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Three generations march in Banner Parade (Nancy Pierce)

At 50, UUA readies for changes

General Assembly endorses major changes on UUA's 50th anniversary.
By Tom Stites
Fall 2011 8.15.11

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Half a century: It’s a milestone on any journey, and our faith took the occasion of General Assembly No. 50 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to look back over the decades since the 1961 consolidation of two historic denominations that created the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The 4,082 Unitarian Universalists who registered for GA 2011 also took the occasion to look forward. Perhaps because what’s not yet known contains mystery and drama, excitement about the future—not least next year’s “Justice General Assembly” in Phoenix, Arizona—matched fascination with the past.

The golden anniversary of merging the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America also proved to be a moment of epochal change. Delegates from 596 congregations voted decisively to push significant parts of long-running UUA practice firmly into the past, by:

  • Streamlining the Association’s Board of Trustees, which has operated on essentially the same model since the merger. Starting in 2013, the board will have fourteen members, down from twenty-six, and all members will be elected at large rather than from what Nick Allen, the youth trustee, called the “historically arbitrary” districts that were formed in a compromise at the merger.

  • Allowing formation of “nonlocal” online congregations, something the formulators of congregational polity in the Cambridge Platform of 1648 could not have envisioned. The vote was lopsided, and a resounding cheer went up from sections of the plenary hall where the youth and young adult caucuses were sitting.

  • Approving electronic off-site voting by congregational delegates who can’t travel to GA in person. Fewer than half of congregational delegates typically make the trip, so most votes have gone to waste. To test software and off-site process, forty-nine people in congregations around the country this year watched plenary sessions online and cast unofficial votes electronically. Next year, in Phoenix, off-site votes will count.

The Rev. David H. MacPherson thinks this is great. In 1961, the year of the first-ever live telecast of a U.S. presidential press conference, MacPherson attended the UUA’s first assembly as a young minister. Now minister emeritus of First Unitarian Uni­versalist Church of Richmond, Virginia, he was back for General Assembly No. 50—which was streamed live on the Internet to hundreds of UUs worldwide.

MacPherson sees off-site voting as an incentive for congregations to become more engaged in the Association. “It’s a real move toward democracy,” he told this reporter, “and I’m excited!”

The 82-year-old minister, appropriately, had a generational role in Charlotte: He, his 45-year-old daughter, and his 19-year-old granddaughter marched with the Richmond church’s banner in the Banner Parade (in photo above, by Nancy Pierce), the joyous ritual that kicks off GAs. After the opening ceremony ended, delegates streamed into the exhibit hall for celebratory music and anniversary cupcakes.

All General Assemblies are laced with stories, some long-running, some momentary; some institutional, some religious; some exemplary and some unjust. Here’s a sampling from Charlotte:

Statement of Conscience. The first major action of GA was approval of a Statement of Conscience, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice,” which calls on UUs to become aware of how our food choices impact not only our personal health but also the environment and other people. It invites congregations to work for food justice, so that everyone has enough to eat, and condemns mistreatment of animals and workers in food production. The statement encourages a diet based more on plants than animals and invites all of us to seek out and advocate for food that is raised responsibly.

The vote culminated three years of congregational input and General Assembly discussion after the 2008 General Assembly selected ethical eating as a Study/Action issue. (See this story for a summary of other GA business.)

Southeast District. It was a pro forma vote on a deceptively routine motion to amend the UUA bylaws to reflect the new name one of the UUA’s nineteen districts had chosen for itself. But it was the culmination of eighteen years of pain, tension, debate, disappointment, and finally resolution growing from one of the sadder chapters of the UUA’s first half century.

The 1993 General Assembly happened to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jeffer­son’s birth, and it also happened to be held in Charlotte—part of the UUA’s Thomas Jefferson District. So plans were made for a workshop called “The Most Famous Unitarian in the World” and for a Thomas Jefferson Ball, period costumes optional. Jefferson, of course, was not only the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and a theological Unitarian but also an unrepentant slave owner. “Must African Americans attend such events in rags and chains?” asked a statement by the African-American Unitarian Universalist Ministers that was read in protest in plenary. The ball was held, but few took part.

The incident set off an eighteen-year debate about changing the district’s name to disassociate from Jef­ferson. Delegates to annual district meetings held three votes over the years; all received majorities, but this year the vote finally exceeded the two-thirds required, and the Thomas Jefferson District is no more. Charlotte is now part of the Southeast District.

Restructuring UUA Governance. Changing the way the UUA’s Board of Trustees is elected and cutting its size almost in half are key parts of an ongoing effort to streamline the UUA’s governance structure, which was cobbled together as the Uni­tarian and Universalist denominations were melded.

Moderator Gini Courter and the board’s Govern­ance Task Force have introduced a series of reforms in the last few years, and, General Assembly by General Assembly, delegates have approved them. Last year delegates approved changes to the way candidates for president and moderator are selected and changed their terms of office to single six-year terms. The board has also vowed to reform the governance roles of districts and the General Assembly.

UU-UNO returns. Delegates voted to welcome the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office back as part of the UUA staff, where its roots go back to 1962. Because a UUA financial crisis cut off its funding, the UU-UNO incorporated as a separate organization in 1971. Now, in search of greater effectiveness in an ever-shrinking world, the UUA’s international programs and UU-UNO are merging as UUA-UNO.

Distinguished Service Award. After presenting the Rev. Victor H. Carpenter with the 2011 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, the highest honor the Association bestows, Gini Courter paused before moving on to the next topic. “I thought I knew this man,” she said, “till I started learning about him. When I grow up I want to be Victor Carpenter.”

Carpenter, who is minister emeritus of First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts, was minister of the Unitarian Church of Cape Town, South Africa, from 1962 to 1967, where he secretly served as a courier to jailed anti-apartheid activists. Back in the United States, Carpenter “led efforts to stop wars, empower hotel and hospital workers, protect women’s rights, halt corruption, protect victims, stop death to prisoners, instill accountability across cultures, and give voice to the most marginalized,” the award citation said. Carpenter told the Assembly that his “absolutely imperative moral touchstone is, ‘What are we doing?”’

One of the best-attended programs at GA was the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich’s two-part presentation on the future of our faith, “Church of the New Millennium.” The standing-room-only crowd of more than 800 UUs had just murmured approval of Guengerich’s statement that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam “cling to an untenable idea of God and a misguided practice of religion.” But that wasn’t all he had to say about God, nor was it the last audience response.

“Allow me to make a practical observation,” said Guengerich, who is senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. “If we expect Unitarian Universalism to flourish in the future, it would certainly be convenient if the idea of God played a positive role in our faith. In a survey conducted by the Gallup organization, 94 percent of Americans said they believe in God. If we restrict our appeal to the remaining 6 percent, then we face an uncertain future at best.” The wave of applause was so strong that Guengerich had to pause before moving on to explore ways that we might understand “God.”

The preacher in Sunday morning’s worship service, the Rev. Kaaren Anderson of First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, said that UUs are united by experiences of compassion and connection, which they share even when they hold seemingly incompatible beliefs. The old standoff between humanists and theists was being replaced, she said to sustained applause, by a recognition of shared values. “On the whole, the tide has completely changed. There are minor pockets and uncommon moments of slipping back into old bad habits. But it’s not by any measure who we are anymore.”

The Rev. Peter Morales, in a workshop with three of his predecessors as UUA president, said, “Over the last fifty years, I think there’s a continuity in our faith of being what I call a religion that’s beyond belief . . . where what one believes is not central, it’s what one’s passionate about and cares for, what one holds sacred, what one loves.” He added, “The essence of being loving is to reach out.”

From the opening ceremony to the closing ceremony, in plenaries and in workshops, call after call went out for UUs to come to Phoenix, Arizona, for GA 2012—to “stand on the side of love,” the slogan of the UUA’s most visible public witness campaign.

Phoenix won’t be just another General Assembly. It will be a “Justice General Assembly,” dedicated to witnessing for racial and immigration justice in the state leading the charge for laws that critics say open the door to abuse of any person a police officer thinks might be an illegal alien.

“Now is the time to bring our religious voice to awaken the moral conscience of our country,” the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister at the UU Congregation of Phoenix and head of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, told delegates. Noting that several hundred UUs went to Phoenix July 29, 2010, when the widely assailed immigration law SB 1070 went into effect, she said, “Now we are all invited, to make an even bigger difference.”

Delegates approved a bylaw change to limit the number of plenary sessions required next year. But there’s a huge planning challenge ahead, and an unusually complex set of planners.

Courter, in her annual Moderator’s Report, quoted the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Lewis of Middle Col­legiate Church in New York City as having said in a workshop she’d attended, “If you’re planning to do something new and different . . . then the group that plans has to include the diversity you want to be. . . . That’s how you’re accountable from the beginning.”

The board invited people’s concerns, and heard many in a workshop session. “What would Martin Luther King have said to get people to go to Phoenix?” said Beverly McCormick, of Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Chandler, Arizona, in response to a report that some congregations fear sending delegates to Phoenix. “What would he say to get us to live our values?”

The 2012 General Assembly was already scheduled to be held in Phoenix when the Arizona legislature enacted SB 1070. In response to the law, delegates to the 2010 General Assembly worked out the way forward despite differing views: Some had wanted to move the GA elsewhere to punish Arizona financially; others wanted to go to Phoenix and witness for justice.

“What we chose to do is something we’ve never done before,” Courter said.

Salvador Reza, with the Arizona immigrant group Puente, also addressed delegates. “In 2012 please come to Arizona,” he said. “Come because you want to transform hate into love. Come because you want to create a movement of love throughout the U.S.”

Photo above: Erin MacPherson (left), a seventh-generation UU, carried her congregation's banner during the Opening Ceremony with her mother, Dianna MacPherson, and grandfather, the Rev. David H. MacPherson, the church's minister emeritus, who had attended the UUA's first assembly in 1961. (Photo by Nancy Pierce)

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