Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why I Am Not a Unitarian

Why didn’t I become a Unitarian?  Well I grew up Presbyterian and didn’t realize until recent years what a fluke that was.  Here is how it happened.  My Mother didn’t care much about churches.  Her Father who died in 1933 had been a “freethinker,” a devotee of Robert Ingersoll, who lived many years in Peoria IL where I later worked.  Now I am doing genealogical research on my Grandfather, because I realize that he lived not far from Peoria in the 1880's and 1890's.  I guess my maternal Grandfather was my spiritual Father.

I need to say here that I am still a Christian.  I understand that the language of religion is myth and metaphor, and although I am not a “supernatural” Christian, I think that the myths and metaphors of Christianity still have some utility, although they have been and are grossly misused.  Much more about these things later.

My Father had an Irish Catholic Father and a German Lutheran Mother.  This Grandpa liked the ladies and my Grandmother threw him out around 1927. [His Father, my Great Grandpa Maher left home for work in 1893 and didn’t come back.  A postcard a year later revealed he was bandmaster of the Ringling Brothers circus, but THAT is yet another story to be told.]

My Father’s Mother was disowned by her Father for marrying a Catholic.  [Her Father forbade her siblings to ever speak with her again, but one sister secretly kept in touch.  Another story to be told.]   She wanted her children to grow up with good Protestant religion and sent them off to a Presbyterian Church within walking distance (the working classes didn’t have cars), in Sioux City, Iowa.  I now realize that all my Father’s siblings remained Catholic.  Dad took me to the church he had known as a child.

I enjoyed singing in the choir at Westlawn Presbyterian Church from the age of 8 to 12, but left church in seventh grade before confirmation, because I thought it a class of bullies and the minister was quite severe.

In high school I read some Bertrand Russell and attended a Unitarian Church once.  Quite interesting, for they had installed an art exhibit in the entryway the week before.  Some of it was suggestive and so when I attended the hour was given to a debate on esthetics and censorship.  Some wanted the paintings removed, but the larger group decided to keep them.  I was impressed with the discussion.  Where else would it happen?

In Iowa City I attended the Unitarian Church once.  It was old and musty smelling.  When people liked the dry words they heard they stamped their feet on the wood floor and when they didn’t like what was said they hissed.  I was not welcomed and didn’t go back.

I still need to explain how and why I went to seminary and continued as a Presbyterian.  For now I will say that I learned a lot about church and academic politics in the ‘70's and ‘80's, earning a D.Min. and working for the then great Presbytery of Chicago (none are great now).  Seeing the corruption of all things in the midst of teaching about a caring God (much more about this to come), I went to the Unitarian "Unity Temple" (by Frank Lloyd Wright in all his glory) in Oak Park where the minister was a gay, ex-Presbyterian minister.  I checked into this and there are no records of how many Presbyterian ministers have left the denomination to the UUA.   This is because the PCUSA doesn’t recognize the UUA.  A minister leaving in that direction just disappears.  But I have met several.

In 1993 I applied for and was a finalist for a fund raising job with the UUA in Boston (down Beacon Street from the State House on the north side of the Commons.  I met John Buehrens, then president, and many fine individuals there.  They treated us well, putting Carol and me in the famous Union Club on the east side of Boston Commons.  They were honest and told me finally that the trustees preferred to see a lifelong UUA in the position.  I understood that.  We enjoyed a service at Arlington St. UU on the west side of the Commons.

While there I spoke with the “settlement” officer and asked what it would take to transfer and become a UUA minister.  “You would need another masters degree,” she said.  “You would have to do it as a resident for two years in Boston, Chicago, or Berkeley.  I told her that those were high requirements for someone with three degrees already.  She said, “I’m sorry.  If we didn’t have really high requirements we would be overwhelmed with ministers like you from other mainline denominations.”  So I was one of many, not a few.  So the answer to the title question is "they wouldn't have me."  I was employed instead at PCUSA headquarters in Louisville. [Yet another story that might be told about my knowledge of where a few bodies are buried, so to speak.]

Once years before in Duluth, friends who were Unitarian asked if I would be interested in mediating a dispute at their church and counseling them about church growth.  I thought about it and said “The problem is that I don’t know how to relate to an organization that is built around what they don’t believe.”  That was sort of true in the ‘70's.  In the ‘80's they developed a positive “covenant” and doubled their membership.  Of course, I can’t join or I would have to give up my “honorably retired” status in the PCUSA, which entitles me to a small tax break.  And I still have things to preach in Presbyterian churches that will have me.

1 comment:

Jennifer Maher (aka DJ Jennifer Haley) said...

*gets popcorn, pulls up chair* TELL THE STORIES!!