Rev. Ron Robinson
It is a privilege to be starting off your month’s theme on liberal theologies. Independence Weekend is an appropriate time to begin with this particular theme.
In Professor Gary Dorrien’s monumental trilogy of religious history published a few years ago called “The Making of American Liberal Theology,” he begins his first chapter in 1805 with us and our roots in American soil that had sprouted that year with the liberal or Unitarian control of Harvard University. The decades-long reaction to that by others would soon lead leading New England minister William Ellery Channing to preach his Unitarian Christian sermon in 1819 and to the American Unitarian Association being founded in 1825 to promote “pure Christianity” (their term for liberal Christianity) and with that American Liberal Theology was flowering institutionally, in both academy and church and some of society. Many today, both in and out of church life, across faiths and denominations, whether they have ever heard of us much less our religious ancestors, have inherited much from us as Dorrien’s work shows, even as it chronicles much of the ups and downs of liberal theologies and as it concludes on an upbeat note---as will I. While it starts with Channing in the first chapter of the trilogy, also in the final volume there are chapters on some of the leading liberal theologians of recent times who were also in our church life—Henry Nelson Weiman and Charles Hartshorne and the great James Luther Adams and even more recently Forrest Church and Thandeka, all received chapters for their influence in and beyond our own church life.
Of course the actions in the early 1800s were a direct result of the changes brought about through the events of the year we celebrate this weekend, 1776. The revolutionary spirit in politics manifested itself right along with a revolutionary spirit in theology. For example, The war had caused half of the members of Boston’s King’s Chapel to flee to Canada loyal to the British Empire. King’s Chapel was the first Anglican, or Episcopalian, church in the colonies. In 1785, after the war, those who had remained tried to get a new priest appointed by the Church of England but were unable to do so, and so they turned to one of their liturgists, a former Harvard student who was also a convert to the liberal movement and anti-Trinitarianism that had been emerging in the United Kingdom. Acting then like the other churches in the Boston area, like Channing’s church for example, what were called the Standing Order churches that were the oldest in New England, King’s Chapel voted to call their own minister. And when he became the minister, James Freeman, with the support of the church, made some changes in 1785 to the Book of Common Prayer to fit in with his theology. So they then became, as their motto now says, Anglican in worship, Unitarian in theology, Congregational in polity.
Another result of 1776 is seen in the story of Joseph Priestly, the famed scientist in England, friend of Benjamin Franklin’s and supporter of American Independence, and liberal Unitarian minister, who was chased out of his country, found refuge in Pennsylvannia and started the first church on these shores explicitly named Unitarian in the 1790s.
Liberalism’s openness to differences—even back then there were major for the time theological differences between the likes of Channing and Priestly and others in how they understood Jesus—and liberalism’s historic trust in human nature and God’s nature and in what the future might unfold means it is somewhat inherently revolutionary. James Luther Adams used to write about the Religious Reformation always being through liberalism in process of Reformation. And liberalism itself too. Liberalism is dead. Long live liberalism, he wrote. The first of his famous five smooth stones of religious liberalism is that truth is continually being revealed.
Of course if you look at the Unitarian Universalist Association today you will see that our oldest churches have been in existence many years before 1776 and its revolution and King’s Chapel or the church Priestly founded. Those Puritan Standing Order churches in Massachusetts date back to 1620 in Plymouth and in enough other places that just by 1636 they needed to start Harvard University in order to educate the ministers. By 1648, they had experienced enough controversy that they needed to come together in the first major gathering of churches in order to write the founding document of our covenanted congregational spirit, the Cambridge Platform (a few of our oldest churches, though, like Plymouth and a few others, proudly and somewhat in jest point out they didn’t attend that Cambridge Synod and so have their doubts still, though they follow its tradition.)
That document maintained as one of its major covenants that the voluntary association of persons coming together to become the church had the authority, the wisdom, and the responsibility to choose its own lay and ordained leaders, whom they called, in their typical counter Roman Catholic style, Christ’s representatives on earth. Not one pope you might say, but one for every congregation. And If they could do that, why not be trusted to elect other mere public servants like governors, Presidents? The Cambridge Platform and the Independent Puritan Congregationalism that came to these shores in New England set the stage for the political discernment that those same people had the ability and calling to choose their own governing leaders.
We wouldn’t consider those Puritans as liberals today in many ways, as for example they restricted their leadership according to gender, and they weren’t theological Unitarians either as they accepted at Cambridge in 1648 without debate the Westminster Catechism that was rooted in John Calvin’s theology. But they were still religious revolutionaries; and an unintended consequence of their action in placing so much focus on the covenantal nature of religious community is that those very covenants came to be perpetual new wineskins for new wine and took the place of the creeds. Not that creeds didn’t and couldn’t contain religious truth, but they would not let even that truth become the arbiter for all time; that went to the covenants. And so, many of these churches too, after the revolutionary war, bloomed with a new spirit that took Unitarian shape whenever they discerned the spirit of their age and called a new minister to serve with them. The covenants allowed them to do so. The same way they allow for radical changes to this day.
In this way, 1648 led directly to 1776 which led, on the Unitarian side to 1825 and the founding of that side of our Association today. And there is something inherently liberal about the choice of covenants to be the structure or the way of the church even when the outcomes of those covenants is far from what would be called the liberal, progressive, generous spiritual path of today. Covenants reflect a belief that, as one of the old brochures at All Souls used to put it, God works in freedom. And does so in large measure through the blessed imperfections of humanity. And that freedom is not the same as the license to do what one can do or one wishes to do, but is a gift we give to one another and maintain in community.
Those covenants of the Cambridge Platform guide our liberalism today: the covenant between persons and church; the covenant between church and elected and called leaders; the covenant between churches; the covenant between leaders of those churches; the covenant between a church and its parish, its wider community; the covenant between a church and what it finds Most Sacred.
The liberal tradition says there is not one way to be liberal, not one way to craft those covenants that fits all congregations, not even all congregations within the same religious association, but that we should take them seriously. Conrad Wright, the late Unitarian Universalist professor emeritus of church history at Harvard, in his essay on The Doctrine of the Church for Liberals, said that too often liberals focus attention and concern on the adjective liberal and what it requires, and not enough on the noun Church and what it requires, and that taking all of these covenants seriously and in love is what makes the difference between a church and a “collection of religiously oriented individuals.”
We can see then that liberal religion is often focused on the how of religion, on the processes and openness of community. In his work, Professor Dorrien describes this focus as liberalism’s foundation as a mediating force, as a third way movement, that always has one eye on how it differs from the fundamentalist or dogmatic religion, and one eye on how it differs from disbelief, from the non-religious. This is a valuable function, but it can result in liberalism becoming consumed with its self, and how its identity crisis is wrapped up in how unique it may or may not be, and it can become so attached then to how it presents itself, to what it proclaims, to getting its message right, that it can become irrelevant, especially in a world that is increasingly more concerned with what difference a religion makes in communities that are suffering than in what a religion says about itself, and especially in a culture where many of the values of liberalism and pluralism and free thought have become the air in which newer generations naturally breathe and grow up in, in ways my generation and older ones did not experience and had to struggle to achieve and needed religious community to help us do so.
In the churched culture of this country, dominant in the 1950s and before, liberalism’s inherent process-orientation and third way focus for helping liberal churches define themselves in society helped them to thrive because the church was primary, and so the primary mission of the church, rightly or wrongly, was how to promote how one church differentiated itself from another. Particularly if you were a church where the majority of its members came from other churches. The mission was to get as many members into a church as possible in order to perpetuate the institution of that church as part of the overall churched culture of society.
If we simply were to take a view of what Sunday morning options were like even in Bible Belt Tulsa in 1960 and what they are like this morning we will easily know that we are in a different environment for churches, what is now called post-Christian, post-denominational, and finally post-congregational. In this world, has liberal theology’s success and its foundation—a focus on how of church more than on why of church and on message and membership more than on ministries in the world—has that become its greatest weakness? If as Conrad Wright said, we tend to focus on the liberal too much and not on the church part of the liberal church enough, will all the great manifestations of theology that Dorrien has chronicled we have helped usher into the world become nostalgia, become spent, or at best become real not in our tradition and our communities but in and through others?
I write a blog that is called MissionalProgressives. The aim of that digital space is to cultivate connections between what is called now the missional church and the liberal church, because I believe that each needs the other in order to better become its best self, for a world that needs desperately a church both missional and progressive or liberal. A situation that reminds me of the words of one of the founders of the Catholic Workers movement, Peter Maurin, who said the problem is that those who think don’t act and those who act don’t think. A liberalism in Unitarian Universalism that was more concerned with ministries in the world than with its own elevator speech or getting its message right would be welcoming more new churches planted in the world than only the single one that it welcomed last week at General Assembly, and it would be present in places of great and growing poverty and sickness instead of just occasionally visiting them. And the missional church that is transforming the church landscape and what it means to be a spiritual community in countless ways, if it truly wants to make an impact in the emerging world it says it wants to impact, would be open to and embracing the growing rich diversity of the world not only in ethnic terms where it does a decent job, but in terms of gender and sexual orientation and also theological orientations.
Such a liberal, missional church is the response to the question of what the emerging world needs. A liberal, missional church does not create or have a mission; it is the result of what the world’s needs creates, and so its orientation is always radically outward beyond its own internal needs in order to thrive and realize its beingness in the first place. It is like the perhaps apocryphal story of the company that used to see its mission as making drill bits when what its mission really was, making holes. Making that shift allowed it to focus on what counted and to create new ways to make holes.
In this shift from the churched to the postchurch culture, a strange dialectic took place. The more the world out there, the external community, became less focused and dependent upon the institutional church, the more the churches became focused on themselves as institutional beings. Especially liberal and so-called mainline churches who also during these recent decades of the Sixties to the Nineties in particular often seemed to feel that their theology and their place in the spiritual landscape had become marginalized compared to what it was before. “The mission” then became to perpetuate churches in a world where the “missional field”, the world out there, flowed toward the church and for the church; but in a world where the church itself as institution has been marginalized, and the missional field has shifted and has now become primary, the mission or purpose of the church must shift; instead of the world being a resource to draw upon to sustain the church, the church must see itself as becoming a resource for the world to draw upon to sustain itself, especially in all the places the world suffers today.
The good news for liberalism (which I maintain is also inherently good news for missionalism) is that as we talked about just a few minutes ago, the revolutionary spirit that is required for the shifts underway today is a revolutionary spirit embedded in liberalism—if we can disembed it in all the ways it has become bound up over time in such things as classism, in its own self-reflection, in moderation and fear of risk, fear even of embodied vulnerable communities.
We are inheritors of a tradition of those who sought revolutionary new forms of spiritual community. It was our great preacher Theodore Parker in his sermon The Transient and The Permanent in Christianity who said the church that worked for the first century didn’t for the fifth, and the one for the fifth didn’t for the fifteenth, and the one for the fifteenth didn’t for his nineteenth century, and I have found, with society’s revolutionary not evolutionary change now, that the one for the late twentieth century doesn’t for the first part of the twenty-first century.
Even those covenants in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, at a time when colonialism’s evil was running full bore and the church was trying to master the world and the indigenous people in it, those covenants reminded us with their vision that the world had a claim on the church and the church needed the support of the parish. What the missional church today has done is to revolutionize that old missionary church and turn its focus upside down; instead of going to the world in order to convert the world to its ways and and make more church members and get more resources for the church’s sake, now the church goes to the world in order to be converted by the world’s needs, to make beloved community in the world where so many institutions are seeking to disrupt it, and to put the church’s resources into the world.
Even at the center of James Luther Adams’ five smooth stones of religious liberalism, the third stone, is the principle that we have a moral obligation to direct ourselves toward creating a just and loving world, and we know from his own witness in the world that he didn’t mean we did that focusing on building up communities of the like minded to stay like minded.
No, Our revolutionary ancestors have given us the structures of freedom to be able to respond to the changing world. Liberalism’s fuller sense fosters Freedom as Freedom To Do, To make anew, even to renew the old in the world, not to be stuck in a paralyzing perpetual Freedom From the world, from one another. That’s what so many of our politicians and preachers around us don’t know when they cavalierly toss around the word freedom at this and all times of the year.
How have we used this better understanding of freedom? Well, in Theological and liturgical expressions, liberal churches have used it often among us—it is why this past Sunday I could go to a church in the Unitarian Universalist Association in Providence, Rhode Island just a few minutes walk from our General Assembly and attend worship and take communion in First Universalist Church that is Trinitarian Universalist and uses a universalist Book of Common Prayer, or could have gone to Boston to King’s Chapel that is Unitarian Christian and uses its own Book of Common Prayer, and someone else could go to a Unitarian Universalist Association church nearby or far away where Christians and prayer and communion of many varieties are few and far between and rarely mentioned. But, at the same time, we do not have much variety among us in the very forms of spiritual community; at a time when this is more vital than ever to connect with people looking for different forms; we have few missional churches and communities and ministries, and there are many different kinds of those operating in the world today too to model after; we have few new communities period that we adequately support and resource. We have too much kept liberalism’s revolutionary spirit locked in the box of churched culture that it was born in, though that culture is dying or gone.
Again, the good news is that the seeds of revolution are being planted nevertheless; community-based ministers are becoming are dominant form of ministry; part time and bi and tri vocational ministers are being seen not as a weakness but as a potential strength in our movement; we are seeing ourselves not as individual institutions, but as a movement with many manifestations for a diverse world; as parts of “the church universal” not just, to paraphrase Conrad Wright, collections of individual churches; our existing churches that remain with worship as the central act oriented and are attractional in nature, these are seeing that how many they can help turn out for community justice meetings and missions is more important than how many join their church; at www.faithify.org you see just a glimpse of new innovative ministries among us (though still only a few like ours I would see as disruptively innovative); and finally we are finding new momentum with a mission that sees making more Unitarian Universalists not as our end but simply as a means, as only one way among many, to the greater end of resourcing refreshing and sending people into the world to build beloved community, and so become the church, liberal and missional, there.