Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 3: Theology and Institution

Reform comes in many ways, both inadvertent and intentional, and affects many areas of congregational life. Most often, reform efforts are directed toward either theology or institutional structures. Here are a few stories of reform efforts and their outcomes, both intended and unintended.

The Universalist Society of Gloucester, Massachusetts

Although many believe that the United States was founded on the principle of separation of church and state, in reality, at the time of the founding of the United States, the New England established (Standing Order) churches were supported by the tax dollars of everyone living within the parish.

In 1774, when John Murray first preached in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he brought a message of God's unending love and universal salvation. His Universalist message was well received by some in Gloucester and five years later a number of them founded the Independent Church of Christ and called Murray as their preacher. Members of the Independent Christian Church, many of whom left the town's established church in order to join the new one, felt it was unfair that they had to pay taxes in support of the established church when they had their own religious society to support. They took their case to the courts.

In 1783, members of the Universalist congregation brought suit against the First Parish church for return of property confiscated to cover the taxes the Universalists had refused to pay. Though the case dragged on for three years, eventually John Murray was declared a legitimate preacher of the Gospel, and tax relief was granted to the new church. Murray's wife, Judith Sargent Murray, wrote about the case "the Gloucesterians humbly conceived that religion was a matter between an individual and his God; that no man had the right to dictate a mode of worship to another; that in that respect every man stood upon a perfect equality."

This 1786 victory became an important test case in the move toward separation of church and state in the United States. However, never content to stand still, the Universalists continued to champion a larger religious freedom, and led the fight for final disestablishment in Massachusetts. When this goal was accomplished in 1833, Massachusetts became the last of the New England states to discontinue public support for Standing Order churches.


Commission on Appraisal (COA)

In 1935, at the urging of ministers and laypersons interested in the renewal of the denomination, the Unitarian Commission of Appraisal was founded. Chaired by Frederick May Eliot, the Commission's first report was the 1936 Unitarians Face a New Age, which is often seen as a pivotal in a "Unitarian renaissance." The report covered a number of areas from worship to governance, calling for stronger, though more decentralized organization, and less emphasis on individualism. Among its recommendations was the creation of a new Moderator position, and closer cooperation with other religious denominations, particularly the Universalists.

When the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961, the Commission "of" Appraisal became the Commission "on" Appraisal as part of the new bylaws, and was established as a permanent body of the General Assembly.

According to the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Commission on Appraisal is charged to "review any function or activity of the Association which, in its judgment, will benefit from an independent review and report its conclusions to a regular General Assembly." Note that the Commission's role is not to enact reform, but to report its findings on the progress and health of the denomination to the body empowered to enact reform.

Over the years the Commission has reported on issues of governance, ministry, membership, theology, race relations, fundraising, lay leadership, religious life and many other topics.


The Humiliati

In the spring of 1945, a group of five divinity students and young ministers met informally for study at the Universalist Tufts School of Religion. The gathering was such a success that the group formally organized, calling itself the Humiliati, "the humble ones." The Humiliati held annual convocations "for communal study and worship" until 1954. Never larger than ten members, the group included over time Gordon McKeeman, Albert Ziegler, Earle McKinney, Raymond Hopkins, David Cole, Frederick Harrison, Charles Vickery, Keith Munson, Albert Harkins (the only member who was never a student at Tufts), and Leon Fay (the only Unitarian member).

With study and fellowship as their stated intentions, the Humiliati delved into issues of worship, free will, ministry, creeds, and the philosophical bases of liberal religion. The Humiliati wanted to revitalize the Universalist church, which they believed was waning in relevance and theological distinctiveness. They developed a unique theology they termed "emergent Universalism." Emergent Universalism owed much to the theological education the group received at Tufts. It combined the "impulse theology" of Professor Bruce Brotherston, which imbued all creatures with an impulse toward spiritual wholeness and the social conscience of Professor Clarence Skinner's Social Gospel. It held that spiritual growth and renewal were primary in strengthening the innate pull toward the good, toward personal fulfillment and wholeness. This, they proposed, would form a basis for social action.

In their proposals to reform worship, the Humiliati wished to move away from an intellectually-based service toward a more heart-centered, participatory worship. They believed that creeds, more elaborate liturgy and clerical vestments as well as new symbols were essential to move in that direction. Their symbol, still found in many churches rooted in the Universalist tradition, was a circle with an off-center cross, symbolizing Universalism's foundations in Christianity along with an open space to welcome the influence of other religions—thus a new understanding of "Universalism."

Imbedded in all these proposed changes were distinct moves away from Universalism's traditions—away from Christianity as central and unique, and toward creedalism and a high ecclesiasticism. The Humiliati met much resistance and criticism, but they did have an impact on the denomination's theology, symbols, and forms of worship. With their strong involvement in denominational governance they also had an influence far beyond what their numbers would suggest on institutional structures, including merger with the Unitarians.


Women and Religion Resolution

In an era when the women's movement was raising questions about the role of women in society, Unitarian Universalists took up the cause not only in the wider world but also within the Association. Many were growing increasingly attentive to and uncomfortable with the sexism of traditional religion. The wording of hymns and readings referred to God in exclusively male terms and to humanity as "mankind." The Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association referred to all officers and ministers as "he." Even the Principles the Association adopted at consolidation used male-centered language. But language was not the only issue. Entrenched sexism in the UUA was also reflected in the fact that there were very few women in positions of lay leadership or ordained ministry.

In 1977 the Thomas Jefferson District and a group of women from First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, proposed the Women and Religion Resolution, which was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly. The resolution called for leaders at all levels to "make every effort to a) put traditional assumptions and language in perspective and b) avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future."

One outcome of the resolution was a rapid increase in the number of women in the ministry and in leadership. By the turn of the twenty-first century the majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers were women, and every Moderator of the Association since 1985 has been a woman.

Another outcome was the publication of worship materials which use more inclusive language, for example, Readings for Common Worship in 1981, Hymns in New Form for Common Worship in 1982, and the current hymnbooks Singing the Living Tradition in 1993 and Singing the Journey, 2005.

Perhaps the most far-reaching change was a restatement of the UUA Principles. Two years after the Women and Religion Resolution was adopted, a Continental Conference on Women and Religion was held in Loveland, Ohio. That conference generated a proposal to revisit the Principles. A draft revision was submitted to the 1981 General Assembly with language inclusive of gender and theology. After some rewriting and congregational study, the current Principles were adopted by the General Assembly in 1985 (amended, 1995).

Although we rarely refer to the Resolution itself, its philosophy and contributions have become part of our denominational ethic. By engaging with the realities of historic discrimination based in religion our ideas about inclusion in worship, leadership, language, and theology have been transformed.