What The %&#*@ Is UU Identity?!?! or What Schools Count pt. 2, The Swedenborgians Are Coming pt. 3

Patrick Murfin wrote the following:

Although many ministers get outstanding training at other schools, none of those schools are prepared to offer the resources for in-depth study of UU history, theology, and polity to ground at least some of newest ministers in our specific tradition. Graduates of other schools may be exquisitely educated and are often well trained in pastoral skills. But their UU identity is blurry.

This brings up something in me that I just have to ask: What the %*&^# is UU identity? Because I have a feeling that I’m going to have to find a new church if it is what I think it is. So I need to know.

Here’s why I’m asking……

1. I’ve been in and around this movement for almost 15 years.

2. I didn’t enter seminary until long after 10 years.

3. I have a really good grasp of U/U/UU history. (I have developed an independent study course for my seminary) And I grew up in a more radical congregationalism than most UUs could ever dream of.

4. I know my theology. And can trace the history of UU theology fairly well.

5. I have been involved in this damn denomination at the district and national level for quite a while.

What part of my UU identity is blurry?

Is my UU identity blurry because I listen to Jay-Z and 50 Cent, T.I. and Kanye West? Gospel music and jazz? That when I turn on the radio the first station I go to is NOT NPR? That I’m waiting for new episodes of The Boondocks? That I loathe the grey hymnal? And think, that for all our supposed intellectualism, most UU worship services don’t even come up to the standard of college lecture?

What part of my UU identity is blurry? Really. I want to know.

Now if I had just joined a UU church last year and then entered seminary, I could see why there would be some question about my UU “identity.” But that is not the case for me. And it’s not the case for a lot of UU seminary students. So why should we be looked at as if something is wrong with us because we didn’t go to Starr King or Meadville?

So I’ll ask the question again…….What the &*%^#  is UU identity?



16 thoughts on “What The %&#*@ Is UU Identity?!?! or What Schools Count pt. 2, The Swedenborgians Are Coming pt. 3

  1. I like the question! And really don’t get the UU alleged-intellectualism/we don’t watch tv/”classical” music thang either. I don’t think the “problem” is with those at the many great seminaries out there, but with the upending of the “traditional” power structures in society at large and in uuism more specifically. This is not the same movement as it was 15 years ago, and that is freaking some people out these days. Keep doing what you are doing – I for one appreciate your voice, vision, and clarity.

  2. I hope you have had the chance to read Davidson Loehr’s “Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying” sermon. In that sermon he suggested that the UU faith should be called Forrest Church John Buehrenism or something close to that. I like Swedenborg. I like Castaneda and Ouspensky. I like the Grey Hymnal and even the Baptist ones of my childhood. Sure we could use more substance in the UU faith, but I suppose all faiths struggle with that. UU is what you don’t like, what you do like and what’s in the mirror.

  3. And I grew up in a more radical congregationalism than most UUs could ever dream of.

    Me too. It blows my mind that things can be so complicated as they seem to get sometimes in this denomination that has congregational polity.

    I grew up in a nation-wide denomination (by one definition) that has no centralized national or regional organizations of any kind. The congregations still managed to “control” their bible colleges and publishing houses simply by withdrawing support if those independent organizations went too far afield. But they have never had any equivalent of the UUA, UUMA, MFC, etc. Everything is handled and decided by the individual congregations without consulting each other. And they manage to hold together their identity and their theology as a distinct brand and maintain their numbers as well.

    The congregation I grew up in didn’t even have committees. It had its board (comprised of the elders and deacons), among whom the elders theoretically had spiritual oversight of the congregation and the deacons theoretically had fiscal oversight, though in reality the only difference between the two was which ones officiated and which ones served at communion and offering time. And it had a minister, who had no power or authority except “moral authority” as a servant of the congregation. He was never referred to as Reverend but only as Brother.

    It’s been 30 years since I was involved with that denomination, but it is still a benchmark for me when it comes to evaluating just how unnecessary all the committees and districts and the UUA and the UUMA really are.

    Things are as they are organizationally for us UUs because of accidents of history and head-butting along the way from “then” to now – not because this is the best or only way for them to be.

  4. Wow! You have been stewing on my comment for sometime. You seem to take it very personally as an attack on you or an acquisition that you “lack UU identity.” I have read my comment over several times, but I can’t imagine how you got that impression. I was talking in very broad terms. And I even said that the many folks getting trained in non-UU settings were getting good educations. With your background you probably wouldn’t get much extra from a UU seminary. But you are not most students. Most students cannot self-construct a coherent history or theological analysis of Unitarianism, Universalism and contemporary UUism on their own. I just want to keep our two remaining schools open and thriving to make sure that some emerging clergy are well grounded in our tradition. You may not agree, but it is a legitimate view and in no way an attack on you.

  5. I just want to keep our two remaining schools open and thriving to make sure that some emerging clergy are well grounded in our tradition.

    Good goal. I too very much hope we can keep our two seminaries open.

    However, in the absence of a ruling that only graduates of our denominational schools will be fellowshipped, and in the presence of the reality of such a significant proportion of our ministers coming from other schools, probably more attention should be paid to our people at other schools, which I believe was Kim’s original concern.

  6. “What the &*%^# is UU identity?”

    Well I know this isn’t quite what you are asking but UU “corporate identity” is now U asterisk U aka U*U and Unitarian*Universalism is now The U*U Movement. Gotta love CUC Executive director Mary Bennett’s U*Unilateral decision to insert famous U*U Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “picture of an asshole” between the twin cheeks of UUism in a deeply misguided effort to symbolize the self-professed inclusiveness of The U*U Movement.

    No U*Us? 🙂

    Still ROTFLMU*UO!

  7. It might actually make sense for the ICUU to use U*U (or some other designation other than just UU) since they are not specifically Unitarian Universalist but Unitarians and Universalists. I do not know enough about the Canadian situation to speak, but in the USA, the congregations of the UUA are Unitarian Universalist, whether they name themselves one or the other or both or yet something else. Here in the USA WE are UUs and when we participate with Us and Us from the rest of the world, we join them in that transdenominational U and U setting as Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists (U*U*UUs, if you will). Regardless, the ICUU website does not use the asterisk in most of its pages and never in the acronym of the organization.

    • Well as far as it goes Paul, if we are going to seriously talk about Unitarian*Universalist identity I believe that one can reasonably argue that there is no such thing as a Unitarian Universalist or Unitarian Universalism. The UUA is the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations which may be reasonably interpreted as an *association* of distinct Unitarian and Universalist congregations. In other words, as much as one may talk about Unitarian Universalism being some kind of synthesis of Unitarianism and Universalism, the original “merger” of the two denominations seems to have been simply an association between Unitarian congregations and Universalist congregations, at least in the beginning. How and when “Unitarian Universalism” was conceptualized as being one single religion somehow blending both Unitarianism and Universalism might be a very interesting thing to do some responsible research into.

      Then of course there are those U*U ministers and lay U*Us who from time to time quite justifiably assert that so-called “Unitarian Universalism” is no longer either Unitarian or Universalist. . . I well remember when the obnoxious “fundamentalist atheist” Humanist U*U minister Rev. Ray Drennan brazenly, but quite justifiably. . . asserted that it was “false advertising” to continue to call the Unitarian Church of Montreal a “church” as part and parcel of his and other atheist Montreal Unitarians’ campaign to have the word “church” stricken from the legal name of the Unitarian Church of Montreal. In response to that assertion another Humanist Montreal Unitarian by the name of Kenneth Howard QC pointed out in a follow-up letter to the editor of the UCM’s newsletter that it was equally “false advertising” to call the so-called Unitarian Church of Montreal “Unitarian” in light of the fact that few of its members believed in God at all, let alone that God is One.

      The fact of the matter is that there were very few Universalist churches in Canada at the time of the AUA’s “corporate merger” with (some say “hostile takeover” of. . .) the Universalist church of America. The vast majority of the Canadian congregations identified as Unitarian churches and still do. CUC stands for the Canadian Unitarian Council. Universalism does not even rate a token mention in the name. . . Former CUC Executive Director Mary Bennett’s U*U “corporate identity” which, according to her ‘Why Not A Star?’ newsletter article which introduced her U*U to the U*U World, stands for Unitarian “both/and/or/or reversed” Universalist is thus questionable in more ways than one. I do not know the detailed early history of the Canadian Unitarian Council but I get the impression that any Universalist churches that may have been part of it were vastly outnumbered by Unitarian churches, if 40 or so (or fewer) Canadian Unitarian churches can vastly outnumber anything. . .

      I am quite aware that the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists never uses Mary Bennett’s U*U acronym in its main ICUU acronym, and I expect that it never will. Please allow me some poetic license when lampooning Mary Bennett’s U*U “corporate identity”. I C U*U obviously translates to I see U*Us know what. 🙂 To be honest I am surprised that the ICUU and CUC, and even the UUA to some extent, persist in using Mary Bennett’s U*U acronym in light of the fact that I have been lampooning its U*Unfortunate anal symbolism for several years now.

  8. Beneath what has already been said, I think there are a few things I would like to add as a UU minister trained at a non-UU seminary.

    I believe that Meadville and Starr King must continue in some form. They do have a value, although I do not believe that they are as focused on UU history, polity, and theology as some might suggest. For example, Starr King no longer has regular faculty with focused research expertise in UU history or theology. Such expertise is being provided by a shifting pool of visiting faculty and adjuncts; indicating to me that these academic fields are not high enough priorities to be reflected in tenure track faculty hiring decisions.

    Secondly, I want to share with others why I chose to attend a non-UU seminary. The minister at my sponsoring UU church wanted me to go to Harvard or Meadville. Harvard cost too much. Meadville (at the time) required students to take 8 of their classes through the University of Chicago. Taking more classes at Chicago struck me as academic in-breeding, and I also needed to learn many pragmatic ministry skills that Chicago’s div school is well known for neglecting. I also looked at Starr King, but did not like the cost of living, or their resistence to letting me study for my MDiv across 4 years instead of 3.

    Before seminary I had been in UU churches for 8 years, had already been working for a District for 2 years, and had been an avid reader of UU histories and theological works. What I went looking for was a seminary that was progressive, flexible enough to accomodate UU classes by transfer credit or independent study, willing to let me spread 3 years of study across 4, and that had a low cost of tuition. I think my needs were better served at this school than they would have been at SKSM or M/L. And as a bonus, I graduated with only $3000 of seminary debt, financially freeing me to serve small congregations and less wealthy community ministries.

    Unfortunately I have encountered in some UU settings skepticism about my grounding in the faith, simply because I went to a non-UU seminary, and thus must be some kind of Methodist in UU clothing. The rhetoric that ONLY a UU seminary can properly educate a UU minister furthers to reinforce the bias, for the supposed purpose of propping up M/L and SKSM. I do not believe that this propping up is really needed, nor is the rhetoric helpful. For some ministry students, M/L and SKSM will always be excellent and highly desired matches for student needs. Others of us are better served studying for the ministry at schools like Earlham, Pacific School of Religion, Andover/Newton, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, or Iliff. The real task is to help ministry students discern which path will best meet their education needs.

  9. To clarify about taking more classes at Chicago, and that being intellectual in-breeding… My BA was from the University of Chicago.

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  11. Pingback: Death panels, UU identity, and bad music in worship « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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