The President of the UUA is not a national minister

Yesterday, Chris Walton reported that

[Peter] Morales was installed during the [Unitarian Universalist Association General] Assembly’s closing ceremony, when departing UUA President William G. Sinkford gave Morales his stole and the Board of Trustees gathered around Morales’s family for the “laying on of hands.”

This bothers me and should bother all Unitarian Universalists. These customs are closely associated with ministerial ordination, not with induction into this office.

I’m not suggesting the UUA Trustees is ordaining Morales. First, the UUA is unable, by its own bylaws, to ordain; and second, he’s ordained already. But . . .

The last UUA president used his position to confect the presidency as a national pastorate: a role our governance does not include, and for which he was not elected. The president of the UUA is not like the “General Minister and President” of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — indeed, it isn’t even like the General Superintendency of the Universalist Church of America (Universalist General Convention).We might find our way there, but we have not and have not chosen to do so.

And I think we ought not. Bill Sinkford was never my pastor. There is a confusion of personal and organizational roles. (Even the UCA/UGC General Superintendent had a more limited role.) I cringed every time he sent out a “pastoral letter”.  The president’s office has enough influence on its own without affecting pseudo-episcopal privileges. I call on President Morales to abandon this misleading and presumptuous practice.

Second, with all the concern about who might be UUA president — an African American, then a woman or Latino; spare us ye saints from identity politics –  the president of the UUA has never not been an ordained minister, even though this isn’t a requirement for the office. Funny, huh? Neither possible outcome in this election — nor the last, nor any I can remember — would have had any different outcome. Using a ceremony that necessarily ties the presidency of the UUA with the ordained ministry frames who can be president, apart from our own established rules. It is thus an abuse of our polity, and should be abandoned.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

23 thoughts on “The President of the UUA is not a national minister”

  1. I don’t know if it is an abuse of our polity (because I don’t generally think that deeply or in those terms), but it was a truly excruciating ritual for those of us in the audience who were asked to “lay hands upon” each other for what seemed like an hour but was more like ten minutes. Standing in an awkward position while listening to the droning that went on and on. There was a beautiful song and Gini Courter had a lovely reading as a part of that, but I would have preferred then to have been seated” But this doesn’t get at the root of what you were saying. I was offended by this, more viscerally than with all the thought you have given it and I thank you for helping me to understand my discomfort in a new way. It was unnatural and uncomfortable and entrenched me even further against the new president and the people who organized this.

  2. I didn’t know about the congregational group-huddle. I had two similar experiences this year, both with the baptism of infants. The first was at a Presbyterian church, where the congregation was asked to similarly lay hands. (Hubby and I were far from the font, so abstained. We’re not going back.) The second was at a Catholic church, where the congregation was asked to raise their right hands in a posture of blessing towards the baptisand. But the effect was more of a mass Hitler salute and that creeped me out.

    As for entrenching against the new president: really? Do you think anything would have been different if Laurel Hallman had been elected? Because if this is some PUUMA (for those who missed the PUMAs the first time, click here) action, it really needs to stop right now.

  3. While I got a bit of a cramp thinking about standing like that for as long as they did. And I did feel sorry for his wife with no chair for all that time. And I do think it went on too long. I find that we are all taking it all way to seriously. #1 the designers of this ritual made it took long, not considdering somehow that most folk there are over 40 and can’t stand like that without cramping up… #2 I think the whole hands thing is fine, in moderation. I think 30 seconds of hand holding may be more meaning full than 5 minutes. Peter seemed to like getting the stole and that tickels me.

    The thing about the democratic process is that sometimes more people believe differently than you. It’s happenned to me lots of times. I have been tempted to take my ball and go home, but I don’t do that. I can have a more positive affect by working within the system. I think Peter Morales will do fine, I think Laurel would have done fine too (hence the close vote) Not all of the votes will go our way.. That’s a big part of democracy right now (In the UUA and the greater world)

    I think your efforts would be better spent on finding his replacement… I beleive next time we will want to go younger and that’s your end of the age scale, so keep your eye open for the next UUA President and put your work there. Entrenching against the current one, won’t help you much, I can’t see where it can do you any good. You could work on instituting Laurels policies in your home church, prove him wrong that a way..

  4. early morning hyperbole. Should not comment before full cup of coffee is consumed. Not “entrenched” I just wasn’t expecting that whole thing and I was heartbroken that Laurel didn’t win for a lot of reasons I may blog about when I find the time to do so. In the meantime, accept my mea culpa for the hyperbole, but I did not care for the ritual at all.

  5. I hadn’t heard about this before. It’s very disturbing. It’s a pastiche, apparently conflating baptism and ordination, neither of which should have anything to do with installing a UUA president.

  6. @Diggitt. Please don’t read my last comment as a suggestion that the Morales installation has baptismal elements. Rather, those rites of baptism are inheriting elements designed to include the congregation. A nice thought, but the implementation tends to be dreadful. (I suspect this come from a lack of trials and feedback loops.)

  7. Steve:

    I think it is PUUMA to be honest. A number of UU’s who backed Laurel are either making snide comments about Morales or suddenly finding reason to attack Obama generally. Not on some specific issue of Obama’s policy, but on his positive message. (That way they express their racism in all their passive agressive glory)

    It does need to stop, but until those are incensed get to vent their spleen that a minority male dared to challenge a princess (again!) in an election and win, it won’t.

    It is a shame, but that’s life in the narrow blogosphere. Thankfully most UU’s are above that just like most Americans were above the racist PUMA’s.

  8. @Chuck B. I largely agree with you in your first line, but then you went overboard. Laurel Hallman isn’t a princess; neither is Hillary Clinton. Indeed, only a small number of either candidates’ supporters would go the PU(U)MA route. It’s just that I’d rather the number be zero. And I’ve not seen the recent deprecation of the Obama administration you describe.

    After all, the parallels between the two campaigns are superficial, and to the degree they are the same is due to a kind of identity politics that liberals of a certain age revel in.

    Identity politics are, I think, the problem; not Laurel Hallman nor the bulk of her supporters.

  9. I just clicked to the PUMA site and have to say: that’s not me and don’t paint all Laurel supporters by my poor choice of words.

  10. With all due respect, Scott, I think you’re trying to put toothpaste back into a tube that was squeezed fifty if not 100 years ago. The president of the UUA isn’t legally defined as a “national minister,” but as a matter of long-standing practice, the office has very frequently played out as a first-among-equals clerical role. It is now quite evidently not a strictly administrative position.

    I think immediately of the long-established practice of the UUA president offering the prayer of remembrance for deceased clergy during the Service of the Living Tradition, or the UUA president addressing the membership of the UUMA in a closed “collegial” session at Ministry Days, or the president serving as a UU figurehead in interfaith leadership settings, to say nothing of the way many UUs do respond to the Association’s president as a figurehead and religious leader. The president does articulate a vision at the denominational level—and yes, even though we are not technically a “denomination,” we do nevertheless have a denominational life alongside our congregationalism, and the president has, throughout our post-consolidation history, served as a focal point for that denominational vision. I don’t see a realistic chance of anyone attempting to reverse that.

    So you can win points on strict-constructionist grounds, but not on historical grounds.

    I think you’re reading way too much into the “laying on of hands” that was part of Peter Morales’s installation, though. It functioned as a blessing, not as an “ordination.” I also interpreted Bill Sinkford’s gift of the stole he was wearing as a concrete way of transferring the mantle of the office—and it came across, to me anyway, as a very humbling moment for both of them.

    I’m curious: Would you have been even more incensed if Laurel Hallman had been elected? Her campaign seemed even more oriented around the notion of the spiritual leadership of the president—and her campaign seemed more clergy-focused.

    I do agree with you, however, that it’s presumptuous to issue “pastoral letters,” a phrase tied to an ancient episcopal practice.

  11. @Philo. If we spoke of snow — rather than toothpaste — would it be too much to note the flurry with pleasure, but see the blizzard and regret it? Or even prepare?

    Or, resisting either metaphor, at some point you have to say stop. These offices are not immutable forces. (But see below.)

    As for comparing Morales and Hallman: I think neither would confect the ceremony, so I would complain the same. My concern is about practice within the presidency, so yes I am slightly — ever so slightly — more encouraged by a Morales presidency.

    But — and this gets back to immutable forces — perhaps the concern is counterproductive. What better way to concentrate spiritual authority than to have its detractors obsess about it?

    So I spent my evening reading Fosdick and Paul, and am much the better for it.

  12. What surprises me, Scott, is that you seem to be skipping over the big picture of what happened in that ceremony – we prayed for our new president. The laying on of hands is a ritual that is tied not only to ordination but to many kinds of blessings, prayers for healing, conferring authority, etc. What a great thing that we were able to do this in a liturgical setting. Of course it was awkward, and of course it could have been done better, but we don’t exactly have a set of rubrics for this sort of thing, do we? Who knows how to do this well in a UU context?

    I was deeply moved by it all (though, I confess, it was probably easier to be moved when watching from the laptop at home, not having to stand and hold hands the whole time), and I hope the practice will evolve – perhaps even into a rite of blessing for elected lay leaders in our congregations. Better to spend our time crafting a ritual that fits our theological and ecclesial tradition than to snark about the way it was done the first time, no?

    I do, however, share your concern about the president as minister-in-chief meme. I made that clear to the Morales campaign several months ago, and I was assured that Peter shared my concerns and understanding of the role, but that Laurel’s campaign was very clearly making the race about who would better serve us as minister-in-chief. I think he felt like, if he wanted to win, he would have to accept her terms, show why he would be a better choice even in that role, and then work to change the perceived role of the president once he got elected. I’m planning to hold him to that, and I think there are helpful and constructive ways to go about it in which I hope you’ll join me.

  13. I have no object to prayer or blessing. But signs are meaningful, and in our tradition — insofar as it is used — the imposition of hands is a sign for ministerial ordination.

    Standing on principle isn’t snark.

  14. Yes, and…

    Signs are meaningful in that they are adaptable to new circumstances. When they become entrenched and “rubricized” they tend to lose meaning for lots of people.

    In my congregation we have a healing service every year which includes laying hands on one another in prayer/blessing – with participation by individual choice rather than en masse. I’m a little stunned to see people claim that doing so is “appropriation.” We’re not supposed to pray for or bless one another? That’s a pretty narrow understanding of “we.”

    The song being sung during the GA ritual was Nick Page’s “Healing Prayer,” which includes the following verse from “There Is a Balm in Gilead”: “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again…”

    Sounds like a perfectly appropriate and beautiful thing to be singing at that moment. And even more poignant knowing that the person leading the prayer – Victoria Safford – was a public endorser of Laurel’s campaign.

  15. But should we must be aware of the vocabulary of ceremony. By itself, the syntax of ordination wouldn’t be a problem for the president’s installation — I might not like it, but it wouldn’t rise to an objection — except that recent UUA presidents have been trying to make their office that of a national minister without the express authority of their electors. This act falls in that misguided trajectory and must be objected.

    So comparing it with a practice in your home congregation doesn’t scan. Though the form of imposition of hands to bless (with the note of healing) is an importation, and not native to either the Unitarians or Universalists.

  16. I find it tedious and antiquarian to complain that something isn’t “native” to either Unitarian or Universalist tradition. Strictly speaking, not only is gospel music not “native,” but neither is organ music and choirs, since these were only beginning to appear in congregationalist meetinghouses when the Unitarian controversy erupted. Gothic architecture is an importation to Universalism and Unitarianism, as is stained glass, a cross, lit candles, and other images in the sanctuary; the flaming chalice is not “native,” unless we get to count things invented de novo; is the flower communion “native” because it was invented by our Czech Unitarian cousins?; stoles are not native; Sunday schools aren’t native; and, Lord knows, most of us aren’t “native,” either.

    Meanwhile, even the UU Christian Fellowship has been busily importing gospel and Evangelical music into its Revivals, not to mention healing services. (Heaven forbid if anyone hands were laid there!) What do you bet that one of your colleagues has even anointed with oil!

    None of this is to defend any particular choice in GA worship design. But it is to cry fowl on the peculiar rigidity of insisting on fidelity to “native” forms of Unitarianism or Universalism when no such fidelity could possibly have accommodated even the changes that each denomination embraced in its first century. What would Charles Chauncy have thought of Henry Whitney Bellows in his cathedral? What would John Murray have thought of the Universalist National Memorial Church?

  17. @Philocrites.

    I think you’re overreading my last graf with Jason. See his reference to appropriation.

    You also say nothing about my (and Vicki’s) basic point about the trajectory of the UUA presidency, the assumption of new powers and the way it was underscored in the installation.

  18. >Meanwhile, even the UU Christian Fellowship has been busily importing gospel and >Evangelical music into its Revivals, not to mention healing services.

    Universalists (dunno about Unitarians) used gospel music and indeed put out a gospel hymnal circa 1905. So the UUCF is just re-introducing that music to modern UUs.
    ;-)
    yes, the above is historical trivia,
    by the way is this thread about cultural misappropriation?

  19. “I find it tedious and antiquarian” — now that’s a true UU flame. Well done, Philocrites.

    If language matters, how can we assume that gestures and ceremonies don’t matter?
    Whether this ceremony or usage has its roots in traditional U or U, or doesn’t, is really beside the point. The fact is, UU is a religion of congregations and the UUA is our department of state, not our Vatican.

    If a UU congregation is in an ancient building of stone with a tower and bells and stained glass or, like mine, could double as a pharmaceutical lab — its congregants have made the choice to go there, to attend services in that style, to identify with whatever is suggested by that building. In the 23 years I have attended FUSW, I have seen people visit and be totally turned off by the surroundings — especially if they have recently moved to the suburbs and previously attended All Souls in NYC, a really churchy church. When a member at All Souls, I saw visitors turn around and walk out after the main doors opened and they saw that it was a churchy church. We make those decisions for ourselves. Clearly the trappings matter; maybe not to you or me (I like churchy churches) but to many.

    My congregation long ago made the decision to call itself a society instead of a church, even though it was founded as a church in 1856. On Sundays, I still think “church” but I watch my language because I know not all my fellows do. Some people left when it became a society, and some would leave now if it became a church again. Same building, same people, same services. Words matter too.

    So since — whatever else you may say about UUs — we are people who are exquisitely aware of the meanings of words, of trappings and of ceremony too, it’s not unreasonable that there should be discussion, even conflict, about the use of words, trappings, and ceremony in a UU celebration.

    But a UUA GA is sui generis. It is not a congregation. The installation of its president is not a congregational service. You could argue that therefore it can be whatever conference organizers decide it to be. But that’s to overlook the fact that each member congregation has an identity and a style, and a GA installation that adopts the style and the language of a congregational service is out of bounds.

    Unless it becomes agreed that that’s what GA is. You might argue that GA is a convocation of ministers and devout (whatever that means) laypeople and therefore it’s not unreasonable to adopt the style of a religious service. But being “not unreasonable” is not the same thing as being agreed upon.

    It may be that since merger, the role of UUA president has moved towards being a national minister. But we didn’t vote to make the president our national minister, and I’m betting that if a resolution like that went before our congregations, there’d be wrath in the ranks. The UUA is not like a local garden club, where a faction can lie underground then rise up, have a putsch, and get its own way all at once.

    I’m not suggesting that that’s what happened here. The GA conference committee organized the installation long before it was known who the next president would be, so it has nothing to do with the meaning of Morales as winner, and those are red herrings.

  20. I don’t think it is about cultural misappropriation; it is about practicing our own organic polity and our own organic culture/theology with integrity. Laying on hands is a Christian tradition, but we are historically (if not so much lately) Christian, and we have historically practiced the ceremony, so we are not stealing it; it is authentically ours. However, our specific denominational traditions and practices were formed and informed by more narrow, particular currents within the wide Christian ocean. Among these were a Reformed sensibility that denies the authority of the episcopate as prone to corruption, and within that Reformed family a covenantal, congregational polity that recognized each separately covenanted congregation as an autonomous Church, that could affiliate with others as equals but was subordinate to no higher ecclesial authority. Within those streams of tradition, it is by the authority of the individual Church that officers are ordained and members are blessed. So when we practice laying-on-of hands, if we are doing it authentically and within the integrity of our own tradition, we do it in the context of individual churches, not at an extra-congregational, confederation-wide assembly or congress.

    To take our own traditional practice (which we have usually but not necessarily reserved for the ordination of church officers) out of the traditional setting of the intimate fellowship of a gathered church, and apply it to the installation of an extra-congregational, denominational officer, is either to change our polity into something that subordinates the previously supreme authority of the individual church’s covenant to the authority of a superior office or church (if it is intentional), or to allow the integrity of our own time-sanctified traditions to become corrupted, debased and devalued (if it is unwitting). Either way, if it is to be done at all, it should only be done with eyes wide open after a great deal of thoughtful, collective discernment, and not by fiat or accident, nor for the superficial goal of a transient moment of romantic reverie.

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