Tuesday, October 02, 2007

East Side, West Side

A new UU blog, Transient and Permanent, has an interesting perspective on the idea that there are two different kinds of Unitarian Universalism. The unknown author of the blog has posited the following:

"One (type) retains some of the classical Unitarian and Universalist theology and is more overtly Protestant-ish in worship style and language, and often architecture, art, and other aspects as well. The other is more experimental and protean, with no clear theology and less consistency in terms of worship."

As I understand the position presented, s/he sees New England churches as being more often in the first group, with a strong grip on the history and Christian liturgical elements of earlier Unitarian and Universalist congregations. Other churches, often newer and perhaps born of the Fellowship movement from the mid-20th century, differ strongly from those older, longer established churches, in that there is less awareness of the past, liturgy is more varied and worship style less dependent on a minister.

This is a very truncated synopsis of a longer piece that reminded me of something I've noticed about Unitarian Universalism, and that is the difference between East Coast UUism and West Coast UUism. (Don't ask me about the middle America states, because I have less experience to draw on there. I'd be interested in points of view about it, if you care to share.)

Many years ago, before I entered the ministry, I was a candidate for a District Executive position and flew to Boston for an interview. It was the first time I'd been to Boston and I was enraptured by the historic buildings and parks and places I'd only read about in my history books. (And Filene's basement, of course, though that wasn't in the history books.) I tromped all over the place, soaking up the ambiance and learning to use the subway.

My interview was with several high muckety mucks from the UUA plus the chair of the search committee, and I felt pretty well prepared for it. I had a lot of counseling and group experience; I was familiar with denominational politics and processes; I had good references and a lot of denominational leadership experience. I knew I was a good candidate for the job and eager to give it a shot. Whether I got the position or not, the trip to Boston was an exciting moment in my life.

The DE position was in a Western district. I was a Westerner, born and bred, never living anywhere else, and I guess I must have exuded something because one of the UUA folks tossed me this question: "So, Kit, what is it about Westerners? How come Unitarian Universalists in the West are so different?" I'm not sure how the chair of the search committee related to that question, but I was taken aback.

The questioner went on to remark on the maverick nature of Western UUs, the fretfulness of many Fellowship-type congregations west of the Mississippi, the many conflicts in Fellowship-type congregations, and the lack of many longterm settlements among ministers in the West. It was news to me, but I stuttered out something about the Frontier and pioneers and adventurers and freethinkers all being drawn to the new territory out West. I don't think I answered the question to her satisfaction but we went on and I tucked that bit of curious information away to be chewed on later.

I didn't get that job, which was okay because I was getting close to being able to go to seminary anyhow, and they gave it to an East Coast person, who lasted a few years and then left in a bit of a kerfuffle.

But when T & P revealed that s/he thinks there are two types of Unitarian Universalists, I was intrigued. I do get the significance of that UUA staffer's question now. I read blogs and other writings by East coast folks and do see that there are different ways of being UU. There is a more formal aspect, it seems to me, to Eastern UU congregations and their ways of doing things. Western UU congregations are all over the map.

When I read Beauty Tips for Ministers, for example, I'm aware that PeaceBang is advocating for a much more decorous way of dressing among clergy than would be typical of clergy out here. We rarely wear robes in the pulpit in this district; some do, if they are serving large congregations where that is the norm. Most of us don't. I don't wear a stole or robe unless it's a fairly formal occasion such as a child dedication, wedding, or memorial service. We do robe when we process in an ordination or installation, so we do know how to do it. We just don't often choose to.

Our daily attire is less formal too. I don't often wear jeans and sweatshirts to meetings with congregants, but my folks probably wouldn't mind. On home visits, I tend to wear khakis or cords with a t-shirt under a pretty long-sleeved shirt. I suspect Boston would not approve! But this isn't Boston, it's an island where doctors wear jeans to the office.

So what does anyone else think? I wonder what others' experiences are.


Ms. Theologian said...

Oooooh! Favorite topic!

I definitely feel that y'all are on to something. I was raised in West Coast UU churches, and worked in one in NM, but found that the UU theologies, churches, and people in New England when I went to seminary were completely foreign, as if it was a different religion entirely.

Love your interview story.

fausto said...

One of the answers to "what is it about Westerners?" must surely be the Western Unitarian Conference. They were pretty much a separate denomination for about a hundred years, and evolved in a more transcendentalist and humanist direction than the AUA. Then there's also the general Western countercultural ooh wow factor. Both notions may be a bit difficult for the heirs to the Brahmin "Hub of the Universe" (a nickname originally coined by Boston Unitarian Oliver Wendell Holmes) to appreciate viscerally.

The corollary question is "what is it about midwesterners?" To my eyes, dogmatic humanism seems more heavily concentrated in the midwest than elsewhere. I think part of the answer to that one is the WUC as well. Maybe also the U of Chicago.

Philocrites said...

Well, I discovered Unitarianism in Utah (my home state) -- but in a New England-style chapel with a New Yorker minister, classical music on Sunday mornings, etc. I would never dispute anyone's observation that I'm more formal and East Coast in my temperament, as compared to many UUs -- except that I'm most definitely from the West!

(Partial explanation: Many western congregations were founded between 1880 and 1930, and churches in San Francisco and Portland are even older; these are often larger and somewhat more historically connected to the older traditions. My church in Salt Lake dated in 1891 or so. The post-WWII and more recent churches are often much more definitively "West Coast" in their style.)

The Eclectic Cleric said...

Would have posted this comment on the original blog, but since that blog doesn't seem to want comments, you get the 'benefit" my dear Ms Kitty (whatever it may be) of my so-called wisdom here.

A lot of this is just old news, on the one hand so obvious that it scarcely bears repeating, and on the other so simplistic that it isn't worth listening to.

Two "Unitarian Universalisms?"

I would say "at least."

Notwithstanding the underlying issue of whether "Unitarian-Universalism TM" would be better off redefining itself as "The Universalist & Unitarian Association" and reclaiming a little of its historical integrity, I can identify at least FOUR different "UUisms:"

1) ultra-liberal Christianity.

2) a "post-Christian" Protestant denomination accepting of the wisdom and insights of ALL the world's religions. (thanks to Scott Wells for the seed of this definition)

3) Its own "New Religion."

4) Secularism in religious clothing....(or as more than one wit has put it, "the Democratic Party at prayer")

I actually think the more compelling question is whether or not it is important to establish Unitarian Universalism TM as a distinct (and distinctive) "brand," or if we are better off practicing the principle that "all ministry is local," and learning how to create better and more relevant congregational experiences in our local churches.

My own prejudice is for the latter, and is based on the insight that most of our growth as a denomination has come in a handful of high-functioning churches lead by visionary clergy and blessed with committed and creative laity.

And it likewise seems to me that a congregation's specific "pedigee" is far less important than the fact that it is true to its identity, takes its mission seriously, and has a vision of what the world will look like if it is successful in its endeavor to accomplish its mission and make that vision real.

Anyway, that's my two cents worth, based on a lifetime in the movement, more than half a lifetime as an ordained UU minister, and a PhD in the subject to boot. Not that anyone really gives a shit about what I think about anything....

ms. kitty said...

These are all such interesting ideas and thoughts. Keep 'em coming. It's really piquing my thinking. Thanks.

ogre said...

Hmmm. Ok, so my own experience is distinctly Western.

But I think that this is reflective of a cultural divide that's true continentally, not just for UUs. Now, we've built our own UU spin on that....

But the greater casualness in dress is true of the West anyway. So is the less formal nature of society.

Since I found the comments at T&P, I commented at length there.

The Eclectic Cleric said...

Hi again Kitty! Back for seconds, this time specifically on the topic of regionalism.

For the record, I've served churches on both coasts and in West Texas...so I've seen my share of UUism on both sides of the continent, and have observed in between. My quick take....

I agree that a lot of this regional distinctiveness simple reflects larger regional divisions within US society, which UUs simply mimic. And yet, I've been in "formal" churches on the West Coast, and very casual ones here in New England (like Nantucket!)...and I've also seen both high-functioning and dys-functioning congregations in every part of the country, and (to evoke the spirit of Tolstoy) would have to say that "Happy congregations are all alike; every unhappy congregation is unhappy in its own way."

Happy congregations have skilled, effective, shared leadership, a common vision, a sense of purpose and commitment, like one another and have fun together, and it doesn't matter what part of the country they are located, what their dominant theology is, or what they wear to church.

Unhappy congregations? Don't get me started. But some common things I've observed is that they tend to be inwardly focused, out of touch with what is happening both in the larger denomination and their surrounding neighborhood, are stuck in the same pattern of doing things they way they've always done them (and frustrated that they aren't working better than they do), yet smug and self-satisfied in their own marginalization, which they wear almost as a badge of honor.

The pledging is typically low or non-existent...and the congregation is often subsidized by some sort of "outside" revenue: a paid-off building or significant building rentals, an endowment, one or two large "patron" donors who basically see themselves as the proprieters of the church, etc.

And there are also "slacker" congregations (I can't really call them churches), which basically keep the books balanced by keeping expenses WAY down, and trying to do everything themselves...usually not very well.

It generally only takes a few bad habits and a handful of stubborn people to bring everything to a crashing halt and send the wise folk running for the exits. When the struggles are over turf and who has to approve what before it can move forward, rather than building real agreement and creating enthusiasm and a sense of teamwork in the pursuit of a common (and often ambitious) goal....well, I could go on and on. But if I had to boil it down to one thing, it's the difference between smug, self-satisfied complacancy and humble, grateful and creative generosity. And it really doesn't matter what part of the country you are living in.

Transient and Permanent said...

Thanks for the discussion. A slight update has been made to that post. Ms. Theologian's comments seem to get to the heart of the matter when she found UUs from a different paradigm to practically be from a different religion entirely. The point of the original post wasn't actually East vs. West per se, but Ms. Kitty's excellent anecdote helps show how regionalism contributes to these paradigmatic distinctions in UUism.

jacqueline said...

I am currently teaching an Adult RE class and this came about last night. I was raised in a Southern California Unitarian Church and had little or no exposure to the Universalist side of things.

This is in the 70's. Well after the merger.

I believe that if I had perhaps I wouldn't be such a stubborn atheist and might see God differently.

I believe there are differences between the East and West coast branches of UU, but I think that everyone is trying to be inclusive and understand. (Well, that is my hope at least.)

Now that I am in Arkansas I see a mix of the two... but that is because I am the only born and raised UU in the fellowship. They are all bringing their religious backgrounds.

Ah, the constant trying of our first principal.

Thank you for the thoughtful post.