Friday, February 10, 2012
UUA and UCC: Liberals Talking
By now you may be aware of the recent "intentional" conversation between leaders of the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) and the UCC (United Church of Christ). The article says this is the first of of its kind. I find that funny, because I know that there have been others (I attended one) that certainly felt intentional. Maybe it is the "leader" part. The meeting I went to was open to anybody.
Of course the UUA and the UCC have been chatting away for a very long time. Members of these two congregational groups have a lot in common. We share steaming hunks of history. We share a commitment to social justice. We are both part of the liberal tradition in western religion and theology. Yes, we are different, too. Still, the similarities are enough of a reality that lay people--and some clergy--move from to another and back again without too much of a crisis of faith.
Whenever a story like this appears the first reaction among some folks is to start talking about merger. That it isn't going to happen. In spite of our many similarities, there are many differences as well. Seeing as Eliot Church is both UU and UCC, I think I have acquired some authority when I say that there are certain differences that will remain insurmountable for a full-on absorption of the UUA by the UCC (yes, that is what it would be). That said, there are some areas that are ripe for cooperation.
The most obvious may be around issues of service and social justice. We are two relatively small movements who could probably maximise our impact on the national and world stage by working together. Perhaps there could even be shared institutions and staff. If this happened we would have more money in the coffers and more bodies on the ground when we try to make our liberal voices heard. In addition--because of the wider theological range of a cooperative mission--our own understanding and articulation of issues will be deepened through the natural conversation that occurs while working together. Like I said, this is obvious and I expect that they talked about it.
What I hope they also talked about is what to do to make life easier for churches like Eliot. I don't just mean UUA/UCC shared ministries either. The fact is, many congregations exist on both sides of the institutional divide that do not fit into the mainstream. There are, for example, UU churches that are more traditional in their theology than many UCC churches. There are also UCC churches in which the old joke about "Unitarians Considering Christ" is less a joke and more a way of life. Congregations with multiple denominational ties make up that third group. All three of these have some shared issues and problems that it would be nice to have addressed in a systematic way.
The most obvious example may very well be in the area of search and settlement. When you are a minister in the UUA and you choose to serve a "Christian" UU church, you have instantly made it harder to find a job in the UUA after that ministry ends. Yes, officially there is no rule that precludes anyone from applying to and being hired for a position in a more "mainstream" UU church. In reality, though, any search committee would naturally question whether a UU Christian minister is UU enough. I suspect the same occurs on the UCC side.
Things don't look all that great from the congregations' end of the equation either. If you are on a search committee for a UU Christian church (or if you are that kind of UCC church) you want the broadest range of candidates to chose from. Our congregations are very different from each other. We have young congregations and old ones. We have urban, suburban, and rural ones. There are "high" churches and "low" churches. Some of us are contemporary and casual. Others are traditional and formal. We speak different languages. Some are a combination of all these things. You get the idea. They are looking for different sorts of clergy. The pool would be much deeper (and, ultimately, the matches better) if congregations could easily draw from both traditions.
The problem is, ministers and congregations on this overlapping margin betwixt the UUA and the UCC are limited in who they can call because it is difficult to use two settlement systems at the same time. The system is set up to protect institutional integrity. Ministers must be on one side or the other even when our churches are not. Perhaps the next intentional meeting might want to look at ways of opening up the settlement system so that there can be more movement between settlement structures. Your "Very Liberal Christians" will thank you. I also think it would ultimately be good for the liberal religious movement as a whole.
There are other, smaller things. The dues structures (I know we aren't supposed to call them that but that is what they are...dues) are very different. The UUA costs a whole lot more than the UCC. Also, multi-denominational churches are usually asked to report only their "denominational" members rather than their membership. Why? Dues collection. It makes one think we are only loved for our money. It also conveys the message that we are in some way "struggling" when often we are not. This situation is changing already, but I bet 30 minutes of conversation could get us a nice uniform system, don't you think?
Finally, how about inviting us in for a chat? Again, I am not just talking about the UUA/UCC churches but the ones in those other categories. It would be nice to meet everyone. We could share best practices. Churches like ours are a hybrid of sorts which makes them hard to serve on the extra-congregational level. This is partly because we resist easy"branding". I think, though, that it would be in the best interest of all concerned if we gave a little thought to how we can work together in the future.
Here is that link to a nice, detailed UUWorld article. There are some allusions to what I have been writing about here. I should not that I started this post before I read the article...