women filled more and more positions in the UUA staff. Lay women in every congregation, came out of the kitchen, and took seats at the table of the Church board. It took a while, but eventually a woman was elected to the UUA Presidency.


It was the drive to root out the vestiges of patriarchy that led to the creation of the Seven Principles in 1985. This was the first re-statement of our faith since the Merger in 1961.


Looking across the whole landscape of Unitarian Universalism, one could  make the case that Unitarian Universalism is a religious movement led by women. I am not saying that just on the basis of numbers and positions, but also because women have radically transformed the three central pillars of a religious movement: its theology, or what it thinks about ultimate reality; its ecclesiology, or what it thinks about how the faith organizes itself and acts in the world; and its liturgy, or how a faith conducts is ceremonial, or ritual life, how it worships.


On Theology: the rising women’s movement in Unitarian Universalism took aim at traditional religion and religious language. The immediate flashpoint was male language for God. But in a denomination in which the majority of people were humanist, it was an awkward thing to rebel against. The joke in those days was that Unitarian Universalists were not sure that God existed, but they were very sure that God was female.


But the focus on the vestiges of patriarchy in our language about God soon broadened into criticisms of hierarchy in itself as stemming from patriarchy. Collaboration, equality, mutuality entered into our theological language, often summed up in the distinction made between “power over” and “power with.” The gray hymnal moved beyond gendered notion of patriarchy, avoiding not only references to “God the Father” but also concepts like “lordship” or any language that spoke of submission to transcendent powers.


Liturgically, the emergence of women’s leadership in Unitarian Universalism showed up in an increase of ritual in our worship services — the water communion was the primary example, having originated in a women’s conference. But the Capek’s flower ceremony was reinvigorated. All sorts of “communions” started showing up — anything that involved sharing something to eat was called a communion. I, myself, have participated in an orange communion and a chocolate communion. Communions became celebrations of community rather than the individual partaking of something sacred.


Congregational participation entered into the service in the form of Joys and Sorrows. Back in the heyday of the Fellowship Movement, many congregations had “talkbacks” = a period of time when congregants could voice their disagreement with the sermon. After all, what better way to show that the minister had no authority over what a person should think. Compare the “talkback” to “Joys and Sorrows.” That contrast sums up the difference  in UU liturgy brought about by the rise of women.


But it was in the matters of the Church organization, the technical word is ecclesiology, that the greatest difference was made. It came from the clash between rising women’s leadership and the habits of sexual misconduct on the part of ministers that had been present forever and increasing in the early 70’s.


Up until then, the ecclesiological theory was that the relationship between the minister and the congregation was sacrosanct. There should be no denominational body, or official, who could get in the way of that. Congregations would hold their minister accountable for ethical behavior.


Well, the experience was that that didn’t work. A misconducting minister could maintain the support of the church board while engaging in a series of exploitative sexual relationships with women in the church. And if it went too far, everything was handled in secret, and the minister would move onto the next congregation with no one knowing.


What would be left behind is a congregation where some people knew the secrets and others did not. Some people would be wondering why a minister they liked and appeared to be doing well was suddenly leaving. Everyone grows to suspect that something is going on behind the scenes no matter what is said. Congregational leaders develop a chronic mistrust of the minister, always wondering what they are up to, whether they were serving their own needs, rather than the needs of the congregation.


People who have been collecting the stories about this kind of ministerial misconduct, which is hard because so much of the story is hidden, say that at least 60% of congregations have ministerial misconduct in their past.


As women demanded  justice, it became clear that congregational polity could no longer be sacrosanct; there needed a way from the UUA itself to receive complaints from people victimized by their minister. Ministers needed a set of guidelines and standards, and be potentially disciplined by the denomination through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. This transition is still going on — only now is the UU Ministers Association adopting a flat ban on sexualized relationships with any we are serving pastorally, a standard like that of social workers, therapists, and others in helping professions.


So the rise of women to leadership in the Unitarian Universalist world brought more women into ministry, but also broke down the dominant role of the minister in the congregation. He was no longer the king of his only little kingdom, but had to share power with his congregants and was answerable to higher denominational authorities in new ways.


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?”

Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is, by this point in the journey, taking shape. We can clearly recognize ourselves, what we are concerned about and how we worship in this post Women’s Reformation UU ism.

The great current, sustaining, transforming, and creating current that carries liberal religion along has been doing its work.

Yet, of course, there is more to come. The theme for April is Wholeness, and it is appropriate, for this UUism we have seen is incomplete. More change is coming. The journey continues.