Our Story of Religious Freedom: The Present by Rev. Anthony Makar
450 years ago, the story of our Unitarian Universalist religious freedom began. Queen Isabella’s vision was made real by her son, King John Sigismund, through his Edict of Torda.
We heard that part of the story last week. This week, we look to a turning point in our history that changed us utterly and forever, and there is no going back.
It was the coming together of two traditions of liberal religion, Unitarianism and Universalism. For more than a hundred years, the traditions had noticed deep resonances and echoes in each other, but it was only in 1961 that the two became one, and that one was greater than the sum of the parts, a completely new creation.
Once the final vote had been taken to consolidate, 57 short years ago, the thousand plus delegates representing congregations across the land, meeting in Boston, held a worship service, and it began with the song we sang a moment ago: “As tranquil streams that meet and merge / and flow as one to seek the sea, / our kindred fellowships unite / to build a church that shall be free.”
The thousand plus delegates sang this song, about freedom, and then sang it again, and again, and again, as hundreds of Unitarian ministers and Universalist ministers who were now and forevermore Unitarian Universalist ministers processed into the room, and there was not a dry eye in that place.
To paraphrase Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey,” they finally knew what they had to do, and they did it, they began, and there was no going back.
Though it set the whole house trembling. Though people felt the old tug at their ankles, tugs of fear.
As an official denominational report puts it, “Some Universalists feared that the Universalist identity would be swallowed up by the much larger Unitarian body. Some Unitarians feared that the word Unitarian would lose its cutting edge when it was joined with the word Universalist. They felt that the two big words joined together would be too much of a good thing!”
Yet again, “Some Christian theists in both denominations feared that the coming together of the Universalist and Unitarian Humanist groups would threaten the Liberal Christianity cherished by some of the most historic churches in both denominations. Some Humanists in both denominations felt that the coming together of the Universalist and Unitarian Christian groups would militate against the advance of Humanism in the new Association.”
That’s what the official denominational report said. All these fears, and more, tugging at the ankles, and these fears are still alive in the hearts of some.
Each of them, crying out the words of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mend my life!” In other words: Give me an upfront guarantee that the actions you are about to take will be perfect and there will be no mistakes, before you go any further!
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
Unitarian Universalism kept on moving forward, spurred on by a Spirit that embraced a new world in which all the various great world religions, once hermetically sealed-off from each other, were now, via transportation and information technologies, mixing and mingling freely. A Spirit made us restless to use our freedom to create a religion for one world.
Despite the fears, we kept on, we knew what we had to do, because a Spirit also made us ache for the physical, social, and spiritual liberation of all, and also for the planet’s liberation. The ancient travesty of the haves and have nots, insiders and outsiders, privileged and oppressed was vivid for us, and we were not satisfied with promises of justice in some hereafter. We knew freedom is to be used now, to create love and justice now, in this world.
A Spirit impelled us forward, to use our freedom well. And in the beginning, in the early 1960s, everything seemed golden. In 1960 President John F. Kennedy said that “the torch has been passed on to a new generation. […] Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” We thrilled to that! Our first association president, Dana Greeley, spent money to the tune of that, expanding programs and expanding staff so we could rise to the challenge.
We knew Transcendental Meditation before the Beatles introduced it to the world. We rallied to the aid of the Civil Rights movement and we were there at the front of the line in Selma.
It was a golden moment.
But it would not last. Adversity came all too soon, for us and, in truth, for all other liberal religious groups. It was the 60s and the times were a’ changin.’ Kennedy was assassinated. Dr. King was assassinated. The Vietnam conflict polarized all of America and therefore, of course, our congregations were polarized. We were also polarized by our differences on how to work for racial justice in the face of the Black Power movement.
The early 60s were golden; the latter 60s were lead; and we were just a baby religion, vulnerable, troubled by the turmoil in the world which was felt with all rawness at home in our congregations.
Money tells the story. When our second association president Robert West assumed office in 1969, he found a UUA that was in dire financial crisis. Our congregations had not grown—and people’s giving had not grown—despite all of Dana Greeley’s expensive program and staff expansions. To save our bacon, Robert West’s first move was to cut the UUA budget and staff by 40%, and there are no warm fuzzies to be found in this part of our religious freedom story.
It’s the wind—the wind prying with its stiff fingers at the very foundations. It was
… a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
Adding to the wildness of the world was the wildness in our Unitarian Universalist hearts. In the golden years we had sky-high expectations for our religion of One World Transformed. After the vote that married Unitarianism to Universalism and the two became a one that was more than the sum of the parts—something unique and different in the ecology of all the world’s religions—one of the speakers, the Rev. Donald Harrington, said this in a sermon: “Looking forward from this place, what do I see? I see the need for us to brace ourselves to absorb the shock of the incredible growth which will accompany our newly-won relevance. Let there be no mistake in our minds about it!” Echoing this was UUA President Dana Greeley in an interview with Time Magazine, saying, “We have thought of ourselves as a tiny denomination; but with adequate vision and will, in a quarter of a century we could become a denomination of at least 1,000,000 members.”
But instant success didn’t happen. One of our prophets, Henry David Thoreau, once said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” But we somehow seemed to have forgotten about the slow, meticulous, hard work of building foundations. We didn’t get the instant success we felt entitled to, and so the wildness of our Unitarian Universalist hearts made its impact felt, primarily through unkindness and meanness to each other.
There was rampant anti-institutionalism, in particular: people (ministers!) actually saying that the best thing to do would be to blow up Boston headquarters! As the Rev. Eugene Pickett, minister emeritus of this congregation and once-President of the UUA, once observed, we are “a contentious group of people … often harder on ourselves than are our fundamentalist critics … so easy to be cynical and mistrustful.”
We became very good at forming circular firing squads.
A Spirit was moving us, to be a religion for one world that worked for the transformation of person and planet, because that’s what religion is for: to create people who feel deep in their bones that they belong to something larger than themselves that grows and spreads revolutionary love and holy beauty.
But we found ourselves getting in our own way. Missing the boat.
[It was] a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own
Despite all the adversity, from beyond us, as well as from within us, Unitarian Universalism just kept on keeping on. Despite being our own worst enemies at times, we knew what we had to do.
For example, back in the early 1970s, even though we were in the midst of all sorts of dire crises, we had the opportunity to publish the Pentagon Papers, proving that the government wasn’t telling the truth about what was happening in Vietnam. This is prophetic witness. And we did it. FBI harassment and expensive litigation came our way, and we faced it.
What we did was like a star burning through sheets of clouds, the star of our true self.
And the stars kept on burning through, one by one. In 1974, the UUA established a denominational office to support ministries to gays, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. In 1977, there was a formal denomination-wide pledge to challenge sexist language, assumptions, and practices. In 1992, the UUA committed to becoming racially and culturally diverse. In 1999, we saw the production of the comprehensive sexuality curriculum, “Our Whole Lives.” In the mid-2000s, we championed same-sex marriage across the land. In 2015 the UUA created the Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry to support congregations in becoming more inclusive for people who are differently-abled. We’ve been working for immigration reform, fair wages, ethical eating, gun control, environmental justice, you name it.
These sorts of things are just not on the radar of so many churches today. But they are on ours, always have been.
In these ways, and others, right up to the present day, we have been using our freedom to demonstrate how we believe that all people are children of a great love, all of us, and absolutely nothing can separate us from that, nothing ought to keep us away from that great love—not sexual orientation, or gender identity, or race, or class, or ability, or ANYTHING.
Including what you believe. Whether you believe in God, or in ten gods, or in none at all.
One by one, stars of our true self burning through.
In the 1980s, lighting the chalice as a way of starting worship began spreading in our congregations, together with observing such annual rituals as the Water Communion and the Flower Celebration. 1985 saw the formal adoption of our Seven Principles and our Six Sources which, ever since, have been sources of common language and common vision. 1993 saw the publication of our current hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition.”
All of these, and more, express the efforts of the baby religious tradition that we are, to create language and rituals that will help the baby grow into its destiny of being a religion of One World Transformed and give it strength and resilience to withstand adversity that comes from without and from within.
We are building the foundations. A song like “Spirit of Life,” for example, is a precious piece of the foundations, and some even say that it has become nothing less than our Unitarian Universalist version of “Amazing Grace:”
Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.
After finally realizing what we had to do, we did it, we began our collective journey in 1961. And despite the ways in which this decision set the house to trembling, and fears tugging at our ankles—despite adversarial winds with their stiff fingers prying at our very foundations, and the wildness of the night—despite all this, we kept on going, and we’re coming into our own.
Stars burning through clouds. And a new voice which we are slowly recognizing as our own, a voice that is not solely Unitarian, and neither solely Universalist, but Unitarian Universalist, original, compelling, a voice saying,
Spirit of Life, come to us, sing in our hearts,
help us to hold on to the big vision of One World Transformed
even as we hold on to a capacity to be tolerant as we grow and try and fail and try again.
Give us dogged determination to build the foundations and keep building. ?May we put ourselves into the brave challenging spaces that transformation demands,
and may the love that we meet there inspire us to want to be more.
Spirit of Life, that Spirit Queen Isabella and King John felt 450 years ago,
now you are here among us, moving within us.
Strengthen us to be bringers of hope and renewal,
bringers of love and justice,
bringers of beauty and healing.
Give us wisdom to use our freedom well.
For you have called us to this Journey, and we go.
We go, deeper and deeper into a world that is both achingly beautiful and tragically broken. So much to savor, and so much to save.
Deeper and deeper, we go, and though it is the human condition that there will always be adversity without and adversity within, let us say and never stop saying, “Spirit of Life, come unto me.” It is our Amazing Grace voice, our heartbeat and our heartsong and our destiny and it will keep us company, it will fill us and strengthen us, and the only thing that is ours to do—the ONLY THING—is to magnify this voice in our very living, amplify it, multiply it, spread it through our actions, share it through our songs and stories and words, so that more and more people are feeling the Spirit of Life move in their hearts, more and more people are saying with us,
Sing in our hearts all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
Move in our hands, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold us close; wings set us free.