General Assembly 2003  Contents: UU World Back Issue

A Record-Setting Return to Roots

By Donald E. Skinner

More than 7,000 Unitarian Universalists came home to their religious roots in June, descending on Boston’s Back Bay for the forty-second annual General Assembly. It was by far the largest gathering of Unitarian Universalists in history, due to the large number of congregations in the Northeast as well as the desire of Unitarian Universalists across North America and elsewhere to visit their “Vatican City” and the many nearby sites where Unitarian and Universalist history was made.

Officially 7,515 people registered to attend all or part of General Assembly (“GA”). The previous record GA was in Cleveland two years ago, when 4,582 registered. An additional 1,500 or so attended Sunday morning’s Service of the Living Tradition at the FleetCenter basketball and hockey arena. That service, always the largest event at GA, attracted just more than 9,000, GA officials believe.

The arena was the only place in town big enough to hold everyone, and it was a far cry from the last GA in Boston, twenty-five years ago. In 1978, 1,800 people came. Most sessions that year were easily contained in auditoriums and classrooms at Boston University. Delegates were housed in the dorms. Those who attended the 1978 Service of the Living Tradition fit neatly inside the historic Arlington Street Church just off the Boston Common.

This year delegates came from almost 700 congregations, double the 1978 number. The opening session was held in the largest auditorium in Boston’s major convention center and telecast to a smaller one where an overflow crowd was seated. The Sunday night Ware Lecture—the speaker was Julian Bond, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—and the closing ceremony Monday night also required both auditoriums.

History was the backdrop for this General Assembly and sometimes the centerpiece. The Rev. Robert N. West, the second UUA president, made his first appearance at GA since leaving office in 1977, describing his tumultuous two terms in an address to a packed room. Hundreds also came to hear Mtangulizi Sanyika, a key figure in the black power struggle of that era, tell his story. History exhibits lined the walls of the convention center and historic Boston congregations opened their doors for tours and services.

But delegates came for much more than history. From the opening ceremony to the closing prayer five days later, they attended workshops where they explored ways to create a better society and learned how to help their congregations grow both numerically and religiously. There were daily worship services and plenary sessions where the Association’s business was conducted.

Two significant initiatives for congregational growth—in the Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth areas—captured the imagination of delegates. So did a GA-long discussion of the use of “the language of reverence” to explain our faith.

The Rev. William G. Sinkford, completing his second year as UUA president, drew cheers during his annual report when he described the Association’s successes in the past year in public witness, one of the focal points of his presidency. He cited stories that appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post earlier this year about the use of religious language by Unitarian Universalists, and described a press conference he called with other liberal religious leaders about the right of all persons to marry, leading to news coverage by Boston newspapers and National Public Radio.

“We are indeed becoming a credible liberal religious voice in the public square,” he said. “We now expect––and get––above-the-fold coverage in the religion section of local papers when I visit. We are actually in a position now, on matters where we have an authentic voice, to get our message out. It is a sign we have really moved in from the margins.”

Indeed, during GA The Boston Globe published articles on both President Sinkford and his predecessor, the Rev. John Buehrens. The Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness Staff Group, which includes the Office of Information and Public Witness, described a new strategic plan to the plenary throng. “Historically we’ve mostly reacted to news events,” she said. “Now we’re trying in a more disciplined way to actually go out and influence the public debate.” Three criteria, she said, will determine whether an issue moves to the top of the Association’s public witness agenda: “Grounding: Does this issue have authentic and deep UU roots? Fit: Is there a match between our resources, aspirations, and ability to make a difference? Opportunity: Do we have an opportunity to be heard on this issue?”


General Assembly began on a jubilant note, when Sinkford announced at the opening ceremony that earlier that day the United States Supreme Court had ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional. He called the decision “a victory for all Americans, for bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender—and straight—Americans.”

“I can think of no better way for us to begin this General Assembly,” he proclaimed, “than by standing once again and together applauding the victory for everyone’s right to love, and everyone’s value in the world.” The response was wild cheering and prolonged applause.

There was more cheering and applause the next morning when the Rev. Richard Nugent, chair of the UUA’s Commission on Social Witness, reminded delegates of Unitarian Universalists’ pioneering role in this issue. He urged delegates to take seriously the sometimes tedious work of adopting resolutions, then reminded them that the 1970 General Assembly had called for an end to all discrimination against homosexuals. “It has taken thirty-three years,” he said, “but our prophetic statement has become the law of this nation.”

And in 1973––thirty years ago––another GA resolution called for creation of the Office of Gay Affairs, which has evolved into the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns. The Rev. Keith Kron, current director of the office, told delegates: “We have had thirty years of trying to create hope and healing in a broken world. And we are continually reminded through the work of our office and our congregations as we respond compassionately to violence and advocate for equality, that we continue on this journey together—one step at a time.”

The General Assembly was packed with workshops and addresses on justice issues, but racial justice got special attention in plenary sessions. Sinkford, acknowledging in his report that the Association’s approach to antiracism and antioppression issues has been controversial, announced that a new approach would be tested this fall and should be available to congregations a year from now. The Jubilee I and II workshops many congregations are familiar with as part of the Association’s “Journey Toward Wholeness” antiracism initiative will be retained, he said, “but there will be new tools in our toolkit.”

During the Board of Trustees’ report to the Assembly, Gini Courter, who completed her term as a UUA trustee this year, said the logo associated with the Journey Toward Wholeness program—a two-lane road—wasn’t adequate, and suggested that there are many kinds of roads, from multilane superhighways to bumpy gravel roads. “There are people in our congregations who genuinely want to be involved in this work,” Courter explained in an interview, “but the old ways don’t work for them. Some of our processes were pretty alienating.”

Each year delegates may pass Actions of Immediate Witness regarding urgent issues. This year four Actions of Immediate Witness called for Congress to: conduct open bipartisan hearings to examine the justification for the invasion of Iraq; restore funding for AmeriCorps; pass proposed legislation that would mandate studies of the effects of depleted uranium on the environment and the health of those exposed to it; and appropriate money to completely fund studies of global HIV/AIDS. A final Action of Immediate Witness called for continuing support for women’s rights and reproductive freedom.

Each year one Study/Action Issue is selected to be studied and acted upon by congregations for the next two years. Economic globalization was selected as a Study/Action Issue two years ago, and this year delegates approved a Statement of Conscience that calls on churches and individuals “to bring our Unitarian Universalist principles to our understanding of economic globalization and to help mitigate its adverse effects.” Last year’s issue, civil liberties, is currently being studied by congregations and will be the subject of next year’s Statement of Conscience.

The newest Study/Action Issue is Criminal Justice and Prison Reform. The topic has been championed by GA’s Youth Caucus for four years. “We’re overjoyed,” said Megan Selby, a Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) program specialist. “We’ve worked so hard and so long for this.”

More information on Actions of Immediate Witness, the Statement of Conscience, and the new Study/Action Issue is available from the Commission on Social Witness at


Throughout GA there was a current of conversation about using “religious” or “reverent” language in discussing our faith. It’s a topic that Sinkford has brought up several times in the last year, and he tackled it directly in his presidential report:

“We need some language that will allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name what calls us, and to talk about our ability to shape our world, guided by what we find ourselves called to do,” Sinkford said. “My energy here is not primarily for a revision of our Purposes and Principles, though that may well emerge. My priority is for us to engage with one another about this faith, what it means to us, and how we live it out. It is out of that conversation, that engagement, that any formal language should come.”

Sinkford’s “vocabulary of reverence” sparked numerous conversations, both humorous and serious, in workshops, hallways, even bathrooms.

At workshops sponsored by humanist groups, there was spirited discussion of the best language to use in “elevator speeches” that can explain Unitarian Universalism in a few words. And about 200 people turned out for each of two workshops held by the UUA’s elected Commission on Appraisal to gather public comment for the study it is conducting entitled, “Where Is the Unity in Our Theological Diversity?”

“People had incredible interest and energy around this topic,” said outgoing commission chair Janis Elliot of Portland, Oregon.

Mark Hamilton, a commission member who grew up Unitarian Universalist, told the crowd at one hearing, “I wish we did have a Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice or discipline so we could offer something to people looking for a spiritual discipline. If we knew what is at the core of our faith, we would know how to search in our tradition rather than going elsewhere.”

On the last afternoon of GA the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, asked Moderator Diane Olson if the delegates could be allowed fifteen minutes to discuss the issue as a body. So at the end of the final plenary session, people paraded to the microphones.

“I love being in a community of all beliefs,” said a woman from Berkeley, California. “When the minister speaks on behalf of the whole congregation, finding language is difficult. But it’s a struggle worth engaging in.”

The conversation found such resonance that a motion was made to extend the discussion for thirty minutes and the delegates, who are usually frazzled and exhausted by this stage of GA and want to go home, voted to authorize the added time. A Web site dedicated to continuing the conversation is


History was a big part of this GA. In addition to the bicentennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth, it was the tenth anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council and the Unitarian Universalist Men’s Network; the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the UUA’s Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concerns; the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation, and the fiftieth anniversary of Liberal Religious Youth, the predecessor of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists. The celebration was also begun at this GA for next year’s one hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the UUA’s Beacon Press.

Workshops reflected that history. There were four on Emerson, one on “The Boston Religion,” and a reenactment of William Ellery Channing’s ordination.

History also unfolded Saturday afternoon when West, president of the UUA from 1969 to 1977, its most tumultuous period, described that time for a rapt audience of hundreds. It was his first appearance at a GA since leaving office.

West is credited with leading the Association out of serious financial difficulties, helping it through a conflict in which many black members left the Association, and approving Beacon Press’s publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. During his terms the Association faced such economic hard times that he once had to cut the UUA staff by half.

West said the period of racial discord, between 1968 and 1973, was one of confrontational politics. “It’s difficult for people today to envision the actions of that time,” he said. “Anti-institutionalism predominated. Some people even advocated the UUA should be blown up. Microphones were seized in GA sessions. And people became reluctant to give money because of the previous spending practices [of the Association] and the rancorous controversy.”

West’s terms also included two recessions and an FBI investigation over the Pentagon Papers. “I hope no other UUA president has to go through anything like I did,” he said. “I always tried to act for the present, but care for the future.”

On Sunday another figure from the era, Mtangulizi Sanyika, who was known as Hayward Henry in the 1960s and 1970s, presented the Starr King Presidential Lecture. Sanyika was a chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus and one of those who walked out of General Assembly in 1968 and never came back. He was a founder of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard and is now an associate faculty member at Starr King School for the Ministry. He said, “This was the time of Nixon and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the Kennedys and student protests and the women’s movement. It [social unrest] was happening everywhere. In the UUA there was a struggle for human justice and the leadership was incapable of responding. The ground was shifting and they chose the wrong side.”

He said he has forgiven the UUA and he credits the movement with much positive support of blacks over the years, including early use of the term “African American,” championing the reparations issue, and helping elect black leaders. “I’m hoping this conversation today will lead to healing and reconciliation,” he said.

Sinkford, one of those who left the UUA at that time, but returned, attended Sanyika’s lecture and responded to him. “One of the things that happened, in my judgment, is that Unitarian Universalists got scared and became frightened of the issue of race,” Sinkford said. “We tried to deal with it, and it got terribly divisive. We pulled back as a movement because of our fear. And for a community of faith to operate out of fear is absolutely deadly. It strips you of the ability to take any risks.”

He said he believes the UUA had not been willing to hear the stories of those times and “drew the window blinds” over the controversy––until now. “It is only now, I think, perhaps, that this religious community is willing to draw the blinds back up.”


General Assembly was graced by the presence of the Rev. Katsunori Yamanoi, chairman of the Rissho Kosei-kai, the UUA’s Buddhist interfaith partner in Japan. Through an interpreter he told delegates, “We share a common belief that all things should be in harmony. Hatred is not overcome by hatred, but only by harmony.”

International Unitarian Universalists attended from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, France, Canada, India, and Eastern Europe. The tour choir of the Unitarian College, a high school in Kolozsvar, Transylvania, performed at the opening ceremony to enthusiastic applause. It was one of two young people’s choirs at GA: A Children’s Choir enlivened the Sunday morning Service of the Living Tradition and the closing ceremony.

Other highlights:

  • The 18,000-seat FleetCenter, with its sports memorabilia and banners of the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins up in the rafters, proved inspirational to the crowd. Just before the service a spontaneous “wave” erupted in one section of seating and passed around the sports arena three times.
  • Attendees found a little time to play. “They went on walking tours and trolley tours over to Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, and Mt. Auburn Cemetery, and even got out to Concord,” said Gretchen Ashton, in charge of the local information table. “But mostly they wanted to know about places to eat.” Their complaints were few—mostly about the high price of food, said Ashton, a member of the First Parish Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
  • Five new congregations were welcomed into the Association: Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Mount Pleasant, Michigan; Rockford Illinois; Tryon, North Carolina; and Kodiak, Alaska. For the first time, the UUA provided money so representatives of new congregations could come to GA.
  • It is customary for GA attendees to contribute to a local social justice project. This year they donated $20,500 to YouthBuild Boston, an organization that teaches carpentry and other skills, provides an after-school program, and produces a cable television program focused on youth issues.

Overall, the Assembly’s tone was mellow and almost free of strife. Sinkford suggested that with all that was going on in the world people wanted––and needed––GA to be a positive experience. “It was extraordinary, not only in size, but more importantly the feeling of possibility and hope that was present,” Sinkford said in an interview. “There was the sense that mistakes could be forgiven and a willingness to look toward the future to a larger, more effective Association.”

Donald E. Skinner, a member of Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park, Kansas, is editor of InterConnections, the UUA’s newsletter for congregational leaders, and a contributing editor to UU World.


Super GA

Liberal Stars and Extra Trains

If this was a big General Assembly, just how big was it? It was so big that to make sure everyone could get from the Convention Center hotels to the FleetCenter for the Service of the Living Tradition, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority put on two extra subway trains.

It was so big that it attracted liberal icons and authors, including Julian Bond, Diana Eck, Tom Hayden, Wendy Kaminer, Jonathan Kozol, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Frances Moore Lappe, Bill McKibbin, Robert Reich, and Howard Zinn. The big-name speakers, some of whom drew 1,000 or more people, were strategically placed on the program so that most of the other 300 or so workshops would not be overwhelmed by this year’s record crowds.

It was so big that the collection at the Service of the Living Tradition, which goes to support Unitarian Universalist seminarians and ministers with scholarships, grants, and financial assistance, exceeded $171,000. Financially pressed Beacon Press sold $64,300 worth of books at GA, beating last year’s record $40,000. The UUA Bookstore’s GA operation also handily set a GA sales record of $129,000, up $24,000 from the previous record.

Among other records: More than 600 youth attended this GA—the previous record was 500—and more than 100 youth participated in the youth-to-young adulthood “bridging ceremony,” the largest number ever.

Many people who were not present also experienced GA. Hours of proceedings, including the opening and closing ceremonies and Sunday’s Service of the Living Tradition, were streamed live on the Internet. Visit for extended Web coverage.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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