Wineskins and Watersheds
October 2, 2011
Rev. Douglas Taylor

A colleague of mine recently proposed a topic for a book of essays about Unitarian Universalism. He proposed the essays be written by current young leaders who grew up as first generation Unitarian Universalists. His proposal was that those of us who grew up UU and became active UU leaders after the 1961 merger would have a particular perspective on religion and faith. The coming together of four hundred years of Unitarianism and two hundred years of Universalism in 1961 to merge as Unitarian Universalism 50 years ago was a monumental event. It was a watershed event.

Watersheds have been on my mind lately and I’m sure many people have been very aware of the watershed we live in. The Chesapeake Watershed is defined by the rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna being the most significant this far north. So all the rain that falls (~20-30 miles) north, east, and west of here ends up moving through the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers at downtown Binghamton on its way south to the bay. And one of the tragically felt realities of a watershed is flooding as we have recently felt.

For this morning’s purposes, however, I wish to use the metaphor of a watershed – a metaphor that does not follow the reality that closely and so there is no flooding in this metaphor. I would use the idea of a watershed the way that Longfellow uses it in his poem entitled Keramos, from 1878. He writes: “Midnight! The outpost of advancing day! … The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.” And so, the stream of history for both Unitarianism and Universalism flow to a confluence point of history in 1961.

We could use another metaphor like milestones along a road or chapters in a book, but the image of watersheds has that sense not only of marking a progression from one place to another it adds the idea that there are a range of sources all flowing together toward this moment. The merger of the Unitarians and Universalists fifty years ago was exactly that. And all that has come over the past fifty years flows from that defining moment in our religious history.

It is not my intention to spend this morning as a history lesson, but please allow me to digress for a moment because often when we talk about our history we tell stories of a hundred and two hundred and four hundred years ago as if nothing interesting or noteworthy has happened during our lifetimes.

In the 1960’s Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. James Reeb was murdered in Selma, sparking a nation wide outcry and outpouring of support for racial equality. Many white Northerners travelled to march with Dr. King. Of the nearly 500 clergy who arrived, over 200 of them were Unitarian Universalist. Less than five years later a much sadder page of our history with racial justice played out with the Black Empowerment movement and what is commonly known as the “GA Walk-out” in which nearly all the black UUs left the movement.

In the 1970s our Beacon Press published the full Pentagon Papers, one step in the unraveling of Watergate and the undoing of President Nixon. We also launched a separate UUA department office for Gay Affairs and were one of the first religious bodies to officially sanction our clergy to lead Holy Union services for Gay and Lesbian couples. In the 1980’s we rewrote our statement of purpose in the UUA bylaws and created what we call our Principles and Purposes. It was an effort sparked largely by the women’s movement and the recognition of our need to degenderize our religious language.

Over the past fifty years, the number of female ministers has increased to and recently surpassed the 50% mark. Ministers who are homosexual are fairly common and such that we have moved on to the question of how to support and welcome transgender people into our ministry and our congregations. Racism and Classes, those old stumbling blocks we experienced in the late 60’s, are being respectfully approached again to try again to see who we are and who we shall become as a people.

And religiously we have grown more diverse as well. At the time of merger there was a debate that almost halted the merger from moving forward. I assure you there were a multitude of debates at merger. As these two religious organizations came together over the course of several years leading up to it, the actual sit-down-and-hammer-out-the details meeting was a democratically run joint general assembly with the Unitarians meeting in one space and the Universalists in another. They had over 50 specific amendments to debate, amend and vote on … and both groups had to affirm the identical wording for each amendment before it could finally gain approval. The biggest debate, the one that almost caused the whole affair to fall apart, was around a phrase in the principles.

The original phrase presented was “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man.” One group was unhappy because this was a weaker rendition of an earlier Unitarian principle that had the last part as “which Jesus taught as love to God and love to man.” Another group was unhappy because they would be just as happy to leave Jesus out as well as any reference to deity at all. A third group suggested a middle ground that referred to the great truths as coming from “our Judeo-Christian tradition.” The Universalists had actually gone ahead and approved the original wording and then had to wait while the three factions among the Unitarians sorted themselves out. Debate lasted past midnight but the meeting adjourned without a solution. Many people thought this issue might be the end of the movement toward consolidation.

Throughout the night while many slept, a few kept working on the wording and networking with people. A door-to-door campaign happened in the wee hours and a new version was proposed and adopted the next morning that read, “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.” Notice the change from our to the Judeo-Christian heritage, it didn’t make everyone happy but it was enough to keep moving forward. (These preceding three paragraphs are very much based on the text of the excellent history, The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, p18-21)

Rev. Walter Kring, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC said,

“To some of you, statements of purpose may be simply matter of semantics. To some of the rest of us, they are a matter of deep conviction.”
(The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, p21)

This history has always fascinated me. What it shows is how we came to consensus about questions of organization and institution, and about activism and social issues. This consensus is borne out through the 50 years of history that follow with our emphasis on equality and inclusion as a religious association. But when, at merger, we butt heads on questions of theology and belief we fell back to our historic “freedom of liberty” clauses and had to agree to disagree. And that, too, has echoed down the line of years. Such is the nature of watershed events in history, “from which the streams of tomorrow take their way.”

Now, you who sit here listening to this engrossing page of history may be thinking to yourselves: “Didn’t Douglas say this was not going to be a history lesson; that he was only going to digress for a moment?”

OK, I hear you. All that history was to notice who we are becoming, to see the trajectory of our progress. We are a history-making people, not a history-bound tradition. We wed our tradition to a special form of religious freedom. As the third verse of our opening hymn puts it (Tranquil Steams #145):

A freedom that reveres the past,
but trusts the dawning future more;
and bids the soul, in search of truth,
adventure boldly and explore

That opening hymn was sung over and over in the plenary hall following the vote for merger.

As tranquil streams that meet and merge
And flow as one to seek the sea
Our kindred fellowships unite (they sang then)
To build a church that shall be free

At merger, we were both creating something new and carrying forward a rich heritage. 19th century Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker once said “the church of the new age must have the smell of our own ground.” This is true of every age and generation. This leads me to my second metaphor this morning. In the gospel of Matthew (9:17) Jesus talks about the need for religious forms to be fit to the spirit of the lives we are living today – not contained and constrained by the patterns of previous understandings. He said,

Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matt 9:17)

As our Unitarian Universalist progenitors met to hammer out the details and give birth to this new and renewed faith, they paid close attention to the organization and structure – indeed that took a significant amount of their attention. They attended to the wineskin as well as the wine.

And they surely knew that in a generation there would be again new wine, new spirit and focus that would emerge. Let me offer up one particular change from then to now that I see. It is a change that flows from the theological work left undone at the time of merger. There has been a change from the divisiveness that threatened to halt the proceedings those years ago.

The sharp divisions have eased. There are still staunch Humanists among us who insist that if you can not prove it empirically, it is not meaningful. And there are still old-school UU-Christians taking regular communion and doing Bible-study. But there are also Buddhists and Pagans, Jews and Transcendentalists, Native and Earth-centered spiritualities, atheists, agnostics and mystics among us as well. But the extremes have eased and the most consequential shift is that we are all in the same congregation, all part of the same worship community.

Even a mere fifteen years ago when I was in seminary I saw the divide. I witnessed and studied the divide between Theists and Humanists, and the ensuing chaos introduced in that dyadic split by the acknowledged presence of the Pagans. A few short years back any given congregation was generally dominated by one of those three prominent positions, and that was considered a fair solution. We could be Humanist and Theist together, but not in the same building.

Today, I find congregation after congregation with a respectful balance of Theists, Humanists and Pagans. That respectful balance allows for a flourishing breadth of other theological perspectives. We are moving from a position of ‘agree to disagree’ on points of theology, to a respectful engagement with each other. More to the point, the labels are growing less important while the recognition of the whole person – the intellect, the emotion, the spirit of a person – the whole person is fed on Sunday mornings.

In short we are becoming more relational. That is our new wine. Not that we could not relate to each other 50 years ago, but our theologies and our communities are becoming more concerned with – more grounded in – relationship. Our justice making is seeing the same. It used to be about issues. Justice making was about the issue of racism or feminism or gay rights. Now it is becoming about how to be in partnership with people, how to be an ally, how to connect across differences.

This is the biggest difference I see in who we are becoming. This is the new wine. And the new wineskin is clearly the concept of covenant. I will not repeat my entire sermon from two weeks ago on this topic. Suffice to say, our container – our wineskin – is not a profession of faith as it was a hundred years back, or a statement of protest for ‘what we are not’ as we would usually offer in generations past. Our container is covenant; our new wineskin is ‘how we are in relationship together.’

In reflecting on the growth of change he had seen in Unitarian Universalism, former president of the UUA John Buehrens writes:

Covenant “captures the best of that heritage and applies it in a new setting – one that is much more multicultural, much more in need of vivid spiritual demonstrations that people of different beliefs, orientations, backgrounds, can not only live together but can actually contribute to one another’s moral and spiritual growth.” The culmination, he concludes is Unitarian Universalism in a new key: that of spirituality joined to justice making. (The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, p205)

Our container is covenant; our new wineskin is ‘how we are in relationship together.’ And it makes perfect sense for us to be here based on the watershed event of fifty years ago in which we set out as not only a merged pair of solid traditions but also as a new faith with new days as yet unseen. And as we round this bend in the stream, I trust we are headed into a vibrant and good future, yet I cannot possible imagine where fifty more years will see us. And truly my friends – that is exciting!

In a world without end
May it be so.